Life lessons


Pride

When I first started teaching more than twenty years ago, I asked my undergraduate mentor how long it would take before I could teach without jitters, and he responded with a remark I’ve never forgotten. “If you’re not nervous before teaching a class,” he said, “you have no business teaching that class.”

I’m remembering that long-ago comment as my Intro to College Writing students begin discussing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which was this year’s common reading for incoming students at Framingham State. I first read Coates’ book last December, soon after it came out to popular and critical acclaim: I was curious to read for myself a book that generated so much heated discussion about the sadly relevant topics of racism and police brutality. But casually reading and thinking about a book is vastly different from engaging a classroom of first-year students in a discussion of the touchy subjects raised by that book, so I’m more than a bit apprehensive as I look ahead to this week’s classes.

Hipster trash

Between the World and Me is a difficult, unsettling text because it resists easy answers: when it comes to race in America, Coates isn’t optimistic or hopeful, and that is not a popular outlook. Mainstream American culture likes to fix things: we’re addicted to happy endings, and we like to think we’ve made great strides when it comes to social issues, even when the most cursory examination of the nightly news suggests we haven’t come far enough.

In the opening pages of the book, Coates describes a satellite interview where a TV journalist asks him why he believes America was founded on a history of theft and violence against people of color, and his response is sadness: not sadness over the realities of American history, which are not new to him, but at the implicit obliviousness of the journalist’s question. Realizing there is no satellite powerful enough to built a bridge between someone who has experienced racism and someone who has not, Coates is saddened for the journalist who interviews him, the society that protects her within a bubble of privilege, and his fifteen-year-old son, who is coming of age in a society where there is no buffer between him and threat of racist violence.

Consumption Lust Security

I am nervous to broach these topics with my students because they are so relevant: the issues that spurred Coates to write his book have continued to simmer and boil. As much as the American cult of positivity encourages us to ignore complex issues in favor of quick-fixes and feel-good bromides, I know difficult conversations are the only path forward. But considering my own classes, I feel ill-equipped to facilitate those discussions: at the end of a week where black men are still being gunned down by police and a campaign worker for Donald Trump had the temerity to suggest President Obama is the source of racial unrest, I don’t feel I have any answers or insight into the difficult questions my students might pose.

This is, I think, what my undergraduate mentor meant all those years ago. It would be both arrogant and misguided of me to walk into class with a smug sense of having an insight into Coates’ text: if anything, Between the World and Me forces white readers like me to set aside our easy answers. (When the reporter interviewing Coates in the book’s opening pages asks him whether a viral video showing a young black boy tearfully hugging a white police officer gives him hope, Coates admits a sense of defeat. If you think systemic racism can be eliminated with a hug or two, you haven’t comprehended the true depth of the problem.)

Reaching

My students, I know, want answers and the comfort of clarity: they understandably want to know what they need to extract from this or any other book to impress me, get a good grade, and graduate into a successful life. Coates himself is suspicious of schooling, seeing it as an institution that encourages conformity more than free and critical thought, and I can’t say I blame him: it is a dangerous power-trip for any educator to stand in front of a classroom and proclaim the Way Things Are or Should Be.

As I re-read the opening pages of Between the World and Me, I’m reminded of my true job as a college professor. As much as I want to waltz into my classes with The Answer, all I can honestly do is encourage my students to approach the text the way I do, with a willingness to listen and have my preconceptions shattered. More than any insights or answers, all I have to offer my students is a way of reading that holds open a genuine question.

When you open a book, you hear a writer’s voice, and some of the most interesting conversations happen when you’re humble enough to refrain from judgment, simply listening to the ideas that emerge, even if (or especially if) those ideas seem different from your own. When I read a book like Between the World and Me, I don’t try to crack it like a nut that yields a clean kernel of truth. Instead, I open myself to an ongoing interrogation between the book and me that calls into question my own assumptions, blind-spots, and the systemic forces that keep me from asking difficult questions of myself and others. I hope to encourage my students to do the same.

Adirondack chairs

August is the beginning of the end of summer, with back-to-school commercials playing on TV and Halloween candy on display at the grocery store. On Monday, I drove to Framingham State to help plan our annual retreat for first-year writing instructors: a time to come together and share teaching ideas before we put the finishing touches on our Fall semester syllabi.

Live to the truth.

I sometimes joke that my favorite time of year is August, when I’m planning my syllabi without any actual students around. When you’re ramping up for a new school year, absolutely anything is possible. All the practical problems you faced last semester are long forgotten, and a new school year offers the promise of a new beginning. This year, you tell yourself, you’ll engage your students with well-designed assignments; this year, you tell yourself, you’ll keep up with your grading and avoid the dreaded Dark Night of the Semester when both you and your students are tired and unmotivated.

Two chairs, no waiting

As soon as the school year starts, even a perfectly designed syllabus will be tested by practical realities: there’s never enough time, after all, to instill all the lessons you want your students to learn. As the late Mario Cuomo famously said, “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.” Just as political candidates promise the moon and stars, a teacher who is planning a syllabus sees the sky as being her students’ ceiling. There will be plenty of time later to revisit and adjust your actual expectations.

Praying

I wake these days to an alarm on my tablet, so as I swipe to dismiss it, the first thing I see are the headlines that came in overnight. This means I awake these days to an alarm saying Wake Up and a string of news notifications saying Stay Woke.

First there was the tragedy of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, then the heartbreak of Philando Castile in Minneapolis, and now the outrage of five dead police officers in Dallas. Each of these deaths is senseless and unjustified: no one should be gunned down for selling bootleg CDs, driving with a busted taillight, or being a cop.

End white supremacy

Our polarized world and the news outlets that reflect it see reality in terms of opposites: those who are with us and those who are against. According to this worldview, you’re either pro-white or pro-black, pro-protester or pro-police, pro-gun or pro-gun-control. But from where I sit, heartbroken by the whole sad story, the only thing I decry is hatred and violence, no matter where it comes from.

I believe in the power of peaceful protest: the civil disobedience outlined by Thoreau and perfected by both Gandhi and King is just as mighty as any gun. And I believe it’s possible to both support the police and condemn police brutality. What I see in the tragic footage of both Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are officers who have failed to execute their most important duty, which is to protect citizens by deescalating tense situations. What I see in these videos isn’t proper policing but a catastrophic failure to do a difficult and underappreciated job.

Black Lives Matter

If the Dallas sniper was motivated by his outrage over recent police killings–if he truly believed that Black Lives Matter–the sad consequence of his violence is this: one day after everyone was focused on the lives of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, honoring their memory by grappling with difficult questions of race and social justice, today those two tragedies have been overshadowed.

Goaded by news outlets that seem incapable of covering two separate stories simultaneously, especially if that coverage demands a nuanced balance between opposing extremes, our collective consciousness has moved on. Today, if you pause to remember Sterling and Castile, you’re seen as being insensitive to the police lives that were lost. Instead of drawing further attention to the serious problems of implicit bias and police brutality, the Dallas sniper has pushed the news cycle onto other issues. Black lives still matter, and so do the lives of cops: we have to cultivate a mindset that sees these two statements as being equally true, not opposed.

In memoriam

In Korean Buddhism, the bodhisattva of compassion is named Kwan Seum Bosal, a name that means “She who hears the cries of the world.” In Buddhist iconography, Kwan Seum Bosal is sometimes depicted as having eleven heads and one thousand eyes and hands: each eye and ear focused on the world’s suffering, and each hand ready to help. Because of all her eyes and ears, Kwan Seum Bosal can simultaneously hear the cries of black men dying in the street, the cries of police officers killed in the line of duty, and the cries of all the family, friends, and strangers who mourn. Because of all her eyes and ears, Kwan Seum Bosal is heartbroken every time she reads the news, her thousand hands wiping tears not just in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas, but also Orlando, Istanbul, Baghdad, Mecca, and Bangladesh.

Every morning when Kwan Seum Bosal opens her thousand eyes, she sees suffering in our sad, sorry world, and every time she turns her eleven heads, all her ears are full of our wailing cries. Kwan Seum Bosal has one thousand hands to caress and cradle all the brokenhearted, and the arms of Jesus are equally wide. There is no shortage of heartbreak these days, so we must respond at every turn with an abundant outpouring of compassion, hope, and love.

The photos illustrating today’s post show a Black Lives Matter display set up in front of the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain in June, 2015, in the aftermath of the Charleston church shootings. Sadly, “news” of violence and hatred isn’t “new” at all.

Float reflections

This past Saturday, J and I watched this year’s Pride parade in downtown Boston; early on Sunday morning, a gunman went on a shooting rampage at a gay nightclub in Orlando.  These two events are unrelated, but I will always associate them because of an accident of chronology.  First, there was a Saturday afternoon filled with rainbow flags, warm hugs, and lots of smiling people shouting “Happy Pride”; next, there was a Sunday morning filled with violence, bloodshed, and the heartbreak caused by one man’s hateful heart.

You deserve love

I’ve spent the last few days going through the pictures I took at Saturday’s parade, and I am tempted to caption all of them “Before Orlando.”  Going back through the happy pictures of Saturday’s parade felt a lot like going through the pictures I’d taken at the 2013 Boston Marathon.  Those pictures show the celebratory scene out in the suburbs before the front-runners crossed the finish line, before lives and limbs were lost and Boylston Street became a crime scene.  In April 2013, I struggled to make sense of the contradiction:  how could a happy, inclusive event suddenly become the site of carnage and hatred, and how could we ever celebrate a happy Marathon Monday again?

Looking fabulous

In the aftermath of tragedy, people talk of returning to a “new normal.”  By an accident of geography, Boston’s Pride parade starts at Copley Square, half a block from the Marathon bombing site and right on the spot where a huge and heart-felt memorial arose after the attack.  Part of the “new normal” in Boston is the simple fact that J and I think of the bombing every time we stroll down Boylston Street or visit Copley Square.  On Saturday, as floats, marchers, and squads of rainbow-decked motorcycles staged on Boylston Street before the start of the parade, J and I observed a gathering of Boston Police officers and a couple of bomb-sniffing dogs:  just another day in the age of terrorism.

Police K9

As a straight woman, I take a lot of things for granted.  I don’t think twice when I mention my husband to friends and colleagues, I’m not afraid to walk down the street holding J’s hand, and I don’t worry if co-workers see family photos on my laptop or tablet.  As a straight woman, in other words, I can simply be myself in public without worrying that someone might condemn or try to hurt me because of my lifestyle.

Hellfire and brimstone guy

Two years ago, J and I marched as LGBT allies in the Pride parade, and there are a couple things I remember from that day.  First, I remember a photo J snapped of two young men in band uniforms walking hand-in-hand as they marched down Boylston Street toward the Marathon finish line:  a blatant “screw you” to the bombers who tried to kill freedom there.  Second, I remember the happy and even grateful looks on spectators’ faces as the parade moved like a loud, rainbow-colored caterpillar through the Back Bay, South End, and Beacon Hill toward City Hall.

LOVE

But most of all, I remember one of the other marchers we met that day.  Ryan was a 15-year-old high school student who had recently come out to his family and friends. I will never forget the look of amazed delight on Ryan’s face as he looked around and saw crowds of joyful, self-assured LGBT folks being themselves in public. It was the look of a proverbial “ugly duckling” realizing the world is full of swans.

Newton South Gay/Straight Alliance

Straight folks take a lot of things for granted, like the freedom to love and be loved. Two years ago, the look on one gay high-school student’s face reminded me that the freedom to be yourself in public isn’t guaranteed. Places like Pulse and events like Pride are essential because they provide sanctuary from a hateful world. I wish everyone knew how wonderful it is to live in a world full of swans.

Pride flag

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.

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