April 2023

Time to Bloom

Last night I finished re-reading Judy Blume’s classic coming-of-age novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret in advance of (eventually) seeing the new movie adaptation. Although Blume’s book is tame by modern standards, it was a pivotal part of my adolescence: a book that talked out loud about the things girls like me were thinking.

I’d expected to be disappointed by the book, given how nostalgia can shift your perspective: surely a book that seemed epic when I was an adolescent wouldn’t have the same power today. Instead, I was thoroughly charmed. Re-reading Are You There God? made me remember how much I resonated with eleven-year-old Margaret Simon even though on the surface, our lives were very different.

Unlike Margaret, I wasn’t eager to start my period; instead of seeing menstruation as an exciting rite of passage, my adolescent self accurately predicted that getting your period would be a nuisance. Like Margaret, I was eager to start wearing a bra, but not because I belonged to a secret club where wearing a bra was a requirement for membership. Instead, wearing a bra made my middle-school self feel a little less awkward during gym class, where everyone could see what was (or wasn’t) under your clothes when you changed.

Re-reading Are You There God? reminded me that what I resonated with most in Margaret’s story was her spiritual struggle. Judy Blume gained my trust by talking about bras and boys and periods–the things I was too ashamed to mention out loud–and she used that trust to talk about another taboo topic, religion. Margaret isn’t “just” struggling with puberty; she’s also struggling with faith. As a girl raised without religion by a Christian mother and Jewish father, Margaret is trying to figure out where she fits as a girl who prays to God as comfortably as she interacts with her beloved grandmother.

Unlike Margaret, I never had to question what faith I belonged to: my upbringing was entirely Catholic. But like Margaret, I was unmoved by church services, and I often wondered whether God was really listening to the prayers I spontaneously said every night. Then and now, I resonate with Margaret’s claim that she feels God’s presence most strongly when she is alone, and I admire her child-like faith in an entity she can (and does) talk to about anything.

Modern readers accustomed to children’s and young adult titles that explore Deep Topics rightly note that Margaret doesn’t grapple with any pressing social issues: she doesn’t pray for world peace, nor does she beg God to save the planet. A girl growing up in an intact family in a middle-class suburb, Margaret doesn’t have to worry about crime, poverty, or other social ills. Her concerns are entirely self-absorbed and small in the larger scheme of things. Margaret frets that she’s slow to develop, and she worries about boys and her first kiss…but she doesn’t have to worry about coming out as gay or trans, and when she does confide in her mother about her concerns, her mother is supportive.

But even though Margaret’s worries are small potatoes, one lesson of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is this: God cares about small potatoes. Margaret talks to God about both her developing body and her religious questions. She reminds readers of all ages that there is no real distinction between spiritual concerns and “merely” bodily ones. God is there to hear them all.

Two crane flies

Yesterday after I finished teaching my afternoon class at Framingham State, I noticed not one but two palm-sized crane flies on the chalkboard at the front of the room. As my students packed up their things to leave, I quietly took several photos, which immediately drew attention to the Big Bugs at the front of the room.

Two crane flies

Ewww, what are those?
Dude, look at that!
Man, where did they come from?

As I calmly explained that crane flies look like enormous mosquitoes but are harmless, one of my students added that they are sometimes called “mosquito hawks,” a name that makes them sound much more dangerous than they actually are.

Crane fly on chalkboard

As several students took pictures of their own on their way out the door, I pointed to the open windows where the flies had presumably entered. It’s a jungle out there, and when the windows are open, there is nothing stopping it from being a jungle inside, as well.

Honeysuckle buds

It’s the last week of classes at Babson and the penultimate week at Framingham State, and I’m beyond ready for the semester to be done. There comes a time every semester when you run out of things to teach. Students have their final project guidelines, and I have told them (repeatedly) what they need to do to complete those projects. Now it’s time for my students to do (or not do) the things I’ve told them.

This weekend I posted my last big batch of rough draft feedback; today and tomorrow I’ll post several smaller batches. In class this week and next, I’ll read students’ work and offer more feedback as they revise, and my email inbox will ebb and flow with a steady pulse of students sending drafts for yet more feedback. The last few weeks of the semester are a repetitive ritual of me reading drafts, making comments, then sending students off to Do The Thing they need to do, which is think more deeply then revise accordingly.

In this sense, being a college writing instructor is more akin to coaching than teaching. Yes, I can share my knowledge and experience as someone who has spent more time reading, researching, writing, and revising than my students have been alive, but ultimately I can’t write my students’ papers for them. Instead, I sit on the proverbial sidelines and try to direct, correct, and encourage. Okay, team: here’s what I want you to do. Now, go out there and do it.

2023 Boston Marathon

This morning, before J and I watched this year’s Boston Marathon from our usual spot on Commonwealth Avenue between Miles 18 and 19 here in Newton, I read a New York Times article by runner Matthew Futterman describing what it’s like to run Boston: not any marathon in general, but the route from Hopkinton to Boston in particular.

2023 Boston Marathon

Futterman mentions how rural the western end of the route is, and how lovely it is to pass Lake Cochituate, with water and scenic views on both sides of the road. He mentions how you can hear the infamous Scream Tunnel at Wellesley College a half mile or more before you reach it, and he recited every Marathoner’s favorite description of the turn onto the home stretch: Right on Hereford, Left on Boylston.

2023 Boston Marathon

The most memorable line of the article, though, is what Futterman said about the iconic Citgo sign in Kenmore Square: “At the top of Heartbreak Hill in Mile 20 of the race, the Citgo sign outside Fenway Park, roughly a mile from the finish, comes into view. It looks so close and so, so far.” When you see the Citgo sign, you know you’re almost to the finish line in Copley Square…but you’re not there yet.

2023 Boston Marathon

Although I’ve never run the Boston (or any) Marathon, Futterman’s words rang true for me. Oh, yes, I know that feeling. Patriots’ Day always happens at the busiest, most exhausting time of the semester. You’re sooooo ready for summer break, but it’s not here yet.

2023 Boston Marathon

Just as a veteran runner can tell you how many miles and what kind of terrain they must traverse between one landmark and the next, I can tell you exactly how many teaching days there are between now and summer break: Six at Framingham, Three at Babson. But there is so much distance to cover between now and Done, and I can’t skip a single step.

2023 Boston Marathon

2023 Boston Marathon

CLICK HERE to see all my photos from today’s Boston Marathon. Enjoy!

Bloodroot surrounded by pachysandra

My Comp I students are starting to write their final “Theory of Writing” project, and to prepare I’ve asked them to read novelist Zadie Smith talking about the craft of writing. In her essay, Smith describes something she calls OPD, or Obsessive Perspective Disorder, which she faces whenever she starts a new novel and has to figure out what perspective to tell the story from.

Since my students aren’t writing novels, I’ve asked them to consider any writing obsessions they might have: do they always write about family or food or work or sports? I obsessively write about time: how much I have, how much I need, how quickly it’s passing, or what I plan or want to do with it. Some people crave money or drugs or food or sex: what I want, always, is more time.

As a writer, I’m obsessed with what I call Time Travel, where I compare what I’m doing today, this week, this month, or this year with what I did at the same time back then. Yesterday, for example, I shot a photo of bloodroot, just as I did almost exactly one year ago; the year before that, we had April snow flurries. My blog, handwritten journal, photo archive, and social media posts all allow me to look back and compare Now and Then. The passage of time–like sand through the hourglass–fascinates me in an almost hypnotic way.

As I age, I realize I’ve always been an Old Soul. Young people tend to see time as an infinite resource, but I’ve never fallen for that trap. I’ve always known that time is short; I’ve always known our lives are wending their inevitable way toward death. For me, writing is like creating a personal time capsule: I tell myself that someday in the future, I’ll want to look back on the person I was today. Recording is a way of remembering, and remembering is how we briefly hold onto a series of seconds as they silently slip away.

Budding blooms

It is warm today: I have the windows open, and I’d be more comfortable in short sleeves. This morning I heard the year’s first phoebe, and the Norway maples are blooming and leafing. The forsythia have started to bloom, but still only feebly: it might be a weak year for them.

I have essays to read, emails to answer, and a recommendation to write. I’m not very interesting in April: my head is crammed full with tasks and to-dos. It’s good the earth herself is doing interesting things, sprouting flowers and pumping nutrients into trees, the factory of photosynthesis coming back in business after a season-long hiatus.

United Nations

When J and I went to the Peabody Essex Museum this past weekend to see Tsherin Sherpa’s “Spirits,” we also walked through Gu Wenda’s “United Nations,” a monumental installation of flags crafted from human hair.

United Nations

When I first heard of Wenda’s exhibit, I didn’t know what to think. Weaving flags from hair sounded creepy: ghoulish at worst, and deeply unsettling at best. Even though a Museum FAQ explains that Wenda obtained his materials from barber shops, beauty salons, and willing volunteers, making art from human hair sounded weirdly invasive. Hair is literally a part of one’s person, so transforming it into art felt like a violation of privacy.

United Nations

What I didn’t expect, however, was for the installation to be both beautiful and strangely fascinating: something J and I spent a good while moving through and through again, circling back to see the flags from different angles and perspectives.

United Nations

It helped, I suppose, that we saw the installation on a sunny day. “United Nations” is displayed in a tall corridor, with natural light streaming from ample skylights. When lit from behind, the flags are dreamily diaphanous, as flimsy and insubstantial as a net or spiderweb. Instead of being solid symbols of national allegiance, Wenda’s flags seem like veils or panes of stained glass: things meant to be peered through.

United Nations

When the flags are backdropped by a wall or other solid object, however, they appear much more substantial, looking both furry and fibrous. Anyone who has cleared a shower drain knows how strong human hair is, prone to clumping and clogging. A whole hallway of flags–188 in total, one for each United Nations member state–is surprisingly impressive: an entire corridor of Rapunzels, each letting down her hair.

United Nations

United Nations

CLICK HERE for more images from “Gu Wenda: United Nations,” which is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum through November 5.

Skippers (Kneedeep)

Yesterday J and I went to the Peabody Essex Museum to see Spirits, an exhibit of Tsherin Sherpa’s contemporary Buddhist art displayed alongside pencil drawings by Robert Beer.

Spiritual Warrior

Tsherin Sherpa’s playful and irreverent take on traditional Tibetan iconography was a visual delight. I was charmed and amused by deities chewing bubble gum, flashing peace signs, and dreaming halos filled with corporate logos and pop culture icons: the usual junk that passes as distraction.

Oh My God-ness!

We’re so used to sorting the world into the predictable piles of sacred and profane, it sparks something in our brain to see the two juxtaposed: deities, for example, channeling John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever or Lady Gaga at the MTV music awards. Why should art respect the arbitrary boundary between sacred and profane when the spirit knows no such limit?

8 Spirits

Butterflies are a ubiquitous image in Sherpa’s work–the path to the exhibit, in fact, was marked with butterflies on the otherwise bare hallway walls–and butterflies flutter like restless spirits over fields, backyards, and factories alike. The sun shines equally on sinner and saint, and the Present Moment makes no distinctions.

3 Wise Men

Tsherin Sherpa’s work reminds us that we all are spirits in the material world: spirits who practice ancient meditative arts, perhaps, right alongside our otherwise ordinary work, leisure, and social lives. As spirits, we know no limit or hindrance.

Fly High


CLICK HERE for more images from “Spirits: Tsherin Sherpa with Robert Beer”, which is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum through May 29. Enjoy!


There comes a time every semester when The Fantasy returns. The Fantasy involves me slipping away to an undisclosed location where I check into an inn where my room has nothing but a bed, desk, reading chair, and a view of the trees.

In its mildest form, The Fantasy has me holed away for a solitary weekend with nothing but my books and notebooks: an impromptu writer’s retreat. But when the semester turns dire and I am woefully behind with grading, I fantasize instead about slipping away to the aforementioned room with my laptop, books, and notebooks to get some uninterrupted grading done.

Last night two of my girlfriends and I booked an Airbnb house in Northampton for a summer weekend getaway: nothing too far or too fancy, but a chance to hang out for a weekend rather than an afternoon. After A (not her real initial) booked the rental, I created an Airbnb account and installed the app to view our trip. And that is when I made a discovery that will change the nature of The Fantasy forever.

Airbnb has an entire category devoted to treehouses.

Let me say that again for emphasis: Airbnb has an ENTIRE CATEGORY devoted to TREEHOUSES. When I was a kid, I fantasized about having a treehouse, and now that I’m an adult occasionally dreaming of weekend getaways, I discover that all you need to book your own treehouse is a smartphone and a credit card.

So now whenever The Fantasy descends, I won’t just dream of a room with a view of the trees, but an actual room in the trees.

Stone labyrinth

Because I track weekly goals rather than New Year’s resolutions, every Monday morning is a chance to check and reset. On Saturday, I drove to Northampton, MA to walk and share lunch and cocktails with A (not her real initial), and on Sunday morning I gave interviews at the Zen Center. Both outings were soul-nourishing, but spending time away from my desk means I fell behind with both blogging and grading.

This is, I’ve learned, how every semester goes. You make good progress, then something interrupts your stride.

Every semester, I warn students about the Week 5 doldrums: the start of what I call the Dark Night of the Semester, when the honeymoon period of a new term wears off and work starts to pile up. During Spring semester, there’s also a phenomenon I call Week 11 lethargy. Spring Break is over, and the end of the semester is more than a month away: too long to start counting days.

Spring is sort of here, but not really: the ground is bare of snow, and there are scattered crocuses and daffodils making a brave appearance. But right here, right now, we’re stuck between Spring and Summer Breaks, with nothing but the present moment (and our looming to-do lists) to entertain us.

It’s the time of the semester when we muddle in the middle, both students and instructors alike, waiting for a someday, eventually, that will come only after we finish all the work in the interim.