In a humdrum


Birdbath peonies

This past weekend while I was visiting A (not her real initial) in western Massachusetts, we played a seemingly interminable game of dominoes. Each night, we’d sit in A’s sunroom playing another few rounds over snacks and cocktails, and the train of our conversation grew as as long and meandering as the lines of tiles on the table.

Rainy day peony bud

Over the course of that weekend-long conversation, A and I decided why it is that old men around the world play dominoes on porches, in cafes, and in public parks: anywhere, that is, where old men congregate. The game is slow enough to allow for conversation, it requires a modicum of strategy or at least attention, and it is equally a matter of luck.

Ornamental mint

These three things, of course, could also be said of life in general and old age in particular: a truth that groups of old men would be especially mindful of. Yes, health and longevity are largely a matter of choice and attention: cultivating good habits and taking care to avoid obvious risks are smart strategies. But health and longevity aren’t entirely within one’s control. Healthy habits and avoidance of risk won’t prevent you from getting hit by a bus, and even the most skilled and strategic player of dominoes can be brought down by a poor hand.

Two books I’ve recently read explore the role that chance plays in our lives: Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer and Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved.

Rainy day iris

Ehrenreich observes that we as a culture are addicted to the belief that we can control our destinies through wise choices: we are conditioned to believe that with proper diet, adequate exercise, and the miracle of modern medicine, we can fend off (or at least quickly treat) illness. Ehrenreich argues, however, that this belief is misguided, as even the most healthy-seeming individuals sometimes succumb to diseases like cancer. Whether or not you make healthy choices, Ehrenreich reminds us, we’ve all gotta die sometime.

Bleeding hearts

Kate Bowler addresses this same issue from a theological rather than scientific perspective. A scholar of the prosperity gospel–the belief in some evangelical circles that leading a pious, prayerful life will lead to both wealth and health–Bowler finds her own faith questioned when she is diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. As a wife and mother to a young son, Bowler and her husband both grapple with the unavoidable (and unanswerable) question, “What higher meaning or purpose could a good God have in killing a good woman in her prime?”

Begonias

Both Ehrenreich and Bowler address in their separate ways the importance and limitations of faith. Ehrenreich argues that our trust in medicine is itself a kind of religion where doctors visits and other forms of medical treatment serve a ritual purpose. Whether or not it’s statistically true that annual mammograms lead to increased longevity, for example, we wrap ourselves in the reassuring belief that they do.

Rainy day begonia

For Bowler, prayer and religious fidelity serve the same reassuring purpose: instead of trusting your doctor to make you whole, you trust in God. The problem with both kinds of faith, however, is the inevitable disillusionment that comes when faith eventually ends in death. Both healthy people and prayerful people ultimately die: there’s no fighting the inevitable. No matter how many times you go to the boneyard, there’s no helping a truly bad hand.

Rainy day peony

Both Ehrenreich and Bowler describe the unfortunate shaming that comes when good people get sick. Well-intentioned friends and family who believe in either medicine or religion try to explain (and thus justify) a bad diagnosis, suggesting that illness or disability is somehow the sufferer’s fault because of poor life choices or imperfect piety. As a middle-aged women with several chronic conditions, I know firsthand the judgmental looks and unhelpful advice sometimes offered by folks who think slimness, stamina, and perpetual youthfulness are guaranteed by their preferred diet, workout, or devotional regimen. It’s too unsettling even for onlookers to admit that some afflictions don’t happen for a reason.

Rainy day roses

Every old man playing dominoes knows you can do only so much with the tiles you’ve drawn: whether you complain about, try to strategize with, or ultimately resign yourself to the hand you’ve been given, there’s no fighting the luck of the draw. The secret that happy old men learn isn’t how to win the game but how to enjoy it no matter how it ends.

Leafy

This morning I awoke in western Massachusetts, where I had been visiting A (not her real initial) for the weekend. Before packing my car to head back home, I wrote my morning journal pages in bed, listening to a distant dog barking and the emphatic bursts and bubbles of house wrens, robins, and song sparrows.

Gallery

None of those morning sounds were my concern: there was no need for me to hush, feed, or clean up after that distant dog, and the robins, wrens, and sparrows of western Massachusetts kindly take care of themselves. I have my own backyard birds at home, and my own awaiting tasks. I arrived in Newton around noon, and Toivo wiggled herself in a frenzy at the sight of me, and J gratefully relinquished my share of the household chores, just as I hand over his when he returns from business trips.

Airy

Everything, in other words, has quickly returned to normal: how could it be otherwise? Both humans and dogs (and backyard birds, I suppose) are creatures of habit, and I am so far sunk into the happy rut of my domestic days, I don’t quite remember how to function outside of it.

Natural light

Zen is widely seen as a crazy, spontaneous practice–the stuff of carefree Dharma bums and zany Zen Masters–but this popular perception overlooks the sheer repetitive monotony of monastic practice. For every spontaneous outburst recorded in a Zen Master’s collected teachings, said Master spent countless hours getting up every day at the same time, gazing for the same meticulously scheduled increments at the same habitual floor, chanting the same traditional words at the same regimented hours, and going to bed at the same precise time every night to repeat it all over again and again.

Doorway

Monasticism is the heart of Zen practice, and monastic monotony is the stable, steady heartbeat that sustains occasional spontaneity. How can you be truly free unless you have no need to wonder where and when your next meal will be or where and when you’ll lay down your head? Monastics free their minds by taming and harnessing their bodies; an ox long accustomed to the yoke has infinite freedom to wander anywhere in his untameable mind.

Through

It’s been a long time since I lived in a Zen Center, but my daily routine with its chores and domestic rituals is its own kind of practice. This morning I loaded my car and drove home to my mundane life carrying a weekend’s worth of dirty clothes: after the ecstasy, the laundry.

The photos illustrating today’s post are from Ellsworth Kelly: Plant Lithographs, an exhibit at the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, MA.

Iris

Today I revisited a writing project I’d worked on last summer and then abandoned when the school year started. Over the intervening months, I remembered the various sticking-points I’d struggled with, but in revisiting the actual prose today, I was surprised at how much better it was than I’d remembered: yes, this is a draft with real problems, but it’s also a project with promise.

Spiderwort in bloom

The older I get, the more I find myself repeating the same advice to anyone who asks (and some who don’t). Whether you’re facing a work-in-progress, an abandoned resolution, or an obstacle that seems insurmountable, the same piece of advice is apt: always come back.

Iris in rain

I come by this advice the hard way: namely, by perpetually wandering off. I can’t count the number of times I’ve fallen out of the habit of meditating, fallen out of the habit of writing, fallen out the habit of exercising, flossing, or nearly any other beneficial-but-easily-procrastinated task. Whenever I find myself looking down the barrel of “how long has it been since you did X,” I return to my oft-repeated refrain: just come back.

Beauty Bush (Linnaea amabilis) in bloom

Always come back is a great piece of advice for those of us who are stubborn. Yes, we stubborn folk are easily derailed when we grow bored or frustrated with a given task, but we also are creatures of habit. We will return to tasks we’ve started–and we will keep on returning to those tasks–long after a saner soul would have given up for good.

Begonias

It’s not that stubborn folks aren’t quitters: I consider myself, in fact, to be a serial quitter, not only quitting one thing after another but the same thing repeatedly. But we stubborn folk often return to the things we’ve previously quit, unable to give up the ghost (or our hopes) entirely. Long after anyone else would have declared a project dead or a prospect hopeless, we return again and again to frustrate ourselves just a little bit more and more.

So this summer, again, I’ll be working on the unfinished writing project I failed to finish last summer. As many times as I wander away, I can’t stop myself from always coming back.

Honeysuckle on rainy day

This morning I submitted the last batch of spring semester grades, so once I finish a final round of faculty meetings this week, my summer will begin in earnest. “Re-entry” is the word I use for the stunned sensation of finishing another semester and returning to the things I enjoy doing in my free time, like walking, writing, taking pictures, and reading.

Lilac on rainy day

Throughout the semester, I’ve been doing those things in scattered snatches of time–the tag ends of days–but summer is when I can return to projects that require more sustained attention. But before I return to those projects, it takes a few days to sort through neglected piles of mail, catch up with procrastinated household chores, and tend to other overdue obligations that accumulated while I had my head down, grading.

Speedwell on rainy day

One of the drawbacks of teaching is that your busy season corresponds with spring: the time of year when you feel least motivated to work. Luckily, I have a dog who insists on being walked, so I haven’t completely neglected the great greening world outside. For the next three months, I’ll have more time to pay attention to it.

I posted a similarly themed blog post with the same title exactly nine years ago today: what goes around comes around.

Propane tank-filling day. #signsofspring #almostgrillingseason

Today I went to the hardware store to fill two propane tanks: an annual ritual that marks the start of spring and the almost-advent of grilling season. Every year, I park my car by the big propane tank at the corner of the lot, go inside to pay, and then return to the big tank, where a man wearing a hat, coat, and gloves fills each of my smaller tanks in turn.

Almost forsythia

Tonight when I finally sat down to meditate, I felt like I’d plugged myself into a power source: a chance to refill and recharge. We’re entering the busy part of the semester, and on any given day, I have to juggle a half dozen different obligations: pets to feed and errands to run, student emails to answer, classes to prepare, and papers to grade. On any given day, there are more to-do’s on my list than there are hours to do them.

Leafing

And yet, all it takes for me to feel grounded and centered is the simple act of stopping: right here, right now, I make a conscious effort to do just one thing as I follow my breath going in and out, in and out. When you have a hundred and one things to do, doing just one thing sounds like an indulgent luxury, but it’s just as practical as stopping by the hardware store for propane. One’s inner stores of energy are easily depleted, but the Big Tank where you can refill is always close at hand.

Raindrops on holly

Today is what the Irish call a soft day: gray and misty, with gauzy bands of drizzle wafting beneath an overcast sky. There is no need for umbrellas on soft days: a windbreaker and ball cap are all you need, along with an antsy dog who demands walking in all weather.

Binary

On soft days, Toivo and I have the streets, sidewalks, and aqueduct trail almost to ourselves. On our way to the place of pines this morning, we saw a distant border collie herding her owner toward the dog park; on the way back, we saw a woman walking a white Pomeranian that looked like a powder puff on a leash. Overhead, fish crows called and finches twittered, and underfoot, the needle-strewn trail was damp and spongy, as soft as fog.

They say that April showers bring May flowers, a saying that suggests spring rain is tolerable only if you focus on future beauty. But on a day like today, April showers are their own reward. After months of snow, mere rain cannot daunt us. After months of snow, any precipitation you don’t have to shovel is warmly welcomed.

Snowdrops in snow

This morning when I walked Toivo to the place of pines and back, the sky was full of snowflakes. April snow never lasts; even the thin layer of slush that accumulated on lawns, car windshields, and in the shade was melted by afternoon. April snow is merely a reminder that winter will leave in its own good time: on its schedule, not yours.

Toppled

April snow is decorative: a filmy veil draped across an otherwise drab scene. The snowstorms we had in March were heavy enough to wreak havoc: everywhere the dog and I walk, we see toppled trees, downed limbs, and piles of sawdust that indicate not just storm damage, but storm cleanup. Those March storms dropped snow that shaped the landscape, flattening trees and downing power lines. April snow, on the other hand, is wispy and insubstantial: something that falls and vanishes soon after contact like the ghost of a ghost.

April snow is like the snow of childhood: a nostalgic thing that is lovely to look upon but requires no sacrifice. April snow melts before we have a chance to grow sick of it, a remembered thing even before it is gone.

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