March 2017


Bulletin board

I teach early until late on Tuesdays and Thursdays this semester, with my first class starting at 8:30 am and my last class ending at 6:30 pm. This means I have a big chunk of time between my morning and afternoon classes, and I typically spend that time in my office grading papers, prepping classes, and meeting with students. On any given Tuesday or Thursday, I spend the entire day in May Hall, all my classes and office being located there.

This isn't me, but I kind of wish it was.

My Fitbit has an activity reminder that buzzes near the end of any daytime hour I haven’t logged 250 steps. When I’m teaching, there’s no need for reminders, as I pace and gesticulate, walking around the classroom and trying to keep my students awake. But during that big chunk of time between my morning and afternoon classes, when I’m in my office tending to sedentary tasks, I appreciate an occasional nudge (or buzz) to get moving.

Wire sculpture

There’s no telling how many miles I’ve walked in May Hall this semester. My office is on the second floor, and I’ve learned I can log 250 steps by going upstairs, walking through the History department on the third floor, walking through the Art department on the fourth floor, and then retracing my steps through History and back to English. If I get tired of that route, I can walk downstairs and past the first floor classrooms, through the basement with its ceramic studios and kilns, and back, taking quick peeks into the rooms I pass.

When the weather’s nicer, I’ll probably venture outside to walk around campus, but in winter time, walking laps through May Hall does the trick: it pulls me away from my desk and gets my blood moving, and it gives me an excuse to check out the art exhibits on display in the hallways and in quiet corners.

Art department stairwell

This week I heard a radio story about a former inmate who ran his first marathon in prison, logging 26.2 miles on a treadmill last April 18: Marathon Monday. This year, he’s out of prison and is running the actual Boston Marathon: same mileage, but a far more interesting route. I’ve never run a marathon, but if you can do it on a treadmill, I suppose there’s nothing stopping me from racking up 26.2 miles (eventually) in May Hall.

Notebook-finishing day

Today while writing my almost-daily journal pages, I filled one Moleskine notebook and moved onto the next. Notebook Finishing Day always feels like a special occasion: just by keeping at it, the pages fill.

Snow on the ground, new leaves on the shrubs. #signsofspring

I’m reminded of the story I re-read in Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street this morning: “Four Skinny Trees,” about the four city-planted saplings on Esperanza Cordero’s street. They teach her “how to keep” by sending down “ferocious roots.” These trees, she says, “grown down and grab the earth between their hairy toes and bite the sky with their violent teeth and never quit their anger.” It’s an image that could have been written only by a girl who had watched trees twist and toss their leafy heads in summer storms: a girl like me, or Esperanza, or Cisneros.

Almost spring

The four skinny trees give Esperanza hope when she is “too sad and too skinny to keep keeping, when I am a tiny thing against so many bricks.” The four skinny trees grow “despite concrete,” and so does Esperanza. Like the trees, she “reach[es] and do[es] not forget to reach.” This is how we all keep and keep keeping.

Emergent

I write my journal pages on paper, a product made from trees. This is, I think, part of why I like to write by hand. The touch of the page reminds me of all the trees I’ve known, like the big, branching maple tree in the courtyard of my childhood home, in whose leaves I’d play every fall: one of my closest childhood friends. Every child should have at least one tree–a big branching one, or several smaller skinny ones–to teach her how to stand, how to hold the sky, and how to keep. That last one is the most important: a lesson to last into adulthood.

Spring green

Tree at my window, window tree–why are there so many songs about rainbows, and so many poems about trees? Trees just keep keeping their quintessential tree-ness; there is no running away when you have roots. Day by day, page by page, I keep writing, most days not knowing what I want to say until the words appear under my pen: thoughts about the weather, worries about work, complaints and quibbles. All these are uttered page by page, leaf by leaf: baby leaves becoming big leaves becoming insect-eaten leaves becoming fallen leaves becoming compost. Leaves gathered in bushels and pages contained in books: this is how we keep keeping, “our only reason,” as Cisneros says, “is to be and be.”

Senator Elizabeth Warren at FSU.

On Friday night, J and I went to see Senator Elizabeth Warren hold a town hall meeting at Framingham State. It was inspiring and encouraging to see a smart, articulate legislator working in her element, answering questions from an attentive and engaged crowd.

FSU student government president Ezequiel De Leon moderates town hall meeting with Senator Elizabeth Warren

Watching Warren move around the stage as she answered questions and explained policy, I imagined how wonderful she must have been as a law school professor. (When the crowd roared at a mention of Glass-Steagall, Warren gushed, “I love a crowd who cheers for bank regulation!”) Running for Senate, Warren insisted, was never something she dreamed about: “It wasn’t on my bucket list, grocery list, or any other sort of list.” Instead, Warren’s childhood dream was to become a teacher–as a girl, she lined up her dolls and lectured to them–and even now, Warren’s inner-educator is still apparent.

We love you, Senator Warren. #elizabethwarren

When asked by an audience-member what concerned citizens can do to effect change in the Age of Trump, Warren urged everyone to stay informed and active, citing the failure of “Trumpcare” as proof that Washington does listen if people mobilize to speak out. Warren said that even though Democrats are not in control of the three branches of government, they still have their votes, voices, and values, and those Democratic values are what the majority of Americans want. (Hillary Clinton, after all, decisively won the popular vote.)

Senator Warren waves to the crowd

The most inspiring moment, however, was when Senator Warren asked who in the crowd was planning to run for office. About a third of the college-aged folks in attendance raised their hands, and everyone else cheered. Hope for the future doesn’t stand on a stage and lecture; hope for the future is sitting in the seat right next to yours. Trump’s election woke up lots of complacent citizens, and if that leads to a whole new generation of young public servants, that will be a long-term silver lining.

Desert Room, with Desert Gold Star

Yesterday on NPR, I heard a story about a super-bloom of wildflowers in the California desert: a surge of lushness caused by an unusually wet winter. I listened to this story as I loaded the dishwasher, my eyes looking out on our snowy backyard.

Congregating

Flowers in the desert seemed very far away, but that wasn’t the best part of the story. Instead, it was this: the park ranger they interviewed said these seeds had been lying underground, dormant, for decades or even centuries–that in some places now covered in flowers, they didn’t know how long it had been since it had rained.

Right then and there with my wet hands in the sink, I knew who my new heroes would be: faceless seeds, buried and smothered in arid darkness, waiting. “Nevertheless, they persisted”–cotyledons coiled in seed cases, more patient and resilient than any of the rest of us.

Spiny

Trump’s budget has felt like a kick to the gut–so much cruelty masquerading as conservatism. I get conservatism–it’s about values and sacrifice–but Trump understands neither. It’s heartbreaking to think of a party so small-hearted, it would grab food from the elderly, care from the sick, and shelter from the poor. Trump claims to be rich, but he’s the most tight-fisted man I know: a miserable miser who wants to steal beauty and kindness and compassion from the rest of us.

Desert florets

And yet, we are seeds, and we continue to grow and germinate because the “force that through the green fuse drives the flower” cannot be denied. Trump’s roots are shallow and his will weak: “Low energy! Sad!” In two years, four years, eight years–however long it takes–we seeds will sprout and flower, a super-bloom of beauty.

Letter to Maezen

The photos illustrating today’s post come from a 2012 trip to Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh. The text of today’s post comes from a letter I wrote yesterday to Karen Maezen Miller, who lives in the lushly flowering state of California. Before I sealed that letter in an envelope to mail across the country, I realized it was a letter to the world, that never wrote to me.

Thoreau with replica house

I’ve been thinking a lot these days about Henry David Thoreau. This isn’t unusual: Thoreau is one of my favorite authors, and I spent a good deal of my doctoral dissertation analyzing his writing. I have a whimsical portrait of Thoreau over my desk because he represents many of the things I personally hold dear: he was a writer and a naturalist, a walker and a rebel. In a world insistent upon choosing sides, Thoreau was both an artist and a scientist, both poetic and political, both active and contemplative. When I try to imagine a well-rounded, grounded, and self-reliant person, Thoreau is who immediately comes to mind.

Spartan

I’ve been thinking more than usual these days about Henry David Thoreau because of “Civil Disobedience,” an essay published in 1849 that inspired both Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, and “Slavery in Massachusetts,” a lesser-known essay that Thoreau first delivered as a lecture in Framingham on July 4, 1854, after escaped slave Anthony Burns was captured in Boston and sent back south. In “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau describes the night he spent in jail after refusing to pay his poll tax as a protest against the Mexican War and its expansion of slavery, and in “Slavery in Massachusetts,” he condemns Northern cooperation with the Fugitive Slave Act. In both essays, Thoreau turns his eye with all its acuity on the social ills of his day, as if politics were no less interesting than natural history. This politically engaged way of looking at the world seems particularly helpful in 2017, exactly two centuries after Thoreau was born.

Stove and two chairs

Although the popular image of Thoreau is that of a quiet misanthrope twiddling his thumbs alongside a peaceful pond, Thoreau was outspoken during the most politically tumultuous time in American history. When Thoreau wrote “Civil Disobedience” and “Slavery in Massachusetts,” the political debate over slavery was ratcheting the nation toward civil war, and Thoreau was deeply engaged in that debate. Thoreau didn’t just sit back and ignore the political issues of his day; although he cherished his solitude, Thoreau wasn’t an escapist. Instead, Thoreau figured out how to balance engagement and renewal, speaking out on political issues as he was able, but also finding time to unplug.

Desk with guestbook

Ever since the election, I’ve been spending a lot of time following news coverage and political commentary on Trump, Trumpism, and the burgeoning resistance to both. There has been a surge on the left of people trying to learn and understand everything from the demographics of the white working class to constitutional law and immigration policy. While folks on the right raced to buy guns when Obama was elected, folks on the left are now racing to read books. Unlike Trump supporters who shield themselves from “fake news” by plugging their ears to any coverage that doesn’t come straight from the President himself, people on the other side of the political divide have been reading widely and deeply, seeking multiple perspectives in an attempt to stay informed.

Thoreau's snowshoes

This attempt to stay informed, however, can get tiring: sometimes I envy the quiet complacency of the right, who can sit back and trust that America will magically become Great now that Trump is in charge. Had Hillary Clinton won the election, I would have presumably done the same, patting myself on the back for doing my civic duty at the ballot box and considering my job as a citizen to be over. Since the election, however, I find myself moonlighting as an activist, keeping a constant eye on breaking news, receiving daily text messages and emails urging me to contact elected officials on the issue du jour, and otherwise staying vigilant, ready to cancel plans and rush off to protest the latest executive order, unsettling tweet, or constitutional crisis.

Thoreau's bed and desk

In the aftermath of 9/11, people quickly learned that you can’t remain on high alert forever, but that doesn’t mean you should let yourself be lulled to sleep. Beth recently wrote about self-care during the resistance: if you plan to be an effective activist in the long run, you have to prioritize and pick your battles. This is, again, where I find Thoreau to be particularly inspiring. Thoreau spoke out against slavery, the Mexican War, and other political outrages of his day, but he also managed to take daily walks, write in his journal, keep a careful chronicle of wild flora and fauna, and tend his garden. Thoreau, in other worlds, figured out a way to simultaneously exist and resist.

Weathered

What Thoreau didn’t do, of course, was stay inside glued to either CNN or his Facebook feed: instead, he was outside and active. A lot of modern-day critics of Thoreau argue (rightfully) that his activism was largely symbolic: the single night in jail Thoreau describes in “Civil Disobedience” didn’t single-handedly bring down slavery. But just because an act of protest is symbolic doesn’t mean it is isn’t powerful, as many of the accoutrements of power are themselves symbolic.

Peace

Donald Trump didn’t magically become a different man when he raised his hand and took the oath of office, but that symbolic action marked a monumental transition of power. Some of the most alarming news items these days stem not from official policy Trump and his administration has enacted, but the tone-setting influence of angry rants and recklessly worded tweets. Words are nothing more than symbols, but that doesn’t mean words don’t matter.

Adirondack Writers' Guild

By writing about his night in jail, Thoreau preserved it for the ages, reminding generation after generation that “under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” The concept of civil disobedience–Thoreau’s insistence that the government is a machine, and private citizens can strip government of its power by intentionally becoming a “counter-friction to stop the machine”–is not new or earth-shattering: had Thoreau not written “Civil Disobedience,” both King and Gandhi would have found inspiration elsewhere.

Henry David Thoreau's grave

But the fact remains that Thoreau did write this essay: he planted a seed. The tree of peaceful protest would have found some other method of germination had Thoreau never tended it, but he was a faithful servant in freedom’s garden. A solitary and sometimes cantankerous man, Thoreau probably never envisioned the communal movements that both King and Gandhi led: what started as one man spending one night in jail has inspired massive collective movements that have changed the world. Even the largest earthquake starts with a tiny tremor.

February

History is neither a marathon or sprint; instead, history is a relay race. Thoreau did nothing more than pick up the baton of justice and pass it on, and we should expect nothing less of ourselves. It’s important to show up–to engage in faithful, regular deeds, even if those deeds are small–as a way of claiming our priorities. It is not necessary to do everything, but do not fail to do something. As you are able, act. If you cannot act, speak up; if you cannot speak up, listen. If you can neither act, speak up, nor listen, by all means pray. Remain faithful in small things, and trust your acts will be echoed by others, achieving a cumulative effect. We’re in this for the long haul, and there is a need for all sorts of acts and activism.

Stella through raindrops

Winter storm Stella arrived this morning, right on schedule: the tracking of storms has gotten so reliable, we’ve known for days Stella was on her way, bringing with her over a foot of snow and blizzard-force winds. Although local stores were flooded yesterday with shoppers buying armloads of bread, milk, and eggs, I’d done my grocery shopping on Friday, well in advance of the last minute rush. J and I have weathered enough winter storms, we know the drill.

Front walkway

A few days before a big storm, J and I make sure we have a week’s supply of groceries and other essentials: pity the folks who get snowed-in without toilet paper, kitty litter, or aspirin. We check our flashlights and battery-powered radios, fully charge our phones and other devices, and stock up on library books and Kindle downloads.

If a storm sounds particularly daunting, I’ll make sure my car has a full tank of gas in case we lose electricity and need to use a car-charger to power our phones, and I’ll withdraw some extra cash in case ATMs and credit card machines are down. The day before the storm, J will bring the snowblower onto the back porch so it’s ready to clear a path to freedom, and I’ll park my car at the end of the driveway, just in case the snowblower dies and I have to “Subaru-through” to the cleared road.

Midday

The truth is, we’ve rarely needed these extreme measures: when we’ve lost power in past storms, service has been quickly restored, and we’ve never been snowed-in for days. In an emergency, we could probably survive a week or more on the staples we keep in our pantry. But when the wind is rattling the windows and a billowing blur of tiny snowflakes is falling as fine as sifted flour, there is comfort in knowing the cupboards are stocked and the home fires are stoked.

Antique instruments

Last week, J and I went to a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert:  the last of three such concerts we’ve gone to this season.  The program featured a symphony by Sibelius and a piano concerto by Busoni, two composers I wasn’t familiar with.  The soloist who played the Busoni piece, Kirill Gerstein, was amazing:  the concerto was long, fast, and complicated, and Gerstein performed it without sheet music, committing more than 70 minutes of emphatic, keyboard-pounding music to muscle-memory.

I don’t know much about classical music, and during any given concert, my mind sometimes wanders.  But I’m always inspired by the mastery both regular symphony members and visiting soloists demonstrate as they perform long, intricately orchestrated pieces.  I’m not a musician, so playing an instrument seems difficult enough, and playing an instrument in unison with an entire orchestra of others seems downright miraculous.

Antique instruments

My favorite moments in any concert are the quiet ones, when all eyes are on the conductor and you can almost hear the musicians holding their collective breath.  These expectant moments thrill me in a way the dramatic crescendos and flourishes do not.  Playing loudly seems easy enough:  even I could make a lot of noise with a horn or drum.  But it takes talent and a well-tamed temperament to ride the crests and troughs of a well-written concerto, the music and surging and subsiding in unexpected and ultimately satisfying ways.

 

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