Life lessons


Here's looking at you

Yesterday was Earth Day, and I spent the day at home nursing a cold rather than participating in the March for Science on Boston Common. As I skimmed friends’ photos and social media posts, I told myself I was there in spirit: scientists, after all, share many of my passions, and before I ended up as an English major, I’d briefly intended to major in biology. Although my spirit was willing to convene on the Common yesterday with other science-supporters, however, my cold-clogged lungs were weak.

Amber magnified

I’m careful about colds: as an asthmatic, I have to be. Two and a half years ago, I almost died from a cold that settled into my lungs: when I showed up at my doctor’s office breathless and trembling, my doctor checked my blood oxygen levels and marveled I’d been able to drive my car without passing out. Two and a half years ago, my doctor saved my life through the miracle of science: two nebulizer treatments and a round of antibiotics he urged me to start the second the pharmacist filled the prescription. Because of science, I didn’t die from a cold that developed into bronchitis, as many folks did in the days before modern medicine.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

As a student of American literature, I’m saddened by the now-curable maladies that routinely claimed lives in the nineteenth century. When Samuel Clemens was 11 years old, for example, his father got caught in a rainstorm and died of pneumonia. Three of young Clemens’ siblings had died from childhood diseases, so he did his part to help support his widowed mother by dropping out of school and becoming a newspaper apprentice. Young Samuel Clemens grew up to become Mark Twain, but how might his life have been different if his siblings and father had survived?

Harvard Museum of Natural History

In the days before modern medicine, lethal dangers lurked everywhere. Henry David Thoreau’s brother, John, died from tetanus, which he contracted after cutting himself while shaving, and Thoreau himself battled tuberculosis–consumption, a positively Victorian ailment–for much of his adult life. Thoreau’s case strikes me as particularly tragic, as the bronchitis that ultimately led to his death started as a cold he’d caught after a late-night hike.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

If the Thoreau brothers were alive today, John’s tetanus would have been prevented by a vaccine and Thoreau’s bronchitis treated with antibiotics. Had Henry Thoreau survived the bronchitis that took his life, what more might he have accomplished? Thoreau was more than a writer: he was also a citizen-scientist whose meticulous records of the blooming times of wildflowers in and around Concord, Massachusetts continue to contribute to our understanding of the evidence-based reality that is climate change. Had Thoreau lived to a ripe old age, who knows what more he might have contributed.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

It strikes me as deeply ironic and downright sad that science-deniers doubt so selectively. Donald Trump doesn’t believe the science behind climate change, but believes the science that flies his plane to and from Mar-a-Lago nearly every weekend, and he believes the science behind his smartphone’s Twitter app. Trump doesn’t believe the scientists who have proven vaccines don’t cause autism, but he trusts the scientists who developed the drug he takes to combat baldness. Apparently Trump believes saving his hair is more important than saving the planet.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

Before I was prescribed one of the asthma medication I currently take, I couldn’t walk a block without getting winded. As he wrote me a prescription for montelukast, my then-doctor said he had met at a conference one of the researchers who had helped develop it. “They deserve a Nobel Prize,” he proclaimed, and I agree. Whenever I swallow my daily asthma meds or take a puff from my rescue inhaler, I silently bless the scientists who developed the drugs that literally put air back in my lungs. Science isn’t some abstract, Ivory Tower pursuit: it’s an endeavor that saves and improves the quality of actual people’s lives.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

Everyone is free, of course, to follow the alternative facts of their choosing, but I sure as heck hope my mechanic, surgeon, plumber, and pilot root themselves in evidence-based reality: give me facts over alt-facts any day. In the Bizarro World that is Trump’s America, some folks believe the bolder the Tweet, the “truthier” it is. But a loud lie is still untrue, regardless of how many people fall for it. There might be a sucker born every minute, but I hope a couple of scientists are born just as often, too.

Click here to see more photos from a 2014 trip to the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Enjoy!

Snowy campus with Steelworker

This past Saturday was a gray and sleeting day to cap off a gray and drizzly week. Despite the weather, I drove to UMass Boston for this year’s Engaging Practices conference: a chance to swap teaching techniques with area composition instructors. This is the third year I’ve gone to this conference, and I always get a bit lost either going or coming. UMass is south of Boston proper on a lip of land that juts into the Harbor, and on Saturday the campus felt even more liminal than usual as the grim, overcast sky scrubbed the horizon with pelting rain.

Campus Center

Because of an interminable construction project that currently encloses much of the UMass campus in chain link fences and concrete barriers, I had to park in a different lot than I have in past years. This parking lot would be within comfortable walking distance of my destination on a pleasant day, but Saturday (unfortunately) wasn’t pleasant. I was mildly doused with sideways-sleet by the time I’d made my way from car to conference, my umbrella being no match for a fierce April wind.

After lunch I took a quick walk from McCormack Hall to the Campus Center and back, these and other campus buildings being connected by a maze of enclosed catwalks. It was a perfect day to be inside talking shop with other Boston-area writing instructors, the sound of slanting sleet on glass the only reminder of the spring nor’easter raging outside.

Desert Room, with Desert Gold Star

Yesterday on NPR, I heard a story about a super-bloom of wildflowers in the California desert: a surge of lushness caused by an unusually wet winter. I listened to this story as I loaded the dishwasher, my eyes looking out on our snowy backyard.

Congregating

Flowers in the desert seemed very far away, but that wasn’t the best part of the story. Instead, it was this: the park ranger they interviewed said these seeds had been lying underground, dormant, for decades or even centuries–that in some places now covered in flowers, they didn’t know how long it had been since it had rained.

Right then and there with my wet hands in the sink, I knew who my new heroes would be: faceless seeds, buried and smothered in arid darkness, waiting. “Nevertheless, they persisted”–cotyledons coiled in seed cases, more patient and resilient than any of the rest of us.

Spiny

Trump’s budget has felt like a kick to the gut–so much cruelty masquerading as conservatism. I get conservatism–it’s about values and sacrifice–but Trump understands neither. It’s heartbreaking to think of a party so small-hearted, it would grab food from the elderly, care from the sick, and shelter from the poor. Trump claims to be rich, but he’s the most tight-fisted man I know: a miserable miser who wants to steal beauty and kindness and compassion from the rest of us.

Desert florets

And yet, we are seeds, and we continue to grow and germinate because the “force that through the green fuse drives the flower” cannot be denied. Trump’s roots are shallow and his will weak: “Low energy! Sad!” In two years, four years, eight years–however long it takes–we seeds will sprout and flower, a super-bloom of beauty.

Letter to Maezen

The photos illustrating today’s post come from a 2012 trip to Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh. The text of today’s post comes from a letter I wrote yesterday to Karen Maezen Miller, who lives in the lushly flowering state of California. Before I sealed that letter in an envelope to mail across the country, I realized it was a letter to the world, that never wrote to me.

Wall at Central Square

I recently started reading Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. The main premise of the book is that many of the things people do to study or memorize things actually aren’t effective, and what does work is counter-intuitive.

Wall at Central Square

One of the things the book insists, for example, is that pure repetition doesn’t implant long-term memories. You might memorize something for a test by repeating it over and over, but you’ll quickly forget that information: a nugget of wisdom that matches pretty much every student’s experience with cramming.

According to Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel, repeatedly re-reading a textbook or class notes won’t help you master the material because repetition lulls you into thinking you understand underlying concepts when actually you’re simply memorizing someone else’s explanation. Instead of memorizing material through blind repetition, you need to apply the material, either by re-stating concepts in your own words or using those concepts to solve a problem.

Wall at Central Square

The example Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel use at the beginning of the book involves aviation. You can memorize the parts and functions of a plane engine, but that knowledge won’t become real–it won’t be yours, something you’ve truly mastered–until you face a situation where you have to use that knowledge, either in a flight simulator or actual plane. If you can connect abstract concepts to your own life–something you’ve lived and care about–those concepts will “stick” longer than facts you’ve simply drilled into your head through repetition.

Wall at Central Square

The other insight I’ve gotten from the book so far is the importance of “interleaving”: the cognitive multitasking that happens when you study multiple subjects side-by-side rather than focusing your entire attention on one subject. I haven’t read far enough into the book to understand exactly why interleaving is so powerful, but I suppose it’s the mental equivalent of interval training. In my own experience, studying more than one subject allows you to take breaks by switching back and forth between topics, and it also allows you to draw novel connections among subjects. (As a professor, for example, I’m always happy to hear students connect something they’ve learned in another class to something we’re discussing in mine.)

Wall at Central Square

The concept of interleaving reminds me of the intricate clockwork desk naturalist John Muir built when he was a student at the University of Wisconsin. Muir loaded the desk with his various textbooks, and it would automatically open each of his books at pre-arranged intervals so he couldn’t spend too much time on any one subject. Although it might be a bit obsessive to design a desk that forces you to cycle through a set number of subjects, I often read more than one book at a time: when I grow tired of one book, I move to the next, and the connections and I make between the two keep me engaged longer than focusing on merely one.

Wall at Central Square

So, while I’m reading Make It Stick, I’m also reading Sam Quinones’ Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, which is about a whole other kind of “sticking.” Sometimes you want to etch information indelibly into your brain, and other times, you want to disentangle yourself from habits that stick too tenaciously.

Snowy day

I was in my office grading papers just over a week ago when news broke that billionaire campaign donor Betsy DeVos had been confirmed as Donald Trump’s education secretary. The news came as no surprise, as I knew Democrats didn’t have enough votes to block her confirmation, but it still felt like a punch in the gut: a reminder of how little Senate Republicans value public education and educators.

Framingham ram in snow

February in New England is a bleak time: a month of meteorologic mood swings, when it’s easy to give way to hopelessness. That particular Tuesday was a gray day, with a thick swirl of morning snowflakes tapering to drizzle by midday. It was a day to stay inside listening to plows clearing a shallow sludge of snow…unless, of course, you were one of the ones who skipped class to go into Boston for the Patriots’ victory parade, the ink-wash sky a perfect backdrop for confetti cannons, colorful signs, and cheering fans.

Snowy tables

I am the product of public elementary and secondary schools, and I went to a public college thanks to the generosity of my home state, the University of Toledo offering full scholarships to bright students who offered nothing in return but promise. With an education gained from twelve years in public elementary and secondary schools and four years in a public college, I was accepted into graduate school here in New England, paying my way with teaching assistantships and and a seemingly endless onslaught of adjunct teaching jobs. I was able to earn both a Masters and PhD because my public education got me into those (private) programs. Public schools opened the door, and hard work pulled me through.

Stairwell

All I have to show for the initial investment the state of Ohio put into my schooling is almost a quarter century spent teaching first-year college students, many of them (like me) the first in their families to go to college: each one, teach one. I haven’t leveraged my education to pursue fame or fortune: I can’t (unfortunately) buy Senators or befriend billionaires the way Betsy DeVos does. Instead, I’ve spent nearly 25 years teaching writing and critical thinking to students stretched thin as they juggle work and school, the costs at even public colleges skyrocketing even as the ranks of underpaid part-time college faculty has burgeoned.

It's true. Frederick Douglass is doing an amazing job. Big impact.

But what does Betsy DeVos know of any of this: DeVos, who has absolutely no public school experience? Yesterday I heard a radio story about the hidden problem of homelessness and food insecurity among students at Massachusetts public colleges: do you think DeVos has any understanding of that? When you decide to become an educator, you aren’t motivated by fame and fortune: there are no confetti cannons, signs, or screaming fans when Any Anonymous Teacher succeeds in teaching little Johnny how to read. (The humor of this skit comes, after all, from the very fact that teachers aren’t treated how professional athletes are.) You can tell a lot about a society’s priorities by paying attention to where it spends its cash, and by all indications we live in a world that values billionaires over children, so-called reality TV over genuine news, and self-centered celebrities over public servants.

Modern

I keep two collections of random thoughts. First, I have my handwritten journal pages: on mornings when I’m not teaching, I try to write four longhand pages in a Moleskine notebook over my morning cup of tea, and on teaching days, I try to use time between classes to write four pages in one of the slim, softback notebooks I keep in my teaching bag.

Terry Winters

In addition, I have an assortment of typewritten documents I write and store on my Google Drive: each of them dated, and some of them titled. The entries with titles usually end up on my blog, but the entries without titles usually get abandoned or forgotten: pages where I’m basically talking to myself, rehearsing the usual complaints and quibbles.

On an excellent day, I’ll write in both places: I’ll spend a half hour or so on my handwritten pages, then I’ll spend another half hour transcribing any ideas or insights that emerged there. On a good day, I have time to write only in my journal, and on bad days, I don’t write anywhere at all. But even though I don’t manage to write every single day, I still produce a lot of odds and ends. I post some of this random writing on my blog, but much of it lives a quiet, forgotten existence in closed notebooks and forgotten Google Drive folders.

Terry Winters

Sometimes when I have time to write but little to say, I’ll open a random notebook or Google Doc, just to see what was on my mind weeks, months, or even years ago. It’s as if my life were a book, and I open to a random page.

Recently, for example, I re-read a Google Doc titled “No timeline” that I wrote in September, 2015:

Last week, I was at Angell for Groucho’s oncology check-up, a ritual we’ve reenacted every month since he was diagnosed with small cell lymphoma over two years ago. As I was leaving our appointment and walking toward the reception desk to check out, I heard a sound from the dog waiting area that stopped me cold: a high pitched squealing whine that sounded so much like Reggie, I had to stop and collect myself.

It’s been over three years since Reggie died, but that doesn’t matter: when I heard a dog that whined like him, the intervening years evaporated and I had to stop myself from rushing into the dog waiting are just to make sure Reggie hadn’t come back to find me. This is, of course, a crazy thought, but a grieving heart knows no logic.

Terry Winters

Groucho died in November, 2015, so the monthly oncology appointment I describe in these paragraphs would have been one of his last. But I had no way of knowing that at the time, of course. In September, 2015, Groucho was alive but reaching the end of even the most positive prognosis: chemotherapy for cats with lymphoma works really well until it doesn’t.

In September, 2015, Groucho was alive and it was Reggie I was mourning, even though he’d been dead more than three years. Rereading that entry brings it all back: the still-raw sting of lingering loss, and the too-familiar ache of anticipatory grieving.

Terry Winters

Last year, Bunny the cat died; this year, we’re worried about Rocco. This week, J took Rocco for his first oncology appointment after his recent diagnosis with the same kind of cancer that claimed Groucho: deja vu all over again.

There is no timeline for grief: that’s what I never got around to saying back in 2015. They say time heals all wounds, but that assumes time moves in a straight line rather than circling like a dog before sleep. Just when you think you’ve grown past expecting your dead dog to be underfoot at every step–a phenomenon J calls “phantom dog”–you hear a stranger’s pet at the vet who sounds so eerily familiar, you wonder if grief is the only thing on earth that doesn’t die. Just when you’ve almost forgotten one cat dead to cancer, another gets diagnosed with the same disease, history echoing and repeating, this year not much different from then.

Twas the night before Christmas

I recently finished reading On Living, Kerry Egan’s memoir of her work as a hospice chaplain. I took my time reading the book: like dark chocolate or strong medicine, On Living is best in small, savored doses. Each chapter describes patients Egan has met over the years and the lessons she’s gained from those encounters, and these seemingly simple accounts are surprisingly powerful.

Going places

Early in the book, Egan struggles to describe her job to a woman at a party who can’t quite understand what it is, exactly, that hospice chaplains do. I suppose the word “chaplain” evokes images that might not match the reality of the person standing next to you at a party: Egan isn’t a priest, nun, or pastor, and her book isn’t full of the God-talk and conventional piety you might expect from clergy. But that, actually, is what makes the book so powerful.

Caroling

Egan doesn’t spend much time preaching, praying, or enacting overtly religious rituals at the bedsides of dying patients; instead, she describes herself as showing up and spending lots of time listening. Egan calls this endeavor “being present,” and it seems a deceptively simple thing: surely anyone with a backside to sit on and a mouth that closes is equipped to sit and listen, but of course it isn’t that easy.

Ice cream shop

Judging from the stories Egan tells, a chaplain’s most powerful skills are the abilities to listen, empathize, and refrain from casting judgement. A good chaplain, Egan suggests, suspends her desire to jump in and fix the situations she encounters. Better than even the best advice and encouragement is a well-timed nod or genuine question that reflects a patient back upon her own lived experience: gestures that say “Tell me more” rather than “Let me tell you how it is.”

Bearing gifts

This practice of “being present,” in other words, is amazingly difficult exactly because it is unbelievably simple. “This is a real job,” Egan’s fellow party-goer asks her with a mix of hostility and incredulity, “that people go to graduate school for?” This question points to the paradox of pastoral care: the things that seem the simplest to do are actually the most difficult, many friends and family members avoiding awkward visits to the hospital or nursing home exactly because they don’t know how to act, what to do, or what to say when faced with a person who is terminally ill.

Carolers

I’m not a hospice chaplain, but I found myself nodding as I read Egan’s book, her experience at the bedside of dying patients ringing true with my experience giving consulting interviews as a Senior Dharma Teacher. When I started giving interviews, a Zen Master friend gave me a bit of advice that has proven to be invaluable. Giving consulting interviews, he explained, isn’t about answering questions; it’s about sharing an experience.

Photo opportunity

In the years I’ve been giving interviews, I’ve decided he’s exactly right on that point. The folks who come into the Zen Center interview room aren’t asking for advice; instead, they want the reassurance of knowing they aren’t alone in whatever challenge they face. Faced with a receptive listener who has reined in her desire to jump in and fix their life situation, the folks who come talk to me usually come to their own clarity and conclusions. All I do by being present is give them permission to listen to their own gut.

Band

Being a hospice chaplain, Egan explains, isn’t about being a storyteller; it’s about being a story holder. As people face the end of their lives, they are in a unique position to look back and reflect, and sometimes what they want is nothing more than a nonjudgmental person to sit quietly alongside them, ready to cherish whatever stories they want to share. On Living is a repository of these stories, and that is what makes it priceless.

DISCLOSURE: I received a free copy of On Living through a Goodreads giveaway.

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