Jul 22, 2015
Today I sorted through a dozen photos I’d taken when J and I saw an exhibit of model planes, trains, and automobiles at the Museum of Fine Arts last December. That exhibit is long gone, so it was fun to revisit photos I’d left on my camera and nearly forgotten about.
I enjoy reliving art exhibits when I go through my pictures, regardless of how much time has passed in the meantime. Sometimes when I’m looking for inspiration, I’ll click through my Flickr albums of past exhibits as a way to nudge my Muse. Even if I don’t “use” any of these archived photos in a blog post, I do “use” them as visual prompts: something to look at to stir my creativity, like smelling salts used to revise an unresponsive patient.
Looking at pictures stimulates my noticing muscle, and for me, noticing anything interesting–whether that be an unusual idea or intriguing angle–quickly converts to language. When I notice something interesting, my Inner Narrator perks up and wants to understand and explain that thing. Even if I”m writing about something completely different from whatever I”m looking at, the act of looking seems helpful, even if only as a distraction: something to pull me outside myself, and something for me to fiddle with, like intellectual worry beads.
I suppose there are people who use music in this way, a backdrop of sound serving to invigorate, inspire, and drown out distractions. For me, though, sight is more evocative than sound. I’m adept at ignoring sounds–a skill I acquired after being married to a musician for more than a decade–so sight is the sense that most directly gets me thinking. When I look at something closely, a string of sentences automatically appears and ultimately accumulates into some sort of narrative.
This is why I stockpile pictures from museum visits. Those visits are an immediate inspiration, lighting up a visual part of my brain that isn’t accessible any other way. But long after that immediate inspiration fades, my photos remain like preserves stocked on cerebral shelves: flavors from an earlier abundance.
Henry David Thoreau famously said that firewood warms you twice: once when you chop it, and once when you burn it. In a similar vein, I find that art inspires me twice: once when I see it in person, and once when I revisit my pictures, stashed away like souvenirs from inspiration gone by.
Jul 20, 2015
Last week when I went to the Newton Free Library to return a book, I saw that librarians had strung a line of handmade pennants promoting the mayor’s annual Summer Reading Challenge. As a child, I loved these challenges, as I loved to read and cherished the excuse of a “challenge” to indulge in a beloved summer pastime. Summer reading programs are designed to entice children who would prefer to do anything other than read, but I didn’t need any sort of enticement.
When I was a kid, signing up for a summer reading challenge meant you’d be rewarded for the number of books you read, with prizes such as stickers and T-shirt decals for each milestone. Although I didn’t need such prizes to lure me to the library, every year I signed up regardless because getting rewarded to read was like piling prizes atop of prizes. What I looked forward to each summer, after all, was the freedom to read more than I could during the school year, when both classes and assigned homework got in the way. Rewarding me for reading in the summer time was like rewarding a child for eating candy.
In Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, Gretchen Rubin advises against using rewards to encourage someone to cultivate a habit, as the habit itself should be its own reward. If the only reason you’re reading is to earn a sticker or T-shirt, you’ll probably stop reading after those rewards have ceased. For me, summer reading prizes were more of a bonus than a bribe, but I can understand Rubin’s perspective. If you’re trying to encourage a child who doesn’t like to read, offering prizes might work in the short term, but the reading habit will “stick” only if a child discovers he or she actually enjoys reading for its own sake.
Even now, I look forward to summertime as a chance to catch up with reading. During the school year, I spend too much time prepping classes and grading student papers. Summer is when I remind myself that the whole reason I became an English major, after all, is the simple fact that I love to read. During the lazy days of June, July, and August, I let my curiosity lead me, reading whatever catches my interest. Sometimes I’ll read something because a friend on Goodreads recommended it, like Carine McCandless’ The Wild Truth, or sometimes I’ll read a book because it’s related to a recent news story, like Rachel Hope Cleves’ Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America. When I hear an author I like is coming out with a new book, I immediately request it from the library, content to wait my turn along with the other early-birds. This means my summer reading list is a kind of planned serendipity where new books I’d forgotten I’d requested, like Judy Blume’s new novel or Oliver Sacks’ new autobiography, suddenly show up, ready for me to read them: a surprise that is its own reward.
Jul 16, 2015
This afternoon on my way home from an errand, I stopped at Boston College to walk the memorial labyrinth there. I’ve blogged about this labyrinth before: as someone who loves both walking and walking meditation, I’m fascinated by labyrinths, which are designed to contain an entire pilgrimage–there and back–in a single constrained space. Of the various labyrinths I’ve walked over the years, the one at BC is probably my favorite with its smooth stones and fringe of green grass. Why go on pilgrimage when the earth underfoot is so clearly holy?
When I taught at BC for a semester two years ago, I had high hopes of walking the labyrinth there frequently: how simple would be, I thought, to take a quick pilgrimage every day after class? In reality, though, I walked the labyrinth only once that semester, on September 11. The BC labyrinth is a memorial to alumni who died during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the anniversary of that tragedy pushed me out of my office and onto the labyrinth’s curvy course. Apart from that one day, however, I repeatedly told myself I didn’t have time to take a detour toward the labyrinth on the way from my office to my car. While teaching at BC three days a week for an entire semester, I repeatedly told myself I was too busy to take even a few extra minutes for a leisurely stroll.
Now that I’m not teaching at BC, I see each of the times I didn’t walk the labyrinth after class as being a missed opportunity. The fact that I felt I didn’t have time for a contemplative stroll meant I most definitely needed to take one: whenever you’re too busy to meditate, of course, is when you need meditation the most. As soon as I started walking the labyrinth today, I remembered a curious fact: when you’re walking a labyrinth, time seems to stand still. Whereas moments before you were checking your watch and ticking through your to-do list, the moment you start walking a labyrinth, time slows as you carefully attend the step underfoot, trusting the way There will eventually bring you back Here.
Jul 15, 2015
The Lawn on D is exactly what its name implies: a rectangular patch of grass along D Street in South Boston, next to the Boston Convention Center. Although I’ve walked past the Convention Center on numerous occasions, I didn’t know there was a lawn there until this past weekend, when I met friends to check out a temporary installation of giant inflatable rabbits.
As I approached the Lawn on D on Saturday afternoon, I heard upbeat music blaring from loudspeakers before I spotted any enormous bunnies. “I have to let you go,” the young man walking ahead of me shouted into his phone. “I’m on my way to a party.”
And he was exactly right: there’s nothing like giant inflatable rabbits to transform an otherwise bland rectangle of lawn into a festive atmosphere. Titled “Intrude,” Amanda Parer’s installation of giant white rabbits is intended to shock and unsettle: where did these behemoth bunnies come from, and what exactly are they doing here? As an Australian, Parer knows the environmental havoc invasive rabbits cause…but in Boston this weekend, the big bunnies’ cuteness undermined any real sense of invasive threat.
As it turns out, kids of all ages love white rabbits, even if they are both invasive and alarmingly large. On Saturday, there were parents posing their kids among the rabbits, and twenty-somethings taking selfies, and a seemingly interchangeable cast of characters lounging beside and even beneath the bunnies. Rabbits are quintessentially cuddly, and giant inflatable rabbits are infinitely huggable, as soft and inviting as fluffy pillows or clouds.
Art is something many people associate with indoor, buttoned-up places where signs and guards tell you to keep your distance: you can look, but you can’t touch (much less hug) the art. At the Lawn on D, the whole concept of art as an indoor endeavor seemed entirely irrelevant. More than an exhibit or installation, Intrude felt like a beach party or backyard cookout, with throngs of people congregating around lounge chairs, ping-pong tables, and a seemingly irresistible set of swings.
What does it take to turn an otherwise nondescript rectangle of grass into a communal conversation piece where kids of all ages can relax and play? Nothing more than an inflatable invasion of large, cuddly creatures that are entirely out of place but immediately make themselves at home. Now that Amanda Parer’s rabbits have come and gone, I can’t imagine how empty the Lawn on D must feel without them.
Jul 12, 2015
Every year, summer announces its arrival in ways that don’t necessarily correspond to human calendars. To some, Memorial Day marks the traditional start of summer, but for others, summer arrives with the summer solstice or the July 4th holiday. Memorial Day is in May, the summer solstice is in June, and the 4th of July is (obviously) in July, which means summer arrives either gradually or repeatedly over the course of a month or so, depending on whose calendar you follow.
For me, there are two surefire signs that the height of summer is really here: cicadas and coneflowers. Earlier this week, while J and I were walking to lunch on a humid day, I heard the year’s first cicada calling from a shady spot along a woodsy trail that wends through our neighborhood. To my ears, the first cicadas of summer sound shrill and sharp, as if recently honed. Only in August will the collective chorus of cicadas have a deeper, more rattling sound, as if their voices have both deepened and dulled with age.
Last Friday, I took a moment to photograph the purple coneflowers blooming in a garden alongside the Hyde Playground in Newton Highlands. Purple coneflowers are one of my favorite flowers: I love their eye-popping combination of purple and orange as well as the textural contrast between their pleated petals and spiky centers. The fact that these Hyde Playground coneflowers are garden plantings rather than wild blooms doesn’t make them any less a harbinger of summer: regardless of who planted them, these coneflowers open (and are beset with neighborhood bees) only when the sun stirs them.
So you can forget about the dog days of summer; we’ve reached the days of coneflowers and cicadas. What do dogs know about summer that the flowers and bugs haven’t already told them?
Jul 3, 2015
This month at the Newton Free Library, there is an exhibit of Russian matryoshka dolls in three glass cases in the main entrance hall. Normally I don’t pay much attention to the monthly displays in these cases: they’re simply something I pass on my way to pick-up or drop-off books. But because I know J admires Russian nesting dolls, I stopped long enough to snap a few photos, the way you do when you see something you know a loved one would love.
What initially caught my eye was a medium-sized Mikhail Gorbachev doll that contains within him his Soviet-era predecessors. I had to snap a photo to share with J because I knew that years ago during a business trip to Prague, J bought a large Boris Yeltsin that contains within him the same sequence of Russian leaders all the way back to the tzars. Although I’m no expert when it comes to Russian history or Russian nesting dolls, I recognize the zeal in J’s voice when he recites the names of Russian leaders like a litany, the smallest tzar not much larger than a grain of rice.
J is a connoisseur of matryoshka dolls, but I’m just a newbie, drawn to pay attention to something simply because someone I love is an admirer. I suppose this is how parents become well-versed in dinosaurs, Legos, or anything else their children love obsessively. I have to admire a collector’s zeal, even if I know little about his or her collection. When it comes to Russian matryoshka dolls, I admire the meticulous way one figure fits into another, a single doll containing an entire collection, each individual packed with its predecessors like a person carrying his own history.
Jul 1, 2015
Yesterday J and I went downtown to see Janet Echelman’s aerial sculpture “As If It Were Already Here,” which was unveiled (or, more accurately, installed) over a segment of the Rose Kennedy Greenway back in May. I say the sculpture was “installed” rather than “unveiled” because the piece itself is like a veil, or a net, or a web: a semi-translucent, windblown shroud that spans a section of park that used to be an ugly elevated highway.
“As If It Were Already Here” (which J and I informally dubbed The Webby Thing for lack of a better way to describe its shape and appearance) billows in the wind and invariably draws attention to the sky and skyline. Yesterday was a beautifully sunny day, and folks were lounging on Adirondack chairs and hammocks on the Greenway grass: what better way to spend a weekday lunch hour or coffee break?
A steady stream of passersby paused to take cellphone snapshots of The Webby Thing, which has a website mapping its Instagram images. Although I too took a dozen or so shots, The Webby Thing was difficult to photograph, as diaphanous things often are. Photos don’t portray the sheer size of the thing, which spans a city block and stretches from skyscrapers on one side of the now-buried highway to another. In some shots, you can see color stretched like a veil across the sky, but from other angles all you see are spiderweb-like strings.
“As If It Were Already Here” was installed in May, in an operation that entailed a cadre of coordinated cranes. (Click here for a time-lapse video of its installation.) Although the piece looks flimsy, according to the artist’s website it contains over 100 miles of twine, has over half a million knots, and weighs approximately one ton. Support cables are bolted to nearby buildings, and yesterday workers were re-tensioning its tethers, making sure the web was securely anchored.
The Webby Thing is mirrored in the many windows of surrounding skyscrapers, making me wonder what kind of view neighboring office-workers and hotel guests have of a gossamer ghost that floats like a giant jellyfish over passing pedestrians.