The Day-Before-Easter Rabbit

Yesterday morning, as if on schedule, our resident rabbit appeared in the backyard and stayed there, sniffing and nibbling, through hours of drizzle until afternoon downpours drove him away. On the day before Easter, shouldn’t he have been busy with other things?

Whatever your preferred sign of spring, we’ve seen them all these days.

Magnolia bud

Daffodil

Robin

Tulip

Ready for Easter

Here’s hoping your Easter Sunday is sweet and springy.

You slay me

It’s been some fifteen years since I finished my Master’s degree at Boston College, so it’s been some fifteen years since I’ve set foot in Gasson Hall with its life-size marble sculpture of the Archangel Michael overpowering Lucifer. Some fifteen years ago, I was a backsliding Catholic, so the iconography of an angel slaying Satan didn’t seem hugely relevant to me: newly arrived in Boston, I was young, hungry, and struggling to balance the demands of graduate studies with the unanticipated rigors of college teaching. Looking at Michael and Lucifer, it was difficult to decide which was more personally relevant to me: was I the angel who slew, or the demon who was slain?

Archangel Michael overcoming Lucifer

As a graduate Teaching Fellow at Boston College, I occasionally brought my freshman composition students to Gasson Hall so they could sit in the rotunda and write in Michael’s shadow. In retrospect, I don’t know what I was trying to accomplish; I guess I thought my students would be awed and inspired by an epic struggle cast in stone, even if they (like me) didn’t entirely believe the mythological details. Having been stunned into silence the first time I’d stumbled into Gasson Hall, I guess I wanted my students to experience something similar, with pen in hand. In retrospect, some fifteen years later, I have no idea what (if anything) resonated with my students at all.

That’s how teaching is. You try to take your students to places they’ve never been, and you hope they’ll share the awe and inspiration you’ve felt. And yet, sharing is a tenuous experience: you can lead a student to water, but you cannot make him think. If I was undecided, some fifteen years ago, how or whether the Archangel Michael was relevant in my marginally Catholic life, why did I think a sculpted stone would speak better to my students?

Paternal

In Buddhist iconography, the bodhisattva Manjushri is typically shown wielding a sword, just as the Archangel Michael does inside Gasson Hall. Michael’s sword is a weapon of divine judgment, and Manjushri’s sword is the blade of perfect wisdom cutting through illusion. In the fifteen-some years I’ve been teaching college writing and literature, I sometimes wonder whether I carry Manjushri’s sword or a wet noodle: having led so many students to water, what exactly have I accomplished? Have I landed any body-blows on the demon of ignorance, or have I been unarmed by his master maneuvers?

Loyal

With age (and with the retrospective wisdom of fifteen-some years of climbing the same mountain semester after semester), I’ve come to believe that Time holds the sharpest sword of them all. When I was a young, hungry, and struggling Masters student at Boston College just beginning to teach, there was no magical sword of wisdom anyone could have handed me. I had to learn how to teach by teaching, just as my students had (and still have) to learn how to write by writing. The collective teachings of the ages–the example all the the world’s Michaels and Manjushris–are there to inspire and guide us, but ultimately we have to take up our own sword, handling it awkwardly at first but eventually–after some fifteen years, perhaps–perfecting our grip and learning how to manage its heft in our hand. There is no better teacher than Time, who wields a scythe that slashes constantly and repeatedly, slicing back and forth with each passing moment and month. In time, even our most obdurate illusions will fall away, sliced, like stone under a sculptor’s chisel.

Congratulations to Dr. Tim Lindgren, who defended his doctoral dissertation last week in the basement of Boston College’s Gasson Hall. You can click here to read his dissertation, “Place Blogging: Local Economies of Attention.”

Su Bong Sunim Memorial Garden

Email is an impersonal way to find out a dear friend has passed, but sometimes there’s no better way to break bad news. In my Zen school, we chant Kwan Seum Bosal–the name of the bodhisatta of compassion–when someone is in need and Ji Jang Bosal–the name of the “Earth Treasure” bodhisattva–when someone dies. Right now, the names of Kwan Seum Bosal and Ji Jang Bosal are echoing around the globe as members of my Zen school learn via email that one of our own–a long-time and dear Zen-friend–has passed, leaving a bereaved wife and many devastated friends.

Leafy Buddha

In the immediate aftermath of shocking news, you have no words to express (much less explain) what has happened: all you have is a sad, stunned feeling, like a punch to the chest. The beauty of chanting, I’ve found, is that you don’t have to say anything. Once you take up your moktok–the hollow wooden instrument used to keep time during chanting–and open your mouth, the familiar melody takes over, like an oft-repeated prayer that prays itself. When Zen Master Seung Sahn died several years ago, Zen practitioners around the world chanted “Ji Jang Bosal” in his memory; when MBTA operator Terrese Edmonds died last spring, folks at the Cambridge Zen Center, having read the news in the paper, intoned the same chant. It doesn’t matter how near or far death strikes; when you receive word of bereavement, either your own or that of another, there’s only one proper response: Ji Jang Bosal.

Weathered

Years ago when I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, we’d come together every evening to chant Kwan Seum Bosal for those in need or Ji Jang Bosal for those who’d died: as a community, we carried one another’s heartaches. Every time I go to the Cambridge Zen Center to practice, I look at the names written on cards on the altar: one card listing those who are struggling, and one card listing those who have died. It’s a reminder that we’re all in this together: at any moment, any one of us will find ourselves suffering or bereaved, and at any moment, any one of us might die. We chant to give one another solace in times when words can’t express our sympathies, and we chant to remind ourselves that none of us is immune from suffering and death.

Standing Buddha

When I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, residents would sometimes use the main meditation room for solo practice during the day, when others were at work or in their rooms. Sitting meditation nicely lends itself to solitary practice, but the sound of chanting seeps through walls and windows. Whenever I’d come home to the Zen Center during the day and would hear the sound of one of my house-mates chanting, I’d pause to listen: Kwan Seum Bosal means someone needs help, and Ji Jang Bosal means someone is grieving. In that brief moment of listening, I’d silently chant along with my unseen house-mate, not knowing the precise story behind her or his intention. From day to day, the names and faces we chant for may change, but the chant itself–and the emotion behind it–stays the same.

I was living at the Zen Center when both of my grandmothers died, and I was living at the Zen Center when my father was diagnosed with (and successfully fought) cancer. In all three cases, chanting by myself and with others brought me great emotional solace: it was something I could do, I found, even when my heart was broken, the fluid ribbon of a familiar melody carrying me even when my voice trembled with sobs. In the aftermath of tonight’s email, I have no words, but I have a clear intention: Ji Jang Bosal Ji Jang Bosal for the one we have lost, and Kwan Seum Bosal Kwan Seum Bosal for those of us left behind.

Collared

I’d love to know the story behind the large canine pinch collar someone has put around a tree in the vicinity of Cold Spring Park. Are Newton trees so rambunctious, they need prong-collar correction? Or did some dog, on his way to Cold Spring’s newly debuted off-leash area, throw off the choke of oppression before he got there?

Whatever the explanation, this much I’m guessing: this tree’s bark is probably worse than its bite.

Mallard drake

This image (a cropped version of this original) is one of the first pictures I took with my new camera several weeks ago. J and I had walked to Cold Springs Park in Newton, we saw a pair of mallards swimming in bright sunlight at close range, and I zoomed in for an extreme closeup of his iridescent head dripping with pond water. Wonderful!

Eurasian teal

This was the kind of image I was lusting for, then, when I heard that a Eurasian teal has been spotted in Newton. If I could get as close to the teal as I had to the mallard, I thought, and if the light and my luck were just as good, I could snap a picture-perfect image. Instead, when J and I spotted a small duck dabbling with a pair of noticeably larger mallards at Cold Spring Park this afternoon, the light was all wrong for an extreme closeup. It didn’t help, either, that both the teal and mallards were feeding, so much of the time I found myself looking at a headless teal:

The headless dabbler!

If you snap enough pictures, however, eventually even a headless duck might be inspired to step out of the water to make himself ready for his closeup.

Preening

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Extreme Closeup; you can click here to see my complete photo-set of Eurasian teal images. Only after we’d begun to walk toward home did J and I learn that we’d missed seeing the wood ducks that have also been dabbling at Cold Spring Park. I guess we’ll have to try to take their closeups some other sunny day.

Landscape with tower

It probably sounds strange to admit it, but some of my favorite places are cemeteries. On Saturday, my friend A (not her real initial) and I met to take a sunny, almost-spring stroll at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as we’ve done before, and I fell in love all over again with the garden park that is Mount Auburn.

Tower

I’d suggested Mount Auburn as a walking destination in part because of its proximity to the Watertown Diner, where A and I could conclude our walk with afternoon pancakes as a mid-semester root beer reward. Pancakes and root beer weren’t the only things I had in mind when I suggested we go walking at Mount Auburn Cemetery this weekend, however. Although the first snowdrops and crocuses are blooming in Boston-area gardens, it’s still too early for wildflowers, so the woods are sprouting mostly mud these days. At Mount Auburn, walkers rule the paved roads and gravel paths, and planted perennials cheer the eye. Although the evergreen-shrouded Dell was still snow-covered, elsewhere in the cemetery it was easy to believe that “almost-spring” was spring indeed.

English woodbine

Although I’d had enough presence of mind to bring my binoculars on our walk, I left my new ultra-zoom camera at home, thinking A and I would be walking rather than stopping to take pictures. So imagine my chagrin when, upon parking at the foot of the tower where we’d decided to start our walk, A and I encountered a throng of photographers armed with tripods and zoom lenses.

“Did you see where he landed?” one of the photographers asked me as I got out of my car.

“Uh, who?” I asked dumbly, guessing the answer before I heard it. For years there has been at least one pair of red-tailed hawks nesting at Mount Auburn, and hawks are large, photogenic, and slow-moving enough to merit the use of a tripod. When a hawk finds a sunny perch from which to scope out the territory, he or she is likely to sit there long enough to allow photographers their fill of shots.

Red-tailed hawk

And indeed, on Saturday there were two (and by some reports three) red-tailed hawks flying around the Mount Auburn tower, which was still closed for the season. So while birders, photographers, and Saturday strollers alike bustled around the base of the tower, enjoying a sunny, hilltop view of the Boston and Cambridge skylines, one sun-worshipping redtail perched at the very top of the tower, which is open to birds year-round. If birders and photographers alike are going to ogle you, you might as well ogle back, and this is one hawk-eyed observer who had a truly bird’s-eye view.

Red-tailed hawk

I took these pictures with my old, beat-up, purse-sized digital camera, having left my new ultra-zoom at home. I can only imagine how nice a shot I could have gotten with an 18x rather than 10x optical zoom…

Sign of spring?

Shall we file this one under “Goes without saying?”

Finally, crocuses!

Some folks carefully tend their own gardens; as for me, I watch the leaves of others. After spotting the season’s first snowdrops several weeks ago, I’ve been stalking crocus buds, vowing to be on hand the moment they opened. Sure enough, yesterday’s sun was enough to push these petals toward blooming…and just as surely, today’s gray has forced them to fold. Such is the nature of spring’s ephemera: here yesterday, gone today.

Once again, the picture illustrating today’s blog-post was the inspiration for today’s Tweet, illustrating the way these two media (blogging in both micro and macro modes) can feed one another.

The time-traveler in me also wants to note that this year’s first crocuses appeared a few days before last year’s.

A certain slant of light

It took me all of Toni Morrison’s latest novel, A Mercy, to figure out what the title referred to. Life doesn’t show much mercy on the tragic characters who people Morrison’s narrative, set in early America, when life’s cruelties were bleakly unforgiving. I initially assumed Morrison’s title was ironic, like that of Annie Dillard’s The Living, which seems to feature more deaths than it does lives. But Morrison’s novel is not a piece of irony, and neither is its title. There is a poignant mercy in A Mercy, even if it takes the entire novel for readers to realize it.

Mud season

Morrison’s novel opens with Florens, a lovesick teenage slave, setting off to find the object of her affection, a freeborn African-American blacksmith who had been hired by her master to construct an iron gate at the entrance of his palatial new home. Despite her infatuation, Florens’ mission is dire. Her master, a trader named Jacob Vaark, has succumbed to infection before occupying the new home he built with a fortune amassed from speculation in the slave trade, and now his wife–Florens’ mistress, Rebekka–is dying of the same illness. Believing the blacksmith who wrought the gate at the entrance to her husband’s doomed mansion will be able to heal her sickness, Rebekka sends Florens on a solitary errand to fetch him.

Gnarled tree

This is the linear narrative that underpins A Mercy. Florens starts her journey at novel’s beginning, and we follow her progress as the narrative continues. True to Morrison’s typically Faulknerian style, however, the narrative tells other stories, meandering from character to character and from present to past as it punctuates Florens’ journey with the back-stories of her compatriots. Florens tells her story in the first person, but a narrator tells the stories of her fellows. We see how Jacob Vaark became a reluctant participant in the slave trade. We see how Rebekka traveled to America specifically to marry Jacob, a man she’d never met. We meet Jacob’s other slaves: Lina, a Native American whose family and village were destroyed by smallpox, and Sorrow, a crazed and outcast orphan who survived the shipwreck that killed her father. We meet Williard and Scully, indentured servants who work on Jacob’s plantation, and we meet the freeborn blacksmith whom Florens is sent to find, hoping his mastery of medicinal herbs will save Rebekka.

Tombstones with trees

Meeting this disparate band of characters gives us an odd sort of insight into the nature of Jacob Vaark, a man who profits from the slave trade–and who owns slaves–without ever really condoning the practice. We want to believe that Jacob is a good man; we want to overlook the source of his fortune, the lavish way he decides to spend it, and the fact that he has surrounded himself with slaves and servants, most of them women, whom he has specifically chosen for their low likelihood of causing trouble. A house and plantation peopled by women, Jacob reasons, will be less rowdy and prone to riot than a plantation populated with randy young field slaves…and yet each of the orphans, outcasts, and survivors Jacob chooses carries her own hidden tragedies. There is no escape from trouble, Morrison suggests, regardless of who shares your story. This sharing of suffering is one of several subtle mercies that become beautifully apparent by novel’s end.

This is my long-overdue second review for the 2009 Audiobook Challenge, whereby I pledged to listen to (and review on-blog) twelve audiobooks in twelve months. If you’re interested in participating in the challenge, please visit J. Kaye’s Book Blog for details; you can access links to other participants’ audiobook reviews here.

It’s been more than two months since I reviewed my first audiobook of 2009 (Marilynne Robinson’s Home), and during that time I’ve listened to more than a half dozen audiobooks. In other words, I listen to books far faster than I review them! I figure I will have time to catch up with reviews this summer when this living is easier.

In the meantime, the photos illustrating today’s post are similarly “belated,” as I took them in Salem, Massachusetts last month. I previously blogged Salem’s Old Burying Point Cemetery in October, 2005; if you want to see what it looked like this February, you can view the entire photo-set here. Enjoy!

Spring training

It’s another cold, bright day, with tightly furled crocus buds emerging but not yet daring to open. The light still angles deep, as in winter, and it retains a cold, sharp, colorless intensity. But you can almost feel the looming fecundity of the earth underfoot, even in places where the bare mud has refrozen to concrete hardness. Even through the earth’s obdurate solidity, you can almost feel the subtle rumbling of a tangled universe of roots awakening: spring in training.

If you follow me on Twitter, you might recognize today’s photo as being the inspiration for this morning’s Tweet.