Emerging tulip leaves

I’m allergic to the dust, mold, and dead leaves that lie underneath the melting snow. Every spring when the snow starts to melt, my lungs react with chronic coughing and congestion. I love the liberation of early spring–a time when you can cast off coats and boots in favor of sandals and T-shirts–but my lungs do not agree, growing tight and wheezy at intermittent and unpredictable moments throughout the day.

Lone crocus

In early spring, my asthma inhaler is my best friend, giving almost instant relief every time I take a hit. In spring, I don’t venture far without an inhaler: I have one in my purse, another in a bedroom drawer, and others stashed throughout the house like nip bottles hidden by an alcoholic.

At some point later in the spring when fresh green growth has covered last year’s moldy leaves, I’ll be able to get through the day without coughing. But for now, my body reacts and rebels against the musty dust that emerges from underneath the season’s old snow.

I wrote this post during a five-minute timed freewrite in one of my Writing Workshop classes today, in response to the prompt “Underneath.”

Balancing act

I recently started reading David Whyte’s The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship. The question of how to make a living is one that perpetually fascinates me, especially given the amount of time and energy I devote to my day job, so Whyte’s book is giving me lots of food for thought.

Balancing act

The Three Marriages is one of those books that invites you to re-think things you’ve long assumed you understood. I would have never thought to see work as a kind of marriage: a long-term practice, that is, that couples a public commitment with a private passion. But when I think about the 20-plus years I’ve been teaching college-level writing and literature classes, the marriage metaphor makes a lot of sense. Some days I love my work, and other days my job feels like a poor match for me…but somehow I keep coming back to it, trying to make it work regardless of how “stuck” or “stuck with it” I sometimes feel.

Balancing act

Whyte argues the idea of work/life balance is too simplistic, and I think he’s right on that point: balance isn’t something many of us achieve in life, at least for long. Instead, our lives are messy, chaotic, and ever in flux. If you’ve ever been to the circus, you know the best balancing acts are perpetually in motion, not still. When you look for balance, you spend a lot of time keeping score, trying to make sure you’re giving equal time, energy, and attention to things you’ve set at cross purposes. On the one hand, you have this; on the other hand, you have that; and your attention constantly swivels between the two like a spectator at a tennis match: this, that, this, that, this, that.

Balancing act

Whyte rightly suggests our lives aren’t so tidily predictable: the more we try to muscle our way to balance, the more awkward and unsteady we become, overcompensating at every turn. When we see our relationship with others, our relationship with work, and our relationship with self as being three concurrent marriages, we can acknowledge the wisdom in not keeping score. Moment by moment, tend to the relationship that needs attention at that moment, heeding your vows to all three. There’s no need to be two or even three places at once: just be fully present Here and Now, and do whatever needs doing.

Balancing act

When you don’t see your three marriages as being on opposite sides of a seesaw or tug-of-war, you eliminate the competition inherent in those metaphors. Instead, your relationships with others, work, and self comprise a three-spoked wheel that settles into its own cycle. Instead of trying to strike and hold a balance, you learn to roll with it, recognizing the ways that any marriage moves through its own moods.

The photos in today’s post come from a balancing act J and I saw at the Big Apple Circus back in 2008. I’d never seen a slack-rope walker before, so I was amazed at how wildly both the walker and the line swung from side to side. This realization that balance is achieved through motion rather than stillness inspired the answer I later gave here to a question about being grounded in one’s Zen practice.

Works by Clara Lieu

I don’t normally listen to the radio on my way to and from campus: I prefer the company of my own thoughts. But on my drive home from Curry College today, I turned on the news to fend off sleepiness, and that’s when I heard it: a verdict had been reached in the trial of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Works by Clara Lieu

The verdict was announced as I pulled into my driveway, and I sat in my car to listen to the first few counts: guilty, guilty, guilty. And just like that April day two years ago, I found myself weeping for the victims, the violence, and the sense of violation. Here in Boston, we take the Marathon bombings personally. A crime was committed in our own neighborhood, and we embrace the victims of that crime as our own.

Works by Clara Lieu

Throughout Tsarnaev’s trial, I’ve followed media reports of testimony that gave additional details of a story that hits too close to home. I repeatedly watched surveillance footage of carjack victim Dun Meng escaping from the Tsarnaev brothers at a gas station I pass every time I drive to the Zen Center, for instance, and I was stunned to learn that one of the bystanders who tended to BU graduate student Lingzi Lu as she bled to death was Dr. James Bath: J’s primary care physician, and the doctor who gave me nebulizer treatments when I had a respiratory infection last fall. I’m both sobered and saddened to realize the doctor who literally pumped breath back into my body was also there with Lingzi Lu when she breathed her last.

Works by Clara Lieu

After sitting in my car to hear the verdicts on the first few counts against Tsarnaev, I came inside, turned on the radio, and dried dishes through the rest: guilty on all thirty counts. The verdict doesn’t bring back any of the victims, nor does it restore severed limbs or bring solace to traumatized souls. Neither a verdict nor a sentence can bring closure, as some wounds are too wide to heal. But hearing a jury officially pronounce Tsarnaev guilty on all counts brought a sense that justice had been served. Whether the jury sentences Tsarnaev to death or to life in prison, the decision that matters was announced today. Having seen the destruction the Tsarnaev brothers wrought, a jury decided there is no ideology that can excuse such cruelty.

The photos illustrating today’s post come from a November exhibition of works by Clara Lieu at Framingham State University’s Mazmanian Gallery.

Guess who's back?

There are many ways the winter-weary measure the arrival of spring. Some people happily welcome the season’s first robin; others eagerly await baseball’s opening day. For the past month, I’ve been monitoring our shrinking backyard snow piles, so the momentous milestone in the photo above isn’t the robin but the bare grass.

Shoes, not boots

The main method I use to chart the arrival of spring, however, is much more down to earth: specifically, what sort of footwear I use to step on said earth. March 25 was the first day this year I dared to wear shoes rather than boots, an occasion so momentous I couldn’t resist snapping a picture of my almost-bare ankles. Only someone who has spent the past three months clomping around in boots can understand the sheer joy that comes from slipping into a pair of flats: shoes only a step or two removed from slippers. In flats, I feel lightweight and unencumbered: someone who twirls on twinkle-toes rather than trudging in clod stompers. Forget about any other signs of spring: your feet will tell you when winter is truly over.

Rite of spring

Perhaps, then, you can understand why I spent much of March poring over Zappos, trying to choose a new pair of sandals for the season. Technically, I don’t need a new pair of sandals: last year’s Keen “Rose” sandals still have plenty of life in them, as do the Crocs “Kadee” flats I wear as indoor slippers. But when you’re tired of zipping up dress boots and pulling on Wellies, the thought of a new pair of sandals is enough to keep you trudging forward through the snow piles. It almost doesn’t matter which pair you choose as long as you can close your eyes and imagine yourself sunning your toes in them, someday.

Scooby and Groucho

Last week, one of our cats died suddenly. Scooby was the youngest and healthiest of our eight cats, and he’d shown no outward signs of sickness. Last Monday afternoon, when I left to take Groucho, one of our other cats, to the Angell Animal Medical Center for his monthly oncology check, Scooby seemed fine, but a few hours later, J found Scooby yowling, gasping for breath, and slobbering profusely in a hiding spot under the bed.

Ready to spring

J immediately rushed Scooby to Angell: we must have passed one another on the road, with me bringing Groucho home as J took Scooby on what would be his final car ride. Scooby’s symptoms suggested sudden heart failure, but he didn’t respond to any of the treatments the emergency vets tried. J left Scooby in the intensive care unit at Angell, where we’ve taken so many other pets in the past. Later that night, after both J and I were home, the emergency vet called with the news: Scooby was gone.

So much for being finicky

During the years we’ve been together, J and I have lost six pets: our cats Boomer, Tony, Shadow, and now Scooby, and our dogs Reggie and MAD. Except for Scooby, all our pets were old and in obvious decline when they died: Boomer and Shadow died at home after long illnesses, and we chose to euthanize Tony, Reggie, and MAD. When an old or sickly pet dies, you’re stunned but not shocked: a long decline provides ample opportunities for anticipatory grieving, and when your pet finally passes, your shock is mingled with relief. After a long and exhausting decline, death is ultimately easy: just stop struggling and let yourself go.

Scooby keeps warm

What was shocking about Scooby’s death, however, was its irony: in a household full of elderly pets, why was it Scooby who died? Groucho has cancer, Snowflake has diabetes, Crash has an overactive thyroid gland, and Louie has a chronic heart condition: so how is it that Scooby, our youngest and healthiest cat, just up and died? Scooby was energetic and outgoing: when I entered the bedroom he used to share with Groucho, he’d often run toward me, dog-like, to see if I had food. When I’d kneel to clean his and Groucho’s litter box, Scooby would perch on the bedside table, batting and tugging mouthfuls of my hair.

Scooby closeup

Now that it’s been just over a week since we lost Scooby, I know not to look for him when I enter his old bedroom: Groucho now shares a room with Louie, who prefers to play hide-and-seek. When I clean Groucho’s and Louie’s litter box, there’s nobody on the bedside table to paw at my hair, and when I sit on the loveseat to wait for the newly-scrubbed floor to dry, it’s no longer Scooby who climbs on my empty lap. The shocking thing about a sudden death is the unsettling absence it leaves behind.

Male hairy woodpecker

When I pulled into the faculty parking lot at Curry College this morning, I wasn’t surprised to see a male hairy woodpecker clinging to a nearby tree, as last week I’d seen the holes he’d hammered. Sometimes birds reveal themselves directly, and other times they reveal themselves by what they leave behind.

Here be woodpeckers

This particular hairy woodpecker wasn’t shy, continuing to cling to his tree while I rolled down my car window and took a picture from the driver seat, using my car as an impromptu bird-blind. (I can tell this fellow is a male by the red spot on the back of his head, and I can tell he’s a hairy rather than downy woodpecker because his bill is as long as his head is wide: a downy’s bill isn’t nearly as long.)

Only after I’d gotten out of my car did the woodpecker startle and fly, scolding me with emphatic call-notes: “Peeeek! Peeeek!” Now that I know who’s been drilling the trees by the faculty parking lot at Curry College, you can be sure I’ll be on the lookout for him and his mate.

Sunbathing

Our cats are indoor cats, so they spend a lot of time watching the weather from inside. Whoever designed our house must have had cats in mind, as many of the radiators are topped with broad wooden shelves that make perfect perches for both basking and bird-watching.

Afternoon birdwatching

Yesterday was a good day to be an indoor cat as it was cold and sunny: perfect for sunbathing in a warm and sheltered spot. I spent the day prepping classes and grading, so like an indoor cat I spent most of the day inside looking out. When you stay inside on a cold and sunny day, you can trick yourself into thinking it’s warmer than it is, summer right around the corner rather than frozen in its tracks.

I sometimes wonder what the cats make of the snow piles that impede their window views in winter and then gradually recede in spring. Can the cats sense the cold through the glass, or is even their imagined sense of the world outside climate controlled?

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