Life as Lorianne


By any other name

This year for Mother’s Day, I did something I’ve never done before: I bought myself flowers. J and I don’t have children, but I spend a lot of time tending our animals, so when I was doing this week’s grocery shopping, I picked up a mixed bouquet for myself, from the pets. I’m not a mother, I decided, but I spend a lot of time and energy on the kinds of things that mothers do, a wide swath of my life devoted to feeding, cleaning, tending, and errand-running.

Gracie peekaboo. #catsofinstagram #graciethecat

Several weeks ago, one of my students asked me point-blank: am I childless by choice, or was I unable to have children? Normally, this might seem to be an impertinent question, but this particular group of students and I have read and discussed texts about a wide range of sensitive topics, and we’ve built a rapport.

“Choice,” I answered, and she nodded. I explained that I’d always known that I didn’t want kids: when adults told me I’d acquire maternal instincts when I was older, or when my biological clock went off, I inwardly disagreed, and I was right. Some people have always known they are gay, and I’ve always known that I wasn’t cut out to be a mother. It’s a vocation I was never called to.

All ears. #dogsofinstagram #cassiethedog #whitegermanshepherd

It’s difficult, of course, for a woman to openly admit she doesn’t want children: women were put on this earth, some would argue, to have and tend to children. Years ago when I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, a Korean woman who lived there with her two children was horrified to learn that my then-husband and I didn’t have kids of our own. “A woman needs children to experience the universe,” she declared, but she relented when she learned I was in graduate school studying to become a professor. “Oh, you’re a teacher,” she exclaimed with an air of relief. “You will experience the universe through your students!”

Cuddle buddies. #catsofinstagram #gumbothecat #ninathecat

I’m not sure a woman needs children, students, or even pets to experience the universe: I think being alive and awake and aware is enough. But perhaps some people (men and women alike) need occasional reminders that a universe exists outside themselves. I don’t know what it’s like to raise children, but I do know that tending animals constantly reminds me that I am but one tiny creature on an enormous planet of need, and my well-being is intrinsically connected with that of my fellow creatures. Perhaps that is a lesson we all can take from mothers and Mother’s Day.

Today’s photos show a handful of our pets: Gracie playing peekaboo under a loveseat, Cassie looking alert, and Gumbo and Nina sitting side by side.

Baltimore oriole

I taught my final class of the semester last Thursday, and today I collected my first batch of final portfolios. In between, I spent the weekend catching up on sleep, readying myself for this week’s final onslaught of paper-grading.

Halcyon Lake

I never know how to describe the final weeks of the semester. Are things winding up, or are they winding down? My students’ anxiety and caffeine levels are rising as they study for exams and submit final papers and projects, but other academic activities are slowing to a halt. At the end of every semester, I look forward to Finals Week, when I have piles of papers to read but no classes, committee meetings, or other academic obligations.

Robin in redbud

So whether the semester is winding up or down, I’m looking forward to a chance to unwind. Last week I met Leslee at Mount Auburn Cemetery for a quick walk after work: the first time I’d been there all semester. It was delightful to take a brief stroll among flowers and birdsong before heading back to my desk, a cup of tea, and my waiting paper-piles.

Pieris - flowers and new leaves

I suppose it’s appropriate that the busiest time of spring semester corresponds with a sudden eruption of spring plant growth. Everywhere I look, there are flowers opening and leaves unfolding: a surge of chlorophyll after months of barrenness.

New Pieris leaves

The Japanese pieris in our front yard has been blooming for weeks, and now it’s sprouted gangling whorls of new leaves that gesture from the tips of branches like tiny jazz hands. Yesterday my car windshield was dotted with castoff Norway maple flowers, and today our backyard oaks are dangling catkins that will eventually become autumn acorns.

New Pieris leaves

While both the trees and earth itself are erupting in greenery, my students are pumping out a seemingly endless supply of papers and projects and portfolios for me to read. For months, both my students and the earth itself procrastinated, and now there’s a mad, sudden tumble of productivity: page after page and leaf after leaf materializing as if out of nowhere.

Pretty pieris

Recently I found a document I’d written more than a year ago and then forgotten. It’s titled “The wisdom to know the difference,” and it consists of a chart with two columns: “Things I can change” and “Things I can’t change.”

Lone crocus

The title of this document comes from the serenity prayer–“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”–and I was floored by its simplicity. More than a year ago, I decided to list and then sort the things weighing on my mind: these are the things I can control, and these are the things I can’t.

Crocus trio

The things I listed then are still largely relevant. I still can’t control whether I get re-hired full-time at Framingham State, whether I feel inspired to write, or whether I have to juggle my creative life with teaching and household chores. I can still control when and whether I meditate, when and whether I write, and when and how much time I spend grading and doing chores.

I don’t remember the exact situation that led me to type this document, but I can take a guess. It was February, 2016 when I wrote it, and I was probably feeling overwhelmed and powerless, led around by obligations like a bull with a ring in his nose. February is a dark time of both the semester and the year, and when there are some things you can’t control, it’s easy to think you can’t control anything.

Nested

Years ago, someone told me the best way out of a downward spiral is to take one step sideways: a simple step that is much more attainable than turning your life completely around. Looking back on the lists I made more than a year ago, I’m happy to note I’ve been meditating and writing more now than I was then: the things I can’t control remain the same, but I’ve been taking better care of the things I can.

Lone crocus

I suppose that’s the best one do: take care of the things you can control, and hold out hope for the rest. Although I’ve always been interested in spiritual practice, I’m not by nature a person of faith: my favorite Bible character is Doubting Thomas, and one of my favorite Bible verses is “I believe, Lord; help my unbelief.” I have a hard time, in other words, accepting the things I cannot change, but I’m getting better at changing the things I can. And more than a year after writing those two lists, I’m still praying for the wisdom to know the difference.

Glory of the snow

After surviving the winter without succumbing to any of the colds, flu, or other ailments that have run rampant among my students this semester, I felt the first scratch and tickle of a sore throat on Wednesday night. Ever since, I’ve been drinking lots of herbal tea, doubling down on Vitamin C, and dissolving zinc tablets under my tongue. I don’t know if any of these home remedies are actually effective in fighting the common cold, but I honestly don’t care. Given the choice between the placebo effect and nothing at all, I’ll opt for a placebo any day.

Scilla

Perhaps the curative value of chicken soup, hot tea and lemon, and other home remedies isn’t the remedy itself but the care and coddling that accompanies it. When I was a child, there was nothing more soothing than the smell of the Vick’s VapoRub my mom would slather on my chest whenever I caught a cold. Tucked into bed with a vaporizer filling my room with mentholated steam, I’d dutifully swallow a vile-tasting tablespoon of Nyquil before coughing and sniffling my way to sleep. Whether or not these medicines cured my cold or merely masked its symptoms, they made me feel well-tended and content.

Now that I’m all grown up, I tend to myself when I’m sick. Last week at the grocery store, I bought a “just in case” box of echinacea tea: a purchase that now seems amazingly prescient. It seems my own inner-mother has been looking out for me all along.

Rainy day

Entirely by accident, today I realized it’s been exactly thirteen years since I defended my PhD dissertation. My life seems radically different now: in the thirteen years since Then and Now, I’ve divorced, changed my last name, remarried, moved to Massachusetts, left my job at Keene State, and started teaching at Framingham State. April 5, 2004 was the first and only time in my life I wore a pantsuit: the inexpensive one I bought specifically for my defense popped a button then left me with an itchy rash, so I’ve stuck with skirts ever since. This photo of me the morning before I defended, with exhaustion-baggy eyes and still-wet-from-the-shower hair, feels like an artifact from another lifetime, another person, another existence.

The doctor is in

In the thirteen years since I defended, I haven’t published the dissertation I spent a decade of my life writing; in the thirteen years since I defended, I haven’t published much of anything apart from the blog posts I cobble together from the tag ends of days. In the thirteen years since I defended, I haven’t secured a tenure-track job; in the thirteen years since I defended, I haven’t “secured” much of anything, my career continuing to be a crazy-quilt of part-time, temporary, and “visiting” positions.

Before I defended, people warned me about the post-dissertation blues: after spending so many years pursuing a single goal, many people look around them and wonder “What’s next?” In many ways, I feel like I’ve never answered that question. The teaching I’ve done after finishing my PhD is pretty much the same as the teaching I’d done before, and after printing my completed dissertation, I put it in a box atop my bookcase and haven’t touched it since.

Gray day

This isn’t, of course, the way such a story is supposed to end: a PhD is supposed to lead to something, as is a life. My inability or refusal to settle into a Life Work runs counter to the inspirational stories we grow up hearing, where each and every one of us is supposed to find and pursue their passion. It’s been 30 years–three decades!–since I graduated from high school, and I’m still not sure What I Want To Be when I grow up, or what sort of things I want to write and publish. I’ve made a living from teaching, to be sure, but I’m not sure I’ve made a career, and I’ve always felt I’m too much an underachiever to live up to my senior superlative of “Most Likely to Succeed.”

Normal Hill parking structure

I have, I think, a problem with success: success seems too big, too daunting, and too much requiring of a plan. I wrote a dissertation because my advisor and then-husband pushed, nudged, and cajoled me; left to my own devices, I squander my time with little projects in disparate directions. Both my brain and my attention span, it seems, are constitutionally fitted toward blogging, the kind of occasional scratching that satisfies an intermittent itch. But thirteen years after defending my Magnum Opus, I still wonder what place or purpose it had in my life, or where and why my attention should be directed now.

Modern

I keep two collections of random thoughts. First, I have my handwritten journal pages: on mornings when I’m not teaching, I try to write four longhand pages in a Moleskine notebook over my morning cup of tea, and on teaching days, I try to use time between classes to write four pages in one of the slim, softback notebooks I keep in my teaching bag.

Terry Winters

In addition, I have an assortment of typewritten documents I write and store on my Google Drive: each of them dated, and some of them titled. The entries with titles usually end up on my blog, but the entries without titles usually get abandoned or forgotten: pages where I’m basically talking to myself, rehearsing the usual complaints and quibbles.

On an excellent day, I’ll write in both places: I’ll spend a half hour or so on my handwritten pages, then I’ll spend another half hour transcribing any ideas or insights that emerged there. On a good day, I have time to write only in my journal, and on bad days, I don’t write anywhere at all. But even though I don’t manage to write every single day, I still produce a lot of odds and ends. I post some of this random writing on my blog, but much of it lives a quiet, forgotten existence in closed notebooks and forgotten Google Drive folders.

Terry Winters

Sometimes when I have time to write but little to say, I’ll open a random notebook or Google Doc, just to see what was on my mind weeks, months, or even years ago. It’s as if my life were a book, and I open to a random page.

Recently, for example, I re-read a Google Doc titled “No timeline” that I wrote in September, 2015:

Last week, I was at Angell for Groucho’s oncology check-up, a ritual we’ve reenacted every month since he was diagnosed with small cell lymphoma over two years ago. As I was leaving our appointment and walking toward the reception desk to check out, I heard a sound from the dog waiting area that stopped me cold: a high pitched squealing whine that sounded so much like Reggie, I had to stop and collect myself.

It’s been over three years since Reggie died, but that doesn’t matter: when I heard a dog that whined like him, the intervening years evaporated and I had to stop myself from rushing into the dog waiting are just to make sure Reggie hadn’t come back to find me. This is, of course, a crazy thought, but a grieving heart knows no logic.

Terry Winters

Groucho died in November, 2015, so the monthly oncology appointment I describe in these paragraphs would have been one of his last. But I had no way of knowing that at the time, of course. In September, 2015, Groucho was alive but reaching the end of even the most positive prognosis: chemotherapy for cats with lymphoma works really well until it doesn’t.

In September, 2015, Groucho was alive and it was Reggie I was mourning, even though he’d been dead more than three years. Rereading that entry brings it all back: the still-raw sting of lingering loss, and the too-familiar ache of anticipatory grieving.

Terry Winters

Last year, Bunny the cat died; this year, we’re worried about Rocco. This week, J took Rocco for his first oncology appointment after his recent diagnosis with the same kind of cancer that claimed Groucho: deja vu all over again.

There is no timeline for grief: that’s what I never got around to saying back in 2015. They say time heals all wounds, but that assumes time moves in a straight line rather than circling like a dog before sleep. Just when you think you’ve grown past expecting your dead dog to be underfoot at every step–a phenomenon J calls “phantom dog”–you hear a stranger’s pet at the vet who sounds so eerily familiar, you wonder if grief is the only thing on earth that doesn’t die. Just when you’ve almost forgotten one cat dead to cancer, another gets diagnosed with the same disease, history echoing and repeating, this year not much different from then.

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