May 2017


Sprawling oak

The week after spring semester grades are due is devoted to faculty meetings, retreats, and professional development workshops: a chance to sit and talk with colleagues you’ve seen only in passing the rest of the semester. Although I’m no fan of meetings, I appreciate the chance to debrief after the end of a busy semester: what worked? What didn’t? What do we want to do moving forward?

Parking structure

If nothing else, a week of meetings gives faculty a chance to enjoy campus when it is at its lush and leafy best, without any students around to appreciate it. Having pushed so hard to finish the semester and its great gush of final grading, I find it soothing to be around the simple surety of leafing trees and greening grass.

By any other name

This year for Mother’s Day, I did something I’ve never done before: I bought myself flowers. J and I don’t have children, but I spend a lot of time tending our animals, so when I was doing this week’s grocery shopping, I picked up a mixed bouquet for myself, from the pets. I’m not a mother, I decided, but I spend a lot of time and energy on the kinds of things that mothers do, a wide swath of my life devoted to feeding, cleaning, tending, and errand-running.

Gracie peekaboo. #catsofinstagram #graciethecat

Several weeks ago, one of my students asked me point-blank: am I childless by choice, or was I unable to have children? Normally, this might seem to be an impertinent question, but this particular group of students and I have read and discussed texts about a wide range of sensitive topics, and we’ve built a rapport.

“Choice,” I answered, and she nodded. I explained that I’d always known that I didn’t want kids: when adults told me I’d acquire maternal instincts when I was older, or when my biological clock went off, I inwardly disagreed, and I was right. Some people have always known they are gay, and I’ve always known that I wasn’t cut out to be a mother. It’s a vocation I was never called to.

All ears. #dogsofinstagram #cassiethedog #whitegermanshepherd

It’s difficult, of course, for a woman to openly admit she doesn’t want children: women were put on this earth, some would argue, to have and tend to children. Years ago when I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, a Korean woman who lived there with her two children was horrified to learn that my then-husband and I didn’t have kids of our own. “A woman needs children to experience the universe,” she declared, but she relented when she learned I was in graduate school studying to become a professor. “Oh, you’re a teacher,” she exclaimed with an air of relief. “You will experience the universe through your students!”

Cuddle buddies. #catsofinstagram #gumbothecat #ninathecat

I’m not sure a woman needs children, students, or even pets to experience the universe: I think being alive and awake and aware is enough. But perhaps some people (men and women alike) need occasional reminders that a universe exists outside themselves. I don’t know what it’s like to raise children, but I do know that tending animals constantly reminds me that I am but one tiny creature on an enormous planet of need, and my well-being is intrinsically connected with that of my fellow creatures. Perhaps that is a lesson we all can take from mothers and Mother’s Day.

Today’s photos show a handful of our pets: Gracie playing peekaboo under a loveseat, Cassie looking alert, and Gumbo and Nina sitting side by side.

The little reader, reading @newtonfreelibrary

One of the things that always makes me eager to finish my end-term grading piles are the piles of books I’ve stockpiled for summer. You might think grading piles of exams and essays would make me grow sour on reading, but actually the opposite is true. The more student writing I read, the more I want to immerse myself in writing done by professionals.

To me, reading is like watering a plant. It’s true that my brain won’t die if I don’t read books, essays, and articles on a wide range of topics, but I sincerely believe it will start to shrivel. Throughout the semester, I try to read at least a little bit every day, and I intentionally try to be as eclectic as possible in my choices. The point of reading isn’t to underscore the things you already know; it’s to stretch your thinking in new directions.

Elliptical staircase

I make a habit of keeping my phone nearby when I listen to public radio so I can quickly lookup and add to my Goodreads “to-read” list (and then request from the library) any titles mentioned that pique my curiosity, and I do the same whenever I watch or read the news. The people I most admire are the ones who never stop learning, and the way I feed my inner lifelong learner is through a long queue of library books.

I encounter a surprising number of would-be writers who claim they hate to read, arguing that reading others’ work will only drown out their own voice. To me, this is a ludicrous claim. Writers improve not through isolation but immersion. Just as would-be musicians can easily name their favorite bands, would-be writers should be well-versed in the words and ideas of others. Writing isn’t about speaking into a vacuum; it’s about jumping into a conversation, so it helps to be well-read (and thus well-conversant) on a variety of topics.

Origami cranes from above

So, what’s currently on my reading pile? At the moment I’m hurrying to finish Elizabeth Warren’s latest book before it’s due back at the library, and I’m looking forward to the other checkouts in my bag: Perfect Strangers, Roseann Sdoia’s memoir of the Boston Marathon bombing; Born a Crime, Trevor Noah’s memoir from his South African childhood; and The Nature Fix, Florence Williams’ exploration of the science behind nature’s curative powers. After that, I’ll read whichever of the books I’ve requested from the library shows up first: a series of summer surprises to keep my brain fed until fall.

Baltimore oriole

I taught my final class of the semester last Thursday, and today I collected my first batch of final portfolios. In between, I spent the weekend catching up on sleep, readying myself for this week’s final onslaught of paper-grading.

Halcyon Lake

I never know how to describe the final weeks of the semester. Are things winding up, or are they winding down? My students’ anxiety and caffeine levels are rising as they study for exams and submit final papers and projects, but other academic activities are slowing to a halt. At the end of every semester, I look forward to Finals Week, when I have piles of papers to read but no classes, committee meetings, or other academic obligations.

Robin in redbud

So whether the semester is winding up or down, I’m looking forward to a chance to unwind. Last week I met Leslee at Mount Auburn Cemetery for a quick walk after work: the first time I’d been there all semester. It was delightful to take a brief stroll among flowers and birdsong before heading back to my desk, a cup of tea, and my waiting paper-piles.

Bleeding hearts

The past few days have been wet, with weather that alternates between mist, drizzle, and outright rain. This morning was foggy and damp, and even now the trees are still dripping with moisture.

Lilacs

Drippy spring days when you can almost hear the grass greening always remind me of Genesis 2, where God plants a garden “in the east, in Eden,” where “no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth.” Eden is a paradise because it is lush and well-watered, with streams that “came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground.”

In the midst of a lush spring, it’s easy to believe in an Edenic garden where there is no shortage of water and the plants all but water themselves.

Pieris - flowers and new leaves

I suppose it’s appropriate that the busiest time of spring semester corresponds with a sudden eruption of spring plant growth. Everywhere I look, there are flowers opening and leaves unfolding: a surge of chlorophyll after months of barrenness.

New Pieris leaves

The Japanese pieris in our front yard has been blooming for weeks, and now it’s sprouted gangling whorls of new leaves that gesture from the tips of branches like tiny jazz hands. Yesterday my car windshield was dotted with castoff Norway maple flowers, and today our backyard oaks are dangling catkins that will eventually become autumn acorns.

New Pieris leaves

While both the trees and earth itself are erupting in greenery, my students are pumping out a seemingly endless supply of papers and projects and portfolios for me to read. For months, both my students and the earth itself procrastinated, and now there’s a mad, sudden tumble of productivity: page after page and leaf after leaf materializing as if out of nowhere.