Life lessons


This semester in review

Today I asked my first year writing students to look back on their first semester of college as a way of brainstorming their final essay. After they’d listed the new relationships they’d made, the things they’d learned, and the triumphs and challenges they’d experienced, I asked them to draw a comic strip illustrating their first semester in college.

Those comics captured the gamut of the first year college experience, with solitary stick figures arriving on campus and soon making friends. One strip captured a gradual increase in the complexity and rigor of college assignments (“No Wikipedia”), while another focused on the cycle of procrastination, with an optimistic stick figure proclaiming “Today I’m going to get a lot done,” only to be sidetracked by distractions. “Oh well,” the stick figure cheerfully proclaims before bedtime. “There’s always tomorrow.”

To show my students that you don’t have to be an artist to draw a comic, I drew my own version of the semester in review: a series of panels showing the tasks I juggle on a typical day, with never enough time for grading papers. “Oh well,” I proclaim every night before bedtime. “There’s always tomorrow.”

Tea and chocolate

Every year, I eagerly anticipate Thanksgiving, when a brief break from teaching gives me a chance to tackle my paper-piles. All this week, I’ve repeated my usual mid-November mantra of “It’s almost Thanksgiving,” and on Tuesday, I went to Trader Joe’s to stock up on chocolate bars. Today, a shipment of assorted black and herbal teas J ordered for his office arrived, and I set aside a dozen of my favorite varieties–both caffeinated and herbal–to fuel next week’s marathon grading sessions.

Newton Centre after dark

It was a little after 5 pm–already dark–when I heard on the radio about the terrorist attacks in Paris. I’d just left the library–the first in a series of Friday night errands–and I sat in my car, saddened and overwhelmed as I rehearsed the same litany of questions that arise in the aftermath of terror. If there, why not here? If them, why not us? Will we ever feel safe, anywhere, now that a simple Friday night at a soccer game, concert, or bistro can be shattered in an instant by explosions, gunfire, and chaos?

Oak leaf on windshield

On my way from the bank to the drugstore, I took a photo of the stylish mannequins in a Newton Centre shop window. How sad and strange to walk the dark November streets in safety while across the world, terror rules. When I got home and unpacked my bags, I was struck by the irony of one of the library books I’d checked out: a collection of photos by legendary French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, his iconic shot of the decisive moment when a man leaps over a Paris puddle suddenly surreal in its unintentional innocence.

It's a dog's life

Because of today’s Veterans’ Day holiday, I’ve spent the day at home commenting on papers and prepping tomorrow’s classes: the kind of thing you do on a gray, drizzly day when you’re up to your eyeballs in essay drafts.

Morning fluffiness

Gray, drizzly days are perfect for napping, towering piles of student papers are unbelievably soporific, and staying awake on a stay-at-home grading day isn’t any easier when you’re surrounding by sleeping pets who have perfected the fine art of rainy-day snoozing. When I used to teach online, I’d sometimes refer to our menagerie of pets as my “teaching assistants,” but today, my so-called assistants have done nothing more taxing than snore.

Please don't erase

Several of the lounges in Framingham State’s new science center, Hemenway Labs, have whiteboard walls, giving students plenty of space to scribble graphs and equations while they work. Although I’m not a scientist and don’t understand most of what these figures mean, I enjoy seeing them. As a writer, I deeply respect the blank page, and that’s basically what a whiteboard wall is. Whether you’re scribbling the draft of an essay or a graphic equation, you’re translating an imaginary idea into a visual figure that others can see and comment on. Where once there was nothing, now there is a visual expression of deep ideas.

Whiteboard dragon

This morning in my first-year writing class, I asked students to take a learning style assessment. Some of my students already know whether they are auditory, visual, or tactile learners, but others don’t, and I think it’s helpful for students to understand how they learn. Since I myself am a visual learner–someone, that is, who likes to see the shape of an idea and who remembers concepts according to where I saw them on the page–it makes sense that I love the whiteboard walls in Hemenway Labs. I’ve always struggled to do math in my head, so even the most complicated figure makes more sense to me than a verbal explanation of that same concept.

Fun with whiteboard walls

Whether or not they are visual learners, college students are perpetually stressed, so it should come as no surprise that some of the whiteboards in Hemenway Labs are covered with cartoon doodles that have very little to do with science. One thoughtful soul even went so far as to leave a mandala coloring book and shared stash of markers for anyone who wants to color their way to calm: visual learning at its best.

Communal art supplies

A spot of color on a rainy day

Yesterday would have been my 24th wedding anniversary had my ex-husband and I stayed married: an almost inconceivable thought. My first, failed marriage feels like an entire lifetime ago: something that happened to another person–a stranger–not me. Is this how it’s like for everyone as they age–your younger self becoming increasingly foreign–or is this true only for those of us who have radically and irrevocably severed ourselves from our past?

Creeping

Divorce is a kind of amputation: you drastically and definitively cut off who you were and who you had intended to become, and you learn to function with whatever is left of your hopes and goals. You learn to live without the appendage of your former marriage–both the partner you’d grafted onto and the ideal of “us” you’d imagined–but you never forget that you’d had that limb.

My once-anniversary always pricks like the pang of a phantom limb: in the middle of an otherwise ordinary day, I look at the date and startle. I suppose the bereaved respond similarly on their anniversary of loss: every year, there’s the annual recollection of grief, and with it, the awkward realization that life invariably moves on.

Bronzed and gilded

Years ago, in the still-tender aftermath of my divorce, an acquaintance described the odd experience of seeing his ex-wife on the street some twenty years after they’d separated. Like me, he didn’t have children who tethered him to his ex; until that otherwise ordinary day, he hadn’t seen his once-wife since the day their union was dissolved. When this man recognized his former wife, he ducked into a doorway to avoid an awkward encounter, and the woman he was once married to passed right beside him, absentmindedly looking into his eyes as she would any passing stranger.

When I think of the woman I once was when I was married all those years ago–a girl so painfully young and so blithely unaware of the suffering life had in store–I feel the same disconnect, as if she and I could pass on the street without the slightest quiver of recognition.

See you next year

Every autumn, my lungs remind me of my mortality.  My asthma is well-managed in the summer, when I can go weeks without using my inhaler, but come October (or Cough-tober, as I informally call it), my asthma reappears and I have to use my inhaler on a daily basis.  I don’t know if my asthma returns because of the drop in temperatures, the allergens in falling and decaying leaves, or the change in humidity, but I don’t need to look outside to know when autumn’s arrived:  my tight and wheezy lungs will tell me.

Morning light

Every time I take a puff on my inhaler, I appreciate the irony of being a meditator–a person whose spiritual practice centers on the breath–who sometimes can’t breathe. In the autumn when my asthma returns, I’m reminded of how precious every single breath is. When you find yourself breathless, you realize how tenuous your existence is, your life nothing more than a single puff.

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