May 28, 2014
This weekend, I met Leslee and A (not her real initial) at the Museum of Fine Arts, where we saw “Quilts and Color,” an eye-popping exhibition of handmade quilts I’d been looking forward to all semester. What better way to celebrate the end of a long academic year than by admiring beautiful pieces of prolonged and meticulous handiwork?
Although I’m certainly not an expert when it comes to quilts and quilting, I’m definitely a fan. In 2009, A and I had seen an exhibit of quilts by the late Radka Donnell at the New England Quilt Museum, which I wrote about here, and before that, Leslee, A, and I had seen a juried exhibit of contemporary quilts at the American Textile History Museum, which I (unfortunately) never blogged.
When you look at a finished quilt, you see a Big Picture that was painstakingly assembled from bits and pieces. The contemporary art quilts Leslee, A, and I had previously seen featured irregular shapes, odd abstractions, and jarring color juxtapositions: all the aspects of modern painting, but on quilts. The pieces on display at the MFA, on the other hand, are more traditional in terms of composition, following block designs popularized by Amish, Mennonite, and other folk artisans, but they stun the senses with vibrant color combinations that at times seemed to vibrate with an almost hallucinogenic intensity.
Sewing a quilt is like running a marathon: it’s an accomplishment I admire with awe from afar. I know how to put one foot in front of the other, but I can’t imagine having the stamina to train for and then run a 26.2 mile race. Similarly, I know how to stitch two pieces of cloth together, but I can’t imaging having the patience to design, piece together, and then stitch the kind of intricate designs on exhibit at the MFA.
When I was younger, I enjoyed doing cross-stitch and other small sewing projects: there’s something soothing about the repetitive ritual of placing stitch after stitch. Because of this, I admire quilts as much for their meditative discipline as I do for their technical complexity. Making a quilt is a lot like writing a dissertation: you start with a blank canvas, then you fill things in gradually, one word or one stitch at a time. The end result seems impossible, but each step is doable.
Recently the Internet has been abuzz over a graduation speech given by Naval Admiral and former Navy SEAL William McRaven, who encouraged graduates from the University of Texas at Austin to make a habit of making their beds:
If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another.
I might not have the patience or the diligence to complete a quilt, but I do manage to make my bed every morning. Instead of a quilt, J and I have a rust-colored bedspread that complements the light brown furniture in our bedroom and brings a pop of color to the room. And just as Admiral McRaven suggests, it gives me a small sense of accomplishment to start the day with a smoothly made bed.
Someday, it would be nice to have enough time to sew a quilt, or at least to try. In the meantime, I’ll content myself with the knowledge that I share the world with a Naval admiral who believes success starts with a neatly made bed and countless quilters who have made the world more beautiful, one stitch (and one bed) at a time.
Click here for more photos from “Quilts and Color,” which will remain on view at the Museum of Fine Arts through July 27th. Enjoy!
May 26, 2014
For the past five years, J and I have observed a simple ritual on Memorial Day. We walk somewhere for lunch, then we walk to Newton Cemetery to visit the decorated graves of the military dead. We don’t personally know anyone buried at Newton Cemetery, but it’s a lovely place to walk in the springtime, and Memorial Day offers as good an excuse as any to pay our respects to strangers we never had the chance to meet.
On last year’s Memorial Day walk, J and I saw so many frogs, turtles, rabbits, geese, ducks, and muskrats at Newton Cemetery, I posted an album solely devoted to the the cemetery creatures we saw. In the springtime, when everything is fresh, green, and young, it’s easy to forget the harsh winter reality that everything eventually dies. That’s why we need a holiday to remind us to remember.
Sometimes people die at the end of a long and full life, and other times young people are cut down too soon. In either case, the loss is tragic. Cemeteries exist as a final resting place for the dead, but they also exist as a reminder to the oblivious living. It’s too easy in the hubbub of living to forget how lucky we are simply to be able to walk the earth in springtime.
You can view past Memorial Day photo sets at the following links: 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009. Enjoy!
May 22, 2014
On Tuesday, after I ran an errand in downtown Boston, I walked around a bit, wandering from State Street past Faneuil Hall, through the Holocaust Memorial, and over to the Rose Kennedy Greenway, where I ended up at the Armenian Heritage Park. There’s a labyrinth there I’ve walked before, and part of the allure of a labyrinth is the fact you can walk it again and again, revisiting twists and turns that steadfastly stay the same even while the rest of your life is turning.
Sometimes you don’t realize how tired you are until you stop spinning. This past academic year has been filled with changes. In the fall, I took a last-minute assignment at Boston College, juggling those classes with the ones I teach at Framingham State and online. BC didn’t need me in the spring, so I took a mid-semester appointment at Curry College, going through (again) the upheaval of starting over at a new place, all while continuing to teach at Framingham State and online. Right before I started at Curry, we put MAD to sleep, and less than a month later, we adopted a new dog. It’s been a year of many changes, but I’ve been too busy to process them.
When you’re an adjunct instructor teaching at multiple institutions, the first thing you think upon awakening is “Where am I teaching today, and what do I need to do before I leave?” If you’re teaching at College X, you point the car one way; if you’re teaching at College Y, you head in the opposite direction. There have been many times this year that I’ve envied people with just one job: folks who can finish an honest day’s work and not have another job awaiting them. There have been many times this year, in other words, when I’ve envied people whose work points in one direction: one job to go to, one schedule to settle into, one email account to check, one job description to satisfy.
My Mom once described her experience as a wife and mother of four by saying “There’s always someone who hates you.” We all know you can’t please everyone all the time, and the experience of being pulled in too many directions only exacerbates the problem. When you teach for multiple colleges, you’re always behind somewhere: there’s always an unread email, unanswered question, or ungraded paper demanding your attention. On those rare occasions that you catch up with work, the blog beckons. Once you find time to post to the blog, there is laundry to do, or groceries to buy, or dishes to dry, or errands to run: here, there, and everywhere, there is always something to do, do, do.
Walking a labyrinth is relaxing because despite the twists and turns, you have only one place to go, and that is the next step. Despite its crooks and curves, a labyrinth points in only one direction: forward. You don’t have to decide whether to go this way or that; you just put one foot in front of the other. It’s a practice simple enough to make you weep with gratitude: for the minutes it takes you to walk to the center and back, there’s no need to decide where to go, just the reassuring rhythm of one foot following the other.
This summer, I’m not teaching face-to-face classes anywhere; I’m just teaching online. And in the fall, I’ll return to teaching at Framingham State and Curry College, but I’ve decided to quit my online teaching job. It’s a moonlighting gig I’ve had for eleven years, and when I quit my job at Keene State, it was briefly my sole source of income. But one thing I’ve learned from walking labyrinths is that when you reach a dead-end, you have to change your direction. Teaching at two colleges isn’t the single focus I’ve been craving, but it’s more focused than teaching at three: a step in the right direction.
May 19, 2014
Today one of the errands on my to-do list was to go to the hardware store to get two propane tanks filled: a task I do every spring in advance of the summer grilling season. Next weekend, there will be a line of suburban folks waiting to get propane for their Memorial Day cookouts, but today it was just me and one other man standing outside the fenced enclosure at one corner of the hardware store parking lot where the propane guy duly fills small tanks from a much larger one.
Next to the enclosure where the propane tank lives is the South (or Winchester Street) Burying Ground, a historic cemetery with 357 graves, the earliest of which dates back to 1802. Although I stand right next to this cemetery every spring while I wait for the propane guy to fill my tanks, I’d never before today set foot in it because I could never figure out how to get inside. Like the big propane tank I visit for a fill-up every spring, the South Burying Ground used to be enclosed in a chain link fence, presumably to keep vandals and other troublemakers out.
Today, however, the fence separating the hardware store parking lot from the cemetery next door was gone, and someone had put Betsy Ross flags–American flags with a circle of 13 stars–on several of the graves, presumably those marking the resting places of veterans. Although I didn’t have much time to explore the now-accessible old cemetery, the simple act of tearing down a fence and putting up some flags completely transformed the place, turning it from something that looked grim and foreboding–somewhere you’re not supposed to explore–into something more inviting: a green and grassy place where mockingbirds sing.
It seems strange to contemplate a plot of centuries-old graves while waiting for a propane fill-up, but that’s how life is, isn’t it? On one side of a now-absent fence lie folks now largely forgotten; on the other, living folks like me go about their mundane chores. It doesn’t seem fair that the dead should have to put up with the traffic, hubbub, and general disregard of those going about the business of living, but when has it been any other way? The best the dead can hope for, I suppose, is to be forgotten enough: forgotten by vandals, overlooked by troublemakers, and visited by nobody other than mockingbirds and the occasional birder or blogger.
Although the South Burying Ground lies beyond my own block, today’s post does represent a bit of local color. If blogging your own neck of the woods sounds alluring, you might consider taking this week’s “Daily Post” writing challenge, “Blog Your Block,” written by yours truly. Enjoy!
May 15, 2014
While I was grading, the honeysuckles along our driveway bloomed, the backyard pine trees dusted my car with pollen, and the neighborhood tulips erupted in a multitude of colors. Warblers appeared in the trees, our resident catbird returned, and the backyard rabbits appeared as if out of nowhere, nibbling our finally green grass.
While I was grading, the season kept springing, the birds kept singing, and the green kept growing. Not a one of them waited a moment for me and my silly paper piles. Having submitted my last batch of semester grades, I feel momentarily dazed, as if returning from a planet made up of words, words, words. Emerging into my finally green backyard, I feel as if a heavenly hand should hand me one of those pink memo slips outlining all the important things that happened while I was out.
May 9, 2014
You might say I’m a collector of shadows, considering I have a Flickr tag and blog category devoted to them. So when I saw today’s Photo Friday theme, Shadows, I knew I’d have to go no further than my own photo archives to find an assortment of images to share.
This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Shadows.
May 7, 2014
It’s Finals Week at both Framingham State and Curry College, where I’ve been filling in for an instructor who went on medical leave several months ago. Finals Week is a notoriously busy time for students and instructors alike, but there’s always a strange sense of calm that washes over me after I teach my last class.
Once Finals Week arrives, I no longer have to juggle the distinct tasks of prepping classes, teaching classes, commenting on essay drafts, and grading papers. Once Finals Week arrives, I no longer have to multitask, concentrating all my attention on the single task of grading, grading, grading.
I used to collect fat folders of student writing at the end of the term, so I had actual paper-piles I could show as proof of how much work loomed. Nowadays, though, I have my students submit both their final exam essays and semester portfolios online, so instead of a weighty paper-pile, all I have is my slim laptop laden with downloaded papers.
Although in the old days there was a certain sense of accomplishment in moving each fat folder from my “to do” to “done” piles, I don’t miss the end-term ritual of schlepping bags full of papers from and then back to campus. My students submit their papers online, and I post my end-term comments and grades online, too. there’s something strangely satisfying about clicking “Submit” for another graded batch of student essays: each file representing so much work for the student to write, me to comment on, the student to revise, and me to grade at last.
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