Curved corridor

This morning, apropos of nothing, I woke up with Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” endlessly repeating in my head. I couldn’t tell you the last time I’d heard the song–probably years, maybe decades ago–but there it was playing on the jukebox of my mind, randomly alternating between Neil Young’s original version and Michael Hedges’ instrumental cover.

Where did either song come from, other than the deep recesses of memory? There are CDs that bring me to my emotional knees when I revisit them: Sarah McLachlan’s Possession, for example, or Peter Gabriel’s Us. These albums are so interwoven with a particular time in my life, I immediately recall where and who I was when I listened to them endlessly, their songs providing a sonic bridge to my past.

I don’t have the same emotional connection with “After the Gold Rush”: it’s a song I’ve heard, for sure, but not one I’ve intentionally listened to time and again. But apparently it’s embedded itself into my consciousness, for this morning it randomly popped up from the auditory flotsam of my mind, a spontaneous and nonsensical earworm.

Popular wisdom says scents are connected most closely with memory, the scent of Proust’s madeleines triggering a flood of childhood recollections. But as someone who can smell only occasionally, I am more emotionally susceptible to sound than scent.

When I walk with friends, they will sometimes be stopped in their tracks by a specific and striking smell: for example, a gentle waft of lilac. But the things that stop me are sounds: a house wren singing in a rhododendron, or a brood of starlings churring in a tree cavity high overhead.

When I walk with friends, they seem to focus primarily on human sounds–the words we exchange–while I experience sound as a layered tapestry where words are the embroidered surface and birdsong or other ambient music are the woven warp and woof underneath.

Songs weave themselves into memory almost unconsciously–like a jingle you can’t forget–and occasionally years later the thread of a particular song frays loose at random, exposed at the tattered edge of sleep.


Rhododendrons

I submitted the last of my Spring semester grades on Monday night, so now I’m returning to the leisurely routines of summer: reading on the patio, writing in my journal, and walking Roxy twice a day, in the morning and afternoon, rather than just once, after I’ve returned from teaching.

Teaching is tiring in part because you’re the one responsible for keeping everyone motivated and on-task: you’re the one setting the energy level in the classroom. By the end of the semester, my emotional cupboard is bare, and I need to refocus and refresh. This is what summer is for.

For years, I taught online classes all year round, starting one semester as soon as the previous one ended. That perpetual teaching schedule paid the bills, but it was emotionally exhausting. These days, I juggle two part-time teaching jobs during the academic year, and I recover from this juggling act during the summer: a chance to refill the well.


Orchard oriole

Last night Leslee and I went for a walk at Mount Auburn Cemetery, just as we did almost exactly one year ago. Mount Auburn is a pedestrian paradise, with wide, meandering roads and little traffic: a perfect place to take in the fresh air.

Sunning turtles

In the spring, Mount Auburn is in full bloom, with birds buzzing or whistling from the trees, turtles sunning themselves on the banks of quiet ponds, and chipmunks darting through shaded undergrowth. Last night, Leslee and I saw an orchard oriole we would have walked past if a couple hadn’t been standing on the path, aiming their phone at a bird singing almost invisibly from a willow tree. “The app says orchard oriole,” they explained, and the bird called to mind a Baltimore oriole Leslee and I had seen at Mount Auburn in May, 2017.

May apple

Apparently Leslee and I meet at Mount Auburn for a placid walk almost every May, after I’m done teaching but need a break from grading. Every year, it’s a welcome respite to take a leisurely stroll among flowers…and this year, after another semester of pandemic teaching, it’s a relief to visit the cemetery as a survivor, not an occupant. In this age of airborne illness, walking in the fresh air feels healthy, healing, and restorative. I’m looking forward to doing more of it.

Plein air

CLICK HERE to view more photos from yesterday’s walk at Mount Auburn Cemetery. Enjoy!

2022 Boston Marathon

Today J and I resumed our Patriots’ Day routine of watching the Boston Marathon along Commonwealth Avenue between miles 18 and 19 in Newton. It has been three years since the Marathon happened in April: in 2020, the Marathon was canceled outright due to the pandemic, and in 2021, it was postponed until October. This year, the Marathon took its proper place in the calendar, serving as one of my favorite Boston-area rites of spring.

2022 Boston Marathon

New Englanders are known for their reticence and reserve, but Marathon Monday is a welcome exception. Patriots’ Day often falls on the first really nice day of Spring, and everyone turns out to celebrate, with parents guiding kids, kids tugging dogs, and folks of all ages waving signs and ringing cowbells to urge the runners on: go, go, go!

2022 Boston Marathon

In a region where making eye contact with strangers is verboten, on Marathon Monday people actually talk to one another. On a day I’ve called New Englanders’ high holy day of hospitality, locals welcome all manner of strangers to their streets, clapping and cheering elite runners and everyday Joes alike. If you are bold enough to run 26 miles through our proverbial backyard, then by God we’re going to show up and treat you like a champion, even though we might curse you in traffic on any other day.

2022 Boston Marathon

Although it has always seemed fitting that the Marathon happens in Spring–a chance for locals to gather outside, enjoy some sunshine, and celebrate the fact that we’ve survived another long winter–this year I’m realizing how appropriate it is to run the Marathon on Patriots’ Day. Established to commemorate the day in April, 1775 when British troops came to town and the men of Lexington and Concord took up arms to say get off my lawn, Patriots’ Day is a celebration of American liberty in general and Massachusetts resolve in particular.

2022 Boston Marathon

Patriots’ Day celebrates something fierce, but the Boston Marathon celebrates something friendly. Every year on Marathon Monday, I’m struck by the simple kindness of people showing up to cheer for random strangers. Although it was a welcome respite to watch the Marathon last October, this 26-mile-long block party with a race running through it really belongs in April. During a month when both hope and Spring spring eternal, it’s a welcome relief to see strangers come together to cheer and encourage.

2022 Boston Marathon

CLICK HERE to view photos from today’s Boston Marathon. Enjoy!

Best Good Friday ever

One year ago today, J and I took a 45-minute drive to Worcester, where we and a couple hundred other people received our first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in a gymnasium at Worcester State University.

Like seemingly everyone else in the spring of 2021, I had horror stories of trying to get the vaccine as soon as J and I were eligible. After trying for days to find an available appointment, I nearly wept with relief when I was able to book two simultaneous appointments for a Friday afternoon in April: a Friday that happened to be Good Friday, a day I immediately dubbed The Best Good Friday Ever.

Receiving the first then second Pfizer dose changed everything. In April 2021 I’d been teaching in-person since September 2020, relying upon nothing more than social distance, a KN95 mask, and my body’s own immunity to keep me safe. Getting the vaccine allowed me to continue teaching without fear of catching the virus, developing complications, and dying.

Although getting vaccinated didn’t end the pandemic–the Delta then Omicron variants dashed our naive hopes of quickly returning to our Old Normal–being able to navigate the world with a strong layer of protection has been life-changing. The vaccine isn’t a silver bullet: plenty of people have caught COVID (especially the Omicron variant) despite being fully vaccinated. But for those of us who are up-to-date with our shots, COVID is no longer a death sentence. I can’t overestimate how grateful I am for that.

Back in October, exactly six months after our second shot, J and I got boosted. And next week, just shy of six months after our booster, J and I have appointments for our fourth dose–a jab I’m calling our re-booster–at the pharmacy where I get my flu shot every year. If our New Normal means getting a COVID shot every six months or so, I’ll be the first in line.


Red maple flowers

This year as always, the month of February crawled and the month of March flew. In like a lion, out in a flash.

Spring Break was a welcome respite that happened just as COVID cases were decreasing. Whereas I spent my winter break hunkered at home while Omicron surged, I spent Spring Break going out to lunch with J, meeting Leslee for a walk and margaritas, and taking day trips to Tower Hill Botanic Garden and the Museum of Fine Arts. It was wonderful to have a break from teaching and a chance to get out and do things.

Now that Spring Break is a memory, I’m back to the endless cycle of prepping classes, commenting on rough drafts, and grading final drafts: the wash, rinse, repeat of college writing instruction. But these days, it’s still light out when I arrive home after teaching and take Roxy for a walk.

While temperatures fluctuate between wintery chill and unseasonable warmth, the earth knows the days are lengthening. April means the semester will end in just over a month and summer will begin in earnest…eventually.

Back at Burdicks

This morning I sat one meditation session at the Cambridge Zen Center, then I walked to Harvard Square, where I bought myself a large cup of dark hot chocolate at LA Burdicks. It was the first time I sat cross-legged on a cushion among other meditators–and the first time I sat writing at Burdicks–since the last time I wrote in this notebook: Sunday, January 5, 2020.

Today is exactly two months after my 53rd birthday. Before the pandemic, I’d established a loose habit of practicing at the Zen Center, then walking to Harvard Square and writing journal pages at Burdicks around my birthday, but the pandemic put a stop to that.

Oh my goodness, it’s good to be back.

I’ve always enjoyed writing in cafes, sustained by the soft stimulus of having other people in the room with you. It’s a collegial sense of anonymity: there is no need to talk to anyone, but your mere presence is enough to establish a friendly connection. You and I might not have much to say to one another–we might not speak the same language, and we might not have much in common in terms of politics or perspective–but we can sit companionably side-by-side, you sipping your chocolate while I sip mine.

This quiet companionship–this practice of sitting with strangers, quietly sharing the same space–is exactly what I’ve missed the past two years that the Zen Center has been closed. I don’t go to the Zen Center for a few minutes of friendly chit-chat before and after practice, although I enjoy that. Instead, what fuels me is the actual act of sitting with other souls I don’t need to talk to.

Perhaps this is a peculiar side-effect of doing language for a living. When I teach, I talk; when I grade papers, I read; and when I write, I’m steeped to my eyeballs in words, words, words. I love language–I make my living wrangling with words–but when I rest and reset, I crave the opposite of words. Although the Zen Center has offered a rich array of online practice opportunities throughout the pandemic, what my spirit has craved these past two years is the act of unplugging in person: something that can’t transpire over Zoom.

So here I sit at a tiny table for one while a woman in a wheelchair scrolls on her phone at the table next to me, a hipster in headphones taps at a laptop across the room, and a pair of women chats amiably in the corner, all while a steady stream of masked customers comes in, orders drinks to go, then leaves.

This cup of dark hot chocolate is exactly what I’ve yearned for these past two years. I can drink hot chocolate at home while Zooming with distant friends and virtual sangha, but the thing I’ve missed is a quiet Sunday morning spent sipping spiritual sustenance among strangers. It’s been a long time coming.


Stairway window

Every year, I complain about the February doldrums. February in New England is an interminable month, with gray and dreary days adding to the long slog of winter. When March finally comes, it feels like an accomplishment: another month weathered, another step closer to someday-spring.

Right now, both my students and I are counting the days until Spring Break. Although I’m not planning to go anywhere, I’m looking forward to a week off from teaching: a chance to sleep in, catch up with my paper-piles, and reset before the last half of the semester.

Last year, Spring Break was canceled due to COVID: colleges deemed it too risky to allow students to travel, so we pushed our way through an entire semester without rest or refreshment. Even now, a full year later, I haven’t forgiven whoever thought it was a good idea to plow our way through Spring 2021 without a chance to catch our breath.

Pandemic teaching has been an exhausting roller coaster ride, and last year we needed a break more than ever. I’m glad that this year, students and faculty alike are getting the break we so urgently need.


What season is it?

There comes a time every not-quite-spring when I feel a surge of almost certainty: a feeling that says if I’ve survived winter this long, I just might survive the rest.

This feeling typically comes on a day like today when the sun is mostly out, there are still impassable stretches of ice underfoot, and the forecast calls for snow. It’s not over, the forecast says…but it will be over eventually, my soul whispers.

This year the pandemic feels like another interminable winter. We know we aren’t out of the woods yet, but… Even as the weather forecast calls for snow, we look at the calendar and the lengthening days and repeat our February mantra, “Every day without snow is a day closer to No More Snow.”

Right now, every day without a positive COVID diagnosis feels like a day closer to Lots Less COVID. (Four weeks into my fourth semester of in-person pandemic teaching, I still say the best day of the week is whatever day my negative PCR test results come back.)

We know that COVID, like New England snowstorms, isn’t going away for good…but the thing that gets us through another long winter is the knowledge that it won’t always be this way. Someday, eventually, we’ll wear sandals and short-sleeves again, and someday, eventually, we’ll return to dining outside or in and mingling with or without masks.

I can learn to weather COVID surges, going to ground when cases are high and venturing out when cases decline. I can learn to weather a threat that is cyclic if not seasonable, our lives divided into social time and stay-at-home times.

On days like today, I can feel it in my bones: we just might survive.


Turkey tracks in snow

Friday was a sleety, stay-at-home day, and yesterday I cleared a crust of snow and freezing rain from our cars early in the day so they would bake clean in the sun. Yesterday, the unshoveled sidewalks in our neighborhood–all the sidewalks, since you can’t shovel freezing rain–were crunchy with a topping of snow over ice, which gave good traction underfoot. This morning, though, even the snow has frozen slick, and we’re expecting rain and temperatures above freezing–melting weather–tomorrow into the week, which will turn everything into a slippery slop.

Welcome to not-quite Spring in Massachusetts.

I’ve lived in New England for three decades now–most of my adult life–and for all that time I’ve said New England doesn’t have a proper spring. Instead, we go straight from snow to mud to heat, without the weeks of temperate weather and wildflowers the Midwest gets in March. In New England, March comes in like a lion then stays, the threat of spring snowstorms lurking into April.

But climate change is affecting this: we get as much rain as snow these days, along with an abundance of bare frozen ground. Last weekend’s storm dumped more than a foot of snow on our backyard: only the second plowable snowfall of the season, and the first accumulation to stay a while.

This coming week’s temperatures in the 40s with rain aren’t quite Spring, but they certainly aren’t winter, either. Sunlight is the cleanest way to melt snow, shrinking it steadily into the dry air. Rain melts snow, too, but in a way that turns streets, sidewalks, and backyards into puddles by day and skating rinks by night.