May 2015

After rain

May always passes in a flash: one minute we’re on the verge of spring, and the next we’re ripening into summer. I submitted the last batch of spring semester grades two weeks ago, then I faced the annual onslaught of Other Stuff: all the obligations that fall by the wayside during a busy semester, like dentist appointments and vet visits.

Bleeding hearts

This past weekend was the BRAWN Summer Institute, which for me signals the unofficial start of summer. Now that the dust has settled from another busy academic year, it’s time to stop, talk shop, and figure out what I want to do differently next year. Teaching is always a work-in-progress, but when you’re mired in the process of teaching, it’s difficult to find time to reflect and re-assess. The BRAWN Summer Institute always plants some interesting ideas in my head, and now I have a couple of months to cultivate those seeds.


In the meantime, summer is a chance to leave my mind alone, letting my brain lie fallow for a while. These past few weeks, J and I have spent a lot of time walking around our neighborhood, reclaiming sidewalks that were impassable for much of the winter. It’s relief to inhabit our own neighborhood again.

Newton's newest little free library

A Little Free Library has appeared in our neighborhood, with a sign urging passersby to “take a book, return a book.” The box is right alongside a footpath that is popular with dog walkers, runners, and mothers walking their children to and from school, so I’m sure many people will browse the books on offer even if they don’t take (or return) any for themselves.

Old phone booth repurposed as BookCrossing station

Most of the books currently in the box are for children, but there were several titles for adults as well. (I would have claimed a paperback copy of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild if I hadn’t already read it on my Kindle.) But even though I haven’t taken any books from our local Little Free Library, I did leave a paperback copy of Junot Diaz’ The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao–a book I enjoyed but probably won’t re-read–for someone else to claim. I like the idea of someone else happening upon a new-to-them book that would have otherwise sat collecting dust on my shelves: a sense of serendipity in the middle of an ordinary jog or dog-walk.

Little Free Library

These days I’ve fallen in love again with my local public library, submitting requests for books that look interesting and then feeling a small thrill when I get an email saying my book has arrived. Submitting library requests is like writing letters to Santa: you can ask for whatever you want, but you have to be patient (and have faith) while your request is being processed.

Whenever I go to the library to pick up a book I’ve requested, I browse the New Titles on display, looking for anything that catches my eye. When you spy a promising title you hadn’t previously heard of, you get the same sense of serendipity you might feel when browsing a Little Free Library: here, by chance, is a book for you, free for the taking, and all you have to do is claim it.

Literary freecycling is alive and well in greater Boston. The top photo shows the newest Little Free Library here in Newton, the second photo shows a phone booth re-purposed as a BookCrossing station on Mass Ave in Boston, and the last photo shows a Little Free Library in Jamaica Plain.


Yesterday when I heard that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had received the death penalty for his role in the Boston Marathon bombing, I knew I’d have to visit the newly dedicated memorial to slain MIT police officer Sean Collier. Whenever I’m at MIT, I stop by the spot outside the Stata Center where Collier was killed by the Tsarnaev brothers while sitting in his police cruiser, and since I had plans to be at MIT today, paying my respects at the newly dedicated memorial seemed fitting.


When I heard yesterday afternoon that the jury in the Tsarnaev case had reached a decision on his sentence, I stopped what I was doing and turned on the TV to watch. Just as I’d wanted to hear the verdict in the case as soon as it came in, I wanted to hear the sentence as it was announced. But as soon as CNN reported that Tsarnaev had been given the death penalty for placing the bomb that killed Martin Richard and Lingzi Lu, I turned off the news coverage. Although I wanted to hear the sentence that would determine Tsarnaev’s fate, I didn’t want to hear endless editorializing about that sentence.

Big heart; big smile; big service; all love.

Instead of listening to opinions and arguments about the wisdom or appropriateness of the sentence—what do you, I, or anyone else think should be done with Dzhokhar—I wanted simply to sit with the solemnity of the decision. What is it like to kill anonymous strangers—innocent bystanders you somehow think have wronged you—and what is it like to hear a sentence of death in return: an official legal pronouncement that he who lives by the sword shall die by it?


Tsarnaev will have ample opportunity to contemplate his own death as his lawyers file appeal after appeal, but neither Collier nor the other Marathon dead had that luxury. Two years ago on a beautiful April day, the Tsarnaev brothers irrevocably changed their own and countless others’ lives with the flip of a switch. Neither the death penalty nor life in prison can change that fact: the dead are still dead, severed limbs are still lost, and the grief-stricken still grieve. “Closure” is a word uttered by optimistic and well-intentioned folks who dare open their mouths in the face of irredeemable heartache. It doesn’t matter whether you, I, or anyone else supports the death penalty: before the jury decided anything, Tsarnaev and his brother made their own irrevocable choice.


The memorial erected to Sean Collier is a graceful and expansive thing, constructed of slabs of smooth gray granite that arch elegantly overhead. The five upright slabs, I read, radiate outwards like the fingers of a hand, but the point where they intersect is empty and ovoid, evoking the empty-handedness that is the human condition. The monument draws you in and invites you to circumnavigate it, and as I walked around taking pictures from this angle and that, several passersby stopped to look at and walk through the monument, touching the stone and reading its inscriptions.

In the line of duty

Nobody seemed to be talking about Tsarnaev and his sentence; nobody seemed to be talking at all. When you stand on the spot where a promising life was cut short, it’s difficult to find anything at all to say.

Brookline Cherry Blossom Festival

This past weekend, J and I went to the Brookline Cherry Blossom Festival, a celebration of Japanese culture that doubled as an excuse to be outside on a beautiful spring day. There were women in colorful kimonos…

Brookline Cherry Blossom Festival

…young people in origami Samurai hats…

Brookline Cherry Blossom Festival

…performances by taiko drummers…

Brookline Cherry Blossom Festival

…and a shishimai lion dance.

Brookline Cherry Blossom Festival

The costume for this dance was simple, consisting of a cape-like cloth and wooden lion head, but the charm lay in the creature’s mischievous behavior. Acting more like a dog than a lion, the puppet-like creature chewed his own toes and curled up for a nap before romping into the audience to spread good luck by nibbling the heads of delighted onlookers.

Brookline Cherry Blossom Festival

After a long, brutal winter, simply being able to sit outside in the sun felt like good luck, with or without mischievous lion nibbles.

Brookline Cherry Blossom Festival

Willow tree in bloom

Only after spring arrives and the trees burst into flower do I realize how much of the winter I’ve spent looking down. In winter, I trudge around in a bulky coat, hat, and scarf; on the coldest days, I top it all with a hood. Thus bundled, I keep my eyes down, my attention focused underfoot on the treachery of ice and snow. Like a mummy, my view of the world in winter is just a slit through swaddles.

Oak catkins and leaves

Spring sets my feet free in sandals, the sidewalks finally clear underfoot. In spring, you appreciate anew the miracle it is to walk the earth. In the spring, you don’t have to watch every step; in spring, your whole body feels as light as shirtsleeves. Walking at the end of an interminable winter feels like freedom, your ankles liberated from boots and the sinew-testing challenge of knee-deep snow drifts.

Dogwood flowers

Come summer, after the trees have finished leafing, their crowns will contain my view like a cap and I’ll look to the ground once again, searching for flowers and ground-creeping plants. But in early spring, the world’s inverted, with an ephemeral fury of flowers high overhead: blooms against blue.