In a humdrum


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.

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.

Bulletin board

I teach early until late on Tuesdays and Thursdays this semester, with my first class starting at 8:30 am and my last class ending at 6:30 pm. This means I have a big chunk of time between my morning and afternoon classes, and I typically spend that time in my office grading papers, prepping classes, and meeting with students. On any given Tuesday or Thursday, I spend the entire day in May Hall, all my classes and office being located there.

This isn't me, but I kind of wish it was.

My Fitbit has an activity reminder that buzzes near the end of any daytime hour I haven’t logged 250 steps. When I’m teaching, there’s no need for reminders, as I pace and gesticulate, walking around the classroom and trying to keep my students awake. But during that big chunk of time between my morning and afternoon classes, when I’m in my office tending to sedentary tasks, I appreciate an occasional nudge (or buzz) to get moving.

Wire sculpture

There’s no telling how many miles I’ve walked in May Hall this semester. My office is on the second floor, and I’ve learned I can log 250 steps by going upstairs, walking through the History department on the third floor, walking through the Art department on the fourth floor, and then retracing my steps through History and back to English. If I get tired of that route, I can walk downstairs and past the first floor classrooms, through the basement with its ceramic studios and kilns, and back, taking quick peeks into the rooms I pass.

When the weather’s nicer, I’ll probably venture outside to walk around campus, but in winter time, walking laps through May Hall does the trick: it pulls me away from my desk and gets my blood moving, and it gives me an excuse to check out the art exhibits on display in the hallways and in quiet corners.

Art department stairwell

This week I heard a radio story about a former inmate who ran his first marathon in prison, logging 26.2 miles on a treadmill last April 18: Marathon Monday. This year, he’s out of prison and is running the actual Boston Marathon: same mileage, but a far more interesting route. I’ve never run a marathon, but if you can do it on a treadmill, I suppose there’s nothing stopping me from racking up 26.2 miles (eventually) in May Hall.

Stella through raindrops

Winter storm Stella arrived this morning, right on schedule: the tracking of storms has gotten so reliable, we’ve known for days Stella was on her way, bringing with her over a foot of snow and blizzard-force winds. Although local stores were flooded yesterday with shoppers buying armloads of bread, milk, and eggs, I’d done my grocery shopping on Friday, well in advance of the last minute rush. J and I have weathered enough winter storms, we know the drill.

Front walkway

A few days before a big storm, J and I make sure we have a week’s supply of groceries and other essentials: pity the folks who get snowed-in without toilet paper, kitty litter, or aspirin. We check our flashlights and battery-powered radios, fully charge our phones and other devices, and stock up on library books and Kindle downloads.

If a storm sounds particularly daunting, I’ll make sure my car has a full tank of gas in case we lose electricity and need to use a car-charger to power our phones, and I’ll withdraw some extra cash in case ATMs and credit card machines are down. The day before the storm, J will bring the snowblower onto the back porch so it’s ready to clear a path to freedom, and I’ll park my car at the end of the driveway, just in case the snowblower dies and I have to “Subaru-through” to the cleared road.

Midday

The truth is, we’ve rarely needed these extreme measures: when we’ve lost power in past storms, service has been quickly restored, and we’ve never been snowed-in for days. In an emergency, we could probably survive a week or more on the staples we keep in our pantry. But when the wind is rattling the windows and a billowing blur of tiny snowflakes is falling as fine as sifted flour, there is comfort in knowing the cupboards are stocked and the home fires are stoked.

Double arch stone bridge

I spent the weekend with A (not her real initial) in Great Barrington: a weekend visit to last until summer, when traveling to see one another is easier. On Saturday, we did a great deal of walking–along the Keystone Arch Bridges trail in Chester in the morning, and along the trolley trail in Housatonic in the evening before dark. On Sunday we spent the day on more contemplative pursuits: writing, reading, and sipping tea over long conversations.

One of the things we talked about was ideation: A’s temperamental proclivity toward big ideas. It turns out that A and I see the world in different ways, or at least from different angles, and this might be the secret to our friendship: our personalities are complementary, not merely compatible.

Waterfall

A is sustained by ideas; she is a woman of concepts and cognition. I, on the other hand, am a person of experience and actions, preferring tangible things to thoughts. It’s not that I dislike ideas, but I need to come upon them indirectly: I need to sense a thing in order to conceptualize it. I am a person who lives and dies by William Carlos Williams’ dictum “No ideas but in things”: to understand an idea, I need to somehow touch it.

This is, perhaps, another way of saying I’m a modern-day Transcendentalist. In Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson argued that every idea has its antecedent in nature, the natural world being a grand dictionary of symbols. For Emerson, human language is an abstraction rooted in nature: words are powerful only if they are tightly tied to the tangible phenomena that exemplify them.

We missed this clearly marked turn

Emersonian idealism tends to minimize nature, reducing the natural world to set of signs that exists primarily to satisfy humanity’s cognitive needs. But in my mind (and in, I’d argue, Thoreau’s), there is another sort of idealism that gives nature the ultimate primacy. The natural world can survive (and probably would be better off) without humans, but humans need the tangible stuff of nature to make intellectual sense of the world.

The Keystone Arch Bridges trail wends along the West Branch of the Westfield River, and the dirt road A and I followed was alternatively icy and muddy, a ridge of hard-pack snow sliced by muddy tire ruts. We had to pay close attention to the ground underfoot as we walked, at one point focusing so intently on our footfalls, we missed a clearly marked trail junction.

Waterfall

The mind is elusive, but the body undeniable. The best ideas, in my opinion, aren’t rooted in the fragile neurochemistry of the brain but in the muscular strength of the gut, the rising and falling diaphragm, and the perpetually beating heart. Or, as the character of Japhy Ryder said in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, “The closer you get to real matter, rock air fire and wood, boy, the more spiritual the world is.”

A keystone arch bridge is as material as it gets, each block of stone weighty and substantial. The railroad bridges in Chester were constructed in the 1830s without the use of mortar. Marvels of engineering, keystone arches are pieced together so that the pull of gravity holds each stone in place, weight being distributed across the arch and down its legs. Locking this structure in place is the keystone at the arch’s apex: the last stone set is the one that holds everything together.

Double arch stone bridge

When you are hiking on treacherous trails, you have little time to think; with so many things to pay attention to, you have little energy for discursive thought. This is one of the things I like about hiking: whereas walking down a smooth, level path is an invitation to thought, the literal balancing act required when you walk a treacherous trail pulls you out of your head and back into your body. Hiking isn’t a spur to thinking, but an antidote to it.

Like Whitman, I’m not interested in ideas that “prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds, and along the landscape and flowing currents.” The mind is a creature that wanders into illusionary realms, but the body is a concrete thing that exists nowhere other than here and now, in the tactile world of water, rocks, and trees.

Waterfall

In The Dharma Bums, Ray Smith falters while hiking the Matterhorn because he fears the things that might happen: he might fall, he might get hurt, he might fail to make it to the top. Japhy, on the other hand, is as unselfconscious as a mountain goat, hopping from boulder to boulder without a thought of risk or danger.

“The secret of this kind of climbing,” said Japhy, “is like Zen. Don’t think. Just dance along. It’s the easiest thing in the world, actually easier than walking on flat ground which is monotonous. The cute little problems present themselves at each step and yet you never hesitate and you find yourself on some other boulder you picked out for no special reason at all, just like Zen.”

Double arch stone bridge

This weekend, A and I took turns being Japhy, one of us staying stable and upright whenever the other wavered or wobbled. This is one of the benefits of befriending one’s complement: you have a buddy to back you up.

The dictum “No ideas but in things” is itself an idea, and any one of us alternates between ideation and action, these two modes working best when they move hand-in-hand. Ideas are the right foot; tangible objects the left. Step by step, each in turn, is how we move forward, whether slow and faltering or steady and sure.

Hibiscus

The other night J and I watched a home-shopping show selling enormous and eye-poppingly colorful hibiscuses, begonias, and day lilies. Neither one of us is a gardener: the only flowers in our yard are the ones planted by previous inhabitants that have survived an annual onslaught of hungry rabbits. But J and I happily watched a half-hour pitch for plants we’ll never buy because it’s February in New England, and we’ve lived here long enough to know that in February, you call upon your strongest coping strategies to get you through another long winter.

Hibiscus

This winter has been milder than most–before this week, we’d gotten more rain than snow–but that doesn’t matter. It’s still February–the year’s longest month–and this morning I called upon Winter Coping Strategy #2, which is to listen to uptempo dance music (preferably from somewhere warm) while doing morning chores. (This morning, it was salsa music; later in the month, when salsa grows stale and I need to call in the big guns, I’ll listen to bellydance.)

Hibiscus bud

In February, the days have begun to lengthen, but the ground is either covered in snow or salt-blanched and barren. In December and January , we were starved for light; in February, we’re starved for color. Long gone is the yellow light of summer: in February, even sunlight is gray and glaring. Soon enough, I’ll be browsing cute sandals online (Coping Strategy #3), planning a trip to the aquarium (Coping Strategy #4), or visiting a greenhouse and taking macro shots of flowers (Coping Strategy #5).

Purple

There are many ways to cope with long, cold winters. While other regions pin their seasonal hopes on prognosticating rodents, sports fans in New England look forward to Truck Day, when our thoughts and a truckload of baseball equipment head to Florida. While we wait for Red Sox pitchers and catchers to report to spring training tomorrow, I find myself once again lingering a bit too long by the supermarket florist, basking in the scent of cut flowers (Coping Strategy #6). If past years are indicative, it will be only a week or so until I’m snapping surreptitious photos in the produce aisle (Coping Strategy #7), craving a quick fix of color imported from Somewhere South, a place otherwise known as anywhere but here.

Today’s photos come from an October trip to Tower Hill Botanic Garden, which I’ve previously blogged. Winter Coping Strategy #1 is to take plenty of pictures during the golden days of summer and fall so you can look back upon (and blog) them when the days turn gray and grim.

Snowy patio

We got about a foot of snow from winter storm Niko: not exceptional by New England standards, but the biggest storm of the season so far. Today was sunny, as is typical after big snowstorms: a perfect day for digging out.

Miss Bling in a blanket

Before J got started with roof-raking and snow-blowing, I had two tasks: clear my car and shake snow from the trees. Clearing my car was easy enough: the trick is to use a push-broom to brush the bulk of the snow, start the car and leave it running with the heat on, and then clear the windows, windshield, and mirrors with an ice scraper. Once you’ve cleared most of the snow, the sun will take care of the rest.

The snow-shaking is a more involved task. Our house is fringed with rhododendrons and evergreens, and these get weighed down after every snowfall. Although I like the look of tree limbs laden with snow, it’s not good for trees and shrubs to be bent double, so after I cleared my car, I circled our yard with my push-broom, shaking the snow from bent boughs.

Snowy backyard

The shrubs alongside the garage and driveway are easy to reach, especially with a long-handled broom, but the rhododendrons on the far side of our house are less accessible, growing as they do in the narrow strip of yard between our house and the neighbors’ hedges. Wintertime is the only time I squeeze into this space between our rhodies and their hedge, a messy tangle that feels a lot wilder than its location right alongside our house would suggest.

Today, the rhododendron leaves were curled lengthwise and frozen, hanging like brittle green cigars that rattled woodenly as I knocked the snow from their branches. Sometimes, when a bough is bent low to the ground with snow, it springs up with a swish when you liberate it. Other times when you shake an overhead limb, the snow showers down in a diamond-glitter burst. I’ve learned to turn my face and close my eyes before knocking the largest overhead boughs, but sometimes out of the corner of my eye I’ll see a hint of rainbow as the snow turns to diamond-dust then dissolves in midair.

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