April 2013


Arch - April 8 / Day 98

One year ago today, we put Reggie to sleep. I’ve been anticipating this one-year anniversary, wondering whether it would feel like a momentous occasion or just another day, and now that the day is here, it somehow feels a bit like both. In many ways, it feels like an entire lifetime ago—far more than one year—since I spent so much time carrying a thin, increasingly decrepit old dog up and down the stairs, helping him get settled comfortably when he wanted to lie down, helping him turn over when he grew stiff or sore, helping him to his feet when he wanted to eat or drink, and plying him with treats and tasty bits at all times, trying to coax nourishment into a creature who was gradually fading away to fur and bone.

Under the bridge

The first few months of last year, my entire life revolved around Reggie and the routine rituals of his care: the feeding and cleaning and medicating and relieving. On days when I taught in Keene, J was in charge of Reggie-care, and the first thing I’d do when I got home was climb the stairs to the second floor to check on Reggie: was he resting comfortably or restless? Long gone were the days when Reggie would meet me at the door of my apartment in Keene when I came home from teaching, his entire body wagging with gladness to see me. In his final months, Reggie could no longer stand up on his own, much less jump and prance around. In his final months, Reggie couldn’t even wag his tail, that once-emphatic exclamation-point having grown limp and lifeless from a debilitating combination of spinal arthritis and degenerative myelopathy. Given how much emotion a dog expresses through his tail, this particular indignity of Reggie’s old age seemed particularly cruel.

(New) stairs to Echo Bridge

One of my most vivid memories of Reggie’s final months was an otherwise unremarkable morning when I’d gotten him comfortably settled after our morning walk. I was stroking his fur, rubbing his belly, and feeding him bits from my breakfast granola—our usual morning ritual—when suddenly Reggie rested his head in my lap and wagged his tail, thumping it firmly on the floor as he had when he was younger. Both arthritis and degenerative myelopathy are incremental in their onset: you don’t notice gradual impairments until your pet can no longer do things he always used to do. At that moment when Reggie thumped his tail, I burst into tears, realizing how long it had been since he’d been able to do something so simple. When your pet can no longer energetically express his gratitude, you focus on more subtle cues: a kind of quiet communion. When Reggie’s body permitted him to wag his tail on that otherwise unremarkable morning, I accepted it as a kind of gentle reassurance: inside, he was the same dog with the same gentle spirit, and it was only his body that was faltering.

Echo Bridge

The biggest shock of putting an elderly dog to sleep isn’t the simple reality of his absence, as you can (and do) brace yourself for that. The biggest shock of putting an elderly dog to sleep is the massive gap that’s left in your schedule, your life no longer centered on the mundane, almost liturgical routine of caretaking. In retrospect, it’s been helpful to have other pets to tend: had Reggie been our only pet, J and I wouldn’t have known what to do with ourselves in the immediate aftermath of his passing, when we suddenly didn’t have an old dog to tend to constantly. These days, the energy we’d devoted to Reggie’s care is divided among our other pets, with our twelve-year-old yellow Lab, MAD, showing the first signs of arthritis, too. As the Buddha knew, old age, sickness, and death are an endless cycle: the wheel of life and death never stops turning. One year after Reggie died, we’re re-using with MAD the oral syringes we’d used to give Reggie his arthritis medication: same malady, same medication, different dog and dosage. For now, MAD can still wag his tail, jump to his feet, and otherwise prance around, but his days jumping on beds and racing up the stairs are over: different dog, similar story. As J remarked when the movie “Marley and Me” premiered: “I don’t need to see that movie, because I know how it ends.”

Today’s photos come from Hemlock Gorge, which I’d first explored in 2008, when Reggie was showing the first signs of old age.

Flowering magnolia

Once spring decides to arrive in New England, it often does so in a dramatic fashion. Yesterday afternoon was warm and sunny, and today is even lovelier, with temperatures in the 70s and plenty of sun. Yesterday was Opening Day at Fenway Park, and at home we celebrated the occasion by opening our bedroom windows for the first time this year, thereby giving our indoor cats their first sniff of fresh air in months. It’s an annual ritual that’s felt long overdue.

Magnolia blossoms

Every spring always features a welcome series of firsts. Yesterday was the first time I wore sandals and capris, for instance, and today is the first time I wore flats rather than knee-high boots to campus. It’s funny how a simple change in shoes is enough to buoy your spirits: after spending months lumbering around in boots and a bulky coat, my body feels significantly lighter and more energetic in sandals and shirtsleeves.

Fuzzy flowers

The landscape itself seems lighter and more joyful, a proverbial spring in its step. At Framingham State, the magnolia behind Hemenway Hall is blooming, along with pussy willows and another kind of fuzzy-flowered tree. After waiting so long for spring to finally arrive, it seem we’ve reached the proverbial tipping point, with flowers blooming and students peeling off winter layers. It’s a welcome relief to see flowers, tree buds, and winter-pale skin after so many months of ice, snow, and thick layers of clothing. Once spring finally arrives, you can’t imagine how you ever survived so long without it.

Yellowing - April 6 / Day 96

Already, less than a full week into it, this April has been odd. It’s unseasonably cold: although the snowdrops, crocuses, and glory-of-the-snow have already appeared, the trees haven’t begun to leaf, and I haven’t dared open the windows much less venture outside in shorts or sandals. The past few nights have been below freezing, we still have piles of snow lingering in shady spots, and the lawn looks like it’s forgotten what it means to be green.

New growth

Yesterday, the temperature soared into the 50s—not warm by usual April standards, but warmer than it has been—and at least one pair of intrepid young entrepreneurs set up the first lemonade stand of the season even though a hot chocolate stand would have been more appropriate. Spring might be a long time coming this year, but kids nevertheless will go about the business of being kids, weather anomalies notwithstanding.

Daffodil bud - April 1 / Day 91

Although the temperatures this week have said “March,” the angle and intensity of the sun nevertheless says “April.” In February I lamented the glaringly harsh sunlight of late winter, when white-bright light falls on nothing but gray. Now in April, the sunlight has warmed, mellowed, and yellowed, as if it were intended to fall on tender, spring-green leaf buds and blooming daffodils. In the absence of these, the golden light of an April afternoon falls instead on gilded willow twigs and the almost-blooming buds of forsythia. “Almost, almost, almost” this golden light seems to intimate; “not yet, not yet, not yet” these swelling buds respond.

New shoots - April 5 / Day 95

This year, we’ve not been starved for light, but I do find myself craving color: anything, please, besides this dead, dull gray! “April is the cruelest month,” T.S. Eliot claimed, “breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.” Right now in this early, odd April, I don’t dare dream of lilacs, only leaves: before we can handle pale purple blooms, let us cut our tender teeth on spring green. Right now in this early, reluctant spring, anything other than gray would be a welcome novelty.

Wall at Central Square

Last night was one of those nights when I could think of a million reasons not to show up for practice at the Cambridge Zen Center. I’d spent the day juggling face-to-face and online teaching obligations, teaching classes at Framingham State then grading papers and submitting online grades between classes. It was (and still is) unseasonably cold and windy—blustery conditions perfect for catching a cold—and I’m still clogged and froggy from last week’s bronchitis. After tending the online graduate course that ended on Sunday, the online graduate course that started on Monday, and the three undergraduate classes that are ongoing, all I wanted to do yesterday afternoon was come home, plant myself on the couch with a book and a blanket, and not be bothered.

Wall at Central Square

Instead, I came home, changed clothes, ate a quick dinner, then drove to Cambridge, where I took a quick, brisk walk to check out the neighborhood graffiti before heading to the Zen Center, spending the next three hours chanting, meditating, and walking, all in the golden glow of the Dharma room Buddha. Sometimes you need to get away from it all, and other times you need to get in touch with it all, tuning in rather than tuning out.

Wall at Central Square

On hectic days like yesterday—too often, in other words, than I’d care to mention—working my day job feels like spinning in a revolving door, with students constantly coming and going while I go nowhere but ’round. I’ve taught face-to-face classes for nearly twenty years now, and I’ve taught online for ten, and I can’t begin to count the number of students I’ve worked with, much less the number of papers I’ve read, commented upon, and graded over those years. You collect one batch of papers; you hand back another. You read, hand back, then collect some more. When one semester ends, another begins: you read final papers, submit final grades, then promptly rewind and begin again, again, and again. Your students finish your class, take other classes, then graduate, moving on to whatever’s next while you, their teacher, keep revisiting the same lessons over and over and over. It’s a nonstop ritual that makes me dizzy just thinking about it.

Wall at Central Square

When it feels like you’re spinning in circles, you have several options: namely, you can keep on spinning, or you can stop. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking your day job is more rote or repetitive than others’, but actually life itself is a revolving door: we wake, bathe, bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, clean up our mess, tend our kids or pets, plant ourselves on the couch with a book and blanket, then go to sleep, destined to repeat it again tomorrow. We are born, grow up, grow old, then die, stuck in the epic catastrophe of human life, a drama culminating with the dire trinity of old age, sickness, and death. Surely, we say to ourselves, there must be something more than this; surely, the Buddha said to himself, there has to be a way out.

Wall at Central Square

Last night at the Zen Center, I reminded myself of something I’ve long known but constantly forget, time and again: it takes only a second to stop. Swept up in the rat race of your mundane life, you think the earth itself will stop spinning if you power down your laptop, shut off your phone, and step away from your to-do list…but having done these things, you realize nothing has changed but your own perspective. The emails are still there to be answered when you reboot your computer; the to-dos still beckon from their list. But you yourself can change; you yourself can re-charge.

Wall at Central Square

From your dizzying perch atop life’s revolving door, it’s easy to grow queasy from the ceaseless swirl of activity we call life, but the second you step off that dizzy-go-round, the world slows and solidifies underfoot. This revolving door called life is filled to overflowing with discreet moments, each one marching in turn. You can grow sick from the spinning redundancy of it all, or you can zero in and focus on This Present Moment, then the next, then the next. Suddenly the cycle isn’t sickening but wonderful: a glorious procession of moments staged just for your own enjoyment, so don’t miss it.

Wall at Central Square

Last night at the Zen Center, I had the same realization I always have at the Zen Center: why did I stay away so long? The rat race is always there, ready to welcome me back as soon as I return to it…but the rat race holds no power over me the second I decide not to run. There’s nothing more repetitive than spending three hours chanting, meditating, and walking, your own breath coming and going through the revolving door of your own body: inhale, exhale, repeat. The cyclic certainty of your workaday life is enough to drive you mad, and the cure is to reacquaint yourself with another kind of monotony: this breath, this body, this moment, each instant following the next like a foot stepping into its own footprint. It takes only a second—this second—to return to it.

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