October 2012

Civil War soldier outside Edgell Library

On Wednesday afternoon I took a walk from Framingham State to the town common and back: a direction I hadn’t walked before. I took the pedestrian footbridge over Route 9, which I’d seen from my car but had never actually taken, then I walked down to the common, where I happened upon two things Google Maps hadn’t told me about.

Edgell Library with Civil War soldier

I’ve been relying upon Google Maps to chart my midday walking routes on days I teach in Framingham because I’m still unfamiliar with the lay of the land. Apart from a trip to the Garden in the Woods years ago, I’d never really been to Framingham (other than to pass through it) before I was hired to teach at Framingham State this past summer. For the first month of the fall semester, when my sprained foot made it uncomfortable for me to explore on foot, I knew only how to drive from my house to campus and then how to walk from my parking spot to my classrooms and office. Since walking around is how I typically get to know a place, during the first month of the semester I felt particularly transient and ungrounded, unable to do anything other than show up, teach my classes, and go home: a kind of “time-clock mentality” that felt completely at odds with how I usually settle into a new place.

Edgell Library

If you aren’t familiar with a particular town, maps are a great way to “let your fingers do the walking,” as the old advertisement for the Yellow Pages used to say. Once you’ve determined the precise point that marks “you are here,” you can scan in any direction to see what looks interesting enough to explore on foot. Scanning Google Maps is how I figured out how to walk from my office to the Winter Street side of Framingham Reservoir No. 1, and it’s how I figured out how to walk from my office to the Salem End side of the same body of water. When I scan Google Maps before setting out on my midday walk, I’m basically looking for two things. First, I’m looking for patches of green or blue, since those typically mark parks and waterways; second, I’m looking for a simple, easy-to-remember route to and from something that looks like I can walk to it, explore a bit, then walk back in less than an hour.

Autumn on the common

I’m gradually realizing that although Google Maps will show you the route there and back again, it won’t tell you all you need to know as a pedestrian. One of the things I’ve had mixed luck with in my Framingham rambles, for example, is sidewalk accessibility. Several of the roads I’ve already explored have sidewalks in some places but not in others, which means either crossing from one side of the road to the other, depending on which side has either a sidewalk or berm, or walking along the edge of the road, hoping passing drivers both see you and give you space. Walking along a roadside can be charming if there’s a leafy, wildflower-strewn edge between the road and wilderness, or it feel like a nerve-wracking game of chicken with passing vehicles. So far in my Framingham adventures, I’ve experienced a bit of both.

Framingham town common

The other thing Google Maps won’t tell you is what exactly how far it is between Here and There or the exact things you might see along the way. I’m not very good at gauging walking distances on a map, especially on maps where you can zoom your view in or out, so there have been days when I thought I’d have to walk a fair distance to reach something that was much closer than I’d expected. (This is particularly true of Framingham State’s campus, which is smaller than it appears on the campus map.) Walk Jog Run is a good tool to use for calculating distances traveled on foot, and Google’s “street view” feature can give you an idea of what you might see along any given route, but on most days I don’t take the time preview my walk on either site; I just set out to see what I can see.

On Wednesday, there were two surprises on my way to and from Framingham common. First, I had no idea that the Framingham History Center, which abuts the town common, is housed in an impressive stone building where even the Greek pillars are cobbled together with stone.


Although I didn’t have time to go inside the FHC, I made a mental note to return on a more leisurely day, and I enjoyed briefly watching a flock of cedar waxwings working a row of berry-studded crab-apple trees in the parking lot behind the building: the kind of serendipitous find Google Maps could have never prepared me for.

Two waxwings

Second, I didn’t realize from my cursory look at Google Maps that there is a large, woodsy old cemetery right down the street from the Framingham town common: Edgell Grove Cemetery and Mausoleum, which was consecrated in 1848 and emulates Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, one of my favorite places to walk. Discovering there is a large garden cemetery within easy walking distance from campus was even more serendipitous than finding waxwings behind the historical center, since those waxwings were presumably just passing through, but I’ll definitely return to Edgell Grove. (If nothing else, the red-tailed hawk I saw zoom across one of the cemetery’s gravel roads served as a kind of avian welcome-wagon: if hawks frequent Edgell Grove, then I know it’s the kind of place I’ll enjoy visiting.)

The Old Academy Building

The only downside to Edgell Grove Cemetery and Mausoleum is that photography isn’t allowed there, so I’ll have to content myself with walking around and admiring the scenery without taking pictures. This assortment of photos might give you a sense of what Edgell Grove looks like, though, and it might give you a sense of why I plan to go back. When you’re getting to know an unfamiliar town on foot, you can do worse than to frequent cobblestone historical centers and old, woodsy cemeteries.

Distant deer

There’s a good reason why white-tailed deer change their reddish-brown summer coats for dull gray coats in autumn: perfect camouflage when you’re standing in a field of goldenrod that has gone to seed.

Distant deer, closeup

Goldenrod meadow

Autumn is when the trees turn to gold and the goldenrod goes gray.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Change of Season.

Rose hips

I call it my office in a bag. “It” is a large and durable laptop tote with room for file folders, textbooks, my journal, Kindle, chalk, dry erase markers, pens, index cards, staples and a stapler, cough drops, tissues, a water bottle, and an emergency bar of dark chocolate. On days when I leave my laptop at home, my office in a bag is big but easily portable; on days when it’s fully loaded, my tote is bulging and heavy, the kind of burden I’d love to sling over a llama’s back or hand off to a Sherpa. Make no mistake: teaching is only partly about ideas. It’s also about the stuff you’ve learned you can’t function in the classroom without along with whatever organizational method you’ve devised to make sure those materials are always close at hand.

Tree with ivy

When I was an undergraduate, I remember my professors striding into class nearly empty-handed. They’d carry whatever text we were discussing that day, and they might carry a folder containing their lecture notes or a slim grade-book for taking attendance. On days when they returned assignments, my professors arrived with a fat stack of papers scribbled with red marks and ringed with coffee stains, but that was pretty much it. In the days before laptops, my undergraduate professors were “wired” only on caffeine, and they seemed to assume (accurately or not) that whatever classroom supplies they might need to deliver their lectures would be present in the classroom itself. Particular professors might have idiosyncratic needs—one, for instance, used to consume an entire package of menthol cough drops over the course of a single lecture—but for the most part, my undergraduate professors didn’t come to class carrying a large bag overladen with office supplies. Instead, they just walked into the classroom, ready to Deliver Knowledge.

Tree trunk with ivy

So, what has changed? First, there’s a difference between the classroom technology of today and the classroom technology of my undergraduate days, way back before Al Gore invented the Internet. When I was an undergraduate, chalk was pretty much the only pedagogical tool my literature professors needed, if they used even that. When I was an undergraduate, most of my professors either lectured or peppered their students with questions, Socratic style, and all they needed to do either task was the voluminous information contained in their own skull. On rare occasions, one of my undergraduate professors might show a video on a big, boxy TV that he or she wheeled into the room on a bulky cart, but that was it. Had the power gone out in most of my undergraduate classrooms, we could have easily continued class by huddling our chairs together, discussing that day’s assignment by candlelight. Back in the old days, professors lectured and students took notes, and this pedagogical approach required very little equipment.

Through the fence

In today’s undergraduate classroom, most instructors do more than lecture, so they need more than a textbook and a stick of chalk. Most of the classes I teach don’t follow a strict lecture format: instead of me talking while my students take notes, most of my classes consist of me presenting several activities that students do either in groups or individually. If small groups are summarizing their impressions of an assigned reading or brainstorming tentative essay topics, I might ask them to write these down on index cards; if we’re doing a grammar workshop, I might ask students to write on the black- or whiteboard selected sentences from their own essay drafts. Since few classrooms are reliably stocked with chalk and dry-erase markers (much less index cards), I always carry my own supply: anything to get my students actively engaged rather than falling asleep over their notebooks as I did when I was an undergraduate sitting through long lectures.

Foliage against blue sky

For any day’s class, I typically prepare my notes as a Word file that I post to Blackboard along with whatever web links I’ll be sharing, so students can refer to those materials later. If we’re talking about David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers, I might show students a photo essay from the Brooke Army Medical Center; if we’re discussing grammar, I might show one of Taylor Mali’s spoken word routines. Incorporating multimedia resources into the college classroom keeps students more engaged than words scribbled on a dusty chalkboard, but it means I have to lug my laptop to classrooms that aren’t equipped with an instructor workstation. It also means I have to have a Plan B in place in case the Internet is down, the projector isn’t working, or some other technical difficulty forces me to use an actual blackboard rather than Blackboard. Although I suppose my students and I could continue class by huddling our chairs together and watching YouTube videos on someone’s smartphone, that isn’t a pedagogical technique I’d recommend.

Fall asters

But there’s another significant difference between the way I currently teach and the way my undergraduate professors taught. My undergraduate professors were professors, not “instructors,” “lecturers,” or any of the other euphemistic terms colleges use to refer to their part-time, contingent faculty. My undergraduate professors didn’t have to carry an entire day’s worth of teaching material in a single bulging bag because they had an office where their books, files, and office supplies lived. If Professor Z realized on his way to class that he needed a particular book, journal article, or brimming coffee mug, Professor Z could simply stride back to his office down the hall and retrieve it. When you’re a contingent faculty member teaching on multiple campuses, though, you learn to leave very little (if anything) in any of your offices. Not only do you share those offices with other contingent faculty, you learn by experience there’s nothing worse than realizing on your way to Class A on Campus X that you forgot the textbook in your office on Campus Y.


I’ve come to the point where I can recognize my contingent colleagues by silhouette: they are the ones who are slung all around with bags as they trudge like pack-mules across campus. I’ve seen several colleagues use wheeled bags or carts to carry their things as if they’d just returned from a weekend getaway, but so far I’ve resisted the siren call of the wheeled carry-on. Carrying my office on my back like a turtle seems more dignified than dragging it behind me like an ox, and my still-pretending-to-be-youthful pride recoils at the thought of using anything even remotely reminiscent of an old lady’s folding shopping cart.


In her memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed names her huge, looming backpack “Monster,” a load whose weight rubs scabbing sores on her back. At one point in Strayed’s journey, a more experienced hiker helps her sort through and jettison some of her things, many of which seemed essential when she was preparing for her trip but turned out to have no useful relevance once she’s actually hiking. In my case, however, my “monster” is huge, hulking, and heavy because I’ve been on the trail long enough to know the things that are essential are often difficult to find if you don’t carry them with you. When you teach out of your bag, you need that bag to be ample, expansive, and well-stocked.

Fallen leaf and leaf prints

A few nights ago, my writing partner emailed to let me know she hadn’t completed her daily writing commitment, but she’d done part of it: she’d showed up at the page. The phrase “showing up at the page” is a shorthand we both understand: showing up at the page is what you do on days when you don’t feel like you have anything to say, or you’re stumped at how to phrase what you do have to say, but you show up anyway, just in case words magically appear despite all your doubts and second-guesses.

Fallen leaf and leaf print

Showing up at the page takes a great deal of faith and dedication. Regardless of all the evidence to the contrary, you believe in your heart of hearts that the process of showing up is worthwhile and valuable even on (and even especially on) days when the product you produce is puny, disappointing, or just plain insipid. You believe despite all your doubts and second-guesses that the discipline of showing up is its own reward, and you believe despite all your doubts and second-guesses that showing up is important because there are, occasionally, those magically unpredictable days when Something spontaneously appears out of Nothing. If you hadn’t made a practice of showing up at the page, how could you have experienced that windfall?

Henry David Thoreau captured the spirit of showing up for the page when he wrote in Walden, “I never assisted the sun materially in his rising, but, doubt not, it was of the last importance only to be present at it.” The sun will both rise and set without you, and there will be days when it’s too cloudy for you to see anything the sun might happen to be doing at the moment. But on those days, too, there is something to be gained from the discipline of showing up for the sunrise and observing whatever you can see. Think of all the things—an entire bustling Universe of activity—that happen every day whether we’re watching or not…and then think of the things we might actually see if we were present with our eyes open and alert.

Fallen leaf and leaf print

Years ago in Rhode Island, in the woods behind the Providence Zen Center, I saw a weasel by sheer accident. Hiking the winter woods behind the monastery where I’d been meditating and suffering, homesick and sore, for five days, I stopped to listen to the sizzle of rain falling on melting snow. I remember the woods were silent, hushed and expectant; honed by hours of meditation, I must have instinctively sensed the precise silent moment—raindrops paused in midair as if in a giant snow globe—when that tiny fanged predator, a curling wisp of sinew and muscle, would silently patter into view, running downhill into his own footprints, a limp and bloodied chipmunk dangling from his mouth. Had I not been walking in the silent Rhode Island woods at precisely the right moment, I would have never seen that weasel, that chipmunk, those sizzling raindrops.

Showing up at the page is like keeping watch at the bedside of a comatose relative: you watch, wait, and hold out hope because your patient might be present and alive in there, despite an unresponsive body. Just because your patient doesn’t seem to respond doesn’t mean they aren’t there: as Jesus said of a child he raised from the dead, “She’s not dead; she’s only sleeping.” On days when your own creativity seems dead, you show up and sit by the tomb, expectant. If today should be the miraculous day when your lifeless creativity should stir and then sit up in its shroud, you will be there to see it. There might not be anything you can do to help either the sun or the dead rise, but it is of the last importance that you be present just in case.

Fallen leaf and leaf print

Keeping a blog is a great exercise in showing up at the page. When you start a blog, you make an unspoken contract with your readers that you will show up and say something regularly enough to make their checking in worthwhile: a blog grown cold is like a closed and darkened house where a weary traveler had hoped for hospitality. Many days when you show up to “feed the blog,” you feel like Old Mother Hubbard reaching into a cupboard that’s sadly bare. When you’re forced to concoct a blog-worthy meal out of meager scraps, you often end up with a stone soup simmered with bits of this and that: nothing fancy, just something simple and savory. Out of the leftovers of your days, what kind of sustenance can you cobble together if you simply continue to show up for your own life?

Framingham Reservoir No. 1 dam and gatehouse

Yesterday after my office hours at Framingham State, I took a short walk to Framingham Reservoir No. 1, one of several reservoirs that dam the Sudbury River. I had hoped there’d be a path around the reservoir, but its shore was studded with houses—private property—so I limited myself to the tiny segment of public land abutting Winter Street, where the dam and gatehouse are located.

Gatehouse steps

All three of Framingham’s historic reservoirs were designed in the latter half of the 19th century to supply the greater Boston area with water. The water stored in these reservoirs would have flowed via the Sudbury Aqueduct toward Chestnut Hill, where a massive waterworks pumped it into the city. I’ve walked parts of the Sudbury Aqueduct in Newton, where these old waterways are now footpaths and Echo Bridge stands as a lingering reminder of an aqueduct that has since gone underground, and I’ve also walked around the Chestnut Hill Reservoir and explored the Waterworks Museum housed in the old (and architecturally impressive) pump house. We all know you can’t step into the same river twice, but you can revisit the same watershed, so it felt somehow satisfying to think that the waterways I can reach via a short walk from my office in Framingham share a history with the waterways I’ve repeatedly explored near my home in Newton.

Sudbury River below Framingham Reservoir No. 1

The Sudbury River has a long history of mercury contamination from the Nyanza Color and Chemical Company in nearby Ashland, which used mercury to manufacture textile dyes in the early 20th century. The Nyanza plant closed in 1978, and its chemical waste dump was declared a Superfund site in the 1980s. After decades of cleanup, the Sudbury River is now clean enough to swim in, as I did one hot summer day in Concord several years ago when the parking lot at Walden Pond was full, but signs along the Sudbury still warn fishermen not to eat their catch. Aquatic invertebrates still ingest the settled solids on the river bottom, and these metals concentrate in the flesh of fish: a lingering history that human hands haven’t yet erased.

Framingham Reservoir No. 1 dam and gatehouse

The warning signs along the Sudbury show a pictograph of a big black X over a fish with a fork and knife, and the accompanying text is printed in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Vietnamese. For good or ill, these signs haven’t been translated into the language of great blue herons, so the prehistoric-looking fellow I saw fishing yesterday didn’t know the great big fish he’d caught presumably carries the history (and heavy metals) of a long-defunct industry.

Great blue heron with great big fish

Click here for more photos from yesterday’s short walk to Framingham Reservoir No. 1. Enjoy!


Last night just past 7:00, we had a 4.0 magnitude earthquake here in New England, with its epicenter in Maine and tremors felt as far south as Connecticut. When the quake hit, I was in the bedroom preparing today’s classes and J was in the next room, likewise working; he felt shaking and I heard rumbling, as if snow were falling from the roof. Downstairs, the dogs were unfazed, including our normally nervous beagle; the cats that were sleeping in the room with me were similarly oblivious. In the other bedroom, however, our cats Groucho and Scooby were unsettled by the quake: clearly they felt something the other pets didn’t.


This seems to be how earthquakes are, at least judging from the four quakes I’ve experienced in my lifetime: some folks feel them, and others don’t. I suppose it depends on where you were and what you were doing at the time of the tremors: were you inside or outside, or in one part of a building versus another? When there was an earthquake in New Hampshire several years ago, for instance, Reggie and I felt it on the first floor—Reggie leapt to his feet and ran around barking as if trying to scare away an intruder—but my then-husband, who was working upstairs, didn’t feel a thing. When I was an adolescent and experienced an earthquake in Ohio, one of my sisters and I felt it from inside the house, where I thought the furnace had blown up in the basement, but my parents didn’t feel anything outside, where they were in the yard chatting with out-of-town visitors.

Pumpkins on fence posts

It’s interesting how some people are more sensitive to tremors, sounds, or other physical sensations than others are. During this past weekend’s Dharma teacher retreat at the Providence Zen Center, we did an icebreaker where we closed our eyes then tried to identify a person who was holding a hand over (but not touching) our leg. Others could identify whose hand was near their leg by differences in body temperature, but I couldn’t: if a person didn’t actually touch me, I couldn’t feel their presence, much less identify them. In one of the academic buildings at Framingham State, signs mark a designated restroom and copy-room for employees who suffer multiple chemical sensitivities, and anyone who uses scented soap, detergent, or other chemical fragrances is not allowed to enter. I can barely smell the scented soap and detergent on my own person, but there are others who are so sensitive to smells, they can’t physically tolerate the chemical wake left in the absence of an artificially scented person.

Across the tracks

When I felt an earthquake while on retreat in Rhode Island years ago, I heard the tremors before I felt them, the quake sounding like a low, rumbling hum that surged from far away like a slow approaching train. That was my most intense earthquake experience even though others in the same room didn’t feel it: because I was meditating and alert when the earthquake hit, my senses and attention were honed to their sharpest acuity. It was a sensation I was fully present for, something I couldn’t have ignored if I’d tried.

I suppose we all occasionally need to be shaken from our complacency, an intense physical sensation reminding us of the sensory world outside our own skulls. Whenever we grow too settled or sluggish, the earth herself can wake us up by shifting her old, weary bones right under our feet.

I’ve written about that Rhode Island earthquake before, back in 2004. Today’s pictures have nothing to do with earthquakes; instead, they are random images I took now that I’m able to go for walks on days when I’m teaching in Framingham.

Plenty of pokeweed

Yesterday afternoon, after I got home from teaching, J and I went for a walk around the neighborhood, and for the first time in weeks my body didn’t hurt. The foot I’d sprained last month wasn’t swollen or sore, and my hip (which I’d tweaked when I was limping around, favoring my foot) wasn’t stiff and aching.

On the fence

It was the first time in more than a month when walking actually felt good. I wasn’t counting steps, looking for shortcuts, or anticipating the end of the walk, nor was I lamenting every step as pain. I could simply walk—and enjoy walking—without worry, as I used to do, my body free and unencumbered. I’m learning that this is one seemingly inevitable part of growing older: you feel grateful for what you used to take for granted as “normal.” A good day isn’t one where something particularly special happens; a good day is when nothing bad happens. “No new aches and pains”—something unremarkable when you were younger—becomes cause for celebration.

On the fence

I’ve missed walking while I’ve been recovering. Walking has always been one of my favorite pastimes, an exercise that doesn’t feel like exercise. Walking is my favorite way of clearing my head and getting both my blood and creative juices flowing. For me, walking is an intellectual activity, an exercise for the mind as well as the body. Spending more than a month on forced rest, walking only a little here and there while constantly monitoring how either my foot or hip felt, has been challenging, as if the bounds of both my world and my interests had shrunk. When I’m sedentary, I grow sluggish, and I don’t enjoy life as a slug.

One of the things I’m looking forward to now that my body is better is exploring around Framingham State more. On the days I’m in Framingham, I teach in the early morning and late afternoon, with a substantial break in between. For the past month, I’ve been spending that break in my office catching up with work rather than wandering, trying to give my foot the rest it needs to get better. Now that walking is no longer a (literal) pain, I’m looking forward to getting out of my office and exploring a new-to-me campus and town: an excellent way to break up my break.

Church spire and fall foliage viewed from rainy window

Today was a quintessential New England fall day: blue-skied, brisk and bright. I taught in Salem, NH this morning, and the foliage on the drive up was a burnished tapestry of red, orange, and gold. There was a crew of inmates collecting trash on the side of the road, clad in an autumnal attire of red jumpsuits, orange vests, and yellow hard-hats, and as I drove past them I thought, “What a great day to be out of prison.”

Starting to turn

What a great day to be out of prison, indeed. Thursday is the end of my face-to-face work week, which means I come home on Thursday afternoons feeling satisfied but bone-weary, spent from the effort of juggling classes for two different colleges. I use the weekends to catch up with grading, teaching prep, and the single online graduate class I’m teaching at the moment: even my weekends aren’t “off.” But my weekend schedule is more flexible: I have work to do, but the freedom to choose when to do it, with only myself as a task-master.

It always seems sad—a bitter shame—that New England’s prettiest season is also my busiest: living in New England, it’s sad not to be able to spend as much time as possible outside when both the trees and the air itself seem to gleam golden. If I could, I’d save my fall paper-grading until winter, when the weather drives us indoors. But teaching is time-sensitive work, a harvest you must tend when the fruit is ripe, not rotten. For the time being, I have to content myself with short stints away from my work—a brief walk here, a brief break there—stolen moments when I soak up sun as greedily as an inmate on afternoon furlough, a chance to glean golden memories from a fleeting season.

I took the top photo yesterday morning, through a rainy window on the second floor of the library at Framingham State University. I took the second photo last week as I was parking my car to go grocery shopping in Chestnut Hill.

Angel among others

I don’t know what it is that draws my attention to stories like this, but I find them almost irresistible. A few months ago while sitting in a local pizza parlor waiting for Friday night take-out, I found my attention lured to the TV screen by the promise of breaking news: a cyclist had been killed by a hit-and-run driver in nearby Wellesley.


I suppose you could call it morbid curiosity: the same urge that impels us to turn and stare as we pass a roadside wreck, or to peer under our brows, secretly, at a person with an odd injury or deformity. It could be that we derive perverse delight in the hardship of others, but I don’t think that’s it entirely, or even mostly. Isn’t our curiosity merely masked horror and even shared compassion, a sense of awed amazement that something that could have easily happened to us has happened instead to another?

There but for the grace of God go I.” As I sat in that pizza parlor several months ago, a man sat with his two sons at the next table. “Cyclist killed in Wellesley,” the man repeated, drawn as irresistibly to the story as I was. The man at the next table appeared to be in his 40s—my age—and his sons were leggy adolescents: old enough to have bikes of their own, and old enough to be allowed to ride them alone. Wellesley is right next door to Newton, so it’s merely a matter of chance that a reckless driver was there rather than here. On any given Friday afternoon, what’s to protect you or me, the man at the next table, or any of our kids from being the next to fall?


Stories of random violence—death in the afternoon—never fail to grab my attention. They’re like a loud, shrill alarm reminding us of our eventual mortality: the one thing we all, universally, share. The television coverage showed a mangled bicycle on the side of an otherwise innocuous-looking suburban street, a castoff bike helmet and a small pool of blood giving silent testimony. What happened here, and to whom? The cyclist himself had been taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead, leaving only his mangled bicycle behind. Looking at the bicycle, I could see no clues as to the cyclist’s gender, age, interests, or occupation: simply a bicycle whose frame was twisted into a heap of nearly unrecognizable wreckage. Who was this man? Where was he going, and who would be missing him?

Maybe some people can see such coverage and move on, flipping to another channel or surfing to another story. For me, however, such stories pique my imagination. Who was this man? Was he cycling for exercise, racking up miles toward a personal fitness goal, or was he traveling somewhere? Was he biking home from work on a pleasant Friday afternoon, looking forward to a leisurely weekend? Was he out running errands? Was his bike basket (if he had one) filled with library books, groceries, or a gift he was delivering to a friend? What was he wearing, and did he have any idea when he dressed in the morning that he was choosing his last outfit: the clothes a loved one would later identify him in?

Reflecting pool

How arrogant we are, and how gullible, to believe our lives are guaranteed. You, right now: where are you going, and what are you doing? What would you think—how would you respond—if this turned out to be your last day on earth: would you want to die typing at a keyboard, tapping on your phone, or fiddling with the buttons in your car, turning the volume up or down, adjusting the soundtrack of your own demise?

As mortal beings, we don’t typically get to choose how and when we die. Some of us die slowly, the victim of long, debilitating illness, but others of us get taken without warning: one afternoon, lured by nice weather, we decide to go cycling, and we never come home, victim of a so-called untimely death. If you knew that today was your last day on earth, what would you choose to do? Would you dare venture from your house, or would you hunker down, terrorized by the gods of chance and unpredictability?

Angels in relief

I once remember hearing a story—an urban legend, perhaps—about a busy highway bridge that collapsed during a dark, moonless night. Several drivers drove off the bridge to their deaths, never knowing (as the saying goes) what hit them. One driver, however, saw the collapsed bridge, pulled over, and stood in the middle of the road, waving down approaching cars with a flashlight to warn them of the danger. One approaching car, however, refused to stop, the driver blaring his horn and swearing through an open window at the man on the bridge, too arrogant to inquire why he was trying to flag him down.

To what level of hell are you assigned if you curse the good Samaritan who tried to save you, an angry, aggressive gesture being your last act on earth?

This one shows the way

Be ready; be prepared. We tell cyclists—we tell our children—we tell ourselves—to take precautions. Wear a helmet; apply reflective tape; install mirrors, reflectors, and lights on your bicycle. Look both ways before you cross the street, drive (or cycle) defensively, and watch out for opening car doors as you zip down a curbside bike lane.

Be careful, we tell cyclists, our children, and ourselves, but this dead cyclist was careful. He was wearing a helmet, the news report made a point of noting, but that helmet did no good. Judging from the level of damage done to his bike, there was no kind of protective gear the cyclist could have worn that would have protected him from being run down and mangled by a truck that never stopped, the remaining wreckage no longer looking like a bicycle.

An old rugged cross

Be careful—be ready—be prepared. This is what we tell cyclists, our children, and ourselves, as if being careful, ready, and prepared were adequate. What we don’t say when we venture out on the roads, whether on foot, by bike, or in our cars, is “Be prepared to die,” but perhaps that’s the only honest, realistic thing we can say. “Wear your helmet, be careful, look both ways…and know that none of this might be enough to help you.” Before you set out, say your goodbyes and get your affairs in order, because you never know when today’s bicycle ride might be your last.

We don’t say this because it’s hopelessly depressing, worse than morbid curiosity. We can understand rubbernecking someone else’s traffic accident; we can’t countenance, however, an accurate assessment of our own everyday risk. If we acknowledged how dangerous and haphazard our lives really are—if we acknowledged the complete lack of statistical surety we have when it comes to our own longevity—we’d never leave the house. The only way we can act boldly—the only way we can act at all—is through ignorance, arrogance, and blithe disregard. Ignorance is not only bliss, it is our only option, given the alternative.

Artist with sphinx

Go ahead and tell yourself that this cyclist did something to merit his fate: go ahead and tell yourself that something similar won’t and even can’t happen to you. Go ahead and tell yourself that you are blessed, or that your guardian angel is protecting you; go ahead and touch a rabbit’s foot, cross yourself, or toss salt over one shoulder, right into the devil’s eye. Tell yourself any story you’d like, or turn up your iPod, drowning out the sound of death’s car approaching and even accelerating behind you, a predator stalking its prey. The moral here isn’t that you are more deserving to live than another who has died; the moral here is that you, for the time being, have been luckier, and we never know how long our luck will hold.

Some of us dare to claim that we understand the will of God. When something good happens, we declare ourselves blessed; when something bad happens, we say that God has a plan or that God is testing us. Aren’t these the same things Job’s comforters said? When a train derails and all the passengers except a single infant are killed, we thank God for saving that infant. Does that mean we should credit God for the pile of dead bodies as well, it being God’s plan to kill many but spare one?

Dove, dome, and hourglass

I don’t pretend to know God’s plan, and that seems to be the ultimate lesson of Job. Where were we when God laid the foundations of the universe? Where were we before God himself was? Job shakes his fist at the heavens and asks God why, why, why, and God responds with the ultimate non sequitur: because I am. Who are you, God asks Job, to understand my ways? It’s a question with no satisfactory response other than trembling awe and terror.

It’s easy to grow complacent by assuming that tomorrow will follow today. But what guarantee do we have of our next minute, much less the next? Job dared ask God to explain his ways, and Job was fortunate that God didn’t smite him in response: for all the travails he endured, Job was still a lucky, nervy man, for God ultimately showed him mercy. Seeing how the people around you drop and die, why do you think you will be spared? Do you consider your life to be more precious, or your contributions more indispensable? Countless generations before you have flowered, ripened, and then fallen, and the graveyard is full (as the saying goes) of indispensable men. Why do you think you and your generation will be spared?

I took the photos illustrating today’s post on an early evening walk at Mount Auburn Cemetery in July, long before the leaves started to turn. The bicycle accident that inspired this post happened on August 24th; the victim was identified as 41-year-old Alexander Motsenigos. The case is still under investigation.

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