Life lessons


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.

Abbey church

After spending Saturday with a friend in central Massachusetts, I stopped on my way home at Saint Joseph’s Abbey, a Trappist monastery in Spencer.

Abbey church

Decades ago, I’d visited Saint Joseph’s as an exhausted graduate student at Boston College. The campus ministry program there had advertised a silent weekend retreat at Mary House, a retreat center right next door to the Abbey, and I jumped at the opportunity to take a weekend away from my life as a frazzled grad student juggling teaching with my own studies.

Cross and cloud

Several campus ministers ferried me and a group of undergraduates–I was relieved that none of them were my own students–to the Mary House, where they provided an abundant supply of food and gave us the freedom to spend the weekend however we wanted. We came together for meals, which we ate in silence while one person read to the rest of us, a monastic practice known as “refectory reading.” Apart from meals, we were free to come and go as we pleased, either staying close to the Mary House or venturing over to the monastery grounds.

Grass and sky

I don’t remember much from that decades-ago visit to Saint Joseph’s Abbey, but I do remember how lovely the grounds were. I spent one day walking the grounds with its rolling hills, beaver ponds, and wild turkeys, and the beauty of the landscape seemed to reflect the tranquility of the monks’ practice.

Cross and clouds

I also spent a lot of time on that retreat tucked away in visitors’ chapel, which was (and is) tiny, dark, and cavernously quiet, like the bottom of a deep well. If you visited the chapel during one of the regularly-scheduled prayer times, you could hear but not see the monks reciting the Office from their choir stalls, which were contiguous to but visually hidden from the chapel pews: no peeking.

Visitors' chapel

Since I hadn’t come to Saint Joseph’s to peer at monks, I’d intentionally visit the chapel during off times, when I knew no one else would be there. To me, the draw of the place wasn’t the presence of mysterious monks: I’d read enough Thomas Merton to imagine what the life of a monastic was like. Instead, I went to the chapel to drink in the silence left behind after the monks had gone. As an inactive Catholic who had practiced Zen meditation for years, I craved the deep steep of silence the Abbey church provided, its stone walls almost oozing with prayer.

View from under a maple

Yesterday as I drove the winding road to the Abbey church, its stones unchanged over the several decades since I had last been there, my heart was heavy with the news of the world: white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, the Denier in Chief sowing discord from the White House, and the threat of nuclear annihilation looming everywhere. How can you retreat to a silo of silence when the the world is on fire? Or, better yet, how can you not seek spiritual solace then?

The visitors’ chapel was just as tiny and dark as I’d remembered, and the silence was just as profound. After briefly praying in the shadow of an altar illuminated by a stained glass image of Mary and the infant Jesus, I went back outside to admire the monastery fields bathed in the long-angled light of late afternoon.

Monk walking with trees and geese

And that is when I saw him: a lone, white-robed monk walking down a quiet road through a grass-green field. In the distance, a flock of geese moved through the grass, either grazing or floating in an invisible pond hidden behind the crest of those rolling hills. The monk walked slowly, deliberately, neither hurrying nor dawdling, and he stopped briefly to look at the same geese I was watching. Surely the scene was just as idyllic and lovely from his perspective as it was from mine.

The world is on fire, and everywhere people are consumed in the flames of anger, fear, and bigotry. Where can you find the still, small voice who wants nothing more than to help this suffering world?

Hosta

Earlier this week, I watched a viral video of Jimmy Fallon meditating on The Tonight Show with Andy Puddicombe, co-creator of the Headspace meditation app. While Puddicombe walked Fallon through a guided meditation on The Tonight Show couch, the show’s band and studio audience participated in their seats, the camera showing them sitting quietly with closed or downcast eyes, following their breath.

Daylily

Meditation isn’t new to me; it’s something I’ve been doing daily for years. But it was remarkable to see an entire studio audience of ordinary people meditating in the most ordinary way–in their seats, in the midst of watching a TV show, without any suggestion that meditation should be hidden away in a mystical, mysterious place, far removed from daily life.

Ferns

These days I meditate at my desk because I’m much more likely to do it if I do it where I’m at. There’s no room for excuses: there’s no putting off getting up out of my chair and heading to my cushion, and there’s nothing to pull out or dust off. Dragging myself onto a meditation cushion takes a bit of effort, but there’s nothing more natural than me sitting at my desk, my back upright and my feet flat on the floor, while I watch my breath for ten minutes or so before picking up my pen to write.

Some would argue it’s too difficult to meditate at one’s desk, in the very midst of one’s daily distractions, and I suppose that’s true for many people. But if I can’t meditate at my desk, in the very heart of my life, what business do I have saying I can meditate anywhere else?

Sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia)

The Jimmy Fallon clip wonderfully illustrates something teachers in my Zen school often say: meditation is nothing special. It’s not some otherworldly activity that grants magical powers; instead, it plugs you solidly into the life you already live. If you breathe and have a body and a mind, you have the three things–the only three things–necessary to meditate.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with meditating in a special place surrounded by special things: the whole purpose of the “smells and bells” of formal Buddhist practice–the robes and cushions and altars and incense–is to put your mind into the mood for practice, just as candlelight and fine china turn an ordinary dinner into a romantic meal. But just as a fancy candlelit dinner isn’t necessary for romance–lovers will love regardless of where or what they’re eating–you can meditate anywhere and anytime, with or without special accoutrements. When it comes to meditation, the main requirement is to come as you are.

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