March 2014


Thank you for sharing

On Friday, J and I had tickets for an afternoon Boston Symphony Orchestra concert, so on our way to Symphony Hall, we stopped by the Engine 33 firehouse on Boylston Street to pay our respects at the makeshift memorial outside the firehouse that lost two of its members in last week’s fire.

Two crosses

The pile of flowers outside Engine 33 is eerily reminiscent of the outpouring of offerings left down the street at Copley Square in the aftermath of last April’s Marathon bombing: another pile marking another Boston tragedy. I’m beginning to understand why piles of flowers, ballcaps, handwritten notes, and other offerings spontaneously appear in the aftermath of tragedy. When you first hear that someone has died or been injured, your first human impulse is to wonder what you might do to help. When there’s not anything tangible you can do, you offer instead whatever is close at hand, whether that be flowers, a hug, or a handwritten sign.

Thank you

In Buddhist iconography, the bodhisattva of compassion–Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit, Kannon in Japanese, Kwan Yin in Chinese, or Kwan Seum Bosal in Korean–is sometimes shown having one thousand hands containing one thousand eyes. As soon as one of Kwan Seum Bosal’s eyes sees someone suffering, Kwan Seum Bosal has a hand right there to help.

Boston Strong

So, where are Kwan Seum Bosal’s one thousand hands and eyes? Well, I have two of each, and presumably so do you. Whenever or wherever there is a tragedy—a fallen firefighter, a lost plane, or a town buried in a mudslide—Kwan Seum Bosal’s thousand hands and eyes appear in a spontaneous outpouring of help and support, stranger reaching out to stranger.

Memorial wreath

In the immediate aftermath of Wednesday’s fatal fire, a fund was set up to help the families of Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh and Firefighter Michael R. Kennedy: an immediate and heartfelt response, as anyone with eyes in their head can see that families who have lost a breadwinner need financial assistance. But in the emotional aftermath of tragedy, some hands might want to do more than just write a check. A memorial gives people a place to visit, pay their respects, and deliver bouquets, handwritten notes, and other mementos: things a bit more (literally) touching than a donation submitted by mail or online.

Memorial plaque

In the weeks after we put MAD to sleep, I remembered that one natural part of grieving is the sorting of your world into two kinds of places: the places where you do and don’t feel safe to cry. In the weeks after we put MAD to sleep, I felt comfortable crying in my car, in the shower, or in front of a sink full of dishes; I did not feel comfortable crying in my classrooms, office, or any other public or professional space.

Eyeglass cases

A memorial is a safe place to cry, even if you didn’t personally know the deceased. A memorial is a place where strangers come together to share a moment of solemn sadness: the common experience that is the root of all compassion. A memorial like the one outside the Engine 33 firehouse isn’t built by any one person. Instead, it’s a communal offering, placed by a thousand hands and wept over by a thousand eyes.

Commonwealth Mall

When I heard yesterday afternoon that there was a nine-alarm fire in a brownstone on Beacon Street in Boston’s Back Bay, there were two things that immediately came to mind: a long-ago Halloween party, and the Hotel Vendome fire.

Vendome Fire Memorial

Years ago, my ex and I went to a Halloween party in a hip Back Bay penthouse overlooking the Charles River: a building on the same street as yesterday’s fire. The host was an engineer who worked at MIT’s Media Lab, so the party was attended by brilliant young people who designed computers and built robots. My ex went to the party as a dressed-to-kill vampire in a black suit, white face paint, and bloody vampire teeth, and I went as a sexy witch in a black dress and fishnet stockings, a witch’s hat, and two bite marks on my neck. The guest who took the cake at that long-ago party overlooking the Charles, however, was dressed as a (literal) flasher, clad in swim trunks, sneakers, and a trench coat wired to set off flashbulbs whenever he opened it.

Vendome Fire Memorial

The second and more serious thing that came to mind when I heard about yesterday’s Back Bay fire, however, was the Hotel Vendome fire. In June, 1972, nine firefighters died when the Hotel Vendome, which was undergoing renovations, collapsed after a four-alarm fire. The Hotel Vendome tragedy was the deadliest day ever for Boston firefighters, leaving eight women widowed and 25 children fatherless. The Hotel Vendome fire happened more than 40 years ago–long before I moved to New England–so I have no personal recollection of the tragedy, but there is a memorial to the fallen firefighters on the Commonwealth Mall, mere blocks from yesterday’s fire. Because of that memorial, when I heard about yesterday’s fire, I immediately thought of the Vendome tragedy and quietly prayed, “No more fallen firefighters, please.”

Vendome Fire Memorial

Despite everyone’s prayers and a valiant rescue effort, yesterday two firefighters died: Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh and Firefighter Michael R. Kennedy. Firefighter Kennedy was 33 years old and unmarried; Lieutenant Walsh was 43 years old and leaves a widow and three small children. The Hotel Vendome fire happened the day before Father’s Day, ruining that holiday for the children it left bereft, and I wonder how all those Easter stories about chocolate bunnies and rebirth will feel a month from now, as three children grapple with the fact that daddy, unlike Jesus, isn’t coming back from the dead this year.

Vendome Fire Memorial

Time is both treacherous and tenacious. It’s been years—a lifetime, it seems—since I wore fishnet stockings and sexy dresses, and these days the MIT Media Lab is designing prosthetic legs for Marathon bombing survivors. I never knew the nine men killed in the Hotel Vendome fire, just as I don’t know the two men killed yesterday, but I know their memories will linger long. Time slips away as fast as a building goes up in smoke—one veteran firefighter said he’d never in twenty years seen anything like yesterday’s fire, which was whipped to a frenzy by high winds. And yet for the families who lost fathers, sons, husbands, and brothers in the Hotel Vendome fire, does that fateful day before Father’s Day, 1972 feel like yesterday, not an entire generation ago?

Vendome Fire Memorial

The purpose of a memorial, of course, is to commemorate, but a good memorial can also educate, capturing the stories of people we never knew long enough to mourn. Forty years from now, will a memorial mark the site where two heroes perished on a day like any other? Forty years from now, will a writer who never knew Lieutenant Walsh and Firefighter Kennedy nevertheless remember them, touched by the tragedy of their sacrifice, finding theirs to be a story that must never be forgotten?

I took the photos illustrating today’s post on Thanksgiving Day, 2012: a brilliant fall day whose golden light seemed to exist outside time. If you want to donate to the fund set up for the families of Lieutenant Walsh and Firefighter Kennedy, you can do so here.

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?

Wall at Central Square

For much of this week I’ve had the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” stuck in my head, the melody and lyrics wending in and out of consciousness. I’m prone to earworms, and I sometimes wake up with a song in my head that I haven’t heard in years as if someone pushed a random set of buttons into my mental jukebox. Memory is strange: how can I call up at random the lyrics and melodies of countless pop songs while struggling to remember names, phone numbers, or my own grocery list?

Wall at Central Square

As earworms go, I could do far worse than have the Beach Boys stuck in my head. I remember being amazed the first time I heard “God Only Knows”: the melody is simultaneously surprising and simple, with every note in its perfect place. I can’t imagine how someone writes a melody like “God Only Knows.” It’s a sequence of notes and a progression of chords I can’t see myself ever inventing, even at the end of a lifetime of humming…and yet the first time I heard “God Only Knows,” I couldn’t believe the earth managed to turn on its axis all the eons before that melody was known.

Wall at Central Square

When long-time Boston mayor Tom Menino left the hospital last year after a string of health problems, reporters asked him about his future plans, and he answered with a remark that made front page headlines: “God only knows.” Menino has since stepped down as mayor, and this past week he announced he’s battling advanced cancer, his doctors being unable to determine where the metastasized cells originated from.

When asked by his disciples whether God exists, the Buddha famously refused to answer, claiming that asking about God is like pondering the nature, maker, or trajectory of an arrow that has mortally injured a man. As a man lies dying, does it matter who we might blame? If God exists, he alone knows when and where Menino’s cancer came from, or where Flight 370 is, or what our own futures hold…but even if God doesn’t know, what does it matter? Once you’ve been shot by mortality, you can’t be saved by speculation. We tell ourselves that knowing will bring comfort and closure, but does it, really?

Wall at Central Square

On Wednesday night, I went to the Zen Center after too many weeks away from my cushion. Why is it I avoid a practice I need so desperately, my entire being falling into grateful exhaustion the moment I simply stop? God only knows.

Whenever I drive to the Zen Center, I pass the Cambridge gas station where the 26-year-old man carjacked by the Tsarnaev brothers last April finally escaped to freedom: a tale as haunting as any Beach Boys tune. “Death is so close to me,” the carjack victim, identified only as “Danny” in news reports, recalled thinking: “I don’t want to die….I have a lot of dreams that haven’t come true yet.”

Wall at Central Square

I think of “Danny” every time I pass the pair of gas stations at the corner of River Street and Memorial Drive, where he bolted from his car after the Tsarnaev brothers ordered him to stop for gas. By what accident of fate or chance was it “Danny” who was carjacked at gunpoint and not you or me? On any given night on our way from Here to There, what are the chances we’ll fall victim to cancer, carjacking, or a wayward jet randomly falling out of the sky?

God only knows what the future holds; God only knows what the next moment may bring. If I can’t understand the working of my own memory and the way it holds, retrieves, and replays snippets of a song I haven’t heard in years, how can I fathom to guess what tomorrow, the next day, or the next might offer, the path of our lives being as random and haunting as any unforgettable tune.

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!

Reaching

When J and I went to Wellesley College to visit the greenhouse several weekends ago, we made a point to see Tony Matelli’s “Sleepwalker,” which has garnered lots of attention since he was unveiled outside the Davis Museum last month. I refer to the sleepwalker as a “him” rather than an “it” because this statue has acquired an almost-celebrity status after controversy erupted over his presence at the all-women’s college.

Asleep

Critics of Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” argue he should be installed inside (or removed from campus entirely) because the sight of an eerily realistic half-naked man looming with arms outstretched might be triggering to survivors of sexual assault. I’m no expert on the subject of post-traumatic stress, but I can say this much: Matelli’s sleepwalker is unbelievably creepy. When J and I set out on foot to find him, we had only a vague sense of where he might be located…but the second J spotted him, there was no mistaking him. Matelli’s statue doesn’t look like a statue: he looks like a man standing on the side of the road in his underwear. Had we not known the sleepwalker was a statue, I’m sure we would have veered around him, doing anything in our power to avoid the creepy half-naked guy on the other side of the street.

Wandering

But once you know the sleepwalker isn’t real, does he still seem threatening? Art is full of nude and semi-nude figures. Would Michelangelo’s “David” be frightening to survivors of sexual assault, given he’s entirely nude and armed with a slingshot? Few would suggest Michelangelo’s “David” isn’t art because he is gorgeous, and eye-pleasing nudes have long been considered worthy subjects for a sculptor’s attention. But a flabby, pale-skinned guy with a paunch calls into question our notion of “art” because his form is obviously not idealized. This isn’t an Adonis or even an Everyman; instead, it’s some random guy with a sleep disorder.

Posing

Imagining myself as an undergraduate walking back to my dorm after dark, I’m guessing I’d startle the first time I saw a statue like the sleepwalker looming near my path…but I’d probably grow used to him, realizing this half-naked guy doesn’t pose the same threat as other half-naked guys. Seeing Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” in the light of day on a quiet Sunday afternoon, I was struck by how vulnerable he looked. Perhaps I was swayed by the slushy puddle he was standing in, but instead of seeing him as a potential sexual predator, I couldn’t help but see him as a poor schlub who’s going to catch his death of cold if someone doesn’t cover him with a sweater or shirt.

Perchance to dream

Up close, Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” is alarmingly realistic. His skin is blotchy and prickled with goosebumps, and you can see the veins in his hands and the dirt under his fingernails. This verisimilitude is exactly what makes the sleepwalker creepy. Why would anyone in their right mind cast a statue that looks exactly like an average, ordinary person, and why would any college agree to display such a piece out in the open, right alongside a major campus thoroughfare?

Needs a manicure

“He looks like something from the morgue,” one man remarked after having pulled his car to the side of the road to take pictures. In the brief time we spent looking at this man-in-briefs, J and I saw a half-dozen onlookers in cars or on foot stop to investigate (and take photos of) the statue. Nobody seemed frightened by him, but many seemed to be bemused, taking the requisite cell-phone shots, with or without themselves posed for a selfie. Whether or not his presence is welcome at Wellesley, the sleepwalker has proven to be popular with sightseers, dog-walkers, passing pedestrians, and at least one blogger, all of whom want to stop, stare, and figure out what all the fuss is about.

J with sleepwalker

Sometimes in my literature classes, I pose the question “What is art,” and Tony Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” silently asks the same question. Is art limited to depictions of pretty people or figures so stylized, we’d never mistake them for an actual person? Can art replicate in almost exact verisimilitude the pockmarks and imperfects of an actual person, or must art necessarily be idealized? In debating these questions with my students, we’d often decide that intentionality is key: if an artist is trying to make a statement, even a fire extinguisher hanging on a wall can be “art.” If you believe art is anything that invites discussion and debate, Tony Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” has certainly achieved that aim.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

A greenhouse is a portal to another place or time. Entering the Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses at Wellesley College last weekend, J and I traveled across space to the tropics and across time to an eventual spring. A greenhouse is a magic box that contains its own world, its own climate, and its own sense of time: a self-contained universe that remains separate and apart.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

While many folks fly to warmer climes in the cold months, J and I typically don’t travel in the winter. We visit family in the summer, when my teaching load is lighter and the weather is more predictable: the only thing worse than weathering a New England winter is being stuck in an airport en route to Elsewhere. When you don’t travel during the winter, you become practiced in the art of hunkering down, cultivating your own inner fire while enjoying quick adventures close to home during the brief daylight hours: nothing that would keep you out in the cold for long, your own warm hearth being your final destination.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

“Traveling a great deal in Concord” is how Thoreau described his own practice of home-centered excursion, his afternoon walks beginning and ending at the very writing desk where he’d record them in his journal. When you travel a great deal in your own neighborhood, your consciousness grows like a taproot, delving deep into the familiar and mundane. You become a connoisseur of the Here and Now, cultivating patience like a hidden bulb that will bear fruit only in due course, after many storms and much suffering.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

Last weekend at the Wellesley College greenhouses, J and I repeatedly crossed paths with several photographers toting long-lensed cameras, tripods, and complicated flashes. “It’s like spring in here,” one of these photographers enthused as he followed us into a room filled with potted tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths. We later saw a van for a photography club on a field trip, and I can’t think of a better destination than a glass house that contains flora from around the world. A greenhouse, after all, is the opposite of snow globe. Instead of containing a tiny scene perpetually a-swirl in white, a greenhouse traps the sun’s own heat under glass, a sun-globe that refracts and magnifies all the color and warmth of an undying summer.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

Click here for more photos from last weekend’s trip to the Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses at Wellesley College: enjoy!

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