Pride

When I first started teaching more than twenty years ago, I asked my undergraduate mentor how long it would take before I could teach without jitters, and he responded with a remark I’ve never forgotten. “If you’re not nervous before teaching a class,” he said, “you have no business teaching that class.”

I’m remembering that long-ago comment as my Intro to College Writing students begin discussing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which was this year’s common reading for incoming students at Framingham State. I first read Coates’ book last December, soon after it came out to popular and critical acclaim: I was curious to read for myself a book that generated so much heated discussion about the sadly relevant topics of racism and police brutality. But casually reading and thinking about a book is vastly different from engaging a classroom of first-year students in a discussion of the touchy subjects raised by that book, so I’m more than a bit apprehensive as I look ahead to this week’s classes.

Hipster trash

Between the World and Me is a difficult, unsettling text because it resists easy answers: when it comes to race in America, Coates isn’t optimistic or hopeful, and that is not a popular outlook. Mainstream American culture likes to fix things: we’re addicted to happy endings, and we like to think we’ve made great strides when it comes to social issues, even when the most cursory examination of the nightly news suggests we haven’t come far enough.

In the opening pages of the book, Coates describes a satellite interview where a TV journalist asks him why he believes America was founded on a history of theft and violence against people of color, and his response is sadness: not sadness over the realities of American history, which are not new to him, but at the implicit obliviousness of the journalist’s question. Realizing there is no satellite powerful enough to built a bridge between someone who has experienced racism and someone who has not, Coates is saddened for the journalist who interviews him, the society that protects her within a bubble of privilege, and his fifteen-year-old son, who is coming of age in a society where there is no buffer between him and threat of racist violence.

Consumption Lust Security

I am nervous to broach these topics with my students because they are so relevant: the issues that spurred Coates to write his book have continued to simmer and boil. As much as the American cult of positivity encourages us to ignore complex issues in favor of quick-fixes and feel-good bromides, I know difficult conversations are the only path forward. But considering my own classes, I feel ill-equipped to facilitate those discussions: at the end of a week where black men are still being gunned down by police and a campaign worker for Donald Trump had the temerity to suggest President Obama is the source of racial unrest, I don’t feel I have any answers or insight into the difficult questions my students might pose.

This is, I think, what my undergraduate mentor meant all those years ago. It would be both arrogant and misguided of me to walk into class with a smug sense of having an insight into Coates’ text: if anything, Between the World and Me forces white readers like me to set aside our easy answers. (When the reporter interviewing Coates in the book’s opening pages asks him whether a viral video showing a young black boy tearfully hugging a white police officer gives him hope, Coates admits a sense of defeat. If you think systemic racism can be eliminated with a hug or two, you haven’t comprehended the true depth of the problem.)

Reaching

My students, I know, want answers and the comfort of clarity: they understandably want to know what they need to extract from this or any other book to impress me, get a good grade, and graduate into a successful life. Coates himself is suspicious of schooling, seeing it as an institution that encourages conformity more than free and critical thought, and I can’t say I blame him: it is a dangerous power-trip for any educator to stand in front of a classroom and proclaim the Way Things Are or Should Be.

As I re-read the opening pages of Between the World and Me, I’m reminded of my true job as a college professor. As much as I want to waltz into my classes with The Answer, all I can honestly do is encourage my students to approach the text the way I do, with a willingness to listen and have my preconceptions shattered. More than any insights or answers, all I have to offer my students is a way of reading that holds open a genuine question.

When you open a book, you hear a writer’s voice, and some of the most interesting conversations happen when you’re humble enough to refrain from judgment, simply listening to the ideas that emerge, even if (or especially if) those ideas seem different from your own. When I read a book like Between the World and Me, I don’t try to crack it like a nut that yields a clean kernel of truth. Instead, I open myself to an ongoing interrogation between the book and me that calls into question my own assumptions, blind-spots, and the systemic forces that keep me from asking difficult questions of myself and others. I hope to encourage my students to do the same.

JFK birthplace

This weekend my sister and I went to the house in Brookline, Massachusetts where JFK was born. Officially known as the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site, the three-story house at 83 Beals Street is maintained by the National Park Service, whose rangers lead walking tours through both the house and surrounding neighborhood.

Master bedroom. JFK was born in the bed near the window.

Joe and Rose Kennedy moved to Beals Street in 1914 when they were newlyweds, and they had four of their nine children during the six years they lived there. This being the era when doctors made house calls, John (known to his family as Jack) and his sisters Rosemary and Kathleen were born at home in the master bedroom. (The couple’s eldest son, Joe Junior, was born while the family was vacationing in Hull, Massachusetts.)

Bathroom, with Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald’s maiden initials on the towels

Joe and Rose Kennedy were well-to-do when they moved to Beals Street, their starter home having room for not one but two maids. But the house where Jack was born is far from palatial, with one small bathroom and only two bedrooms for a growing brood of kids, and in 1920 the growing family moved into a larger house a few blocks away.

Young JFK slept here

The Kennedy kids were born into privilege, but they never forgot their mother’s favorite Bible verse: to whom much is given, much is required. Joe and Rose Kennedy intentionally raised their children to be public servants, expecting them to be well-informed about politics and current events and to participate (even as youngsters) in the dinner table debates the family was known for.

Children's table set for John and Joe Junior

The house on Beals Street is frozen in time, with clocks set to 3:00 pm (the hour of Jack’s birth). In the dining room, a tiny table is set for Jack and his brother when they were toddlers, and the room that Rosemary and Kathleen would ultimately share is decorated as a guest room, as it was before they were born.

Sitting room with piano

After John F. Kennedy became President, the house where he was born, which was then under private ownership, was only occasionally visited by curious onlookers. After his assassination, however, Beals Street was thronged with mourners looking to make a kind of pilgrimage, as if visiting the site of Kennedy’s birth would somehow help them make sense of his untimely death.

Dining room set with Rose Kennedy's wedding china

In 1966, Rose Kennedy re-purchased the house with the intention of restoring it to its original appearance and donating the property to the National Park Service to serve as a memorial to her son. This weekend on our tour, my sister and I were joined by tourists from Colorado, New Mexico, and Japan, the allure of JFK still reaching far and wide.

Rose Kennedy's boudoir

Touring the house on Beals Street, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between JFK’s presidency and the current presidential campaign. Kennedy was an orator who was groomed from birth to be a public servant: I wonder what he’d make of the crass and crude rhetoric of this present campaign, or how he’d respond to a candidate who like him was born into wealth but shows no proclivity for service and sacrifice.

Historical marker for JFK birthplace

To whom much is given, much is required. Walking through the house where Jack Kennedy was born is sad because despite Rose Kennedy’s attempt to freeze a happy moment in time, we all know how the story ends. The house on Beals Street captures the happy promise of a young family with their lives ahead of them. Only later would the Kennedy family’s commitment to public service take an exacting toll.

Watching equestrian jumping on my tablet at my desk

I’ve been watching a lot of Olympic coverage this past week: not just the mainstream events that are shown during primetime but also more obscure events you can live-stream online. I love watching equestrian competitions, so I’ve set an alert on my tablet that lets me know when those events are live, and I watch them with the sound muted while I work on other things.

Olympic jumping

I could spend hours watching Olympic jumping: it’s soothing to watch large, powerful creatures fly over fences. When I was a horse-crazy kid living in a central Ohio neighborhood far from any farms, I loved the classic movie National Velvet, in which a young Elizabeth Taylor dresses as a boy to compete in the Grand National steeplechase, and International Velvet, a modern sequel in which Tatum O’Neal plays a girl who competes in the Olympics.

Midair

Although I don’t remember much of the plot of either movie, the fact that they both centered around horses and horse-crazy girls was enough to grab my attention. In addition to a huge collection of model horses, as a child I had a Barbie-sized International Velvet doll that came dressed in a riding outfit complete with riding boots and helmet, and I would play with that doll for hours, imagining what it was like to soar over fences. As a city girl without a horse of my own, I relied upon books, movies, and toys to quench my horse-hungry appetite, and watching Olympic equestrian events as a grown-up also serves to scratch that long-dormant itch.

Over water

In addition to show jumping, I’ve been watching a lot of Olympic dressage competitions. Folks with an untrained eye often dismiss dressage as “horse dancing” as riders guide their horses through a set routine of carefully orchestrated gaits. When I was a kid, however, I read Marguerite Henry’s White Stallion of Lipizza, in which a boy spends months as an apprentice at the famous Spanish Riding School with their world-renowned royal Lipizzan stallions, and that book taught me how much training both horse and rider undergo to master the moves of classical dressage.

Flying over fences

The royal Lipizzan stallions perform jumps and kicks known as “airs above ground,” but Olympic dressage doesn’t involve that kind of acrobatics. Instead, Olympic dressage horses move through a routine of artificial gaits such as the piaffe, which is a prancing trot where the horse pauses in each step, and the flying change, where the horse alternates his lead hoof while cantering. Whenever I watch riders guide their horses through these or other meticulous moves, I have a single question in mind: How do you get a horse to do that? A good dressage horse looks simultaneously energetic and collected, like a wound spring, and a good dressage rider stays calm and focused, sitting upright and still in the saddle as she guides her mount through his paces without any visible cues.

Throw your heart over the fence

Sometimes when I’m meditating, I imagine myself astride the powerful dressage horse of my own mind, my cushion like a saddle. A seasoned equestrian knows you mustn’t crush your horse’s spirit: a well-trained horse is alert and engaged, marshaling its energy in calm abeyance. When you watch an Olympic jumper or dressage horse, you’re watching a powerful creature that is contained by concentration, his rider literally reining in any exuberance while spurring on an alert and active demeanor. When you watch your mind in meditation, you hold its wandering exuberance in check with the rein of your own breath: easy now, boy. Stay with me, calm and collected.

I shot all of today’s photos from the livestream of Olympic coverage I’ve been watching on my tablet: a blatant violation of broadcast copyright.

Adirondack chairs

August is the beginning of the end of summer, with back-to-school commercials playing on TV and Halloween candy on display at the grocery store. On Monday, I drove to Framingham State to help plan our annual retreat for first-year writing instructors: a time to come together and share teaching ideas before we put the finishing touches on our Fall semester syllabi.

Live to the truth.

I sometimes joke that my favorite time of year is August, when I’m planning my syllabi without any actual students around. When you’re ramping up for a new school year, absolutely anything is possible. All the practical problems you faced last semester are long forgotten, and a new school year offers the promise of a new beginning. This year, you tell yourself, you’ll engage your students with well-designed assignments; this year, you tell yourself, you’ll keep up with your grading and avoid the dreaded Dark Night of the Semester when both you and your students are tired and unmotivated.

Two chairs, no waiting

As soon as the school year starts, even a perfectly designed syllabus will be tested by practical realities: there’s never enough time, after all, to instill all the lessons you want your students to learn. As the late Mario Cuomo famously said, “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.” Just as political candidates promise the moon and stars, a teacher who is planning a syllabus sees the sky as being her students’ ceiling. There will be plenty of time later to revisit and adjust your actual expectations.

Welcome to Boston

I’m back home in Newton after having spent the past two weekends away: first visiting a friend in western Massachusetts, then visiting family in central Ohio. I’m a creature of habit, so it takes a while to settle back into my usual routine after being away. Having been here, there, and back again, I’m still finding my feet here at home.

Bulbasaurus

On Tuesday night, I gave interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center. Because the usual interview room was being renovated, I used a small Dharma room typically reserved for meditation classes. Before it was a meditation room with cushions and an altar, this room was a bedroom with a kitchen sink: the first room my then-husband and I lived in when we moved into the Zen Center some two decades ago.

Gold

It’s a bit surreal to teach meditation or give interviews in a room where you used to sleep: I sometimes joke that after I moved out, the Zen Center turned my bedroom into a shrine. It’s been years since I lived in the Zen Center, but it always feels like home when I return. Here are the same walls, floor, and windows that surrounded me as I juggled my marriage, graduate studies, and Zen practice. The particulars of my life have changed, but this place where I spent two and a half years of my life remains more or less the same.

Orchid

Visiting my family in Ohio is a similar experience. I haven’t lived in Columbus since I left for college in 1987, and I haven’t lived in Ohio since I moved to Boston in 1992. On this visit, my parents and I walked through the twin-single unit where we’d lived when I was little: my first childhood home. I hadn’t been that house since one of my sisters rented it from my parents when I was in college, so it was strange to visit a now-empty dwelling where so much of my childhood happened. Despite the improvements my parents have made over the years they’ve rented out the home where we once lived, I can still remember the courtyard where I played beneath a branching maple tree, the basement rec room where I raced Matchbox cars, and the two bedrooms where I slept: first a tiny one, then a larger one after my sisters moved out.

Kesh

After I gave interviews in Cambridge on Tuesday night, I walked through Central Square toward my car and marveled at the places I’ve been: here, there, and back again. Newton, where I currently live, is far tonier than the neighborhood in Columbus where I grew up; Central Square, where I used to live, is gritty and ethnically diverse like my childhood home, but far more cosmopolitan. When I first moved to Boston, I tried very hard to fit in here, my proudest moment happening on a morning when a tourist asked me for directions on the T during one of my commutes to campus. Although I was new to the neighborhood myself, I was pleased to think I at least looked like I belonged.

Charmander

Settling into a daily routine is one step toward making yourself at home in a new place: first, you need a place to hang your hat and a place to rest your head. Once you have those, you can settle into a regular rhythm of finding your feet wherever your footsteps lead.

Don't eat the fish

This past weekend several friends and I walked along the Housatonic River in downtown Great Barrington, Massachusetts: a short, shady stroll that is popular with local dog walkers and baby strollers. In sunny spots we saw butterfly weed and wild bergamot blooming, and in shady spots we could watch the slow-moving waters flow below us.

Butterfly weed

Gazing at the placid flow of the Housatonic River, it’s easy to forget its waters are polluted, not pristine. The Housatonic carries PCBs and other industrial chemicals from the long-closed General Electric plant in nearby Pittsfield. Signs along the river warn fishermen not to eat their catch, and environmental activists refer to the river as the “Housatoxic.”

W.E.B. Du Bois advocate for rivers

I knew that the author, thinker, and civil rights icon W.E.B. Du Bois was born along the Housatonic River in Great Barrington, and I knew there is a garden and historical sign marking a site near his childhood home. What surprised me when we found that marker, however, is that it focused on Du Bois’ environmental advocacy as much as his civil rights work.

Wild bergamot

Even during Du Bois’ lifetime, the Housatonic River was sullied by industrial runoff. When Du Bois returned to Great Barrington in 1930 to address a gathering of his high school alumni, he beseeched the citizens of Great Barrington to clean the river that courses through their backyard:

The town, the whole valley, has turned its back upon the river. They have sought to get away from it. They have neglected it. They have used it as a sewer, a drain, a place for throwing their waste and their offal. Mills, homes, and farms have poured their dirt and refuse into it; outhouses and dung heaps have lined its banks. Almost as if by miracle some beauty still remains in places where the river for a moment free of its enemies and tormentors, dark and exhausted under its tall trees, has sunk back to vestiges of its former charm, in great, slow, breathless curves and still murmurs. But for the most part the Housatonic has been transformed into an ugly disgraceful thing

Butterfly weed

It’s obvious that even after Du Bois left Great Barrington to become a writer, scholar, and outspoken proponent for racial justice, he never forgot the river in his hometown. Du Bois’ fondness for the Housatonic reminded me of the Langston Hughes poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which traces the way heritage is tied to geography, not just genealogy:

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

Wild bergamot

Hughes wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” when he was only eighteen, and in it he describes his African-American heritage as running through both his bloodstream and the rivers of his ancestral homelands. In the ecological version of muscle-memory, Hughes’ soul recalls the landscapes where his people come from. Who you are as a person, he suggests, is irrevocably connected with the places you and your people come from.

Welcome to the Berkshires

Du Bois was so moved by Hughes’ poem, he published it in the July 1921 edition of The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP. Today, we know environmental degradation often occurs in places populated by the poor and people of color: it’s not the rich white citizens of Flint, Michigan who are drinking lead-tainted water. “Environmental racism” refers to the way the privileged and powerful often dump their toxic byproducts downstream in someone else’s backyard, and it’s a phenomenon Du Bois decried, even if he didn’t call it out by name.

Wild bergamot

Du Bois suggested the way we treat our rivers reflects our values as a society, reminding his audience that “we are judged by what we neglect.” Do we see rivers and the folks who live alongside them as rubbish heaps or sewers, places where we dump and disregard the effluvia we don’t want polluting our own neighborhoods?

If we choose to neglect a river, we can also choose to care for it, and this is what Du Bois ultimately advocated, urging the citizens of Great Barrington to “rescue the Housatonic and clean it as we have never in all the years thought before of cleaning it, and seek to restore its ancient beauty.” A community who cares for its rivers will care for the people and other living creatures that live alongside them, environmental justice rolling down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Edith Wharton's house

I’ve never been much of an Edith Wharton fan.  I read and disliked Ethan Frome as an undergrad, and I generally dislike the overwrought stuffiness of Gilded Age authors such as Henry James, who was friends with Wharton.  But this past weekend I visited the Mount, Edith Wharton’s lush country home in Lenox, Massachusetts, and seeing this place where Wharton lived and wrote helped soften my attitude toward her.

Drawing room

Like her prose, Wharton’s house is too formal and fancy for my taste.  Curatorial placards around the house insist that Wharton’s style was less ornate and more modern than the Victorian style of her contemporaries, but even Wharton’s more stripped-down decor is too busy for my taste.  But after wandering through Wharton’s house and surrounding gardens, I found myself sympathizing for her. Wharton believed so strongly that interior design should reflect a person’s taste and temperament, she co-wrote a book on the subject.  Although Wharton’s writing and home decor styles aren’t my cup of tea, I can understand her desire to use her house and gardens as a form of self-expression.

Dog treats

Both Wharton and her husband, Teddy, loved little dogs, and the Mount contains ample evidence of this one thing the couple had in common.  There are dog treats on the dining room table, an ornate dog bed in the drawing room, and pictures throughout the house of Edith and Teddy with small dogs perched on their laps.  Sadly, this shared affection for dogs wasn’t enough to keep Edith and Teddy Wharton together:  the couple divorced and sold their home only nine years after moving to Lenox, leaving behind the house, grounds, and a beautifully sited pet cemetery overlooking the gardens.

Edith Wharton's bed

Although I didn’t know much about Wharton’s life before touring the Mount, I’d heard stories about how she wrote.  The library at the Mount contains an elegant desk where Wharton sometimes posed for portraits, but she is better known for writing in bed, tossing pages of longhand prose onto the floor where her secretary would retrieve and reorder them.  Although it’s difficult to sympathize with someone so privileged she didn’t have to type much less number her own pages, I felt sad standing in Wharton’s bedroom.  As light streamed through windows overlooking Wharton’s beloved gardens, I could imagine how lonely she must have felt as she lay alone writing while her marriage crumbled.

Edith Wharton's desk

After her divorce, Wharton moved to Paris, leaving behind the house and gardens she’d designed and the pampered pets she’d buried there.  Virginia Woolf famously insisted that in order to write, a woman needs a reliable income and a room of her own, and Wharton, who was born into wealth, had both, at least for a time.  Ultimately, though, Wharton was forced by circumstance to leave the house she had both designed and loved, her room of her own being nothing less than the entire world.