When I was a graduate student doing my PhD coursework at Northeastern University, I often took advantage of the fact that the Museum of Fine Arts was right across the street from campus. In those days, my student ID got me into the Museum for free, so on days when I didn’t have much to do between classes, I’d go to the MFA to stroll the galleries. Because I went to the MFA so often, I came to see it not merely as a storage vault for fine art but as an indoor pedestrian path: a kind of secular cloister-walk where I could walk even when the weather was bad.
I still like to go walking at the MFA, although I do so far less frequently now. When I go to the MFA with a friend, I look at art as you are supposed to, considering each of the works in a given gallery, dutifully reading the placards that identify and explicate each item, and otherwise absorbing the educational intent of the museum space. But when I go to the MFA by myself, as I did on Tuesday, I typically go there simply to walk, not focusing in particular on any piece of art or any given gallery. Instead, I occasionally go alone to the MFA because it is a space dedicated to looking and thus a space that is amenable to strolling. Where else (except, perhaps, at a mall) is it okay to walk around with no other purpose than just looking?
Tuesday just happened to be my 40th birthday, and Tuesday’s trip to the MFA to go walking was my understated gift to myself. Over the New Year, I made a list of 40 things I’m grateful for as I turn 40, and it was an illuminating endeavor. Although some material possessions made it to my personal Top 40 list–my car, for instance, which I paid off in 2008; my camera, which continues to work even though I’ve recently water-logged and then dropped it; and my audio player, which I use to listen to books for free–most of the items on my list are intangibles. I’m grateful that my apartment in Keene is within walking distance of my job, and I’m grateful that J’s house in Newton is within walking distance of the T. I’m grateful to be blessed with friends, family, and a menagerie of pets, both my own and J’s. I’m grateful for my good health, my meditation practice, and my blog and the people who read it. And in tough economic times, I’m grateful that I have food to eat, shelter over my head, and clothes on my back: more than enough.
Museums are a great place to go when you want to rejoice in simple abundance. Both greed and gluttony are deadly sins, but there’s no shame in relishing beauties we all can share. Why do I need to own a storage vault of beautiful belongings when museums house so many lovely things we can collectively enjoy? The fact that I don’t go walking at the MFA more often–the fact that this space and its contents are an easy T-ride away, but I only occasionally take the time to visit them–is an embarrassment of riches. Museums and the beauties they contain are simply there for the looking, as is the natural world with its ample riches. Given these gifts, which are already within my easy reach, why would I dream or desire to reach for more?
It’s not that I undervalue possessions; instead, I’ve come to realize I overvalue experience. I am deeply grateful for the things I own; nobody but the deeply deranged would rejoice to have their material goods destroyed by fire or rain. But this being said, there isn’t much I want other than more time to enjoy the things I already have. More than tangible things, what I want is my own life and the health to enjoy it. This past December, J and I agreed not to exchange gifts for Christmas or our birthdays; instead, we split the costs of board-walking in Ocean City, agreed to buy one another soccer tickets for Valentine’s Day, and have begun to brainstorm our next unorthodox adventure. Gift-wrapped surprises are fine and good, but J and I have come to realize that what we most deeply enjoy from one another is time and experiences shared.
And so on Tuesday, my fortieth birthday, I went walking at the Museum of Fine Arts, where I bought myself a membership so I can enjoy an entire year’s worth of gallery rambles. In the gift shop, I bought myself a bracelet and a pair of earrings: only the deeply deranged would deny herself some small, precious thing to mark a momentous milestone. And now, having come home and sorted through the photos I took while walking–free souvenirs captured by my still-functioning camera–I chose forty from my fortieth to share with you: a kind of virtual cake sliced and shared across cyberspace, there being no need for the further illumination of birthday candles lit and extinguished.