Boston


Ship from shore

The weekend before last, J and I went to the Charlestown Navy Yard to see the Charles W. Morgan, the world’s last remaining wooden whaling ship. The Charles W. Morgan was built in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1841 and represents the height of the New England whaling industry, when New Bedford was known as the “city that lights the world” because of the amount of whale-oil it produced for oil-burning lamps. The Charles W. Morgan remained active for 80 years and weathered 37 voyages. Her recent visit to Boston was part of a three-month tour of historic New England ports—her 38th voyage—ending at Mystic, Connecticut, where she serves as a museum ship at the Mystic Seaport.

Windlass

When I learned a nineteenth century whaling ship would be briefly docked in Boston Harbor, I knew J and I would have to visit. J is fascinated by big boats—every July, we tour whatever naval ship visits Boston for the holiday—and I’ve been interested in New England whaling ever since reading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick when I was an undergrad. While many readers are frustrated by Melville’s frequent and factual digressions about whales and whaling, I loved learning about this aspect of American history. If you expect Moby-Dick to be a novel about a man called Ishmael, you’ll roll your eyes whenever Melville regales you with yet another chapter filled with facts and figures. But if you read Moby-Dick as a natural history of whales and the 19th century whaling industry, you’ll realize Ishmael’s story is just a tiny portion of a much larger tale.

Crossing the gangplank

You can read about whaling in books, but seeing actual artifacts brings home what it must have been like to be a young man on a ship that tracked, killed, and butchered whales for a living. During one of the class sessions when we discussed Moby-Dick, my undergraduate lit professor brought a harpoon to class so we could feel how heavy and cumbersome they are, especially when attached to the long, coiled ropes that connected injured whales to the whalers trying to kill them. Could we imagine standing in a small bobbing rowboat, trying to hurl a heavy harpoon into the eye of a creature large enough to crush your ship?

Harpoons

In a subsequent semester, my professor took things one step further, inviting his students for a backyard cookout where he floated a whale-eye-sized watermelon in a plastic wading pool he borrowed from the child next door. Students in that class learned how difficult it is to hit a watermelon with a harpoon, even if you’re standing on dry land…but even on dry land, it’s incredibly easy to destroy a plastic wading pool with your missed shots. The child next door got a new wading pool that year, and students got a whale of a tale to tell their grandkids someday. Surely no melon tastes sweeter than the one you had to harpoon yourself.

Whaleboat

J and I didn’t harpoon any watermelons aboard the Charles W. Morgan, but we did get to see several whale boats racing across the harbor. A whaleship is large enough to house a crew of men while they locate, hunt, and process the whales they’ve killed, but a whaleship is too big to actually chase a whale. For that, each whaleship carries a handful of small rowboats that are the actual vehicles of the hunt. Each of these whale boats is led by an officer who directs a crew of men to row as close as possible to the whale so that the harpooner can take a shot.

Whaleboats

When I read Moby-Dick, I was captivated by how vulnerable the men were as they rowed right next to enormous animals who could easily smash or capsize their boats. The most terrifying moment of the hunt happened after the whale was harpooned and subsequently fled, dragging the whale boat on a so-called Nantucket sleigh ride. Men in a whale boat simply had to trust their prey would eventually tire, rising to the surface to gasp for air while being pelted with more harpoons. This was the tragic moment of a successful hunt, when the men witnessed at close range the agonized expiration of their massive prey.

Try pots

One of the innovations of the New England whale trade was the idea to convert slain whales to whale oil at sea, in the whales’ own watery habitat, rather than towing entire carcasses back to port. This meant installing try pots on the main deck so squares of blubber could be rendered into barrels of whale oil: liquid gold. In Moby-Dick, Melville describes in great detail the try pots on the fictional Pequot and the messy, smelly, and downright dangerous act of using fire to produce a slippery, highly flammable liquid on a rolling ship. The try pots on the Pequot sounded huge, like something straight out of Hell, but the try pots on the Charles W. Morgan were modestly sized, more in keeping with the economy of space that any ocean-going ship must observe.

Crew's quarters

On a whaling ship, no inch of space can be wasted, and this was amply apparent when we poked our heads into the crew’s quarters, where bunks filled every available space. Whereas the captain and officers had more spacious quarters near the rear of the ship, the crew was housed in the front, right next to the so-called “blubber room” where casks of whale-oil were stored. The crew, in other words, slept in the dirtiest, most foul-smelling part of the ship whereas the captain and officers enjoyed more comfortable quarters.

Captain's quarters

Ironically, the thing that ultimately saved whales from whaling ships such as the Charles W. Morgan was the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania in 1859. In the 19th century, whale oil was the most coveted product of whaling: whale meat and baleen were far less marketable. As kerosene lamps and natural gas pipelines became more widespread, whale-oil became less popular: why go to sea to light your lamps when the earth itself bleeds fuel?

'Spouter' the whale

Now that we know the environmental costs of a petroleum-based economy, we might be surprised that Big Oil saved Big Whales, but sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. Melville himself recognized the value of a true whale of a tale, the downfall of the fictional Pequot being based on the real-life demise of a Nantucket whaleship called the Essex, which was sunk by a sperm whale in 1820.

Spinning a whale of a tale

Both the Essex and the Charles W. Morgan were considered “lucky” ships because of the number of profitable voyages they weathered, but ultimately the Charles W. Morgan was much luckier. The Charles W. Morgan survives as a restored and cherished artifact from an earlier age, whereas the Essex survives only in the pages of the books (and the imaginations of the readers) it inspired.

Click here to see more photos from the Charles W. Morgan’s visit to Boston. Enjoy!

Yarnbombed

It’s been two years since I quit my adjunct teaching job at Keene State College, and it’s been two weeks since I quit my online teaching job for Southern New Hampshire University. This means that after having spent a dozen years in the Granite State, I no longer have any official New Hampshire ties: I now live and work entirely in Massachusetts rather than leading a divided life shuttling between two states.

Yarnbombed

I taught at Keene State for ten years, I taught online for SNHU for eleven years, and I lived in New Hampshire for twelve years. I mention these details because this summer feels like the end of an era: the end of one life and the beginning of another. Henry David Thoreau lived at Walden Pond for two years before deciding it was time to move on: he had, he said, other lives to lead. I seem to be on a slower schedule than Thoreau, needing a decade or more before realizing I’m ready for a change.

Yarnbombed

Over the past twenty years, I’ve proven I can patch together a livelihood as an adjunct instructor; now, I’m wondering what I want to do with the rest of my life outside of working. Teaching online was a great moonlighting gig while I taught full-time at Keene State, and it was a good supplemental income while I got settled into my part-time job at Framingham State, but teaching online can be grueling if you do it long-term. For the past eleven years, I’ve taught online classes year-round, taking my laptop on every vacation and checking my classes at least once a day, every day: weekdays, weekends, and sick days included. One of the benefits of teaching online is you can do it anywhere…but one of the drawbacks of teaching online is you feel like you must do it, everywhere.

Yarnbombed

Now I find myself wondering what I’d like my life to look like now that I’ve said “no” to year-round, around-the-clock teaching. In a previous lifetime when I worked for a church, one of my colleagues warned me about what she called the caring professions. Anytime that your job involves caring for other people, it’s easy to forget your own self-care. When you’re doing “the Lord’s work” at a church—or when you’re focusing on student success at a college—you feel guilty leaving your work at the office, as if it were “just” a job. But at the end of the day, that’s exactly what being an adjunct instructor is: it’s a job, and a part-time one at that. Looking back on the past decade or two, I realize I’ve regularly put my students before myself, pouring more time and energy into my job than my part-time status deserved.

Yarnbombed

The other day I brainstormed a list of things I want now that my days teaching for SNHU are over. “I want my life back” was the first thing I typed: a hyperbolic statement that popped out the instant I set fingers to keys. There are a lot of things I’ve let fall by the wayside in the past decade: I want to practice more, exercise more, and write more. I want to finish that book I’ve started then set aside umpteen times. I want to see myself as a writer and human being first and a teacher second: I want to remember that even the caring professions are, ultimately, just jobs. Now that I’ve fully crossed from one state to another, I want to settle into life in the here and now, spending less energy Earning-a-Living and more time Simply Living.

Art glass

Earlier this month, J and I went to two open-air art festivals: the Beacon Hill Art Walk at the beginning of the month, and the Coolidge Corner Arts Festival the following weekend. I’d been to the Beacon Hill Art Walk before–on previous visits, I primarily enjoyed the opportunity to explore hidden courtyards and alleys not typically open to the public—but J and I had never even heard of the Coolidge Corner Arts Festival even though it’s been around for more than 30 years.

Glass figure

“En plein air” is a French term that refers to the practice of painting outside in the open air, as a landscape artist with an easel might. Although the Beacon Hill Art Walk and Coolidge Corner Arts Festival featured a handful of landscape painters and photographers, there were also many glassblowers, potters, welders, and other artisans who typically ply their crafts inside. But even though many of the works J and I saw might have been created inside, they seemed to come into full bloom when displayed outside in the open air, where tents provided shade while encouraging the free circulation of both breezes and browsers.

Historical Society parking only

Another term that the French use for painting outdoors is “peinture sur le motif,” which translates as “painting on the ground.” I love this phrase for the simple image it creates of artists who are literally grounded, both their bodies and their easels rooting them to the scenes they capture. “Painting on the ground” pins you to a particular spot: instead of painting metaphorical castles in the sky, you paint whatever you see right here, right now, in this present place and time.

Booth after booth

Although J and I didn’t see anyone “painting on the ground” at either the Beacon Hill Art Walk or the Coolidge Corner Arts Festival this year, I’d like to think the artists we saw are metaphorically grounded: local artists and artisans proudly sharing their work with an appreciative community out in the open air.

Click here for more photos from this year’s Beacon Hill Art Walk and the Coolidge Corner Arts Festival. Enjoy!

Rowboats

Yesterday J and I had an errand to run in Jamaica Plain, so we took a leisurely stroll around Jamaica Pond, one of the jewels in Boston’s Emerald Necklace. The Emerald Necklace is a string of parks designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, and although J and I have spent a lot of time exploring the Necklace’s easternmost jewels, I’d only been to Jamaica Pond once and J had never been there at all. We were, in other words, long overdue for a visit.

Pond with clouds

On Friday night, J and I had watched a PBS documentary about Olmsted’s work designing parks all over America. The documentary was an hour long, but we thought it should have been twice as long, given Olmsted’s incredible body of work. New York’s Central Park was the first landscape Olmsted designed, working in partnership with Calvert Vaux, and that project alone would have been enough to make most designers’ career. But the green gem Olmsted and Vaux set at the heart of Manhattan proved to be so popular, a long list of other cities hired Olmsted to design similar landscapes, including Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, a system of parks in Buffalo, the Niagara Reservation in New York, the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, the Chicago World’s Fair, and the grounds of the U.S. Capitol.

Yellow iris

Olmsted began work on Boston’s Emerald Necklace relatively late in his career, after he’d established a home and landscape architectural firm in Brookline, Massachusetts. The goal of the Emerald Necklace was to connect Boston’s existing Common and Public Garden with the sprawling woods of Franklin Park, and it involved transforming the Muddy River, a sluggish stream wending from Jamaica Pond through the saltmarsh of the Back Bay Fens, into a scenic waterway bordered by wooded trails.

Mallard silhouettes

Whereas Olmsted completely transformed the Back Bay Fens from a stagnant backwater to a scenic lagoon, he did relatively little to re-engineer Jamaica Pond. A glacial kettle hole that once supplied both drinking water and ice to local residents, Jamaica Pond didn’t need the sanitary improvements that the Back Bay Fens required. Instead, Olmsted’s engineering at Jamaica Pond primarily involved the planting of trees and the placing of paths. Today, a paved pedestrian pathway surrounds the pond, which attracts a steady stream of locals looking to walk, fish, row, or simply relax in the sun.

Rowboat and geese

When you stroll through Central Park, you’re interacting with an entirely manmade landscape: before Olmsted and Vaux got their hands on it, Central Park was a featureless wasteland filled with shanties and pigsties. Central Park’s underlying terrain—its hills, stone outcrops, and waterways—were all designed and then assembled from the ground up to provide an intentionally picturesque backdrop for soothing strolls. When you look at Central Park, you’re not looking at a natural landscape as much as a landscape painting: a picturesque scene, that is, that was intentionally composed.

Turtle with reflection

Jamaica Pond, on the other hand, is a natural jewel, but even the most precious gem looks better in a well-designed setting. More than a century’s worth of fishermen, dog-walkers, joggers, baby-strollers, and sun bathers have flocked to Jamaica Pond, but the pond and its environs still look natural and even pristine. As J and I walked, I marveled at how simultaneously well-used and tranquil the park seemed. On our entire circuit of the pond, J and I were never out of immediate earshot of other park-goers, and for most of the way we could hear and even see passing traffic on nearby roads. But despite these omnipresent reminders we were in a popular and even bustling park, the pond and paths felt quiet and serene, as if we were further away from civilization than we actually were.

Pedestrian path

A well-designed park doesn’t shy from aesthetic deception, and visitors to an urban park are happy to be deceived. About halfway around the pond, J noted that all the people we encountered automatically observed the cornerstone of urban protocol, quietly smiling or gently nodding at passersby but otherwise giving them no notice, allowing strangers the privacy of their own personal escapes. Whether you’re on a bike, on foot, in a boat, or on a bench, you won’t be alone at Jamaica Pond, but you’ll feel like you’ve gotten away. The park’s that way by design.

The dragon's eyes

Here’s a confession: most of the time when I go to the Museum of Fine Arts, I wander without reading the placards that identify and explain each work. Instead, I eschew the edification of curatorial commentary and let my uneducated eyes lead me. What I’m looking for on these museum-rambles isn’t an art history lesson but something far more primal: I’m looking to feed my dreams.

Dragon and Clouds

I’m not a particularly imaginative person. Most of my waking hours are spent dealing with the-way-things-are, not envisioning the way-things-might-be. By night, I seldom dream anything memorable…and when I do remember my dreams, they tend to be filled with boring, mundane details, like yesterday’s laundry or tomorrow’s groceries. I’m the last person on the planet, in other words, who would dream of dragons: most of the time, I’m mired too deep in the daily drudgery.

Dragon and Clouds

A museum, however, is a stockpile of the strange. If your own imagination is starved, you can go to a museum and glut yourself on the fantasies of others. I’ve never dreamed of dragons, but Soga Shōhaku clearly has, his version of the legendary creature sprawling over eight painted panels that span some 35 feet. Shōhaku died in 1781, but the dragon of his dreams lives on, mesmerizing people like me who could never imagine such a creature on our own.

If you want to see Soga Shōhaku’s “Dragon and Clouds” yourself, it will remain on display at the Museum of Fine Arts until July 6th.

Quilts and Color

This weekend, I met Leslee and A (not her real initial) at the Museum of Fine Arts, where we saw “Quilts and Color,” an eye-popping exhibition of handmade quilts I’d been looking forward to all semester. What better way to celebrate the end of a long academic year than by admiring beautiful pieces of prolonged and meticulous handiwork?

Quilts and Color

Although I’m certainly not an expert when it comes to quilts and quilting, I’m definitely a fan. In 2009, A and I had seen an exhibit of quilts by the late Radka Donnell at the New England Quilt Museum, which I wrote about here, and before that, Leslee, A, and I had seen a juried exhibit of contemporary quilts at the American Textile History Museum, which I (unfortunately) never blogged.

Quilts and Color

When you look at a finished quilt, you see a Big Picture that was painstakingly assembled from bits and pieces. The contemporary art quilts Leslee, A, and I had previously seen featured irregular shapes, odd abstractions, and jarring color juxtapositions: all the aspects of modern painting, but on quilts. The pieces on display at the MFA, on the other hand, are more traditional in terms of composition, following block designs popularized by Amish, Mennonite, and other folk artisans, but they stun the senses with vibrant color combinations that at times seemed to vibrate with an almost hallucinogenic intensity.

Quilts and Color

Sewing a quilt is like running a marathon: it’s an accomplishment I admire with awe from afar. I know how to put one foot in front of the other, but I can’t imagine having the stamina to train for and then run a 26.2 mile race. Similarly, I know how to stitch two pieces of cloth together, but I can’t imaging having the patience to design, piece together, and then stitch the kind of intricate designs on exhibit at the MFA.

Quilts and Color

When I was younger, I enjoyed doing cross-stitch and other small sewing projects: there’s something soothing about the repetitive ritual of placing stitch after stitch. Because of this, I admire quilts as much for their meditative discipline as I do for their technical complexity. Making a quilt is a lot like writing a dissertation: you start with a blank canvas, then you fill things in gradually, one word or one stitch at a time. The end result seems impossible, but each step is doable.

Quilts and Color

Recently the Internet has been abuzz over a graduation speech given by Naval Admiral and former Navy SEAL William McRaven, who encouraged graduates from the University of Texas at Austin to make a habit of making their beds:

If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another.

Quilts and Color

I might not have the patience or the diligence to complete a quilt, but I do manage to make my bed every morning. Instead of a quilt, J and I have a rust-colored bedspread that complements the light brown furniture in our bedroom and brings a pop of color to the room. And just as Admiral McRaven suggests, it gives me a small sense of accomplishment to start the day with a smoothly made bed.

Quilts and Color

Someday, it would be nice to have enough time to sew a quilt, or at least to try. In the meantime, I’ll content myself with the knowledge that I share the world with a Naval admiral who believes success starts with a neatly made bed and countless quilters who have made the world more beautiful, one stitch (and one bed) at a time.

Click here for more photos from “Quilts and Color,” which will remain on view at the Museum of Fine Arts through July 27th. Enjoy!

Labyrinth

On Tuesday, after I ran an errand in downtown Boston, I walked around a bit, wandering from State Street past Faneuil Hall, through the Holocaust Memorial, and over to the Rose Kennedy Greenway, where I ended up at the Armenian Heritage Park. There’s a labyrinth there I’ve walked before, and part of the allure of a labyrinth is the fact you can walk it again and again, revisiting twists and turns that steadfastly stay the same even while the rest of your life is turning.

Abstract sculpture with Custom House in distance

Sometimes you don’t realize how tired you are until you stop spinning. This past academic year has been filled with changes. In the fall, I took a last-minute assignment at Boston College, juggling those classes with the ones I teach at Framingham State and online. BC didn’t need me in the spring, so I took a mid-semester appointment at Curry College, going through (again) the upheaval of starting over at a new place, all while continuing to teach at Framingham State and online. Right before I started at Curry, we put MAD to sleep, and less than a month later, we adopted a new dog. It’s been a year of many changes, but I’ve been too busy to process them.

Wending and winding

When you’re an adjunct instructor teaching at multiple institutions, the first thing you think upon awakening is “Where am I teaching today, and what do I need to do before I leave?” If you’re teaching at College X, you point the car one way; if you’re teaching at College Y, you head in the opposite direction. There have been many times this year that I’ve envied people with just one job: folks who can finish an honest day’s work and not have another job awaiting them. There have been many times this year, in other words, when I’ve envied people whose work points in one direction: one job to go to, one schedule to settle into, one email account to check, one job description to satisfy.

Abstract sculpture

My Mom once described her experience as a wife and mother of four by saying “There’s always someone who hates you.” We all know you can’t please everyone all the time, and the experience of being pulled in too many directions only exacerbates the problem. When you teach for multiple colleges, you’re always behind somewhere: there’s always an unread email, unanswered question, or ungraded paper demanding your attention. On those rare occasions that you catch up with work, the blog beckons. Once you find time to post to the blog, there is laundry to do, or groceries to buy, or dishes to dry, or errands to run: here, there, and everywhere, there is always something to do, do, do.

Going in circles

Walking a labyrinth is relaxing because despite the twists and turns, you have only one place to go, and that is the next step. Despite its crooks and curves, a labyrinth points in only one direction: forward. You don’t have to decide whether to go this way or that; you just put one foot in front of the other. It’s a practice simple enough to make you weep with gratitude: for the minutes it takes you to walk to the center and back, there’s no need to decide where to go, just the reassuring rhythm of one foot following the other.

Greenway labyrinth

This summer, I’m not teaching face-to-face classes anywhere; I’m just teaching online. And in the fall, I’ll return to teaching at Framingham State and Curry College, but I’ve decided to quit my online teaching job. It’s a moonlighting gig I’ve had for eleven years, and when I quit my job at Keene State, it was briefly my sole source of income. But one thing I’ve learned from walking labyrinths is that when you reach a dead-end, you have to change your direction. Teaching at two colleges isn’t the single focus I’ve been craving, but it’s more focused than teaching at three: a step in the right direction.

We Are Boston

On Sunday night, J and I took the T into Boston to see legendary tabla player Zakir Hussain and his “Masters of Percussion” perform at Symphony Hall. Before the concert, J and I had dinner at the Prudential Center, where gold and blue banners hung in honor of this month’s Marathon. “We are Boston,” several proclaimed, while others promoted the Twitter hashtag #LoveBoston.

We Are Boston

After dinner, J and I had time to browse on Boylston Street, then we made a pilgrimage to 298 Beacon Street, the site of last month’s fatal fire. It was a mild and bright evening, with the sun angling low toward the horizon, and it seemed like half the city was outside sitting on park benches, cycling, pushing baby strollers, or walking dogs. A steady stream of passersby stopped to quietly consider the sad, burnt-out building on Beacon Street where two firemen lost their lives, and a line of passing cars slowed in deference to the blue police barricades and gold “Caution” tape that surround the site.

After the fire

At Symphony Hall, we watched a parade of Indian families arrive and take their seats, women of all ages dressed in elegant silk saris and colorful shawls. There were several surges of latecomers held up in Boston’s notorious traffic, and Hussain worked this into his act, explaining how one song’s intricately layered rhythms were inspired by Indian traffic jams, with lumbering trucks weaving down the center of the street; smaller vehicles like carts and rickshaws zipping around the trucks; pedestrians impulsively darting in front of trucks, carts, and rickshaws; and stray dogs and cats milling everywhere, in blithe disregard of all these human comings and goings.

Waiting for his master's takeout order

The piece Hussain played while describing this scene moved in its own unpredictable and syncopated time, slowing down then speeding up in hypnotic bursts. This is how both our lives and commutes are, Hussain explained. So much rushing to pile into our cars, then so much waiting in traffic. What kind of unpredictable and syncopated commutes had the latecomers weathered on their way to Symphony Hall, followed by the wait to claim their tickets, followed by a frantic scurry into the hall and toward their seats, only to finally arrive, breathless and ready to listen?

Love Boston

After the concert as J and I wended our way out of Symphony Hall and toward the T, I was filled with a surge of gratitude for this, my adopted city. I’ve never been swept up in an Indian traffic jam, nor have I experienced the shouting conductors and lumbering buses of Lagos, which Teju Cole had described so vividly at Friday night’s reading. But because I live in a city where the likes of Zakir Hussain and Teju Cole pause in the course of their own syncopated journeys, I can glimpse the world right here from Boston, one of the many places where many roads intersect. “We are Boston,” those gold and blue banners proclaimed, and on Sunday night, it felt like loving Boston was one and the same as loving the whole wide world.

Thank you for sharing

On Friday, J and I had tickets for an afternoon Boston Symphony Orchestra concert, so on our way to Symphony Hall, we stopped by the Engine 33 firehouse on Boylston Street to pay our respects at the makeshift memorial outside the firehouse that lost two of its members in last week’s fire.

Two crosses

The pile of flowers outside Engine 33 is eerily reminiscent of the outpouring of offerings left down the street at Copley Square in the aftermath of last April’s Marathon bombing: another pile marking another Boston tragedy. I’m beginning to understand why piles of flowers, ballcaps, handwritten notes, and other offerings spontaneously appear in the aftermath of tragedy. When you first hear that someone has died or been injured, your first human impulse is to wonder what you might do to help. When there’s not anything tangible you can do, you offer instead whatever is close at hand, whether that be flowers, a hug, or a handwritten sign.

Thank you

In Buddhist iconography, the bodhisattva of compassion–Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit, Kannon in Japanese, Kwan Yin in Chinese, or Kwan Seum Bosal in Korean–is sometimes shown having one thousand hands containing one thousand eyes. As soon as one of Kwan Seum Bosal’s eyes sees someone suffering, Kwan Seum Bosal has a hand right there to help.

Boston Strong

So, where are Kwan Seum Bosal’s one thousand hands and eyes? Well, I have two of each, and presumably so do you. Whenever or wherever there is a tragedy—a fallen firefighter, a lost plane, or a town buried in a mudslide—Kwan Seum Bosal’s thousand hands and eyes appear in a spontaneous outpouring of help and support, stranger reaching out to stranger.

Memorial wreath

In the immediate aftermath of Wednesday’s fatal fire, a fund was set up to help the families of Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh and Firefighter Michael R. Kennedy: an immediate and heartfelt response, as anyone with eyes in their head can see that families who have lost a breadwinner need financial assistance. But in the emotional aftermath of tragedy, some hands might want to do more than just write a check. A memorial gives people a place to visit, pay their respects, and deliver bouquets, handwritten notes, and other mementos: things a bit more (literally) touching than a donation submitted by mail or online.

Memorial plaque

In the weeks after we put MAD to sleep, I remembered that one natural part of grieving is the sorting of your world into two kinds of places: the places where you do and don’t feel safe to cry. In the weeks after we put MAD to sleep, I felt comfortable crying in my car, in the shower, or in front of a sink full of dishes; I did not feel comfortable crying in my classrooms, office, or any other public or professional space.

Eyeglass cases

A memorial is a safe place to cry, even if you didn’t personally know the deceased. A memorial is a place where strangers come together to share a moment of solemn sadness: the common experience that is the root of all compassion. A memorial like the one outside the Engine 33 firehouse isn’t built by any one person. Instead, it’s a communal offering, placed by a thousand hands and wept over by a thousand eyes.

Commonwealth Mall

When I heard yesterday afternoon that there was a nine-alarm fire in a brownstone on Beacon Street in Boston’s Back Bay, there were two things that immediately came to mind: a long-ago Halloween party, and the Hotel Vendome fire.

Vendome Fire Memorial

Years ago, my ex and I went to a Halloween party in a hip Back Bay penthouse overlooking the Charles River: a building on the same street as yesterday’s fire. The host was an engineer who worked at MIT’s Media Lab, so the party was attended by brilliant young people who designed computers and built robots. My ex went to the party as a dressed-to-kill vampire in a black suit, white face paint, and bloody vampire teeth, and I went as a sexy witch in a black dress and fishnet stockings, a witch’s hat, and two bite marks on my neck. The guest who took the cake at that long-ago party overlooking the Charles, however, was dressed as a (literal) flasher, clad in swim trunks, sneakers, and a trench coat wired to set off flashbulbs whenever he opened it.

Vendome Fire Memorial

The second and more serious thing that came to mind when I heard about yesterday’s Back Bay fire, however, was the Hotel Vendome fire. In June, 1972, nine firefighters died when the Hotel Vendome, which was undergoing renovations, collapsed after a four-alarm fire. The Hotel Vendome tragedy was the deadliest day ever for Boston firefighters, leaving eight women widowed and 25 children fatherless. The Hotel Vendome fire happened more than 40 years ago–long before I moved to New England–so I have no personal recollection of the tragedy, but there is a memorial to the fallen firefighters on the Commonwealth Mall, mere blocks from yesterday’s fire. Because of that memorial, when I heard about yesterday’s fire, I immediately thought of the Vendome tragedy and quietly prayed, “No more fallen firefighters, please.”

Vendome Fire Memorial

Despite everyone’s prayers and a valiant rescue effort, yesterday two firefighters died: Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh and Firefighter Michael R. Kennedy. Firefighter Kennedy was 33 years old and unmarried; Lieutenant Walsh was 43 years old and leaves a widow and three small children. The Hotel Vendome fire happened the day before Father’s Day, ruining that holiday for the children it left bereft, and I wonder how all those Easter stories about chocolate bunnies and rebirth will feel a month from now, as three children grapple with the fact that daddy, unlike Jesus, isn’t coming back from the dead this year.

Vendome Fire Memorial

Time is both treacherous and tenacious. It’s been years—a lifetime, it seems—since I wore fishnet stockings and sexy dresses, and these days the MIT Media Lab is designing prosthetic legs for Marathon bombing survivors. I never knew the nine men killed in the Hotel Vendome fire, just as I don’t know the two men killed yesterday, but I know their memories will linger long. Time slips away as fast as a building goes up in smoke—one veteran firefighter said he’d never in twenty years seen anything like yesterday’s fire, which was whipped to a frenzy by high winds. And yet for the families who lost fathers, sons, husbands, and brothers in the Hotel Vendome fire, does that fateful day before Father’s Day, 1972 feel like yesterday, not an entire generation ago?

Vendome Fire Memorial

The purpose of a memorial, of course, is to commemorate, but a good memorial can also educate, capturing the stories of people we never knew long enough to mourn. Forty years from now, will a memorial mark the site where two heroes perished on a day like any other? Forty years from now, will a writer who never knew Lieutenant Walsh and Firefighter Kennedy nevertheless remember them, touched by the tragedy of their sacrifice, finding theirs to be a story that must never be forgotten?

I took the photos illustrating today’s post on Thanksgiving Day, 2012: a brilliant fall day whose golden light seemed to exist outside time. If you want to donate to the fund set up for the families of Lieutenant Walsh and Firefighter Kennedy, you can do so here.

Next Page »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,322 other followers