May 2012


Decorated veterans

It’s become something of an informal tradition. For the past three years, J and I have walked to Newton Cemetery on Memorial Day to visit the decorated military graves there. Although we don’t personally “know” anyone buried at Newton Cemetery, we read the markers, set aright floral arrangements that have fallen over, and remember the stories we’ve heard on previous visits. It just feels right to “visit the neighbors” on this day devoted to remembrance.

Click here for photos from last year’s Memorial Day walk, or here for photos from 2010, or here for photos from 2009. Enjoy, and happy Memorial Day.

Peeking

One of the interesting things about keeping a blog is how easily you can compare what’s happening (or blooming) now with what was happening (or blooming) the previous year. This time last year, I was moving out of my apartment in Keene, which seems like a lifetime or two ago. When I remember how tiring it was to sort through, pack, and move the contents of an apartment I’d rented for eight years, I’m that much more grateful for being quietly settled this year.

Mountain laurel

Last night I remarked to friends that the mountain laurels seem to be blooming earlier this year than last, but then I second-guessed myself. Doesn’t summer sneak up on me every year, time flying faster and faster with every season? A quick blog-check reveals I’d included a picture of mountain laurels in an early June post in which I discussed Diane Ackerman’s One Hundred Names for Love, which I was reading this time last year. In 2010, the mountain laurels were blooming on May 26th, just like this year, so I was half right: the mountain laurels didn’t bloom this early last year, but this year’s blooming isn’t entirely out-of-the-ordinary.

Mountain laurel

Same Time, Next Year” was a film starring Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn about a man and woman who meet for an adulterous weekend every year for several decades. I saw the movie with my mother when it came out in 1978, when I was nine years old. I was probably too young for a “PG” movie: I don’t remember most of the details of the story, since the jokes and “adult themes” flew right over my prepubescent head. But what I do remember was how the two characters remained faithful to one another and their once-a-year commitment even though they both changed over time, their annual trysts becoming a kind of benchmark for the rest of their lives.

Mountain laurel

I “meet” with my blog two or three times a week, but that’s enough to keep the relationship between us alive. At any given moment when I want to compare my life today with some previous version, I don’t have to call upon an adulterous lover: my blog will do. This time last year, I was reading Diane Ackerman; right now, I’m reading Terry Tempest Williams and Alison Bechdel. Who knows what I’ll be reading–or what I’ll be doing, or what will be blooming–this time next year, but chances are I’ll still keep a faithful record.

Like fireworks

This afternoon I received the latest version of an email I’ve gotten once or twice every single semester I’ve been teaching online. The particulars don’t matter because it’s always the same basic scenario.

Pink horsechestnut

Student X has stopped participating in class because of a health, personal, family, or work problem; Student X is worried they won’t pass or get a good grade in my class; and Student X can’t drop the class because of financial, philosophical, or logistical reasons. The particulars don’t matter: what matters is that the story is almost universal. Whenever a student is panicking because they’ve stopped participating and don’t know how to get back in the swing of the semester, my answer is pretty much the same: “Just come back.” It’s an answer that is mind-blowing in its simplicity. “The way you finish the semester,” I wrote to this latest incarnation of Student X, “is by finishing the semester.” In other words, just come back: just resume doing whatever it was you were doing before you hit a bump and got derailed.

Almost poppy

I’ve taught many incarnations of Student X over the years, and the biggest barrier they typically encounter is their own panic, despair, or shame about having to start over. Once again, the particulars don’t matter: what stays true is this mental block about coming back. There’s this deeply ingrained feeling that you should beat yourself up when you’ve hit a bump because your professor or some other authority figure is standing with arms akimbo, scowling, wanting to punish you. In my experience, though, half of life is about showing up, and the other half is about coming back. It’s not about never missing a beat; it’s about getting back in step after you’ve stumbled.

All about the alium

I wish I could say I learned this lesson through some sort of esoteric or mystical realization, but the truth is, I learned it the hard way. I’ve spent a lot of my life hitting bumps, getting derailed, and otherwise abandoning whatever work I’m supposed to be doing. Today, for example, I spent a good portion of the morning not checking my online classes, not checking work email, and not doing the things I’d duly written on my to-do list: the usual procrastination of yet another Don’t Wanna Wednesday. It’s not that I wasn’t working; it’s that I was avoiding one set of tasks by busying myself with another set of tasks. There’s always something lying around waiting to be done, so it’s always easy to procrastinate by looking busy.

Opening

So, how do you tackle the to-do list you’ve spent the whole morning avoiding? You just come back. How do you resume the morning writing routine you’ve let fall by the wayside? You just come back. How do you return, again, to the meditation practice you’ve been doing on and off and on-again for more years than you can count? You just begin again, again…and when your mind wanders, you just bring it back. There’s a reason why one of my favorite Zen sayings is “Fall down six times, get up seven.” If we didn’t stumble, flop, and fall, we’d never experience the joyous relief of starting over, anew.

Virginal

Last Tuesday I started teaching a summer school class I’ve never taught before: a 300-level class focusing on Buddhist-inspired literature. Although the content of the course isn’t new to me, the format is: the course is a “blended” class that combines once-a-week class sessions with online activities, and I designed the syllabus and assignment sequences last Monday, less than a day before the class started. Less than a week into the class, I already feel like I’m learning as much from teaching it as my students are learning (I hope) from taking it. You can talk about living in the moment, or you can teach a class where you’re more or less making things up as you go along, trusting the course content to pull together in ways you hadn’t entirely envisioned.

Half bloomed

This past week, I’ve also been re-designing from the ground up an online Literary Theory class that I’ve taught for years and am now currently teaching. I’m switching textbooks, revising assignments, and completely re-doing the weekly Lecture Notes in order to create a standardized course that other instructors will use. It’s a huge project because, once again, I’m familiar with the content but am re-envisioning how to deliver that content. The assignment sequences, discussion prompts, and Lecture Notes that worked for the “old” class I’m currently teaching just won’t do for the new, standardized version…and I find my head spinning with ideas while I juggle the “old” and “new” versions of the same material.

Spiderwort

Working with a proverbial “blank page” can be terrifying, invigorating, or both: a truly “blended” experience. On the one hand, you don’t know where the next assignment, lecture, or discussion prompt will come from; on the other hand, you’re amazed to see how the simple process of re-thinking something invariably leads to something new. It’s easy to fall into a boring routine of teaching the same old classes the same old way, expecting your students to learn something new from material you’ve milked dry. Occasionally it’s important to become a student yourself, either by trying something completely new or by “just” re-visiting and re-thinking the tried-and-true things that never fail to surprise.

Prayer in motion

A few weeks ago, A (not her real initial) and I walked the Memorial Labyrinth at Boston College. It was a beautiful (albeit breezy) day, with an older man sitting quietly on a bench reading a Kindle while clusters of students sprawled on the grass studying. It was a sun-soaked, idyllic day, and the labyrinth itself was a joy to walk: complex (as Chartres-style labyrinths always are) but smooth, with its tightly-winding stone path fringed with lush green grass.

Prayer in motion

It’s a labyrinth I’d like to walk again: on a warm day, I’d like to walk it barefoot, the smooth stones warm beneath my feet. Walking a labyrinth once is almost beside the point: labyrinths all but invite you to walk them again and again, the routine of retracing your steps each time adding to the meditative aspect. This is something I didn’t realize the first and second times I went labyrinth-walking; it’s a lesson I learned only after walking the same labyrinth repeatedly. They say you can’t step into the same river twice, but you can certainly circle the same winding circuit sequentially, time after time, the ritual of returning revealing how you have changed even while the path beneath you has not.

Prayer in motion

Walking a labyrinth is about losing count, letting go, and walking on. When I first entered the labyrinth at BC, I panicked, thinking I was somehow on the wrong path as it seemed to make a beeline toward the center point: too soon! Only after several steps did I realize the path went straight toward the goal but then deflected into a series of twists and turns, the winding-way I had anticipated. After several coils and re-coils, though, I found myself fretting in the opposite direction: shouldn’t I have made it to the middle already? I found myself needlessly worrying that I’d taken a wrong turn or missed the off-ramp toward my destination: is it possible to walk a labyrinth incorrectly, getting lost on a single circuitous path there and back?

Prayer in motion

It’s impossible to get lost in a labyrinth: the path wanders but never forks, so you’re guaranteed to get to the center if you just keep walking. But even knowing this, I found myself worrying along the way: was I walking too slow or too fast? Had I somehow missed a step or lost my direction? It’s impossible not to read life metaphors into all of this: how much of our life’s journey is spent fretting over our direction and destination? How much of our life do we spend worrying whether we’re doing it right, wrong, too slow, or too fast, as if someone is drumming the time we’re supposed to keep, but we can’t hear it?

Prayer in motion

Eventually, if a labyrinth’s winding way is long enough, your worries slide away and you reach a point where you’re just walking, paying heed to the path before you but otherwise not thinking about much of anything. If you walk long enough, you eventually lose count of where you’re going and how many twists and turns it takes to get you there. If you walk long enough, you realize the destination isn’t the circle at the labyrinth’s center but the segment of stone that lies directly beneath your feet. At that moment, you realize the true lesson of any labyrinth: that you’d already arrived before you ever set out.

Prayer in motion

I don’t know why I’m so eager to go labyrinth walking. It’s not like walking a labyrinth is different from walking elsewhere, other than you’re walking in circles, then retracing your steps: you’re literally going nowhere. But the intentionality of labyrinths makes the process seem significant: this particular place–this particular walk–is different from all others. It’s the conundrum of sacred places: God presumably dwells everywhere, but some places seem super-charged with divine presence. Normally, walking is a matter of getting somewhere, but labyrinth-walking (like other forms of meditation) is about Being Here and going nowhere other than ’round.

Click here for more photos of the Boston College memorial labyrinth: enjoy!

Butterfly on flowering shrub

On Saturday, J and I went walking at Arnold Arboretum, knowing it would be in peak flower the day before Lilac Sunday.

Arnold Arboretum

Saturday was a beautiful, sun-drenched day, and the lilacs were indeed in flower, admired by countless picnickers, lounging couples, and families walking with dogs, baby strollers, and children on bikes and scooters. Although neither humans nor dogs are allowed in the Arboretum ponds, J and I spotted (and photographed) one biped who waded brazenly, undeterred by the passing crowds.

Green heron

Click here for more photos from the Arboretum, including several additional shots of the green heron we saw stalking fish and frogs. Enjoy!

Bookends

I submitted final Keene State College grades on Tuesday morning, right before the noon deadline…and then after lunch, I started chipping away at a long list of neglected tasks. That’s how it is every spring: I look forward to submitting grades in the hope of having a chance to hang out and relax when they’re done, but instead I find myself facing a laundry-list of chores.

Flowering dogwood

Now that spring semester classes at Keene State are done, I can focus on my two current online classes (one undergrad, one graduate), or the Summer school class that starts next week, or the online class I’m redesigning from the ground up: new textbook, new assignments, new everything. Or, if I don’t feel like working on teaching tasks, I can catch up with neglected housekeeping: the bookshelves that need scrubbing, or the basement pile of unpacked belongings from last year’s move, or the routine doctors’ appointments that have yet to make themselves.

Azaleas

It’s not just a woman’s work that’s never done: work itself is unending. As we say in my Zen school, “A day without work is a day without eating,” or, as the old saying goes, there is no free lunch. All around me, I see plants pushing out flowers, rabbits diligently munching leaves, and birds rushing to and fro, distracted with the business of migration, feeding, and courtship. The earth turns nonstop, with no vacation days or paid time off…but as Walt Whitman correctly noted, the earth never tires.

Past its prime

There is something strangely comforting and even restful about replacing one sort of work with another sort of work. Now that the face-to-face semester at Keene State is done, I’m relishing the additional time I have here at home, even with a long to-do list. This morning as I folded yesterday’s laundry, I remembered my favorite line from Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, where the narrator imagines her grandmother as a new widow hanging wash on the line, “performing the rituals of the ordinary as an act of faith.” It’s a line I fell in love with the first time I read the novel, and it’s a line I return to time and again, every time I return to a to-do list that never ends.

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