Art & culture


Self portrait with paper doves

On Saturday as I approached the Museum of Fine Arts, I saw a young couple walking ahead of me. It’s not unusual to see young couples walking in Boston, but what caught my eye was the young woman’s pink, pointy-eared hat. Although I’d read about the Pussyhat Project and knew knitters across the country have been making pink hats for the Women’s Marches that will take place across the nation next Saturday, I’d never seen a real live pussyhat in the wild.

Lime Green Icicle Tower

As I watched the couple ascend the stairs to the Museum’s Fenway entrance, I knew what I had to do. Although my own hat is black and store-bought, I’m planning to attend next week’s Boston Women’s March for America, and I realized it was time to come out as a Pussyhat-in-Hiding. Since my museum membership allows me one guest, I approached the couple as they stood in line for tickets, complimenting the woman on her hat and offering to get her into the Museum for free.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

While her boyfriend bought his ticket, “N” and I chatted about next weekend’s march: she is knitting pussyhats to give away to marchers, and I’m looking forward to marching even though I don’t have a pussyhat to wear. You can see, I suspect, where this is going. By the time her boyfriend had bought his ticket, “N” promised to mail me one of her knitted hats, and I gave her my email address to arrange logistics. None of this would have happened, of course, if “N” weren’t wearing a pink knitted hat with cat ears that inspired me to approach her. The simple act of seeing someone in a distinctive (and politically significant) hat inspired me to reach out rather than quietly minding my own business.

Lime Green Icicle Tower

There’s nothing stopping any of us from walking up to a stranger and doing something kind: inviting “N” to be my Museum guest cost nothing but the nerve to approach her. And yet, I would have never dreamed of walking up to a stranger before November. Suddenly, the election of a man who promised to Make America Hate Again makes simple acts of kindness feel subversive and powerful, a revolution powered by knitting needles and nice gestures.

Inside the Museum, in the sun-drenched enclosed courtyard that connects the building’s old and new wings, there are artworks made by local schoolchildren in honor of Martin Luther King Day. The most eye-catching of these are quilts bearing quotations from King, each letter whimsically decorated: a chorus of colors.

No person has the right to rain on your dreams

These quotes from King seem particularly relevant in today’s political climate, when the voices of hate have grown loud and it’s easy to give up hope. “I have decided to stick with love,” one quilt proclaims. “Hate is too great a burden to bear.” I’ll confess to carrying more anger than I’d like these past few weeks, unable to fathom how some voters could choose a mean-spirited, hot-headed bully over a woman with a lifetime of experience. But this, indeed, is a burden too great to bear: as King himself exhorted, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.

Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase

So how do we move forward, regardless of the burdens we carry? Dr. King said “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” so what are these things? From where I sit, kindness matters, and so does compassion. Truth matters, even if some don’t want to hear it. Lending a helping hand matters, as does protecting the sick and vulnerable. Love matters, and random acts of kindness, and both solidarity and sisterhood. So next Saturday in Boston and beyond, women and men of all colors and stripes will march together for what matters: a chorus of colors, beautiful and harmonious.


Glass gallery door

Today I went to the Museum of Fine Arts: a belated birthday treat. I went to the Museum to see an exhibit of paintings by William Merritt Chase but found more interesting an exhibit on Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock that I wandered into by chance. That is the serendipitous nature of museums: given the abundance of riches at every turn, you can wander until you find something that speaks to you.

Pollock and Picasso

One of the things I like to do at Museums is hunt for images. This means I roam from gallery to gallery looking rather than reading: I just wander, looking at everything, not just the art. I look at other museum goers, shadows on the floor, and reflections on the wall. You might say I’m interested in observing the entire museum space: not just the art on the walls, but the habitat the art lives in. While other museum patrons are snapping photos of their favorite paintings, I’m looking for interesting views through doorways and down corridors. It’s not that I’m not interested in looking at art, but I find museum spaces to be equally interesting.

Picasso and Pollock

You could argue that my way of cruising through museums is intrinsically predatory: I’m perpetually on the lookout for images I can use. Instead of seeing paintings and sculptures as finished artifacts, I see them as stimuli. An interesting image scratches an inner creative itch. When I see interesting paintings, drawings, or sculptures, they stimulate the part of my brain that wants to think and make connections. Going to a museum is a way to feed my Inner Artist, so I circle the galleries like a vulture scavenging shapes and shadows. If I find and photograph enough interesting images, my full memory card can last me for weeks: a restocking of inspiration.

Geometric

I didn’t go to the Museum of Fine Arts at all last year: not for my birthday, and not any other time. It’s not surprising, then, that I spent the majority of last year feeling like I had nothing to write about, because I didn’t. For me, writing often starts with looking, and there’s no better place to exercise your looking-muscle than at a well-stocked museum. When I haven’t been to a museum for a while, my spirit grows lean and hungry, craving a visual feast.

My birthday trips to the MFA take me away, if only for an afternoon, to a place rich with imagery and rife with inspiration. It’s a place we all should visit more often.

RIP Prince

Without much hoopla, Hoarded Ordinaries has made the awkward transition from tween to teen:  it’s been a little over thirteen years since I published my first blog post on December 27, 2003. Because my blog anniversary happens so close to the New Year, I typically use the occasion to post some sort of retrospect on the previous year in blogging. So in honor of Hoarded Ordinaries’ thirteenth birthday, here are thirteen posts from 2016.

End white supremacy

Many people were happy to see 2016 go, given its tumultuous conflicts, violent outbreaks, and tragic losses. When I look back on 2016 through the lens of my blog, I see frequent reminders of loss and heartbreak. I blogged relatively little in 2016, averaging less than a handful of posts most months. (In September, I only posted once, which is unusual for me.) One of my resolutions for 2017 is to blog more, and considering I posted only three entries in January 2016, I’m already on-track to blog more this January than last, at least.

Bunny enjoys her lap-time

Last year began with J and me putting Bunny the cat to sleep, a sad event I chronicled in “Traveling Mercies.” In May, we put another of our cats, Crash, to sleep, and I described the now-too-familiar experience of coming home to a too-big, too-empty house in “His ninth life.” As if euthanizing two cats weren’t enough, in October we put our elderly beagle to sleep after a sudden seizure led to a diagnosis of metastatic cancer. I never got around to blogging Melony’s death: I never found (and still don’t have) words to describe the sudden, beagle-sized hole in our household.

Float reflections

Many of the tragedies of 2016 transcended the purely personal. In “A world full of swans,” I responded to the Orlando nightclub shootings, and in “The cries of the world,” I addressed gun violence by and against police. The election of Donald Trump was a development I’m still reeling from, and I described my reaction in a post titled “Aftermath.”

Stickwork

Not everything in 2016 was drear and disappointing. In August, I enjoyed a trip to the Brookline birthplace of John F. Kennedy, which I blogged in “The house on Beals Street.” In October, I enjoyed a trip to the Tower Hill Botanic Garden to see a stickwork installation by Patrick Doughtery, which I described in “Where the wild things are.”

Journal pages

Although I didn’t write much in 2016, I did meet my goal of reading (more than) 50 books, which I recorded on Goodreads. Of the books I read in 2016, I particularly enjoyed Alexander Masters’ A Life Discarded, which I discussed in “Trusting your days to the page“; Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which I mentioned in a September post titled “Between the book and me“; and Kerry Egan’s On Living, which I reviewed in a December entry of the same name.

RIP Bowie

Many of my blog entries aren’t easily categorized: one of the things I love most about blogging, in fact, is its random and ragtag nature. In a February post titled “As the moment unfolds,” for example, I describe the flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants feeling I have whenever I teach a new course for the first time, and in “A grace freely given,” I describe the feeling of abundance that comes from leaving a book in a Little Free Library. Finally, in “Keep your options open,” I describe the spacious, free-fall feeling that comes in the summer when I have time to write but haven’t yet defined a topic.

Wake up and do good

For thirteen years, Hoarded Ordinaries has been a place where I’ve explored the creative abundance of writing by the seat of my pants, with or without a clearly defined topic. Here’s to another year of posts both random and ragtag.

Twas the night before Christmas

I recently finished reading On Living, Kerry Egan’s memoir of her work as a hospice chaplain. I took my time reading the book: like dark chocolate or strong medicine, On Living is best in small, savored doses. Each chapter describes patients Egan has met over the years and the lessons she’s gained from those encounters, and these seemingly simple accounts are surprisingly powerful.

Going places

Early in the book, Egan struggles to describe her job to a woman at a party who can’t quite understand what it is, exactly, that hospice chaplains do. I suppose the word “chaplain” evokes images that might not match the reality of the person standing next to you at a party: Egan isn’t a priest, nun, or pastor, and her book isn’t full of the God-talk and conventional piety you might expect from clergy. But that, actually, is what makes the book so powerful.

Caroling

Egan doesn’t spend much time preaching, praying, or enacting overtly religious rituals at the bedsides of dying patients; instead, she describes herself as showing up and spending lots of time listening. Egan calls this endeavor “being present,” and it seems a deceptively simple thing: surely anyone with a backside to sit on and a mouth that closes is equipped to sit and listen, but of course it isn’t that easy.

Ice cream shop

Judging from the stories Egan tells, a chaplain’s most powerful skills are the abilities to listen, empathize, and refrain from casting judgement. A good chaplain, Egan suggests, suspends her desire to jump in and fix the situations she encounters. Better than even the best advice and encouragement is a well-timed nod or genuine question that reflects a patient back upon her own lived experience: gestures that say “Tell me more” rather than “Let me tell you how it is.”

Bearing gifts

This practice of “being present,” in other words, is amazingly difficult exactly because it is unbelievably simple. “This is a real job,” Egan’s fellow party-goer asks her with a mix of hostility and incredulity, “that people go to graduate school for?” This question points to the paradox of pastoral care: the things that seem the simplest to do are actually the most difficult, many friends and family members avoiding awkward visits to the hospital or nursing home exactly because they don’t know how to act, what to do, or what to say when faced with a person who is terminally ill.

Carolers

I’m not a hospice chaplain, but I found myself nodding as I read Egan’s book, her experience at the bedside of dying patients ringing true with my experience giving consulting interviews as a Senior Dharma Teacher. When I started giving interviews, a Zen Master friend gave me a bit of advice that has proven to be invaluable. Giving consulting interviews, he explained, isn’t about answering questions; it’s about sharing an experience.

Photo opportunity

In the years I’ve been giving interviews, I’ve decided he’s exactly right on that point. The folks who come into the Zen Center interview room aren’t asking for advice; instead, they want the reassurance of knowing they aren’t alone in whatever challenge they face. Faced with a receptive listener who has reined in her desire to jump in and fix their life situation, the folks who come talk to me usually come to their own clarity and conclusions. All I do by being present is give them permission to listen to their own gut.

Band

Being a hospice chaplain, Egan explains, isn’t about being a storyteller; it’s about being a story holder. As people face the end of their lives, they are in a unique position to look back and reflect, and sometimes what they want is nothing more than a nonjudgmental person to sit quietly alongside them, ready to cherish whatever stories they want to share. On Living is a repository of these stories, and that is what makes it priceless.

DISCLOSURE: I received a free copy of On Living through a Goodreads giveaway.

Stickwork

If I had tried to pick the perfect day for a first visit to Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, Massachusetts, Saturday would have probably been it. Saturday was a quintessential New England autumn day, with a brisk breeze, azure skies, and a brilliant backdrop of fall foliage. It was a perfect sweatshirt weather, and the grounds (which I trust are beautiful in all seasons) were resplendent with mid-October color.

Arch and entrance

A (not her real initial) and I went to Tower Hill on Saturday to see The Wild Rumpus, a stickwork installation by Patrick Dougherty. Woven together from local saplings, The Wild Rumpus looks like a cross between a castle and a bird nest, with multiple rooms, windows, and passageways culminating in several twisted towers.

The title of Dougherty’s installation alludes to Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, and The Wild Rumpus does indeed look like the lair of a rumpus-making monster. The woodsy paths leading to and from the installation were dotted with signs with laminated pages from Sendak’s book, as if inviting children to act out their own version of young Max’s mischief-making.

Window

The handful of children A and I saw inspecting The Wild Rumpus up close seemed undecided about it: several seemed scared to approach it, but others enjoyed creeping and peeking through its wicker-like walls, at least after some reassurance from their parents. The monsters in Where the Wild Things Are might look scary, but they are lovable once Max gets to know them, and Dougherty’s stickwork structure is similarly inscrutable, it not being immediately clear whether friendly fairies or wicked witches live here.

It turns out a house made of sticks offers the best of both worlds. Although the great outdoors are best for rumpus-making, a nest woven from saplings lets the outside stream straight in.

Pride

When I first started teaching more than twenty years ago, I asked my undergraduate mentor how long it would take before I could teach without jitters, and he responded with a remark I’ve never forgotten. “If you’re not nervous before teaching a class,” he said, “you have no business teaching that class.”

I’m remembering that long-ago comment as my Intro to College Writing students begin discussing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which was this year’s common reading for incoming students at Framingham State. I first read Coates’ book last December, soon after it came out to popular and critical acclaim: I was curious to read for myself a book that generated so much heated discussion about the sadly relevant topics of racism and police brutality. But casually reading and thinking about a book is vastly different from engaging a classroom of first-year students in a discussion of the touchy subjects raised by that book, so I’m more than a bit apprehensive as I look ahead to this week’s classes.

Hipster trash

Between the World and Me is a difficult, unsettling text because it resists easy answers: when it comes to race in America, Coates isn’t optimistic or hopeful, and that is not a popular outlook. Mainstream American culture likes to fix things: we’re addicted to happy endings, and we like to think we’ve made great strides when it comes to social issues, even when the most cursory examination of the nightly news suggests we haven’t come far enough.

In the opening pages of the book, Coates describes a satellite interview where a TV journalist asks him why he believes America was founded on a history of theft and violence against people of color, and his response is sadness: not sadness over the realities of American history, which are not new to him, but at the implicit obliviousness of the journalist’s question. Realizing there is no satellite powerful enough to built a bridge between someone who has experienced racism and someone who has not, Coates is saddened for the journalist who interviews him, the society that protects her within a bubble of privilege, and his fifteen-year-old son, who is coming of age in a society where there is no buffer between him and threat of racist violence.

Consumption Lust Security

I am nervous to broach these topics with my students because they are so relevant: the issues that spurred Coates to write his book have continued to simmer and boil. As much as the American cult of positivity encourages us to ignore complex issues in favor of quick-fixes and feel-good bromides, I know difficult conversations are the only path forward. But considering my own classes, I feel ill-equipped to facilitate those discussions: at the end of a week where black men are still being gunned down by police and a campaign worker for Donald Trump had the temerity to suggest President Obama is the source of racial unrest, I don’t feel I have any answers or insight into the difficult questions my students might pose.

This is, I think, what my undergraduate mentor meant all those years ago. It would be both arrogant and misguided of me to walk into class with a smug sense of having an insight into Coates’ text: if anything, Between the World and Me forces white readers like me to set aside our easy answers. (When the reporter interviewing Coates in the book’s opening pages asks him whether a viral video showing a young black boy tearfully hugging a white police officer gives him hope, Coates admits a sense of defeat. If you think systemic racism can be eliminated with a hug or two, you haven’t comprehended the true depth of the problem.)

Reaching

My students, I know, want answers and the comfort of clarity: they understandably want to know what they need to extract from this or any other book to impress me, get a good grade, and graduate into a successful life. Coates himself is suspicious of schooling, seeing it as an institution that encourages conformity more than free and critical thought, and I can’t say I blame him: it is a dangerous power-trip for any educator to stand in front of a classroom and proclaim the Way Things Are or Should Be.

As I re-read the opening pages of Between the World and Me, I’m reminded of my true job as a college professor. As much as I want to waltz into my classes with The Answer, all I can honestly do is encourage my students to approach the text the way I do, with a willingness to listen and have my preconceptions shattered. More than any insights or answers, all I have to offer my students is a way of reading that holds open a genuine question.

When you open a book, you hear a writer’s voice, and some of the most interesting conversations happen when you’re humble enough to refrain from judgment, simply listening to the ideas that emerge, even if (or especially if) those ideas seem different from your own. When I read a book like Between the World and Me, I don’t try to crack it like a nut that yields a clean kernel of truth. Instead, I open myself to an ongoing interrogation between the book and me that calls into question my own assumptions, blind-spots, and the systemic forces that keep me from asking difficult questions of myself and others. I hope to encourage my students to do the same.

JFK birthplace

This weekend my sister and I went to the house in Brookline, Massachusetts where JFK was born. Officially known as the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site, the three-story house at 83 Beals Street is maintained by the National Park Service, whose rangers lead walking tours through both the house and surrounding neighborhood.

Master bedroom. JFK was born in the bed near the window.

Joe and Rose Kennedy moved to Beals Street in 1914 when they were newlyweds, and they had four of their nine children during the six years they lived there. This being the era when doctors made house calls, John (known to his family as Jack) and his sisters Rosemary and Kathleen were born at home in the master bedroom. (The couple’s eldest son, Joe Junior, was born while the family was vacationing in Hull, Massachusetts.)

Bathroom, with Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald’s maiden initials on the towels

Joe and Rose Kennedy were well-to-do when they moved to Beals Street, their starter home having room for not one but two maids. But the house where Jack was born is far from palatial, with one small bathroom and only two bedrooms for a growing brood of kids, and in 1920 the growing family moved into a larger house a few blocks away.

Young JFK slept here

The Kennedy kids were born into privilege, but they never forgot their mother’s favorite Bible verse: to whom much is given, much is required. Joe and Rose Kennedy intentionally raised their children to be public servants, expecting them to be well-informed about politics and current events and to participate (even as youngsters) in the dinner table debates the family was known for.

Children's table set for John and Joe Junior

The house on Beals Street is frozen in time, with clocks set to 3:00 pm (the hour of Jack’s birth). In the dining room, a tiny table is set for Jack and his brother when they were toddlers, and the room that Rosemary and Kathleen would ultimately share is decorated as a guest room, as it was before they were born.

Sitting room with piano

After John F. Kennedy became President, the house where he was born, which was then under private ownership, was only occasionally visited by curious onlookers. After his assassination, however, Beals Street was thronged with mourners looking to make a kind of pilgrimage, as if visiting the site of Kennedy’s birth would somehow help them make sense of his untimely death.

Dining room set with Rose Kennedy's wedding china

In 1966, Rose Kennedy re-purchased the house with the intention of restoring it to its original appearance and donating the property to the National Park Service to serve as a memorial to her son. This weekend on our tour, my sister and I were joined by tourists from Colorado, New Mexico, and Japan, the allure of JFK still reaching far and wide.

Rose Kennedy's boudoir

Touring the house on Beals Street, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between JFK’s presidency and the current presidential campaign. Kennedy was an orator who was groomed from birth to be a public servant: I wonder what he’d make of the crass and crude rhetoric of this present campaign, or how he’d respond to a candidate who like him was born into wealth but shows no proclivity for service and sacrifice.

Historical marker for JFK birthplace

To whom much is given, much is required. Walking through the house where Jack Kennedy was born is sad because despite Rose Kennedy’s attempt to freeze a happy moment in time, we all know how the story ends. The house on Beals Street captures the happy promise of a young family with their lives ahead of them. Only later would the Kennedy family’s commitment to public service take an exacting toll.

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