Cambridge


Head of the Charles regatta

Several weekends ago, J and I took the T to Harvard Square, where we had lunch then walked to the Charles River to watch the Head of the Charles Regatta, which every year attracts rowing crews from around the world. This is the third year J and I have watched the Regatta: today’s photos, in fact, come from last year’s race. J and I don’t know anything about rowing, but we’ve learned from experience there’s nothing more relaxing than walking along a river in mid-October when the weather’s brisk and the foliage is turning.

Head of the Charles regatta

Annual events like the Head of the Charles are one way we keep time here in New England. If it’s April and the daffodils are blooming, it’s time to watch the Boston Marathon, and if it’s October and there’s a nip of chill in the air, it’s time to watch the Head of the Charles. In either case, it doesn’t really matter if you know much about the competition you’re watching: all you need to do is show up, mingle alongside other spectators, and enjoy the show. With both a marathon and a regatta, you can’t possibly cheer for every participant at every stage of the race, so instead, you cheer for whoever happens to be running or rowing past right now. It’s the epitome of an in-the-moment activity where you show up and enjoy whatever floats past.

Head of the Charles regatta

On our T ride home from Harvard Square, J and I struck up a conversation with a fellow from North Carolina who was visiting Boston with his girlfriend. They’d come for the weekend to see Clemson play (and, unfortunately, beat) Boston College in football, and in the course of their tourist wanderings, they encountered a fellow in a Navy sweatshirt who was on his way to watch his son compete in the Regatta. “Right then, we knew we’d have to check it out,” the fellow from North Carolina said. “Folks come from all over the world to see this race, and we just happened to be in town the same weekend!”

Head of the Charles regatta

The river of life has many twists and turns, and typically it’s helpful to know what’s ahead of you as you navigate those movements. But sometimes, the river of life throws up a surprise, and you just have to roll (and row) with it. J and I are lucky to live in a place where world-renowned athletic events happen to happen within an easy T commute away. Other folks come from afar to row the river that wends through our lives every single day.

This is my Day Three contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Halcyon Lake

I didn’t take any pictures at Mount Auburn Cemetery yesterday, when Seon Joon and I walked there. But I’d taken pictures when A (not her real initial) and I walked at Mount Auburn this time last year, and I’d taken pictures when Leslee and I walked at Mount Auburn the year before that. I’m in the habit, it seems, of meeting friends for cemetery strolls in July, when it’s hot and the shade beckons.

Woman and child

I’m not alone in this regard. Yesterday at Mount Auburn, Seon Joon and I saw a steady stream of visitors exploring the cemetery on foot and in slow-coasting cars, and as we enjoyed conversation and a brisk breeze atop Washington Tower, we were joined by a quiet queue of other visitors enjoying panoramic views of Cambridge, Watertown, and a hazy Boston skyline.

I’ve written before about my history at Mount Auburn, a place I started visiting when I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center in the mid-1990s. That means I’ve been going to Mount Auburn to walk, birdwatch, sketch, and simply unwind for nearly twenty years. Seon Joon had never been to Mount Auburn, so now that she’s moved to Cambridge, I felt an odd obligation to introduce her to one of my favorite places. I know from experience that if you’re going to weather the urban intensity of Central and Harvard Squares, you need to know where to find quiet pockets of green serenity.

Beloved daughter Maria

Mount Auburn, like any cemetery, is intended as a final resting place for the dearly departed…but for nearly twenty years, it’s served me as an interim resting place, a green oasis where I’ve returned, repeatedly. Seon Joon used the image of a compass point to describe Mount Auburn: here is a known place in a sea of unfamiliar places, somewhere to plant a figurative map-pin as she navigates a new city. I like to think of Mount Auburn as being a kind of secular Mecca: a compass-point that wields a magnetic pull, the faces of its faithful turning and re-turning to this spot that beckons like a green beacon.

Marble altar

The chapel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a paragon of simplicity. MIT is a place where brilliant people think deep thoughts while solving complex problems involving complicated technologies. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that famed architect Eero Saarinen designed a chapel that is almost painfully austere in its simplicity: a windowless brick cylinder surrounded by a shallow moat and shaded by a grove of elegant birch trees. Everywhere else on campus is where Thinking Happens, but the MIT chapel is where Thinking Falls Away.

Altar and skylight

I didn’t take any photographs of the outside of the MIT chapel when I was on campus for a meeting yesterday, but I did take several photos of the inside sanctuary, which features a plain marble altar and a metal sculpture by Harry Bertoia. This sculpture flows like a cascade of glittering metallic dust motes from a circular skylight that serves as the sanctuary’s only source of natural light. I’d arrived on campus early yesterday, giving myself plenty of time to get lost on a campus where a maze of buildings huddles around an Infinite Corridor, the name of which is enough to make you think you’ve left this world for an alternate one. But inside the chapel, there are no infinite corridors, only this present room, this present window, and an Infinity that streams down from above.

The simplicity of Harry Bertoia’s metal sculpture is so alluring, it finds echoes in a piece of even greater simplicity: a student-designed display of thousands of origami cranes folded, strung, and hung in the MIT Stata Center in memory Officer Sean Collier, who was slain while on duty protecting the MIT campus and community.

Skylight

Where do souls come from before we are born, and where do souls go after we die? Is there, somewhere, an Infinite Corridor where souls stream as free and unfettered as sunlight, and where time stretches inevitably into eternity? These are complicated questions, and their solution lies beyond my ken. But here and now, in this sadly mortal world, I know that sometimes the simplest gestures resonate with infinite profundity.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Simplicity.

Resigning himself to the paparazzi

The last time I saw Teju Cole was in February, 2013, when he gave a talk at Boston College, and I used that talk as an excuse to show you a picture of his hands signing my copy of Open City. Last night, Teju was in Cambridge signing copies of his new book, Every Day Is For the Thief, and at that event I found myself taking yet more photos of Teju’s hands, signing.

Hands

I’ve always been fascinated by people’s hands, as they say so much about a person’s life and livelihood. As I type these words, for instance, I have a green inkblot on the ring-finger of my left hand: proof that I wrote in my journal today, my fountain pen coloring the callus where my pen rests. Being Italian, I find it impossible to talk without using my hands, and part of the appeal of going to a book signing is watching a writer use his: does he gesture when he talks? Are his fingers long or short? Is his handwriting emphatic and bold or languid and serene?

Pen in hand

I realize that most writers (myself included) do the majority of their writing on a computer keyboard, their words being typed rather than handwritten. Still, there is something oddly intimate about seeing a writer with pen in hand: an artist in action wielding the tool of his trade. I’ve known Teju Cole for years now, so I’ve seen him sign book after book: when it comes to book signings, you might say I’m an old hand. Regardless, it’s inspiring to see a writer touch a book born from his own hand: a tangible thing he imagined, brought into being, and now sends out to the world.

Click here to see more photos from Teju Cole’s book signing at the Harvard Book Store last night.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

There is something simultaneously fascinating and unsettling about the bottled specimens on display at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, with so many creatures preserved in formaldehyde. Only a cruel victor exhibits the bodies of his slain enemies as a reminder of the sickening spoils of war, and even crueler is the conqueror who preserves those bodies for the ages: spoils that will never spoil.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

The natural history museum in Dublin is popularly called the “Dead Zoo” for its abundance of taxidermy animals, and the Harvard Museum of Natural History has plenty of those on display. But what caught my eye during J and my recent visit to the Harvard Museum of Natural History to see the glass flowers were all those other glass items: a veritable bottled zoo with fish, reptiles, and mollusks preserved in neatly organized glass containers.

There is an odd air of earnestness around these bottles and their display that calls to mind an industrious housewife showing off the preserves she’s canned for the winter. Given a rich harvest, it would be criminal to let your fruit die on the vine; better instead to can until your fingers bleed.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

The bottled specimens at the Harvard Museum of Natural History are remnants from a harvest that was never sustainable but once made a certain semblance of sense. If the earth is crawling with creatures, why not kill and study some of them rather than letting them die a natural but undocumented death, forever lost to science? The glass bottles at the Harvard Museum of Natural History are not just biological specimens; they are historical artifacts from a time when nature seemed fecund enough, you could afford to be extravagant, displaying a mosaic of beetle carapaces…

Harvard Museum of Natural History

…or an entire shelf of sparrows.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

We no longer dare be so wasteful; we are too mindful of what’s been lost and what we stand to lose. But at a time when we no longer discount the life of even one creature, it would be prodigal to reject the bottled bodies of those that have already been killed.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

Go see the bottled zoo at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, wear out your eyes (and your camera batteries) studying them, and then seek out these same creatures in the flesh, in their natural environment and alive. The bodies you see under glass at the Harvard Museum of Natural History died a sacrificial death, slain in the name of science, so they will have died in vain if we don’t learn from them. There’s no more need for specimens and study-skins–no more need to kill, capture, or collect–now that science has succeeded in collecting the whole set.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

Harvard Museum of Natural History

Last weekend, J and I took the T to Harvard Square, where we went to the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Although we each had been to the HMNH before, neither one of us had been there in years, and we’d never been there together. We each were overdue, in other words, for a return visit.

Fragile

The last time I went to the HMNH, I’d traveled from New Hampshire with a busload of college students on a field trip, but I abandoned the group as soon as we disembarked, exploring the museum (and writing a pair of blog posts) on my own. When J and I went to the HMNH last weekend, we retraced the route I’d taken on that previous trip, making a beeline for the glass flowers, an eye-popping collection of botanical specimens crafted from glass during the period between 1887 and 1936 by the father and son team of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka.

Fragile

The Blaschkas were glassmakers in Dresden who were trained in the art of Bohemian glass making and ultimately found a niche creating amazingly lifelike glass models of invertebrates and plants that are showcased in natural history museums around the world. (The National Museum of Ireland’s natural history museum in Dublin, for instance, contains a collection of more than 500 Blaschka invertebrates.)

Fragile

In an era before plastic, the meticulously detailed plant models the Blaschkas crafted were a huge improvement over the wax and papier mache models botanists had previously relied upon to study plant anatomy. Because the glass flowers are intended as botanical teaching tools, they aren’t “just” flowers: one of the things that amazed me on this return trip to the HMNH was artistry with which the Blaschkas crafted entire plants out of glass. There are leaves of glass, stems of glass, and even tiny rootlets of glass. One case, for example, shows enormous glass bees pollinating enormous glass flowers…

Big bee

…while another case shows a cluster of disease-spotted apples and a branch of moldy apricots, a display designed to show the effects of plant diseases on fruit.

A few bad apples

A few bad apples might not be as pretty as the colorful vases and beads usually associated with Bohemian glassmaking, but understanding the effect that mold and blight can have on fruit crops is an important lesson for any budding botanist.

Rotten apricots

The Blaschkas were artists whose dedication to their craft is apparent in every glass model, but they also display the keen eyes of amateur scientists. Because the glass flowers are intended as botanical specimens, they need to be accurate, not just pretty.

Fragile

One of the things I love about the glass flowers is the way they bridge the realms of art and science. Flowers are inherently pretty, but there is something beautiful, too, about an anatomically accurate diagram of a living plant.

Fragile

The glass flowers are teaching tools, but they are also aesthetically amazing. The more you understand botany, the more you can appreciate the beauty of a well-designed flower, and the closer you examine a pretty posy, the more you appreciate the intricacies of design that hold that flower together. Because glass is a fragile but enduring medium, the Blaschkas left an enduring scientific and aesthetic legacy that continues to amaze and inspire.

Fragile

Click here for more photos from last weekend’s trip to the Harvard Museum of Natural History: enjoy!

The Potluck

Yesterday morning, I went to the Cambridge Zen Center to practice and give teaching interviews, stopping on my way to photograph David Fichter’s “The Potluck,” a bright, larger-than-life mural depicting a happy gathering of all ages and races sharing an abundant meal. Yesterday was a gorgeous day—sunny and not too warm—so it would have been perfect for either a picnic or potluck, but instead, I started the morning by going to the Zen Center, where I spent a half hour quietly contemplating the Dharma room floor before secreting myself in the interview room, where I met individually with a handful of fellow meditators, one after another, each bringing some sort of question: a potluck of interactions, each presenting its own possibilities.

Dharma room

After I’d gotten home from the Zen Center, J and I took the T downtown, where we walked to the North End for Saint Anthony’s Feast: a whole other kind of potluck. Instead of the quiet minimalism of the Zen Center Dharma room, in the North End we encountered the pomp and camaraderie of an Old World religious festival, a marching band accompanying a group of men who carried a statue of Saint Anthony through the streets, stopping (and even raising the statue to second-floor level) when anyone wanted to pin money to the ribbons that adorned it.

Offerings

Although most of us easily understand the pomp and protocol of a picnic or potluck, Catholic festivals can be a bit more mystifying to the uninitiated. Both J and I are Italian and were raised as Catholics, so we don’t raise an eyebrow when we see colorful saint statues decorated and adorned…but I can imagine the consternation and even concern that people from other religious backgrounds might feel when they see folks in the North End apparently worshipping or even “bribing” idol-like statues with kisses and cash.

Dollar-pinned ribbons for Saint Anthony

When I see the obvious reverence that attendees at Saint Anthony’s and other North End feasts display toward these saints, though, I see tradition, not idolatry. Italians in Boston’s North End have been celebrating Saint Anthony’s Feast for nearly a century, continuing a festive tradition they carried with them from their homeland. Saint Anthony’s Feast might not match the kind of picnic or potluck you see in mainstream America, but it does suit North End tastes and traditions.

Saint Anthony pinned with dollars

America is often compared to a melting pot, but that metaphor is all wrong. When you toss (and then melt) disparate cuisines in a pot, what you end up with is a homogenous mush, the various tastes and textures all pureeing to gray. America isn’t a melting pot but a smorgasbord—a potluck—where each community offers something characteristic to their own tradition, even if “my” cuisine doesn’t perfectly match “yours.”

Italian pastries

At a potluck, everyone contributes something, and everyone shares…but at a potluck, you have the opportunity to pick and choose, not every plate offering something for every palate. Do you prefer a quiet morning spent meditating in the shadow of a gold guy? We have that. Do you prefer a festive afternoon feasting among confetti and cannoli? We have that, too. Whether you stick with familiar foods or explore something new, you can help yourself to whatever you’d like, then come back for seconds. There’s plenty for everyone, and something to satisfy every taste.

Dipped

As much as meditating at the Zen Center and feasting in the North End might seem like opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum, I find a lot of ways that Buddhism and Catholicism complement one another. Both Buddhisim and Catholicism offer a rich iconography of visual images: when newcomers come to the Zen Center, for instance, I make clear that the Buddha sitting at the head of the Dharma room isn’t a god to be worshiped but a visual representation of the clear, pure nature we all possess. Similarly, the money that festival-goers pin to statues of Saint Anthony or Saint Lucy aren’t idolatrous bribes: they’re expressions of gratitude and hope. A Catholic festival like Saint Anthony’s Feast suggests that if we make a point to be generous with saints, perhaps those saints will in turn be generous with blessings.

Saint Anthony shrine

Both feasts and potlucks, after all, are celebrations of abundance: there’s enough for everyone to eat, enjoy, and come back for seconds. On a gorgeous August Sunday, I can’t think of a better way to spend the day.

Click here for more photos from Saint Anthony’s Feast, which J and I had first visited in August of 2007…or click here for more photos of David Fichter’s “The Potluck,” which I’ve blogged in May of 2009 and February of 2011. Enjoy!

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