Life lessons


The Wall at Central Square

The other night, I made a list of demons. I suppose “fears” is a more accurate term for the items I typed into a private Google document, but “demons” is also a fitting description. Now that it’s summer and I have time to work on the nonfiction book I’ve been largely procrastinating over the past few years, I decided to grab my personal demons by the horns by listing all the fears that have been keeping me from writing.

The Wall at Central Square

In about 15 minutes, I came up with about the same number of fears, many of them contradictory. I’m afraid I won’t finish the book, but I’m also afraid I’ll finish and it won’t be perfect. I’m afraid I’ll never publish the book, but I’m also afraid I’ll publish and face the letdown of not knowing what to do next. I’m afraid that if I finish and publish the book, nobody will read it…but I’m also afraid people will read it and think I’m pretentious, hypocritical, or self-absorbed. I’m afraid, in a word, to write the book, but I’m also afraid not to write it.

With this particular menagerie of demons in mind, I went back to a list I wrote sometime in the late 1990s, when I was hopelessly mired in the middle of a PhD dissertation that refused to be written. What I wrote then sounds entirely familiar:

The Wall at Central Square

I scare myself when I think that…

1. I won’t finish my dissertation.
2. My dissertation won’t be good enough, or scholarly enough, or theoretical enough.
3. I won’t be able to get a job after graduation.
4. I’ll leave something out of my dissertation.
5. I’m already too far behind.
6. I’ll get stuck.

The Wall at Central Square

Apart from the fear about getting a job after graduation, the demons I wrestled with while writing my dissertation more than a decade ago are pretty much the same as the fears I face today, as I try to write a book-length piece of creative nonfiction. The fear-demons that plagued me when I was working on my dissertation didn’t, in retrospect, have anything to do with that specific project, which I did indeed finish. Instead, they had everything to do with me tackling a big, daunting task that threatened to take forever to finish. That task could have been a dissertation, a marathon, or a mountain: regardless of the goal, the demons kept whispering “You can’t” and “You won’t” and “Who are you to dare think you could?”

The Wall at Central Square

It shouldn’t be surprising that I or anyone would face this sort of insecurity, as even the Buddha himself wasn’t immune from this kind of thinking. One of my favorite stories about the Buddha involves him sitting down to tea with his arch-nemesis, Mara the tempter. Mara is the demon who besieged the Buddha with doubts and fears the moment before his enlightenment, trying to distract him from his meditation with lascivious thoughts, arrows of fear, and the niggling question, “Who do you think you are?” The prince who would become the Buddha wasn’t immune from such thoughts…but he became the Buddha because he persevered in the face of his fears, touching earth to ground himself.

The Wall at Central Square

In his later years, Buddha went a step or two further, actually befriending Mara. According to one legend, Mara the tempter visited the Buddha late in life, after they’d each settled into their roles as Enlightened Teacher and Cosmic Distractor. Instead of rejecting Mara, Buddha asked him into his home for a cup of tea, and Mara complained he had grown tired of his job. “It’s so frustrating to be the bad guy who everyone hates,” Mara lamented. “It’s so tiring to be the good guy who everyone worships,” the Buddha countered, “with people constantly invoking your name and seeking your assistance and approval.”

The Wall at Central Square

After a pot of tea and conversation, Buddha made peace with Mara, the two of them deciding they weren’t that different, after all. Buddha, in fact, beseeched Mara to continue in his role as tempter, because without Mara the tempter, there could be no Buddha the teacher. Instead of enemies, Buddha and Mara are a kind of couple—a cosmic Good Cop, Bad Cop—who work together in tandem, each working off the other.

The Wall at Central Square

So who am I to think I could write a big, daunting project without sharing a cup of conversation with my own demons? Without fear, there can be no accomplishment, and as every gym-rat knows, without pain, there is no gain.

It’s important and helpful to count your blessings, but it can be fruitful, too, to count your fears. Buddha knew that he couldn’t hide or escape temptation; instead of even trying, he was wise enough to befriend his demons. Now that I know the things I’m afraid of when it comes to writing this current work-in-progress, there’s no reason not to write it. That is, after all, what I’m doing right now, with both the Buddha and a gaggle of demons looking on.

Blue hydrangea

It’s just after noon, and I’m sitting on the screened porch listening to a grackle flap and splash in our backyard birdbath. It’s too late to sit on the patio, which is now drenched in sun, but it is comfortable on the shady porch, where I can hear the rustle and flutter of birds.

Day lily

A single cicada sang this morning, emitting a shrill and simple whine. That sound will grow and expand as the summer moves to its climax, the sound of insects and birdsong being one surefire way to place oneself, temporally, in the season.

Right now, I hear two separate birds clucking and chuckling, but I can’t name either. Alarm calls sound similar across species, so the grackle clacking by the birdbath sounds akin to the chirping squirrels. One gray squirrel moves from the bird feeder to drink from the birdbath, perching on a stone rim the same color as his fur. Another squirrel hangs from the feeder, only his tail betraying his presence. Blue jays call from a distant yard, and a cardinal whistles intermittently, its song too placid to seem insistent.

Sunny spiderwort

Along the perennial bed, chipmunks dart and scurry. Even a quiet suburban backyard isn’t very quiet, instead bustling with activity. The soundtrack changes with the season, and the seasons themselves cycle and repeat. There is nothing particularly special about today: it is an ordinary July day, the likes of which happen every year. But today, unlike other, more hurried days, I stepped outside, ready to listen.

How many mornings did the Buddha, then a mere prince, see the morning star rise as he sat in meditation? One day the morning star rose like any other, but the Buddha finally saw it, his mental clouds parting to reveal a hitherto-hidden truth: everyone has it, they just don’t know it. It’s a statement so simple as to defy credibility: is this all the Buddha attained after six long years of striving and seeking, after having renounced his throne, his wealth, his family, health, and even sanity?

Bumble bee on spirea

Is this present moment all the Buddha attained? Yes, indeed. All the Buddha attained was the entire world, and his entire life, delivered in the instant that is Now. If we don’t attain the present moment, whatever else can we attain? If we don’t live in the present moment, where else can we possibly dwell?

I wrote this entry earlier today, during a free moment I had before lunch. The photos illustrating today’s post come from past summers, the hydrangeas, day lilies, spiderwort, and spirea that are blooming today looking just like those from seasons past.

Marble altar

The chapel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a paragon of simplicity. MIT is a place where brilliant people think deep thoughts while solving complex problems involving complicated technologies. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that famed architect Eero Saarinen designed a chapel that is almost painfully austere in its simplicity: a windowless brick cylinder surrounded by a shallow moat and shaded by a grove of elegant birch trees. Everywhere else on campus is where Thinking Happens, but the MIT chapel is where Thinking Falls Away.

Altar and skylight

I didn’t take any photographs of the outside of the MIT chapel when I was on campus for a meeting yesterday, but I did take several photos of the inside sanctuary, which features a plain marble altar and a metal sculpture by Harry Bertoia. This sculpture flows like a cascade of glittering metallic dust motes from a circular skylight that serves as the sanctuary’s only source of natural light. I’d arrived on campus early yesterday, giving myself plenty of time to get lost on a campus where a maze of buildings huddles around an Infinite Corridor, the name of which is enough to make you think you’ve left this world for an alternate one. But inside the chapel, there are no infinite corridors, only this present room, this present window, and an Infinity that streams down from above.

The simplicity of Harry Bertoia’s metal sculpture is so alluring, it finds echoes in a piece of even greater simplicity: a student-designed display of thousands of origami cranes folded, strung, and hung in the MIT Stata Center in memory Officer Sean Collier, who was slain while on duty protecting the MIT campus and community.

Skylight

Where do souls come from before we are born, and where do souls go after we die? Is there, somewhere, an Infinite Corridor where souls stream as free and unfettered as sunlight, and where time stretches inevitably into eternity? These are complicated questions, and their solution lies beyond my ken. But here and now, in this sadly mortal world, I know that sometimes the simplest gestures resonate with infinite profundity.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Simplicity.

Works on paper

It’s been just under a month since I submitted the last of my spring semester grades, and I still feel like I’m decompressing from the term.

Works on paper

I always spend the first few weeks of any academic break catching up with the mundane chores that fall by the wayside during a busy semester: only come summer do I have time for doctor visits and cleaning the bathroom and weeding through cluttered closets. In the immediate aftermath of a semester spent grading piles of student papers, it feels good to devote myself to something less cerebral: even the simple act of sorting, shredding, and recycling old paperwork feels productive in a way that paper-grading never does.

Works on paper

It usually takes me a few weeks after the end of any given semester to feel like writing again. One of the unfortunate occupational hazards of being a writing instructor is your brain often feels like it’s filled to overflowing with words, words, words, and spending time on even your own work only exacerbates the problem. These past few weeks I’ve been walking a lot, reading a lot, and scribbling a lot in my journal, but I haven’t felt like writing anything worth sharing.

Works on paper

Today I went to Framingham State for a professional development workshop: summer is, after all, when college professors take time to evaluate their teaching methods and make adjustments for the coming year. In the gallery next to the room where my colleagues and I met to discuss strategies for encouraging critical thinking, a new exhibit of “Textured Assemblages” by Robert Johnson, Jr. features canvases covered with crumpled paper, the lines of composition “written” in three dimensions rather than two.

Works on paper

I sometimes wonder how many pages of student prose I’ve read over the twenty years I’ve been teaching; I’ve never been brave enough to crunch the numbers. But if I were to assemble all the papers I’ve read, commented on, and then graded, surely I’d be able to cover countless canvases in innumerable galleries. Is it any wonder it takes me a while to decompress at the end of an academic year when I’ve been crowded, crumpled, and (yes) compressed by such a workload?

Lineup

This past weekend was the third annual Boston Rhetoric and Writing Network (BRAWN) Summer Institute, a chance for Boston-area college writing instructors to spend two days talking shop. Being a writing instructor can be a lonely endeavor. On days when your students are under-motivated, it can feel like you’re the only one in the room who is excited to read, write, and talk about reading and writing. The BRAWN Summer Institute is one of those rare instances when you’re surrounded by people who think commas are cool and revision is revelatory.

Blue ribbon

When I arrived at the Institute on Friday morning, I learned that one of my colleagues had a medical emergency and couldn’t lead her scheduled workshop: could I possibly take her place? The session was on peer review–the practice of asking students to read and provide feedback on one another’s drafts–but since I was scheduled to attend another workshop, I hadn’t read the scholarly articles my colleague had chosen as background for the session. I was, in other words, completely unprepared to lead a two-hour workshop about the pedagogy of peer review; all I had were my own experiences (good, bad, and ugly) trying to facilitate peer reviews in my own classes.

Husky pride

The beauty of the Summer Institute, however, is that participants are self-motivated. How many folks, after all, would willingly volunteer to attend two full days of workshops in at the end of May, when the outdoors and other summer temptations beckon? When I introduced myself as the last-minute (and entirely unprepared) substitute facilitator for the session, I explained that all I had to offer were some basic questions to guide our discussion. What do we mean, exactly, when we use the term “peer review”? What do we hope or expect students to gain from the activity, and what hopes and expectations do our students bring? What challenges do we face when we ask our students to comment on one another’s writing, what strategies do we employ to cultivate a sense of community in our classrooms, and how do we know when peer review is “working”?

Destination NEU

As writing instructors from colleges around the greater Boston area went around the room introducing themselves and describing what they hoped to gain from our discussion, one woman perfectly summed up my experience of the Summer Institute: “It’s good to be here all together in the same room, talking about what we do.” If you care about what you do, you cherish the opportunity to share your experiences (good, bad, and ugly) with colleagues who face the same challenges. Ultimately, what we want for our students as writers is the same as what we want for ourselves as teachers: a chance to share our work with an audience who is willing to offer feedback, give encouragement, and provide camaraderie along the way.

This year’s BRAWN Summer Institute was held at Northeastern University, where I received my PhD ten (!!!) years ago. The Northeastern mascot is the husky, so that explains the unusual number of painted dogs gathered all together in the same room.

Memorial Day 2013

For the past five years, J and I have observed a simple ritual on Memorial Day. We walk somewhere for lunch, then we walk to Newton Cemetery to visit the decorated graves of the military dead. We don’t personally know anyone buried at Newton Cemetery, but it’s a lovely place to walk in the springtime, and Memorial Day offers as good an excuse as any to pay our respects to strangers we never had the chance to meet.

Muskrat - May 27 / Day 147

On last year’s Memorial Day walk, J and I saw so many frogs, turtles, rabbits, geese, ducks, and muskrats at Newton Cemetery, I posted an album solely devoted to the the cemetery creatures we saw. In the springtime, when everything is fresh, green, and young, it’s easy to forget the harsh winter reality that everything eventually dies. That’s why we need a holiday to remind us to remember.

Memorial Day 2013

Sometimes people die at the end of a long and full life, and other times young people are cut down too soon. In either case, the loss is tragic. Cemeteries exist as a final resting place for the dead, but they also exist as a reminder to the oblivious living. It’s too easy in the hubbub of living to forget how lucky we are simply to be able to walk the earth in springtime.

You can view past Memorial Day photo sets at the following links: 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009. Enjoy!

Spring blooms

It’s Finals Week at both Framingham State and Curry College, where I’ve been filling in for an instructor who went on medical leave several months ago. Finals Week is a notoriously busy time for students and instructors alike, but there’s always a strange sense of calm that washes over me after I teach my last class.

Spring blooms

Once Finals Week arrives, I no longer have to juggle the distinct tasks of prepping classes, teaching classes, commenting on essay drafts, and grading papers. Once Finals Week arrives, I no longer have to multitask, concentrating all my attention on the single task of grading, grading, grading.

I used to collect fat folders of student writing at the end of the term, so I had actual paper-piles I could show as proof of how much work loomed. Nowadays, though, I have my students submit both their final exam essays and semester portfolios online, so instead of a weighty paper-pile, all I have is my slim laptop laden with downloaded papers.

Spring blooms

Although in the old days there was a certain sense of accomplishment in moving each fat folder from my “to do” to “done” piles, I don’t miss the end-term ritual of schlepping bags full of papers from and then back to campus. My students submit their papers online, and I post my end-term comments and grades online, too. there’s something strangely satisfying about clicking “Submit” for another graded batch of student essays: each file representing so much work for the student to write, me to comment on, the student to revise, and me to grade at last.

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