RIP Prince

Decades ago when I was an undergraduate trying to figure out what to do with my life, one of my professors gave me a terrifying bit of advice. Instead of quickly settling upon a major and then promptly getting down to the business of fulfilling my academic requirements, this professor said I should wait until the last possible minute to declare a major. “Keep your options open,” he said, and it’s a bit of advice I’ve always remembered even though at the time I didn’t follow it.

Wall at Central Square

Unlike many of my peers, I didn’t waver or waffle much when it came to choosing an undergraduate major. After initially declaring as a biology major, I switched to English before setting foot in a science class, and I remained faithful to English as I pursued my bachelors, masters, and PhD. But now after what seems like a lifetime of taking and teaching English classes, I think I understand what my undergraduate professor meant. When you rush to label yourself and your interests, you potentially miss out on other, seemingly unrelated influences that don’t fit your immediate goals.

Wall at Central Square

In retrospect, for instance, the most helpful class I took as an undergraduate wasn’t a literature or writing class but one that was completely tangential to my major: Group Voice for Non-majors. Group Voice was a singing class for non-musicians, and I took it only because I thought it might help me feel more comfortable teaching. If I could stand in front of a group of my peers and sing, I reasoned, then standing in front of a classroom of students would be no problem.

Wall at Central Square

I ended up taking Group Voice for Non-majors several times: it was a one-credit class that promised an easy A to students brave enough to participate, and I came to enjoy the break from my lit class it provided. While I was driven to do my best in the literature classes that counted toward my major, it was elective classes like Group Voice where I could simply try something new without worrying about my future, my GPA, or my eventual career. At the time, taking a class that taught me terms like “castrati” and “bel canto” and required me to sing at least one song in Italian didn’t seem to have anything to do with my career path, but in retrospect, learning how to sing (poorly) in front of a group gave me a confidence I rely upon every single day.

The spot I hit

Today I remembered this advice to “Keep your options open” as I struggle to set my summer expectations. I finished the last of my semester tasks on Tuesday, so now I’m decompressing, trying to return to life outside the academic year. Friends who have retired describe the unsettling sensation of no longer having a set schedule of external expectations, and when you live an academic life, every summer is a miniature retirement. Once your grades are submitted and your other obligations are met, you wake to the simple but disarming question, “Now what?”

Wall at Central Square

I know I want to spend a lot of time writing this summer; I know I want to spend a lot of time reading. I know I want to spend more time walking and taking pictures and being creative, and I know I want to catch up with sleep, meditation, and the other healthy things that unfortunately fall by the wayside during a typically hectic semester.

Wall at Central Square

But apart from simply showing up at the page and waiting to see what words appear, I don’t have any clearly articulated goals for the summer. I have the desire to write, but I haven’t yet decided upon a definitive project. If anything, I’ve been trying to avoid the impulse to settle on a project too soon, just for the sake of settling: I want, in other words, to keep my options open. Because I’ve been writing long enough to know the stages every project goes through, I know there will be plenty of time later to get sick of (and need to stick with) whatever topic I choose: the dictum “Marry in haste, repent in leisure” applies to hastily chosen writing projects as well as mates and majors.

Wall at Central Square

I’ve been writing long enough to know that whatever summer project I settle upon, there will be plenty of time to solidify and reshape it later, but right now at the outset, absolutely anything is possible. Before you start, you can do anything, but once you begin, your options shrink: by going down this road, you eliminate the options of the other, alternate roads. So for the next few days, I’m trying to show up at the page without expectation, hoping the words themselves will tell me where they want to go. “Keep your option open” is a daunting bit of advice, but it is also an alluring invitation to obey your curiosity.

Bee on purple coneflower

Every year, summer announces its arrival in ways that don’t necessarily correspond to human calendars. To some, Memorial Day marks the traditional start of summer, but for others, summer arrives with the summer solstice or the July 4th holiday. Memorial Day is in May, the summer solstice is in June, and the 4th of July is (obviously) in July, which means summer arrives either gradually or repeatedly over the course of a month or so, depending on whose calendar you follow.

Purple coneflower

For me, there are two surefire signs that the height of summer is really here: cicadas and coneflowers. Earlier this week, while J and I were walking to lunch on a humid day, I heard the year’s first cicada calling from a shady spot along a woodsy trail that wends through our neighborhood. To my ears, the first cicadas of summer sound shrill and sharp, as if recently honed. Only in August will the collective chorus of cicadas have a deeper, more rattling sound, as if their voices have both deepened and dulled with age.

Purple coneflowers

Last Friday, I took a moment to photograph the purple coneflowers blooming in a garden alongside the Hyde Playground in Newton Highlands. Purple coneflowers are one of my favorite flowers: I love their eye-popping combination of purple and orange as well as the textural contrast between their pleated petals and spiky centers. The fact that these Hyde Playground coneflowers are garden plantings rather than wild blooms doesn’t make them any less a harbinger of summer: regardless of who planted them, these coneflowers open (and are beset with neighborhood bees) only when the sun stirs them.

Purple coneflower

So you can forget about the dog days of summer; we’ve reached the days of coneflowers and cicadas. What do dogs know about summer that the flowers and bugs haven’t already told them?

After rain

May always passes in a flash: one minute we’re on the verge of spring, and the next we’re ripening into summer. I submitted the last batch of spring semester grades two weeks ago, then I faced the annual onslaught of Other Stuff: all the obligations that fall by the wayside during a busy semester, like dentist appointments and vet visits.

Bleeding hearts

This past weekend was the BRAWN Summer Institute, which for me signals the unofficial start of summer. Now that the dust has settled from another busy academic year, it’s time to stop, talk shop, and figure out what I want to do differently next year. Teaching is always a work-in-progress, but when you’re mired in the process of teaching, it’s difficult to find time to reflect and re-assess. The BRAWN Summer Institute always plants some interesting ideas in my head, and now I have a couple of months to cultivate those seeds.

Frilly

In the meantime, summer is a chance to leave my mind alone, letting my brain lie fallow for a while. These past few weeks, J and I have spent a lot of time walking around our neighborhood, reclaiming sidewalks that were impassable for much of the winter. It’s relief to inhabit our own neighborhood again.

Blue hydrangea

It’s just after noon, and I’m sitting on the screened porch listening to a grackle flap and splash in our backyard birdbath. It’s too late to sit on the patio, which is now drenched in sun, but it is comfortable on the shady porch, where I can hear the rustle and flutter of birds.

Day lily

A single cicada sang this morning, emitting a shrill and simple whine. That sound will grow and expand as the summer moves to its climax, the sound of insects and birdsong being one surefire way to place oneself, temporally, in the season.

Right now, I hear two separate birds clucking and chuckling, but I can’t name either. Alarm calls sound similar across species, so the grackle clacking by the birdbath sounds akin to the chirping squirrels. One gray squirrel moves from the bird feeder to drink from the birdbath, perching on a stone rim the same color as his fur. Another squirrel hangs from the feeder, only his tail betraying his presence. Blue jays call from a distant yard, and a cardinal whistles intermittently, its song too placid to seem insistent.

Sunny spiderwort

Along the perennial bed, chipmunks dart and scurry. Even a quiet suburban backyard isn’t very quiet, instead bustling with activity. The soundtrack changes with the season, and the seasons themselves cycle and repeat. There is nothing particularly special about today: it is an ordinary July day, the likes of which happen every year. But today, unlike other, more hurried days, I stepped outside, ready to listen.

How many mornings did the Buddha, then a mere prince, see the morning star rise as he sat in meditation? One day the morning star rose like any other, but the Buddha finally saw it, his mental clouds parting to reveal a hitherto-hidden truth: everyone has it, they just don’t know it. It’s a statement so simple as to defy credibility: is this all the Buddha attained after six long years of striving and seeking, after having renounced his throne, his wealth, his family, health, and even sanity?

Bumble bee on spirea

Is this present moment all the Buddha attained? Yes, indeed. All the Buddha attained was the entire world, and his entire life, delivered in the instant that is Now. If we don’t attain the present moment, whatever else can we attain? If we don’t live in the present moment, where else can we possibly dwell?

I wrote this entry earlier today, during a free moment I had before lunch. The photos illustrating today’s post come from past summers, the hydrangeas, day lilies, spiderwort, and spirea that are blooming today looking just like those from seasons past.

Budding

Now that it’s June, the backyard is deepening into its summer hues. As I type this, a lone cottontail is hopping around the backyard, darting in and out of the irises and spiderwort. Earlier, I saw two cottontails side by side, intermittently eating and chasing one another: signs that we’ll have even more cottontails. In June, everything seems geared to continuance, rebirth, and renewal: the idea that things roll on.

Bumblebee on spirea

In June, summer lures you into thinking that what you’re experiencing now will somehow last, that the sun will shine this way for ever. This time of year lulls us into trust and complacency, with the trials of winter seeming very far away. Who in June really believes that summer will ever end? The whole point of June is to relax and slip into trusting complacency and the languid assumption that the sun will continue to shine and the grass will continue to grow green.

Day lily

At the beginning of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau lifts a line from the treaties Europeans made with Native Americans, in which their agreement was promised to last as long as rivers flow and grasses grow. We know from history that European treaties with Native Americans never lasted long; apparently rivers don’t flow forever nor does grass grow long. As poetic as this promise might sound, it is (after all) misleading. Rivers flow and grasses grow for only a season: in winter, rivers freeze and grasses die. The phrasing of these treaties, in other words, is strictly seasonal, an eternally ephemeral thing. Summertime treaties are couched in optimism, the season we make undying promises despite the fact that everything eventually ends.

Blue hydrangea

But it’s difficult to believe that in June: difficult to believe that the next crop of baby cottontails, still a sparkle in their parents’ brown, goat-like eyes, will someday themselves die. As I type these words on a hot June day, my bare feet browned from the sun, it’s difficult to believe that I too, eventually, will die.

Three roses

In June, the Buddha’s teachings about suffering and impermanence seem misguided and even cruel: who would be heartless enough to ruin a day at the beach—nasty enough to rain on someone’s parade—by reminding them at the height of summer that these days don’t last? In summer, the days like sunlight stretch and linger long: these are the days we wish would never end because we don’t actually believe they can. June is the season of immortality, when nature pumps out life and humans make promises and plans as if there were no tomorrow: is it any accident that so many couples get married in June? In June, we dance and fiddle like grasshoppers, unable to conceive (in the midst of so much conception) that these happy days could ever end.

Midflight

The secret to summer sweetness, however, is to cherish these days as precious: that is the intention behind the Buddha’s words. Buddha never intended to rain on anyone’s parade with his insistence that things are impermanent; instead, he wanted to remind us that parades are a passing thing. Don’t be fooled by a seemingly endless array of floats and bands and marchers, for this too finishes in finale. Keep your eyes open at every instant because every parade—and every parade watcher—eventually marches away.

Buds

After sweltering temperatures this past weekend, the weather has settled (at least for the moment) into a comfortable stride, with sunny, mild days that are perfect for working outside. When I say “working outside,” I don’t mean gardening or other outdoor chores; I mean sitting on our screened back porch with my laptop, doing outside the work I’d normally do inside.

Beginning to bloom

Both yesterday and today, I checked my online classes then wrote my hour outside while watching our backyard rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks tend to their business of nibbling, sniffing, and scurrying after one another. When the weather is cooperative, there’s something simultaneously calming and inspiring about working outside, the chirps and twitters of backyard birds keeping you awake if not entirely on-task.

Budding

It’s been a month since J and I had our first taste of sparkling pink lemonade, a treat we’d bought from a curbside lemonade stand during a leisurely weekend stroll around the neighborhood, and since then, I’ve made a point to keep a few bottles on hand: a simple, refreshing treat. So today while the birds chirped, the rabbits hopped, and I tapped and clicked on my laptop, I sipped a cool glass of summer sweetness without having to leave the comfort of my own backyard.

Peony-to-be

Every April-into-May while I’m preoccupied with the long, uphill push that invariably marks the end of the semester, something sly and subtle happens. While I’m busy with paper-piles and end-term grading, Spring somehow slips into Summer.

Honeysuckle - April 12 / Day 132

I know that the summer solstice doesn’t come until June, but I’m never fooled by what the calendar says. Something has shifted in the last week or so, with spring-green leaves ripening into a darker summer hue. The nights are warm rather than chilly now, and we sleep with the windows open. Already the leaves on our backyard hostas are tattered where rabbits have nibbled them, and our backyard tulips have dropped their petals, spent.

Wisteria

Already, in an instant, the neighborhood wisteria are hanging heavy with an abundance of blossoms, and the year no longer feels like a coil that is tightly wound, ready to spring. Instead, the season has sprung, and only a ripening of days stands between us and the fullness of summer: a transition so subtle, you’ll miss it if you blink.