Boston skyline from Skywalk Observatory

Last week J and I had Thanksgiving dinner at the Top of the Hub, just as we did last year. One of the things I’m grateful for is the place we live: Newton is a sleepy suburb of Boston, so it’s a quick trip into the city for culture and back home for quiet.

Towards Longfellow Bridge

When I lived in New Hampshire, I told myself I’d move back to Boston in a heartbeat if I could afford a way to live there, and some ten years later I find myself living just outside a city I loved at first sight. I can’t overstate the amazement I feel whenever I realize how far I’ve come from my childhood in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio, I sometimes say half-ironically, is a great place to be from; Boston, on the other hand, is a place other folks go to. Hailing from flyover country, I still feel like pinching myself when realize I live in a city other people visit on vacation.

Bend in the Charles

Thanksgiving Day was gray and drizzly, so after J and I parked on a holiday-empty Back Bay side-street, we walked directly to the Prudential Center, window-shopping the indoor mall there before heading to the Skywalk Observatory on the 50th floor. Viewed from above, Boston is a crowded tangle of streets and sidewalks: “How could people ever live there,” I can imagine newcomers wondering. But when I lived in a basement apartment in Beacon Hill more than a decade ago, Boston was entirely livable, a place I knew by heart and by foot.

Christian Science Center with drained reflecting pool

Looking at Boston from above is like looking at a map, and when I look at maps of Boston, I invariably juxtapose my own muscle-memories of walking these streets and sidewalks. Here along the Charles is the Esplanade where I’d sit in the sun and write letters home, there is the Public Garden where I’d watch skulking ovenbirds and warblers before heading to campus, and over there is the Christian Science reflecting pool, where I’d spend a quiet moment on my way from the Boston Public Library.

Citgo sign, Fenway Park, and Back Bay Fens

Most maps include a marker that says “You Are Here,” but the map that is Boston viewed from above reminds me where I was and were I came from: the long, winding route that led me here and all the places I’ve been along the way. I couldn’t tell you if I tried how to drive in Boston, since I didn’t have a car when I lived there. But I can tell you how to navigate the T and how to avoid being jostled on crowded sidewalks, and I remember with eyes closed the secret shortcuts only locals know.

Wake up and do good

At first I wept, sobbing myself to sleep last Tuesday night when it became clear that hate would triumph over hope. Last Wednesday was gray and drizzly, and I spent the day at home half-heartedly grading papers while cycling between despair and rage. I wasn’t upset because my candidate lost, but because my country and fellow citizens had.

Together we are an ocean

While driving to campus last Thursday morning, I struggled with what to say to my students. It felt like an entirely different world since I had seen them on Election Day, when we had hoped to make history. My grief and anger were still raw: if we couldn’t shatter the glass ceiling, I told myself, then we’d just have to smash the whole goddamn patriarchy. But anger isn’t a plan, and my job is to teach, not sputter with inarticulate rage.

Unity

At some point between parking my car and walking into my morning class, I decided what I wanted. Instead of breaking things, I wanted to build things. Instead of letting my fears and anger turn into divisiveness–the very thing that swept our President-Elect into power–I’d turn my rage into awareness, my disappointment into determination, my fear into ferocity. I didn’t ask to be on the front line of a resistance, but in the aftermath of an election where a demagogue deceived the most vulnerable with hateful slogans and empty promises, teaching critical thinking is a revolutionary act.

Love trumps hate

Regardless of who’s in the Oval Office, I told my students, we’re the ones on the ground doing the real work of democracy. Now that the ballots have been counted, we’ll get down to business of protesting, letter-writing, and loving our neighbors. While others use rhetoric to divide, we’ll speak words of encouragement. And when we see hatred or bigotry, we will refuse to be idle bystanders. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and we’ll fight like hell to protect them. Regardless of who is in the Oval Office, we are the ones who will look hatred in the eye and say “Not on my watch.”

Don't despair, don't hate

Today’s photos come from a student-led Unity Walk and Hope-in-Action Rally at Framingham State. You can read more about the event here, and you can view additional pictures here.

Newton City Hall, right near Newton City Hall

When Massachusetts announced it would allow early voting this year, I wasn’t sure I wanted to take advantage of it. I like the annual ritual of walking to our local polling place after work on Election Day to vote alongside our neighbors, and I was afraid early voting would feel as impersonal as mailing in an absentee ballot.

Civic duty done.

I shouldn’t have worried. Today after lunch J and I walked to Newton City Hall to cast our early ballots, and along the way we saw a half dozen strangers sporting “I voted” stickers. One be-stickered man said hello as he and his partner passed, and his friendliness reminded me of the annual melting of New England resolve that happens on Marathon Monday. There’s something about doing your civic duty that makes even the most reticent New Englander a bit more cheery, whether that civic duty involves casting a ballot or cheering on passing runners.

He's with her.

At City Hall, a handful of volunteers stood outside with signs reminding us to vote yes to protect farm animals. Inside, a police officer sat quietly in a corner while a pair of election volunteers steered J and me to a check-in table where workers tapped our names into tablets, verified our address, and handed us a double-sided ballot and early-voting envelope.

There wasn’t a line to check in, but the dozen or more ballot booths lined along a nearby hallway were full. “At this rate,” an election worker told J as she applied a precinct sticker to his ballot envelope, “there won’t be anyone who hasn’t voted by election day.” Indeed, as of yesterday more than a tenth of all Newton voters had already cast their ballots, and who knows how many more voters will turnout before early voting ends on November 4th.

Newton City Hall, right near Newton City Hall

After I’d filled out my ballot and sealed it in its envelope, I had to wait at the ballot box while two adolescent girls in soccer uniforms politely asked the election volunteer if they could have a voting sticker even though they were clearly too young to register. The worker gave each of them two stickers: “One for this outfit, and one for your next.” Maybe in four years, these girls will be old enough to cast their own ballots, emboldened by the realization that they too can be President.

Stickwork

If I had tried to pick the perfect day for a first visit to Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, Massachusetts, Saturday would have probably been it. Saturday was a quintessential New England autumn day, with a brisk breeze, azure skies, and a brilliant backdrop of fall foliage. It was a perfect sweatshirt weather, and the grounds (which I trust are beautiful in all seasons) were resplendent with mid-October color.

Arch and entrance

A (not her real initial) and I went to Tower Hill on Saturday to see The Wild Rumpus, a stickwork installation by Patrick Dougherty. Woven together from local saplings, The Wild Rumpus looks like a cross between a castle and a bird nest, with multiple rooms, windows, and passageways culminating in several twisted towers.

The title of Dougherty’s installation alludes to Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, and The Wild Rumpus does indeed look like the lair of a rumpus-making monster. The woodsy paths leading to and from the installation were dotted with signs with laminated pages from Sendak’s book, as if inviting children to act out their own version of young Max’s mischief-making.

Window

The handful of children A and I saw inspecting The Wild Rumpus up close seemed undecided about it: several seemed scared to approach it, but others enjoyed creeping and peeking through its wicker-like walls, at least after some reassurance from their parents. The monsters in Where the Wild Things Are might look scary, but they are lovable once Max gets to know them, and Dougherty’s stickwork structure is similarly inscrutable, it not being immediately clear whether friendly fairies or wicked witches live here.

It turns out a house made of sticks offers the best of both worlds. Although the great outdoors are best for rumpus-making, a nest woven from saplings lets the outside stream straight in.

Pride

When I first started teaching more than twenty years ago, I asked my undergraduate mentor how long it would take before I could teach without jitters, and he responded with a remark I’ve never forgotten. “If you’re not nervous before teaching a class,” he said, “you have no business teaching that class.”

I’m remembering that long-ago comment as my Intro to College Writing students begin discussing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which was this year’s common reading for incoming students at Framingham State. I first read Coates’ book last December, soon after it came out to popular and critical acclaim: I was curious to read for myself a book that generated so much heated discussion about the sadly relevant topics of racism and police brutality. But casually reading and thinking about a book is vastly different from engaging a classroom of first-year students in a discussion of the touchy subjects raised by that book, so I’m more than a bit apprehensive as I look ahead to this week’s classes.

Hipster trash

Between the World and Me is a difficult, unsettling text because it resists easy answers: when it comes to race in America, Coates isn’t optimistic or hopeful, and that is not a popular outlook. Mainstream American culture likes to fix things: we’re addicted to happy endings, and we like to think we’ve made great strides when it comes to social issues, even when the most cursory examination of the nightly news suggests we haven’t come far enough.

In the opening pages of the book, Coates describes a satellite interview where a TV journalist asks him why he believes America was founded on a history of theft and violence against people of color, and his response is sadness: not sadness over the realities of American history, which are not new to him, but at the implicit obliviousness of the journalist’s question. Realizing there is no satellite powerful enough to built a bridge between someone who has experienced racism and someone who has not, Coates is saddened for the journalist who interviews him, the society that protects her within a bubble of privilege, and his fifteen-year-old son, who is coming of age in a society where there is no buffer between him and threat of racist violence.

Consumption Lust Security

I am nervous to broach these topics with my students because they are so relevant: the issues that spurred Coates to write his book have continued to simmer and boil. As much as the American cult of positivity encourages us to ignore complex issues in favor of quick-fixes and feel-good bromides, I know difficult conversations are the only path forward. But considering my own classes, I feel ill-equipped to facilitate those discussions: at the end of a week where black men are still being gunned down by police and a campaign worker for Donald Trump had the temerity to suggest President Obama is the source of racial unrest, I don’t feel I have any answers or insight into the difficult questions my students might pose.

This is, I think, what my undergraduate mentor meant all those years ago. It would be both arrogant and misguided of me to walk into class with a smug sense of having an insight into Coates’ text: if anything, Between the World and Me forces white readers like me to set aside our easy answers. (When the reporter interviewing Coates in the book’s opening pages asks him whether a viral video showing a young black boy tearfully hugging a white police officer gives him hope, Coates admits a sense of defeat. If you think systemic racism can be eliminated with a hug or two, you haven’t comprehended the true depth of the problem.)

Reaching

My students, I know, want answers and the comfort of clarity: they understandably want to know what they need to extract from this or any other book to impress me, get a good grade, and graduate into a successful life. Coates himself is suspicious of schooling, seeing it as an institution that encourages conformity more than free and critical thought, and I can’t say I blame him: it is a dangerous power-trip for any educator to stand in front of a classroom and proclaim the Way Things Are or Should Be.

As I re-read the opening pages of Between the World and Me, I’m reminded of my true job as a college professor. As much as I want to waltz into my classes with The Answer, all I can honestly do is encourage my students to approach the text the way I do, with a willingness to listen and have my preconceptions shattered. More than any insights or answers, all I have to offer my students is a way of reading that holds open a genuine question.

When you open a book, you hear a writer’s voice, and some of the most interesting conversations happen when you’re humble enough to refrain from judgment, simply listening to the ideas that emerge, even if (or especially if) those ideas seem different from your own. When I read a book like Between the World and Me, I don’t try to crack it like a nut that yields a clean kernel of truth. Instead, I open myself to an ongoing interrogation between the book and me that calls into question my own assumptions, blind-spots, and the systemic forces that keep me from asking difficult questions of myself and others. I hope to encourage my students to do the same.

JFK birthplace

This weekend my sister and I went to the house in Brookline, Massachusetts where JFK was born. Officially known as the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site, the three-story house at 83 Beals Street is maintained by the National Park Service, whose rangers lead walking tours through both the house and surrounding neighborhood.

Master bedroom. JFK was born in the bed near the window.

Joe and Rose Kennedy moved to Beals Street in 1914 when they were newlyweds, and they had four of their nine children during the six years they lived there. This being the era when doctors made house calls, John (known to his family as Jack) and his sisters Rosemary and Kathleen were born at home in the master bedroom. (The couple’s eldest son, Joe Junior, was born while the family was vacationing in Hull, Massachusetts.)

Bathroom, with Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald’s maiden initials on the towels

Joe and Rose Kennedy were well-to-do when they moved to Beals Street, their starter home having room for not one but two maids. But the house where Jack was born is far from palatial, with one small bathroom and only two bedrooms for a growing brood of kids, and in 1920 the growing family moved into a larger house a few blocks away.

Young JFK slept here

The Kennedy kids were born into privilege, but they never forgot their mother’s favorite Bible verse: to whom much is given, much is required. Joe and Rose Kennedy intentionally raised their children to be public servants, expecting them to be well-informed about politics and current events and to participate (even as youngsters) in the dinner table debates the family was known for.

Children's table set for John and Joe Junior

The house on Beals Street is frozen in time, with clocks set to 3:00 pm (the hour of Jack’s birth). In the dining room, a tiny table is set for Jack and his brother when they were toddlers, and the room that Rosemary and Kathleen would ultimately share is decorated as a guest room, as it was before they were born.

Sitting room with piano

After John F. Kennedy became President, the house where he was born, which was then under private ownership, was only occasionally visited by curious onlookers. After his assassination, however, Beals Street was thronged with mourners looking to make a kind of pilgrimage, as if visiting the site of Kennedy’s birth would somehow help them make sense of his untimely death.

Dining room set with Rose Kennedy's wedding china

In 1966, Rose Kennedy re-purchased the house with the intention of restoring it to its original appearance and donating the property to the National Park Service to serve as a memorial to her son. This weekend on our tour, my sister and I were joined by tourists from Colorado, New Mexico, and Japan, the allure of JFK still reaching far and wide.

Rose Kennedy's boudoir

Touring the house on Beals Street, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between JFK’s presidency and the current presidential campaign. Kennedy was an orator who was groomed from birth to be a public servant: I wonder what he’d make of the crass and crude rhetoric of this present campaign, or how he’d respond to a candidate who like him was born into wealth but shows no proclivity for service and sacrifice.

Historical marker for JFK birthplace

To whom much is given, much is required. Walking through the house where Jack Kennedy was born is sad because despite Rose Kennedy’s attempt to freeze a happy moment in time, we all know how the story ends. The house on Beals Street captures the happy promise of a young family with their lives ahead of them. Only later would the Kennedy family’s commitment to public service take an exacting toll.

Watching equestrian jumping on my tablet at my desk

I’ve been watching a lot of Olympic coverage this past week: not just the mainstream events that are shown during primetime but also more obscure events you can live-stream online. I love watching equestrian competitions, so I’ve set an alert on my tablet that lets me know when those events are live, and I watch them with the sound muted while I work on other things.

Olympic jumping

I could spend hours watching Olympic jumping: it’s soothing to watch large, powerful creatures fly over fences. When I was a horse-crazy kid living in a central Ohio neighborhood far from any farms, I loved the classic movie National Velvet, in which a young Elizabeth Taylor dresses as a boy to compete in the Grand National steeplechase, and International Velvet, a modern sequel in which Tatum O’Neal plays a girl who competes in the Olympics.

Midair

Although I don’t remember much of the plot of either movie, the fact that they both centered around horses and horse-crazy girls was enough to grab my attention. In addition to a huge collection of model horses, as a child I had a Barbie-sized International Velvet doll that came dressed in a riding outfit complete with riding boots and helmet, and I would play with that doll for hours, imagining what it was like to soar over fences. As a city girl without a horse of my own, I relied upon books, movies, and toys to quench my horse-hungry appetite, and watching Olympic equestrian events as a grown-up also serves to scratch that long-dormant itch.

Over water

In addition to show jumping, I’ve been watching a lot of Olympic dressage competitions. Folks with an untrained eye often dismiss dressage as “horse dancing” as riders guide their horses through a set routine of carefully orchestrated gaits. When I was a kid, however, I read Marguerite Henry’s White Stallion of Lipizza, in which a boy spends months as an apprentice at the famous Spanish Riding School with their world-renowned royal Lipizzan stallions, and that book taught me how much training both horse and rider undergo to master the moves of classical dressage.

Flying over fences

The royal Lipizzan stallions perform jumps and kicks known as “airs above ground,” but Olympic dressage doesn’t involve that kind of acrobatics. Instead, Olympic dressage horses move through a routine of artificial gaits such as the piaffe, which is a prancing trot where the horse pauses in each step, and the flying change, where the horse alternates his lead hoof while cantering. Whenever I watch riders guide their horses through these or other meticulous moves, I have a single question in mind: How do you get a horse to do that? A good dressage horse looks simultaneously energetic and collected, like a wound spring, and a good dressage rider stays calm and focused, sitting upright and still in the saddle as she guides her mount through his paces without any visible cues.

Throw your heart over the fence

Sometimes when I’m meditating, I imagine myself astride the powerful dressage horse of my own mind, my cushion like a saddle. A seasoned equestrian knows you mustn’t crush your horse’s spirit: a well-trained horse is alert and engaged, marshaling its energy in calm abeyance. When you watch an Olympic jumper or dressage horse, you’re watching a powerful creature that is contained by concentration, his rider literally reining in any exuberance while spurring on an alert and active demeanor. When you watch your mind in meditation, you hold its wandering exuberance in check with the rein of your own breath: easy now, boy. Stay with me, calm and collected.

I shot all of today’s photos from the livestream of Olympic coverage I’ve been watching on my tablet: a blatant violation of broadcast copyright.