Almost spring

We’re already three-quarters of the way through February and almost halfway through the semester: almost, but not quite. I’m in my office at Framingham State and can hear a colleague lecturing in her classroom; outside, the grounds crew lumbers by in an all-terrain cart.

(Kinda) half-staff and snagged

It is warm outside, in the 60s; students stroll by in shirtsleeves, and one brave couple boldly spreads a blanket on the snowmelt-muddied quad. It’s a tentative foray into spring; winter has stepped off stage but has yet to leave the building.

I open my second-floor office window for a taste of almost-spring air, a fresh breeze trickling in like an elixir. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I spend my days inside a single building, walking from class to office then back to class again. The world outside might as well be a foreign country–a distant land–another planet entirely. What business do I have here in my brick-building perch with the fresh-aired world outside, with couples on their snowmelt-muddied blankets?

Almost spring

And yet, the gentle waft of spring breeze brings it back: memories of study sessions in the sun, the itch of grass blades on bare flesh, the kiss of cold earth. This morning I walked into our backyard and marveled to see the bare earth again–the same rusty mud as three days ago, before the intervening snow. Although I’ve seen it day after day, year after year, this morning I was stopped short by the inevitable earth, with ground the hue of dead-leaf dirt lightened by yellowed lawn and a tinge of thawed moss.

It’s too early for spring green–that won’t erupt for another month. But the earth today is different than it was last week much less last month. The earth is still sleeping deep in this almost-spring, but it’s felt the warmth of lengthening days strip away its snow coat, and it knows which way its axis lies.

Frozen lagoon

Today J and I took the T into Boston, where we had lunch at Quincy Market then walked the Greenway to Chinatown, through Chinatown to Boston Common and the Public Garden, then through the Public Garden and down Newbury Street to Mass Ave, where we caught the T for home.

Mehdi Ghadyanloo, Spaces Of Hope

It was good to be out walking on a gray and warm day. Nearly all the snow has melted, so the earth looks bare and barren–just muddy, as if the landscape were under construction, caught between seasons. Plenty of people were out, Boston living up to its reputation as a pedestrian city. One of these days, we’ll keep track of the various languages we hear on a typical trip downtown and back: today we heard Spanish several times and Chinese at least once.

Holocaust memorial

At Haymarket, we walked through the weekly farmers’ market, with stalls selling produce and fresh fish arranged under long tents. Not all the food for sale is local: there were bags of out-of-state oranges piled into pyramids next to flattened skids of emptied cardboard boxes. Whether from near or far, the food was hawked by farmers, fishermen, and wholesalers who seemed eager to haggle. Yes, you could buy similar fruit, fish, or vegetables at your neighborhood grocery store, but would you have an actual conversation with your grocer before heading for home?

Chinatown gate

In Chinatown, there were red paper lanterns hanging from utility wires in advance of next weekend’s Chinese New Year’s celebration along with even more open-air merchants selling fruit and firecrackers out of trucks and car trunks. Everywhere, people were walking and trying to do business: merchants in Haymarket and Chinatown, panhandlers outside of T stations, and buskers in the Public Garden.

In case you forget where you are

At City Hall, there were families skating on a rink leftover from Christmas; at the Public Garden, small throngs of twenty-somethings were out on the ice, walking where the Swan Boats and ducks float in summer time. The ice was porous with puddles–I wouldn’t have trusted it–but more enticing than the chance to walk on water was the promise of the yellowing willows that fringe the lagoon. If the willows are brimming with yellowing buds, spring can’t be far behind.

Just chilling

This past weekend, just over a month after we’d put our white German shepherd, Cassie, to sleep, J and I brought home a three-year-old black Belgian Malinois named Toivo.

Neighborhood watch

When we put Cassie to sleep on New Year’s Day, I was ready to spend a good long time grieving, but J believes in quickly moving on. It’s impossible to replace one pet with another, but welcoming a new pet provides a welcome distraction from the empty feeling you experience when you still expect your old pet to be there, but they aren’t: a phenomenon J and I call “phantom dog.”

Waiting to walk

Toivo wasted no time settling into her new home, hopping right onto our bed and lounging at full length. When we open the door to her crate, she walks in without any prompting, and when I ask her to sit while I put on my coat before our morning walks, she duly complies while looking at me with an intent stare: “Hurry up.” Best of all, Toivo has quickly befriended Djaro, our other dog, racing around with him in our fenced dog pen, each of them intent on their favorite toy.

Djaro and Toivo

Toivo is not a replacement for Cassie: their personalities are completely different. Cassie was affectionate with people but anxious around other dogs, barking and lunging and making it nearly impossible to walk her in a neighborhood full of dog-walkers. Toivo, on the other hand, is hyper but stable. She is completely unfazed by Djaro, and she is eager to DO SOMETHING the moment either J or I show any indication of moving. But the moment I sit at my desk, she calms and quiets, as if turning a switch.

Enthroned

You don’t get a new dog to replace the old one. You get a new dog to fill the emptiness the old one left behind. Our phantom dog isn’t entirely gone: both J and I occasionally call Toivo “Cassie” by accident, and she doesn’t seem to mind. One testament to how much you loved your old dog is your willingness to open your heart to a new one, despite the empty hole you know they’ll eventually leave behind.

Ram in snow

Yesterday we got a freshening of snow: just a few inches to brighten the ground as January ends. February in New England is always a trying time–the longest month–so it’s good to begin with a clean palette that will eventually turn February gray like everything else.

Morning commute / stuck in traffic

During yesterday’s morning commute, I saw a motorist accomplish an impressive (albeit inadvisable) feat. While steering with one hand, the driver next to me stuck one arm out his driver-side window and cleared his windshield with a snow-brush, all the while staying in his lane without swerving.

Drain

It’s not uncommon to see drivers hop out of their cars to clear snow while stopped at a light, but I’ve never seen a driver clear his car while moving. You know winter has overstayed its welcome when you’re so good at clearing snow, you can do it one handed while otherwise occupied.

Nest-like

Last week, sci-fi and fantasy author Ursula Le Guin died at the age of 88. Although Le Guin is best known as a novelist, I remember her most fondly for her quirky essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.”

Pottery and textile

Like Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” Le Guin’s “Carrier Bag” is an essay about women’s fiction that is itself a kind of fiction. “Carrier Bag” is an essay, but it offers a narrative of how women’s writing evolved. In telling that narrative, Le Guin muses upon characters who appear as if by accident from an impromptu stream-of-consciousness reflection that would be entirely innocuous if it weren’t for its edge.

Woven

Le Guin suggests that male literature tells stories of swords, spears, and sticks: phallic weapons that make a point by focusing on heroic tales of conflict and conquest. Women’s stories, on the other hand, are like bags. They are capacious, inclusive, and eclectic: a narrative assortment of jots and tittles gleaned from random gathering rather than targeted hunting.

Folded paper

Carrier-bag tales are a compendium of ordinaries. Hunters and warriors need to work in solemn silence in order to focus on their heroic quest, but gatherers are the original multi-taskers. Long before men fashioned sticks into spears, Le Guin suggests women fashioned animal skins into slings for carrying infants, gathered food items, and all the random stuff that civilization depends on. (Anyone with an infant knows the most important invention of all time is the diaper bag, rivaled only, perhaps, by the miraculous repository known as “your wife’s purse.”)

Pottery and textile

Gathering nuts and berries is a social endeavor–there’s plenty of time for gossip and small talk while many hands make light work. While filling their carrier-bags with fruit, nuts, and berries, women shared stories to entertain themselves and their children, with all of this chattering happening amidst the constant interruptions of inquisitive toddlers, adventurous youngsters, and fussy babies.

Intricacies

When I read Le Guin’s “Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” I’m reminded of my blog. Hoarded Ordinaries isn’t especially heroic, it doesn’t have anything remotely resembling a point or plot, and it certainly qualifies as a ragtag collection of mundane minutiae: a proverbial mixed bag. So why bother to keep a carrier-bag account of my ordinary life? Because like countless women before me, I’m a social rather than heroic creature. Having gathered my own humble bag of pretty flowers and shiny stones, I want nothing more than to share.

View from footbridge over Leverett Pond

Today J and I took a trolley to Longwood, where we walked the Emerald Necklace to Jamaica Pond and back, stopping for lunch along the way. It was a perfect day for walking–partly cloudy, warm, and windy–with bare ground and long, stark shadows.

Muddy River at Longwood

All along the way, there were scattered throngs of pedestrians, Lycra-clad joggers, dog-walkers, families with strollers, and one rollerblader in shorts, taking advantage of the weather. In January, any day above freezing is a delight, so a day in the 50’s felt like spring, even with a brisk wind.

Sailboats in winter

The stretch of Emerald Necklace J and I walked today–a woodsy stretch of path connecting the Back Bay Fens, Olmsted Park, and Jamaica Pond–follows the Muddy River and runs through otherwise busy Boston neighborhoods, snaking along Brookline Avenue, crossing Route 9, and running parallel to the Jamaicaway with its constant stream of vehicular traffic. There is, in other words, no denying you are in the heart of a busy city.

Yellowing willow

But the genius of Frederick Law Olmsted is this: when he designed the Emerald Necklace, he knew natural landscapes needn’t be distant and untamed to refresh the human heart and mind. At no point today were J and I more than a literal stone’s throw away from traffic and densely populated urban neighborhoods, but we enjoyed the placidity of walking among trees and geese and flowing water all the same.

Leverett Pond

Olmsted believed that city-dwellers need green spaces to help soothe the stresses of urban life, and I think he was right. After we’d had lunch and were retracing our steps back toward Longwood, J and I saw an elderly couple sitting on a park bench overlooking Everett Pond. The woman had a walker and the man fingered a well-worn rosary as they sat chatting in Russian. How good it must have been for their bodies and souls to sit outside on a sunny January day, and how good it was for us, as well.

Long shadows at Longwood

Once we’d returned to Longwood, J and I boarded a crowded trolley headed toward home. Standing alongside fellow strap-hangers didn’t feel any more stressful than walking alongside dog-walkers, runners, and baby-strollers. During the hour or so J and I had been walking, our daily lives felt very far away. At a time of year when cabin fever is endemic, it’s a welcome gift to spend an afternoon outside.

Gray day

The latest issue of the New Yorker shows on its cover an Advent calendar for the month of January–the cruellest month, according to the cartoon’s title. The month is shown to offer an interminable onslaught of challenges: sleet and sickness and existential dread.

The white wall

As if on cue, last night I overheard several of my students wondering how long it was until Spring Break–this, the end of only the second week of the semester. If we’ve already started to count the days in January, what will we do during the long slog of FebruMarch?

I’ve lived in New England long enough–a quarter of a century–to learn this: you need to marshal your emotions against winter’s bleak demands. Yes, you should bundle your body against the cold, and step carefully to assure solid footing, and bolster your immune system with citrus fruits, herbal tea, and properly titrated cocktails.

Parking structure on gray day

But more important than these physical safeguards are the psychological ones. You must pace your days and not grow weary, feeding your spirit with timely doses of light, color, and sun-soaked daydreams. Even when you are sunk to your eyeballs in a busy semester, you need to remember this: winter is its own kind of austerity, a vow involuntarily taken. Whether you choose to embrace or try to distract yourself from winter’s gloom, you dare not fight it. The only way to survive another interminable Northeast winter is to outlast it, and this requires an unrelenting inner stockpile of good cheer.