Massachusetts


Yes, we'll be watching.

Yesterday was the much-awaited Great American Eclipse, a celestial event that spanned the continent and consequently garnered a great deal of media buzz. Although New England was outside the path of totality, partial solar eclipses are interesting in their own right, so months ago I bought eclipse glasses, looking forward to an opportunity to let my inner science nerd shine.

One of the things that struck me about yesterday’s eclipse was its (literally) universal aspect. The sun shines on rich and poor alike, white and black, left and right. Everyone looks funny and feels foolish wearing eclipse glasses, and everyone’s first remark upon seeing a bite bitten out of the sun is some variation of “Oh, wow!”

Eclipse watching

Eclipses are wonderful but not surprising: these days, we know far in advance when, where, and to what degree an eclipse will occur. But much of the wonder of any eclipse is the very fact that it happens just as predicted. We say “Oh, wow” because the bite nibbled out of the Vanilla Wafer sun happens just as expected and right on schedule. It’s the wonder of holding a newborn infant and counting her tiny fingers and toes: exactly ten of each, just as it should be.

It comes as news to no one that we are a divided nation, but as soon as we step outside and look up, we find something we all share. Yesterday here in lush and leafy Newton, neighbors spontaneously gathered at the local ballfield, each of us drawn to its wide, unobstructed sky. And just like that, a set of suburban Little League bleachers was transformed into an observation platform peopled by armchair astronomers.

Colander crescents

Some of us had eclipse glasses and others had homemade pinhole viewers made out of cereal boxes; everyone shared. One boy showed off a richly illustrated National Park Service booklet about eclipses, and I held aloft a kitchen colander I’d brought, casting a constellation of pinhole crescents onto a piece of cardstock. It was, I’d guess, the kind of ragtag gathering that happened in lots of neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces across the country yesterday: a spontaneous gathering of strangers that fell into place because word had gotten out that something special was happening. All you had to do to join was go outside and look.

And here’s the shocker: the sun is there every day, and so are your neighbors. Yesterday offered a rare and special light show, but every day there are weird and wonderful things happening in place you might not expect, but can readily see if you’re outside and looking.

Cicada killer

Yesterday as we were sitting on the bleachers gazing skyward, an enormous bug suddenly zoomed and buzzed us. It was an aptly named cicada killer wasp carrying a cicada that looked twice its size. Nobody could have predicted a two-inch wasp carrying an even bigger bug would fly by at exactly that moment, but we shouldn’t have been surprised. Cicadas, like the sun, are almost ubiquitous in August, and so too are the wasps that sting and paralyze them before dragging them underground to serve as living larvae-food.

Cicada killer

It’s a weird and wonderful world out there: sometimes we’re expecting signs and wonders, and sometimes they shock and surprise us, buzzing right by our upturned faces. As the sun gradually grew back into its usual round shape, J and I walked toward home with a neighbor, startling a pair of strolling turkeys before meeting up with another neighbor walking the other way.

He’d viewed the eclipse at home with a pinhole viewer with his kids, he said, but he hadn’t seen it directly. Leaving him with a pair of eclipse glasses, we told him to wait until the clouds cleared and then look up. Although we left him there alone, I can predict what he said the moment the clouds parted: some variation of “Oh, wow!”

Stickwork

Today J and I drove to Salem, MA to visit the Peabody Essex Museum. Before we went inside, we took a detour around the block to see What the Birds Know, a stickwork installation by Patrick Dougherty.

Exploring

Dougherty is the same artist who created The Wild Rumpus, a stickwork installation I’d seen at Tower Hill Botanic Garden (and subsequently blogged) last October. Although the two pieces are crafted from the same materials and share a similar whimsical vision, their markedly different surrounding make for two distinctly different impressions.

Huddled

The Wild Rumpus is located in the woodsy shade alongside a sunny field: the “middle of nowhere” if you’re a child walking with your parents. Inspired by the classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, Dougherty’s Tower Hill installation feels wild, or at least woodsy. Looking through its wicker-like windows, you half expect to see deer or other shy forest creatures staring back at you.

Together

What the Birds Know, on the other hand, is at the corner of a busy intersection in downtown Salem. Tucked into a tiny yard next to a historic house, What the Birds Know is surrounded by neighboring buildings and receives lots of visitors. (J and I had driven past it last October, when Salem was thronged with Halloween tourists, and we didn’t even try to photograph it.)

Dougherty’s Salem installation doesn’t feel wild, but cozy: a cluster of neat little houses tucked right alongside human habitations. What the birds of downtown Salem presumably know is how to make a tame and tidy nest right alongside the comings and goings of preoccupied human beings.

Tree of heaven

After spending too much time this week glued to my bad-news feed, on Wednesday afternoon I stepped away from my desk to do some errands in West Newton. There, in the deep-slanting light of a summer afternoon, a sprawling tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) stood, its boughs brimming with clusters of yellowish, pink-tinged seeds.

Tree of heaven fruit and foliage

I’ve seen trees of heaven before, but I’ve never been stopped in my tracks by one. The species is invasive and often grows in places where other trees can’t, like urban alleys and streets: the tree that famously grew in Brooklyn was a tree of heaven. But a gangly “ghetto palm” sapling in an alley is quite different from a full-grown tree setting down roots next to a grassy ballfield, with ample room to spread an expansive crown.

When I got home, I looked on Google Maps to see if the playground in West Newton has a name, and indeed it does: Eden Playground, a fitting place for a tree of heaven to grow. Female trees of heaven bear samaras, which are winged seeds that spin like helicopters as they fall, and right now the tree at Eden Playground is heavy-laden with them. Whereas maple samaras have twin seeds with wings shaped like rabbit ears, trees of heaven bear clusters of single-seeded samaras, each one twisted like a egg noodle.

Tree of heaven fruit

Before setting out to do errands on Wednesday, I started reading Strong for a Moment Like This, a collection of daily prayers and Scripture meditations the Reverend Dr. Bill Shillady emailed to Hillary Clinton during last year’s presidential campaign. (A more sensational title for the book would have been “Hillary’s Emails.”) I became curious about Rev. Shillady’s book after reading his oft-shared (and, unfortunately, partially plagiarized) email to Hillary the morning after her defeat to Donald Trump. I suspect I’ll need lots of prayer and devotion to get through the next four years, or however long it takes our country to jump off the Trump Train.

Trees of heaven are quick-growing but not long-lived: who knows how long the one in West Newton (or her forebears, since this tree spreads via suckers as well as seeds) has been quietly growing in an edge of forgotten soil behind a gas station. What ballgames has she witnessed, and what playground dramas? How much car exhaust and human angst has she absorbed, exhaling oxygen to the clouds? With her toes in the earth and her arms spread toward the sky, this tree of heaven enjoys the best of both worlds, rooted in the dirt but stretching toward the heavens.

Tree of heaven fruit

These days I genuinely wonder how we can collectively spread our limbs toward love, the only counter to hate. I struggle with this personally, as my grudge-holding heart sometimes feels as twisted as a spinning samara. Is more prayer necessary, or more devotion? If I were Hillary Clinton, I’d still be doubled-over with rage, as I was the morning after the election and still sometimes am when I scroll my bad-news feed. How can we sprout from the dirt of division and expand into the flower and fruit of love?

There is, I trust, no hate in heaven, not even righteous indignation; I believe hate gets stripped away in the wash of God’s love. But here on earth, where meanness rages, lies are perpetuated, and the evil and greedy reap great rewards, where does the God of justice hide?

Into this life a little light falls, as do spinning samaras, and occasionally trees have ample room to spread and shine. Perhaps that is the only taste of heaven we’re presently permitted.

Abbey church

After spending Saturday with a friend in central Massachusetts, I stopped on my way home at Saint Joseph’s Abbey, a Trappist monastery in Spencer.

Abbey church

Decades ago, I’d visited Saint Joseph’s as an exhausted graduate student at Boston College. The campus ministry program there had advertised a silent weekend retreat at Mary House, a retreat center right next door to the Abbey, and I jumped at the opportunity to take a weekend away from my life as a frazzled grad student juggling teaching with my own studies.

Cross and cloud

Several campus ministers ferried me and a group of undergraduates–I was relieved that none of them were my own students–to the Mary House, where they provided an abundant supply of food and gave us the freedom to spend the weekend however we wanted. We came together for meals, which we ate in silence while one person read to the rest of us, a monastic practice known as “refectory reading.” Apart from meals, we were free to come and go as we pleased, either staying close to the Mary House or venturing over to the monastery grounds.

Grass and sky

I don’t remember much from that decades-ago visit to Saint Joseph’s Abbey, but I do remember how lovely the grounds were. I spent one day walking the grounds with its rolling hills, beaver ponds, and wild turkeys, and the beauty of the landscape seemed to reflect the tranquility of the monks’ practice.

Cross and clouds

I also spent a lot of time on that retreat tucked away in visitors’ chapel, which was (and is) tiny, dark, and cavernously quiet, like the bottom of a deep well. If you visited the chapel during one of the regularly-scheduled prayer times, you could hear but not see the monks reciting the Office from their choir stalls, which were contiguous to but visually hidden from the chapel pews: no peeking.

Visitors' chapel

Since I hadn’t come to Saint Joseph’s to peer at monks, I’d intentionally visit the chapel during off times, when I knew no one else would be there. To me, the draw of the place wasn’t the presence of mysterious monks: I’d read enough Thomas Merton to imagine what the life of a monastic was like. Instead, I went to the chapel to drink in the silence left behind after the monks had gone. As an inactive Catholic who had practiced Zen meditation for years, I craved the deep steep of silence the Abbey church provided, its stone walls almost oozing with prayer.

View from under a maple

Yesterday as I drove the winding road to the Abbey church, its stones unchanged over the several decades since I had last been there, my heart was heavy with the news of the world: white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, the Denier in Chief sowing discord from the White House, and the threat of nuclear annihilation looming everywhere. How can you retreat to a silo of silence when the the world is on fire? Or, better yet, how can you not seek spiritual solace then?

The visitors’ chapel was just as tiny and dark as I’d remembered, and the silence was just as profound. After briefly praying in the shadow of an altar illuminated by a stained glass image of Mary and the infant Jesus, I went back outside to admire the monastery fields bathed in the long-angled light of late afternoon.

Monk walking with trees and geese

And that is when I saw him: a lone, white-robed monk walking down a quiet road through a grass-green field. In the distance, a flock of geese moved through the grass, either grazing or floating in an invisible pond hidden behind the crest of those rolling hills. The monk walked slowly, deliberately, neither hurrying nor dawdling, and he stopped briefly to look at the same geese I was watching. Surely the scene was just as idyllic and lovely from his perspective as it was from mine.

The world is on fire, and everywhere people are consumed in the flames of anger, fear, and bigotry. Where can you find the still, small voice who wants nothing more than to help this suffering world?

No trespassing

One of the central concepts in Buddhist philosophy is that of impermanence. The Buddha said people suffer because they cling to things, beings, and experiences that pass away. Life is great as long as you have and hold the things you love, but nothing gold can stay. Children grow up and move away, our bodies age and grow old, and even our newest and shiniest belongings wear out and lose their sheen.

Toppled crane

Impermanence isn’t a tenet you have to believe; like gravity, it’s a natural law you’ll notice if you open your eyes. This past weekend, J and I saw the ruins from a massive fire that recently destroyed a luxury apartment complex in nearby Waltham. (Fortunately, since the complex was still under construction, nobody was living there.) It was stunning to see a hulking pile of rubble where there had recently been five multistory buildings.

Singed trees

J and I weren’t the only ones looking at the fire’s aftermath: every car we saw pulling into a nearby municipal parking lot slowed down to take a look as it passed. We all know, intellectually, that we can lose everything we own in an instant, but this lesson doesn’t hit home until you see the charred wreckage of someone else’s dream.

Placeholder

There is in our neighborhood a house that has fallen into neglect. Tall weeds and saplings overshadow the grass, vines are clambering up the walls, and a storm-toppled tree spreads an umbrella of roots over the yard and sidewalk. Every time we pass this house, I say to J, “That house is returning to the elements.” In the absence of a diligent caretaker to keep the weeds at bay, even a suburban home quickly succumbs to wildness.

Toppled

I thought of that house last weekend when Leslee and I visited the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in nearby Lincoln. Every time I am at the DeCordova, I make a point to visit (and photograph) Steven Siegel’s “Big, with Rift,” an installation featuring towering piles of newspapers that are slowly succumbing to decay.

I’ve blogged this installation twice: first in November, 2013, when it was ripening in autumnal glory, and again in January, 2015, when it seemed soggy and dejected beneath a thin layer of wet, sludgy snow. Whereas the other installations at the DeCordova remain more or less the same every time you see them, the compostable nature of newsprint makes Siegel’s piece necessarily temporary.

Don't climb the (toppled) art

I last visited “Big, with Rift” in August, 2015, when it was sprouting ferns and flowers. Poison ivy was climbing one side of its craggy mass, and a chipmunk had burrowed a hole into one exposed edge. What started out as art was quickly becoming nature: you could almost feel the surrounding trees welcoming this looming paper pile back into the fold as one of their own.

Fallen

Given what I’d seen two years ago, I wasn’t hugely surprised last Saturday to see the latest stage in decomposition. “Big, with Rift” has fallen, its newspaper columns collapsing upon themselves while greenery still sprouts from their toppled tops. Like a neglected house, “Big, with Rift” is returning to the elements, its organic innards returning to the soil and nourishing the next generation of decomposers.

Prone

How the mighty have fallen, you might say, or you might draw droll conclusions about Fake News and the “failing New York Times.” There is something sad about a broken statue or toppled tower, but there’s nothing more natural than yesterday’s news becoming the subject of today’s decay.

Facing

It was hot and humid on Saturday, so Leslee and I didn’t spend a lot of time walking the grounds at the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, choosing to spend more of our visit inside the air conditioned comfort of the museum galleries. But before we headed for home, we took a quick stroll to see the sculptures in Alice’s Garden and the grassy fields alongside the park’s entrance.

Queen of trees

I always enjoy seeing sculptures outside, as if in their natural habitat. A piece such as Richard Rosenblum’s Venusvine (pictured right) would make little sense indoors. Instead of being held captive in a gallery, Venus needs to curl her toes in the dirt and sprout her sinuous self among the trees.

Although Venus is rooted, like a tree she can unfold her slender arms and toss her twiggy head in both sunshine and storm. Does she tickle from the talons of birds perched on her head, and does she enjoy the summer songs of birds whispered into her ears?

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