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Category: back to college

trying to take a drink from a fire hose…

dispatch from 02139 (in which i herewith make the distinction between a “dispatch,” that is, a verbal  post card, reporting from the front, and a “meander,” the more typical musing from the chair. in this year of thinking sumptuously we will need a mix of both, and this week was so over-upholstered, it requires dispatch from which meander might be launched….)

loping down the cobblestones of cambridge last eve, the long tall fellow with whom i’ve entwined my life and i were volleying utterances back and forth in between the huffing and puffing that comes when dashing home from the theatre in attempt to a.) catch the president make his second-round acceptance speech, and b.) duly stop the clock on the babysitter’s tally.

in other words, we were speeding toward home, talking.

the subject at hand was how very dizzying this week has been, how “shopping” classes — a harvard eccentricity in which professors put on “the best of” lectures, and students, accustomed to cherry-picking the choices in their life, dash into lecture halls or seminar rooms, listen for as long as their attention holds, then vote nay or yea, either staying put (thus declaring they’ll take the course) or up and skedaddling (thereby letting the prof know that the dog-and-pony theatrics did not meet unspoken expectation) — had been at once exhausting and exhilarating.

i’d just said that i had looked forward all the dizzying day to sitting quietly in the theatre, the famed cambridge-based american repertory theatre (A.R.T.), absorbing all that needed to be absorbed.

but instead of quiet, a landscape for contemplation, the play that had just unfolded before our eyes, “marie antoinette,” by hyperkinetic and brilliant playwright david adjmi (he was there to talk to us, along with the director, as we sipped prosecco and nibbled blanched broccoli in the lobby before the play), had been one of full-throttle sensory explosion (in the most glorious way), and rather than theatre as respite, the evening had added yet another massive volume of thought and image to sift through.

to that, the lanky fellow replied, “this whole thing is like trying to take a drink from a fire hose.”


i am gulping as fast as i can. and still, my face, my front, right down to the tips of my yellow rubber rain boots, is soaked with all that i can’t  fit into my stretched-wide-open maw.

i do believe i’m missing 98 percent of what’s gushing from the eternal hose. or so it feels.

and that’s only because here in the city of infinite wellspring it comes so fast, so furiously, you’d need a hippopotamus’ great vast jaw to open wide and swallow.

besides taking in trips to thoreau’s walden pond, and a glorious slice of atlantic coast called crane’s beach, and an apple orchard in ipswich where cider donuts were plopping down in doughy life-preserver Os, then floating along a hot oil river till crisped to sugar-and-cinnamon-y perfection, this week was all about taking to the classroom.

our brave little soldier was first up, marching to the bus stop on a rainy morn, declaring, “i don’t want a helicopter mom, i’ll do this myself.”

and so aboard the bus he climbed, the purple cow bus, as it’s so designated. and off he went for the next nine hours. we scooped him up at day’s end from a basketball court where he was the only white kid playing among a forest of sky-high shooters.

he beamed, as did they, when they reported to us that it had been revealed that our not-yet-5-foot shooter could keep up with the best of ’em.

bumping home in the back seat of our cambridge mobile, he went on to declare at least one teacher “awesome,” and was astonished to find the one kid he knows at the school somehow magically made his way into every one of our little guy’s classes. so, all in all, except for the english teacher he thinks is “super tough,” it was an A+ start to his rendition of this adventure.

while he was off being brave, his mama found her heart near pounding through her chest as she took a seat in the far back of her first harvard lecture hall.

wasn’t long till i distinguished myself as the only one in the 300 seats of paul farmer’s global health class who curiously pulled out a pen. i was the odd scritch-scratch amid a sea of click-clack-clicks, as the 18-year-olds madly pound out notes on laptops, and toss curious glances at that archaic instrument, the stick pen.

the school week didn’t end before handing me rejection no. 2 from yet another harvard prof, who refused to let a silver hair sit in on her graduate-level seminar, “the major works of american civilization.” but, touché, i was in the room, pulled right up to the conference table for the whole first two-hour slot, long enough to snare a reading list and syllabus so i can play along at home.

by week’s end it seems i’ve — let me grab my fingers and begin the course count — “ethical reasoning 22: justice,” with rockstar legal thinker michael sandel (that’s the classroom pictured up above, if you can believe, and sandel emerged, bounding, as the chandeliers brightened, from the depths of a sunken staircase on stage, after class opened with a shake-the-rafters rock-anthem video); narrative non-fiction, a seminar for nieman fellows and the occasional tagalong (c’est moi); “modern spiritual pioneers and religious revolutionaries,” in which we explore the lives of leo tolstoy, mohandas gandhi, lech walesa, thich nhat hahn, dorothy day, abraham joshua heschel and martin luther king; rockstar global health doc paul farmer’s “case studies in global health: biosocial perspectives,” in which i wind up either enlisting in the peace corps or finally heading off to med school to save the world;  the hilarious could-be-sit-com “science and cooking: from haute cuisine to the science of soft matter,” in which rockstar chefs jet in from around the world for tuesday lectures, including the likes of much-famed ferran adria (from el bulli in spain), bill yosses (white house pastry chef), dan barber (blue hill), and wylie dufresne (wd-50).

take a breath. it’s still only tuesday aftenoon.

we then dash down to rockefeller hall at the div school, for “virginia woolf and religion,” in which we read at least one woolf novel per week, and present a five-page paper for all the class to critique.

since i’ve been unceremoniously dumped from two classes, poetry and religion, and the major works of american civilization, i intend to homeschool my little old self in the case of those two.

and — why stop when on a cerebral binge? — i’ve a long list of nooks and crannies to explore, among them grolier poetry book shop, inc., the longest-surviving poetry-only book store in america. cross my heart, i’ll soon trek to thoreau’s cabin, at the end of a heavenly trail that traces the shores of walden pond. and i do hope to spend a starry night in the hermitage in newbury that is the retreat house of the monastery just down the lane here in cambridge.

so so very much on the sumptuous list.

but what of the glories that seep in through the cracks, at unexpected moments and places, such as the school bus stop where i’ve met a parisian single mum who founded the french equivalent of city year (a year of do-goodery for kids from 16 to 22), and who is here alone with two kids for a full fellowship at harvard’s kennedy school of government? or the elegant finance professor, just back from a year in china, who each morning strolls in his crisp white shirt and chapeau, and is teaching me the ways of elite chinese 18-year-olds who, at every turn, buck the communist party’s so-called restrictions?

and what about the wife of a long-ago nieman fellow who has invited us into her painting studio and informed me that back in 1981 the tagalong of the fellow was known as the “co-vivante,” instead of the more pedestrian “affiliate,” our current official tag?

it is dizzyingly much. but not too much. because i stay up late to sift through my day’s notes, and i bend my knee and ask for strength whenever i need. i’ve already found my place, near the book of petitions at st. paul’s, where i venture when ready for refueling.

i must dash to scoop up soccer shorts off a cambridge front porch, because even amid all the thinking, there is soccer to be played. but before i go, i’ll add a new chair feature, the word of the week: last night, while listening to adjmi, the playwright, he mentioned something about a “quiddity,” a word that caught my ear, made me lunge for my pen, a word i’ve not yet had a chance to look up. (though i just did, and it means “the essence of a thing,” a word i’m sure i’ll put to great good use.)

so that’s the quiddity of it all, from here in 02139, at the end of — could it be — a mere week three. only 45 left to go. perhaps by autumn’s end, i’ll have managed to get my thirsty gullet moist in the rushing, gushing fire hose.

do please forgive the book report of a posting, and know that i write not to wow a single one of you, but with an innocent’s sense of over-exuberance, and pinch-me-is-this-real. i’ve a mama or two who want to know every bit of reporting from here on the front, and this one’s for both of them. and you and you and you…..

i intend to introduce thought of the week, as well, but now i must dash, and then i’ll need to scroll through my notes to find the one juiciest morsel worth laying out on the table…..

so the question of the week is simply this: what’s your word of the week? or big idea of the day??

calming potions and the art of leave-taking

at first, we were passing the bottle equitably. one by one, we each took a whiff. but then, oddly, inexplicably, i became the one, more than anyone, whose nose most regularly passed above the open vial.

it went something like this: inhale, deep breathe, and then as they say each year at the squeeze-me mammogram, “hold it! hold it!” now, resume the tasks of leaving.

we have a veritable pharmacopeia of soothers on the kitchen counter these days. we’ve catnip for a little charge. we have pheromones of cat elixir. and we have stress relief and, best of all, lavender oil for calming. says so right there on the label.

never mind that all these potions and concoctions were prescribed for the little kitty, the one who any day now will be tucked into his handy-dandy over-the-shoulder (mine, not his) travel bag, and marched straight into the belly of a boston-bound aeroplane, where he’ll cower under the seat, and i’ll do my darnedest to dodge the withering glances and full-on glares of all my cabin mates.

while the little fellow yowls and makes me long for the days when all i had on my lap was a screaming babe (who could be quieted at the mere suggestion of a nipple), i am told to dab dab dab the oil of lavender onto a cotton ball, and waft it just beneath his kitty nose. all the while taking spins past my own personal intake valve, where i too shall inhale mightily of the calming essence.

whatever it takes to hurdle me over this grand departure.

i promise you i did not set out to steal my kitty’s ticket to la-la land. it’s just that, well, we took one whiff and all at once everyone in the house realized ol’ mama might be the one who could profit most fruitfully from the stuff. even if the calm comes at intervals no longer than the dot-dot-dash of samuel morse’s code, it’s a calm that might not be present otherwise.

not that i’m a bag of jittery ol’ nerves or anything. not that i wake up 85 times a night, thinking of this, that and the other thing that must get done before the wagon train rolls east.

no, not at all.

“liar, liar pants on fire,” i can hear you singing now.

why, yes, i’ll admit, you’re onto something here. fact is, i have never ever, not in all my life, been so good at the fine art of leaving.

i trace it back to when i was five. every single sunday night for the better part of a year, my beloved papa shlepped his suitcase to the little turquoise ford falcon tucked in the garage. he slid behind the steering wheel, and waved b-bye! i sat wilted on the concrete step there in the garage, and cried and cried. he’d be gone till friday night. and when you are five, friday from sunday is a world and a half away, might as well be up to mars and back.

i never did get used to the belly ache of watching him pull down the drive, turn and disappear, the red tail lights my last trace of a papa i could not keep.

and ever since, goodbyes are my own personal castor oil. a bitter taste that must be swallowed, might even be good for you, but, oh, do i have to really?

so comes a long weekend of last goodbyes. goodbye to this old house i love so deeply, achingly. goodbye to the garden that blooms for me, delights me season after season. goodbye to the mama i hate to leave, even though it will only be for one short fine year. goodbye to lanes and trees that harbor me, anchor me, keep me feeling safe, secure, certain of my place on the map.

oh, i know i’ll tumble headfirst into this adventure up ahead. i’ve friends already, from the lovely woman who’s renting us a mere slip of parking space on her driveway, to the extraordinary fellow whose third-floor aerie will be our home away from home.

why, i imagine all of cambridge will hold me and enchant me, will peel back undiscovered nooks and crannies deep inside my soul.

i’ve no doubt that what lies ahead will be nectar from the gods.

but before i get there, i need to leave. and leaving wrenches me, rips me wide open, and stings mightily.

which is why it’s a fine thing this ol’ cat is tagging along. while i pretend to be soothing him at 30,000 feet above the finger lakes and all of pennsylvania, it’ll be me who’s taking all the whiffs of all the potions in the kitty bag.

catnip, anyone? or perhaps a lavender cocktail, served up with soggy cotton ball.

so it goes, chair friends. this i do believe is the last missive from here at the old table, at least for the next 11 months. we’re moving east for the year, and you’re coming along. soon, a big ol’ doberman hound will move into this ol’ house with a dear friend and her battalion of safe-keepers. they’ll rule this roost, love it, stoke it, make sure no leaks threaten to take it down. and turkey baby, the cat, takes a 1,000-mile journey along with the rest of my little clan, where for the next school year, we’ll turn pages, take notes, and get another crack at being college kids. 

one question before i shove off: anyone else find leaving hard to do? or do you leap at the uncharted adventures of whatever lies ahead, knowing full well all will be well upon return? 

ebbs and flows

no wonder i turn to the waters rushing in along the sands to take my cues, to absorb the rhythms of the comings and the goings. unceasing, ever, and without apparent tussle, the pools come in and roll back out again.

the lessons always there, amid the geometry and the physics of the mysteries around me.

all i need do is become the student, absorb the holy text and the teaching that it offers.

once again, i have parted with the boy i love so dearly deeply. once again we have bid our goodbyes, whispered prayers for safe keeping and safe flight. we have felt the tears trickle down our cheeks, and our hearts pounding hard against our chests.

i watched my two sweet boys laugh and jive, in that way they do, one last time this morning. before the school bell rang, and it was time for the little one to throw his arms again around his big old brother, to swallow hard, to not pull away.

the little fella didn’t even notice how each one of us, we cried right along.

theirs was first among the litany of goodbyes. and, for the little guy, this was the true goodbye, the one in the sanctuary of the kitchen, all of us circled round him. not the hurried one in the schoolyard, when they’d dropped him off, and he’d try not to let on how much he’d miss the tall kid riding in the front seat.

once they’d headed off, once the door had closed, and the car had pulled away, a father-and-sons hurried ride to middle school, i stood in the quiet of this house, let the silence seep in, wash over me, the ebbs and flows of leaving, of going off.

it was preamble to the parting later in the morning, when the clock struck quarter past 11, and i slipped the keys off the hook. when i grabbed my backpack, felt my heart sink low, helped him with his bags, and loaded up the car one last time.

that boy won’t be home till summer.

but this time, this blessed time, i know that he is pulled by roots now deep, now lasting. he is thick with friends far off. they peppered him with messages for days. when you coming back? we can’t wait to see you. what time’s your plane? when you landing?

he is loved in a place i barely know. he is loved by friends i have never met. he is loved. and that is all that matters.

last night, as i was sleepy-eyed and headed up to bed, he looked at me and asked, “hey, mommo, wanna stay up and chat?”

who says no to the sweetest, finest invitation ever?

i did not say no.

we huddled under blankets — me, under red chenille on the chilly couch. him, under gray flannel on the red-checked armchair across the way.

for a good two hours, he told stories i’ve been waiting months to hear. i sopped up every one, a sponge in red-and-white-striped jammies.

we went to bed, at last, when my eyes were drooping closed. when i could not keep those eyelids up, at full-throttle attention, no matter how i tried.

no mind, though.

it made the leave-taking that much easier, knowing i have stories tucked inside my heart. knowing that i know now the landscape of his life, his loves, his laughs.

this now is the third goodbye, in what will be a lifelong string of such. i am starting to learn the rhythm, the ebb, the flow.

i now know, because i feel it, that somehow the boundaries of my heart have grown. it now encapsulates the many miles between my boy and me. i know that no miles wrench us apart. they just expand the connection.

i only learned that truth by living it, by breathing in and out the ebbs and flows, the comings and the goings.

but i might have understood it, figured it out, perhaps, if i’d wandered to the beach, paid close attention to what was being whispered there, in the rippling of the lake.

if i’d understood sooner that the paradigm was right before my eyes, etched forever in the sodden sands.

if i’d looked to the waters of this wise and ancient earth, if i’d watched how what flows out comes back again.

if i’d trusted what i saw, what the heavens long have known, long have whispered to the ones who listen.

only now, three times back and forth again, do i settle in to the rhythm, to the knowing that my boy, the boy i love so dearly deeply, he is never going off, just away and back again.

it’s a rhythm i can count on.

happy blessed new year, chair people. may the ebbs and flows of your days, your weeks, your months, be gentle and eternal….