May 2008


All the news that's fit to film?

When Keene flooded in October, 2005, one Boston news station sent a crew that parked its truck right in front of my apartment, a moment of fame I duly blogged. (Footage filmed on my street showing “Teri Adler live in the city of Keene” is still posted in the WBZ-TV video archive.)

Waban T stop

Today I experienced a feeling of deja vu all over again when J and I discovered not one but three Boston news trucks parked at the Waban T stop, presumably there to film the earth-shattering news that D line trains have resumed service today after Wednesday’s fatal crash and that investigators have determined the rear train was going 30mph faster than it should have been at the time of the collision.

I appreciate news crews’ apparent solicitude in following up on this important story…but why exactly is it necessary to have three different networks shooting live footage of an otherwise empty MTBA stop? (On weekends when there isn’t a home Red Sox, Celtics, or Bruins game, the D line is pretty quiet, offering plenty of parking lot space for news trucks but not much news.) Is there really that big a dearth of breaking news in the greater Boston area this weekend?

Solomon's seal

Some of my favorite spring flowers–and I have many favorites–are painfully shy, hiding inconspicuous blossoms under showy leaves.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Solomon’s seal (pictured above) is quite lovely, dangling clusters of small, whitish blossoms resembling lily of the valley…but you have to crouch to your knees to see them. Jack-in-the-pulpit (pictured right) is similarly reclusive, hiding a greenish spadix inside a green-streaked spathe, the entire arrangement shaded by the plant’s large, compound leaves.

Most of us associate the word “flower” with something showy and colorful: a splash of color that clamors to be noticed. But both Solomon’s seal and Jack-in-the-pulpit are masters of modesty, sheltering and concealing their reproductive parts rather than flaunting them for all to see. How many people have passed these two species growing right alongside a residential sidewalk, unaware that plant sex was happening beneath their eyes?

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Minimalism.

Prayer flags

“I don’t get it,” a passerby outside Timoleon’s Restaurant in downtown Keene remarked upon seeing me shooting pictures in a sunny alley intersecting Main Street. “What do you see up there?” I was in Keene for a meeting on campus yesterday, and the man caught me on my way to the bank and other errands afterward. “Up there,” I pointed. “The fire escape is casting slanted shadows on the brick, and above that, there are prayer flags.” The man looked where I’d pointed, looked back at me, and shrugged. “Okay,” he said in a nonchalant tone, then walked away.

Fire escape shadows

Apparently he’d expected something more newsworthy: who in their right mind, after all, stops on their way to the bank to photograph shadows? As much as the anonymous passerby was unimpressed by the sight of sun on brick, I was equally undaunted by his dismissal. As many times as I’ve passed this particular alley, I don’t ever recall these fire-escape shadows looking precisely this crisp and neatly demarcated, and I’ve certainly never noticed the prayer flags. Could it be the sight of thin-sliced shadows slanting just so was all it took to make me look up?

The purpose of prayer flags, of course, it to harness the wind so it will pray without ceasing. For Christians, ceaseless prayer is something encouraged in the Pauline epistles: a meditative act that requires both concentration and devotion. For Tibetan Buddhists, praying without ceasing is as simple as stringing a clothesline. The Himalayas are pummeled by wind, so flags printed with prayers will flap their petitions incessantly, prayer-wheels that spin without need for human hands.

Fire escape shadows

Still, ceaseless prayer, like sun-slanted shadows, is hardly a newsworthy event: that nonplussed passerby was right about that. After I’d finished my errands in Keene and drove back to Newton last night, I’d find something much more in line with what I think he was looking for. After I’d settled in with Reggie, my laptop, and an online quiz I was preparing, J came into the room with a concerned look. “Do you hear that?” he asked, and at first I thought he was referring to a Carolina wren singing loudly in the front yard. “The helicopters are circling: there’s been a crash on the green line.”

Checking online, I saw what the commotion was about: soon, we heard sirens along with the roar of news helicopters. Two MBTA two-car trolleys had collided on the green “D” line not far from the stop J and I take whenever we take the T into town. Soon we both were planted in front of the TV watching live coverage from the helicopters buzzing overhead. Although the trolleys hadn’t collided in our own backyard, the accident was close enough that we could recognize the precise spot of the collision, down the tracks from a local landmark we call Varitek Bridge.

Fire escape shadows

Although J and I don’t take the T on a daily basis, we take it every time we go into Boston to explore or attend sporting events. On our way home from San Francisco on Monday, for instance, we’d taken the T from the airport, thanking our conductor when he let us off at “our” stop: a common courtesy. Had we had tickets to last night’s Celtics game, J and I would have been waiting for an inbound train right around the time the two outbound trolleys collided. From our stop, would we have heard the metallic screech of an impending collision down the line, would we have felt the seismic tremor of impact reverberating through the rails, or would we have stood there, wondering at the delay, while T workers hurriedly arranged shuttle-buses for re-routed traffic?

J and I spent much of last night checking live coverage while going about our other tasks, the normal evening routine of getting the dogs settled, preparing and eating dinner, and switching between the Celtics and Red Sox games on TV being accompanied by the incessant sound of helicopters. Initial reports said one of the trolley conductors was seriously injured and trapped in the wreckage; whenever we switched to the news, we watched firefighters trying to pry and cut their way into the crushed and mangled trolley. Around 10:30, after the major networks had returned to their normally scheduled programs, we could still hear helicopters circling. “If that conductor is seriously injured and it’s taking them this long to get her out,” I started to say, and J completed the thought for me. “It doesn’t look good.”

Fire escape shadows

A few months ago, a green line conductor had yelled at J and me for darting in front of her inbound train on our way to board. “Never run in front of the train,” she scolded as if we were rambunctious teenagers. “If either one of you had slipped, I can’t stop the train quickly.” Duly chastened even though, from our perspective, we’d crossed well before the approaching train, we apologized: she was right. It’s never wise to cross in front of a moving train, and ever since we’ve made a conscious point of stopping before oncoming trolleys, making eye contact with the conductor, and gesturing if we want her or him to hold the train while we cross either in front or behind.

“Do you think it was the woman who yelled at us,” I asked J when we learned that the trapped conductor was female. There was no way, then, of knowing, but that statement “I can’t stop the train quickly” seemed particularly ominous. This morning, we learned that MBTA operator Terrese Edmonds, age 24, was not the 40-something woman who’d scolded us; we also learned that Edmonds was probably already dead by the time J and I had remarked last night that things didn’t look good. Still, this morning both J and I looked at pictures of Edmonds and tried to remember if we’d ever ridden with her–do we remember ever thanking her–on the countless times we’ve relied upon the T to get us from here to there.

Fire escape shadows

Past midnight, after both we and the circling helicopters had turned in for the night, I stated the obvious to J: “We could have been on that train.” Although the accident occurred past our stop, it could have occurred anywhere, and although we don’t recall ever riding with the conductor who was killed, it could have been anyone. Last night, presumably inspired by those ceaselessly circling helicopters, I dreamed J and I saw paramedics running down our street with bandaged bodies on stretchers even though most of the crash victims left both trains under their own power, some even walking themselves to a nearby hospital.

Life is short, and even your next moment isn’t guaranteed. Last night as we switched between the Celtics and Red Sox games on TV, the sound of helicopters buzzing incessantly overhead reminded me again and again to pray for everyone on those trains, for the firefighters trying to help them, and for all the fragile, imminently mortal passersby with whom I share this planet. Life is short, and even your next moment isn’t guaranteed. Never cross in front of trains, always thank your conductor, and never pass up an opportunity to pray.

You could be living

Ever since I moved to New England over 15 years ago, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon. Whenever I travel to some lovely vacation spot, I realize upon coming back home that I live in a lovely vacation spot. Although I enjoy visiting and exploring the wonders in other folks’ backyards, the “Here” I find when I come back home is equally alluring and interesting.

Bay Bridge

The last time I was in San Francisco, I was unhappily married, stuck in the midst of a mired dissertation, and emotionally numb. Like Mary Austin, who walked in the deserts of southern California seeking to be “sobered and healed at last by the large soundness of nature,” I spent as much of that week as possible walking, alone. Staying by night as an invisible guest at the San Francisco Zen Center, I woke each morning before practice, slipped out to my car while other folks made their sleepy way to the meditation hall, and made my escape north of the city, where I did miles of solitary walking meditation in Marin County, the hypnotic regularity of “one foot in front of the other” being exactly what I needed at the time to return to my senses.

Bay Bridge with gull

I later wrote about that week I spent sneaking out of the San Francisco Zen Center, consistently choosing walking over sitting:

Over the course of five days in Marin County, I walked over 50 miles in day-trip long segments, walking each day until my legs ached and my sandal-clad feet were as brown as the earth. Every evening I’d return to the city to eat, shower, then sleep like a rock until morning when I’d repeat the process all over again. There’s nothing like a day’s worth of walking to tire your body and soul into deep, restful sleep; there’s nothing like a day’s worth of walking to bring you out of your academia-addled brain and back into your body, rooted to the earth down to your dust-covered toes.

Take a seat

This weekend, instead of staying at the San Francisco Zen Center, I was an almost-invisible participant at a literary conference where I presented part of the opening chapter of that once-mired, now four-years-completed dissertation, popping into a handful of sessions each day but otherwise sneaking off elsewhere. Five years ago, I used walking as an escape from the academic writing I’d grown sick of; this time around, I used walking (and the ever-present demands of my online classes) as an escape from the academic presentations that still seem so foreign to me.

How is it that professors no different from me can content themselves sitting inside all day reading papers to one another when their legs still work and the world outside beckons? In “Walking,” one of the texts I considered in the opening chapter of my dissertation, Henry David Thoreau marveled that his neighbors didn’t kill themselves from the monotony of having to sit in shops all day, “as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon.” This weekend I found myself wondering something similar. I can’t speak for other academics, but this much I’ve discovered about myself: I can’t think sitting down, much less sitting down being read to. If there’s anything of interest in the opening chapter of my dissertation or elsewhere, it’s insight I came to while walking, the sedentary writing of those insights being something that happened after-the-fact.

Transamerica Pyramid from pier

So given the fact that I live in a place just as lovely as San Francisco or other conference destinations, and given the fact that I seem constitutionally averse to the kind of mingling and intellectualizing that academic conferences deal in, I wonder whether I’ll ever find myself attending another one. One of the things I realized while walking in Marin County five years ago was that I didn’t want to live my live analyzing Thoreau: I wanted to be Thoreau, and it occurs to me that Thoreau wasn’t much for literary conferences. “You could be living in a place where people dream of vacationing,” a San Francisco real estate sign reminds passersby; “you could be living, rather than presenting and being presented-to,” I had to stifle myself from saying as I sat through the handful of academic sessions I attended each day, counting the minutes until I could escape to walk again.

Well-hydrated

I’ve settled into the conference I’m attending in San Francisco, where the hotel staff is keeping us well-hydrated with tables of glasses and urns of cold water outside each seminar room. Although I brought my laptop so I can keep in touch with my online classes via hotel wifi, the double demands of conferencing and online-teaching (and my occasional escapes to do actual sight-seeing) will keep me from blogging much through the weekend. I’ll see you when I’m able; in the meantime, don’t forget to drink lots of water.

Ice cream eater

I’ve been scrambling this past week, trying to catch-up with too many to-dos as I prepare to leave for a conference tomorrow. On Friday, in the midst of this schedule-madness, I taught meditation to a classroom of senioritis-inflicted students at Lincoln-Sudbury High School in suburban Boston; on Sunday, I gave consulting interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center, stopping to snap a few pictures of some new stencils on the street-art mural along Modica Way.

Ice cream eater with skulls

At both the high school and the Zen Center, I reminded anyone who would listen to come back to the present moment, everything is already complete, and you already have it, you just don’t know it. Ah, the fatuousness of Zen teaching. If I really, truly believed these things–if I’d really attained them at the core of my being–I wouldn’t be scrambling, staring stressfully at my to-do list, or calculating in a panic the hours between now and tomorrow morning when my plane takes off with or without me and my still-to-do to-dos. Or would I?

If everything is already complete, then my scrambling, stressed self is also Buddha; if I already have it but just don’t know it, then part of the “It” of enlightenment is the stressed, worried mind I already have. If Zen is a matter of returning to the present moment, which I’ve taught time and again to anyone who will listen, where do I get this idea that my Zen Self should be placid and serene, as if a smooth lake is the only form “water” is permitted to take?

Bow Wow, etc

This idea that my Zen Self should be calm–this idea that I should have a “Zen Self” that is separate from and more pristine than my Regular Self–is a pervasive form of Zen sickness, an idea that clouds the clarity of This Present Moment as much as any lurid daydream or daunting distraction. This present moment is It, I try to remind myself whenever I find myself listening. The act of scrambling isn’t a matter of rushing to a place where I’ll find It, finally, when all my to-dos are checked off and I have a moment, finally, to let go a sigh of relief. This act of scrambling is itself It: nothing more, nothing less. Had I been listening to myself when I reminded those squirming high school students or those earnest practitioners in the Zen Center interview room, I would already know that.

Flowering crabapples

One of several unanswered emails in my Inbox right now is from a friend asking if I’ve done something to celebrate the end of the semester at Keene State. The fact that said friend asked this on Tuesday, after I’d submitted grades right before their noon deadline, and I haven’t had a spare moment to answer her email tells you something about the past few days.

Dogwood

After submitting grades at Keene State, I had online discussion board posts to catch up with; after I caught up with discussion board posts, I had neglected errands to run. Today, I drove from Newton to Keene to attend a pair of faculty development meetings; tomorrow, I’ll be helping teach meditation to a gaggle of suburban high school seniors. I haven’t, in the meantime, had a chance to finish last week’s online grading, answer emails from friends, or otherwise celebrate the end of one set of classes while another set continues on. The downside of being a multi-tasking, moonlighting adjunct instructor is that there’s always something going on somewhere: the end of the semester for one school is Just Another Week at another.

Reflected maple flowers & leaves

The upside of being a multi-tasking, moonlighting adjunct instructor is the steady flow of paychecks a staggered academic schedule assures. As I chatted with various adjunct colleagues at Keene State, several of them mentioned in one way or another the financial pinch of the coming months: a summer without teaching is, for adjunct instructors, a summer without paychecks. By choosing an academic rather than a corporate career, I chose a employment path that allows me more free time in the summer to enjoy the flowering and leafy things that bring that season joy; by choosing to supplement my adjunct income at Keene State with what I can earn elsewhere, I chose a path that occasionally results in conflicting schedules.

Later this summer, I’ll have time to smell the flowers, catch up with email, and celebrate some downtime…eventually. In the meantime, an occasional glimpse of crab-apples, dogwoods, and flowering maples will have to do.

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