Life lessons


Hokusai

Tonight I’m scheduled to teach the weekly “intro to meditation” class at the Cambridge Zen Center, and as always I feel unqualified.  What do I know about meditation that a person couldn’t learn from a book, video, or their own experience?

Hokusai

People come to the Thursday night intro class expecting profundity.  Zen carries an aura of mystique, and this leads people to think that sitting in meditation must be essentially different and more profound than, say, waiting for the bus.  So when I pull back the curtain and reveal that meditation is nothing more and nothing less than watching your breath go in and out, the disappointment is palpable.  Why so much fuss, so much hype, so much pomp, and so much attention to candles and incense for something that isn’t essentially different from something you’ve done without thinking since you were born? 

Hokusai

Breathing is boring–nothing special–at least when it happens freely:  most of us don’t notice our breathing unless it’s somehow troubled or impeded, like when we have a cold or are breathless from exercise.  All meditation does is ask us to pay conscious attention to the most mundane, ordinary, taken-for-granted thing–our own breath–and notice how amazingly difficult it is to accomplish even this most simple of tasks.

That is what makes meditation magic.  Breathing itself is entirely ordinary:  if you’re alive, you do it automatically.  But the second you try to pay attention to your breathing, you realize how out-of-shape your Paying-Attention muscle is.  Your heart and lungs are powerhouses, automatically doing their jobs nonstop without any conscious input from you.  But your brain, on the other hand, is a far less focused entity.  When you ask your brain to focus on just one thing, it has an incredibly difficult time, choosing instead to flit from thing to thing.  When you start trying to train your mind to focus on one thing, you realize how scattered and all-over-the-place your mind usually is, wandering off in every direction except Here and Now.

Hokusai

I sometimes compare sitting in meditation to the process of teaching a puppy to stay.  Our minds are like inquisitive puppies:  they like to wander off and stick their noses in everyone else’s business.  Telling our brain to focus on This Breath is like asking a puppy to sit still:  it’s a war of wiggles.  When you train your mind to Sit and Stay, you must do so calmly and patiently, with an abundance of love and gentleness.  It’s not about yanking, smacking, or even scolding your mind-pup; it’s about gently steering it back, back, back to the Here and Now.

Hokusai

That is all that happens in meditation:  your mind wanders, and you call it back.  You do this over and over, more times than you can count:  every time your mind thinks something other than the mantra you silently intone with each inhalation and exhalation, you calmly steer it back.

This kind of sitting and paying attention to your breath is nothing special, and it is very much like the kind of sitting you do when you’re waiting for the bus…assuming, of course, you aren’t checking your phone, reading a book, listening to music, or flipping mentally through your day’s to-do list while waiting for the bus.  When you think about it, actually, very few of us truly wait for the bus while our bodies are physically present at the bus stop; instead, we’ve become incredibly adept at doing all sorts of other things while we wait.

Hokusai

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this sort of multitasking, but too much of it alienates us from our own lives.  Unaccustomed to being Where We Are When We Are, we find our minds wandering off when we want them to pay attention.  This is how it happens that as our children grow, our elders die, and our lives pass by in a flash, we ultimately find ourselves on our deathbeds, wondering where it all went. “It” didn’t go anywhere; instead, “it” all happened right here under our noses while our minds were otherwise occupied.

The photos illustrating today’s post come from last year’s Katsushika Hokusai exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, which I viewed last summer.

Spring peony

I submitted the last of my Spring semester grades on Monday but have spent the rest of the week in various faculty meetings and workshops: a flurry of academic obligations before everyone’s thoughts turn to summer. Every year, I feel like spring secretly slips into summer while I have my nose buried in a pile of student papers: one minute, the trees are bare; the next, they’ve leafed into green.

Preening red-tailed hawk.

I think of peonies as summer flowers: the one in our backyard waits until June to bloom. But the peonies at Mount Auburn Cemetery are already blooming while the late-leafing oaks ease into green. For the past few weeks, our backyard trees have been alive with warbler songs, a morning medley that goes twitter, buzz, and sneeze. At Mount Auburn this afternoon, a half dozen tom turkeys puffed and strutted for a lone female, and a placid red-tailed hawk preened in a tree, politely ignoring the inquisitive human below.

Crash in afternoon light

Earlier today, in the middle of a perfectly beautiful spring afternoon, we put Crash the cat to sleep. Like Bunny, whom we’d euthanized in January, Crash was 17 years old–a ripe age in cat years–and had been hale and healthy until he noticeably wasn’t. Whereas we’d tried to slow Bunny’s decline from kidney disease with a several-day-long hospitalization in the veterinary critical care unit that bought her only a few more weeks of quality time, we opted to keep Crash at home until the end, recognizing the signs of terminal kidney failure and opting for palliative care instead of extraordinary measures.

King of the refrigerator

Each of our cats has his or her own personality, and Crash’s was the most irrepressible. He should have been named “Houdini” for his proclivity for squeezing into places he didn’t belong: if there was a door ajar anywhere in the house, Crash was there in a flash to squeeze his way through it, perpetually curious about life on the other side.

Crash grooms Snowflake

Crash was never much of a lap-cat; he was too active and athletic for that. Although he wasn’t one to sit in your lap and allow himself to be petted, he did enjoy grooming the other cats, licking their heads and necks–the spots they couldn’t easily clean themselves–with an attention that suggested he’d been a hairdresser in a previous life.

Proof that cats and dogs can get along

Crash had an impish personality: he was a perpetual teenager, long in leg and mischievous in attitude. When Reggie started to struggle with stairs, Crash would torment him at every step, pouncing on Reggie’s tail and batting the fur on his hind legs, a playful brat who loved to harass his elders. After I took to carrying Reggie up the stairs, Crash mellowed and began hanging out with Reggie as he lay in whatever spot I’d arranged him, too feeble to stand. One of my favorite pictures of the two of them shows Crash keeping Reggie company as he rested in a square of morning light, their similarly colored fur aglow.

Crash on windowsill

There is, I’ve found, a strange sort of quiet calm that descends upon the house after one of the pets has died: Crash is the seventh pet we’ve lost since March, 2015, so I’ve come to know the drill. When you arrive home after euthanizing a pet, the house seems large and unnaturally quiet. Regardless of how large the animal was in life, in death his absence looms huge: an elephant that has left the room.

I think this oversized sense of emptiness arises because of how much care a dying pet requires. When a pet is dying, part of your mind is always devoted to him: is he fed, watered, and otherwise well-tended, and is there anything else (anything!) you can do to make him comfortable? When you come home after euthanizing a pet, there is a brief sense of shock when you realize there’s no longer anyone to fret over. You can put the IV stand with its bag of intravenous fluids away, wash the dish that had held the syringes full of medicine, and tidy up the sloven corners where your now-dead pet had been accustomed to nap.

Chilling out on a hot day

The pillows upon which Crash had rested these past few days are in the wash now; soon enough, after the initial novelty has subsided, the remaining pets will reclaim them. Nature abhors a vacuum, and a house full of pets doesn’t stay calm and quiet for long, the remaining pets with their remaining lives expanding to fill the emptiness left by one of their own reaching the end of his ninth.

2016 Boston Marathon

This coming week is the last week of classes, and I’ve been buried in student essay drafts. My first-year writing students have been writing essay drafts all semester, and I need to comment on those drafts before my students revise them for inclusion in their final portfolios. My students are always shocked to see in retrospect how much they’ve written over the course of the semester: when you write one paper (and one page) at a time, it’s easy to lose track of how many words you’ve produced.

2016 Boston Marathon

A college semester is a marathon, not a sprint. The only way to write a college essay is word by word, and that’s also the only way to read and comment on student essay drafts. For most of the semester, I drag my feet and do anything in my power to avoid my paper-piles, but during the last few weeks of the term, I turn into a paper-reading machine. Every year, I wonder why I assign so much writing; every year, I wonder why I went into English, a field where assigning and reading student papers is unavoidable. Whereas my students are shocked to realize how much writing they’ve done, the cumulative weight of their words comes as no surprise to me. The marathon that is a college semester is a course I’ve run many times before.

Click here for my complete photo set from this year’s Boston Marathon. Enjoy!

Marathon bombing memorial

This morning on my way to meet friends in Harvard Square, I stopped at Copley Square to visit the Boston Marathon finish line. Yesterday was One Boston Day–the anniversary of the 2013 Marathon bombing–and on Monday, I’ll watch this year’s race here in Newton, cheering the runners before they face Heartbreak Hill. Today, I wanted to visit the two spots on Boylston Street where three people died and hundreds were injured: a chance to pay my respects at a place simultaneously festive and somber.

Four crosses

There is no permanent memorial commemorating the Marathon bombing; instead, impromptu offerings of flowers, handwritten notes, and homemade crosses mark the two spots where pressure cooker bombs turned a festive event into a scene of mayhem. If you didn’t know that lives and limbs were lost in front of Marathon Sports and the former Forum Restaurant, you’d notice nothing remarkable about these two stretches of sidewalk. But if you know the hidden history of these sites, you recognize them as invisible portals between the Here and the Hereafter: two otherwise ordinary places where souls prematurely crossed to the other side.

Remember Martin Richard

Today when I arrived on Boylston Street, a 5K race had just finished, and throngs of people were watching an awards ceremony for the winners. Boylston Street was closed to vehicular traffic, and tourists posed for pictures at the finish line: a festive scene. This is the disconnect that will forever mark the Boston Marathon finish line: a site of both triumph and tragedy, the sidewalk here holds a hidden history of heartbreak.

RIP Bowie

Starting a new semester always feels like plunging into a bottomless lake: you’re instantly subsumed into a dizzying blur of motion, and it takes a while to find your equilibrium. I sometimes wonder what it is like for folks who work a regular job where every day is pretty much like the last, without the excitement and upheaval of starting over, again, every three months or so. It there comfort in being settled into a predictable routine, or does that routine quickly become a daily slog?

Shhhhh

After several years of teaching nothing but first-year writing, this semester I’m teaching a 200-level literature class on “The American Short Story.” I taught a similar adult education class in New Hampshire years ago, but what worked with a small group of adults meeting one night a week after work doesn’t necessarily play to a brimming classroom of 18- to 20-something-year-olds. When you teach a class for the first time in a long time, it’s easy to doubt both your knowledge and abilities: is teaching a skill you always remember, like riding a bike, or can you grow so rusty, you forget how to do it over time?

Speakers

Preparation is essential to good teaching: the classes where you walk in and try to “wing it” are invariably the ones where everything goes wrong. But there is such a thing as over-preparation. When I look back on the detailed class-plans I crafted for that long-ago adult ed course, I’m amazed I ever had time to be so organized. In retrospect, I realize my typewritten plans were designed for my own more than my students’ benefit: having pages of notes as a safety net made me feel more confident even if I never actually referred to them in class.

Tongue

Looking back on that long-ago adult education class, I remember how the best sessions took on a life of their own, my students steering the discussion into corners my notes never anticipated. I suppose that’s how teaching goes on the good days: you prepare your script, then you let yourself improvise as the moment unfolds. Plunged into the dizzying blur of the present moment, you kick your legs and flail your arms, relieved to realize you never forgot how to swim.

Bunny enjoys her lap-time

Yesterday morning, we put Bunny the cat to sleep. Earlier this month, after losing an alarming amount of weight, Bunny was diagnosed with kidney failure and spent a few days in the veterinary critical care unit, where our main goal was to get her healthy enough to come home. At home, we plied Bunny with food and an abundance of petting, committed to making her final days as comfortable and love-filled as possible.

Cubby-cat

This is, we’ve learned, how old cats often die. There’s the initial diagnosis, and veterinary care can extend their life long enough you can intentionally shower then with attention, making a conscious decision to (literally) love them to death. But inevitably, the disease wins: the disease always wins. You write the final chapter of a pet’s life knowing how the story ends but nevertheless fighting for every additional page, intent on cramming as much love and mercy as possible into a too-short narrative.

Bunny

Bunny is the fifth cat we’ve lost since last March, the litany of grief counting out like rosary beads: Scooby, Louie, Snowflake, Groucho, Bunny. Grief doesn’t get any easier with repetition, but it does grow more familiar: an unwelcome but well-known guest who keeps returning. Although Scooby died suddenly, we euthanized the others after long, debilitating illnesses that afforded ample opportunity for anticipatory grieving. When you euthanize a pet after a long illness, you experience a dizzying array of contradictory emotions. On the one hand, you’re relieved your pet is no longer suffering; on the other, you’re stunned when an all-consuming struggle ends so suddenly, with no more need for the constant care and concern you’d lavished on this small, suffering creature.

Bunny basks

Ever since Bunny came home from the critical care unit, she and I had settled upon a new routine. In the middle of the night, after I’d taken Melony the beagle out and in, I’d spend a half hour sitting cross-legged on the floor with Bunny nestled in my lap. At first, the goal of these vigils was to coax Bunny into eating: before getting down to the serious business of petting, I’d plop Bunny in front of a bowl of fresh food and watch her eat. Her final few nights, however, Bunny showed no interest in food or even water, so I’d gather her into my lap and clean her mucus-clogged eyes with a paper towel soaked in warm water. With one hand, I’d pet Bunny, who always loved to be cuddled, and with the other, I’d turn the pages of Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, which seemed an appropriate choice of reading material while tending a dying animal.

One eye open

I lost a lot of sleep these past few weeks sitting up with Bunny this way; last night, with no Bunny to fret over, I crawled right back into bed after taking Melony out. But I don’t regret the hours I spent petting Bunny in my lap while I read, wept, and prayed for just a little while longer. For the past few weeks, these midnight vigils spent cross-legged in my kitchen were my spiritual practice, the time I took to contemplate face-to-face the inevitable predicaments of old age, sickness, and death.

Bunny snuggles

Bunny was 17 years old when she died, and she had been remarkably healthy during that time: as so often happens with old pets and old people alike, Bunny was healthy until she wasn’t. And until the very end, Bunny retained her essential sweetness, finding the energy to climb into my lap as soon as I’d settled on the floor, wanting nothing more than to be petted even when so many other physical discomforts threatened to overcome her.

Bunny keeps warm

During these late-night vigils, presumably influenced by Anne Lamott and her stories of spiritual seeking, I came to a heart-felt conclusion. God isn’t, I think, a bearded man on a throne but a being who sits cross-legged in the heavens, weeping and praying over the small, suffering world she holds tenderly in her lap.

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