Life lessons


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.

Six word memoirs

This past Friday was the National Day on Writing, and for the first time, Framingham State hosted an event sponsored by the English Department and the Center for Academic Success and Achievement (CASA). Among the day’s activities was a six-word memoir wall where students, faculty, and staff posted colorful sticky-notes telling the (brief) stories of their lives.

More memoirs

Capturing your life in six words sounds difficult, but it’s fun and even addictive once you try it. (You can read some examples here.) On the first day of my American Short Story class each semester, I tell students the apocryphal legend of Ernest Hemingway’s shortest story: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” We debate the larger story behind these words: who placed the ad, why were the shoes never worn, and is the baby who should have worn them alive, dead, or never born?

The best people are English majors

It turns out you can say a lot in only a few words, and every semester my students and I try our hands at writing our own six-word memoirs. If you had only six words to share your life story with strangers, which six words would you choose? A six-word version of my story I often share with students is “Went to college, never came home,” but other six-word accounts of my life are equally accurate, like “Still writing after all these years.”

From today's National Day on Writing event. #WhyIWrite

At Friday’s event, we also asked students, faculty, and anyone passing by to pose with one of our #WhyIWrite whiteboards. Just as everyone has a life story to tell, everyone has their own reasons for writing. (You can see some of them here.) Some of us write to understand our lives, some of us write to escape them, and some of us write to share our experience. Some of us struggle to explain exactly why we write; we just know it will take far more than six words to say.

Smile, you're under video surveillance

This semester, I’m asking my first-year writing students to do something I’ve never asked my students to do before. At the end of class on Thursdays, I’m asking them to write me a private journal entry about a weekly win: one thing, big or small, that happened over the course of the week that made them happy.

Hibiscus bracts after blooms

I often ask students to write something for me at the end of class. Usually, that bit of writing is related to whatever we did in class that day: what, for example, was the clearest or most helpful thing they’ll take from a given class, and what was still confusing or unclear? But this semester, I’ve decided to ask my students to “accentuate the positive” by keeping a weekly log of things that have gone well.

It’s an idea I stole from a story I heard on NPR this summer. A radio host somewhere–already, I’ve forgotten the details–set up a voicemail line where listeners could share things that went well the previous week. Each week, the host selected several voicemails to play on the air, and the result was wonderful, with kids sharing what they learned at school, parents bragging about their kids’ Little League games, and people from all walks of life sharing small victories, random acts of kindness, and other assorted reasons to say “Hooray.”

Crabapples

College is stressful in part because there are so many opportunities to mess up. We’re five weeks into the new school year, and already my students are feeling the uphill slog of a long semester. When you’re a new college student, everything is alien and confusing, and the pressure to succeed is high. With so many chances to do something wrong, it’s a relief to remember there are some things that go well, end happily, and run smoothly.

Hibiscus buds.

The weekly wins my students have shared with me so far this semester have run the gamut. I’ve heard about aced quizzes, completed homework assignments, and extended assignment deadlines. One student was thrilled to have gotten the phone number of a secret crush; another was excited to have talked on the phone with a little sibling. Yesterday, many of my students were happy to be heading home for a three-day weekend: a chance to see the friends, family, and pets they’ve missed these past five weeks, and an opportunity to sleep in their own bed, enjoy some home cooking, and otherwise enjoy a break from the academic grind.

When I see my students in class on Tuesday morning, we’ll start our next writing assignment: as soon as you’ve grown comfortable with one skill, it’s time to move onto the next. Given the continual challenges of the academic semester, sometimes it’s a relief to focus on small successes rather than the challenges that still lie ahead.

Aster

Already it’s almost October, a month or so into my first-year students’ brand new college careers. Whereas my friends with children get to watch those children grow up, I see something different. Every year, I watch batch after batch of young women and men beginning and beginning and beginning again. Every fall semester, I get older, but every fall semester, my incoming first-years are just as young and tender as they ever were, earnestly asking where their classes meet, where the campus shuttle bus stop is, or where on campus they can hang out in between classes.

Autumn mushrooms.

After more than 20 years as a college instructor, I’ve learned that teaching first-year students is only partly about teaching. One of my colleagues refers to first-year writing as “Self Confidence 101,” and she’s only partly joking. First-year writing instructors encounter students right when they are their most vulnerable: we’re the ones who hear about roommate troubles, bouts of homesickness, and long-distance breakups. Few of us went into teaching to become confidants or counselors, but by default this seems to go with the territory.

Pokeweed berries

“Emotional labor” is the official word for this kind of tending, and it is both a thankless and essential job. I’m currently reading Hillary Clinton’s campaign memoir, What Happened, and she talks about emotional labor in both the private and public spheres:

[Emotional labor] describes all the unpaid, often unseen work that people–overwhelmingly women–perform to keep their families and workplaces humming along. Organizing office birthday parties. Arranging the kids’ summer camp. Coordinating visits with in-laws. Helping the new employee feel welcome and included. The list is endless: all the little details without which life would devolve into chaos and misery. Not all women take on these tasks, and that’s fine, and some men do, and I salute them–but it’s largely women’s work. Finally, someone thought to name it. (pp. 132-133)

Rainy day mums outside @traderjoes

Clinton describes how emotional labor works in the political world: someone has to pour the coffee, organize the meeting, or be the first to reach across the aisle. “It’s often women who handle constituent outreach, answering phones and responding to letters and emails,” Clinton observes, and she notes it’s often “women [who] make those calls and write those letters to Congress” (p. 134). It’s not that women necessarily care more about their families, workplaces, or countries than men do; it’s that women have been conditioned to be caregivers. “We’re not just the designated worriers in our families,” Clinton argues, “we’re also the designated worriers for our country” (p. 134).

Sprouted after Jose, on an outcrop of white quartz.

What Clinton has observed as a public servant, I’ve lived in academia. Someone has to notice (and worry) when a student starts missing classes, looks depressed, or fails to submit assignments. Someone has to show up, pay attention, and actually mean it when asking a student “How are you?”

Emotional labor has traditionally been women’s work; traditionally, emotional labor has been undervalued. But while the big and bombastic make grand moves on the global stage, I sometimes think the quiet, overlooked work of emotional labor is the only thing holding the world together.

Takeoff

Today’s weather is the same as it was sixteen years ago today: brisk and beautiful, with turquoise-blue skies. I’m not sure if there is a meteorological reason why September skies are often so deeply, vividly blue, but that’s how the sky was on September 11, 2001.

Logan Airport flyby

Sixteen years ago, I was living in Hillsborough, NH with my then-husband, and September 11 was a Tuesday. I’d just started teaching at Keene State College, but I didn’t teach on Tuesdays that semester. Instead, I was working a part-time temporary job at a publishing company in Portsmouth, NH, about an hour and a half away from home.

Jet Blue on blue

That morning’s drive to Portsmouth was largely uneventful, but there had been a car crash on the stretch of highway between Concord and Portsmouth, and police had blocked the road and detoured traffic. I remember driving on small, rural roads through communities I’d never visited before. These were the days before ubiquitous GPS devices, and I was genuinely worried I’d get lost trying to find my way to work, but the day was so lovely, I almost didn’t mind.

Overhead

When I got to work, I learned someone had died in that crash: the first of the day’s many tragedies. But since I didn’t know the person who had died, I quietly settled into the cubicle of one of the of two women on maternity leave I’d been filling in for that summer. While I was working, someone sent out an inter-office email saying the World Trade Center in New York City had been hit by a plane, and I quickly skimmed and deleted the email. Since I was juggling this temp job with the new school year at Keene State, I had a lot of work to do that day, so I continued working without checking CNN or turning on the radio.

Wild blue yonder

The same thing happened when another email came around saying the second World Trade Tower had been hit: I read the email and kept working. I hadn’t seen any photos or videos of the attack, so I imagined a scary but somehow explicable accident wherein two planes had gone off track, clipping a wing against one and then a second skyscraper. Because I was busy, I was able to compartmentalize the news: something bad was happening in New York, but I was in Portsmouth, and I had a tall pile of work to do. I was probably the last worker in my office–the last person in America–to realize the gravity of what had happened.

Fly-by

I wasn’t until lunchtime that I fully realized what was happening. I was supposed to attend a staff meeting, but everyone was so upset by the news from New York, several coworkers and I went for a quick walk instead. It was an attempt to dissipate some nervous energy on a clear autumn day that was too beautiful to spend inside. When we got back to the office, I finally saw my first glimpse of the attack.

Overhead

A throng of co-workers was crammed into a single cubicle, huddling around a computer to watch CNN, and that was when I saw for the first time the incessant replay of planes crashing and buildings falling. Like countless others before me, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It looked like a scene out of a movie, not something actually happening under an impossibly blue umbrella of September skies.

Overhead

Not long after my co-workers and I stood slack-jawed and silent around a single computer, our boss sent us home for the day: my co-workers to nearby homes and loved ones, and me to a lonely hour-and-a-half drive. The roads between Portsmouth and Hillborough were nearly empty, and I listened to the news on NPR while scouring the skies for planes. It’s been sixteen years since I took that long, lonely drive, and I still hold my breath whenever I see a distant plane fly anywhere near a city skyline, waiting to make sure it flies behind each silhouetted skyscraper rather than directly through.

Carter Pond erratic

Today at 11:00 am, I turned on the radio, as I often do when working at home. Usually, I listen to the top-of-the-hour news update, walking in place while listening to the national and local headlines. It’s a routine that takes about five minutes: a chance to hear what’s going on the world while taking a break from my desk and its sedentary tasks.

Giant

On Sundays at 11:00, however, the local NPR affiliate broadcasts the interdenominational church service from Boston University’s Marsh Chapel. I’ve come to enjoy listening to the first five minutes of this service, when the presiding preacher announces the theme of the day’s sermon and thanks the people who are present in the pews, listening like me on the radio, or listening online.

Fern from stone

Once a week, I like to imagine the invisible folks I’ll never meet who listen along with me: the elderly and shut-in, the lonely and incapacitated, or simply the distant and far-flung. I like to think we vitual listeners share an intangible kind of fellowship even if we never set foot in Marsh Chapel. Once a week, I’m heartened to remember the campus ministry team and in-person congregants keep showing up and praying for the rest of us every single Sunday.

Balance Rock

Today’s opening hymn was one I hadn’t heard in decades, not since singing it at the interdenominational Christian camp I attended in college. Despite the intervening years, the words of the first verse came flooding back along with the melody:

Immortal, invisible, God only wise
In light inexpressible hid from our eyes
Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, thy great name we praise.

Where in my brain had this long-neglected tune remained hidden, and why should it sprout into consciousness now, like a drought-stricken seed awoken by spring rains?

Through

In the months after September 11, 2001, I would occasionally turn on the radio to make sure the world wasn’t ending. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, every station broadcast the news–bad news–out of New York, Pennsylvania, and D.C. For days, it seemed, regularly scheduled programs and music were preempted by news coverage–everyone wanted to know what was happening, now–and for months afterwards, after the nonstop urgency of Breaking News had subsided, I would intermittently turn on the radio just to reassure myself they were playing music and other programs, not news flashes of the end times.

Moss on stone

Hearing the start of the Marsh Chapel service every week is reassuring in a similar way. We live in crazy, unsettling times, and the top-of-the-hour news is enough to frighten the bejeezus out of even the most placid soul. But as long as the Sunday morning service at Marsh Chapel is going on as scheduled, all is not completely lost or descended into chaos. Knowing there are people in the pews and a preacher in the pulpit is a helpfully hopeful sign: God’s in his heaven, and at least one thing is right in this world.

Overhang

I wonder if the other invisible congregants tuning in from afar are similarly reassured by the broadcast? The introductory remarks are typically catered to a college audience, with references to the school year and its milestones, and sometimes there are Boston-specific references that might not translate well for out-of town listeners. I like to think, though, that some things do translate, or that they serve as a sort of bridge. Might even a sick or elderly shut-in find comfort knowing that colleges kids are with them in spirit, praying and communing, even though the external details of their lives might be drastically different?

Overhang

Even across difference, there is union: that is, after all, one of the lessons of that hymn I heard this morning. Although I spontaneously remembered the first verse, my favorite is actually the third:

To all, life thou givest, to both great and small;
In all life thou livest, the true life of all;
We blossom and flourish like leaves on the tree,
Then wither and perish, but naught changeth thee.

Although most the hymn focuses on God’s inscrutable majesty, the third verse talks about us and our lives, both great and small. Even as the details and destinations of our temporal lives change, there are some things that remain constant, and these are visible only through the eyes of faith.

Since I’ve never set foot inside Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, today’s photos come from an unrelated hike I took several weeks ago at Rock House Reservation in West Brookfield, Massachusetts.

Bee on Clethra alnifolia

Classes at Framingham State start the Wednesday after Labor Day, so I have just under two weeks of summer left. During that time, I’ll cram in all the semester prep I’d intended to do over the past two months: just like my students, I invariably leave everything until the last minute.

Ripening bittersweet nightshade berries

The prelude to back-to-school conveniently coincides with my favorite part of summer: late August, when the sun is starting to lean low toward the horizon. The days are still warm, but the nights have a touch of chill, and both the cicadas and crickets are amping up their summer songs, squeezing as singing as they can into waning days.

In June and July, summer seems as endless as the days are long. In late August, however, you’re reminded that time is slippery and the summer short, and that makes every day that much sweeter.

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