April 2017


Daffodil field

When A (not her real initial) and I went to the Tower Hill Botanic Garden back in October to see Patrick Dougherty’s stickwork installation The Wild Rumpus, we didn’t know more than 25,000 daffodil bulbs were quietly sleeping beneath a grassy field we passed along the way. Yesterday, that field of daffodils was blooming, and the flowers were buzzing with families, photographers, and parents posing their babies for pictures.

Pigsqueak bergenia

Spring is a season of surprises. Throughout the long months of winter, the earth lies bare and barren, completely devoid of the lushness of summer. It’s easy to think the earth is dead or depleted, Persephone descended to the Underworld forevermore.

But the earth never tires, nor does she forget. When the days lengthen and the soft rains come, something underground starts to stir. Out of barren dirt, green shoots appear, then leaves, buds, and flowers. In Zen, we say that when spring comes, the grass grows by itself, and that truism applies to daffodils as well. When spring comes, the flowers open by themselves.

Here's looking at you

Yesterday was Earth Day, and I spent the day at home nursing a cold rather than participating in the March for Science on Boston Common. As I skimmed friends’ photos and social media posts, I told myself I was there in spirit: scientists, after all, share many of my passions, and before I ended up as an English major, I’d briefly intended to major in biology. Although my spirit was willing to convene on the Common yesterday with other science-supporters, however, my cold-clogged lungs were weak.

Amber magnified

I’m careful about colds: as an asthmatic, I have to be. Two and a half years ago, I almost died from a cold that settled into my lungs: when I showed up at my doctor’s office breathless and trembling, my doctor checked my blood oxygen levels and marveled I’d been able to drive my car without passing out. Two and a half years ago, my doctor saved my life through the miracle of science: two nebulizer treatments and a round of antibiotics he urged me to start the second the pharmacist filled the prescription. Because of science, I didn’t die from a cold that developed into bronchitis, as many folks did in the days before modern medicine.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

As a student of American literature, I’m saddened by the now-curable maladies that routinely claimed lives in the nineteenth century. When Samuel Clemens was 11 years old, for example, his father got caught in a rainstorm and died of pneumonia. Three of young Clemens’ siblings had died from childhood diseases, so he did his part to help support his widowed mother by dropping out of school and becoming a newspaper apprentice. Young Samuel Clemens grew up to become Mark Twain, but how might his life have been different if his siblings and father had survived?

Harvard Museum of Natural History

In the days before modern medicine, lethal dangers lurked everywhere. Henry David Thoreau’s brother, John, died from tetanus, which he contracted after cutting himself while shaving, and Thoreau himself battled tuberculosis–consumption, a positively Victorian ailment–for much of his adult life. Thoreau’s case strikes me as particularly tragic, as the bronchitis that ultimately led to his death started as a cold he’d caught after a late-night hike.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

If the Thoreau brothers were alive today, John’s tetanus would have been prevented by a vaccine and Thoreau’s bronchitis treated with antibiotics. Had Henry Thoreau survived the bronchitis that took his life, what more might he have accomplished? Thoreau was more than a writer: he was also a citizen-scientist whose meticulous records of the blooming times of wildflowers in and around Concord, Massachusetts continue to contribute to our understanding of the evidence-based reality that is climate change. Had Thoreau lived to a ripe old age, who knows what more he might have contributed.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

It strikes me as deeply ironic and downright sad that science-deniers doubt so selectively. Donald Trump doesn’t believe the science behind climate change, but believes the science that flies his plane to and from Mar-a-Lago nearly every weekend, and he believes the science behind his smartphone’s Twitter app. Trump doesn’t believe the scientists who have proven vaccines don’t cause autism, but he trusts the scientists who developed the drug he takes to combat baldness. Apparently Trump believes saving his hair is more important than saving the planet.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

Before I was prescribed one of the asthma medication I currently take, I couldn’t walk a block without getting winded. As he wrote me a prescription for montelukast, my then-doctor said he had met at a conference one of the researchers who had helped develop it. “They deserve a Nobel Prize,” he proclaimed, and I agree. Whenever I swallow my daily asthma meds or take a puff from my rescue inhaler, I silently bless the scientists who developed the drugs that literally put air back in my lungs. Science isn’t some abstract, Ivory Tower pursuit: it’s an endeavor that saves and improves the quality of actual people’s lives.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

Everyone is free, of course, to follow the alternative facts of their choosing, but I sure as heck hope my mechanic, surgeon, plumber, and pilot root themselves in evidence-based reality: give me facts over alt-facts any day. In the Bizarro World that is Trump’s America, some folks believe the bolder the Tweet, the “truthier” it is. But a loud lie is still untrue, regardless of how many people fall for it. There might be a sucker born every minute, but I hope a couple of scientists are born just as often, too.

Click here to see more photos from a 2014 trip to the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Enjoy!

Glory of the snow

After surviving the winter without succumbing to any of the colds, flu, or other ailments that have run rampant among my students this semester, I felt the first scratch and tickle of a sore throat on Wednesday night. Ever since, I’ve been drinking lots of herbal tea, doubling down on Vitamin C, and dissolving zinc tablets under my tongue. I don’t know if any of these home remedies are actually effective in fighting the common cold, but I honestly don’t care. Given the choice between the placebo effect and nothing at all, I’ll opt for a placebo any day.

Scilla

Perhaps the curative value of chicken soup, hot tea and lemon, and other home remedies isn’t the remedy itself but the care and coddling that accompanies it. When I was a child, there was nothing more soothing than the smell of the Vick’s VapoRub my mom would slather on my chest whenever I caught a cold. Tucked into bed with a vaporizer filling my room with mentholated steam, I’d dutifully swallow a vile-tasting tablespoon of Nyquil before coughing and sniffling my way to sleep. Whether or not these medicines cured my cold or merely masked its symptoms, they made me feel well-tended and content.

Now that I’m all grown up, I tend to myself when I’m sick. Last week at the grocery store, I bought a “just in case” box of echinacea tea: a purchase that now seems amazingly prescient. It seems my own inner-mother has been looking out for me all along.

Nothing is stronger than love

Today is Patriots’ Day–Marathon Monday–so J and I walked to our usual spot on Commonwealth Avenue here in Newton to watch today’s Boston Marathon. The daffodils and crowds of spectators were both out in force, it being a beautifully mild, sunny day.

We run as one for Martin Richard

I took the usual assortment of photos–pictures of runners, wheelchair racers, runners pushing teammates in wheelchairs, cute dogs, clever signs, and people handing things out. Every year, there are spectators who stand on the edge of the course handing out slices of fruit, cups of water, wet paper towels, and handfuls of ice. Even though there are official water stations and medical tents offering pretty much anything a runner could need, bystanders go to great lengths to lend a hand to passing runners, the same folks and families showing up each year to offer handouts.

The ice guy

I normally think of running as a solitary sport: it’s just you, the road, and the sounds of your own two feet as you try to settle into your own stride. But watching the Boston Marathon makes me think that perhaps running–at least long-distance running–is actually a team endeavor. Yes, you and your sneakers might be out there pounding the pavement on your own, your mind providing its own endlessly looping soundtrack of self-encouragement: You can do it! Push through the pain! Pace yourself, pace yourself! But beyond this inner loop is another, louder litany fed by others: the cheering of strangers and the well-wishes of friends.

Orange slices

It can be difficult to remember your training over the long haul: there occasionally are lonely miles when we all yearn for encouragement. Anyone motivated (or crazy) enough could run the Boston Marathon course pretty much any day of the year if they were willing to dodge cars and swerve around pedestrians. On any other day, you’d be just another jogger, just another runner training for that long race in April. Only on Marathon Monday do entire towns (literally) stop traffic on your behalf, closing down schools and businesses so there will be plenty of people on the sidelines, on your team, cheering and pulling for you, some anonymous stranger they’ve never met.

Wet paper towels

After the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, security for subsequent races has been tight: you’re always aware at the back of your mind of the state police officers and military police in their black uniforms, watching. While the rest of us clap and cheer, security officials stay on high alert, looking for anything unusual.

Blue and yellow mohawk

This year, after terror attacks in Nice, Berlin, and Stockholm taught us all that hijacked vehicles can be used as weapons, authorities here in Newton beefed up the barricades blocking off roads leading to the marathon route. The giant plow-equipped salt-trucks parked where there used to be sawhorses and parked police cruisers were clearly intended to send a message to anyone thinking they might plow a vehicle into runners and spectators: Not so fast, buster.

Road block

Although it is obviously (and perhaps sadly) necessary to have police, medical personnel, and other official helpers on hand to ensure a safe and smooth race, what I want to remember from today’s Marathon are the unofficial helpers: the folks who decide to hand out water, ice, or fruit simply because they had those things on hand and other folks needed them. We appreciate that people in the helping professions show up and do their jobs, but that doesn’t excuse the rest of us from lending a hand.

Have a drink

Click here for more photos from today’s Boston Marathon. Enjoy!

Daffodils

Monday is Patriots’ Day, also known as Marathon Monday: my favorite day of the year. Boston is a city of champions, and although I love cheering for all our teams, the Boston Marathon is my favorite sporting event because it encompasses the entire range of athletic achievement. On Monday, there will be elite runners from all over the world pushing themselves to compete at the highest level of their sport, and there will also be countless ordinary folks happy simply to drag themselves across the finish line.

Rhododendrons in bloom.

On Marathon Monday, there are no losers. Even if you are the last to cross the finish line, you can brag forevermore that you ran Boston. And even if you don’t finish the race, there is the comfort of having tried your best, along with the camaraderie of being in an exclusive club. The process of earning a Boston Marathon bib is its own kind of accomplishment, and anyone in possession of one earns the right to swagger.

I’ve never run a marathon, and I doubt I ever will: I’m too slow-moving and asthmatic, my stocky legs built for walking, not running. But even sedentary spectators like me “win” on Marathon Monday. Patriots’ Day often falls on one of the first warm-weather days in Boston, and simply being outside after another long winter feels like an eagerly awaited award.

Almost. #signsofspring #daffodils

On Marathon Monday, locals shake off their winter dust and get down to the business of serious spectating. Patriots’ Day celebrates a revolution that gave birth to a union, and Marathon Monday celebrates the ongoing promise of a solemn social contract. You run; we watch. You sweat; we hold out cups of water. You limp; we urge you along with drums and signs, cowbells and kisses.

For one day, anyone in sneakers is a rockstar superhero, and for one day, New Englanders’ famous reserve melts in the spring sunshine as neighbors come outside, unfold like new leaves, and Get Loud, cheering our collective self hoarse. Marathon Monday is my favorite day of the year because in a city of champions, everyone comes together and everyone wins.

New leaves

I rarely write my journal pages first thing in the morning: there are too many other things to do. On teaching days, I get up, immediately start my kitchen chores, give Bobbi her breakfast, shower and dress, then give Bobbi her insulin right before I head off to campus. On days when I work from home, I sleep later, give Bobbi her breakfast and insulin first thing, and then do my kitchen chores. In either case, “kitchen chores” and “tend diabetic cat” come before “sit down and write,” and I’ve made peace with that. This is the shape of my life these days, and a daily writing practice needs to conform itself to any shape.

Spring green

On mornings when I’m working from home and J has a morning meeting, however, we get up hours earlier than usual, and I meditate then write in my journal before setting foot in the kitchen. When I write my journal pages first thing, I either focus on whatever I did, read, or thought the previous day–a narrative debrief–or I rehearse in writing the tasks of the coming day. When I write my journal pages first thing, in other words, I often don’t have much to say because the day is young: the house is quiet, the neighbors are still asleep, and my notebook and desk feel like the center of a dormant universe.

Honeysuckle leaves

Julia Cameron, whose book The Artist’s Way had a big influence on my life at a time when I was stuck in nearly every way, insists that morning pages be written first thing in the morning, before anything else. (I picture Cameron waking alone in bed, wearing a peignoir and swaddled in satin sheets, her journal on a nearby nightstand so she can scribble pages before her feet touch the floor.) But even before I had a diabetic cat and kitchen chores to tend to, Cameron’s approach never seemed entirely practical: dogs’ bladders take precedent over journal pages, and when I lived at the Zen Center, morning practice came first. Anyone with pets, a spouse, children, or a meditation practice might understandably struggle with Cameron’s insistence that writing in one’s journal take priority over everything else.

Spring leaves

Fortunately, before I’d ever heard of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, I’d already read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Goldberg’s only rule about journal pages is that you keep your hand moving. Goldberg doesn’t care whether you write your journal pages in the morning, noon, or night; she simply urges you to write them quickly and with no mind to mistakes. For years, I shared Goldberg’s fondness for writing in cafes: my first consideration in choosing a new purse was the question “Will my notebook fit inside?” Nowadays, my journal lives at home and I only occasionally write elsewhere, but I long ago internalized Natalie Goldberg’s insistence to write not just early, but often.

Leafing

The beauty of journal pages is that they are, indeed, your own: various practitioners have their own rules and admonitions, but those basically boil down to “just do it.” This morning when I wrote my journal pages, the neighborhood was alive with a predawn chorus: cardinal, titmouse, crow, chickadee, robin, junco, goldfinch, nuthatch, house sparrow, and an occasional emphatic turkey. At one point, the other birds quieted while a white-throated sparrow whistled his clear, simple song: an avian aria I associate with distant alpine environments, too secretive for suburbs. These songs entered my ear then flowed out as ink onto the page: a secret stream of solitude to start the day.

First forsythia

Today I opened the windows. That sounds like an ordinary, unremarkable thing, but anyone who has lived in New England (or anywhere with seemingly interminable winters) knows that Opening Day is a momentous occasion. For the first time in months, I can sit at my desk and listen to birds singing, cars driving down the street, and cyclists, joggers, and pedestrians chatting as they pass. (“We’ll have maple syrup,” one unseen passerby says to another: can it get more quintessentially New England than that?)

Today I opened the windows

Today I wore sandals, cropped pants, and a long-sleeved shirt: long sleeves because of a brisk breeze that still carries a hint of chill, but sleeves I could roll up in the warm sunshine. Today I drove to campus for a midday meeting, and I didn’t care how far away I had to park: simply being outside in the fresh air, sunshine, and birdsong was divine.

Right now as I type these words, I make a mental list of the outdoor sounds I hear: chirping house sparrows, a trilling cardinal, a distant chainsaw, innumerable passing cars. Tomorrow or the next day or the next, these sounds will become background noise: a distraction to tune out while I’m working. But today, these are the most beautiful sounds in the world.

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