October 2015

Empty classroom with mannequins

It’s Halloween night, and as usual our quiet suburban neighborhood has transformed itself into an eerie landscape adorned with fake tombstones, plastic skeletons, and all sorts of dangling ghosts, witches, and ghouls. But sometimes the simplest things can be the creepiest, like this quiet coven of dress forms clustered in an empty classroom at Framingham State. What do naked dummies do after their fashion design students have gone home for the night?


I’ve been spending lots of between-class time this semester in Framingham State’s new science center, Hemenway Labs. Although I’m not a member of the science department, two of my first-year writing classes meet in the classroom building that is connected to Hemenway Labs, and during last month’s heat wave, it was more comfortably air-conditioned there than in my office in the much-older May Hall.

Tete a tete

The new science center’s classrooms and laboratories surround an airy atrium that is lit from floor-to-ceiling windows on both ends and narrow skylights overhead. On every level, there are lounge chairs and tables overlooking either the interior atrium or the campus outside. Depending on where you choose to sit, you are afforded excellent views of students studying several floors below, passersby strolling on bricked pathways outside, or the branching boughs of mature oak trees in the quad.

My office in the English Department is perfectly functional: May Hall is centrally located, so it’s easy for students to find me during my office hours. But the desk in my office faces a wall, giving me a view of the hallway rather than the world outside, and the windows in my office let in light but don’t offer much in the way of a view. Facing a wall is fine and good when you’re prepping classes, meeting with students, or grading papers, but when I write, I appreciate a more expansive view.

Lounge with a view

In Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” one waiter tries to convince another that lone souls both crave and deserve bright, open, and public places where they can congregate and converse: places to enjoy alone, together. The architects who designed Hemenway Labs clearly understood that. When I’m holed away in my office, my students have to seek me out, but when I sit in one of the science center lounges, quietly working on my laptop, I exist in one of the places they frequent, surrounded by the conversations that happen outside of any class.

Beneath Echo Bridge

Yesterday was a brisk and brilliant October day, so J and I walked from our house to Hemlock Gorge and back.  Nestled along the Charles River near the junction of Routes 9 and 128, Hemlock Gorge is a hidden jewel that offers a pocket of wildness is an otherwise suburban setting.  I drive past Hemlock Gorge five days a week on my way to teach, so it’s a delight to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon walking there, soaking in the golden light of autumn.

Leaf-strewn stairs

Shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” is a Japanese term for the restorative practice of spending time in nature.  We’ve reached the point of the semester where my students are submitting essay drafts faster than I can grade them, so I welcome any excuse to step away from my paper-piles and into the woods, even for a short time.  An afternoon walk along a river fringed with trees is therapeutic, the natural world going about its business in blithe disregard of human tasks and to-do lists.  For the brief time you’re outside, walking, the obligations awaiting you at home don’t exist, and all that matters is the whisper of wind through the trees and the dapple of sunlight on water.

Autumn reflections

Welcome home, Frankie

J and I have said goodbye to three cats this year–Scooby in March, Louie in May, and Snowflake in September–and during this same time, we’ve adopted three new cats. It might seem insensitive or even crass to replace pets in this fashion, as if animal souls were interchangeable, but this isn’t how J and I see it. We know more than anyone that each animal has its own unique personality that can’t be swapped out like replacement parts, but for each pet that dies, a place opens up. In a home accustomed to caring for eight cats, it seems heartless or even cruel to keep our heart shut against any newcomers, each passing pet freeing up a place in the lifeboat that is our house.

Nina in all her fluffy glory

Our new pets aren’t replacements for our old pets; instead, they are their legacy. I suppose when a grieving family donates their loved one’s organs to a needy recipient, they feel a similar sort of comfort: another life can be saved because of the one we’ve let go. When Scooby died, we needed a roommate for Groucho, who was isolated his own part of the house because he couldn’t get along with Snowflake; when Louie died, we adopted Bobbi because Snowflake had taught us we can indeed take care of a diabetic cat. When Snowflake died, we adopted Frankie because Bobbi taught us that we can handle (and even give insulin injections to) a cat who would rather scratch than be petted, and who else but an experienced hand could handle that? With each pet we adopt, care for, then ultimately lose, we stretch our understanding of what we can handle, the limits of human patience being infinitely expandable.


Nina was toothless and scrawny when we adopted her, Bobbi had diabetes and no tail, and Frankie comes to us with one eye and the chance that she still has cancer. Looking at a shelter full of pets, J and I invariably are drawn to the ones with the saddest stories: who other than a family with lots of experience with veterinary and behavioral issues would have hearts huge enough for such a challenge?

Frankie says relax

I don’t believe in ghosts, but there are times when I see our dead pets living in the bodies of their replacements: not a transmigration of souls, exactly, but a kind of transmogrification. Now that she’s overcome her initial shyness, Nina sometimes rushes toward me for petting when I enter the room, just as Scooby did, and if I squint my eyes just right, I can see Louie’s ginger and white fur beneath Bobbi’s black blotches. Mere days after we’d brought skittish little Frankie home with dire warnings about her antisocial temperament, she ventured timidly into my lap, gingerly stepping onto my thighs and then settling herself down to be petted, just as Snowflake did. What better way to commemorate the lives we’ve lost not with replacements but with proteges–a legacy of love passed from one generation to another?