In a humdrum


Rainy Foosball table

One sad side-effect of living an academic life is this: the two times of year when I want to be outside the most, I am burdened with obligations that keep me at my desk. Fall semester gets busy right as the leaves are changing and the air turns brisk, and Spring semester heats up right as the days lengthen and the weather turns mild.

Rainy Foosball players

The past few weeks have been a blur of vet visits and other obligations. Toivo continues to have mobility issues; after several weeks of rest and anti-inflammatory medication, she still has creaky hips that interfere with walking and standing, so we’re going back to the vet this week after initial x-rays were inconclusive.

And after gradually losing weight for the past month or so, Bobbi the cat had a hypoglycemic episode several weeks ago that resulted in two separate days-long stints in the veterinary ER. We brought Bobbi home (again) on Friday night with a bag of medications and special food that J purees then administers through an esophagostomy tube: a crash course on how to keep a diabetic cat alive even when she refuses to eat.

Now that it’s (sometimes) warm enough for sandals and shorts, all I want to do is be outside, walking. But Toivo’s creaky hips have shortened our daily dog-walks to several slow strolls to the end of the driveway and back, and my grading piles and pet chores don’t leave me time to go much farther on my own. As the saying goes, when it rains, it pours.

Lenten rose

Yesterday morning, I heard the first phoebe of spring, and as I write these words, I have one window open to let in fresh air and the sound of soft rains.

Glory of the snow

This is how spring arrives in New England. One wet day you decide your rain shoes will suffice instead of rubber boots, you shed your coat then your jacket in turn, and you realize all of a sudden that long sleeves are too warm and short sleeves are just right. I haven’t worn sandals yet this year; so far, the weather has been too indecisive. Yesterday was almost warm enough but a bit too breezy; today was briefly sunny until the rains came.

Red maple flower buds. #signsofspring

But the phoebes know which way the earth has tilted. The song of the Eastern phoebe is unremarkable–nothing more than their name repeated, incessantly–so it is easy to overlook among the whistling cardinals and warbling house finches. But when you hear the first phoebe of spring calling in the distance–like a rainbow, the first phoebe always seems far off, its actual location hidden in a shrubby suburban tangle–your heart thrills, not because it is a beautiful song but because it comes only when winter is almost over and spring has almost come.

Witch hazel

Today has been a day of small victories. The sun was out for most of the day, so the snow piles are slowly shrinking. I heard a Carolina wren singing in the morning, saw the red-bellied woodpecker in his accustomed spot on a dead snag down the street, and photographed the witch hazel that’s been blooming for weeks in a neighbor’s yard.

Listing snowman.

This afternoon I spent too much time unpacking boxes and putting things away–this is the week when our monthly bulk orders of pet food, cleaning supplies, and other household necessities arrive–but I got the trash and recycling out to the curb for tomorrow’s collection, I’ve prepared my classes for tomorrow, and the pets are fed and the refrigerator is stocked. I graded fewer papers than I’d hoped today, but I made some progress with my paper-piles, and that itself is progress.

Is that a nest hole you're excavating, Mr. Woodpecker?

In March, teaching becomes a game of Drop the Ball: you’ve long given up your naive hopes of juggling everything, so you constantly assess which obligations can drop without shattering and which might actually bounce. This morning while walking the dog, I slipped and fell on an icy sidewalk mere yards from where I’d slipped and fell on hard-packed snow a few weeks ago. My ego was injured both times, but today I didn’t bruise: success!

Headless snowman

In March, you downgrade your definition of bliss: instead of holding out hopes for heaven, you content yourself with those scattered, spare moments when simply strolling down a clean, sunny sidewalk with solid footing and dry feet passes as perfection. I’m slowly reading a book by Anne Lamott called Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, which I’d gleaned from our neighborhood Little Free Library. I read a chapter here and there when I have time, which means the book mostly sits on my desk, waiting. Some days simply getting to the end of the day with one’s hair still rooted in place feels like a minor miracle.

Cosmic pigeons

This morning on my way to the Zen Center, I saw a large Cooper’s hawk perched atop a telephone pole. I was stopped at a traffic light at the time–a captive audience–and after the light changed, I drove around the block, parked, and walked to the corner to take photos.

Good morning, Cooper's hawk.

While I was standing there, a man walked by with a dog. There was no reason for him to look up–he was, after all, walking a dog–so I alerted him to the sight overhead, telling him he’d never get a better view of a Cooper’s hawk. And indeed, she was all but posing, sitting in the morning sun, aglow. “Looking for squirrels,” the man observed, and my inner ornithologist felt obliged to correct him: Cooper’s hawks eat birds, so she was probably trying to decide which of many bird-feeders in the neighborhood to feed from.

Watching

I was, as I mentioned, on my way to the Zen Center, so I continued on with urgency, not wanting to be late for morning practice. And while stopped at a light in the heart of Central Square, I once again looked up right at the moment a flock of pigeons fell from the sky in a single swoop: a rain of wings as a couple dozen birds zoomed from rooftop to sidewalk en masse. It was a split second of wings, with no falcon or hungry hawk in pursuit–just a whim pursued, collectively–and then the light changed, and I wondered whether anyone else had been looking up at the precise moment when the sky fell as feathers.

Watching

And then on my walk from the heart of Central Square to the Zen Center–a route down Modica Way then Green and Magazine Streets–I passed a man with an impeccably waxed handlebar mustache at the precise moment when an avalanche of ice thundered from the roof of a nearby townhouse into a narrow alley. And in that split second, I glanced up, saw a shower of ice hailing down, and then met eyes with the mustachioed man, our eyes exchanging a greeting that doubled as an admonition: heads up.

Skull

It’s a cold, rainy day–what started as sleet overnight has transitioned to rain, with strong winds. I brought my reverse umbrella with me when I went to the Zen Center this morning: not only does its inside-out design make it perfect for stepping into and out of cars, it holds up nicely against the wind, and its C-shaped handle hooks over one’s wrist, leaving one’s hands free.

The other side

On rainy days, there are far fewer pedestrians out and about. Before meditating at the Zen Center, I parked in Central and walked to Graffiti Alley and back, and there was hardly anyone on the streets: no panhandlers, cyclists, or passersby bustling with shopping bags. Many people stay home when it’s rainy, but if you own a good umbrella and a solid pair of boots, rain needn’t be an impediment. Instead, your umbrella gives you a heightened sense of privacy, like a superhero’s cloak. Stepping through and around puddles, you can peer from beneath your quiet canopy, seeing without being seen.

Teddy bear

Umbrellas are often characterized as the domain of the old and odd, which is perhaps why I am so fond of mine. According to wilderness magazines and the ads that fill them, truly outdoorsy types venture forth in parkas and ponchos made from high-tech synthetics. When is the last time you saw an intrepid weather reporter facing a snowstorm or blizzard with an umbrella?

Sonik

But Henry David Thoreau walked with an umbrella, and this points to the real reason for my own appreciation. You can’t climb a mountain or scale a cliff-face while holding an umbrella, and it’s all but impossible to run with one. But naturalists and flaneurs alike walk more deliberately than that: an umbrella, it turns out, is a perfect implement for saunterers. Forget about marching to the beat of a different drummer; strive to stride within the circle of your own umbrella.

Dreamy

Today is Presidents’ Day, a holiday that means little to me because I work from home on Mondays, and that work goes on whether there is a holiday or not. Pets still need to be fed, dishes still need to be washed and put away, and papers still need to be graded. There are no Monday holidays when your work itself knows no holiday.

Legs

Last week, one of my students noticed I was wearing a pink dress for Valentine’s Day, and I admitted it was intentional. I also mentioned that since I don’t have time in the morning to stand in front of my closet and decide the day’s outfit, I plan what I’m going to wear for the week on Sunday, based on the forecast’s best guess at the weather. At that, my student asked with genuine astonishment, “But what if one morning you feel lazy, and you’d planned to wear something cute?” And I realized in an instant that my student and I were coming at the conversation from different planets.

When I say I plan my outfits in advance, you must understand this: every day, I wear the same basic uniform. I have a closet full of colorful patterned skirts that pair with solid-colored, long-sleeve T-shirts, and I have a handful of drapey dresses that are themselves like long knit shirts. Either T-shirt and skirt or drapey dress can be worn with tights and ankle boots; add a necklace and earrings, and that’s the closest to a “cute outfit” I get.

Legs

There is no “dressing down” on lazy days because I’m not all that “dressed up” to begin with: if I’m teaching, it’s either a dress or a T-shirt and skirt, and if I’m not teaching, it’s a T-shirt and jeans (if I’m going out) or a T-shirt and yoga pants (if I’m staying in). At the end of any given teaching day, the first thing I do when I get home is switch from skirt to stretchy pants–a split-second switch from one uniform to another.

This is in contrast to a stylish student who wears makeup and heels and a cute outfit when she’s feeling ambitious vs. sweats, no makeup, and a T-shirt when she’s not. There is a significant difference in primp and prep time between her dress and casual outfits, and there is virtually no difference with mine.

Santa's lap

But there’s more. I don’t have “lazy days”; these simply aren’t possible for me. When you live with diabetic cats, you can’t ever sleep without an alarm; you might have earlier or later wake-up times depending on your work schedule, but there always has to be a schedule. And when you live in a house with a husband, two dogs, and eight cats, you can’t ever take a “lazy day” off from housework. Weekdays or weekends, holidays or ordinary time, lazy days or no: every day there are tasks to do that can’t be postponed, pushed off, or avoided. Like a dairy farmer, I simply have to be home at the scheduled times to tend the livestock.

This is something I can’t really explain to a student because our life situations are so different. As an undergrad and even graduate student, I would have had no real concept of “no days off” because my responsibilities were the kind I could (and did) procrastinate. Parents with small children can understand the responsibilities that come from tending a houseful of creatures, but most folks without kids can’t. It’s just a different reality, like an earthling trying to understand life on Mars.

Plowed

We got a few dense inches of snow overnight, topped by intermittent freezing rain throughout the day. Weather forecasters measure snow by depth, but that is misleading: deep snow is typically light and fluffy, and even a few inches of wet snow is much more bothersome.

Sleet on burdock

Weight would be the most helpful measure of any given snowfall: how much does a bucket left out overnight weight by morning’s light? Over time, heavy snow settles into a shallow sludge that is difficult to shovel. Throughout the day today, I could hear snowblowers in all directions as J and various neighbors worked to clear as much as they could before tonight’s plunging temperatures. Any of today’s slop not cleared away will freeze brick-hard overnight.

Sleet on sleek

This morning after walking Toivo, I finished Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink, a thick brick of a novel. After initially enjoying the book, I faltered in the middle, getting bogged down in the history of Sephardic Jews in seventeenth century London, and at times I lost patience with the two modern scholars–one at career’s end, the other in graduate school–who gradually piece together the story of Ester Velasquez, a Jewish scribe whose story is hidden in a trove of old manuscripts found in a mansion.

Sleet on snow

Scholarship can be a tedious slog, like walking in ankle-deep snow, and the academy is an often-toxic place, full of backstabbing and politicking. The Weight of Ink captures all of that, but ultimately it was Ester’s story–her curious mind and her rebellious spirit, both dangerous in an era when women weren’t encouraged to be scholars and free-thinking was denounced as heresy–that pulled me through the book to its moving conclusion, where life and the desire for continuance prove stronger than the presumed virtues of martyrdom.

Nowadays, women like me are free to write and study as much as we’d like–no societal scorn or hidden inquisitions can silence us–and there is nothing weightier on my mind today than the sizzle of sleet falling on winter window panes.

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