Life lessons


Leafy

This morning I awoke in western Massachusetts, where I had been visiting A (not her real initial) for the weekend. Before packing my car to head back home, I wrote my morning journal pages in bed, listening to a distant dog barking and the emphatic bursts and bubbles of house wrens, robins, and song sparrows.

Gallery

None of those morning sounds were my concern: there was no need for me to hush, feed, or clean up after that distant dog, and the robins, wrens, and sparrows of western Massachusetts kindly take care of themselves. I have my own backyard birds at home, and my own awaiting tasks. I arrived in Newton around noon, and Toivo wiggled herself in a frenzy at the sight of me, and J gratefully relinquished my share of the household chores, just as I hand over his when he returns from business trips.

Airy

Everything, in other words, has quickly returned to normal: how could it be otherwise? Both humans and dogs (and backyard birds, I suppose) are creatures of habit, and I am so far sunk into the happy rut of my domestic days, I don’t quite remember how to function outside of it.

Natural light

Zen is widely seen as a crazy, spontaneous practice–the stuff of carefree Dharma bums and zany Zen Masters–but this popular perception overlooks the sheer repetitive monotony of monastic practice. For every spontaneous outburst recorded in a Zen Master’s collected teachings, said Master spent countless hours getting up every day at the same time, gazing for the same meticulously scheduled increments at the same habitual floor, chanting the same traditional words at the same regimented hours, and going to bed at the same precise time every night to repeat it all over again and again.

Doorway

Monasticism is the heart of Zen practice, and monastic monotony is the stable, steady heartbeat that sustains occasional spontaneity. How can you be truly free unless you have no need to wonder where and when your next meal will be or where and when you’ll lay down your head? Monastics free their minds by taming and harnessing their bodies; an ox long accustomed to the yoke has infinite freedom to wander anywhere in his untameable mind.

Through

It’s been a long time since I lived in a Zen Center, but my daily routine with its chores and domestic rituals is its own kind of practice. This morning I loaded my car and drove home to my mundane life carrying a weekend’s worth of dirty clothes: after the ecstasy, the laundry.

The photos illustrating today’s post are from Ellsworth Kelly: Plant Lithographs, an exhibit at the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, MA.

Greening

I took a moment earlier today to photograph the emerging leaves and flowering forsythia in our backyard: the same photos I take every year. It is somehow encouraging to see, again, that when the spring comes, the grass grows by itself, even while I am preoccupied with other obligations.

Forsythia flowers

Yesterday afternoon, I began discussing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me with my American literature students: the first time they’ve read it, but the fifth or sixth time for me. A good book, in my estimation, is one that wows and amazes you no matter how many times you read it. Emily Dickinson defined poetry as something that makes you feel as if the top of your head had been taken off, and this is how I’d describe the experience of reading Coates’ meditation on racism in America. The first time I read Coates’ book, it blew my mind with its blunt, unflinching honesty, and it stuns and shakes me every time I read it since.

First leaves of spring

Yesterday as I discussed the book with my students, I marveled at how much more politically aware they are than I was at their age. My students are saddened but not surprised by Coates’ account of America’s racist history, and they aren’t fazed by his refusal to offer sugar-coated hopefulness. Yesterday my students and I discussed the book alongside recent examples of police overreach, such as the shooting of Stephon Clark in Sacramento and the arrest of two black men in a Philadelphia Starbucks–and we watched a video showing parents of black boys describing The Talk they’ve had warning their sons of police brutality.

Spring green

These are not things I was aware of when I was an undergraduate. Rodney King was beaten in the 1990s, when I was in graduate school, and I blithely assumed his case was an anomaly, something attributed to a few bad cops rather than a pervasively systemic problem. My students today, however, don’t have the luxury of such innocence. They read the news and consider with clear-eyes the diminished promise of their own futures. Growing up in the shadow of the Great Recession, they know the American dream is a tempting fantasy that leads too often toward American disappointment.

Leafing

With hopes hardened by realism, my students are not shocked by the cruel realities Coates describes; they realize the world my generation leaves them is riddled by as many problems as promises. Like Coates, I don’t offer my students easy answers; I don’t have those answers, and I doubt any answers will be easy. But it heartens me to realize my students have open eyes and hearts that care, even as their youthful earnestness reminds me of the tender and tenuous first leaves of spring.

Propane tank-filling day. #signsofspring #almostgrillingseason

Today I went to the hardware store to fill two propane tanks: an annual ritual that marks the start of spring and the almost-advent of grilling season. Every year, I park my car by the big propane tank at the corner of the lot, go inside to pay, and then return to the big tank, where a man wearing a hat, coat, and gloves fills each of my smaller tanks in turn.

Almost forsythia

Tonight when I finally sat down to meditate, I felt like I’d plugged myself into a power source: a chance to refill and recharge. We’re entering the busy part of the semester, and on any given day, I have to juggle a half dozen different obligations: pets to feed and errands to run, student emails to answer, classes to prepare, and papers to grade. On any given day, there are more to-do’s on my list than there are hours to do them.

Leafing

And yet, all it takes for me to feel grounded and centered is the simple act of stopping: right here, right now, I make a conscious effort to do just one thing as I follow my breath going in and out, in and out. When you have a hundred and one things to do, doing just one thing sounds like an indulgent luxury, but it’s just as practical as stopping by the hardware store for propane. One’s inner stores of energy are easily depleted, but the Big Tank where you can refill is always close at hand.

Cassie with chew bone

On Monday morning–New Year’s Day–we put our white German shepherd, Cassie, to sleep. She’d been diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma, an aggressively metastatic cancer, the week before Christmas, after our vet found a large mass on her spleen. When we brought Cassie home after having her spleen removed, we knew our task was to make the rest of her life as comfortable as possible, no matter how long or short.

Cassie at home

J and I have ushered too many pets from this world to the next: countless cats and now four dogs. Our commitment to stay with a pet until their final breath–to be present during their passing rather than handing over the leash and walking away–is one we both take very seriously. We’ve grown all-too-familiar with the the euphemistically named “Meditation Room” at the Angell Animal Medical Center, where families can gather on couches or on the floor while their pet slips quietly away. We know the Meditation Room and the routine that goes with it because it’s a scene we’ve repeated with pet after pet after pet. After spending so much time, energy, and worry tending to an ailing or elderly pet’s final days, suddenly they are gone.

Someone won't let me make the bed. #dogsofinstagram #cassiethedog #whitegermanshepherd

When Cassie was in surgery two weeks ago and her surgeon saw her cancer had spread, our vet called and gave us the option of euthanizing Cassie right there on the operating table. Without batting an eye, I said no. There is no need to prolong the inevitable–neither J nor I believe in extraordinary measures–but there also isn’t any reason to hasten it. After her surgery, Cassie had a good, comfortable week at home surrounded by the familiar rituals of her daily routine. Without a bleeding mass on her spleen, she felt more energetic than she had before surgery–almost as good as new–and we plied her with cold cuts for Christmas and spent a lot of time petting, brushing, and fussing over her.

Cassie at Angell

Instead of dying on an antiseptic operating table, Cassie left us at the fullness of time, after we’d spent a week consciously, intentionally loving her to death. Past midnight on New Year’s Eve, she was her usual alert and affectionate self; on New Year’s morning, she was listless and droopy, with white gums indicating an internal hemorrhage. Having discussed this inevitability with our vet–ultimately, we knew, hemangiosarcoma always wins–a difficult decision wasn’t difficult at all. Although Cassie didn’t know much less understand her diagnosis, her body told us it was time.

Festive formal wear

I taught my last Fall semester class on Thursday night, and I collect my first batch of student portfolios on Tuesday. This means I have this weekend to buy and wrap Christmas gifts, write and mail holiday cards, and otherwise tend to all the household tasks that have accumulated over the final weeks of the semester.

Happy Holly-days.

Every year, I have grand intentions of starting this holiday prep over Thanksgiving, and every year, I’m too buried in paper-grading. Whereas spring semester has spring break in the middle, fall semester is a schedule nightmare. Thanksgiving falls at one of the busiest times of the semester, and after Thanksgiving, it’s a mad rush toward the end of the term.

Every year, December arrives too early and passes in a blur. A month ago, one of my first-year students said she couldn’t believe how quickly the semester had flown by, and she asked whether all four years of college would fly as quickly. All I could do in response was smile and chuckle. My students are young and are only now learning how fast the days, semesters, and years can pass. When they’re my age, they’ll realize that time is a careening car that does nothing but accelerate.

Annunciation with shadows and mirror

I’ve decided I feel about Thanksgiving the same way I feel about Valentine’s Day: sympathetic in theory but a bit embarrassed in practice. When you feel grateful and loving every day, it’s a bit discomfiting to be told to display those private emotions in a publicly ostensible way once a year. Both Valentine’s Day and Thanksgiving strike me as being almost skeptical in nature. It’s not enough to privately love or be grateful; instead, these two holidays demand we prove it.

Although there are plenty of folks who decry the forced, greeting-card quality of Valentine’s Day, uttering similar sentiments about Thanksgiving is incredibly curmudgeonly: how can one rightly be antagonistic toward a holiday devoted to gratitude and food? But even though gratitude and food are indeed two of my favorite things, the simple fact remains: I’m always a bit relieved to have Thanksgiving over, the calendrical requirement to be sufficiently grateful crossed off the list for another year.

Morning shadows

This is more than a bit ironic, however, since if I had to offer an honest description of my daily spiritual practice, it would be this: my religion is gratitude. Gratitude is not a word many Zennies use to define or describe their practice, since gratitude implies there is someone or something one is grateful to, and Zennies tend to remain silent on questions of theology.

Zen practitioners tend to emphasize what we do when we meditate: we sit upright with eyes lowered, hands in a mudra below our navels, and attention fixed on our breath, a silent, repetitive mantra helping us keep that attention right here, right now. But this description of what a Zennie does when she meditates omits entirely the question of what she feels when she sits and follows her breath. And in my case, I can on most days answer that question with only one word: gratitude.

Tree shadows

The gratitude I feel when I meditate isn’t a hearts-and-flowers feeling, and it’s not something that involves the counting of blessings or anything that could be expressed succinctly in a thank-you note. Instead, it is a deep abiding sense of contentment that simmers beneath the sturm-und-drang of consciousness. On the surface, I might be happy, sad, anxious, or impatient, and my thoughts might be entirely subsumed with the static and distracted chatter of the day’s headlines, to-dos, and petty quarrels. But beneath that turbid roil of thoughts–down at the bedrock of consciousness–a single stream runs clear and pure. That is what I mean by the word “gratitude.”

Leaf shadows on office blinds

The gratitude that bubbles up when I meditate has nothing to do with turkeys, football games, or cranberry sauce. Instead, it is a deep and enduring realization that this present moment is enough. Watching my breath go out and in, I become deeply aware of the precious connectedness of this one individual life. My gratitude (if I must call it that) goes out to all the joined-but-disparate things in the vast wide universe that make this moment possible: family, friends, and loved ones, to be sure, but also the earth and trees and shadows and air. If I had to count my blessings, I’d have to count the entire Universe of existence, from smallest microbe to most distant star.

Such talk, of course, will earn you plenty of odd looks at the family dinner table, and that is why I’m secretly relieved every year when the public pomp of Thanksgiving Day is done and I can get back to the serious business of admiring stars and shadows in secret.

Tinged

I’m currently reading The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying, Nina Riggs’ account of her cancer diagnosis and death. The book is divided into four stages, just as terminal cancer is, and in the passage I read this morning, Riggs enters stage three of her journey right as her own mother dies of the disease.

Fade to pink

Riggs is a descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson, so her approach to living and dying is inherently–one might say in-hereditarily–Transcendentalist. Riggs reads and writes her way through her diagnosis, treatment, and stages of grief, drawing parallels between her life and the essays of Michel de Montaigne, which themselves were models for the ones written by both Emerson and Thoreau.

Essayists believe writing is itself illuminative: we write in an attempt (in an essay) to understand. The title of Riggs’ memoir, The Bright Hour, comes from a line from Emerson referring to morning as a time when sunlight infills and inspires, allowing “this sickly body…to become as large as the World.”

Duck lips

The sun rises every day, and every day people die. There is nothing inherently special about Riggs or her cancer, treatment, and death; Riggs experiences mortality as countless others have both before and after her. But what makes a writer’s passing particular is the very art of essaying: even in extremis, there is a conscious commitment to watch and record, one’s own impending death becoming its own kind of data.

This kind of noticing does not come naturally; it is human nature to turn away from scenes of sickness and decline, reminiscent as they are of one’s own mortality. But writers train themselves to turn toward trauma just as war photographers run toward scenes of slaughter. I suppose there are a few exceptional souls who live oblivious lives and then turn into compulsive chroniclers of their own demise, but in my experience, awareness is a tool you hone over time.

Fading to pink

Although Riggs’ memoir had its genesis in a blog she began soon after her diagnosis, I don’t know if she was a lifelong journal-keeper like her famous forebear was: it was Emerson, after all, who urged Henry David Thoreau to keep a journal, and American literature is all the richer for it. But Riggs was trained as a poet, and poets like essayists are compulsive collectors, using language as a tool to snatch up and save the otherwise ordinary detritus of days.

I’m roughly halfway through The Bright Hour, but I know how it ends–I know, in fact, how every memoir ends. We all were born with a terminal diagnosis, but some of us are in denial about the details. Riggs died at the age of 38, leaving a husband and two young sons; Emerson died at the ripe age of 78 after having lost much of his memory and mental faculties. How do we measure the richness of a single life: is it by length of days or the number of enduring publications? Riggs lived the last years of her life in an entirely Emersonian fashion, reading, writing, and trying assiduously to understand this brief, bright hour that dawns, hastens across the horizon, and inevitably fades.

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