Life lessons


Stump and toppled trunk

Today was a bright, breezy, spring-like day, so after lunch J and I went walking at Newton Cemetery. Most of the snow has melted, leaving the grass bare and blanched: mud season, the awkward pause before spring.

Fallen

Throughout the Cemetery, there were fresh stumps and piles of massive trunks and branches: cleanup from trees that had either fallen in winter storms or had been preemptively culled. It was sad to see massive tree-corpses lying among the gravestones: if these fallen giants could talk, what stories could they tell?

Stump

The lesson of any Cemetery, of course, is that impermanence surrounds us. Seeds sprout, trees tower, and winds wreak havoc: even evergreens can’t stay green forever. A neatly landscaped grave creates the illusion of immortality: as long as a headstone stands, one’s name and memory live on. But aren’t tombstones ultimately like so many tree stumps: dead reminders of a once-living thing?

Toppled

In a few weeks, the earth will erupt in green, landscape crews will have cleared away the last of these toppled trees, and both the mallards and Canada geese that swim the Cemetery ponds will have nestlings in tow. The annual death that is winter, in other words, will miraculously transform into the resurrection that is spring. In the meantime, I like to think the massive tree stumps J and I saw today aren’t dead, but sleeping: their cellulose selves dreaming of sunny skies and chlorophyll-fed days.

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.

First day teaching

This semester, after a two-year stint as a full-time visiting professor at Framingham State University, I’m back to teaching there part-time: basically the same job, but with a smaller teaching load, fewer departmental responsibilities, and significantly less pay. To make up some of the financial difference, I’ve taken a part-time position as an adjunct lecturer at Babson College in Wellesley, a college whose campus is conveniently located on my way to Framingham. Two days a week, I teach at Babson in the morning and Framingham State in the afternoon, and on the other days, I grade papers, prep classes, and answer student emails from home.

This way / that way

This is how contingent faculty far off the tenure track make their living; my situation is in no way unique. Throughout graduate school and beyond, I was a roads scholar, juggling classes at multiple institutions: drive in, teach, drive somewhere else, repeat. My two years of full-time teaching at Framingham State were the exception, not the rule. Even during the decade I was employed as a full-time instructor at Keene State College, I didn’t receive benefits and taught online to cover my health insurance premiums. Long before the gig economy had a name, I’ve supported myself for decades with a long string of side-hustles.

This way

In the year leading up to my fiftieth birthday, I spent a lot of time quietly lamenting the sorry state of my contingent career. I love teaching, but it often feels like the academy doesn’t love me back. I didn’t go to grad school, after all, with dreams of being a perpetual part-timer, and there is something quaintly pathetic about middle-aged adjuncts like me: we’re the folks at the party who have long overstayed our welcome.

Adjuncting is a rite of passage when you’re in graduate school, and most folks either merge onto the tenure track or move onto other things. But for better or worse, I’ve made a lasting living out of temporary employment. Out of necessity, I’ve become the person who can step in at the last minute when someone suddenly goes on leave or moves onto a better job. If I were a basketball player rather than a college instructor, I’d be the role player way down the bench who can plug into any team mid-season: a quintessential team-player who will never be an All-Star.

This way

I sometimes think of myself as an itinerant, like the pioneer preachers who rode from town to town on horseback with nothing but a Bible and a head full of homilies. Nobody becomes a superstar through circuit riding, but there are plenty of communities that relied upon preachers who passed through intermittently, but with great faith. The need for itinerants always outstrips the resources to compensate them.

What I lack in lasting job security, I make up for in breadth of experience. Almost a month into the semester, I’ve quickly realized that Babson and Framingham State are very different institutionally and in terms of student demographics, so twice a week when I steer my Subaru from one campus to the other, I move from world to world, culture to culture, gaining a perspective that professors who teach at only one college necessarily lack. The best college professors make a conscious effort to teach the students in front of them, not some theoretical idea of what a student “should” be. When you’re contingent faculty, the nature of the students in front of you changes from day to day and hour to hour, depending on where you find yourself.

Mannequins thinking of spring

This morning for the second Sunday in a row, I woke up early, did my morning chores, then drove to the Cambridge Zen Center, where I meditated for one session before heading to Harvard Square, where I wrote my morning journal pages over a small cup of Burdick’s dark hot chocolate.

Respect art / Not art

Sitting one rather than four Sunday morning meditation sessions means your practice is necessarily concentrated. You can’t space out for minutes at a time, figuring you’ll pay attention later. Knowing you have only thirty minutes to sit following your breath, you pay close attention to every minute, saving nothing for “later.”

This, in my experience, is the difference between living at a Zen Center and simply visiting. When I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, I quickly grew accustomed to the mundane nature of Dharma room practice, taking it for granted and not paying as close attention over time. When you live in a Zen Center, it’s easy to show up in body but not fully in mind. When you drive in from the suburbs to sit a brief half hour, on the other hand, you take care to pay close attention to that time, recognizing it as a precious respite in a sea of hurry.

Outside Warby Parker

A cup of dark hot chocolate is like this too. Burdick’s chocolate is rich, intensely flavored, and delivers a day-long buzz: a whole day of energy in one small cup. If I lived next door to Burdick’s, I might take it for granted, growing too accustomed to a mid-morning pick-me-up. Instead, a concentrated cup of dark chocolate is an occasional reward I give myself on those Sundays when I get up early and go to the Zen Center as planned: a good start to a new week, capped with something strong and just a little bit sweet.

Burdicks

This morning after sitting a single session at the Cambridge Zen Center, I slipped out of practice and walked to Harvard Square, where I treated myself to a small dark hot chocolate, just as I did several weeks ago on my birthday.

Reflective self portrait

This time, I brought a full-size notebook, tucking it in my purse so I could sit alongside the anonymous women of Cambridge: young women in pairs, chatting, and middle-aged women like me, shrouded in invisibility as we sit writing or reading over our solitary beverages. Early on a Sunday morning, men seem to venture into Burdicks only briefly to purchase coffee or chocolates to go, or they hurry in to join a wife or daughter after having accomplished the manly work of parking the car.

This, I’ve decided, is one of the key differences between women and men in our culture. Women willingly go places alone, sit alone, and are perfectly content to be left alone as long as they have a book, magazine, or notebook to occupy themselves. Men, on the other hand, need women to accompany them. A man needs a woman to pull him out of his isolation, to drag him into chocolate shops he’d never venture into on his own, and to make introductions and small talk and niceties. A man needs a woman (in other words) to do the emotional labor of socializing.

Letter writing

A lone woman–particularly a lone woman of a certain age–embraces her invisibility; she cherishes it, in fact, after so many years of being the object of others’ eyes. A man, on the other hand, needs a woman on his arm–the younger and prettier the better–to become visible, to be noticed, to make both an entrance and an impression. A lone man loitering is a threat–an object of suspicion–but a lone woman slips unobtrusively under the radar. The proverbial fly on the wall was, I am certain, female. Who better to observe and record the actions of others than a creature who is small, insignificant, and overlooked: a mousy creature, not a preening peacock.

Chocolate pigs??

There are, of course, exceptions; the differences I’ve outlined between women and men are, after all, conditioned, not innate. When I first arrived at Burdicks this morning, there was a young man sitting alone at a table across from me. Before I could wonder whether he was waiting for a wife or girlfriend, however, this young man pulled out a camera: a large SLR with a fancy lens that served to justify his presence. Snapping a shot of the delicate, dangling lights overhead–the same lights I’d surreptitiously shot with my phone, with no fancy lens necessary–this young man promptly packed his expensive camera into his backpack and left: mission accomplished.

Journal pages

When I chose a table this morning, I didn’t sit alongside this man or at the row of empty tables near him; instead, I squeezed into a single table between two lone women, one on either side. The ways that women and men behave in public are conditioned, not innate, but they are conditioned deeply. Men take up space with their backpacks and large cameras, and women (especially those of a certain age) shrink into the spaces between, our invisibility a silent, secret strength that allows us to see.

Horse chestnuts (aka buckeyes) emerging and emerged

There is a horse-chestnut (aka buckeye) tree I pass every time I park in my usual spot at Framingham State, and this past semester, I fell into the habit of picking up a single buckeye every morning I came to campus to teach. Buckeyes remind me of Ohio, so it became a comforting ritual to pick up a buckeye, polish it in my hand as I walked to my office, and then place it on my desk as that day’s amulet: a good luck-eye.

Basket of buckeyes

Last week, I gathered all these buckeyes into a basket, each representing a day when I commuted to campus with the usual assortment of worries, obligations, and distractions. Whether it was rainy or sunny, I picked up a buckeye. Whether I was tired, discouraged, or feeling energized, I picked up a buckeye. Whether I was running late or had arrived early, I picked up a buckeye.

Whereas my students get something tangible at the end of each semester–a grade and whatever credits they’ve accrued–teaching can sometimes feel as futile as a dog chasing her tail. After so much energy poured into lectures, quizzes, and essay drafts, what (if anything) did I or anyone accomplish? At the end of yet another semester, it felt oddly satisfying to have accumulated a tangible thing: not something I made, for sure, but something I gradually gathered, a reminder of moments that might have otherwise slipped away without notice.

Creepy

If I had to pick a favorite month, November would be my choice. Fall is my favorite season, and late fall is my favorite time. After the bright and blustery days of October, November descends as a kind of muted gloom. Many trees have lost their leaves, and in places the ground below is more colorful than the branches above. Early autumn draws the eye upward toward changing foliage, and in late fall we look down toward earth again.

Skeleton with pet cat

November is dying time. Leaning deep toward winter, trees suck their juices into their roots, leaving their leaves to wither and branches to dry. November is when nature closes up shop, putting a sudden stop to the fervent fecundity of summer. When Herman Melville wanted to describe the morbid urge that sent Ishmael to sea, he described the damp, drizzly November of his soul. All rivers wend toward an ocean end, and Christians remind themselves of this with a pair of November holidays that commemorate the dead: All Saints Day yesterday, and All Souls Day today.

Mr. October

During the month of October, our religiously diverse neighborhood goes all out decorating for Halloween: Christmas lights are rare here, but in October there are plenty of ghouls and skeletons hanging around. The inevitability of death, it turns out, is something that Christians, Jews, Muslims, and certainly Buddhists can agree upon. Whatever the shade of your skin or the posture of your prayer, in the end our bones will all molder the same.

Just a skeleton on a porch with his dog

Earlier this week while listening to news coverage of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, I heard how community members have spent shifts at the coroner’s office, praying with the deceased rather than leaving them there alone. I’m not Jewish, but I my immediate response to this story was recognition: yes, of course we need to keep company with the dead, praying however we are accustomed. And with that thought, I began to weep, not only for the named ones who died in Pittsburgh but for any and all who have died alone, too soon, or with unfinished business: the only kind of soul, legend tells us, in danger of becoming a ghost.

Three pumpkins

Buddhists have no illusions about the afterlife: I’m comforted by the bright blankets of November because I recognize that as the leaves and seasons pass, so too are we each destined to die. In November, all souls sit with the dying landscape, keeping her company as she passes from one season to the next. At this time of year and during this week of senseless slaughter, I’m reminded of a line from the Dhammapada: All beings tremble before their death. Knowing this, how can you quarrel?

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