Archive for April, 2014

This year, my marathon Monday began exactly the same as last year: pack our lunches and books, watch the series of starts from mobility impaired through the elite men and first wave, and then head to the train station for the first leg of the journey. As with last year, my husband had left well before to get to the shuttle bus that would take him to his start in Hopkinton hours later. I wouldn’t see him until he passed us on the course somewhere in the latter miles.

As I pulled into the parking lot at the train station, Space Oddity played on the radio, and suddenly, tears were running down my cheeks. Only the briefest moment, and the strangest prompt–a song about an astronaut lost in the abyss of space–but the lyrics would stay with me all through the day. I hummed the song over and over, first the cheery bits, “This is ground control to Major Tom, you’ve really made the grade. And the papers want to know whose shirt you wear…” but then always the part when things go wrong too. It fast became the soundtrack to the things I remembered over and over–the police officer who told us to “just go home. People got blown up in there,” the sudden flood of texts and phone calls coming in to my phone, my uncertainty about where Christophe might be, and where the bombs. “Can you hear me, Major Tom?” over and over.

The train ride on Monday was just the same as last year, down to our sandwiches and the appearance of the cheerful man with developmental delays who patrols the cars each year, yelling out, “Going to Boston! Patriots’ Day! Some people want to see the marathon…Some people want to see the Red Sox…”

Last year was the first time I ever went to the marathon, though all my life I’ve watched it on tv every year. Last year was the first time my husband ever ran a marathon, or at least, he tried to. He had to turn back two miles before the finish line. Last year was the first time my sons ever saw me genuinely scared.

1464601_10152341004626462_8483145491376094191_nAfter last year’s marathon, there was the chaos that reigned around Boston for a few days, and then the fatigue, and the sadness. There were so many people who wanted to know what they could do to help us, but we hadn’t been physically harmed and hadn’t witnessed any of the worst of it either. We just went back to work, Christophe quietly picked up his finisher’s medal in the city a few days later, and our older son had nightmares for a few weeks. There was noise swirling all around us–calls for justice, cries of mourning, rousing renditions of the national anthem at a Bruins game–but I felt like the world had gone quiet the moment I stood by the side of the road between mile markers 21 and 22 and heard the news that there’d been a bombing. My whole body stoppered up, I began walking the boys against the flow of the crowd toward the city, the way their father had run twenty minutes before. So far out, we heard no sirens, and as the streets emptied and a low cloud ceiling moved in casting everything in gray, we stood our vigil by the medical station.

It seemed like that quiet that fell, that muffled woolen isolation that enveloped me while I waited for Christophe, stayed with me the whole year. He had decided to give the race another try, so the winter hours were consumed with his long absences for training runs, and my long hours home with the boys. The public clamor began in earnest a couple weeks before this year’s race and built through the one year anniversary memorials up to race day itself while I withdrew from it steadily. The marathon had never really left us, after all, and now, it was only the rest of the world’s attention turning back to us.

After our subway ride, we came up the steps onto the street into full daylight and a cacophony of sound. Taking up our position at mile 23, I began yelling for the runners, and all that freighted memory evaporated. I cheered myself hoarse. I cheered until waves of nausea choked me. I called out every name I could read emblazoned on a shirt or numbered bib. All the Michaels, the Sarahs, the Kates and Katies, and Vivek, and Paco, Paola and Akash, and Koji, carrying two tiny flags, one American, one Japanese, and a lumbering Asian man who slid me a glance and wide smile when I called out “Dong Dong!” which he had markered across his chest. There were the given names and the chosen names, the joke names and the serious names. I called out for V-Money and Nudey and Tranny. I called them by whatever true name they had chosen for us to call out, hoping it might summon them back from themselves in those hard middle miles.

As the hours went by, the runners graded from sinewed speedsters to the slower sorts, and finally, to the halt and the lame. But the crowds don’t diminish, not in spirit or in numbers. When a man stopped and bowed down, hands on his knees, his face a rictus of pain, the gathered spectators on both sides of the street raised a roar so loud it seemed to hit him physically. When he straightened and began limping down the course again, our cry of triumph set him laughing as he went, though the pain was, undoubtedly, undiminished.

A runner in orange came to high five our knot of screaming strangers and said, “I love all of you guys! Thank you!” Runners hearing me call their names sometimes seemed to jerk awake, and would smile, or flash a peace sign, or maybe muster only a nod. But we were doing, together, what defines this race and gives it its legend. We were staying to lift up, to ferry onward, to praise and to celebrate even the slowest among them. After Christophe ran past us, I knew we wouldn’t get to the finish line to see him cross, but I also knew he was heading into a gauntlet many rows of people deep who would bear him over that line with the sheer force of their will, and he would cross with our tribe of runners, who would bodily carry him, if it came to that. I was not afraid for him, this second time watching his back recede toward the finish line.

10264274_10152341004251462_3367539835904041648_nThe race had been reclaimed and restored to its rightful possessors–the runners, and the strangers who see them through. Last year’s race was fractured at its end. Runners couldn’t finish, were set adrift in the streets. Those cheering throngs who would see them through were splintered apart, body and soul. It was an extraordinary and a terrible thing. But by the end of this year’s race, though there are still the unhealable wounds, the race itself, the organism that is a ribbon of runners stretching thousands deep, and the flanking ribbons of all of us there to see them run, to bear them up, was alive again, and it was only the marathon once again. It was only the ordinary marathon: thousands of people helping thousands of other people do only the ordinary, extraordinary thing.


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Of memory and manure

The day before the memorial service for my friend Peter, I took the warm afternoon to clean out my chicken coop. I was partway looking forward to, and partway dreading the service, and the chore seemed the perfect thing to occupy at least the body, if not the mind. The service would, I hoped, help put an end to the usual magical thinking that follows a death. There are things upon things I think to point out to Peter the next time we talk, before I remember there won’t be one. Thinking of attending the service at the prep school where he was my teacher, I realized I expected to see him there, at the podium, speaking in his own memory. It seems the only thing more powerful than his absence is his presence.

The sensation is intensified with the spring. I always think of Peter most in these transition seasons, for he loved the shifts. The migrant birds arriving, the migrant birds departing, the putting away the garden hoses and tools in November, and the taking out of the tools in April, the furlings and the unfurlings both. When I see a gray-haired man in a khaki vest standing at the edge of a field, binoculars raised, spotting woodcocks in early spring, it takes a nearly physical effort to remember that it can’t be him.

IMG_5465In the coop, I was digging out the long winter’s layers of compressed manure, stirring up a smell of turned cider and fetid straw. Everything in the dim shed is coated in gray brown chicken dust, and the light from outside comes dimly through the caked windows. Shin deep in shit, I heard the clear peal of a wind chime. Brushed by the body of an unseen hen on her way to make a secret nest I might eventually find full of eggs weeks from now, the chime sounded pure as the day Peter gave it to us as a wedding gift more than ten years ago. The sound faded, and I returned to my chore.

At the service today, the Academy’s Reverend Thompson spoke of how he and Peter, an atheist, had still managed to arrive at some common ground in an ancient etymology of religion as ligating, binding together. We were gathered in the school’s non-denominational church to praise and remember Peter, but not to pray, per his own, unenforceable request. Still, remember seems a better term anyway. Peter is the one who first taught me to see the genuine meaning of the word: to reassemble, to put back together.

After I’d cleaned the coop and filled it again with fresh pine shavings, I took down the wind chime and looked it over. Its wood is dull and starting to split, and the strings are moldering. They’ll need replacing, but it’s a small task, for the reward of listening again to their sound alongside peepers, then tree frogs and hermit thrushes in summer. I will retie the strings, oil the wood. I will refasten its ligaments. I will remember.

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I took my biology students out for a walk in the small woods behind the college. As in most things, their attitudes ran the gamut from keen interest (one student carried the body of a dead and mouse-gnawed snake along with her for the duration, and others plunged into the partly frozen swamps exclaiming over skunk cabbage), to good natured uninterest, to slack-jawed boredom or hostility. One student spent ten minutes gagging and retching after we picked apart coyote scat with a stick. Another mentioned Harry Potter and asked if we’d all seen the movies. “They’re better than the books,” he said, “I don’t like to read, so I haven’t actually read them.”

Bring me the hemlock. Though alas, I lack sufficient influence to corrupt the youth.

It’s important, as a teacher, not to attach one’s self-worth to either enthusiasm or its lack in one’s students. I can demonstrate my own curiosity, my own enthusiasm, but mostly what this creates is an environment where students with some nascent bit of their own curiosity may freely express it. This has great value. But I would be profoundly naive to believe it’s present in all my students. I am not naive, but I continue to be bewildered. Even thoughtful, hardworking students will tell me, “Sorry, science just isn’t my thing. I can’t get into this nature stuff.” I will never understand this completely. These students have gotten siloed, thinking people must have one interest, one area of expertise. I have always had quite the opposite problem; interested in nearly everything, I have no prospects of mastery in any. Veering from an undergraduate degree in literature, to a graduate degree in veterinary medicine, and now teaching everything from botany to birds, I can never seem to settle. Nor, truthfully, do I wish to. The stack of books by my bed includes: a philosopher’s take on Darwinian theory; the collected poems of Seamus Heaney; two novels of a literary bent; Joseph Brodsky’s selected essays.



I took my two sons for a walk on the beach. The upper reaches are all sand, but at the lowest tides, rock ledges rise and tide pools fill the declivities between. In a pelting, sideways rain, we prowled these places that my younger son calls “the animal fields.” Bands of jagged barnacles meet lower bands of blue mussels shingling the rocks. Seals with pale velveteen pelts loll across a fast current from us. Gulls fly straight up, rear backward in midair, let fall mollusks onto the rocks and drop back down to find and gulp their mucoid contents.

Walking back to the car along the seawall, there is human trash strewn along the higher wrack line. My younger son looks down at it and asks, “Why do some people make a mess in nature? Why don’t they care about the animals?” “I guess because they never learned about it and never went out in it, and so they don’t love it,” I answered him. “Mom?” he asked, “Do students in your class go out and be bad to nature?”

Why he associates my students in particular with a lack of commitment to the wilds is not clear to me. I must have said something to make him construe things this way, but I suppose he’s right about at least some of them. What makes one person feel such affinities while others fail to? In no small part, it’s exposure and upbringing of course, but within that, there’s something else too. The differences between my sons drives this home for me. My elder son is equally at ease outside. He loves backpacking and hiking and fishing, but there’s a measure of detachment in him that I find occasionally unsettling. His young brother is tender-hearted, crying easily at the distress of living creatures whether in life or in a book. I would credit his age, only his older brother was never that way.



It’s hard to value every aspect of a child equally. The parts of myself, and the things that I love that I see mirrored in my children are easiest to love. The parts that are foreign are harder. Reading Jamaica Kincaid’s novel See Now Then, I ran across this passage,

[…] and then my mother became angry at me because I did not love her in return and then she became even more angry that I did not love her at all because I would not become her, I had an idea that I should become myself; it made her angry that I should have a self, a separate being that could never be known to her; she taught me to read and she was very pleased at how naturally I took to it, for she thought of reading as a climate and not everyone adapts to it [.]

and found parts of that unsettlingly true, that we go into parenting thinking we’re open to whatever this child might be, and that we will love him for who exactly he is. But it turns out, we don’t love all the parts equally, though sometimes it’s the parts least like, but sometimes the parts most like us that give trouble. In other relationships, relationships of choice, at any rate, we seek out shared interests and enthusiasms. A child might share none. Might inherit none of our loves and only our anxieties, a tendency toward depression, introversion, difficulty making eye contact or light conversation. When these are on display, and there is little of a common ground of interests, the gulf can open wide. The father in Kincaid’s novel, a musician, has a sports fanatic son:

Mr. Sweet did loathe all that the boy enjoyed and would never, ever take him to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachsuetts, but he would have taken him to the home of Dmitri Shostakovich if it was in Springfield, Massachusetts and he wanted that boy, the young Heracles, dead and he wanted another boy, who could sit still in the movie theater watching a cartoon, and not need Adderall or any kind of stimulant that made you still , to take his place.

Hyperbole, this not-quite-homicidal antipathy, of course, but still.



There are students I will never reach. Bored students, irritable students, irreparably damaged students (at least, as far as my poor repair skills go). There are some who don’t really need me. They follow their own fixed star and march along at a steady pace, committed either to education for its own sake, or to what it can gain them in life station. There is a middle population for whom I may do some good. Even a great deal of good. Day to day, there is exasperation, frustration, despair at the seeming pointlessness some days, a fantasy of becoming a hermit. Many days like that strung together can make a person highly susceptible to a small amount of excitement or interest in a student. A small spark that might be carefully shepherded into flame, if not fanned too vigorously or called too much into attention at the start. I keep cards and notes students have written to me, about the changes I’ve wrought in them and in their lives. The notes are precious to me, but I try to remember my real role. I am wholly responsible for neither my failing students nor my glowing successes. I can be an aid to the willing. I try not to be too susceptible to flattery.

Why teach, or parent, or write long essays on a blog with a small readership? Many good and noble reasons. But also for the same reason Heaney gave for looking into wells as a kid, and for writing poetry as a man:

Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

Gaze into the well, but recall its hazards.

O, vanity.


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