How’s the weather


Charles River

Last weekend, J and I took a long, woodsy walk around our neighborhood, walking first to Hemlock Gorge to leaf-peep around Echo Bridge and then wending through the woodsy fringe along Quinobequin Road, which skirts the Charles River. The air was brisk and the sun was bright—a quintessential New England fall day—so walking just about anywhere was glorious. On sunny October days in New England, you look for any excuse to be outside in the golden gleam of autumn.

Overhead

Folks who have seen New England autumns only in photographs focus on fall foliage, but those of us who live here know that tree leaves are just a small part of the beauty. What’s magical about autumn in New England is the light. Autumn light angles low, refracting through the prisms of countless turning trees. In February, I’ll bemoan the white, oversaturated glare of our monochromatic winters, but in October, the light in New England is itself golden, like sunbeams filtered through stained glass.

Under the bridge

Because I’ve weathered enough New England winters to know how starved for light and color I’ll be come January, I find myself wanting to soak up every second of October’s golden light. Even sitting on a bench in October is a sensuous experience as your body relishes the contradictory sensations of brisk air and warm sunlight.

Sunlit

Emily Dickinson once said a true poem makes you feel like the top of your head has been removed, and I’d say something similar about autumns in New England. October is the one time of year when I want to steep myself directly in sunlight, even if that means ripping off the roof and removing the top of my skull: anything to better bask my brain in this fleeting gold gleam.

Sunlit

This week, our Jewish neighbors have erected sukkahs like Rachel’s in their yards, and I find myself quietly envying them: I have to admire a religion that requires its adherents to spend as much time as possible outside in October, simply sitting. And yet, living in New England, I’d make a terrible Jew, as any sukkah I’d erect would be topless, or at best convertible, the better to let God’s own golden gaze in.

Forget Emily Dickinson’s definition of poetry: the title of today’s post comes from a line from Pharrell Williams’ irresistibly peppy ode to joy, “Happy,” which invites listeners to “Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof.”

Drizzle drops on spider silk

Today has been a drizzly day: the kind of day when you don’t mind staying inside grading papers. After lunch, I went outside to photograph drizzle-drops on spider silk:  dewy jewels that draped our backyard shrubs with webs of wonder.

This is a test entry posted from the Flickr app on my tablet, just to see how and whether it works.

Witch hazel

Last week was Spring Break at Framingham State, so today was the first time I’d been on campus in over a week. It’s been an unseasonably cold spring: in Newton, our tulips started to sprout leaves about a week ago and then promptly stopped, their growth stunted by a dismaying string of below-freezing nights. I’d hoped that the end of Spring Break would coincide with the arrival of spring weather, but instead, today is cold and gray, with the forecast calling for a nor’easter and overnight snow.

Given how slow spring is in arriving this year, you’d think that a sparse sprinkling of witch hazel blossoms next to the library at Framingham State–the first flowering thing I’ve seen all spring–would be enough to bring a hint of cheer, but any cheeriness was quashed when I checked my Flickr archives and found this:

Witch hazel

This is what this same witch hazel shrub looked like last March 7th, just before a storm brought sixteen inches of fresh snow. That wasn’t the final snowstorm we had last March–we got another eight inches on March 19th–but realizing that this time last year, we had snowdrops blooming under our eaves…

Snowdrops in snow - March 27 / Day 86

…was enough to drive me to despair, given that this same spot is still buried under a remnant of all the snow J has raked off our roof this year.

Cervantes said comparisons are odious, and Theodore Roosevelt said comparison is the thief of joy. Had I nothing to compare this weather with, I might be content that there is something blooming, somewhere. Instead, I look at that image of last year’s snowdrops–my calendar image for the month of March–and feel a bit like a child who’s been told there will be no Christmas this year. Yes, the spring will arrive, eventually, but how will it compare to the Photos of Springs Past?

Not yet hammock season

All the times J and I have passed this hammock on our way to or from our local T stop, I’ve never seen anyone lying in it. Still, there’s something soothing about the sight of an empty (and thus inviting) hammock hanging between two trees, even if it’s the middle of February and the snow is puddled with melt water.

Well-dressed

Today and yesterday have been mercifully mild: February thaw. The last looming glaciers of icy snow thundered from our roof on Friday, and there are bare patches of muddy ground beneath the towering pines that fringe our neighbor’s yard. Yesterday we had lunch in Jamaica Plain, where the sidewalks were thronged with window-shoppers, baby-strollers, dog-walkers, and more than a few people sitting outside eating ice cream: a defiant thumbing-of-one’s nose to Old Man Winter.

Dirty snow / buried bench

Old Man Winter isn’t done with us yet: there’s a chance of snow showers tonight, the possibility of more snow on Wednesday, and rumors of snow next weekend. Everyone knows March is a fickle month–in like a lion, out like a lamb–but that doesn’t matter right now, when the temperature is well above freezing and our ears thrill to the sound of bird calls and dripping melt water.

Afternoon commute

Today’s snowstorm arrived right on schedule, the flakes starting to fall at Framingham State around 10:30 am, while I was in my office conferencing with students from my morning class. By the time the college canceled afternoon classes and I left my office around 2:30 pm, the snow was already ankle-deep and still falling.

Snowy tree

This is the second time in a row that my afternoon Tuesday/Thursday class has been canceled because of an early dismissal, and it’s the third time this semester I’ve driven home through falling snow. In each case, my commute from Framingham to Newton has been slow, messy, but otherwise uneventful. I don’t really mind driving home in snow if I have the luxury of taking my time…and when work lets you out early, you have no real reason to hurry.

Driveway

On these snowy drives home from campus, I’ve been impressed at how calm my fellow commuters have been. When Atlanta saw three inches of snow several weeks ago, there was widespread panic, but New Englanders are well-practiced at winter driving. Here in Massachusetts, we joke about the obnoxious aggressiveness of so-called Massholes, but in a snowstorm even the most assertive drivers become calm and focused.

Whenever I’ve driven home in a snowstorm, I’ve been struck by a sense of cooperative camaraderie amongst my fellow commuters. We seem to share an unspoken understanding that we’re all trying to get home, and rushing or driving aggressively won’t help. Even in stop-and-go snarls, I find drivers maintaining a safe distance, calmly changing lanes, and letting cars merging from side streets or parking lots to go ahead: small courtesies offered in an attempt to keep a smooth traffic flow. There’s nothing like a snowstorm to (temporarily) cure a Masshole’s tendency to speed, tailgate, or cut off other motorists.

Snowy street

Although I’m always relieved to pull onto my own street at the end of a snowy drive, I don’t necessarily find these commutes to be stressful, just attention-intensive. Driving home in the midst of a snowstorm is a powerful form of mindfulness practice; you can’t hurry the journey, so you take each slow moment as it comes. The worst thing you can do when driving in snow is to make any sort of sudden movement, so everything you do slows to a calmly steady, sedate, and intentional pace. Whether you’re inching in stop-and-go traffic or cruising at 30 mph, the key is to stay steady: no jerking stops, no lurching starts, and no sudden swerves or turns. Instead, you spend a lot of time coasting, tapping your brakes to warn the car behind you as you gradually slow to an eventual stop. There’s no slamming of brakes in a snowstorm, just a patient tap, tap, tapping. Instead of tensing into a skid or swerve, you follow your breath, your secret mantra being “slow and steady all the way home.”

Buried patio furniture

Today was sunny in the aftermath of last week’s snowstorms, as so often happens. In Saturday’s storm, we got about five inches of new snow, which was less than we’d braced for…but that fell atop the eight inches we got last Thursday. Tomorrow, the forecast calls for another three to five inches, one storm layering atop the previous one. After so many storms, three, five, or even eight inches of new snow doesn’t sound like much: just add it to the pile.

Front door icicle curtain

Today, as I said, was sunny, but the temperature never rose above freezing. Still, the icicles that fringe our eaves and curtain our doorways dripped and elongated in the sun, and I found myself hoping the snow piles would sublime under the sun’s radiating glance, passing straight from solid to vapor: snow piles slipping away as mist. Although it’s true that snow piles sometimes shrink on dry and windy days, I can’t say we have any less snow tonight than we did this morning. Still, it’s cheering to see the sun baking exposed patches of road even though too many of our neighbors still haven’t cleared their sidewalks.

Buried birdbath

Later this week, the forecasters promise temperatures warm enough to melt some of the snow: anything to make an inroad on so much accumulation. Although J dutifully trudges through knee-deep snow to fill our backyard bird feeder, it will be a while before the sun sees the bottom of our backyard birdbath, and even longer (I suspect) before it’s warm enough for any brave bird to dip a tentative toe in its brisk bath.

The perfect man...on sale

Friday is my usual grocery day, so yesterday I took advantage of a one-day respite between snowstorms to stock up on provisions for the week. The grocery store parking lot was more crowded than usual, with enormous snow piles taking up a whole row of parking spaces. As I approached the store, a handful of college guys in sweatshirts and slouchy jeans poured out of a car and sauntered in ahead of me, making a bee-line for a colorful display of flowers, chocolates, and heart-shaped balloons. Obviously their girlfriends have trained them well.

A singing spot of color

In the produce section, an employee stood by a display of boxed strawberries and a chocolate fountain, a throng of women waiting in line to select the berries they’d dip. All over the store, lone men steered shopping carts laden with ingredients for a romantic meal, the pasta, salad, and garlic bread in their carts clearly indicating that Valentine’s Day is Dad’s turn to cook.

Icicles on a gray day

What I didn’t see at the grocery store yesterday were panicked people hoarding milk, eggs, and bread in advance of today’s snowstorm, as sometimes happens earlier in the season. This is the ninth snowstorm we’ve had this year: I know because we’ve kept a tally of “snow events” on our refrigerator, another mark added every time we get more than a broom-sweeping’s worth of snow. After eight snowstorms, we pretty much know the drill: we know to hunker down during the storm, dig out as soon as it stops, and return to usual the next day. After eight snowstorms, you might say that Mother Nature has us well-trained.

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