Life lessons

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?


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.


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.


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.

Ship from shore

It’s the third week of the semester, so the dust is starting to settle from the start of another school year. Because I teach first-year students, the first few weeks of fall semester are inevitably spent getting everyone acclimated to college, college schedules, and a college workload.

Do you know the ropes?

Right now my students and I are discussing Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, which is this year’s common reading selection at Framingham State. In the second chapter, Philbrick describes the bumbling confusion new crewmen, or green hands, feel as they set sail on their first whaleship. Ordered by their captain or first mate to unfurl the sails, the green hands nervously look around, realizing they haven’t yet learned which ropes go with which sails, much less how to man those ropes. Newbie whale men need to (literally) learn the ropes before they can work together as a well-organized team.


This morning my students peer reviewed rough drafts of a narrative they’re writing: their first experience reading their writing aloud to their new peers. As my students sat with their desks huddled into small groups, I stood at the front of the room, eavesdropping as my students read and then talked about their writing. Listening to the quiet murmur of students reading and commenting on one another’s work is one of my favorite tasks as a teacher: on good days, I feel expendable, my expertise needed only if something should go awry.

With the story of the whaleship Essex fresh in mind, I imagined each huddled group of students as the crew of a whale boat, my students diligently clustered around their laptops like whale men plying their oars. Three weeks into a four-year voyage, these once-strangers are unifying around a common task.

I first blogged these photos of the Charles W. Morgan–the last remaining wooden whaleship–in July, 2014, when she visited Boston Harbor during her 38th voyage.

Black birds

I went to the Zen Center twice this week, leading sitting on Sunday night then giving consulting interviews on Tuesday. Whenever I settle on a cushion at the Zen Center, it feels like coming home and plugging in. Whereas the rest of my life might be running me ragged, going to the Zen Center and focusing on only one thing helps me calm, collect, and renew myself.

Minds closed eyes blown

I sometimes imagine consciousness as being like a beam of light or a stream of water. When a flashlight shines widely, its brightness is diffused; when rivulets branch and wander, their stream weakens to a trickle. When you tightly contain either a beam or stream, however, you experience its true power: focused light becomes laser-sharp, and concentrated water both stings and penetrates.

During the school year, my energy is scattered among obligations, and during the summer, my attention is relaxed and diffuse. When I settle on a cushion at the Zen Center, however, I feel a sudden surge as I harness my energies, reining them in like a large, tractable horse with ample abilities to either prance or pull.


Yesterday when I heard that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had received the death penalty for his role in the Boston Marathon bombing, I knew I’d have to visit the newly dedicated memorial to slain MIT police officer Sean Collier. Whenever I’m at MIT, I stop by the spot outside the Stata Center where Collier was killed by the Tsarnaev brothers while sitting in his police cruiser, and since I had plans to be at MIT today, paying my respects at the newly dedicated memorial seemed fitting.


When I heard yesterday afternoon that the jury in the Tsarnaev case had reached a decision on his sentence, I stopped what I was doing and turned on the TV to watch. Just as I’d wanted to hear the verdict in the case as soon as it came in, I wanted to hear the sentence as it was announced. But as soon as CNN reported that Tsarnaev had been given the death penalty for placing the bomb that killed Martin Richard and Lingzi Lu, I turned off the news coverage. Although I wanted to hear the sentence that would determine Tsarnaev’s fate, I didn’t want to hear endless editorializing about that sentence.

Big heart; big smile; big service; all love.

Instead of listening to opinions and arguments about the wisdom or appropriateness of the sentence—what do you, I, or anyone else think should be done with Dzhokhar—I wanted simply to sit with the solemnity of the decision. What is it like to kill anonymous strangers—innocent bystanders you somehow think have wronged you—and what is it like to hear a sentence of death in return: an official legal pronouncement that he who lives by the sword shall die by it?


Tsarnaev will have ample opportunity to contemplate his own death as his lawyers file appeal after appeal, but neither Collier nor the other Marathon dead had that luxury. Two years ago on a beautiful April day, the Tsarnaev brothers irrevocably changed their own and countless others’ lives with the flip of a switch. Neither the death penalty nor life in prison can change that fact: the dead are still dead, severed limbs are still lost, and the grief-stricken still grieve. “Closure” is a word uttered by optimistic and well-intentioned folks who dare open their mouths in the face of irredeemable heartache. It doesn’t matter whether you, I, or anyone else supports the death penalty: before the jury decided anything, Tsarnaev and his brother made their own irrevocable choice.


The memorial erected to Sean Collier is a graceful and expansive thing, constructed of slabs of smooth gray granite that arch elegantly overhead. The five upright slabs, I read, radiate outwards like the fingers of a hand, but the point where they intersect is empty and ovoid, evoking the empty-handedness that is the human condition. The monument draws you in and invites you to circumnavigate it, and as I walked around taking pictures from this angle and that, several passersby stopped to look at and walk through the monument, touching the stone and reading its inscriptions.

In the line of duty

Nobody seemed to be talking about Tsarnaev and his sentence; nobody seemed to be talking at all. When you stand on the spot where a promising life was cut short, it’s difficult to find anything at all to say.

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