April 2015


The Wall at Central Square

During the last week of classes, when students and instructors alike are sleep-deprived and swamped with work, you learn to accept words of encouragement wherever you find them.

Cloudy with a chance of magnolias

Between today’s classes at Framingham State, I pulled myself from my paper-piles to take a quick walk around the block, wandering into a residential neighborhood then circling back. Even during a short walk, it’s hard not to notice spring manifesting in the form of greening grass, blooming flowers, and lounging college students.

First dandelions and ground-ivy

It’s been chillier than usual this April: usually by now, I would have been besieged by students begging to have class outside, and I would have been hard pressed to say no. But so far this year, it’s been too chilly for that, and I’ve worn sandals chiefly out of principle, hating to revert back to socks, winter-weight tights, and shoes. But regardless of the temperatures, the flowers know that lengthening days mean spring, so they bloom despite the chill. After a season of snow, the sight of the earth erupting in dandelions seems nothing short of miraculous.

2015 Boston Marathon

After the winter we weathered here in Boston, it would have taken a lot more than rain to keep us from watching this year’s Boston Marathon. Today was cold, rainy, and windy–as miserable as this past weekend was lovely–so the crowds were smaller than usual but as enthusiastic as ever: diehard fans undaunted by a little damp.

2015 Boston Marathon

Today’s weather was the kind that looks wretched from inside but isn’t that bad when you’re actually out in it. Somehow being in and among other cheering fans distracts you from your own discomfort. There weren’t as many families with pets and children as there have been in fair-weather years, but there were still some hearty souls who weren’t scared away by the forecast.

2015 Boston Marathon

The families with children and bundled babies between Miles 18 and 19 in Newton all looked like old pros when it comes to New England weather. Both their rain gear and general nonchalance suggested they’d been to other soggy Marathons, or had sat through rain delays at Fenway Park, or had weathered rain, sleet, and snow at Gillette Stadium.

2015 Boston Marathon

J and I have been to more than our share of foul-weather sporting events, including New England Revolution games that continued despite pouring rain and one infamous Patriots’ game where we had to dig out our seats from a half-foot of snow. From these events, I’ve learned that cheering vociferously really does keep you warm, as does hand-clapping, foot-stomping, and other kinds of movement.

2015 Boston Marathon

At the Marathon, at least, you aren’t tethered to a single assigned seat, so when you get cold, you can pull up stakes and walk, cheering the nonstop stream of runners from a new and moving vantage point.

2015 Boston Marathon

In past years, J and I have established a routine where we initially watch the race from the corner of Chestnut Street and Commonwealth Avenue, then we walk toward the massive block party at Newton City Hall, walking alongside the runners as they pass large houses on one side of the road and the backside of Newton Cemetery on the other.

2015 Boston Marathon

This is my favorite segment of the Marathon route, as the crowds thin and the sidewalk peters out into a dirt path. As you walk alongside the runners, you can hear the hypnotic rhythm of their footfalls along with the sotto voce conversations between running partners as they prepare to face Heartbreak Hill. “This is where the race gets interesting, isn’t it,” I overhear one runner ask another. “Yes, it is,” the second responds.

2015 Boston Marathon

Today there was a lone man standing along this segment of the route quietly uttering encouragements: “Great Job!” “You’re looking good!” “That’s a good, steady stride!” His observations were the kind a running coach might tell his charges, but none of them were shouted, merely spoken as if the man were addressing a person right beside him, or himself.

2015 Boston Marathon

After the noisy hoopla of drums, cowbells, and clapping spectators the runners had just passed through, and given the festive music and upbeat DJ they’d hear over a loudspeaker at City Hall, this man’s encouragements seemed as subtle and subliminal as one’s own heartbeat pulsing a litany of encouragement from within.

2015 Boston Marathon

Click here to see more photos from today’s soggy Boston Marathon. Enjoy!

A mind of trees

I recently started reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, which I wanted to read before checking out her latest book, Better Than Before. The latter focuses on positive habit-forming, which is a perennial fascination of mine: I’m basically a sucker for any sort of self-help book that suggests you can improve your life by honing your habits. But I decided to read The Happiness Project before Rubin’s newer book, even though both books arrived at the library at the same time. Now that I’ve started The Happiness Project, I think I’ll return Better Than Before and then re-request it later, as I’m not sure even I could stomach two self-help books in a row.

Tresses

I’m enjoying The Happiness Project, but I can’t say I’ve learned anything new from the first fifty-some pages: so far, Rubin is revisiting familiar territory. But this is, after all, one of the things that I like about self-help books: they’re easy to read (basically, a guilty pleasure) because they reinforce the things I already know even if they’re things I’m not currently doing.

Shadowy

Reading a self-help book is like watching a workout DVD while lounging on the sofa eating bonbons: everything (including exercise) looks easy when you sit and watch it, but getting up and doing it is a different story. Much of the research Rubin cites in The Happiness Project is stuff I’ve already read: I’ve read classics such as Ben Franklin’s Autobiography and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden along with newer titles such as John M. Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. (Spoiler alert: the latter didn’t save my first marriage, but it did help clarify what was wrong with it.) I’ve also read Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness: I did, after all, briefly train to become a life-coach, a career I back-burnered after realizing I’m not good at marketing myself. So the information Rubin shares isn’t exactly new if you’ve read these various works she’s referencing; what she does, though, is offer a new configuration of the same old ideas.

Easter bonnet

What fascinates me so far about The Happiness Project is its central premise that we can be happier if we understand and employ the specific techniques that make people happy. This belief in personal perfectibility–the notion that the human psyche is a machine, and if we understand its inner workings, we can fine-tune it to work better and more efficiently–is pervasive in self-help literature. This belief in personal perfectibility is also quintessentially American, a psychological version of the American dream: “If I work hard enough, I too can make myself into a better, happier person.”

Faceless

I recognize this optimism as a cultural myth, an idea deconstructed in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America as well as Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, both of which I loved. (You can read my review of Burkeman here.) But even though I fully understand the cultural mythology and outright error endemic in self-help books, I still find myself consuming them like candy, finding an escapist joy in the irresistible belief that we can make ourselves better. For me, self-help books are like fairy tales for grown-ups, offering the bewitching hope that you can be your own Prince Charming, sweeping yourself off to a happily-ever-after world where your closets are organized, your marriage is blissful, and your body is beautiful, well-rested, and well-toned.

Hat, shades, and scarf

The irony, of course, is that I’m a Buddhist, and Buddhism basically throws a bucket of cold water on self-helpism. Buddhism in general and Zen Buddhism in particular focus on what is, not what could be if only you employed a system of resolutions and self-help strategies. The ultimate statement of “what is” is the Buddha’s First Noble Truth, which bluntly observes that Suffering Exists. Contemplating your messy closets, listless marriage, or sagging body, a self-help guru would whip up an action plan to get your you, your relationships, and your closets back in shape. A Zennie, on the other hand, would commiserate without blame: Yes, sweetheart, it be’s that way sometimes.

In the building

Zen isn’t philosophically opposed to helping yourself; Zen, in fact, isn’t philosophically opposed to much of anything. My Inner Zennie accepts with bemused equanimity the fact that hope really does spring eternal: after all these years of failed attempts, I still hold out hope for getting my junk drawer organized. What my Inner Zennie knows that my Inner Self-Helper is loathe to admit, however, is that happiness isn’t contingent on tidy closets: I can find serenity in a cluttered house, and I can be miserable in a perfectly clean one. My Inner Zennie, in other words, knows that happiness dwells in the Here and Now, regardless of how many things my Inner Self-Helper wants to fix. Samsara is indeed Nirvana, so go ahead and either clean your closets or let them be: it’s your choice. At the end of the day, a Zennie doesn’t ask herself “Are my closets tidy” but “Who am I?”

Backyard koi pond with Kwan Seum Bosal statue

So who am I? The asker of that question has perpetually cluttered closets and an insatiable belief that someday, somehow, they might be tidy. That riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma loves to read books like The Happiness Project while wryly remembering that Ben Franklin, the Founding Father of American optimism, ultimately gave up his quest for personal perfection, noting that whenever he made progress with one of his self-defined virtues, he backslid with the others. As none other than Saint Paul noted, it’s human nature to continue doing that which we know we shouldn’t do, which is precisely why books like Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project will continue to have an enthusiastic audience. We know that life isn’t as simplistic as self-help books suggest, but we still request these books from the library and greedily consume them, errors and all.

Emerging tulip leaves

I’m allergic to the dust, mold, and dead leaves that lie underneath the melting snow. Every spring when the snow starts to melt, my lungs react with chronic coughing and congestion. I love the liberation of early spring–a time when you can cast off coats and boots in favor of sandals and T-shirts–but my lungs do not agree, growing tight and wheezy at intermittent and unpredictable moments throughout the day.

Lone crocus

In early spring, my asthma inhaler is my best friend, giving almost instant relief every time I take a hit. In spring, I don’t venture far without an inhaler: I have one in my purse, another in a bedroom drawer, and others stashed throughout the house like nip bottles hidden by an alcoholic.

At some point later in the spring when fresh green growth has covered last year’s moldy leaves, I’ll be able to get through the day without coughing. But for now, my body reacts and rebels against the musty dust that emerges from underneath the season’s old snow.

I wrote this post during a five-minute timed freewrite in one of my Writing Workshop classes today, in response to the prompt “Underneath.”

Balancing act

I recently started reading David Whyte’s The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship. The question of how to make a living is one that perpetually fascinates me, especially given the amount of time and energy I devote to my day job, so Whyte’s book is giving me lots of food for thought.

Balancing act

The Three Marriages is one of those books that invites you to re-think things you’ve long assumed you understood. I would have never thought to see work as a kind of marriage: a long-term practice, that is, that couples a public commitment with a private passion. But when I think about the 20-plus years I’ve been teaching college-level writing and literature classes, the marriage metaphor makes a lot of sense. Some days I love my work, and other days my job feels like a poor match for me…but somehow I keep coming back to it, trying to make it work regardless of how “stuck” or “stuck with it” I sometimes feel.

Balancing act

Whyte argues the idea of work/life balance is too simplistic, and I think he’s right on that point: balance isn’t something many of us achieve in life, at least for long. Instead, our lives are messy, chaotic, and ever in flux. If you’ve ever been to the circus, you know the best balancing acts are perpetually in motion, not still. When you look for balance, you spend a lot of time keeping score, trying to make sure you’re giving equal time, energy, and attention to things you’ve set at cross purposes. On the one hand, you have this; on the other hand, you have that; and your attention constantly swivels between the two like a spectator at a tennis match: this, that, this, that, this, that.

Balancing act

Whyte rightly suggests our lives aren’t so tidily predictable: the more we try to muscle our way to balance, the more awkward and unsteady we become, overcompensating at every turn. When we see our relationship with others, our relationship with work, and our relationship with self as being three concurrent marriages, we can acknowledge the wisdom in not keeping score. Moment by moment, tend to the relationship that needs attention at that moment, heeding your vows to all three. There’s no need to be two or even three places at once: just be fully present Here and Now, and do whatever needs doing.

Balancing act

When you don’t see your three marriages as being on opposite sides of a seesaw or tug-of-war, you eliminate the competition inherent in those metaphors. Instead, your relationships with others, work, and self comprise a three-spoked wheel that settles into its own cycle. Instead of trying to strike and hold a balance, you learn to roll with it, recognizing the ways that any marriage moves through its own moods.

The photos in today’s post come from a balancing act J and I saw at the Big Apple Circus back in 2008. I’d never seen a slack-rope walker before, so I was amazed at how wildly both the walker and the line swung from side to side. This realization that balance is achieved through motion rather than stillness inspired the answer I later gave here to a question about being grounded in one’s Zen practice.

Works by Clara Lieu

I don’t normally listen to the radio on my way to and from campus: I prefer the company of my own thoughts. But on my drive home from Curry College today, I turned on the news to fend off sleepiness, and that’s when I heard it: a verdict had been reached in the trial of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Works by Clara Lieu

The verdict was announced as I pulled into my driveway, and I sat in my car to listen to the first few counts: guilty, guilty, guilty. And just like that April day two years ago, I found myself weeping for the victims, the violence, and the sense of violation. Here in Boston, we take the Marathon bombings personally. A crime was committed in our own neighborhood, and we embrace the victims of that crime as our own.

Works by Clara Lieu

Throughout Tsarnaev’s trial, I’ve followed media reports of testimony that gave additional details of a story that hits too close to home. I repeatedly watched surveillance footage of carjack victim Dun Meng escaping from the Tsarnaev brothers at a gas station I pass every time I drive to the Zen Center, for instance, and I was stunned to learn that one of the bystanders who tended to BU graduate student Lingzi Lu as she bled to death was Dr. James Bath: J’s primary care physician, and the doctor who gave me nebulizer treatments when I had a respiratory infection last fall. I’m both sobered and saddened to realize the doctor who literally pumped breath back into my body was also there with Lingzi Lu when she breathed her last.

Works by Clara Lieu

After sitting in my car to hear the verdicts on the first few counts against Tsarnaev, I came inside, turned on the radio, and dried dishes through the rest: guilty on all thirty counts. The verdict doesn’t bring back any of the victims, nor does it restore severed limbs or bring solace to traumatized souls. Neither a verdict nor a sentence can bring closure, as some wounds are too wide to heal. But hearing a jury officially pronounce Tsarnaev guilty on all counts brought a sense that justice had been served. Whether the jury sentences Tsarnaev to death or to life in prison, the decision that matters was announced today. Having seen the destruction the Tsarnaev brothers wrought, a jury decided there is no ideology that can excuse such cruelty.

The photos illustrating today’s post come from a November exhibition of works by Clara Lieu at Framingham State University’s Mazmanian Gallery.

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