Life lessons


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.

Atrium

I’ve been spending lots of between-class time this semester in Framingham State’s new science center, Hemenway Labs. Although I’m not a member of the science department, two of my first-year writing classes meet in the classroom building that is connected to Hemenway Labs, and during last month’s heat wave, it was more comfortably air-conditioned there than in my office in the much-older May Hall.

Tete a tete

The new science center’s classrooms and laboratories surround an airy atrium that is lit from floor-to-ceiling windows on both ends and narrow skylights overhead. On every level, there are lounge chairs and tables overlooking either the interior atrium or the campus outside. Depending on where you choose to sit, you are afforded excellent views of students studying several floors below, passersby strolling on bricked pathways outside, or the branching boughs of mature oak trees in the quad.

My office in the English Department is perfectly functional: May Hall is centrally located, so it’s easy for students to find me during my office hours. But the desk in my office faces a wall, giving me a view of the hallway rather than the world outside, and the windows in my office let in light but don’t offer much in the way of a view. Facing a wall is fine and good when you’re prepping classes, meeting with students, or grading papers, but when I write, I appreciate a more expansive view.

Lounge with a view

In Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” one waiter tries to convince another that lone souls both crave and deserve bright, open, and public places where they can congregate and converse: places to enjoy alone, together. The architects who designed Hemenway Labs clearly understood that. When I’m holed away in my office, my students have to seek me out, but when I sit in one of the science center lounges, quietly working on my laptop, I exist in one of the places they frequent, surrounded by the conversations that happen outside of any class.

Street lamp with foliage

Fall is my favorite season because it is fleeting. Last week was brutally hot–one of summer’s last fevered gasps–and this week is much cooler: brisk in the mornings and downright chilly at night. These in-between days when you can still wear shorts and sandals but appreciate the extra layer of a sweatshirt are my favorite days, a bittersweet time when summer leisure is fading away with a fanfare of gold and orange.

These days are precious because they are fading: the light is waning and the days shrinking. I often say I’d be happy if every day could be fall, but this is impossible, a wish that defies the laws of physics. Fall by its very nature is a season in motion–a time of decay and decline–and every year I find myself wanting to slow down that progression, as if time could be moved.

Unmowed

Fall is my favorite season because I love the things associated with it: pumpkins and cider and a new crop of fresh-eyed freshmen. But fall is my favorite season, too, because it’s a tender and tenuous time. Fall isn’t a season in its youth or prime but a season slouching toward old age. Fall is my favorite season because I know what comes next. In the summer, we live for the moment, languidly wasting our days because it seems they will never end. In fall, we come to our senses, saving up sensations and basking in beauty like a squirrel hoarding acorns against lean times.

Robert Frost was no stranger to New England autumns, so I believe him when he insists that nothing gold can stay. In late September, I want to bottle the long-angling light like a jar full of lightning bugs, but I know there is no catching nor containing it.

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