May 2017


Botticelli at the MFA

Yesterday J and I went to the Museum of Fine Arts to see “Botticelli and the Search for the Divine,” a small but impressive exhibit of paintings from Renaissance Florence.

Botticelli at the MFA

The highlight of “The Search for the Divine” is Botticelli’s Venus, a life-size painting of the goddess of love. Whereas Botticelli’s earlier, more well-known Birth of Venus depicts the goddess arising from a shell attended by mythological figures, the painting currently on view at the MFA is deceptively simple. Set against a plain black background, Venus gleams like a diamond set on velvet, her skin glowing and flawless, her limbs long and languid, and her hair snaking free from an elaborate tangle of braids and curls.

Botticelli at the MFA

Equally impressive is a large crucifix painted on a cut-out wood panel, as if to be carried in procession. Looking at this crucifix, I was struck by the physical similarities between Botticelli’s Jesus and Venus. Both figures are idealized, nearly nude figures almost entirely free from blemish, and both exude an air of restful power and athletic grace.

Admiring Venus

Venus and Jesus both represent the best of human nature embodied: two complementary answers to the question of what love looks like in the flesh. Venus represents carnal love and Jesus represents spiritual love, but both are beautiful, flawless beings because they represent love’s transformative power. Viewed through the lens of love, all is perfect and well-formed.

Old glory

Today is the 100th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s birth, a centennial commemorated locally with a public radio series about Kennedy’s impact here in Massachusetts. It’s fitting, I think, that JFK’s centennial falls on Memorial Day. Kennedy served but didn’t die in war, but he did die in service to his country. Of war veterans it is often said that all gave some and some gave all, and the latter is true of Kennedy’s legacy of public service.

Pavilion with flag

“Ask not what your country can do for you,” Kennedy famously urged, “but what you can do for your country.” Veterans know full well what they can do for their country, and they do (and did) it. Kennedy, too, knew what he could do for his country, exhorting and encouraging his fellow Americans through oratory and example, urging Americans to reach for the moon and beyond.

I sometimes worry that this ideal of public service–of putting one’s country before oneself–is fading away, at least among politicians. Our current president’s most memorable contributions to American oratory are the phrases “Build the wall” and “Lock her up,” and I doubt he has ever asked anything more than what profit he could make from his country.

Looking up

Last night, J and I watched a television documentary about Kennedy’s assassination, and I was struck by the spontaneous reaction of the assembled crowds in Dallas when Kennedy’s death was announced. Ordinary citizens stood in the streets, weeping, and loose throngs of strangers gathered around parked cars, listening in shock to radio reports. There were no partisan divides, no divisions on account of race, class, or gender. For one day in Dallas, everyone was united in grief, Kennedy becoming in an instance everyone’s president.

Kennedy wasn’t a perfect president, nor was he a perfect man: no man or president is. But JFK is still revered as an American icon a century after his birth for one simple reason. In an era when it seems that everyone is out for himself, Kennedy embodied the noble ideal of giving oneself entirely in service to one’s country.

Above

This past Friday, I went to Boston’s Logan International Airport to pick J up from a two-week business trip. I got to the airport early, not knowing how bad the Memorial Day weekend traffic would be, so I had time to seek out the airport’s 9/11 Memorial, which commemorates the passengers and crew lost on two flights out of Boston that were hijacked and flown into New York’s World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001.

Departed

I like airports, despite (or maybe because of) their nervous bustle. Even if you yourself aren’t going anywhere, at an airport you can pretend you are while walking for what seems like miles within a labyrinthine warren of networked corridors. To get to the 9/11 Memorial on Friday, I walked the long corridor connecting Terminal E in one direction and Terminal A in the other, encountering along the way a disoriented fellow who was trying to find the arrivals terminal without knowing which airline his “arrival” was flying on. Pointing this man toward the closest of the airport’s terminals, I hoped someone would be able to help him once he got there.

Gingko grove

Once I found it, the 9/11 memorial at Logan Airport was underwhelming: a translucent glass cube in a grove of young gingko trees. To me, the trees were the most attractive aspect of the memorial–in autumn, they must be spectacular as they gleam golden. But the cube itself felt sterile and disconnected, nestled into a wedge of green between the central parking garage, the airport Hilton, and a noisy highway interchange.

American Airlines Flight 11

I’m guessing the cube is more impressive at night, when its panels are lit by ground-level lights. But by day, it looks like an empty bus-stop shelter or a giant glass Rubik’s cube. Whereas the 9/11 Memorial in New York City is fluid with paired waterfalls marking the spot where the Twin Towers stood, Logan Airport’s memorial to the two flights that were hijacked out of Boston is literally unmoving: the one thing in the landscape that never changes.

United Airlines Flight 175

While the parking garage next to the memorial is sided with countless metal flaps that swing in the breeze, creating a mesmerizing ripple effect like wind tousling a dog’s fur or a bird’s feathers, the memorial cube has solid glass sides and an open-air “roof” with glass tiles affixed on two slanted planes of parallel wires. The effect is of glass fragments caught in mid-air, and perhaps that is the intended impression. But while those mid-air shards evoke the shattered glass of the wrecked Twin Towers and the subsequent confetti-like fall of paper, glass, and other debris, this image of shattered-glass-frozen-in-abeyance seems an odd choice to commemorate two planes that were turned by hijackers into missiles, the exact opposite of an unmoving cube.

Departed

Inside the cube are panels listing the passengers and crew lost on the two flights out of Boston that crashed into the Twin Towers: American Airlines Flight 11, which departed Boston at 7:59 a.m, and United Airlines Flight 175, which departed at 8:14 a.m. The cube commemorates the moment each of these planes departed, not the moments they were hijacked and crashed into the North and South Towers. If you wanted to freeze in time any moment from that day, it would be the moment of takeoff, not the moment of impact. At the moment of takeoff, all but five passengers on each place were blithely unaware of their fates, laboring under the sunny illusion that their lives like their travels were going somewhere.

Memorial cube

Airports are places of promise and opportunity–Bon Voyage!–except when they aren’t. A sterile glass cube tucked into a forgotten corner between a hotel and a parking garage at Boston’s Logan Airport reminds us that sometimes the dearly departed are not destined to arrive.

Vanhoutte Spirea

At some point this week, I blinked and spring slipped into summer. Trees that were leafing are now in full leaf, and fragile spring flowers have faded and given way to hardier replacements.

Just bloomed

Where there was honeysuckle, now there is beauty bush, and lily-of-the-valley is blooming where there had been glory-of-the-snow. In our front yard, the pieris is starting to fade, the mountain laurel is about to bloom, and the turkeys that were loud and emphatic only a week or so ago have started to quell and quiet.

When, exactly, does spring start and summer begin? At exactly the moment when green passes into green, the pale neon glow of fresh foliage deepening into a more somber and shadowy hue.

Sprawling oak

The week after spring semester grades are due is devoted to faculty meetings, retreats, and professional development workshops: a chance to sit and talk with colleagues you’ve seen only in passing the rest of the semester. Although I’m no fan of meetings, I appreciate the chance to debrief after the end of a busy semester: what worked? What didn’t? What do we want to do moving forward?

Parking structure

If nothing else, a week of meetings gives faculty a chance to enjoy campus when it is at its lush and leafy best, without any students around to appreciate it. Having pushed so hard to finish the semester and its great gush of final grading, I find it soothing to be around the simple surety of leafing trees and greening grass.

By any other name

This year for Mother’s Day, I did something I’ve never done before: I bought myself flowers. J and I don’t have children, but I spend a lot of time tending our animals, so when I was doing this week’s grocery shopping, I picked up a mixed bouquet for myself, from the pets. I’m not a mother, I decided, but I spend a lot of time and energy on the kinds of things that mothers do, a wide swath of my life devoted to feeding, cleaning, tending, and errand-running.

Gracie peekaboo. #catsofinstagram #graciethecat

Several weeks ago, one of my students asked me point-blank: am I childless by choice, or was I unable to have children? Normally, this might seem to be an impertinent question, but this particular group of students and I have read and discussed texts about a wide range of sensitive topics, and we’ve built a rapport.

“Choice,” I answered, and she nodded. I explained that I’d always known that I didn’t want kids: when adults told me I’d acquire maternal instincts when I was older, or when my biological clock went off, I inwardly disagreed, and I was right. Some people have always known they are gay, and I’ve always known that I wasn’t cut out to be a mother. It’s a vocation I was never called to.

All ears. #dogsofinstagram #cassiethedog #whitegermanshepherd

It’s difficult, of course, for a woman to openly admit she doesn’t want children: women were put on this earth, some would argue, to have and tend to children. Years ago when I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, a Korean woman who lived there with her two children was horrified to learn that my then-husband and I didn’t have kids of our own. “A woman needs children to experience the universe,” she declared, but she relented when she learned I was in graduate school studying to become a professor. “Oh, you’re a teacher,” she exclaimed with an air of relief. “You will experience the universe through your students!”

Cuddle buddies. #catsofinstagram #gumbothecat #ninathecat

I’m not sure a woman needs children, students, or even pets to experience the universe: I think being alive and awake and aware is enough. But perhaps some people (men and women alike) need occasional reminders that a universe exists outside themselves. I don’t know what it’s like to raise children, but I do know that tending animals constantly reminds me that I am but one tiny creature on an enormous planet of need, and my well-being is intrinsically connected with that of my fellow creatures. Perhaps that is a lesson we all can take from mothers and Mother’s Day.

Today’s photos show a handful of our pets: Gracie playing peekaboo under a loveseat, Cassie looking alert, and Gumbo and Nina sitting side by side.

The little reader, reading @newtonfreelibrary

One of the things that always makes me eager to finish my end-term grading piles are the piles of books I’ve stockpiled for summer. You might think grading piles of exams and essays would make me grow sour on reading, but actually the opposite is true. The more student writing I read, the more I want to immerse myself in writing done by professionals.

To me, reading is like watering a plant. It’s true that my brain won’t die if I don’t read books, essays, and articles on a wide range of topics, but I sincerely believe it will start to shrivel. Throughout the semester, I try to read at least a little bit every day, and I intentionally try to be as eclectic as possible in my choices. The point of reading isn’t to underscore the things you already know; it’s to stretch your thinking in new directions.

Elliptical staircase

I make a habit of keeping my phone nearby when I listen to public radio so I can quickly lookup and add to my Goodreads “to-read” list (and then request from the library) any titles mentioned that pique my curiosity, and I do the same whenever I watch or read the news. The people I most admire are the ones who never stop learning, and the way I feed my inner lifelong learner is through a long queue of library books.

I encounter a surprising number of would-be writers who claim they hate to read, arguing that reading others’ work will only drown out their own voice. To me, this is a ludicrous claim. Writers improve not through isolation but immersion. Just as would-be musicians can easily name their favorite bands, would-be writers should be well-versed in the words and ideas of others. Writing isn’t about speaking into a vacuum; it’s about jumping into a conversation, so it helps to be well-read (and thus well-conversant) on a variety of topics.

Origami cranes from above

So, what’s currently on my reading pile? At the moment I’m hurrying to finish Elizabeth Warren’s latest book before it’s due back at the library, and I’m looking forward to the other checkouts in my bag: Perfect Strangers, Roseann Sdoia’s memoir of the Boston Marathon bombing; Born a Crime, Trevor Noah’s memoir from his South African childhood; and The Nature Fix, Florence Williams’ exploration of the science behind nature’s curative powers. After that, I’ll read whichever of the books I’ve requested from the library shows up first: a series of summer surprises to keep my brain fed until fall.

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