Remembered

Yesterday when I heard that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had received the death penalty for his role in the Boston Marathon bombing, I knew I’d have to visit the newly dedicated memorial to slain MIT police officer Sean Collier. Whenever I’m at MIT, I stop by the spot outside the Stata Center where Collier was killed by the Tsarnaev brothers while sitting in his police cruiser, and since I had plans to be at MIT today, paying my respects at the newly dedicated memorial seemed fitting.

Ellipses

When I heard yesterday afternoon that the jury in the Tsarnaev case had reached a decision on his sentence, I stopped what I was doing and turned on the TV to watch. Just as I’d wanted to hear the verdict in the case as soon as it came in, I wanted to hear the sentence as it was announced. But as soon as CNN reported that Tsarnaev had been given the death penalty for placing the bomb that killed Martin Richard and Lingzi Lu, I turned off the news coverage. Although I wanted to hear the sentence that would determine Tsarnaev’s fate, I didn’t want to hear endless editorializing about that sentence.

Big heart; big smile; big service; all love.

Instead of listening to opinions and arguments about the wisdom or appropriateness of the sentence—what do you, I, or anyone else think should be done with Dzhokhar—I wanted simply to sit with the solemnity of the decision. What is it like to kill anonymous strangers—innocent bystanders you somehow think have wronged you—and what is it like to hear a sentence of death in return: an official legal pronouncement that he who lives by the sword shall die by it?

Ovoid

Tsarnaev will have ample opportunity to contemplate his own death as his lawyers file appeal after appeal, but neither Collier nor the other Marathon dead had that luxury. Two years ago on a beautiful April day, the Tsarnaev brothers irrevocably changed their own and countless others’ lives with the flip of a switch. Neither the death penalty nor life in prison can change that fact: the dead are still dead, severed limbs are still lost, and the grief-stricken still grieve. “Closure” is a word uttered by optimistic and well-intentioned folks who dare open their mouths in the face of irredeemable heartache. It doesn’t matter whether you, I, or anyone else supports the death penalty: before the jury decided anything, Tsarnaev and his brother made their own irrevocable choice.

Arching

The memorial erected to Sean Collier is a graceful and expansive thing, constructed of slabs of smooth gray granite that arch elegantly overhead. The five upright slabs, I read, radiate outwards like the fingers of a hand, but the point where they intersect is empty and ovoid, evoking the empty-handedness that is the human condition. The monument draws you in and invites you to circumnavigate it, and as I walked around taking pictures from this angle and that, several passersby stopped to look at and walk through the monument, touching the stone and reading its inscriptions.

In the line of duty

Nobody seemed to be talking about Tsarnaev and his sentence; nobody seemed to be talking at all. When you stand on the spot where a promising life was cut short, it’s difficult to find anything at all to say.

Brookline Cherry Blossom Festival

This past weekend, J and I went to the Brookline Cherry Blossom Festival, a celebration of Japanese culture that doubled as an excuse to be outside on a beautiful spring day. There were women in colorful kimonos…

Brookline Cherry Blossom Festival

…young people in origami Samurai hats…

Brookline Cherry Blossom Festival

…performances by taiko drummers…

Brookline Cherry Blossom Festival

…and a shishimai lion dance.

Brookline Cherry Blossom Festival

The costume for this dance was simple, consisting of a cape-like cloth and wooden lion head, but the charm lay in the creature’s mischievous behavior. Acting more like a dog than a lion, the puppet-like creature chewed his own toes and curled up for a nap before romping into the audience to spread good luck by nibbling the heads of delighted onlookers.

Brookline Cherry Blossom Festival

After a long, brutal winter, simply being able to sit outside in the sun felt like good luck, with or without mischievous lion nibbles.

Brookline Cherry Blossom Festival

Willow tree in bloom

Only after spring arrives and the trees burst into flower do I realize how much of the winter I’ve spent looking down. In winter, I trudge around in a bulky coat, hat, and scarf; on the coldest days, I top it all with a hood. Thus bundled, I keep my eyes down, my attention focused underfoot on the treachery of ice and snow. Like a mummy, my view of the world in winter is just a slit through swaddles.

Oak catkins and leaves

Spring sets my feet free in sandals, the sidewalks finally clear underfoot. In spring, you appreciate anew the miracle it is to walk the earth. In the spring, you don’t have to watch every step; in spring, your whole body feels as light as shirtsleeves. Walking at the end of an interminable winter feels like freedom, your ankles liberated from boots and the sinew-testing challenge of knee-deep snow drifts.

Dogwood flowers

Come summer, after the trees have finished leafing, their crowns will contain my view like a cap and I’ll look to the ground once again, searching for flowers and ground-creeping plants. But in early spring, the world’s inverted, with an ephemeral fury of flowers high overhead: blooms against blue.

The Wall at Central Square

During the last week of classes, when students and instructors alike are sleep-deprived and swamped with work, you learn to accept words of encouragement wherever you find them.

Cloudy with a chance of magnolias

Between today’s classes at Framingham State, I pulled myself from my paper-piles to take a quick walk around the block, wandering into a residential neighborhood then circling back. Even during a short walk, it’s hard not to notice spring manifesting in the form of greening grass, blooming flowers, and lounging college students.

First dandelions and ground-ivy

It’s been chillier than usual this April: usually by now, I would have been besieged by students begging to have class outside, and I would have been hard pressed to say no. But so far this year, it’s been too chilly for that, and I’ve worn sandals chiefly out of principle, hating to revert back to socks, winter-weight tights, and shoes. But regardless of the temperatures, the flowers know that lengthening days mean spring, so they bloom despite the chill. After a season of snow, the sight of the earth erupting in dandelions seems nothing short of miraculous.

2015 Boston Marathon

After the winter we weathered here in Boston, it would have taken a lot more than rain to keep us from watching this year’s Boston Marathon. Today was cold, rainy, and windy–as miserable as this past weekend was lovely–so the crowds were smaller than usual but as enthusiastic as ever: diehard fans undaunted by a little damp.

2015 Boston Marathon

Today’s weather was the kind that looks wretched from inside but isn’t that bad when you’re actually out in it. Somehow being in and among other cheering fans distracts you from your own discomfort. There weren’t as many families with pets and children as there have been in fair-weather years, but there were still some hearty souls who weren’t scared away by the forecast.

2015 Boston Marathon

The families with children and bundled babies between Miles 18 and 19 in Newton all looked like old pros when it comes to New England weather. Both their rain gear and general nonchalance suggested they’d been to other soggy Marathons, or had sat through rain delays at Fenway Park, or had weathered rain, sleet, and snow at Gillette Stadium.

2015 Boston Marathon

J and I have been to more than our share of foul-weather sporting events, including New England Revolution games that continued despite pouring rain and one infamous Patriots’ game where we had to dig out our seats from a half-foot of snow. From these events, I’ve learned that cheering vociferously really does keep you warm, as does hand-clapping, foot-stomping, and other kinds of movement.

2015 Boston Marathon

At the Marathon, at least, you aren’t tethered to a single assigned seat, so when you get cold, you can pull up stakes and walk, cheering the nonstop stream of runners from a new and moving vantage point.

2015 Boston Marathon

In past years, J and I have established a routine where we initially watch the race from the corner of Chestnut Street and Commonwealth Avenue, then we walk toward the massive block party at Newton City Hall, walking alongside the runners as they pass large houses on one side of the road and the backside of Newton Cemetery on the other.

2015 Boston Marathon

This is my favorite segment of the Marathon route, as the crowds thin and the sidewalk peters out into a dirt path. As you walk alongside the runners, you can hear the hypnotic rhythm of their footfalls along with the sotto voce conversations between running partners as they prepare to face Heartbreak Hill. “This is where the race gets interesting, isn’t it,” I overhear one runner ask another. “Yes, it is,” the second responds.

2015 Boston Marathon

Today there was a lone man standing along this segment of the route quietly uttering encouragements: “Great Job!” “You’re looking good!” “That’s a good, steady stride!” His observations were the kind a running coach might tell his charges, but none of them were shouted, merely spoken as if the man were addressing a person right beside him, or himself.

2015 Boston Marathon

After the noisy hoopla of drums, cowbells, and clapping spectators the runners had just passed through, and given the festive music and upbeat DJ they’d hear over a loudspeaker at City Hall, this man’s encouragements seemed as subtle and subliminal as one’s own heartbeat pulsing a litany of encouragement from within.

2015 Boston Marathon

Click here to see more photos from today’s soggy Boston Marathon. Enjoy!

A mind of trees

I recently started reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, which I wanted to read before checking out her latest book, Better Than Before. The latter focuses on positive habit-forming, which is a perennial fascination of mine: I’m basically a sucker for any sort of self-help book that suggests you can improve your life by honing your habits. But I decided to read The Happiness Project before Rubin’s newer book, even though both books arrived at the library at the same time. Now that I’ve started The Happiness Project, I think I’ll return Better Than Before and then re-request it later, as I’m not sure even I could stomach two self-help books in a row.

Tresses

I’m enjoying The Happiness Project, but I can’t say I’ve learned anything new from the first fifty-some pages: so far, Rubin is revisiting familiar territory. But this is, after all, one of the things that I like about self-help books: they’re easy to read (basically, a guilty pleasure) because they reinforce the things I already know even if they’re things I’m not currently doing.

Shadowy

Reading a self-help book is like watching a workout DVD while lounging on the sofa eating bonbons: everything (including exercise) looks easy when you sit and watch it, but getting up and doing it is a different story. Much of the research Rubin cites in The Happiness Project is stuff I’ve already read: I’ve read classics such as Ben Franklin’s Autobiography and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden along with newer titles such as John M. Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. (Spoiler alert: the latter didn’t save my first marriage, but it did help clarify what was wrong with it.) I’ve also read Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness: I did, after all, briefly train to become a life-coach, a career I back-burnered after realizing I’m not good at marketing myself. So the information Rubin shares isn’t exactly new if you’ve read these various works she’s referencing; what she does, though, is offer a new configuration of the same old ideas.

Easter bonnet

What fascinates me so far about The Happiness Project is its central premise that we can be happier if we understand and employ the specific techniques that make people happy. This belief in personal perfectibility–the notion that the human psyche is a machine, and if we understand its inner workings, we can fine-tune it to work better and more efficiently–is pervasive in self-help literature. This belief in personal perfectibility is also quintessentially American, a psychological version of the American dream: “If I work hard enough, I too can make myself into a better, happier person.”

Faceless

I recognize this optimism as a cultural myth, an idea deconstructed in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America as well as Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, both of which I loved. (You can read my review of Burkeman here.) But even though I fully understand the cultural mythology and outright error endemic in self-help books, I still find myself consuming them like candy, finding an escapist joy in the irresistible belief that we can make ourselves better. For me, self-help books are like fairy tales for grown-ups, offering the bewitching hope that you can be your own Prince Charming, sweeping yourself off to a happily-ever-after world where your closets are organized, your marriage is blissful, and your body is beautiful, well-rested, and well-toned.

Hat, shades, and scarf

The irony, of course, is that I’m a Buddhist, and Buddhism basically throws a bucket of cold water on self-helpism. Buddhism in general and Zen Buddhism in particular focus on what is, not what could be if only you employed a system of resolutions and self-help strategies. The ultimate statement of “what is” is the Buddha’s First Noble Truth, which bluntly observes that Suffering Exists. Contemplating your messy closets, listless marriage, or sagging body, a self-help guru would whip up an action plan to get your you, your relationships, and your closets back in shape. A Zennie, on the other hand, would commiserate without blame: Yes, sweetheart, it be’s that way sometimes.

In the building

Zen isn’t philosophically opposed to helping yourself; Zen, in fact, isn’t philosophically opposed to much of anything. My Inner Zennie accepts with bemused equanimity the fact that hope really does spring eternal: after all these years of failed attempts, I still hold out hope for getting my junk drawer organized. What my Inner Zennie knows that my Inner Self-Helper is loathe to admit, however, is that happiness isn’t contingent on tidy closets: I can find serenity in a cluttered house, and I can be miserable in a perfectly clean one. My Inner Zennie, in other words, knows that happiness dwells in the Here and Now, regardless of how many things my Inner Self-Helper wants to fix. Samsara is indeed Nirvana, so go ahead and either clean your closets or let them be: it’s your choice. At the end of the day, a Zennie doesn’t ask herself “Are my closets tidy” but “Who am I?”

Backyard koi pond with Kwan Seum Bosal statue

So who am I? The asker of that question has perpetually cluttered closets and an insatiable belief that someday, somehow, they might be tidy. That riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma loves to read books like The Happiness Project while wryly remembering that Ben Franklin, the Founding Father of American optimism, ultimately gave up his quest for personal perfection, noting that whenever he made progress with one of his self-defined virtues, he backslid with the others. As none other than Saint Paul noted, it’s human nature to continue doing that which we know we shouldn’t do, which is precisely why books like Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project will continue to have an enthusiastic audience. We know that life isn’t as simplistic as self-help books suggest, but we still request these books from the library and greedily consume them, errors and all.

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