Further afield


Your moment of Zen.

I spent this past weekend in Columbus, Ohio visiting family and attending my thirty-year high school reunion. I still can’t believe it’s been three decades since I graduated from Eastmoor High School, went to college in Toledo, and never looked back. In my mind, moving back to Columbus was never an option: moving home after college would have been an admission of failure, a white flag of surrender indicating I’d botched my one big chance to leave home and make it in the real world.

I'm here.

My ex-husband used to deride my lack of corporate experience, given I’ve only worked in academia, with brief, part-time stints in retail sales and secretarial work when I was in grad school. My ex-husband believed that because I’ve never worked in the corporate sector like he did, I didn’t have “real world” experience. But from my perspective, I’ve always been in the real world, and I never worked for a corporation because I never needed to. Even though my ex-husband dismissed academia as being too “Ivory Tower” to count as “real,” it’s taken me an inordinate amount of scrappiness to survive on a patchwork of part-time teaching jobs I’ve juggled not for fun, but to pay the bills.

And for the past thirty years, I have paid the bills, persevering with an exhausting assortment of adjunct jobs because teaching is what I do. There have been many times over the past thirty years when I’ve sweated the small stuff, wondering whether there would be enough paycheck to cover the month. But I always found ways to make ends meet–I always managed to scrimp, save, and budget my way–and it doesn’t get much more “real” than that.

Goodbye, Columbus.

The story of the past thirty years has been almost entirely self-motivated. My parents were proud when I earned a college scholarship, but they never pressured me to finish; even if I quit after just one semester of college, I would have achieved more education than they had. But even in the absence of pushy parents, quitting college was something I never would have allowed myself to do: the drive to finish what I started was mine. Although I’ve had friends, teachers, and mentors who have encouraged me along the way, I went to and finished both college and grad school because I wanted to.

What I lack in ambition, I make up for in stubbornness. My path through college, grad school, and a meandering career as an overworked adjunct instructor was a difficult, clueless road: I didn’t know where I was going, but I kept climbing. Because I enjoyed the work I was doing–because I enjoyed reading and discussing literature, researching and writing papers, and ultimately teaching and encouraging students–I kept doing it, persevering primarily because I didn’t know what to do other than take the next step, then the next, then the next.

Logan Airport

The fact I’ve managed to support myself as an English major these past thirty years is, in my opinion, my greatest accomplishment: not even getting a PhD can top it. Simply surviving and supporting myself in New England, some 700 miles from where I was born and raised, is the thing I’m the most proud of. Not only did I go to college and get a degree, I’ve figured out how to support myself while doing the things I love. It’s natural at a high school reunion to compare your lot in life with that of your classmates, and I arrived back in Boston on Monday feeling pretty good about myself. I might not be the thinnest, least-wrinkled, or best-looking of my high school classmates, but after thirty years of making it in the real world, I feel like a success.

Welcome to Boston

I’m back home in Newton after having spent the past two weekends away: first visiting a friend in western Massachusetts, then visiting family in central Ohio. I’m a creature of habit, so it takes a while to settle back into my usual routine after being away. Having been here, there, and back again, I’m still finding my feet here at home.

Bulbasaurus

On Tuesday night, I gave interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center. Because the usual interview room was being renovated, I used a small Dharma room typically reserved for meditation classes. Before it was a meditation room with cushions and an altar, this room was a bedroom with a kitchen sink: the first room my then-husband and I lived in when we moved into the Zen Center some two decades ago.

Gold

It’s a bit surreal to teach meditation or give interviews in a room where you used to sleep: I sometimes joke that after I moved out, the Zen Center turned my bedroom into a shrine. It’s been years since I lived in the Zen Center, but it always feels like home when I return. Here are the same walls, floor, and windows that surrounded me as I juggled my marriage, graduate studies, and Zen practice. The particulars of my life have changed, but this place where I spent two and a half years of my life remains more or less the same.

Orchid

Visiting my family in Ohio is a similar experience. I haven’t lived in Columbus since I left for college in 1987, and I haven’t lived in Ohio since I moved to Boston in 1992. On this visit, my parents and I walked through the twin-single unit where we’d lived when I was little: my first childhood home. I hadn’t been that house since one of my sisters rented it from my parents when I was in college, so it was strange to visit a now-empty dwelling where so much of my childhood happened. Despite the improvements my parents have made over the years they’ve rented out the home where we once lived, I can still remember the courtyard where I played beneath a branching maple tree, the basement rec room where I raced Matchbox cars, and the two bedrooms where I slept: first a tiny one, then a larger one after my sisters moved out.

Kesh

After I gave interviews in Cambridge on Tuesday night, I walked through Central Square toward my car and marveled at the places I’ve been: here, there, and back again. Newton, where I currently live, is far tonier than the neighborhood in Columbus where I grew up; Central Square, where I used to live, is gritty and ethnically diverse like my childhood home, but far more cosmopolitan. When I first moved to Boston, I tried very hard to fit in here, my proudest moment happening on a morning when a tourist asked me for directions on the T during one of my commutes to campus. Although I was new to the neighborhood myself, I was pleased to think I at least looked like I belonged.

Charmander

Settling into a daily routine is one step toward making yourself at home in a new place: first, you need a place to hang your hat and a place to rest your head. Once you have those, you can settle into a regular rhythm of finding your feet wherever your footsteps lead.

Upclose bison

In the summer of 2002, my then-husband and I took a long Western road trip, spending two weeks driving some 11,000 miles in a rented SUV with our dog. From our home in New Hampshire, we drove through Virginia, Arkansas, Texas, Arizona, then up the California coast before turning east toward home. Along the way we leapfrogged from one destination to another, stringing a great continental necklace studded with the Great Smoky Mountains, Petrified Forest, Redwood, Yellowstone, and Badlands National Parks.

Baby bison

I remember very little from this trip. It was before I’d started blogging, and my then-husband and I took only a smattering of pictures with a large, state-of-the-(then)-art digital camera that saved photos to a floppy disk. We spent most of our two weeks driving, trying to make good time rather than having a good time: many of my photos were shot from a moving car as we hurried from one destination to the next, the trip itself blurring into a fog of long-driving days and too little time spent walking.

Road bison

I revisited the photos from this trip after recently starting to read Terry Tempest Williams’ The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks. Williams’ book is a meditative rhapsody on the impact national parks have had on her psyche: wherever she encounters it, wilderness is a balm that soothes Williams’ soul. When I reflect back on my own hopscotch trip from national park to park to park, what I (sadly) remember is the disappointment I felt at how little time we spent at each one.

Grazing bison

Whereas Williams describes wilderness as a place to slow down and appreciate otherwise overlooked natural wonders, the pace of that long-ago road trip was set by my then-husband, who was habitually driven by his own restlessness. Looking at my pictures of that trip is both strange and surreal: although I was there to either take or pose for these pictures, it feels almost voyeuristic to look back on what seems like another lifetime lived by someone else. When you’re in a hurry to arrive anywhere but here, you come home feeling like you’ve been nowhere at all.

Lori in Redwood

Dressed and undressed

One night last week, J and I watched an American Experience documentary about Manhattan’s 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in which 146 workers (most of them young women) were killed. J had never heard of the tragedy—I’m guessing many people haven’t—but about a year ago I’d read David von Drehle’s Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, which was one of the sources cited in the program. Although largely forgotten today, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire marked a watershed moment in the American labor movement, the campaign for women’s suffrage, and the fight for workers’ rights and workplace safety: a tragedy so atrocious, the public came together to demand legislative change.

Pretty in pink

The Triangle fire happened at a pivotal moment in American history: had it not been an accident believed to have been started by a wayward cigarette butt tossed into a bin of fabric scraps, you might say the fire was perfectly timed. A few years before the fire, factory workers across New York City—most of them young immigrant women, or “factory girls”—organized a strike for better working conditions, and workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were at the forefront of this movement. Although the strike resulted in slightly better wages, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory refused to allow its workers to unionize, thereby robbing them of any lasting bargaining power. Because the strike had made textile factories and the rights of workers into front-page news, however, the 1911 fire was the culminating factor that galvanized a horrified public into doing something to protect the rights of New York’s most vulnerable workers. The strike had made New Yorkers aware of the plight of factory girls, and the fire corroborated how bad workplace conditions truly were.

Pink is for boys and girls

The Triangle fire took place near quitting time on Saturday, March 25, 1911, when crowds of passersby were walking to and from nearby Washington Square Park. The Triangle factory resided on the top three floors of a high-rise, trapping workers who thronged stairways that were choked with smoke and doors that had been locked by management to prevent employee theft. Horrified witnesses thronged the streets below the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, waiting for fire crews to arrive as smoke billowed from the building and frightened workers clung to a single poorly-constructed fire escape and crowded around flaming windows. When fire crews arrived, their ladders were not long enough to reach victims on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors, leaving nothing for firefighters and bystanders to do but watch as the fire escape collapsed and workers started to jump out of smoking windows, their clothes, bodies, and hair streaming fire.

Dapper dudes

It was this image of burning girls falling or leaping from windows that turned public sentiment. Suddenly the poor, unwashed immigrants whom so many native New Yorkers had previously reviled became human: our own daughters, wives, and sisters. Because it happened on a Saturday afternoon, the tragedy, which killed 146 people (123 of them women) in less than twenty minutes, was witnessed by crowds of people, including a United Press reporter who filed a news report describing the sickening thud of burning bodies landing on pavement. For those who weren’t there to witness the fire in person, the newspapers printed gruesome photographs of smoldering bodies piled on sidewalks, and those who didn’t believe the photos could examine the bodies at a makeshift morgue setup on Charities Pier, where open coffins were displayed in an attempt to identify victims.

Gowns

Although largely forgotten today, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is fascinating because it is one of those galvanizing moments in history when public sentiment changed overnight. Regardless of what New Yorkers had previously believed about teenage immigrant workers, unions, or factory working conditions, in the aftermath of the fire there was a widespread outcry for legislation to regulate working hours, child labor, and workplace safety. Sometimes I wonder what it would take to make similar sweeping changes in our society today: do we have to actually see gruesome photos of children killed in school shootings to turn public sentiment away from gun interests, for instance? The media in 1911 was infinitely simpler than that in our wired, networked, and perpetually plugged-in world, so why is it that a series of sympathetic newspaper reports and a dozen grainy photos had more of an impact than all the Tweets, Instagram photos, and 24-hour news reports of our day and age?

The photos illustrating today’s post come from “Think Pink,” an exhibit currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Last week while J and I were in New York, we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We’d been to the Museum of Natural History in the morning, grabbing a quick lunch from a Central Park vendor on our walk from one museum to the other. Had I but world enough and time, I could spend days rambling in either the Museum of Natural History or the Met, but last week J and I had only a few short hours to devote to each. We didn’t, in other words, have time to ramble: instead, we made a short list of things we absolutely wanted to see, then we made a beeline to those things, leaving leisurely exploration for our next visit.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

What’s interesting about a museum like the Met, however, is how difficult it is to avoid rambling. J had two specific eras he wanted to explore—Modern and 19th century—and these were housed in sprawling galleries on different floors. It took a fair bit of wandering, in other words, to arrive to the specific sites we were making a beeline for, and once we were there, we engaged in more wandering, roaming from one gallery to another without a clearly delineated path or plan.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Appreciating art at the Metropolitan Museum is like looking for a good place to eat in Boston’s North End: you can’t make a bad choice because everything around you is excellent. By the time J and I succumbed to museum fatigue and decided to head back to our hotel, a detour to find a restroom on our way to the Museum’s main entrance led us straight into the mazy corridors of a place I swear I’ve never been before: the Museum’s visible storage area, where seemingly endless artifacts and decorative objects are meticulously arranged in glass cabinets, like a closed closet or catalogue turned inside-out.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Had I but world enough and time—had my feet not been aching from an entire day of Museum-rambles—I could have easily spent hours looking at this stunning array of objects—an embarrassment of riches—with only curiosity rather than curatorial captions to guide me. Without the narrative storyline of an curated exhibit to tell viewers what they “should” get out of these objects, museum goers are left to sift through the troves on their own, picking and choosing their own masterpieces from the aisles.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

How could I have missed on previous visits these cabinets of wonder, their shiny surfaces like a natural historian’s curio cabinet stocked with specimens: an infinite world of riches contained in glass?

Whale's tail

Last week, J and I took the train to New York City, where he attended a conference and I kept in touch online with my classes, both of us working in the mornings then exploring in the afternoons.

American Museum of Natural History

Some of the places we explored were new to us: we went to a taping of The Daily Show, for instance, and we spent an afternoon wandering around the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum. But other places we visited are familiar sites that have achieved an almost ritual significance. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been to the Central Park Zoo or Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance: these are places I want to re-visit no matter how many times I’ve already been, each new encounter feeling a bit like going home even though I’ve never lived in New York.

One place in New York that has an irresistible pull on my imagination–a place I visit with almost religious fervor–is the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life at the American Museum of Natural History, where you can walk under a life-sized fiberglass replica of a full-grown female blue whale.

American Museum of Natural History

I could probably spend a week or more in the American Museum of Natural History staring at the dioramas in the Hall of Mammals, letting my imagination take me to exotic locations, each meticulously detailed set a portal into another world. But even though I brace myself, it’s always the blue whale that amazes me the most, each visit a jaw-dropping surprise. Is there any place on the planet, I wonder, that could be as awe-inspiring as the shadow beneath a blue whale?

American Museum of Natural History

Killdeer with three eggs

Last weekend, I took a quick trip to Columbus, Ohio to visit my family, a trip that involved more than a bit of bird-watching. In past Ohio trips, my folks and I have watched nesting yellow-crowned night herons in Bexley, ospreys in Pickerington, and eagles in Delaware. This year, my folks and I didn’t see any night herons, osprey, or eagles, but we did see a pair of killdeer at Pickerington Ponds guarding (and noisily trying to distract us from) a clutch of speckled, well-camouflaged eggs.

Three killdeer eggs

Also at Pickerington Ponds, we saw a half dozen barn swallows who had transformed the ceiling of an under-used picnic shelter in an open-air nursery.

Barn swallow at nest

The barn swallows in particular were being run ragged by their hungry offspring, whose cavernous mouths simply would not be filled, no matter how many insects their parents stuffed into them.

Barn swallow with two babies

But what impressed me more than these hard-working swallows was the steadfast tenacity of the killdeer, who had built their minimalistic scrape of a nest on the edge of a gravel path leading to a lookout blind (and which park rangers had dutifully circled with yellow CAUTION tape).

Killdeer with eggs

It takes guts (and healthy vocal cords) for two robin-sized birds to keep an intermittent stream of park visitors from inadvertently stepping on a nearly invisible nest, but that’s exactly what these two killdeer did, first trying to lure us away by feigning a broken wing (a quintessential killdeer distraction display) then noisily dive-bombing us as we tried to locate the nest they were guarding. (In the picture above, the adult killdeer is standing right next to her eggs, but we stared at the bird for a couple minutes before we realized that.)

Killdeer with water bottle

After we’d found the killdeer nest and stepped off the gravel path they were guarding to take a circuitous route behind the observation blind, we looked back and saw one of the pair investigating a water bottle my mom had set down while she was scanning the skies with her binoculars. When you’re a killdeer guarding a well-camouflaged clutch of speckled eggs, you have every reason to suspect every odd or unusual object.

Click here for more photos from Pickerington Ponds: enjoy!

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