Scale of the Unexpected

The warmth of the sun through this eastern side of the morning train is a welcome source of spring promise today. Passengers climb on wearing every kind of dress, parkas to shorts, all trying to plan for wide temperature swings during these lengthening days. For me, the return from the warmth of South Africa, its landscape, and all that I saw, has been a wide journey also. The unexpected opportunity of the trip has caused me to think often about the journey and the place of the “unexpected” in our lives.

And the varying scale. We live at a particular scale as we head into each day and do the work that lies before us. It’s a human, walking forward, maybe falling back a step or two kind of scale. But there are many, many scales, and many forms of the unexpected. Are we resilient enough for them all? The large scale of an across-the-ocean trip was humbling, but when I saw a bald eagle fly over the river yesterday, I also felt some smallness, some humility, and was also taken by surprise.

Later that afternoon I watched proceedings on a much smaller scale: my son pipetting tiny, microliter amounts of chemicals into tiny, tiny capped beakers in order to run PCRs to look for DNA of bacteria. And just now, when I glanced up at the electronic billboard to check on the status of the incoming train, I realized today’s date of 4 10 14 when read right to left gives the same date, a numerical palindrome, I suspect (and probably not a surprise to those who follow such things). Small things, small signs, small thoughts.

All this is to say I guess surprises large and small come upon us all as we try to keep moving forward, day in and day out. It’s good for us to keep our eyes open for the small moments, and realize the micro-and macro-events going on around us all the time.

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“Under African Skies”

The warm night is ending for us here in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, where I have travelled with a group of MIT students and staff for a week. We are learning more about the water and flooding risks and events, and much, much more about the people and history, the past and the present times of this land. We will return after a week of learning while being immersed in a place with such a long history and a twenty year old new beginning.

Our first day showed us local geology, elephants in the Addo, and large sand dunes at the mouth of the Sunday River. Each night is humid, each day, warm. We are welcomed and challenged. We will go home changed.

Readers who want to follow our story will find it here: There will be thoughtful  contributions as the students grapple with finding technical “solutions” while , perhaps more importantly, grappling with the integration of these with the on-the-ground realties.

Tomorrow we begin again, and I will again see the Indian Ocean, a particular thrill.


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It’s Near the End of Winter When…

One has not written anything of substance for weeks. Instead, you’ve just been coping. And…

  • The scrapers have all disappeared from the one car to feed the others. The only available tools are a child’s plastic trowel and a piece of wood cut at a fairly effective slant for scraping. It works…
  • Mittens or gloves that match? Not much chance, and you aren’t sure it matters anyway.
  • Birdsong is heard, occasionally.
  • Another office cold is making the rounds and you can’t fight it off as quickly as last time.
  • Clocks have sprung ahead allowing some light at the start, and end, of each day’s commuting tunnel.
  • If you don’t hear the weather forecast, you assume no “plowable snow.”
  • Colleges begin spring breaks that you help fund.
  • Mud looks welcome.
  • That specter, grief, finds you a little more vulnerable.

I’m sure you could add a few points to this list. The heaviness I see in the shoulders of my train-mates today is offset, I think, by some glimmers of hope under (still) plenty of outerwear. We know tomorrow could hold a bit more snow, but today the temperature should reach the fifties, and that, too, is another, though flirty, promise of spring. This year’s  thaw is going to be so sweet!

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“Boy, I Hope I Have Three Bucks.”

This was my inauspicious outburst as I got behind the wheel to drive into town this past Friday. It hardly seems worth remembering now that another too-short weekend has passed us all by. But at the time, it was so heartfelt, so full of exasperation and hope. When I wrangled my wallet open, I was delighted to find exactly three dollars, enough to get me over the bridge, and nothing more.

Darkness is all around us on this train ride home, and I sense a weariness in the car. It’s not only the long winter, still upon us, or the mountains of e-mail and paperwork that probably sit in everyone’s in-box. It is that we are working hard and doing each day’s tasks with thankfulness, yes, but also with our attentions divided amongst other weighty matters.

Can I name them? I don’t know. Large things include the news full of its too-usual tensions. Several individuals along my paths are coping with various stages of grief, trouble or loss. There are myriads of small things, too:  the trackpad on the new laptop is unusable, and having to make five clicks can set off an embarrassing full-on rant. Add to that the dog who finds yet another large bag of chocolates, eats a third of it and the result is you, out in the cold at 3am in a coat thrown over a nightdress. The good news of finding “Sherlock” is offset by knowing the episodes yet to view are few. We’re not eating vegetables, and…it’s cold. Again.

But let’s not end there. This story began with three dollars found on Friday, right where and when needed. We are in the mixed bag called the end of February, and we should keep our eyes open for the entrance of lion or lamb at the week’s end.


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“There’s No Understanding This…”

…I whispered softly to myself earlier today as I sat in one of the outposts of our favorite coffeemaker, this one in downtown Boston.  This area is foreign territory to me, all these crooked streets and tall buildings around which one cannot see, and therefore smoothly navigate –at least, I can’t, having been raised in the flatlands where you can orient to the horizon or correct your course by three right turns. Today I needed to visit the 5th floor of an old building that had, thankfully, banners bearing the word “GEM” hanging from its exterior on multiple sides. That was some kind of help, at least.

I’d darted into the brew stop with 15 minutes to wait until the shop opened. Breakfast in hand, I looked out on the morning commuters and coffee hounds.  I flipped open the local paper at hand,  and scanned, my eyes locking onto a story inside the Metro section. It described the assistance a Wellfleet police dispatcher had provided in an emergency home birth situation. Who knew that down in West Yarmouth the other day, this fast thinking lass just did what came naturally, and used her mouth as suction to get that newly delivered baby to breathe?

Paramedics arrived a few minutes later, let her cut the cord; mother and baby were rushed to hospital where both were pronounced healthy. The dispatcher was named godmother to the child, and as I gazed out the glass, tears welled up and nearly fell all the way down my face. What is happening to me, I wondered. What can all this be about?

Yes, we are tired, we’ve been cold, but it’s not as difficult as so many other situations. What could be afoot at the corner of Province and School Streets on a normal everyday kind of day, to make me weep over a simple good news story?

I wonder if it is joy at the gift of this news, and the fact that somehow we all might be connected. No one of us really understands the depths of life’s richness, the tragedy of living sorrows, or the gift of our next breath, but we do share them.

I collected myself and strode off to find the building with the jewelry stores inside.  This meander takes you past pawnshops, ancient coin collector corner stores, even one stoop called The Watch Hospital. Upon entering the gilded entrance to my building, I heard the uniformed guard remark into his cell, “it’s been a long time since they hauled anyone out in ‘cuffs.” Stale cigar smoke that could easily date from the ‘forties follows you down the hall and into the lift. When you alight a few floors up, you pass a window through whose steel grate you see a framed photo of Jacqueline and John cutting their wedding cake.  (Boston: no need for surnames)  Finally, errand finished and back over at the T, I tried to help two people, one blind, find the B train for the Green Line. Sadly I sent them to the wrong spot and then worried my words to the guard set some kind of alert protocol in motion. Such was today’s food for mind and soul, all before reaching my office door,  as this difficult month finally comes to a close.

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Blue Sky, Bread and Milk

Some readers will remember my view that one of the best flights in the US is the 6am-ish run from Boston to Chicago. Most people who show up for this have been in motion since 3:30 or 4am: getting to the airport, saying NO to seemingly endless offers at the self-check kiosk, shuffling through security, and then waiting, hopefully with some kind of coffee related brew in hand, to board.

Once aboard, no one speaks; most of us sleep. Imagine a silent, silver, cylindrical tube shooting through the air at 37,000 feet. On yesterday’s flight, even going westward in the lee of all this bad weather, we gained time and landed early. It’s a flying, narrow bedroom.

This is the first trip home after Mom’s funeral, and as I expected, it’s been hard to be in the silence. What I didn’t expect was how much snow was on the property. Happily, though, the temperatures have warmed to the balmy 30’s and shoveling out gave us purpose and a sense of achievement. One of the neighbors came to help; we shared a nice chat over the spadefuls we hoisted. Next door’s grandfather ran his pickup into and out of the driveway a few times to knock down some snow. A squad car parked out in front for quite a while, lending a sense of security (unless I had been reported as trespassing….but then again, I was doing the public sidewalk too: surely a public service?!)

And today, while hiking out for those basic supplies we heard about growing up: “Will you pick up some bread and milk on your way home?” I had another surprise. After I got these basics at the gas/winter hat/everything else for sale/corner shop, I decided to walk to the site of the former really big supermarket, now a health food store. It might have bananas, I thought, but no,  it didn’t, since these come from Indianapolis (!) BUT what they did have was the soda I thought I would never see again—Blue Sky, and new varieties to boot!

I found Blue Sky in a vending machine in the Desert Museum outside Tucson in October. Resigning myself to never finding one again, here, in MY OLD NEIGHBORHOOD, I found this wonderful drink. Now I can look at the snow and still see desert and mountains. I can be lost in time and memory,  but then brought forward by a few sips of great flavor. It is very hard to come home and be alone, but in this I realize something much more important than my good tasting sodas. It is that this house is so full of memories and support it can never be empty. Even if all the furnishings were to be dismantled stick by stick and carried out, the house would still be for my family a safe haven, a tower of strength. I have more to think about on this, but I am beginning to understand I have as an inheritance not just bricks and mortar and proceeds of policies and accounts. I have a very strong foundation, one built and fashioned from great love.

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Clean Grief

Our local part of the Northeast was hit fairly hard by the two snowstorms of the last 3 days. The good thing about 7 degrees is that it makes 17 degrees feel balmy; 17 happily being the temperature mid-day yesterday at dog walking time. The sun had emerged, and two days of many feet tromping had made the trails in the open field and the tree lined woods passable.

The walk began with 5 dogs giving a pack greeting to mine: Their 3 yellow labs and 2 feisty Boston terriers to my single black. But after this melee, the walk was encased in silence. It was wonderful to wend our way along the river and understory, and at one point I glanced behind me, easily imaging, if not actually sensing, both my parents standing there cheering me on in this beautiful place. “Clean grief,” I said outloud to myself as the tears that have often eluded me these last few weeks came unbidden. I looked to see if anyone would appear to wonder what on earth (or, perhaps,  “What in heaven’s name?” !) had come over me, but no; the dog and I were alone; all the beauty and stillness was ours.

Beauty was the way my “yak tracks” gripped the snow; how the unabashed, unafraid chickadee sat in the conifer with his seed; the glint of snow in the treetops above; the next vast, smooth ice encrusted field with nary a track of any animal or person upon it. AT that moment, it seemed to me grief was exactly as clean, as beautiful as this. Hard, but good; sad, but peaceful ; heavy with the weight of love but directed to go forward with the push of real gratitude.

In fleeting moments such as these I wonder at all that has happened around my mother’s passing. The whole bundle of it seems hard to get my arms around, and it can feel far away from me one second and then right beside me the next moment. But I don’t think I should worry if I glance up and see her, or she and my father standing there cheering me on or assuring me she is well, they are well, or that all things are well. These moments require a different kind of seeing, and the eyes of the soul to perceive.

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