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Boston skyline from Skywalk Observatory

Last week J and I had Thanksgiving dinner at the Top of the Hub, just as we did last year. One of the things I’m grateful for is the place we live: Newton is a sleepy suburb of Boston, so it’s a quick trip into the city for culture and back home for quiet.

Towards Longfellow Bridge

When I lived in New Hampshire, I told myself I’d move back to Boston in a heartbeat if I could afford a way to live there, and some ten years later I find myself living just outside a city I loved at first sight. I can’t overstate the amazement I feel whenever I realize how far I’ve come from my childhood in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio, I sometimes say half-ironically, is a great place to be from; Boston, on the other hand, is a place other folks go to. Hailing from flyover country, I still feel like pinching myself when realize I live in a city other people visit on vacation.

Bend in the Charles

Thanksgiving Day was gray and drizzly, so after J and I parked on a holiday-empty Back Bay side-street, we walked directly to the Prudential Center, window-shopping the indoor mall there before heading to the Skywalk Observatory on the 50th floor. Viewed from above, Boston is a crowded tangle of streets and sidewalks: “How could people ever live there,” I can imagine newcomers wondering. But when I lived in a basement apartment in Beacon Hill more than a decade ago, Boston was entirely livable, a place I knew by heart and by foot.

Christian Science Center with drained reflecting pool

Looking at Boston from above is like looking at a map, and when I look at maps of Boston, I invariably juxtapose my own muscle-memories of walking these streets and sidewalks. Here along the Charles is the Esplanade where I’d sit in the sun and write letters home, there is the Public Garden where I’d watch skulking ovenbirds and warblers before heading to campus, and over there is the Christian Science reflecting pool, where I’d spend a quiet moment on my way from the Boston Public Library.

Citgo sign, Fenway Park, and Back Bay Fens

Most maps include a marker that says “You Are Here,” but the map that is Boston viewed from above reminds me where I was and were I came from: the long, winding route that led me here and all the places I’ve been along the way. I couldn’t tell you if I tried how to drive in Boston, since I didn’t have a car when I lived there. But I can tell you how to navigate the T and how to avoid being jostled on crowded sidewalks, and I remember with eyes closed the secret shortcuts only locals know.

Newton City Hall, right near Newton City Hall

When Massachusetts announced it would allow early voting this year, I wasn’t sure I wanted to take advantage of it. I like the annual ritual of walking to our local polling place after work on Election Day to vote alongside our neighbors, and I was afraid early voting would feel as impersonal as mailing in an absentee ballot.

Civic duty done.

I shouldn’t have worried. Today after lunch J and I walked to Newton City Hall to cast our early ballots, and along the way we saw a half dozen strangers sporting “I voted” stickers. One be-stickered man said hello as he and his partner passed, and his friendliness reminded me of the annual melting of New England resolve that happens on Marathon Monday. There’s something about doing your civic duty that makes even the most reticent New Englander a bit more cheery, whether that civic duty involves casting a ballot or cheering on passing runners.

He's with her.

At City Hall, a handful of volunteers stood outside with signs reminding us to vote yes to protect farm animals. Inside, a police officer sat quietly in a corner while a pair of election volunteers steered J and me to a check-in table where workers tapped our names into tablets, verified our address, and handed us a double-sided ballot and early-voting envelope.

There wasn’t a line to check in, but the dozen or more ballot booths lined along a nearby hallway were full. “At this rate,” an election worker told J as she applied a precinct sticker to his ballot envelope, “there won’t be anyone who hasn’t voted by election day.” Indeed, as of yesterday more than a tenth of all Newton voters had already cast their ballots, and who knows how many more voters will turnout before early voting ends on November 4th.

Newton City Hall, right near Newton City Hall

After I’d filled out my ballot and sealed it in its envelope, I had to wait at the ballot box while two adolescent girls in soccer uniforms politely asked the election volunteer if they could have a voting sticker even though they were clearly too young to register. The worker gave each of them two stickers: “One for this outfit, and one for your next.” Maybe in four years, these girls will be old enough to cast their own ballots, emboldened by the realization that they too can be President.

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.

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.

Adirondack chairs

August is the beginning of the end of summer, with back-to-school commercials playing on TV and Halloween candy on display at the grocery store. On Monday, I drove to Framingham State to help plan our annual retreat for first-year writing instructors: a time to come together and share teaching ideas before we put the finishing touches on our Fall semester syllabi.

Live to the truth.

I sometimes joke that my favorite time of year is August, when I’m planning my syllabi without any actual students around. When you’re ramping up for a new school year, absolutely anything is possible. All the practical problems you faced last semester are long forgotten, and a new school year offers the promise of a new beginning. This year, you tell yourself, you’ll engage your students with well-designed assignments; this year, you tell yourself, you’ll keep up with your grading and avoid the dreaded Dark Night of the Semester when both you and your students are tired and unmotivated.

Two chairs, no waiting

As soon as the school year starts, even a perfectly designed syllabus will be tested by practical realities: there’s never enough time, after all, to instill all the lessons you want your students to learn. As the late Mario Cuomo famously said, “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.” Just as political candidates promise the moon and stars, a teacher who is planning a syllabus sees the sky as being her students’ ceiling. There will be plenty of time later to revisit and adjust your actual expectations.

Don't eat the fish

This past weekend several friends and I walked along the Housatonic River in downtown Great Barrington, Massachusetts: a short, shady stroll that is popular with local dog walkers and baby strollers. In sunny spots we saw butterfly weed and wild bergamot blooming, and in shady spots we could watch the slow-moving waters flow below us.

Butterfly weed

Gazing at the placid flow of the Housatonic River, it’s easy to forget its waters are polluted, not pristine. The Housatonic carries PCBs and other industrial chemicals from the long-closed General Electric plant in nearby Pittsfield. Signs along the river warn fishermen not to eat their catch, and environmental activists refer to the river as the “Housatoxic.”

W.E.B. Du Bois advocate for rivers

I knew that the author, thinker, and civil rights icon W.E.B. Du Bois was born along the Housatonic River in Great Barrington, and I knew there is a garden and historical sign marking a site near his childhood home. What surprised me when we found that marker, however, is that it focused on Du Bois’ environmental advocacy as much as his civil rights work.

Wild bergamot

Even during Du Bois’ lifetime, the Housatonic River was sullied by industrial runoff. When Du Bois returned to Great Barrington in 1930 to address a gathering of his high school alumni, he beseeched the citizens of Great Barrington to clean the river that courses through their backyard:

The town, the whole valley, has turned its back upon the river. They have sought to get away from it. They have neglected it. They have used it as a sewer, a drain, a place for throwing their waste and their offal. Mills, homes, and farms have poured their dirt and refuse into it; outhouses and dung heaps have lined its banks. Almost as if by miracle some beauty still remains in places where the river for a moment free of its enemies and tormentors, dark and exhausted under its tall trees, has sunk back to vestiges of its former charm, in great, slow, breathless curves and still murmurs. But for the most part the Housatonic has been transformed into an ugly disgraceful thing

Butterfly weed

It’s obvious that even after Du Bois left Great Barrington to become a writer, scholar, and outspoken proponent for racial justice, he never forgot the river in his hometown. Du Bois’ fondness for the Housatonic reminded me of the Langston Hughes poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which traces the way heritage is tied to geography, not just genealogy:

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

Wild bergamot

Hughes wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” when he was only eighteen, and in it he describes his African-American heritage as running through both his bloodstream and the rivers of his ancestral homelands. In the ecological version of muscle-memory, Hughes’ soul recalls the landscapes where his people come from. Who you are as a person, he suggests, is irrevocably connected with the places you and your people come from.

Welcome to the Berkshires

Du Bois was so moved by Hughes’ poem, he published it in the July 1921 edition of The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP. Today, we know environmental degradation often occurs in places populated by the poor and people of color: it’s not the rich white citizens of Flint, Michigan who are drinking lead-tainted water. “Environmental racism” refers to the way the privileged and powerful often dump their toxic byproducts downstream in someone else’s backyard, and it’s a phenomenon Du Bois decried, even if he didn’t call it out by name.

Wild bergamot

Du Bois suggested the way we treat our rivers reflects our values as a society, reminding his audience that “we are judged by what we neglect.” Do we see rivers and the folks who live alongside them as rubbish heaps or sewers, places where we dump and disregard the effluvia we don’t want polluting our own neighborhoods?

If we choose to neglect a river, we can also choose to care for it, and this is what Du Bois ultimately advocated, urging the citizens of Great Barrington to “rescue the Housatonic and clean it as we have never in all the years thought before of cleaning it, and seek to restore its ancient beauty.” A community who cares for its rivers will care for the people and other living creatures that live alongside them, environmental justice rolling down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Edith Wharton's house

I’ve never been much of an Edith Wharton fan.  I read and disliked Ethan Frome as an undergrad, and I generally dislike the overwrought stuffiness of Gilded Age authors such as Henry James, who was friends with Wharton.  But this past weekend I visited the Mount, Edith Wharton’s lush country home in Lenox, Massachusetts, and seeing this place where Wharton lived and wrote helped soften my attitude toward her.

Drawing room

Like her prose, Wharton’s house is too formal and fancy for my taste.  Curatorial placards around the house insist that Wharton’s style was less ornate and more modern than the Victorian style of her contemporaries, but even Wharton’s more stripped-down decor is too busy for my taste.  But after wandering through Wharton’s house and surrounding gardens, I found myself sympathizing for her. Wharton believed so strongly that interior design should reflect a person’s taste and temperament, she co-wrote a book on the subject.  Although Wharton’s writing and home decor styles aren’t my cup of tea, I can understand her desire to use her house and gardens as a form of self-expression.

Dog treats

Both Wharton and her husband, Teddy, loved little dogs, and the Mount contains ample evidence of this one thing the couple had in common.  There are dog treats on the dining room table, an ornate dog bed in the drawing room, and pictures throughout the house of Edith and Teddy with small dogs perched on their laps.  Sadly, this shared affection for dogs wasn’t enough to keep Edith and Teddy Wharton together:  the couple divorced and sold their home only nine years after moving to Lenox, leaving behind the house, grounds, and a beautifully sited pet cemetery overlooking the gardens.

Edith Wharton's bed

Although I didn’t know much about Wharton’s life before touring the Mount, I’d heard stories about how she wrote.  The library at the Mount contains an elegant desk where Wharton sometimes posed for portraits, but she is better known for writing in bed, tossing pages of longhand prose onto the floor where her secretary would retrieve and reorder them.  Although it’s difficult to sympathize with someone so privileged she didn’t have to type much less number her own pages, I felt sad standing in Wharton’s bedroom.  As light streamed through windows overlooking Wharton’s beloved gardens, I could imagine how lonely she must have felt as she lay alone writing while her marriage crumbled.

Edith Wharton's desk

After her divorce, Wharton moved to Paris, leaving behind the house and gardens she’d designed and the pampered pets she’d buried there.  Virginia Woolf famously insisted that in order to write, a woman needs a reliable income and a room of her own, and Wharton, who was born into wealth, had both, at least for a time.  Ultimately, though, Wharton was forced by circumstance to leave the house she had both designed and loved, her room of her own being nothing less than the entire world.

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