In a humdrum


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.

Eeyore

Yesterday after months of secret angst, I turned fifty. Now that I’ve passed that venerable milestone, I realize what I had been dreading wasn’t being fifty by turning fifty. Among women of a certain age, there is a widespread expectation (spoken or implied) that you should Do Something Grand for milestone birthdays, and my usual low-key celebratory style felt completely inadequate, at least in my imagined build up to The Event.

You are enough

But now that the auspicious occasion is officially over, I can say I celebrated as I (if nobody else) saw fit. In the morning, I went to the Zen Center, left after one meditation session, then walked to Harvard Square, where I explored the old burying ground–there is nothing like visiting graves of the centuries-ago deceased to put your life in perspective–before stopping at Burdick’s, where I treated myself to half a slice of raspberry-chocolate cake and a small dark hot chocolate. And under the combined influence of meditation, a brisk walk, and high octane chocolate, I did something I love to do but hadn’t done in ages: I sat in a cafe and wrote, starting with nothing to say and eventually finding words to describe why turning fifty has been unsettling. I wrote my way, in other words, into my own sort of clarity.

Street salamander

This is how I’ve navigated the first fifty years of my life, so why wouldn’t it be an apt way to celebrate the commencement of the next? After that first decadent treat, the rest of the day unspooled like any other Sunday: J and I walked to lunch at our favorite Thai restaurant, where our waiter surprised us with ice cream, and then we played with the dogs in the yard in the afternoon, as we normally do.

It was a quiet and contemplative day–no grand trips or parties or eye-popping spectacles to advertise on social media–but it was a day with all the things I love: walking and meditating and time with J and the dogs. And it was a day, too, with not one but three deserts: Burdicks cake and hot chocolate in the morning, Thai ice cream at lunch, and a slice of chocolate peanut butter cake in the evening. It was a day, in other words, with an abundance of delights.

Pooh and Eeyore

At some point, I’ll blog the journal entry I wrote yesterday at Burdicks, but for now all that’s necessary is to note I had a quietly delightful day and couldn’t have wished for anything better. If the way you spend your birthday is the way you’ll spend the coming year, please sign me up for fifty more.

Meteorological terms

For Christmas, A (not her real initial) got me a weather observer’s notebook. A knows I love both nature and notebooks, so something that combines those two loves is a perfect present. And because I can’t let a blank notebook go unfilled, I’ve been trying since the New Year to write a short description of the weather after each day’s dog-walk, along with an account of birds I saw.

Kinds of clouds

Writing about the weather is nothing new for me: meteorological conditions are a frequent theme in both my blog and handwritten journal. Weather is, after all, both ephemeral and omnipresent, so if you have nothing to write about on a given day, you can always describe what’s going on outside. But having an entire, separate notebook devoted to The Weather is something new. It’s one thing to describe the quality of light falling upon your journal page and another to chronicle each day’s temperature and precipitation.

Snowflakes

So far this year, we’ve had weird weather: we’ve fluctuated between warm, cold, and wet without any snow (currently) on the ground. Today has alternated between rain and drizzle, the sky a monochrome shade of gray; earlier in the week, we had partly cloudy days that were glaring-bright with the harsh, low-angled light of winter. Tomorrow and Monday are supposed to be dry and partly cloudy; on Tuesday, we’re expecting either rain, snow, or both.

Writing the weather

I don’t know how long into the New Year I’ll remain faithful to this new habit of writing down the weather: once I’m back to teaching, I’ll have much less time to write, and even less time to maintain multiple notebooks. But for now, it’s been fun to chronicle each day’s meteorological mood swings, New England’s ever-changing weather inevitably giving me something to write about.

Books read in 2018

It’s New Year’s Eve, so I spent part of the day setting up my goals for the New Year. I’m not a fan of big, grandiose resolutions, but I like setting and tracking small, attainable goals.

In the past, I’ve set monthly goals I’ve had spotty success with–some months I stay on track, and other months I don’t–so this year I’ve decided to take the advice of a CNN story on Monday resolutions, setting up a recurring reminder on my Monday to-do list to review my goals for the previous week.

Reviewing June goals

Most of my goals for 2019 are the same as my goals for 2018. Each day, I want to meditate, write in my journal, log at least 15,000 steps, and take and post to Flickr at least one photo. Each week, I want to blog at least three times and write at least one letter. Each month, I want to go to a museum once and the Zen Center twice. And over the course of the year, I want to read at least 50 books.

I know from the past that I tend to meet my daily meditation, photo-taking, and step-count goals as well as my annual reading goal. I’m far less faithful when it comes to blogging, museum and Zen Center attendance, and letter-writing: given my work and household obligations, those activities are the first to fall to the wayside. But the whole point of goal-setting is to give oneself a push, so I welcome the excuse of a New Year to get a New Start. If nothing else, sitting down and deciding what you want to do in the New Year is inspiring, even if you sometimes fall short of your goals.

Got glasses?

Today J and I went to the eye doctor for a routine checkup and new glasses. Although I’m able to read with my old glasses, the doctor decided it was time for me to get either reading glasses or progressive lenses: apparently I’ve been straining to read, and print did indeed look much crisper and clearer when he put an extra set of lenses in front of my eyes.

Umbrellas

Since I tend to multitask when I read, I opted for progressive lenses rather than reading glasses: I’d prefer to use one set of glasses rather than two, and progressives will allow me to read while watching TV or alternate between looking down at my laptop and up at students in the back row of my classes.

May flowers

Moving from regular to progressive lenses is yet another reminder that my body is doing what comes naturally, which is grow older. When J, who is two years older than me, got progressive lenses a few years ago, he predicted I’d follow suit. I remember the acclimation period he’d gone through when his new glasses arrived and he walked around for a week or two tilting his head up and down, trying to find the exact angle where close, medium-range, and distant objects were clear. I know, in other words, what I’m getting into.

Psychedelic dinnerware

I’ve worn glasses since I was a child, so I have little vanity when it comes to eyewear: I grew up, after all, hearing the saying “Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.” Now that I’m firmly entrenched in middle age, I’ve grown accustomed to being invisible: I can’t remember the last time a man of any age made anything remotely resembling a pass, and I can’t say I miss it. Reading is one of my favorite pastimes, so I don’t mind wearing whatever kind of glasses it takes to make it easier.

The photos illustrating today’s post are at least ten years old. I took the top photo in June, 2008, and I shot the other images through a kaleidoscopic lens in the ICA giftshop in May, 2007.

« Previous PageNext Page »