May 2011

The people of Massachusetts will always remember

Earlier this month, on a rainy walk through Boston’s Public Garden, J and I took a moment to visit the Garden of Remembrance, a memorial to the Massachusetts citizens who died in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It was the weekend after Osama bin Laden had been killed, so the memorial was decorated with 206 white roses that had been placed on the monument the day after bin Laden’s death: 206 roses for 206 victims, a visual symbol that the people of Massachusetts will always remember those who died.

Dearly departed

Visiting a rainy memorial strewn with wilted flowers felt entirely appropriate. The Public Garden was largely deserted, so J and I had time to ponder the monument and read the chiseled names without the distraction of passing tourists. Almost immediately, I searched for the name of Patrick J. Quigley, IV, whose grave J and I first encountered on a walk through Newton Cemetery several years ago. J and I never met Patrick Quigley, but somehow he’s become the face of 9/11 for me: one name whose death personalizes the passing of all the other names. And sure enough, as soon as I saw Quigley’s name, I felt my eyes misting with something other than raindrops. Just like that, the memories of that terrible day came back, and with them a flood of sympathy for the families of the victims. This memorial is a visible symbol that we won’t forget the ones who were lost: how can we forget, when the families of the victims live on, their lives forever punctuated?


In her book Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell describes the first time she visited the World War II memorial in Washington, DC, which I visited in 2005. Initially, Vowell finds the monument cumbersome with its ring of pillars for the 50 states…but upon seeing the “Oklahoma” pillar, she breaks into tears thinking about an uncle’s story about spending a month in wet socks fighting the Japanese for control of a hill.

Suddenly and forever the World War II memorial stopped being clunky architecture and turned into the sound of my uncle’s voice telling me that story. Now I don’t care what it looks like. They could have carved it out of chewed bubble gum and I would think of it fondly.

This, I think, is the power of memorials, both the stone monuments we erect for the dead and this holiday, Memorial Day: a day set aside for remembrance. It’s easy to forget our uncle’s stories, or the stories of other folks’ uncles. Stone memorials are designed to remind us of some stone-cold truths: people die, and our memories are simultaneously tenuous and as strong as death. It’s easy to forget the touch of a now-gone hand, but easy to remember a story that touched us. All we need to resurrect the past is a reminder–a marker, a monument, a memorial. The simple sight of a name carved on stone is enough to bring us to tears, raindrops erasing the fragile line between then and now.

Click here for more photos from the Garden of Remembrance in Boston’s Public Garden, and happy Memorial Day.

Buddha altar

I’m currently moving out of my apartment in Keene, the place where I once lived with my ex-husband, came into my own in the days after my divorce, and have lived part-time after meeting and marrying J, dividing my days between Newton and Keene. As much as I’ve appreciated the convenience of having an apartment close to campus where I’ve stayed midweek during the academic year, I’m looking forward to living in one place rather than two. The time is right to make the next step.

Comfort food

Reviewing these pictures, which I used to illustrate a 2004 post about my apartment, I marvel at how clean the place was then. In the early days after my divorce, I spent a lot of time alone in my apartment–just me and the dog–so I took care to keep the place neat and livable. After meeting and marrying J, however, I’ve spent less and less time in Keene, driving in to teach my classes or go to meetings and using my apartment as a proverbial place to hang my hat. Gradually, my apartment in Keene has evolved from being my heart’s home to being a place I stay when I’m not home. Although I still enjoy teaching and walking in Keene, I realize do so now as a visitor rather than a resident. My relationship with the place is now migratory, with Keene being a place where I no longer nest.

Nestled nook

At the moment, the place where I pupated is looking downright grubby, with dusty piles of stuff I’m sorting through as I work, bit by bit, to move, donate, or sell an apartment’s worth of stuff. I’ve lived in this apartment since 2003, so I have a lot of history (and a lot of stuff) here. As much as I hate moving and want to be done with sorting, weeding out, packing, and moving things between here and there, it feels good to slough off stuff like an old skin. I’m selling some of my furniture on consignment, I’m giving some to my upstairs neighbor, and I’m taking carload after carload of smaller items to the Salvation Army. It feels good to send these things off to their new life: the grateful recycling of things I no longer need. It’s time for both my stuff and me to move on.

Raindrops on hosta leaves

The past few days have been drizzly in Massachusetts, with an almost continual mist that intermittently, without warning, erupts into downpours. I don’t mind walking in mist even though it eventually soaks you through, and I enjoy the challenge of photographing raindrops. Apparently I enjoy photographing raindrops on hosta leaves so much, I took (and blogged) nearly the exact same photos last May as I did this past weekend. April showers might bring May flowers, but apparently May showers bring deja view all over again.

Bleeding hearts through fence

Eventually, even the most hectic semester comes to an end, and so it’s been almost a week since I submitted the last batch of spring semester grades for my face-to-face classes.

Green dogwoods

This past week, I’ve been digging out from under the obligations I neglected while I was grading, and catching up on sleep, and trying to remind myself what I like to read and write when I’m not buried in student papers. It’s a process of decompression I go through at the end of every semester: “Coming to after coming down from end-term adrenaline, I feel like I have to get re-acquainted with the most precious friend I’ve sorely neglected: myself.”

On Saturday, J and I walked to Boston College, snapping plenty of pictures on our way to see the current exhibit at the McMullen Museum of Art. Dura-Europos was an ancient multicultural city located in what is now Syria, and Dura-Europos: Crossroads of Antiquity features frescoes and artifacts that replicate the cultural melting pot of a city where Jews, Christians, and pagans lived and worshiped side-by-side. (Click here for the Wall Street Journal review of the exhibit, or here for the Boston Globe review, or here for an animation of the frescoes in the Dura-Europos synagogue.)

Past its prime

Viewing restored frescoes and artifacts from a once-vibrant city is a bit creepy, as you can’t help but wonder what tales you’d hear if only these old walls could talk. Archaeology reveals the past gradually, layer by layer, each shovel of dirt unearthing the long-dead dreams of ages gone by. What was it like to worship Mithras in the desert, or to belong to a congregation that hid its Christian worship services in an otherwise ordinary-looking house? Who was it who prayed beneath intricate paintings of Scriptural scenes back when these synagogue frescoes were fresh?


At the end of every spring semester, I sort through the piles of paper that have accumulated over the past year, and as I deposit fat stacks of student papers in a confidential recycle bin whose contents will be shredded, I wonder about those students whose names and paper topics I foggily remember. How has the accumulation of time, layer upon layer, treated them? One of this week’s tasks has been to pack and move piles of files from my apartment in Keene to our house in Newton: a consolidation of paperwork that feels Herculean in scope. How is it that something so flimsy as paper so quickly accumulates into weighty mounds, enough to bury even the most active among us?

Archaeologists try to reanimate the artifacts of long-dead lives, and the process of weeding through piles of paperwork brings me face-to-face with my own past. Who was I when I wrote or received these stacks of letters, these shelves of notebooks, or these piles of research drafts? What dreams did I have, and which dreams did I defer? Days pass without truly disappearing, their momentous moments merely accumulating in forgotten corners, time layered upon time.

Mama duck and duckling

If you ever want to photograph Boston’s “Make Way for Ducklings” statue without throngs of children perched and posing on mama duck and her brood, just walk through the Public Garden on a rainy evening, when you’ll have the place almost entirely to yourself.

George Washington among tulips

On Saturday night, J and I took a rainy stroll through the Public Garden on our way to a symphony concert, just as we did last year. Whereas last year, the Public Garden was full of tulip-appreciators of all shapes and sizes, on Saturday night, the rain kept all but the most diehard park visitors away, including a couple in wedding finery who stayed huddled in their limosine rather than venturing outside for a spring-green photo-shoot.

Soon-to-be-nesting mute swan

Although it was too wet for swan-boats, the Public Garden’s resident mute swans were undeterred by rain, one of the pair standing sentry at their usual nest-site. It won’t be long until this sentry will be sitting on a stick nest while her mate runs off any intruding ducks. Until then, a rainy Saturday night is a quiet time in the garden, the weather perfect for waterfowl of all kinds.

Make way for ducklings


Less than a month after their emergence, tender young maple leaves are already feeding the insects which feed the songbirds which feed the hawks. Every year, the wheel continues to turn.

Oak leaves

Several months ago, J and I faced a momentous decision. Having received a job offer from out of state, J had to decide whether to accept this offer or stay with his current employer. The proffered position promised job security and the opportunity for advancement; his current job offered the stability of continuing work J enjoys with people he knows, but contingent upon research funding that came up for renewal every six months or so.

Dandelion and heal-all

After an excruciating few weeks during which we compared the two jobs and seriously considered relocating, J announced that his current employer had finalized a job offer which would keep him in his current job on a three-year assignment, the longest either one of us has had guaranteed employment during years we’ve known each other. When J told me this offer had been finalized, I responded with a spontaneous exclamation that surprised even me: “Thank God!” After having agonized over our decision for so long, only after we knew we’d be staying with J’s current job, in our current house, and in our current life did I realize how much I hadn’t wanted to change it.

New leaves

Sometimes you don’t realize how much you’ve been holding your breath, tense and expectant, until after the decision has been made, the news announced, or the other shoe dropped. Last night when I casually flipped through the channels and saw “OSAMA BIN LADEN DEAD” in boldface font at the bottom of our television screen, only then did I realize how much I’d been subconsciously waiting for that inevitable end. “Thank God,” I silently thought. “At last!” Without having realized how much I–how much we all–needed closure on the particular tragedy of 9/11, suddenly I found myself relieved.

While CNN showed throngs of college students cheering and waving flags outside the White House, all J and I could do was watch the coverage in somber silence. What I felt as we followed the coverage late into the night wasn’t so much happiness that Bin Laden had been brought to justice as the natural relief you feel when letting out a long-held breath or loosening a too-tight muscle. “Finally,” I thought. “At last.” Although I hadn’t been conscious of wanting Bin Laden’s death these past ten years, I felt something instinctive and elemental when his passing was announced, like finally a page had been turned. If I felt so much relief and closure at the news, I wondered, how profound must have been the response of the families of those who died?

Dogwood flowers

On Election Night, 2008, I stayed up late watching news coverage on my laptop, afraid to go to sleep until John McCain officially conceded the election to Barack Obama. Last night felt a bit like that night. In 2008, I was haunted by memories of 2000, when I’d gone to sleep thinking Al Gore had been elected, only to learn the next morning that things weren’t that simple. In 2008, I had to actually hear Barack Obama address the nation as “the next President of the United States” before I would allow myself to believe it, just as last night J and I stayed up, anxious and expectant, waiting for President Obama to address the nation officially. “It’s not real until the President says so,” I found myself thinking. “Let’s not get too emotional until we really know for sure.”

Dogwood flowers

As the President spoke, my thoughts weren’t so much centered on Bin Laden himself as on the families of those who were killed on 9/11. Bin Laden got what he deserved, the end of his story being more a matter of natural cause and effect than an act of unbridled vengeance. Although I’m not blood-thirsty by nature, I acknowledge there are some acts so heinous, the world’s religions agree they are evil and cannot be tolerated. In Zen, we don’t talk about sin and punishment, but we do talk about cause and effect, “You make, you get” being our succinct way of observing how people tend to reap what they sow. As Jesus himself said, those who live by the sword will die by the sword, and Bin Laden’s death felt like the necessary and inevitable reaction to his own actions. As I watched last night’s news coverage, Bin Laden’s death didn’t seem so much a case of what “we” did to “him”: it felt like the natural and unavoidable outcome of his own choices, a sorry ending he brought on himself.

Flowering crabapple

More than anything, as J and I sat watching last night’s news coverage, I found myself naturally remembering where and who I was on that blue-skied and sunny September day ten years ago. Ten years is a long time to hold your breath; ten years is a long time to wait for justice. Last night and into today, I keep thinking of the grave J and I pass every time we walk at Newton Cemetery: the resting spot of Patrick J. Quigley IV of Wellesley, who was 40 years old when he died on September 11, leaving a pregnant wife and five-year-old daughter. Ten years later, how are the Quigleys fairing, and all the families of victims? Ten years later, does the death of Bin Laden bring any closure or comfort, even though it won’t bring back any of our precious Patricks?

Grape hyacinth

This morning as I drove from Newton to Keene under crystal blue skies, the weather seemed poignantly similar to that gorgeous September Tuesday when the turquoise sky seemed too beautiful to rain down such suffering. As I pulled into the driveway of my apartment in Keene, I saw that my neighbor’s sprawling forsythias, whose bare twigs I contemplated over breakfast all winter, have finally erupted with gold-glowing flowers. “At last,” I found myself thinking, the desperate longing of a long, snowy winter finding relief in an outpouring of blossoms. Sometimes after waiting a cold eternity, you’re surprised by the spontaneous arrival of a solace you’d forgotten you’d hoped for.