January 2014


Modica Way

It’s only the second week of the so-called spring semester, and I’m already sick. Over the weekend, I noticed the first signs of a sore and scratchy throat, and by Monday I’d descended into full-on bronchitis, which is what you get when you couple the common cold with chronic asthma. This week I’ve experienced lots of coughing and wheezing, relatively little sniffling and sneezing, and a renewed sense of gratitude for my rescue inhaler.

Modica Way

On Tuesday and Thursday I managed to get through my classes with only occasional bouts of coughing interspersed with strategically-timed inhaler hits. But I’m still weak as water, my lungs simply not working as well as they do when I’m healthy. There’s nothing like a cold, a bout of bronchitis, or an asthma attack to remind you of the (literal) power of a single breath. Every time I hack up a dime-sized glob of gluey goo, I marvel that I can breathe at all through such gunk, and I realize why every time I’ve tried to nap this week, it’s felt like I’m drowning, the phlegm in my lungs pooling whenever I try to lie down.

Modica Way

I’m aware of the bitter irony of being a Zen practitioner with a chronic lung condition. In the warm months, my asthma is largely controlled, but in the winter, my lungs proclaim themselves as my true master. It doesn’t matter whether my spirit is willing: if my lungs are weak, they get the last (gasped) word. In an ideal world, I’d be able to breathe deeply and without impediment all year round; in an ideal world, breathing would always come as easily to me as (yes) breathing. Instead, there is perhaps a strange appropriateness in the medical hand I’ve been dealt: because breathing doesn’t always come easily to me, I’m acutely aware of it, closely monitoring each rise and fall for its depth and smoothness. In Zen we talk about impermanence and the fragility of human life, but as an asthmatic I understand better than most, I think, the fact that even our next breath isn’t guaranteed.

Modica Way

When I’m sick, the simple exertion of taking the dogs in and out, climbing stairs, or standing at the sink to do dishes leaves me breathless, as energetic as a limp dishrag. Is a simple virus all it takes to knock the (literal) wind out of my sails? When you stop fighting, there is a great lesson to be learned from illness: it is my body, not my mind, that makes the agenda, bringing me back time and again to the limitations of this moment. Henry David Thoreau, who struggled with tuberculosis throughout his adult life, spent his final months bedridden from the disease, no longer strong enough to take the long, woodsy walks he is remembered for. In his final journal entries, he describes in detail the behavior of a litter of kittens, his keen naturalist’s eye focused on the most mundane of domestic scenes. No matter how far our souls may wander, our bodies invariably bring us home.

Dressed and undressed

One night last week, J and I watched an American Experience documentary about Manhattan’s 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in which 146 workers (most of them young women) were killed. J had never heard of the tragedy—I’m guessing many people haven’t—but about a year ago I’d read David von Drehle’s Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, which was one of the sources cited in the program. Although largely forgotten today, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire marked a watershed moment in the American labor movement, the campaign for women’s suffrage, and the fight for workers’ rights and workplace safety: a tragedy so atrocious, the public came together to demand legislative change.

Pretty in pink

The Triangle fire happened at a pivotal moment in American history: had it not been an accident believed to have been started by a wayward cigarette butt tossed into a bin of fabric scraps, you might say the fire was perfectly timed. A few years before the fire, factory workers across New York City—most of them young immigrant women, or “factory girls”—organized a strike for better working conditions, and workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were at the forefront of this movement. Although the strike resulted in slightly better wages, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory refused to allow its workers to unionize, thereby robbing them of any lasting bargaining power. Because the strike had made textile factories and the rights of workers into front-page news, however, the 1911 fire was the culminating factor that galvanized a horrified public into doing something to protect the rights of New York’s most vulnerable workers. The strike had made New Yorkers aware of the plight of factory girls, and the fire corroborated how bad workplace conditions truly were.

Pink is for boys and girls

The Triangle fire took place near quitting time on Saturday, March 25, 1911, when crowds of passersby were walking to and from nearby Washington Square Park. The Triangle factory resided on the top three floors of a high-rise, trapping workers who thronged stairways that were choked with smoke and doors that had been locked by management to prevent employee theft. Horrified witnesses thronged the streets below the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, waiting for fire crews to arrive as smoke billowed from the building and frightened workers clung to a single poorly-constructed fire escape and crowded around flaming windows. When fire crews arrived, their ladders were not long enough to reach victims on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors, leaving nothing for firefighters and bystanders to do but watch as the fire escape collapsed and workers started to jump out of smoking windows, their clothes, bodies, and hair streaming fire.

Dapper dudes

It was this image of burning girls falling or leaping from windows that turned public sentiment. Suddenly the poor, unwashed immigrants whom so many native New Yorkers had previously reviled became human: our own daughters, wives, and sisters. Because it happened on a Saturday afternoon, the tragedy, which killed 146 people (123 of them women) in less than twenty minutes, was witnessed by crowds of people, including a United Press reporter who filed a news report describing the sickening thud of burning bodies landing on pavement. For those who weren’t there to witness the fire in person, the newspapers printed gruesome photographs of smoldering bodies piled on sidewalks, and those who didn’t believe the photos could examine the bodies at a makeshift morgue setup on Charities Pier, where open coffins were displayed in an attempt to identify victims.

Gowns

Although largely forgotten today, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is fascinating because it is one of those galvanizing moments in history when public sentiment changed overnight. Regardless of what New Yorkers had previously believed about teenage immigrant workers, unions, or factory working conditions, in the aftermath of the fire there was a widespread outcry for legislation to regulate working hours, child labor, and workplace safety. Sometimes I wonder what it would take to make similar sweeping changes in our society today: do we have to actually see gruesome photos of children killed in school shootings to turn public sentiment away from gun interests, for instance? The media in 1911 was infinitely simpler than that in our wired, networked, and perpetually plugged-in world, so why is it that a series of sympathetic newspaper reports and a dozen grainy photos had more of an impact than all the Tweets, Instagram photos, and 24-hour news reports of our day and age?

The photos illustrating today’s post come from “Think Pink,” an exhibit currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts.

New England Aquarium

Last semester I taught a student from a tropical climate who asked on our first 20-degree day whether the weather in New England would get any worse. “Oh, yes,” I replied, to my student’s immediate and obvious dismay. “There will be single-digit and below-zero days when 20 degrees feels warm.”

New England Aquarium

I don’t know how that student from a tropical climate is doing now that we’ve entered the frigid days of late January. When I drove to campus this morning, the temperature was in the single-digits, and my brief walk from car to classroom was razor-sharp, the wind cutting through me rather than blowing around. On some days, it’s so cold you can barely catch your breath, the cold knocking the wind out of your lungs like a fist to the chest, and this morning was one of those days.

New England Aquarium

This afternoon, I waited until the temperature rose to 20 degrees to take a short afternoon walk, and even then I only dared to walk around the block, nearly counting the steps back to my warm office. On a cold, brilliantly bright day, it almost hurts to look at the sharply monochromatic landscape, the streets and sidewalks blanched with salt and the snow lacerated with exaggeratedly contrasting shadows. On a cold and brilliantly bright day, everything seems too sharp, and you long for the warmth of bright color and the solace of softly blurred edges.

New England Aquarium

What an excellent opportunity, then, to revisit some of the photos I took when J and I went to the Aquarium on a November day that felt just as bleak and cold as today. “Can New England winters get any worse than this,” I might have wondered then, and my immediate and dismaying response must have been “Yes, they can, and that is why you should take plenty of pictures, saving up shots of warmth and color for a frigid late January day to come.”

The forecast said rain

Today is the first day of spring semester at Framingham State, and we have a snowstorm predicted for this afternoon and evening, with potentially a half foot of snow arriving by tomorrow. That’s how the so-called “spring semester” works in New England: you start in snow, then you end in spring. In between you navigate the bitterly cold days of January, the interminable month of February, and the spring-fever of March, when every ounce of your being longs for sandal-season. When April, May, and the end of the semester come, you feel like you’ve earned every last moment of warmth and light.

The forecast said rain

Whereas fall semester starts when New England is at her prettiest, spring semester begins in the dreary, dismal days of midwinter, when everything already feels worn and tired. Both the semester and the year are new, but everything else feels like a trudging slog. It’s easy in September to get your fresh-faced students excited about new ideas and new beginnings: everyone has new outfits, new school supplies, and a new resolve, and simply stepping outside into the brisk autumnal air is refreshing and invigorating. Serving up the same inspiration and energy on a cold and dreary midwinter day is much more challenging.

The forecast said rain

On Saturday morning, before the first fat snowflakes of what had been forecast as rain began to fall, I went into our front yard to look for snowdrops. Last week was unseasonably warm, and I’d heard rumors that snowdrops were blooming early elsewhere…and indeed, there were a few grayish-green shoots poking out of the earth beneath our eaves: the first hint of (eventual) spring flowers. Now, of course, those tentative sprouts are buried under snow and more snow: it will be a while, it seems, before our snowdrops emerge from the snowdrifts and bloom in sun. What starts in snow needs to continue in snow for a few months more.

Endlessly repeating, with legs

I did indeed go to the Museum of Fine Arts on my birthday, as planned, and I took the requisite shot of my legs reflected in the shiny base of Josiah McElheny’s “Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernism,” a cube-shaped case containing rows of mirrored-glass bottles whose reflections repeat toward infinity. Given an endlessly repeating reflection, the temptation toward reflective photography is equally infinite, so it seems somehow fitting that I’ve revisited (and re-photographed) this same piece over and over and over.

Ad infinitum

Birthdays are a natural time for reflecting on the repetitive nature of our (sadly) finite lives: none of us, after all, is getting any younger. We might revisit (and re-photograph) the same artwork time and again, but we can’t step into the same proverbial river twice. The “me” who photographed this piece in 2014 is different—older, wider, but not necessarily wiser—than those earlier incarnations who photographed this piece in 2010, 2009, and 2008. Looking at those pictures, now, I can date them primarily by what I’m wearing: I no longer carry that purse; I still wear that skirt and boots; I no longer fit into those jeans; and I literally wore out those sandals, which the manufacturer sadly doesn’t make any more. “Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernism” is part of the museum’s permanent collection, but everything around it (myself included) has done nothing but change since it was acquired.

Endlessly repeating, with legs

The illusion of McElheny’s piece, in other words, is that of objects endlessly repeating without changing: something that never happens outside the artificial realm of art. We humans repeat ourselves for a time, returning to the same scenes to do, think, and say roughly the same things over and over again…but our current selves don’t perfectly mirror our previous selves. Artworks, on the other hand, don’t have birthdays: they don’t gain weight, wrinkles, or gray hair, instead freeze-framing a particular moment in time that we changing and aging humans can never return to. Only in novels do portraits age instead of their subjects, Dorian Gray’s peculiar predicament being one that none of the rest of us share.

Bottled

I recently finished Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, which tells the curious and convoluted story of Ursula Todd, a woman with endlessly repeating lives. Ursula has a seemingly infinite number of chances to live the life she was destined to lead: whenever her life takes a turn down a less-than-promising avenue, darkness falls and she is born again. Like the protagonist in the romantic comedy Groundhog Day, Ursula Todd has (and apparently needs) multiple chances to make the right choices in her life; the rest of us, it seems, are fated to botch and bungle our way without hope for an infinite number of re-tries.

Self-portrait with endless reflections

It might be tempting to wish for endlessly repeating lives, but perhaps we should be careful what we wish for. A few days before Henry David Thoreau died, he was asked by a family friend what he thought about the afterlife, and Thoreau famously replied “One world at a time.” Even without the hope or threat of endlessly repeating lives, our days repeat themselves with startling regularity: another day, another dollar; another year, another birthday. Some mornings when I’m taking the dogs to and from our backyard dog pen, I marvel at the cyclic redundancy of such mundane chores: surely in a past life I was a farmer tending livestock, my entire world revolving around the in-goes and out-goes of animal care. We might not have infinite lifetimes to attain our destiny, but we do have a lengthy repetition of days. What is a life, after all, but a collection of moments, “yesterday,” “today,” and “tomorrow” repeating themselves, one after another, for a certain spell, a finite resource not to be wasted.

Like a Styrofoam storm cloud

I’ve been doing a whole lot of nothing these past few weeks, trying to take full advantage of the time I have off from teaching. During the academic year, I keep busy juggling my face-to-face and online teaching obligations; during the academic year, there’s always something to do. My online classes started last week, and my face-to-face classes start next week, so soon enough, I’ll be neck-deep in paper-grading and other teaching tasks. But at the moment, I can let my brain lie fallow, a season of rest before the business of a full semester resumes.

Like a Styrofoam storm cloud

Initially, I felt a bit guilty for this year’s lazy lack of productivity. Most of the time, I feel obligated to get something done during academic breaks: this is, after all, a prime opportunity to focus on my own writing rather than my “day job.” But this year, I’ve felt the need to step away from the niggling urge to be perpetually productive. Sometimes you just have to leave your mind alone, and that’s largely what I’ve been doing these past few weeks. I’ve continued to write in my journal, and I’ve been reading a lot, but I haven’t been blogging or taking many pictures. (These images of Tara Donovan’s untitled installation of Styrofoam cups at the Museum of Fine Arts are a significant exception.) In time, my enthusiasm for writing and photography will return, I’m sure, but for the moment, I’ve been enjoying the rare (to me) luxury of being lazy.

Like a Styrofoam storm cloud

Farmers allow their fields to lie fallow for a season to restore soil fertility: even though Walt Whitman famously declared that “the earth never tires,” sometimes her creative energies become depleted. A fallow field is a blank page that quietly whispers “not yet” rather than “no.” A fallow field isn’t permanently retired: she hasn’t been put out to pasture like a swaybacked nag. Instead, a fallow field is simply resting, incubating in her earthy gut the promising seeds of future fecundity.

Like a Styrofoam storm cloud

After several days of unseasonably mild temperatures, we’ve lost most of our snow cover, leaving the rain-soaked earth as bare and muddy as in spring. Right now the grass in our backyard is a sickly shade of yellow-brown: fallow. Instead of mourning our lawn as dead, however, I know it’s merely dormant, marshaling its energies for an inevitable spring.

The birthday girl

It’s been a few years since I’ve kept my tradition of going to the Museum of Fine Arts on or around my birthday. (I took the above photo in 2010, when I celebrated my 41th birthday.) Today, though, is a perfect museum-going day. While much of the nation is in a deep-freeze, it’s unseasonably warm, rainy, and soupy-humid in Boston, with swirling wisps of snow-melt fog. What better day to celebrate one’s birthday inside where it’s warm and dry?

Giant baby head in snow

So today I have an afternoon date with John Singer Sargent, whose watercolors are on display at the MFA through January 20th. Water in the form of winter rains can leave you damp and shivering, or water in the form of watercolors can transport you to another time. On a gray and rainy January day, any influx of light and color is welcome.

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