Cambridge


Floating flowers

This morning as I was driving to the Zen Center, I saw a homeless man standing at the exit from the Turnpike, where traffic often gets stopped at a light. I have a policy that if I’m stopped at a light on my way to the Zen Center and see a panhandler, I give him or her a dollar, no questions asked. I figure it would be bad karma to ignore someone in need while bustling off to do spiritual practice.

Monkey see

I know all the arguments against giving money to panhandlers: they’ll probably just use the money to buy booze or drugs, and giving handouts to the homeless only enables bad behaviors. I’ve heard all these arguments and recognize their validity, but when I’m on my way to the Zen Center, I ignore those arguments. Regardless of what any given homeless person does with the money I give them, I like to think that for one moment, they encountered someone who is happy to give them something they need: a purely human experience of one person sharing with another. If I were in their place, I hope someone would have the generosity of spirit to do the same for me.

Stormy seas

When I give money to panhandlers, I try to make eye contact and smile, figuring life on the street is difficult and human kindness hard to find. I don’t pretend to have saintly motivations: it makes me feel good to share a spot of good cheer, and makes me feel grateful to realize I can indeed spare a dollar. When I give money to panhandlers, I’m acting, in other words, as much in my own interest as that of anyone else: this is something I do because it makes me feel good, and if it helps someone else, that’s a blessing upon blessings.

RIP Adam West

This morning, the man I gave a dollar to held a sign saying he was a veteran and homeless. His face was tan and well-worn, but underneath his world-weariness was a hint of radiance: a face that in happier times had found ample reasons to smile. “God bless you,” the man said, and I thanked him: you never know when you might need the prayers of a stranger. I wished the man well and drove on: the light had changed, and there were cars behind me.

Don't forget me

That would have been the end of it, but this: hours later, after I’d left the Zen Center and was walking through Central Square, I saw the same man standing in front of H Mart counting a fistful of wrinkled dollar bills. I quietly hoped he’d saved up enough blessings upon blessings to buy himself lunch and the right to sit down in a clean, air-conditioned place for a half hour or so: a respite of dignity in a life marked by untold sorrow.

Sherman Alexie poses so everyone can take their fill of photos.

Last night I took the T into Harvard Square to see Sherman Alexie read from his new memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, at Harvard University’s Memorial Church. I had never seen Alexie in person, but I knew from radio interviews and other media appearances that he has a razor-sharp sense of humor, and that quick wit was apparent in his reading, which at times felt more like a standup comedy routine than a serious literary event.

For us and our allies

Alexie didn’t take questions, wryly noting that with the sort of subject matter his book discusses, a Q&A session would quickly turn into a Twelve Step meeting. Instead, Alexie regaled the crowd with anecdotes and pointed observations on everything from the smelly state of his luggage after a nine-day book tour (think damp underwear) and his reaction to the election of Donald Trump. (No indigenous Americans voted for Trump, Alexie claimed, except perhaps seven Republican Indians. Alexie’s main observation about the election was that white liberals now know what Native Americans have felt since colonial days: namely, what it’s like to be stripped of power by an unholy trinity of corrupt government, business, and religious institutions.)

Organ

Amid such sidenotes, the central theme of Alexie’s talk (and his new memoir) was the death of his mother, Lillian, in 2015. After spending his career creating various fictionalized versions of his father, Alexie realized he had never given his mother her due. Alexie described his mother as an epic character: one of the last surviving speakers of the Coeur d’Alene language and the person who should have led her tribe. But instead of being revered as a leader, Lillian Alexie and her greatness went unrecognized, as the contributions of indigenous women often are.

Eagle podium

In addition to reading excerpts from his book, Alexie led his audience through an irreverent and honest recollection of his last encounter with his mother as she lay dying in one of the houses where he and his siblings had grown up. This account was simultaneously heart-rending and humorous, often veering from one emotion to the other in the course of a single sentence. Poverty, Alexie explained, was his family’s spirit animal, and humor was a coping strategy he honed out of necessity. His mother, Alexie explained, didn’t teach him their tribal language, telling him that English would be the weapon he’d need to survive. She was right.

Overhead

Lillian Alexie was beautiful, Alexie explained; in photographs from her younger days, she looked like Rita Hayworth or what Alexie called a “reservation Audrey Hepburn.” Lillian was a short woman–barely five feet tall–but Alexie said she never seemed small until she was laid low by the cancer that killed her. Alexie’s relationship with his mother was complicated. Shocking her family by turning affectionate in her final days, Lillian Alexie continued to be passive-aggressive, telling Sherman in full earshot of his siblings that he had the best hair of any of them.

Book signing with Sherman Alexie

Alexie is a master story-teller; anyone who has read any of books or seen one of his films knows that. But telling a story on paper and captivating a live audience are two separate skills, and Sherman Alexie is a master at both. Whatever skills Sherman Alexie has honed over a long and decorated literary career, however, he nevertheless insists that Lillian was a more skillful storyteller than he is. After a career of trying to mold himself into a facsimile of his father, Alexie has finally admitted how much like his mother he was all along.

RIP Bowie

Starting a new semester always feels like plunging into a bottomless lake: you’re instantly subsumed into a dizzying blur of motion, and it takes a while to find your equilibrium. I sometimes wonder what it is like for folks who work a regular job where every day is pretty much like the last, without the excitement and upheaval of starting over, again, every three months or so. It there comfort in being settled into a predictable routine, or does that routine quickly become a daily slog?

Shhhhh

After several years of teaching nothing but first-year writing, this semester I’m teaching a 200-level literature class on “The American Short Story.” I taught a similar adult education class in New Hampshire years ago, but what worked with a small group of adults meeting one night a week after work doesn’t necessarily play to a brimming classroom of 18- to 20-something-year-olds. When you teach a class for the first time in a long time, it’s easy to doubt both your knowledge and abilities: is teaching a skill you always remember, like riding a bike, or can you grow so rusty, you forget how to do it over time?

Speakers

Preparation is essential to good teaching: the classes where you walk in and try to “wing it” are invariably the ones where everything goes wrong. But there is such a thing as over-preparation. When I look back on the detailed class-plans I crafted for that long-ago adult ed course, I’m amazed I ever had time to be so organized. In retrospect, I realize my typewritten plans were designed for my own more than my students’ benefit: having pages of notes as a safety net made me feel more confident even if I never actually referred to them in class.

Tongue

Looking back on that long-ago adult education class, I remember how the best sessions took on a life of their own, my students steering the discussion into corners my notes never anticipated. I suppose that’s how teaching goes on the good days: you prepare your script, then you let yourself improvise as the moment unfolds. Plunged into the dizzying blur of the present moment, you kick your legs and flail your arms, relieved to realize you never forgot how to swim.

Black birds

I went to the Zen Center twice this week, leading sitting on Sunday night then giving consulting interviews on Tuesday. Whenever I settle on a cushion at the Zen Center, it feels like coming home and plugging in. Whereas the rest of my life might be running me ragged, going to the Zen Center and focusing on only one thing helps me calm, collect, and renew myself.

Minds closed eyes blown

I sometimes imagine consciousness as being like a beam of light or a stream of water. When a flashlight shines widely, its brightness is diffused; when rivulets branch and wander, their stream weakens to a trickle. When you tightly contain either a beam or stream, however, you experience its true power: focused light becomes laser-sharp, and concentrated water both stings and penetrates.

During the school year, my energy is scattered among obligations, and during the summer, my attention is relaxed and diffuse. When I settle on a cushion at the Zen Center, however, I feel a sudden surge as I harness my energies, reining them in like a large, tractable horse with ample abilities to either prance or pull.

Remembered

Yesterday when I heard that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had received the death penalty for his role in the Boston Marathon bombing, I knew I’d have to visit the newly dedicated memorial to slain MIT police officer Sean Collier. Whenever I’m at MIT, I stop by the spot outside the Stata Center where Collier was killed by the Tsarnaev brothers while sitting in his police cruiser, and since I had plans to be at MIT today, paying my respects at the newly dedicated memorial seemed fitting.

Ellipses

When I heard yesterday afternoon that the jury in the Tsarnaev case had reached a decision on his sentence, I stopped what I was doing and turned on the TV to watch. Just as I’d wanted to hear the verdict in the case as soon as it came in, I wanted to hear the sentence as it was announced. But as soon as CNN reported that Tsarnaev had been given the death penalty for placing the bomb that killed Martin Richard and Lingzi Lu, I turned off the news coverage. Although I wanted to hear the sentence that would determine Tsarnaev’s fate, I didn’t want to hear endless editorializing about that sentence.

Big heart; big smile; big service; all love.

Instead of listening to opinions and arguments about the wisdom or appropriateness of the sentence—what do you, I, or anyone else think should be done with Dzhokhar—I wanted simply to sit with the solemnity of the decision. What is it like to kill anonymous strangers—innocent bystanders you somehow think have wronged you—and what is it like to hear a sentence of death in return: an official legal pronouncement that he who lives by the sword shall die by it?

Ovoid

Tsarnaev will have ample opportunity to contemplate his own death as his lawyers file appeal after appeal, but neither Collier nor the other Marathon dead had that luxury. Two years ago on a beautiful April day, the Tsarnaev brothers irrevocably changed their own and countless others’ lives with the flip of a switch. Neither the death penalty nor life in prison can change that fact: the dead are still dead, severed limbs are still lost, and the grief-stricken still grieve. “Closure” is a word uttered by optimistic and well-intentioned folks who dare open their mouths in the face of irredeemable heartache. It doesn’t matter whether you, I, or anyone else supports the death penalty: before the jury decided anything, Tsarnaev and his brother made their own irrevocable choice.

Arching

The memorial erected to Sean Collier is a graceful and expansive thing, constructed of slabs of smooth gray granite that arch elegantly overhead. The five upright slabs, I read, radiate outwards like the fingers of a hand, but the point where they intersect is empty and ovoid, evoking the empty-handedness that is the human condition. The monument draws you in and invites you to circumnavigate it, and as I walked around taking pictures from this angle and that, several passersby stopped to look at and walk through the monument, touching the stone and reading its inscriptions.

In the line of duty

Nobody seemed to be talking about Tsarnaev and his sentence; nobody seemed to be talking at all. When you stand on the spot where a promising life was cut short, it’s difficult to find anything at all to say.

The Wall at Central Square

During the last week of classes, when students and instructors alike are sleep-deprived and swamped with work, you learn to accept words of encouragement wherever you find them.

Memorial Drive near MIT

We’ve had a relatively snow-free winter so far this season, but on Saturday we had a weekend nor’easter that dumped about five inches of snow on the Boston suburbs before changing to rain. I had a meeting at MIT on Saturday morning, so I took the T into Boston, then I walked over the Mass Ave bridge to Cambridge. Usually, there are plenty of pedestrians crossing the Charles River, but on Saturday morning it was just me, a few intrepid cyclists, and a handful of Lycra-clad runners muddling through the unshoveled snow. The mid-river view of the MIT skyline veiled in snow and fog was worth the walk.

MIT from Mass Ave bridge

At my meeting, most folks from the outlying suburbs–people who would have had to dig out their cars to drive into Boston–had stayed home, leaving those of us who could get to MIT by T, foot, or both. On the T ride to and from Boston, I noticed the wide range of winter footwear: rubber rainboots, leather hiking boots, quilted nylon boots with fur or flannel linings, and steel-toed work boots. The people riding the T on a snowy Saturday seemed to realize their own two feet are their most dependable all-terrain vehicle and dressed accordingly.

MIT snowman

After a relatively snow-free winter, we’re now hunkered down for a blizzard that could bring one to two feet of snow. It looks like the enterprising undergrads at MIT will be well-equipped to engineer more and bigger snowmen.

Next Page »