Witch hazel

Today has been a day of small victories. The sun was out for most of the day, so the snow piles are slowly shrinking. I heard a Carolina wren singing in the morning, saw the red-bellied woodpecker in his accustomed spot on a dead snag down the street, and photographed the witch hazel that’s been blooming for weeks in a neighbor’s yard.

Listing snowman.

This afternoon I spent too much time unpacking boxes and putting things away–this is the week when our monthly bulk orders of pet food, cleaning supplies, and other household necessities arrive–but I got the trash and recycling out to the curb for tomorrow’s collection, I’ve prepared my classes for tomorrow, and the pets are fed and the refrigerator is stocked. I graded fewer papers than I’d hoped today, but I made some progress with my paper-piles, and that itself is progress.

Is that a nest hole you're excavating, Mr. Woodpecker?

In March, teaching becomes a game of Drop the Ball: you’ve long given up your naive hopes of juggling everything, so you constantly assess which obligations can drop without shattering and which might actually bounce. This morning while walking the dog, I slipped and fell on an icy sidewalk mere yards from where I’d slipped and fell on hard-packed snow a few weeks ago. My ego was injured both times, but today I didn’t bruise: success!

Headless snowman

In March, you downgrade your definition of bliss: instead of holding out hopes for heaven, you content yourself with those scattered, spare moments when simply strolling down a clean, sunny sidewalk with solid footing and dry feet passes as perfection. I’m slowly reading a book by Anne Lamott called Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, which I’d gleaned from our neighborhood Little Free Library. I read a chapter here and there when I have time, which means the book mostly sits on my desk, waiting. Some days simply getting to the end of the day with one’s hair still rooted in place feels like a minor miracle.

Snow into sleet

Today brought a day-long mix of snow, sleet, and rain, so J and I took a break from the wintery weather by going to the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College to see their current exhibit, Eaglemania: Collecting Japanese Art in Gilded Age America.

Eagle and clock tower

The centerpiece of the exhibit is a monumental bronze sculpture that was donated to the College in the 1950s by the estate of Larz and Isabel Anderson, who bought it in Japan during their honeymoon. A gilded replica of the statue sits atop a pillar near the main entrance to Boston College, and subsequent conservation of the original suggests it was crafted during the Meiji period, possibly by the celebrated sculptor Suzuki Chōkichi. The McMullen exhibit contextualizes the original bronze alongside Japanese sculptures and scrolls depicting birds of prey as well as other items from the Andersons’ personal collection.

Eagle with necktie

J and I enjoy going to the McMullen regardless of what’s on exhibit there. The Museum is small, so you can take your time examining individual artworks, and the exhibits are well-curated. We always leave the McMullen feeling like we learned something: today I learned, for instance, that samurai warriors practiced falconry, a pastime forbidden to commoners even though hawks and eagles often appear in Japanese art. Even though I’ve seen the BC eagle perched on a pillar by Gasson Hall countless times, today I learned how huge and impressive it is when viewed at eye-level.

Although I didn’t take any photos at the McMullen Museum today, you can view official press images from the exhibit here. Eaglemania: Collecting Japanese Art in Gilded Age America is on view at the McMullen Museum until June 2, 2019.

Cosmic pigeons

This morning on my way to the Zen Center, I saw a large Cooper’s hawk perched atop a telephone pole. I was stopped at a traffic light at the time–a captive audience–and after the light changed, I drove around the block, parked, and walked to the corner to take photos.

Good morning, Cooper's hawk.

While I was standing there, a man walked by with a dog. There was no reason for him to look up–he was, after all, walking a dog–so I alerted him to the sight overhead, telling him he’d never get a better view of a Cooper’s hawk. And indeed, she was all but posing, sitting in the morning sun, aglow. “Looking for squirrels,” the man observed, and my inner ornithologist felt obliged to correct him: Cooper’s hawks eat birds, so she was probably trying to decide which of many bird-feeders in the neighborhood to feed from.

Watching

I was, as I mentioned, on my way to the Zen Center, so I continued on with urgency, not wanting to be late for morning practice. And while stopped at a light in the heart of Central Square, I once again looked up right at the moment a flock of pigeons fell from the sky in a single swoop: a rain of wings as a couple dozen birds zoomed from rooftop to sidewalk en masse. It was a split second of wings, with no falcon or hungry hawk in pursuit–just a whim pursued, collectively–and then the light changed, and I wondered whether anyone else had been looking up at the precise moment when the sky fell as feathers.

Watching

And then on my walk from the heart of Central Square to the Zen Center–a route down Modica Way then Green and Magazine Streets–I passed a man with an impeccably waxed handlebar mustache at the precise moment when an avalanche of ice thundered from the roof of a nearby townhouse into a narrow alley. And in that split second, I glanced up, saw a shower of ice hailing down, and then met eyes with the mustachioed man, our eyes exchanging a greeting that doubled as an admonition: heads up.

Skull

It’s a cold, rainy day–what started as sleet overnight has transitioned to rain, with strong winds. I brought my reverse umbrella with me when I went to the Zen Center this morning: not only does its inside-out design make it perfect for stepping into and out of cars, it holds up nicely against the wind, and its C-shaped handle hooks over one’s wrist, leaving one’s hands free.

The other side

On rainy days, there are far fewer pedestrians out and about. Before meditating at the Zen Center, I parked in Central and walked to Graffiti Alley and back, and there was hardly anyone on the streets: no panhandlers, cyclists, or passersby bustling with shopping bags. Many people stay home when it’s rainy, but if you own a good umbrella and a solid pair of boots, rain needn’t be an impediment. Instead, your umbrella gives you a heightened sense of privacy, like a superhero’s cloak. Stepping through and around puddles, you can peer from beneath your quiet canopy, seeing without being seen.

Teddy bear

Umbrellas are often characterized as the domain of the old and odd, which is perhaps why I am so fond of mine. According to wilderness magazines and the ads that fill them, truly outdoorsy types venture forth in parkas and ponchos made from high-tech synthetics. When is the last time you saw an intrepid weather reporter facing a snowstorm or blizzard with an umbrella?

Sonik

But Henry David Thoreau walked with an umbrella, and this points to the real reason for my own appreciation. You can’t climb a mountain or scale a cliff-face while holding an umbrella, and it’s all but impossible to run with one. But naturalists and flaneurs alike walk more deliberately than that: an umbrella, it turns out, is a perfect implement for saunterers. Forget about marching to the beat of a different drummer; strive to stride within the circle of your own umbrella.

Clear street, snowy trees

I often think of Emily Dickinson and her poem “There’s certain slant of light” on late February afternoons when my to-do list is long and the daylight is short.

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Well trampled

It’s easy to be upbeat and energized on sunny mornings when a fresh coat of snow brightens the ground, covering the scourge of of February gray. But after dinner time–after lunch feels like an eternity ago, the afternoon chores are done, and it’s just me and my bottomless paper-piles–my spirit lags and falters.

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –

Snowy steps

People speak of seasonal affective disorder as if it were a monolithic thing, with one’s moods being perpetually in the dumps from December through March. But instead, winter is an oceanic surge with troughs and swells. In the morning, when the sun is low in the sky but glaring bright, all seems possible, but when darkness descends in early afternoon, so do one’s energy and enthusiasm wane and ebb.

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

Sidestreet

Emily Dickinson knew all this; I imagine her as a raw nerve cloaked in drab, her emotional barometer ever attuned to the psychic energy of the cosmos. Faith came easily on sunny summer days when all Dickinson needed was a clover, bee, and reverie. But on winter afternoons, her mood dipped toward doom.

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –

I’ve lived long enough in New England to know that winter always ends–the days eventually lengthen, and both warmth and greenery return. But it’s easy to forget that truth on a late February afternoon when the world outside is cold and dark and one’s to-do list is long.

Dreamy

Today is Presidents’ Day, a holiday that means little to me because I work from home on Mondays, and that work goes on whether there is a holiday or not. Pets still need to be fed, dishes still need to be washed and put away, and papers still need to be graded. There are no Monday holidays when your work itself knows no holiday.

Legs

Last week, one of my students noticed I was wearing a pink dress for Valentine’s Day, and I admitted it was intentional. I also mentioned that since I don’t have time in the morning to stand in front of my closet and decide the day’s outfit, I plan what I’m going to wear for the week on Sunday, based on the forecast’s best guess at the weather. At that, my student asked with genuine astonishment, “But what if one morning you feel lazy, and you’d planned to wear something cute?” And I realized in an instant that my student and I were coming at the conversation from different planets.

When I say I plan my outfits in advance, you must understand this: every day, I wear the same basic uniform. I have a closet full of colorful patterned skirts that pair with solid-colored, long-sleeve T-shirts, and I have a handful of drapey dresses that are themselves like long knit shirts. Either T-shirt and skirt or drapey dress can be worn with tights and ankle boots; add a necklace and earrings, and that’s the closest to a “cute outfit” I get.

Legs

There is no “dressing down” on lazy days because I’m not all that “dressed up” to begin with: if I’m teaching, it’s either a dress or a T-shirt and skirt, and if I’m not teaching, it’s a T-shirt and jeans (if I’m going out) or a T-shirt and yoga pants (if I’m staying in). At the end of any given teaching day, the first thing I do when I get home is switch from skirt to stretchy pants–a split-second switch from one uniform to another.

This is in contrast to a stylish student who wears makeup and heels and a cute outfit when she’s feeling ambitious vs. sweats, no makeup, and a T-shirt when she’s not. There is a significant difference in primp and prep time between her dress and casual outfits, and there is virtually no difference with mine.

Santa's lap

But there’s more. I don’t have “lazy days”; these simply aren’t possible for me. When you live with diabetic cats, you can’t ever sleep without an alarm; you might have earlier or later wake-up times depending on your work schedule, but there always has to be a schedule. And when you live in a house with a husband, two dogs, and eight cats, you can’t ever take a “lazy day” off from housework. Weekdays or weekends, holidays or ordinary time, lazy days or no: every day there are tasks to do that can’t be postponed, pushed off, or avoided. Like a dairy farmer, I simply have to be home at the scheduled times to tend the livestock.

This is something I can’t really explain to a student because our life situations are so different. As an undergrad and even graduate student, I would have had no real concept of “no days off” because my responsibilities were the kind I could (and did) procrastinate. Parents with small children can understand the responsibilities that come from tending a houseful of creatures, but most folks without kids can’t. It’s just a different reality, like an earthling trying to understand life on Mars.

First day teaching

This semester, after a two-year stint as a full-time visiting professor at Framingham State University, I’m back to teaching there part-time: basically the same job, but with a smaller teaching load, fewer departmental responsibilities, and significantly less pay. To make up some of the financial difference, I’ve taken a part-time position as an adjunct lecturer at Babson College in Wellesley, a college whose campus is conveniently located on my way to Framingham. Two days a week, I teach at Babson in the morning and Framingham State in the afternoon, and on the other days, I grade papers, prep classes, and answer student emails from home.

This way / that way

This is how contingent faculty far off the tenure track make their living; my situation is in no way unique. Throughout graduate school and beyond, I was a roads scholar, juggling classes at multiple institutions: drive in, teach, drive somewhere else, repeat. My two years of full-time teaching at Framingham State were the exception, not the rule. Even during the decade I was employed as a full-time instructor at Keene State College, I didn’t receive benefits and taught online to cover my health insurance premiums. Long before the gig economy had a name, I’ve supported myself for decades with a long string of side-hustles.

This way

In the year leading up to my fiftieth birthday, I spent a lot of time quietly lamenting the sorry state of my contingent career. I love teaching, but it often feels like the academy doesn’t love me back. I didn’t go to grad school, after all, with dreams of being a perpetual part-timer, and there is something quaintly pathetic about middle-aged adjuncts like me: we’re the folks at the party who have long overstayed our welcome.

Adjuncting is a rite of passage when you’re in graduate school, and most folks either merge onto the tenure track or move onto other things. But for better or worse, I’ve made a lasting living out of temporary employment. Out of necessity, I’ve become the person who can step in at the last minute when someone suddenly goes on leave or moves onto a better job. If I were a basketball player rather than a college instructor, I’d be the role player way down the bench who can plug into any team mid-season: a quintessential team-player who will never be an All-Star.

This way

I sometimes think of myself as an itinerant, like the pioneer preachers who rode from town to town on horseback with nothing but a Bible and a head full of homilies. Nobody becomes a superstar through circuit riding, but there are plenty of communities that relied upon preachers who passed through intermittently, but with great faith. The need for itinerants always outstrips the resources to compensate them.

What I lack in lasting job security, I make up for in breadth of experience. Almost a month into the semester, I’ve quickly realized that Babson and Framingham State are very different institutionally and in terms of student demographics, so twice a week when I steer my Subaru from one campus to the other, I move from world to world, culture to culture, gaining a perspective that professors who teach at only one college necessarily lack. The best college professors make a conscious effort to teach the students in front of them, not some theoretical idea of what a student “should” be. When you’re contingent faculty, the nature of the students in front of you changes from day to day and hour to hour, depending on where you find yourself.