Science Poetry

Window of Opportunity

A wish for a summer extending;
A challenge with deadlines impending…
With projects in limbo,
A look out the window
Makes pliant, time seeming-unbending.  

This last July post builds on another line from literature to address some complexities with respect to academic life (and indeed, with respect to managing any schedule). 

I have had a chance to read Anna Quindlen’s Write for Your Life this summer and found it greatly rewarding.  Each chapter begins with a quote from another renowned writer, and it is one from Alice Munro that inspired this final summer essay:

“I can’t play bridge.  I don’t play tennis.  All those things that people learn, and I admire, there hasn’t seemed time for.  But what there is time for is looking out the window.”  

Alice Munro, quoted in Anna Quindlen’s Write for Your Life  

This reflection on the value of an intentional pause struck a chord this week, as the list of autumn-term tasks began accumulating in earnest.

A wish for a summer extending; /
A challenge with deadlines impending…

The timing of summer has always been a challenge, since beginning my academic career.  The comically aspirational to-do list of May and June would require a “summer extending” to truly accomplish; it quickly crumbles into a set of a few must-complete tasks in late July, as the “deadlines impending” take back over. 

The past two academic years have made this contrast quite pronounced.  The constant adjustments and novel reinventions necessary in the time of the pandemic cause each semester to appear particularly daunting, in terms of teaching preparations.     

With projects in limbo, /
A look out the window…

Munro’s thoughtful quote commemorates the value of deliberate observation, a step welcome in any scholarly endeavor: famously the first step of the scientific method, it is crucially present in many other creative discussions, as well.  I’ve been fortunate to teach a course in the overlap of Chemistry and Art in past years, which involves learning an observational technique facilitated by our outstanding area art museum.  This technique separates “observation” out as a first step of engaging with an image or question, distinct from any subsequent interpretation, and focuses on the importance of “careful noticing” as a valuable skill in daily life.  

Taking even a short break to “look out the window,” to contemplate without expectation or assumption, can be a useful addition to the daily routine, often resolving questions or facilitating projects that would otherwise be on pause (“in limbo”).    

Makes pliant, time seeming-unbending.  

The last line of the poem leans heavily on punctuation to make its point within the structure of the limerick; I intend this line to be read as “this approach can help relieve would-be-strict time limits” rather than “this approach appears to calcify one’s previously-flexible time.”  Ideally, the comma placement achieves that! 

While the approaching school year appears daunting and “seeming-unbending,” with its myriad obstacles and unknowns, my hope is that I can find a few steps with which to add some breathing room and creativity into each day.

I’ve written before about how these posts provide a chance to look at chemistry through a lens with a different “focal length.”  On a similarly deliberation-themed note, I expect to start these posts back up as the semester begins: translating past Twitter poems as one concrete way to look through a different window, at least briefly and metaphorically, during the autumn.