In a humdrum


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.

Dog walk shadows

After more than a quarter century living in New England, I’ve realized some inexorable truths. The day after a snowstorm is almost always sunny, and the most bitterly cold days often have the clearest, bluest skies.

Dog walk shadows

This morning when I walked Toivo, it was seventeen degrees: a temperature that felt brutally cold at the time, but I’ve lived in New England long enough to know there will be days when temperatures in the double-digits will feel warm. But today felt colder than usual, so I wore my longest, fluffiest down coat, and the dog and I kept moving.

It was bright and brisk, and I didn’t wear a ballcap or sunglasses: I just squinted into the glare, knowing that light more than warmth is the thing I crave in midwinter. Even the most bitterly cold days are bearable if the sun is beaming from a turquoise-blue sky; the winter days that crush your soul aren’t the cold ones but the gray ones.

Birthday treat

Last weekend I turned 50, a milestone I somehow never thought I’d reach. Turning 50 isn’t a remarkable task–given enough time, anyone could do it–but somehow I never imagined it happening to me.

Burdicks

When I was younger, being 50 is something I never (literally) pictured. As a child, I could readily envision myself in high school, college, and young adulthood. I could picture myself in my 20s and 30s, when I imagined I’d have long, disheveled hair and legs that would stride tirelessly through woods and streams, stomping fearlessly through mud and briars. But I never imagined myself as middle-aged, settled, and settling. Back then, I never imagined I’d transform into a gray-haired, thick-middled woman in a pink coat and gray beret, the kind of unremarkable older woman you might pass on the street without really seeing. I could if I really tried imagine myself as a white-haired and wiry old lady, but not as gray and middling.

Reflective self portrait

Thirty years ago when I was an undergraduate, I took a group singing class for non-music majors that I’ve since insisted was the most useful class I took in college. In that class, I had to stand in front of my peers and sing unaccompanied, including at least one opera song in Italian. This class is where I first learned about the passaggio. All singers–especially sopranos like me, my teacher said–have a low voice and a high voice, but the trickiest voice is the passaggio, the voice in the middle where the low tones in your chest meet the high falsetto in your head.

Reflective self portrait

My voice teacher was a rail-thin sliver of a man, but he physically transformed when he sang, standing up taller and emitting a big, booming voice that seemed to come from the center of the earth. After alternating between his thin, unremarkable speaking voice and his rich, deep singing voice, my teacher explained that mastering the passaggio was the secret to becoming a good singer. If you weathered the passaggio, he explained, you could link your high voice to your low voice to create one seamlessly connected voice that swelled effortlessly from low to high without any squeaks, croaks, or cracks.

Reflective self portrait

When you shift from low voice to high, he explained, your throat–your whole body–does all sorts of weird things. Your voice sounds squeaky and shrill. You think this voice sounds bad because it is unusual to your ear: it’s not the speaking voice you’ve grown accustomed to. Even though you’re singing from your own body–where else, exactly, could you sing–the passaggio is a place you might not ever explore.

“Put your hand on my shoulder,” my teacher would say as he sat at the piano and switched from his soft speaking voice to his infinitely rich baritone. He wanted all of us–a half dozen non-musicians in a one-credit pass/fail elective–to feel the physical change. “Your whole body is an instrument,” he’d insist, and yes, you could feel something shift in his shoulder as he went from slack-spined and insipid to upright and energized: Clark Kent transformed into Superman.

Burdicks

I am, at age 50, weathering a different sort of passaggio. Being 50 is physically weird. Your body becomes alien, with new aches and pains, less flexibility, and diminished energy. Fatigue becomes a kind of friend–a phenomenon you know right down to your bones–and so do disappointment and resignation. If you are a woman, your alien body will surge with heat, sweat, and restless, abundant energy as you lie abed, pondering life, the universe, and the eternally vexing question of whether you locked the back door.

Although I was (and am) an unremarkable singer, my college voice teacher did walk me through the passaggio once. Usually, he let us choose our preferred register for whatever song we decided to sing in front of the class: the whole reason I opted for this elective, after all, was to force myself to sing in front of strangers, figuring the experience of taming my nerves would be good practice for teaching. (I was right.) But occasionally, my teacher would choose a key on the piano and ask us to sing it, turning us the other way so we couldn’t see how low or high that note was.

My writing runs on chocolate

And so one day when he thought I was ready, my teacher did with me what I’d seen him do with other students: he asked me to do a warm-up exercise down low in my register, and then he gradually moved that exercise up, up, up the scale. After a half dozen steps, I started to waver, my voice feeling thin and squeaky. “If it doesn’t hurt, don’t stop,” he encouraged. “It sounds beautiful to the rest of us: keep going.” And when I reached the place where my voice finally cracked, he turned me around to the piano and showed me, there on the far right side of the keys, the impossibly high note I had reached. “If you don’t believe that’s the note you just sang,” he said, “just look at your classmates,” and indeed, they were all staring at me, amazed.

Although I never became a classical singer, what I learned from that one credit, pass/fail class was the courage it takes to stand in your own shoes, open your mouth, and trust with all your heart whatever sound comes out. At the still-strange age of 50, I’ve come to believe that in the middle of any passage, you won’t necessarily imagine what comes next; you just have to trust your body to work through its weirdness on the way to a pure, clear note.

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