Welcome home, Frankie

J and I have said goodbye to three cats this year–Scooby in March, Louie in May, and Snowflake in September–and during this same time, we’ve adopted three new cats. It might seem insensitive or even crass to replace pets in this fashion, as if animal souls were interchangeable, but this isn’t how J and I see it. We know more than anyone that each animal has its own unique personality that can’t be swapped out like replacement parts, but for each pet that dies, a place opens up. In a home accustomed to caring for eight cats, it seems heartless or even cruel to keep our heart shut against any newcomers, each passing pet freeing up a place in the lifeboat that is our house.

Nina in all her fluffy glory

Our new pets aren’t replacements for our old pets; instead, they are their legacy. I suppose when a grieving family donates their loved one’s organs to a needy recipient, they feel a similar sort of comfort: another life can be saved because of the one we’ve let go. When Scooby died, we needed a roommate for Groucho, who was isolated his own part of the house because he couldn’t get along with Snowflake; when Louie died, we adopted Bobbi because Snowflake had taught us we can indeed take care of a diabetic cat. When Snowflake died, we adopted Frankie because Bobbi taught us that we can handle (and even give insulin injections to) a cat who would rather scratch than be petted, and who else but an experienced hand could handle that? With each pet we adopt, care for, then ultimately lose, we stretch our understanding of what we can handle, the limits of human patience being infinitely expandable.


Nina was toothless and scrawny when we adopted her, Bobbi had diabetes and no tail, and Frankie comes to us with one eye and the chance that she still has cancer. Looking at a shelter full of pets, J and I invariably are drawn to the ones with the saddest stories: who other than a family with lots of experience with veterinary and behavioral issues would have hearts huge enough for such a challenge?

Frankie says relax

I don’t believe in ghosts, but there are times when I see our dead pets living in the bodies of their replacements: not a transmigration of souls, exactly, but a kind of transmogrification. Now that she’s overcome her initial shyness, Nina sometimes rushes toward me for petting when I enter the room, just as Scooby did, and if I squint my eyes just right, I can see Louie’s ginger and white fur beneath Bobbi’s black blotches. Mere days after we’d brought skittish little Frankie home with dire warnings about her antisocial temperament, she ventured timidly into my lap, gingerly stepping onto my thighs and then settling herself down to be petted, just as Snowflake did. What better way to commemorate the lives we’ve lost not with replacements but with proteges–a legacy of love passed from one generation to another?

Street lamp with foliage

Fall is my favorite season because it is fleeting. Last week was brutally hot–one of summer’s last fevered gasps–and this week is much cooler: brisk in the mornings and downright chilly at night. These in-between days when you can still wear shorts and sandals but appreciate the extra layer of a sweatshirt are my favorite days, a bittersweet time when summer leisure is fading away with a fanfare of gold and orange.

These days are precious because they are fading: the light is waning and the days shrinking. I often say I’d be happy if every day could be fall, but this is impossible, a wish that defies the laws of physics. Fall by its very nature is a season in motion–a time of decay and decline–and every year I find myself wanting to slow down that progression, as if time could be moved.


Fall is my favorite season because I love the things associated with it: pumpkins and cider and a new crop of fresh-eyed freshmen. But fall is my favorite season, too, because it’s a tender and tenuous time. Fall isn’t a season in its youth or prime but a season slouching toward old age. Fall is my favorite season because I know what comes next. In the summer, we live for the moment, languidly wasting our days because it seems they will never end. In fall, we come to our senses, saving up sensations and basking in beauty like a squirrel hoarding acorns against lean times.

Robert Frost was no stranger to New England autumns, so I believe him when he insists that nothing gold can stay. In late September, I want to bottle the long-angling light like a jar full of lightning bugs, but I know there is no catching nor containing it.

Ship from shore

It’s the third week of the semester, so the dust is starting to settle from the start of another school year. Because I teach first-year students, the first few weeks of fall semester are inevitably spent getting everyone acclimated to college, college schedules, and a college workload.

Do you know the ropes?

Right now my students and I are discussing Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, which is this year’s common reading selection at Framingham State. In the second chapter, Philbrick describes the bumbling confusion new crewmen, or green hands, feel as they set sail on their first whaleship. Ordered by their captain or first mate to unfurl the sails, the green hands nervously look around, realizing they haven’t yet learned which ropes go with which sails, much less how to man those ropes. Newbie whale men need to (literally) learn the ropes before they can work together as a well-organized team.


This morning my students peer reviewed rough drafts of a narrative they’re writing: their first experience reading their writing aloud to their new peers. As my students sat with their desks huddled into small groups, I stood at the front of the room, eavesdropping as my students read and then talked about their writing. Listening to the quiet murmur of students reading and commenting on one another’s work is one of my favorite tasks as a teacher: on good days, I feel expendable, my expertise needed only if something should go awry.

With the story of the whaleship Essex fresh in mind, I imagined each huddled group of students as the crew of a whale boat, my students diligently clustered around their laptops like whale men plying their oars. Three weeks into a four-year voyage, these once-strangers are unifying around a common task.

I first blogged these photos of the Charles W. Morgan–the last remaining wooden whaleship–in July, 2014, when she visited Boston Harbor during her 38th voyage.

The week before classes start

It’s been a whirlwind couple of weeks, without much time to process all that’s been happening. A few weeks ago, I accepted a last-minute one-year appointment as an assistant professor at Framingham State, so I’ve been in the curious scenario of being “new” faculty at an institution where I’ve been teaching part-time since 2012. Right as I was navigating the day-long orientations, benefits-related paperwork, and last-minute schedule changes this surprise appointment necessitated, our cat Snowflake had a medical emergency involving several days in the intensive care unit followed by a labor-intensive, messy, and ultimately doomed recovery period at home.

Live to the truth.

On Friday night, after I’d survived my first week back to school with my new job title and new responsibilities, we put Snowflake to sleep. Perhaps not coincidentally, Friday night was the first time in weeks I had a full night’s sleep, relieved that Snowflake was out of his misery (and the school year was started) at last. For the past two weeks, I’ve been scrambling to prepare for the semester, scrambling to keep up with the usual errands and chores while making umpteen trips to and from the vet, and just plain scrambling. Too many days have gone by without me finding a spare minute to write in my journal much less blog, and I’ve missed it.

Construct webbing and shadows. #lightandshadow #framinghamstate #underconstruction

Writing in my journal is how I make sense of my life: you might call it an inexpensive form of therapy. When I don’t have time to write, I feel uprooted, as if my center of gravity has shifted. Psychologists say that happy changes can be just as stressful as unhappy ones, and I agree. I’m happy about my new position at Framingham State, I’m sad that Snowflake is gone after a miserable struggle, and both realities feel stressful: developments I need (but haven’t had time) to make sense of. Writing is one way I stay grounded in the midst of life’s changes, so when I don’t have time to write, I feel scattered and un-centered.

Changing leaves

Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, and I think I know what he meant. When I’m not writing, my life seems both foreign and shallow, an insubstantial and flimsy thing I observe as if from a distance: someone else’s life, not my own. When I’m writing regularly, I feel more present to my life as it unfolds: I’m present and paying attention, inhabiting my own existence rather than watching it flash before me without conscious consideration. Forget about trying to walk in someone else’s shoes: first you have to learn how to walk in your own.

View from new Science Center fifth floor lounge

I’ve been writing long enough to know I always come back to it eventually, even (or especially) in the aftermath of upheaval. These past two weeks have felt like the moment when you’ve been unexpectedly plunged into deep water. Your rational mind reminds yourself you know how to swim: after the initial uproar of immersion, your body will naturally and inevitably rise. But in the interim, everything everywhere is fluid, and you can’t tell which way is up toward air. Before your body remembers how to float, first it must fall, and you struggle to see anything that isn’t a blur of bubbles and blue.

Black birds

I went to the Zen Center twice this week, leading sitting on Sunday night then giving consulting interviews on Tuesday. Whenever I settle on a cushion at the Zen Center, it feels like coming home and plugging in. Whereas the rest of my life might be running me ragged, going to the Zen Center and focusing on only one thing helps me calm, collect, and renew myself.

Minds closed eyes blown

I sometimes imagine consciousness as being like a beam of light or a stream of water. When a flashlight shines widely, its brightness is diffused; when rivulets branch and wander, their stream weakens to a trickle. When you tightly contain either a beam or stream, however, you experience its true power: focused light becomes laser-sharp, and concentrated water both stings and penetrates.

During the school year, my energy is scattered among obligations, and during the summer, my attention is relaxed and diffuse. When I settle on a cushion at the Zen Center, however, I feel a sudden surge as I harness my energies, reining them in like a large, tractable horse with ample abilities to either prance or pull.

Fresh flowers

Today J and I went to the Boston Public Market, a year-round, indoor market for local farmers, foodies, and artisans that recently opened at Haymarket, where farmers have been selling fish and produce for years. The outdoor stalls at Haymarket are loud and chaotic, and the indoor stands at the Boston Public Market are equally busy, with passersby browsing, tasting samples, and otherwise enjoying the ambiance.

Sweet Lydia's

Although J and I were technically “just looking,” we ended up buying chocolate bars from Taza Chocolate, candies from Sweet Lydia’s, and a jar of wildflower honey from the Boston Honey Company. J also bought a fieldstone coaster from American Stonecraft: now, whenever he sets a cup of tea on his desk, he’ll remember the story of how the stone beneath his mug was dug from a New Hampshire farm field, then cut and polished into a work of art.

American Stonecraft

It’s funny how knowing the story behind a stone, chocolate bar, or jar of honey makes that thing more valuable: instead of miraculously appearing at the grocery store, a square of Sweet Lydia’s maple bacon caramel was made by a real human being. Although we weren’t in the market for fresh flowers or locally brewed beer, J and I enjoyed browsing the Public Market’s embarrassment of local riches. A public market is a feast for the senses, regardless of how much you buy.

Echo Bridge, not far from Echo Bridge

Recently the city of Newton has decorated selected utility boxes with historic images of area neighborhoods, giving bored pedestrians and motorists stuck in traffic something to look at while they wait for their light to change. The utility box at the corner of Chestnut and Elliot Streets in Newton Upper Falls, for instance, features a vintage postcard of Echo Bridge, which is right nearby, and a utility box at a busy corner in West Newton shows a nineteenth century street scene.

West Newton then and now

Utility boxes are, of course, utilitarian, filled with wires and switches and other necessary electrical gadgetry: most of the time, I walk right past utility boxes without even noticing them, much less considering what is either inside or on them. But these days, I find myself searching for electrical boxes as I drive around doing errands, trying to spot and collect the decorated ones like so many Easter eggs.

Great blue heron on electrical box

I suppose if you have to have utility boxes, you might as well make them interesting to look at, a bit of artfulness to complement their utility. Even an unsightly box becomes interesting when you stick vintage photos on it: an invitation to imagine what might have happened at this very intersection a century or so ago.

A village of traditions


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