Life lessons


Back at Burdicks

This morning I sat one meditation session at the Cambridge Zen Center, then I walked to Harvard Square, where I bought myself a large cup of dark hot chocolate at LA Burdicks. It was the first time I sat cross-legged on a cushion among other meditators–and the first time I sat writing at Burdicks–since the last time I wrote in this notebook: Sunday, January 5, 2020.

Today is exactly two months after my 53rd birthday. Before the pandemic, I’d established a loose habit of practicing at the Zen Center, then walking to Harvard Square and writing journal pages at Burdicks around my birthday, but the pandemic put a stop to that.

Oh my goodness, it’s good to be back.

I’ve always enjoyed writing in cafes, sustained by the soft stimulus of having other people in the room with you. It’s a collegial sense of anonymity: there is no need to talk to anyone, but your mere presence is enough to establish a friendly connection. You and I might not have much to say to one another–we might not speak the same language, and we might not have much in common in terms of politics or perspective–but we can sit companionably side-by-side, you sipping your chocolate while I sip mine.

This quiet companionship–this practice of sitting with strangers, quietly sharing the same space–is exactly what I’ve missed the past two years that the Zen Center has been closed. I don’t go to the Zen Center for a few minutes of friendly chit-chat before and after practice, although I enjoy that. Instead, what fuels me is the actual act of sitting with other souls I don’t need to talk to.

Perhaps this is a peculiar side-effect of doing language for a living. When I teach, I talk; when I grade papers, I read; and when I write, I’m steeped to my eyeballs in words, words, words. I love language–I make my living wrangling with words–but when I rest and reset, I crave the opposite of words. Although the Zen Center has offered a rich array of online practice opportunities throughout the pandemic, what my spirit has craved these past two years is the act of unplugging in person: something that can’t transpire over Zoom.

So here I sit at a tiny table for one while a woman in a wheelchair scrolls on her phone at the table next to me, a hipster in headphones taps at a laptop across the room, and a pair of women chats amiably in the corner, all while a steady stream of masked customers comes in, orders drinks to go, then leaves.

This cup of dark hot chocolate is exactly what I’ve yearned for these past two years. I can drink hot chocolate at home while Zooming with distant friends and virtual sangha, but the thing I’ve missed is a quiet Sunday morning spent sipping spiritual sustenance among strangers. It’s been a long time coming.


Donut Stress

This is the third week of the semester, but it’s the first week I’ve taught entirely in-person.

Both Babson and Framingham State started the Spring semester remotely, giving students time to get booster shots and take on-campus COVID tests. Babson returned to in-person instruction last week, and this week I finally met my Framingham State students face-to-face.

It’s strange to meet students in-person after you’ve already read their first assignments: the opposite of how it usually happens. The names and words on the screen now have flesh-and-blood personalities attached, and in my Tuesday classes we did an icebreaker activity I often do on the first day of class, not the third week of the term.

Omicron or no, I’m ready to be back in-person. Last Thursday, I taught my final (scheduled) Zoom classes from my desk in my bedroom while workmen in the basement clanged and rattled, tearing out a leaky oil tank and replacing it with a shiny new one. As Roxy paced and whined, upset that Strangers Were in the House Doing Things, I lectured to my screen and tried to maintain some semblance of professionalism despite the domestic chaos in the background.

After two years of intermittent work-from-home, I’m ready for boundaries again: let home happen at home and work happen at work. When I’m teaching or holding office hours on campus, I’m not worrying about walking the dog, folding the laundry, or unloading the dishwasher. Although I still grade papers, answer emails, and prep classes at home, I’ve had my fill of real-time remote classes. I’m ready to kick students out of my bedroom and back into the classroom where they belong.


Teaching at home

Spring semester starts tomorrow at both of the colleges where I teach. Tomorrow I’ll teach my Framingham State classes from my desk at home, and on Wednesday I’ll teach my Babson classes from my office on campus, followed by my first COVID test of the semester.

I’m so accustomed to pandemic-related modality shifts, I didn’t bat an eye when FSU then Babson announced the first week of the in-person semester would be remote to give returning students and faculty time to get tested before returning to the classroom. I had a similar lack of response when FSU announced we’d actually spend the first two weeks of the semester remote. At this point of the pandemic, I have practice with nearly any modality: been there, done that.

At this point of the pandemic, teaching college feels like some sort of Green Eggs and Ham-style nursery rhyme:

I can teach standing in class
Or sitting at my desk on my ass.
I can teach in a room
Or I can teach in a Zoom.
Students can Webex from home
Or from wherever they roam.
I can teach from home when I’m sick
Or when the snow and ice are too thick.
I’ll teach however we need to stop the spread.
I’ll teach however you’d like, as long as I’m not dead.

Discarded

Every year before we adjourn for Thanksgiving, I tell my first-year students to rest up over break, as we’ll return to the busiest time of the semester. And just like that, another Thanksgiving break is over, and we’re headed into the maelstrom that is the end-of-term: from rest to stress in the blink of an eye.

Crocker Hall

Every semester, I have a method for triaging teaching tasks. My basic rule is People Before Papers. This means paying attention to the student in front of me is more important than grading papers. What this means in practice, unfortunately, is that paper-grading inevitably gets bumped to the bottom of my to-do list.

Prepping classes takes priority over grading papers, for example, because class time is People Time: that is, time spent face-to-face with my students. I can catch up with paper-grading later, but I can’t make-up precious class sessions after they have passed.

If I’m in my office grading papers and a student walks in with a question or problem, the rule of People Before Papers applies. My paper pile is set aside so I can tend to the student in front of me.

If no student shows up for my office hours, the People Before Papers dictum applies to email, too. The paper-pile can always wait–it certainly isn’t going anywhere–while I answer an emailed question. As slow as I am at grading, students sometimes mention how much quicker I am responding to email than their other professors are.

When it comes to days off and weekends, People Before Papers applies to folks who aren’t my students. Lunches or weekend outings with J take precedence over my paper-piles, as do get-togethers with friends or the care and feeding of the pets. (Pets, after all, are people, too.)

What this all means, of course, is that paper-grading invariably gets pushed to the bottom of my priority pile. It’s not entirely a case of procrastination, although there is, of course, an element of that, too. Instead, it’s a matter of having too many obligations and not enough hours, with paper-grading always deferring to other priorities.

Every Fall semester, I look forward to Thanksgiving as a chance to catch up in large part because my other obligations lessen then. Every moment I’m not prepping or teaching classes can be spent grading papers. And as soon as students head home or elsewhere for the long Thanksgiving weekend, I have fewer questions to answer in-person or via email.

So while my students look forward to traveling, spending time with friends and family, and enjoying other holiday pastimes, I look forward to a long weekend of monotasking, everyone else’s holiday giving me a chance to catch up with work.


Do the math

My Babson students are currently working on a project my Framingham State students will start next week: a theory of writing. This assignment comes at the almost-end of a semester that started with students writing a literacy narrative, so I’ve been envisioning the term as coming full circle. In September, I asked students to reflect upon a specific event that shaped their attitudes toward reading and writing, and now in November, I’m asking them to articulate the larger role writing plays in their intellectual life.

Writers love to write about writing. When we started working on this project, I asked students to read Zadie Smith’s “That Crafty Feeling” as an entry into the genre of writers examining their craft, and I also pointed students toward my blog category on “Writing & Creativity.” But if you’re a first-year college student who has written a lot for school but don’t necessarily see yourself as a capital-W Writer, it can be daunting to try to explain the larger role writing plays in your life.

I feel bad for students who have spent twelve years of their young lives writing predominantly for teachers. We learn spoken language naturally, babbling then chattering as children, then continuing to talk as we grow older, but reading and writing must be taught. The compulsory nature of reading and writing–the fact that many students read and write only when required and only when graded–means many students see writing as a chore. How can you grow fluent in writing–how can you learn to think with your hand, which is how I describe my journal-keeping–if you only write with a teacher reading over your shoulder?

As a naturally bookish child, I was lucky: from an early age, reading and writing were my almost-native tongue. When students approach me and tentatively ask what I’m looking for in a given assignment, I have to stifle the urge to shout “How do I know what I’m looking for until you surprise me with what you’re thinking?” Until you learn to think for yourself–until you learn how to find then follow your own inner urge–lessons and practice and feedback will turn you into a compliant writer, not an insightful one.

I am, I’ve decided, a selfish writer: after years of journal-keeping, I recognize that I write primarily for myself, even when I have an ostensible audience. I write for my inner ear–my own sense, that is, of how a sentence should sound–and I write to make sense of things: for me, writing and thinking are almost one in the same. How can I know what I think until I’ve scribbled it out on the page, or found it under my keyboard-tapping fingers? Even after all these years of blogging, I realize my real audience is me–an audience of one–and everyone else is just eavesdropping.

Ginkgo gleaming golden

Yesterday at Babson College, I spent my office hour preparing today’s classes at Framingham State University. Today at Framingham State, I spent my office hour preparing tomorrow’s classes at Babson. This is how my semesters unfold: prep, teach, repeat.

The ginkgo tree outside the building where I teach my morning class, on the other hand, has suddenly erupted into gold flame: no preparation needed.


November oak

My Comp I students at Framingham State are working on a project that asks them to explore what it takes to become an expert in a given field. We’ve discussed various theories of expertise: Carol Dweck on growth mindsets, Malcolm Gladwell on the 10,000-hour rule, and Atul Gawande on the learning curve new surgeons face.

Yesterday in class, we watched Ta-Nehisi Coates describe a stressful period in his life when he was pushing himself to reach a creative breakthrough. In the clip, Coates describes the stress of finishing his first book, writing his first article for The Atlantic, and pushing himself beyond his limits as a writer.

Coates’ admission that improving can be stressful–that honing one’s craft takes long work, and sometimes that work will be painful, frustrating, and humbling–made my students pause. What if acquiring expertise isn’t worth the stress and sacrifice?

This, of course, is the million dollar question, so I’m proud of my students for asking it. How do we each define not just expertise, but success, and what are we willing to sacrifice for it?

Is working 80 hours a week to become a CEO by the time you’re 30 “worth it” if it means you don’t have time for family, friends, or activities outside of work? Is working 80 hours a week more bearable if you’re busting your tail to support a family?

What, in other words, are the limits of success? Where do we each draw our own boundaries and set our own limits? What sacrifices are we NOT willing to make to “make it,” and how much of our life are we willing to spend to make a living? Why does so much of the research on expertise focus on the cost–the pain, toil, and long hours of practice–and not the joys that motivate us, the satisfaction we find, and the ultimate rewards?

As soon as one of my students mentioned the need to put limits on how hard we work and how much we pressure ourselves, I thought of Simone Biles and her decision this summer to put her own mental health and physical well-being ahead of her pursuit of yet more Olympic medals. Biles is clearly an expert athlete, and no one can question her work ethic. But even Biles reached a point when she chose to say “enough.”

I suspect my students’ thoughts are shaped by the moment we find ourselves in. In the midst of a global pandemic, is work worth dying for? How much is our own mental and physical well-being worth?

I also suspect the widespread emphasis on sacrifice and toil reflects American capitalism and the Protestant work ethic: heaven forbid we limit our willingness to work, work, work, even at the expense of our own happiness. My students’ willingness to question this–their skepticism about whether the elusive American dream is worth its cost in blood, sweat, and tears–says something about the deep inequities in America today, with many of my students wondering if the rewards of a college degree are worth the load of student debt that comes with it.

We live in interesting times, and I suspect the next generation isn’t as dewy-eyed and idealistic as their parents and grandparents. The old paradigm of toiling for years in the hope of having a comfortable retirement isn’t as alluring as it used to be, and at least some of my students are wondering why they should work for a system that clearly isn’t working for them.


November stairwell

The other night I dreamed I was in a high school musical. Inexplicably, I had only one number, and it involved none of the other cast members: I basically swooped in to sing a song independent of the rest of the cast, then I’d exit the stage, and the show would go on.

Unfortunately, when the time came for my solo, I walked on stage and forgot both the lyrics and melody of my song. It was just me, a spotlight, and an expectant audience waiting for something to happen.

So in my dream, I winged it. I energetically improvised a melody and lyrics that had little to do with the ones I’d supposedly learned. Instead, I crooned and tap danced and waved jazz hands for my allotted time, then I left the stage, hoping my audience was none the wiser. And indeed, the show went on.

Normally, I’d chalk this off as the usual nonsense that passes as dreams: no analysis necessary. But after teaching for decades, I can’t avoid seeing this as yet another version of the Imposter Syndrome. Here I am standing in the theatre of another college classroom, faking it until I make it.

This dream doesn’t happen in a vacuum: dreams seldom do. This semester I’m teaching a new-to-me curriculum that is forcing me to rework my syllabus, rewrite my assignments, and revise my teaching approaches, all while learning a new language to describe the pedagogy behind my practice.

This semester, in other words, I’m singing from a new script.

Masterful performers take lines they didn’t write and make them their own. They breathe life into words on a page, memorizing lines until those words become automatic: a natural, fluid expression of a character they’ve embodied. But before that happens, performers sometimes forget their lines and have to improvise.

Before you can sing it, first you have to wing it.


Watching

It’s been almost two years since I’ve been to the Cambridge Zen Center, which remains closed because of the pandemic. On November 24, 2019, I blogged about giving consulting interviews there, writing “My meditation practice isn’t limited to the four walls of the Zen Center–even when I don’t drag myself to Cambridge to meditate with other folks, I continue to practice on my own–but there is something about sitting alongside other meditators in a Dharma room that is steeped with practice energy.”

I had no idea when I wrote those words that a pandemic would cleave our lives into the Before and After Times; I had no idea when I wrote those words that the Zen Center would close its doors, offering online-only practice for nonresidents. When I wrote those words, I took for granted that the Zen Center would always be there for me to return to when I had the time and inclination. There was so much we took for granted during the Before Times.

Apart from giving a talk, online consulting interviews, and two no-show Intro to Zen classes, I haven’t “attended” any of the Zen Center’s online practice sessions. Although I regularly meditate at my desk, I just can’t bring myself to meditate in front of a Zoom screen. I already spend too much of my life tethered to my laptop; when I meditate, I want more than anything to unplug.

What I miss about going to the Zen Center is the “going to.” I miss parking in Central Square on a Sunday morning, taking a quick stroll to take pictures of graffiti, and slipping out early to walk to Harvard Square for hot chocolate at Burdicks. I miss being in the Dharma room: the familiar feel of sitting on a cushion, the “smells and bells” of the altar and its iconography, and the deep silence of an intentionally quiet place.

Someday, eventually, the Zen Center will reopen. In the meantime, it’s strange to exist in a world where it’s “safe enough” for me to teach in full classrooms, shop in stores, go to museums and even restaurants, but not safe enough for me to sit in a quiet room with a mask, following my breath. When I lived at the Zen Center, one of our guiding teachers used to say that if you were healthy enough to go to work, you were healthy enough to practice, but these days my job is open and the Zen Center is closed. It’s a pandemic oddity I still haven’t come to terms with.


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