Massachusetts


February gray

It’s the fourth week of the semester, and we are deep in the throes of February gray. Whenever I check my email, there is another message from a student who is sick and can’t come to class. I have papers to grade but pause to dissolve an Airborne tablet in my water bottle, a blithely optimistic attempt to stop a sore and scratchy throat from developing into a full-blown cold, or worse.

Hummingbird window clings

It sorta-snowed overnight, so we awoke to a thin layer of sleet and sludgy slush that is more mess than menace. Schools don’t cancel classes for sorta-snow, and they don’t cancel classes for the winter blues that arise from February gray. Instead, we trudge on, cheering ourselves with whatever winter coping strategies we’ve learned will get us through.

My office at Framingham State has three windows, including one right next to my desk, and I’ve decorated that one with colorful hummingbird decals. These window clings are designed to stop birds from flying into reflective surfaces, but I put them there as an act of faith: a reminder that February gray will someday, eventually, turn into the colorful flutter of spring.

Watching

This morning I gave consulting interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center after months of being too subsumed with Other Obligations to attend formal practice. Whenever I go to the Zen Center after months away, settling onto a cushion feels like coming home. My meditation practice isn’t limited to the four walls of the Zen Center–even when I don’t drag myself to Cambridge to meditate with other folks, I continue to practice on my own–but there is something about sitting alongside other meditators in a Dharma room that is steeped with practice energy.

Meditating at the Zen Center this morning felt like a welcome respite: a chance to plug in my mental batteries after running for far too long on a depleted charge. On any given day, I feel like the queen of multitasking: every day there are students, pets, and a husband all depending on me to Do My (Various) Job(s), and it often feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done. Meditating at the Zen Center, however, is pure monotasking. For thirty solid minutes, I have nothing to do but sit up straight, keep my eyes down, and follow my breath, gently bringing my mind back to attention whenever it wanders. This opportunity to do Just One Thing for an uninterrupted span of time is an inconceivable luxury.

Today has been rainy, with constant drizzle and intermittent downpours. After I’d finished giving the last of this morning’s interviews and had returned to the Dharma room for the final few minutes of practice, I noticed someone had opened the windows just a crack: not enough to let in the damp chill of November, but just enough to let in the sound of rain.

Come From Away

Last night J and I went to the Boston Opera House to see Come From Away, a musical retelling of the story of Gander, Newfoundland, where 38 planes were stranded for nearly a week after the terror attacks of 9/11.

On September 11, 2001, the population of Gander nearly doubled as 7,000 travelers were forced to disembark there after the United States shut down its airspace. Come From Away dramatizes some of these travelers’ stories, and it also portrays the town’s response as locals flooded emergency shelters with supplies and opened their homes to confused and frightened travelers.

Although I knew many travelers were stranded in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I didn’t know the full story of how (and why) planes were diverted to Gander. Initially, passengers on the 38 planes didn’t know why they were landing in Newfoundland: in order to avoid widespread panic, flight crews didn’t divulge the full details of what was happening on the ground in New York, Washington, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. As a result, puzzled passengers were literally flying (and landing) blind.

Even after the diverted planes landed in Canada, passengers were prevented from disembarking, as nobody knew if there were additional terrorists on the planes. Flights were diverted to Gander and other remote Canadian airports because authorities feared they were carrying explosives, and isolating the potential danger at remote airports was deemed a safer option than having the planes land in densely populated areas.

Once the tired and disoriented passengers were allowed to deplane, the town of Gander hurried to provide food, shelter, clothing, and other necessities for the “plane people.” An elementary school was transformed into an emergency shelter, the local hockey rink was commandeered to hold and refrigerate bulk shipments of food, and extra televisions, phones, and computers were installed so stranded travelers could watch news coverage and reach out to loved ones back home.

Come From Away did an excellent job dramatizing the hospitality Gander, Newfoundland showed in the aftermath of 9/11 and the impromptu community that arose among locals and their transient guests. Not surprisingly, my favorite character in the musical was an SPCA worker who tended the 19 dogs, cats, and chimpanzees (!) riding as cargo in the stranded planes.

Although Come From Away wasn’t the best, most profound, or funniest musical I’ve ever seen–Hamilton, Fun Home, and The Book of Mormon take those honors, respectively–it was entertaining, sweet, and alternatingly heart-breaking and humorous. From beginning to end, I was captivated by the story of how residents in a remote town opened their doors to strangers in the aftermath of a dark day.

Sunset from second floor women's restroom

Today has been a very long day with a beautiful sunset in the middle of it.

Holly berries

I used to wait until after Thanksgiving to start listening to Christmas music, but in recent years I’ve loosened my own rule. During the light of day, I don’t yearn for holiday music, but last night while I was running Friday afternoon-into-evening errands, I switched from the news on NPR to Sting’s “If On a Winter’s Night,” a CD that is perennially appropriate in late autumn-into-winter.

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the pagan nature of Christmas: a holiday of light at the darkest time of year. Years ago when I taught in New Hampshire during the week and spent my long weekends in Massachusetts, there were many weeks when my Thursday night commute was brightened by isolated houses on lonely roads that had colorful Christmas lights. Those lights guided my way like beacons in a storm.

These days, my commute is significantly shorter, but I dread the darkness of winter more than the cold. Even a short commute feels long when the way is dark, so while I don’t need the cheer of Christmas carols when the sun shines, after dark I appreciate the company of songs designed for the longest nights of the year.

Autumn oak

I’ve already mentioned that November is my favorite month, and here’s another reason why: November light glows like no other. This year, the end of October was gray and rainy, and my mood was as dismal as the days. But so far, November has been brisk and bright, the waning days gleaming golden.

Golden glow

I’ve lived in New England for more than 25 years now–just over half my life–and that is long enough for me to know this: November light is precious because it is both short and short-lived. The nights are noticeably longer now: the afternoon class that used to be bathed with setting sunlight now adjourns in darkness, and the days will continue to shrink. The beaten-bronze glow of stubborn oak trees–the last to leaf in spring, and the last to drop in autumn–will soon fade and fall. Come December, the landscape will be drab and the days dim.

But for now, every moment of November light is precious. When you know a thing is dying, you cherish every moment you share.

Reflected

Several weeks ago, on my way home from a medical appointment in Chestnut Hill, I stopped at Hammond Pond to snap a few pictures of the mute swans there. Hammond Pond sits directly behind a busy shopping complex and directly abuts a parking lot. The mute swans don’t seem to care, however. They just mind their own business, paddling and dabbling in the calm water while busy humans like me zip and hurry past.

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