In a humdrum


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.

Bleeding hearts

The past few days have been wet, with weather that alternates between mist, drizzle, and outright rain. This morning was foggy and damp, and even now the trees are still dripping with moisture.

Lilacs

Drippy spring days when you can almost hear the grass greening always remind me of Genesis 2, where God plants a garden “in the east, in Eden,” where “no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth.” Eden is a paradise because it is lush and well-watered, with streams that “came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground.”

In the midst of a lush spring, it’s easy to believe in an Edenic garden where there is no shortage of water and the plants all but water themselves.

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.

Here's looking at you

Yesterday was Earth Day, and I spent the day at home nursing a cold rather than participating in the March for Science on Boston Common. As I skimmed friends’ photos and social media posts, I told myself I was there in spirit: scientists, after all, share many of my passions, and before I ended up as an English major, I’d briefly intended to major in biology. Although my spirit was willing to convene on the Common yesterday with other science-supporters, however, my cold-clogged lungs were weak.

Amber magnified

I’m careful about colds: as an asthmatic, I have to be. Two and a half years ago, I almost died from a cold that settled into my lungs: when I showed up at my doctor’s office breathless and trembling, my doctor checked my blood oxygen levels and marveled I’d been able to drive my car without passing out. Two and a half years ago, my doctor saved my life through the miracle of science: two nebulizer treatments and a round of antibiotics he urged me to start the second the pharmacist filled the prescription. Because of science, I didn’t die from a cold that developed into bronchitis, as many folks did in the days before modern medicine.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

As a student of American literature, I’m saddened by the now-curable maladies that routinely claimed lives in the nineteenth century. When Samuel Clemens was 11 years old, for example, his father got caught in a rainstorm and died of pneumonia. Three of young Clemens’ siblings had died from childhood diseases, so he did his part to help support his widowed mother by dropping out of school and becoming a newspaper apprentice. Young Samuel Clemens grew up to become Mark Twain, but how might his life have been different if his siblings and father had survived?

Harvard Museum of Natural History

In the days before modern medicine, lethal dangers lurked everywhere. Henry David Thoreau’s brother, John, died from tetanus, which he contracted after cutting himself while shaving, and Thoreau himself battled tuberculosis–consumption, a positively Victorian ailment–for much of his adult life. Thoreau’s case strikes me as particularly tragic, as the bronchitis that ultimately led to his death started as a cold he’d caught after a late-night hike.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

If the Thoreau brothers were alive today, John’s tetanus would have been prevented by a vaccine and Thoreau’s bronchitis treated with antibiotics. Had Henry Thoreau survived the bronchitis that took his life, what more might he have accomplished? Thoreau was more than a writer: he was also a citizen-scientist whose meticulous records of the blooming times of wildflowers in and around Concord, Massachusetts continue to contribute to our understanding of the evidence-based reality that is climate change. Had Thoreau lived to a ripe old age, who knows what more he might have contributed.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

It strikes me as deeply ironic and downright sad that science-deniers doubt so selectively. Donald Trump doesn’t believe the science behind climate change, but believes the science that flies his plane to and from Mar-a-Lago nearly every weekend, and he believes the science behind his smartphone’s Twitter app. Trump doesn’t believe the scientists who have proven vaccines don’t cause autism, but he trusts the scientists who developed the drug he takes to combat baldness. Apparently Trump believes saving his hair is more important than saving the planet.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

Before I was prescribed one of the asthma medication I currently take, I couldn’t walk a block without getting winded. As he wrote me a prescription for montelukast, my then-doctor said he had met at a conference one of the researchers who had helped develop it. “They deserve a Nobel Prize,” he proclaimed, and I agree. Whenever I swallow my daily asthma meds or take a puff from my rescue inhaler, I silently bless the scientists who developed the drugs that literally put air back in my lungs. Science isn’t some abstract, Ivory Tower pursuit: it’s an endeavor that saves and improves the quality of actual people’s lives.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

Everyone is free, of course, to follow the alternative facts of their choosing, but I sure as heck hope my mechanic, surgeon, plumber, and pilot root themselves in evidence-based reality: give me facts over alt-facts any day. In the Bizarro World that is Trump’s America, some folks believe the bolder the Tweet, the “truthier” it is. But a loud lie is still untrue, regardless of how many people fall for it. There might be a sucker born every minute, but I hope a couple of scientists are born just as often, too.

Click here to see more photos from a 2014 trip to the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Enjoy!

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.

First forsythia

Today I opened the windows. That sounds like an ordinary, unremarkable thing, but anyone who has lived in New England (or anywhere with seemingly interminable winters) knows that Opening Day is a momentous occasion. For the first time in months, I can sit at my desk and listen to birds singing, cars driving down the street, and cyclists, joggers, and pedestrians chatting as they pass. (“We’ll have maple syrup,” one unseen passerby says to another: can it get more quintessentially New England than that?)

Today I opened the windows

Today I wore sandals, cropped pants, and a long-sleeved shirt: long sleeves because of a brisk breeze that still carries a hint of chill, but sleeves I could roll up in the warm sunshine. Today I drove to campus for a midday meeting, and I didn’t care how far away I had to park: simply being outside in the fresh air, sunshine, and birdsong was divine.

Right now as I type these words, I make a mental list of the outdoor sounds I hear: chirping house sparrows, a trilling cardinal, a distant chainsaw, innumerable passing cars. Tomorrow or the next day or the next, these sounds will become background noise: a distraction to tune out while I’m working. But today, these are the most beautiful sounds in the world.

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