June 2013


Budding

Now that it’s June, the backyard is deepening into its summer hues. As I type this, a lone cottontail is hopping around the backyard, darting in and out of the irises and spiderwort. Earlier, I saw two cottontails side by side, intermittently eating and chasing one another: signs that we’ll have even more cottontails. In June, everything seems geared to continuance, rebirth, and renewal: the idea that things roll on.

Bumblebee on spirea

In June, summer lures you into thinking that what you’re experiencing now will somehow last, that the sun will shine this way for ever. This time of year lulls us into trust and complacency, with the trials of winter seeming very far away. Who in June really believes that summer will ever end? The whole point of June is to relax and slip into trusting complacency and the languid assumption that the sun will continue to shine and the grass will continue to grow green.

Day lily

At the beginning of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau lifts a line from the treaties Europeans made with Native Americans, in which their agreement was promised to last as long as rivers flow and grasses grow. We know from history that European treaties with Native Americans never lasted long; apparently rivers don’t flow forever nor does grass grow long. As poetic as this promise might sound, it is (after all) misleading. Rivers flow and grasses grow for only a season: in winter, rivers freeze and grasses die. The phrasing of these treaties, in other words, is strictly seasonal, an eternally ephemeral thing. Summertime treaties are couched in optimism, the season we make undying promises despite the fact that everything eventually ends.

Blue hydrangea

But it’s difficult to believe that in June: difficult to believe that the next crop of baby cottontails, still a sparkle in their parents’ brown, goat-like eyes, will someday themselves die. As I type these words on a hot June day, my bare feet browned from the sun, it’s difficult to believe that I too, eventually, will die.

Three roses

In June, the Buddha’s teachings about suffering and impermanence seem misguided and even cruel: who would be heartless enough to ruin a day at the beach—nasty enough to rain on someone’s parade—by reminding them at the height of summer that these days don’t last? In summer, the days like sunlight stretch and linger long: these are the days we wish would never end because we don’t actually believe they can. June is the season of immortality, when nature pumps out life and humans make promises and plans as if there were no tomorrow: is it any accident that so many couples get married in June? In June, we dance and fiddle like grasshoppers, unable to conceive (in the midst of so much conception) that these happy days could ever end.

Midflight

The secret to summer sweetness, however, is to cherish these days as precious: that is the intention behind the Buddha’s words. Buddha never intended to rain on anyone’s parade with his insistence that things are impermanent; instead, he wanted to remind us that parades are a passing thing. Don’t be fooled by a seemingly endless array of floats and bands and marchers, for this too finishes in finale. Keep your eyes open at every instant because every parade—and every parade watcher—eventually marches away.

Michelangelo's Cleopatra

Last weekend, J and I went to the Museum of Fine Arts to see an exhibit of Michelangelo’s drawings and to wander the museum’s Art of the Americas wing. As we passed from the “old” to “new” wings of the MFA, we passed through the Shapiro Family Courtyard, where we saw hundreds of hand-sewn flags made by quilters around the world in response to the Boston Marathon bombings: a cheery installation aptly named “To Boston With Love.”

Shapiro Family Courtyard with quilt squares

It’s funny how the Shapiro Family Courtyard has evolved over the years since the “new” wing of the MFA opened in 2010. At first, the courtyard seemed like a looming and cold expanse–an empty and impersonal space to be endured as you passed from one half of the museum to the other–but then the addition of Dale Chihuly’s “Lime Green Icicle Tower” in 2011 gave the space both focus and warmth, like planting a big, towering tree in your backyard to liven up the space.

Lime Green Icicle Tower with quilt squares

The Shapiro Courtyard has come to feel like a backyard–Boston’s backyard–with a constant stream of patrons dining at the New American Cafe and an ever-shifting array of temporary exhibits brightening it. The hand-sewn squares of “To Boston With Love” underscore this homey feel, looking like laundry hung to dry between high-rise tenement apartments or colorful Tibetan prayer flags flapping in a lively Himalayan village.

To Boston with Love

Although I would have never dreamed of crisscrossing the Shapiro Family Courtyard with either laundry or prayer flags, the result is aesthetically delightful, creating a simultaneously cozy and cosmopolitan space where both neighbors and nations can congregate and find community.

Shapiro Family Courtyard

In addition to the handiwork of “To Boston With Love,” J and I saw three visiting masterpieces from New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Northeaster” by Winslow Homer; “Lachrymae” by Frederic, Lord Leighton; and “The Monet Family in Their Garden at Argenteuil” by Edouard Manet.

Visiting masterpieces:  Homer, Leighton, Manet

Like the humble, hand-sewn flags of “To Boston With Love,” these three paintings were send to the MFA as a goodwill offering in the aftermath of the Marathon bombings. A tribute from the people of New York to the people of Boston, these three paintings were handpicked to either complement Boston’s permanent collection (Homer, Manet) or speak to the mood of grief that hung over the city in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy (Leighton).

Homer and Leighton

Visiting a museum is one way of figuring out your place in the world: given the creative endeavors of the ages, what contribution might you add, here and now? When quilters and museum curators heard of the Boston Marathon bombings, they had the automatic human response, wondering “What can I do to help,” and the automatic answer to this question, it turns out, is “Send what’s close to hand.”

The Monet Family in Their Garden at Argenteuil, by Edouard Manet

Museums are a great civic asset: not merely receptacles of tangible treasures, but places to see and be seen as you mingle with other museum-goers from near and far. Individually, few of us can afford to own a priceless masterpiece; collectively, though, we share a space where that wealth is openly enjoyed.

Admiring Michelangelo

Both the Metropolitan Museum and quilters from around the world shared their treasures with Boston during her darkest hour, and I for one would like to return the compliment by sending warm greetings and gratitude from Boston, with love.

Quilt squares for Boston

The drawings of Michelangelo: Sacred and Profane will be on exhibit through June 30, and both “To Boston With Love” and the three visiting masterpieces from the Met will remain on view through July 7. If you can’t make it to Boston, click here to view my photos from last weekend’s visit to the MFA: enjoy!

No more Massive Oak

Last week I went to Framingham State for an afternoon workshop, and the Massive Oak behind Hemenway Hall was gone, along with the Massive Oak in front of the library and all the smaller trees and undergrowth that used to fringe a plot of sunny grass students called Larned Beach. In the picture above, the blue sky on the right is where Massive Oak used to stand, as illustrated in this photo from March:

Massive Oak

Because I’d known since March that Framingham State’s Massive Oaks were going to be cut down to make way for a new building–an inexorable transition from Old to New–I had braced myself for the big empty space they’d leave behind. Still, it’s shocking that first time you see Nothing standing where there once had been Something.

Massive oak

At right is the last picture I took of Massive Oak, back in May when he was just starting to leaf. As I’d mentioned then, the wood from Massive Oak would be donated to the restoration of Mayflower II, a historically accurate, 56-year-old replica of the ship that brought the Puritans to the New World.

Today in catching up with my online reading, I saw an illustrated blog post from Plimoth Plantation showing exactly how the lumber from Massive Oak was dismantled and carted away. In the end, Massive Oak’s trunk and limbs weren’t long enough to provide planks for the ship’s hull–apparently he wasn’t that Massive–but they will be “very useful for frame stock as well as structural knees.” Happy trails (or sails) to you, Massive Oak.

Boston Pride parade

One of the biggest cheers J and I heard at this past weekend’s Boston Pride parade erupted while the marchers were still assembling on Boylston Street and a much-loved, recently elusive entity Came Out: the sun. After a full Friday of torrential rains, on Saturday even tropical storm Andrea couldn’t rain a single drop on Boston Pride’s parade.

Boston Pride parade

Although J and I have watched Pride parades in other cities, before this weekend we’d never attended Boston Pride. Previously, we’d been what you might call accidental Pride spectators, with J watching the Atlanta parade because it wended its way through the predominantly lesbian neighborhood where he used to live and me watching the New York parade one year when my ex-husband and I happened to be staying in Greenwich Village that weekend. Before this year, though, J and I never made a point to attend Boston’s own parade, mainly because we’d never really set the date aside. You might say that Boston Pride didn’t really register on our gaydar.

Boston Pride parade

And then Jason Collins came out. The minute J and I heard that the current NBA (and former Celtics) center had announced he is gay, we knew we’d have to attend this year’s Boston Pride parade, where Collins marched alongside his Stanford roommate (and our congressional representative) Joe Kennedy III. Coming out as a sports celebrity in an age of unrelenting media and Internet scrutiny is a brave thing, and J and I wanted to make sure there were at least a few rabid basketball fans there to personally applaud Collins’ announcement. I’m sure Collins has gotten more than a few angry looks, nasty emails, and mean Tweets simply because he had the nerve to Be Who He Is, and J and I wanted to add our voices to a chorus of cheers drowning out the jeers.

Boston Pride Parade

I’ve mentioned before that I often get teary-eyed when J and I watch the Boston Marathon every year because there’s something emotionally powerful about cheering for perfect strangers:

What chokes me up on Marathon day is the way spectators show up to cheer on strangers, shouting all sorts of encouragements: “Keep going!” “You can do it!” “You’re amazing!”

Boston Pride parade

Can you imagine a world where we cheered each other on like this everyday, not just on Marathon Monday? Can you imagine a world where strangers shared simple kindness with one another, simply to keep them motivated and moving?

It turns out, I also get weepy at Pride parades, and for a similar reason. Can you imagine a world where everyone you see is happy and smiling simply because everyone there accepts them for who they are?

Boston Pride parade

Long before we spotted Collins walking alongside Kennedy with a throng of photographers shooting their every move, J and I hollered and clapped for the much less famous marchers. At any Pride parade, the participants who make headlines are the flamboyant and fabulous: the shirtless young men gyrating in underwear, for instance…

Boston Pride parade

…or the strong and serious dykes on bikes,

Boston Pride parade

…or the towering drag queens.

Boston Pride parade

All of the above were present at Boston Pride, but they were far outnumbered by the otherwise ordinary folks who were simply doing in public the things straight people do all the time without considering it a Political Statement, like walking hand in hand with their partners while wearing a uniform…

Boston Pride parade

…proudly proclaiming themselves as parents,

Boston Pride parade

…taking the baby for a stroll,

Boston Pride parade

…or just walking the dog.

Boston Pride parade

A Pride parade, in other words, isn’t about flaunting your sexual preferences in public; it’s about having the courage to show your face in a world that often wants to pretend you don’t exist. This is why J and I wanted to attend Boston Pride, look Jason Collins in the face, and let him know that in the eyes of these two straight, entirely non-flamboyant basketball fans, being gay is okay.

Boston Pride Parade

And so when Jason Collins and Joe Kennedy passed where J and I were standing and cheering near the corner of Boylston and Clarendon Streets, J and I got loud.

Jason Collins and Joe Kennedy

“Celtics Pride,” I yelled while pointing to my Celtics ballcap, and J screamed “Jaaaaasoooon!” while pointing to his Celtics shirt. Collins looked at us, smiled, and waved, and I yelled “We love you, Jason,” at which point Joe Kennedy looked right at me, mouthed the words “Thank you,” and walked on.

Boston Pride parade

And that was J and my brief brush with fame. We’d already cheered and gave our “thumbs up” to peace activist and Boston Marathon bombing hero Carlos Arredondo…

Carlos Arredondo

…and later, we’d cheer (and J would dance) as Senator Elizabeth Warren sashayed her way down the street.

Senator Elizabeth Warren

But the real heroes of the Boston Pride parade aren’t the famous or fabulous folks who dominate the headlines on Pride weekend but the otherwise average, ordinary folks who live, love, and deserve common human decency every day of the year.

Boston Pride Parade

Click here for more photos from this year’s Boston Pride parade: enjoy!

Buds

After sweltering temperatures this past weekend, the weather has settled (at least for the moment) into a comfortable stride, with sunny, mild days that are perfect for working outside. When I say “working outside,” I don’t mean gardening or other outdoor chores; I mean sitting on our screened back porch with my laptop, doing outside the work I’d normally do inside.

Beginning to bloom

Both yesterday and today, I checked my online classes then wrote my hour outside while watching our backyard rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks tend to their business of nibbling, sniffing, and scurrying after one another. When the weather is cooperative, there’s something simultaneously calming and inspiring about working outside, the chirps and twitters of backyard birds keeping you awake if not entirely on-task.

Budding

It’s been a month since J and I had our first taste of sparkling pink lemonade, a treat we’d bought from a curbside lemonade stand during a leisurely weekend stroll around the neighborhood, and since then, I’ve made a point to keep a few bottles on hand: a simple, refreshing treat. So today while the birds chirped, the rabbits hopped, and I tapped and clicked on my laptop, I sipped a cool glass of summer sweetness without having to leave the comfort of my own backyard.

Demarcated

It all started with a simple question. This past weekend was the BRAWN Summer Institute, which means I spent the past three days at Boston University attending workshops and comparing teaching techniques with about 80 other Boston-area college writing instructors. Over lunch on Sunday, one of my colleagues asked a simple question that inspired a flurry of conversation. How many of us intended when we were younger to become college composition instructors, and how many came to teach college-level writing by a circuitous or even accidental route?

Terriers

In the process answering this question, my colleagues and I uncovered the wild, weird, and roundabout ways that life sometimes unwinds. One of my colleagues trained to be an actress; one intended to be a ballerina. Another always knew she wanted to be a college professor, but she trained as a linguist, not a lit or writing scholar. One colleague grew up wanting to be a nature writer, and another discovered the field of composition studies after accidentally realizing he wanted to study the science of writing. Yet another colleague was coerced to share the story of how he’d actually flunked out of college but continued to hang out on campus for a few years without telling his family, even going so far as to rent a cap and gown and sit with his former classmates when his parents showed up for graduation. Is it fate, chance, or cruel karma that someone with that kind of history would eventually find himself at the front of a college composition class, teaching?

Parking lot mural

Teachers of writing, it turns out, are excellent storytellers, and we each have stories to tell. When I was in high school, I had no intentions of teaching college-level English; instead, I wanted to become an interpretive naturalist, wearing khakis and a Smokey Bear-hat while leading nature walks. After realizing that most interpretive naturalist jobs are seasonal rather than year-round, I decided studying biology would be a more dependable choice than studying natural resources, and after realizing I had little interest in the dissection and laboratory work that college biology classes involve, I switched to English, thinking a career as a lit professor would offer a dependable day-job to fund my extracurricular nature studies.

Ivied

It’s interesting to consider (especially in retrospect) the alternate lives any of us might have led if our lives had turned out differently: this is the classic question of the road not taken. If you can’t pursue all the goals you ever envisioned, how does it happen that you end up walking the path you do choose? Are our lives a maze of forking choices, each irrevocable and final—don’t look back—or are our lives like a meandering labyrinth, where there’s only one route to our destination, albeit one that wends and winds in a nonsensical and even dizzying fashion? At the end of our days (or at least our careers), will we look back and see how all the twists and turns make their own kind of logical sense, or will we look back with longing and regret, noting the turns we might have missed?

Obscured

As it turns out, adjunct writing instructors juggle jobs that are just as seasonal, unpredictable, and underpaid as any interpretive naturalist position, so perhaps you never can escape your fate. My high school penchant for biology survives in my blog, where I post pictures of birds and buds, and somewhere along the way toward finishing a doctoral dissertation about American nature writing, I discovered I didn’t want to be a critic responding to other people’s prose but a writer who produced my own.

Green Line

The same BRAWN colleague who asked us yesterday if we’d planned to become writing instructors also asked whether we’d initially planned to teach writing or become writers, and my knee-jerk response was immediate and emphatic. “I still want to become a writer,” I insisted: there is no past tense about that. Perhaps the acorn never falls far from the tree, and perhaps an acorn has no choice but to become an oak in the end, regardless of any apparent denials.