You looking at me?

I was tempted to skip my journal pages this morning, as I’d been hoping to comment on some more papers–always more papers–before leaving to teach today’s classes. But instead, I came across a line in Diane Ackerman’s The Human Age: The World Created By Us that stopped me short:

Finch

On the periodic table of the heart, somewhere between wonderon and unatttainium, lies presence, which one doesn’t so much take as steep in, like a romance, and without which one can live just fine, but not thrive.

This line comes in a chapter titled “Nature, Pixelated,” where Ackerman discusses the phenomenon of nature webcams and other forms of virtual reality. Simulcast betting is so last century: nowadays you don’t have to leave your desk to go birdwatching via webcam at any of a number of distant and exotic locales.

Black swan

Too much of our life is spent indoors staring at screens, Ackerman laments, and she doesn’t know the half of it. She’s talking about young people who stare at phones and tablets and computers for fun: the nature-deprived children whom Richard Louv describes as preferring to play indoors because that’s where the electrical outlets are. But what about those of us who are tethered to screens because our jobs demand it?

Baby gorilla throws hay on mom

It’s easier for me to comment on essay drafts my students submit electronically: instead of carrying stacks of folders with papers my students can subsequently lose, all the papers I need to read are online in the cloud, backed up and safe for the semester and accessible from anywhere via my laptop. My students submit their papers online, I comment online, and none of my comments get crammed at the bottom of a students’ backpack, as happened in the Old Days when I commented on student papers by hand. Now, when the end of the term approaches and my students get serious about revision, all their work is waiting for them online, along with my feedback.

Peekaboo prairie dog

Collecting and commenting on papers electronically is a huge improvement over the old method, but a it also means I spend a huge amount of time every semester glued to a screen, answering emails, posting homework assignments, and commenting on draft after draft after draft while the whole wide world transpires outside, where I’m not. I miss those days at Keene State where the topic of my first-year writing seminar gave me an excuse to step outside and journal with my students. In retrospect, I wonder whether keeping a nature journal was the most helpful lesson I taught those students: a simple technique for Being Here, Now.

Camel

So much of college isn’t about Being Here, Now: it’s about biding your time until you get he piece of paper everyone has promised will lead to the Good Job everyone says you need to Be Happy someday, eventually. College, in the interim, is too often a series of hoops you jump through on your way from A to B, during which time you’ll write too many papers assigned by part-time faculty who have to teach too many classes to keep themselves fed.

Baby wildebeest

Where do moments of presence happen in today’s college classrooms? I’m not sure I know. Sometimes I’ve started class with five minutes of writing–the old fashioned kind, done with pen on paper–and that has felt grounding, the pen serving as an anchor to the here and now. But I’m not doing this in my classes this year, and maybe that’s a mistake. Maybe I’ve missed a prime opportunity to show my first-year students how the practice of the present moment can be as enthralling as any technological gadget.

Today’s photos come from a trip to the Franklin Park Zoo J and I took the weekend before last, and the title of today’s post is an allusion to Brother Lawrence’s spiritual classic, The Practice of the Presence of God.

Layered

It’s been just over a week since we put Reggie to sleep, and I’ve noticed that the tears now come unbidden and unexpectedly, inevitably when I least expect them.

Mysterious

I can do the dishes most mornings now without looking out on the dog pen and weeping, after having spent so many mornings checking for Reggie outside before our morning walks, wondering over the previous night’s dishes how long we’d make it at his slow, unsteady pace before turning back for home. I can, most mornings, do yoga in Reggie’s favorite resting spot–a sun-soaked segment of hardwood floor that still feels like it’s “his”–without tears streaming down my face like the first few mornings. And I can meditate now in the spot where Reggie’s food and water bowls used to be–a spot that feels empty and open now, somehow perfect for meditation–without tears, just gratitude for another sunny morning with open windows and birdsong, and the memory of the countless times I’d meditated in my apartment in Keene with Reggie lying a few feet away, waiting for me to be done with sitting so we could get down to the business of walking.

Shady

The times I might expect to weep for Reggie, in other words, aren’t necessarily when the tears come. When I get home from campus on Tuesday and Thursday nights, for instance, I now know not to look for Reggie lying in the bedroom as I ascend the stairs to the second floor: I know to brace myself for his empty spot. But it’s those random moments when I’m not expecting to be broadsided by grief that catch me unprotected, like this morning when I was folding laundry and casually caught a reflected glimpse in the mirror of the Empty Spot where Reggie used to lie, or those moments in the middle of the night when I get up, half asleep, to go to the bathroom, taking care not to step on a dog who is no longer there.

Reflective

This morning I found myself suddenly weeping over a passage in Diane Ackerman’s A Slender Thread, which I’m still reading (slowly) after having first mentioned it here last December. Ackerman describes a visit to Walt Whitman’s birthplace in Long Island, which leads her to recount the familiar story of how Whitman volunteered as a nurse during the Civil War, providing companionship and comfort to injured and dying soldiers. It was Ackerman’s description of Whitman embracing one soldier while telling him that death is nothing to fear that drove me to tears, the image of one soul helping another go gentle into that good night ringing too close to home. How great a gift it is to provide companionship to the dying, and how great a mystery is dying itself?

Still the King

I’ve learned–I’m learning–to be gentle with myself during this tender and tenuous time, recognizing that just as Reggie’s final days were precious because I made a conscious effort to be mindful of every moment, so too do these days of grief deserve their own attention. I’m learning not to fight anything: not the tears, not the memories, not the moments of sadness, relief, or gratitude. Whatever arises, I try not to fight it; I try not to judge it; I try just to watch it, open-eyed and attentive. I tell myself not to miss even a moment of this experience, because this too has worth and value: an emotional legacy that cannot and should not be denied.

I’m learning to be gentle with myself…and having learned to be a little gentle, I continually learn how to be even more gentle, letting go, gradually, of how I think grief should be or how it ought to progress. If you cast aside even the notion of “process,” all you’re left with is this present moment, this present emotion, this present teardrop, none of which has an exact comparable, ever.

Purple finches

This year’s window displays at Creative Encounters in downtown Keene have a decidedly avian theme, with purple finches and a wise-looking owl taking the place of last year’s masks and mirrors. I shot these photos last week, when I was collecting end-term papers from my students at Keene State; now, those papers have been read and grades submitted, and all that’s left of Fall semester are two more batches of online papers to read before Tuesday’s final grade deadline: a spell of relatively Silent Nights.

Great horned owl

Although J and I don’t celebrate Christmas in any obvious way, quietly exchanging cards and enjoying whatever new gadgets and trinkets we’ve chosen for ourselves over the past month or so, Christmas Eve always seems particularly special and even sacred to me. Acutely aware that many find this night to be special, I find myself thinking of the quiet ones who feel left out of that companionable joy. Tonight, some children will lie antsy in their beds, eagerly anticipating the gifts Santa will bring; tonight, other children will shiver in slums and shelters, their parents wondering whether Santa will show up empty-handed, if at all. For many, Christmas is a particularly sweet time, but I’ve always found Christmas Eve to be a little bit sad, knowing that a holiday so many find joyous is particularly bittersweet to those who are in some way left out.

Christmas display

I recently started reading Diane Ackerman’s A Slender Thread, which describes her experience volunteering for a suicide prevention hotline. In the book’s opening pages, Ackerman speaks to human suffering, noting the way our lives are perpetually in transit:

Towns are like railroad stations, where at any moment hundreds of lives converge–people carrying small satchels of worry or disbelief, people racing down the slippery corridors of youth, people slowly dragging the steamer trunk of a trauma, people fresh from the suburbs of hope, people troubled by timetables, people keen to arrive, people whose minds are like small place settings, people whose aging faces are sundials, people desperate and alone who board a bullet train in the vastness of nothing and race hell-bent to the extremities of nowhere. In time, everyone meets everyone, either by repute or in person.

Purple finch

What better metaphor of the Christmas season than this? Into this world of coming and going, God himself set down his satchel, being born as a child of want. Into this world of human suffering, God himself took lodging among the lowly, walking among the sick, the outcast, and the demon-driven. On this night before Christmas–a night Christians see as being more holy than most–it comforts me to know that someone, somewhere, is sitting in front of a phone, invisible as God, ready to offer an empathetic ear to the lonely, lost, and distraught. What better vigil for a Silent Night in which both finches and owls fluff and hunker against the winter chill?

House fly on white peony

Sometime in the past week, the suburban landscape quietly stepped behind a leafy curtain to slip into something more comfortable, casting off the garish pinks and reds of spring in favor of the more muted hues of summer. June is the traditional month of weddings, and it’s the month I typically return to pleasure reading after having spent too much energy during the academic year reading piles of student papers. June, in other words, is a happy time when the green earth and its denizens settle down to the business of promise and renewal.

Irises

Right now I’m reading Diane Ackerman’s One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, A Marriage, and the Language of Healing. In 2003, after Ackerman had written a book about the brain, her husband, the novelist Paul West, suffered a severe stroke that left him unable to speak, write, or read. Global aphasia, as West’s official diagnosis was termed, is a devastating condition for anyone…but for a novelist married to an poet, the condition is particularly troubling. In telling the story of West’s sudden loss of both spoken and written language, Ackerman necessarily tells the story of their marriage, especially the ways they previously had used wordplay as a form of personal intimacy, creating (like twins) a language unto themselves.

Kousa dogwood

I’m a longtime fan of Ackerman’s prose; this past year, in fact, I’d re-read her classic Natural History of the Senses with my creative nonfiction students. Despite Ackerman’s occasional verbal excesses–lush metaphors that overspill her sentences and prose that tiptoes dangerously close to purple–I often find myself dumbstruck by individual lines that ring so true and with such melodic clarity, I wish I’d written them myself. “Couples are jigsaw puzzles that hang together by touching in just enough points,” Ackerman writes early in the book, and I’m hooked. “In time,” she continues, “a pair invents its own commonwealth, complete with anthems, rituals, and lingos–a cult of two with fallible gods.” Just as husband and wife create a shared intimacy of pet names, inside jokes, and ongoing allusions, Ackerman uses language to create a bridge with her readers, inviting us into a personal parlor where the story behind the stories is told.

Pink peonies

Almost immediately, One Hundred Names for Love reminds me of Joan Didion’s memoir of her husband’s death, The Year of Magical Thinking, which I’d reviewed on-blog in 2007. Both Ackerman and Didion recount their husband’s medical conditions with clinical specificity, and both Ackerman and Didion seem to use language–specifically, the discipline of writing about loss–as a kind of lifeline, a way of making sense out of the senseless. Ackerman’s husband, unlike Didion’s, doesn’t die; in fact, Ackerman’s book is the story of how West gradually regains language and how the couple forges a renewed bond in the process. Still, even a mild stroke is a kind of miniature death, and Ackerman herself finds solace in the immediate aftermath by reading C.S. Lewis’s classic memoir of loss, A Grief Observed.

Mountain laurel

Ackerman’s reference to Lewis is apt on several points. First, she mentions how West himself had corresponded with Lewis during the days that Lewis’ wife, the poet Joy Davidman, was dying of cancer. How did Lewis have the presence of mind, Ackerman wonders, to maintain anything but the most essential correspondence during a time when his thoughts and energies were necessarily elsewhere? Second, the marriage between Lewis and Davidman, who was 17 years younger than him, roughly mirrors the age gap between West and Ackerman…but while Ackerman finds herself facing the classic challenge of a middle-aged wife tending an elderly husband, Lewis found himself in the opposite situation, left a widower by a younger woman who left him two children from her previous marriage.

Blue columbines

One of the most emotionally powerful moments so far in One Hundred Names for Love is that point when West, initially limited to uttering the syllable “mem, mem, mem” in lieu of actual words, begins to recover a smattering of language with which he tries to articulate the experience of having become an invalid in an instant. Lying in his hospital bed after an exhausting afternoon of physical rehab and speech therapy, West tries to communicate his feelings to Ackerman, who recounts the conversation.

“Sc-sc-scared,” he sputtered.
“You’re scared?” I asked.
He nodded yes.
“What are you scared of?”
“Mem, mem, mem, you’ll, mem, mem, leave. Would. would. wouldn’t blame,” he garbled. It was the longest thing he’d said thus far.

Columbine

It was the longest thing West had said thus fair, and perhaps the most telling. Isn’t this any coupled person’s worst nightmare, that in an instant they might be struck with a debilitating illness and their partner, exhausted with the demands of caretaking, will decide to leave?

It’s telling, I think, that traditional marriage vows insist that the bond be maintained not simply “in good times and in bad” but specifically “in sickness and in health.” It’s as if the authors of those time-tested promises knew (as perhaps only the mature and long-married do) that the true test of any couple doesn’t come when their vows are uttered but in those moments when debilitating illness takes those words away.