Massachusetts


Stella through raindrops

Winter storm Stella arrived this morning, right on schedule: the tracking of storms has gotten so reliable, we’ve known for days Stella was on her way, bringing with her over a foot of snow and blizzard-force winds. Although local stores were flooded yesterday with shoppers buying armloads of bread, milk, and eggs, I’d done my grocery shopping on Friday, well in advance of the last minute rush. J and I have weathered enough winter storms, we know the drill.

Front walkway

A few days before a big storm, J and I make sure we have a week’s supply of groceries and other essentials: pity the folks who get snowed-in without toilet paper, kitty litter, or aspirin. We check our flashlights and battery-powered radios, fully charge our phones and other devices, and stock up on library books and Kindle downloads.

If a storm sounds particularly daunting, I’ll make sure my car has a full tank of gas in case we lose electricity and need to use a car-charger to power our phones, and I’ll withdraw some extra cash in case ATMs and credit card machines are down. The day before the storm, J will bring the snowblower onto the back porch so it’s ready to clear a path to freedom, and I’ll park my car at the end of the driveway, just in case the snowblower dies and I have to “Subaru-through” to the cleared road.

Midday

The truth is, we’ve rarely needed these extreme measures: when we’ve lost power in past storms, service has been quickly restored, and we’ve never been snowed-in for days. In an emergency, we could probably survive a week or more on the staples we keep in our pantry. But when the wind is rattling the windows and a billowing blur of tiny snowflakes is falling as fine as sifted flour, there is comfort in knowing the cupboards are stocked and the home fires are stoked.

Antique instruments

Last week, J and I went to a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert:  the last of three such concerts we’ve gone to this season.  The program featured a symphony by Sibelius and a piano concerto by Busoni, two composers I wasn’t familiar with.  The soloist who played the Busoni piece, Kirill Gerstein, was amazing:  the concerto was long, fast, and complicated, and Gerstein performed it without sheet music, committing more than 70 minutes of emphatic, keyboard-pounding music to muscle-memory.

I don’t know much about classical music, and during any given concert, my mind sometimes wanders.  But I’m always inspired by the mastery both regular symphony members and visiting soloists demonstrate as they perform long, intricately orchestrated pieces.  I’m not a musician, so playing an instrument seems difficult enough, and playing an instrument in unison with an entire orchestra of others seems downright miraculous.

Antique instruments

My favorite moments in any concert are the quiet ones, when all eyes are on the conductor and you can almost hear the musicians holding their collective breath.  These expectant moments thrill me in a way the dramatic crescendos and flourishes do not.  Playing loudly seems easy enough:  even I could make a lot of noise with a horn or drum.  But it takes talent and a well-tamed temperament to ride the crests and troughs of a well-written concerto, the music and surging and subsiding in unexpected and ultimately satisfying ways.

 

Double arch stone bridge

I spent the weekend with A (not her real initial) in Great Barrington: a weekend visit to last until summer, when traveling to see one another is easier. On Saturday, we did a great deal of walking–along the Keystone Arch Bridges trail in Chester in the morning, and along the trolley trail in Housatonic in the evening before dark. On Sunday we spent the day on more contemplative pursuits: writing, reading, and sipping tea over long conversations.

One of the things we talked about was ideation: A’s temperamental proclivity toward big ideas. It turns out that A and I see the world in different ways, or at least from different angles, and this might be the secret to our friendship: our personalities are complementary, not merely compatible.

Waterfall

A is sustained by ideas; she is a woman of concepts and cognition. I, on the other hand, am a person of experience and actions, preferring tangible things to thoughts. It’s not that I dislike ideas, but I need to come upon them indirectly: I need to sense a thing in order to conceptualize it. I am a person who lives and dies by William Carlos Williams’ dictum “No ideas but in things”: to understand an idea, I need to somehow touch it.

This is, perhaps, another way of saying I’m a modern-day Transcendentalist. In Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson argued that every idea has its antecedent in nature, the natural world being a grand dictionary of symbols. For Emerson, human language is an abstraction rooted in nature: words are powerful only if they are tightly tied to the tangible phenomena that exemplify them.

We missed this clearly marked turn

Emersonian idealism tends to minimize nature, reducing the natural world to set of signs that exists primarily to satisfy humanity’s cognitive needs. But in my mind (and in, I’d argue, Thoreau’s), there is another sort of idealism that gives nature the ultimate primacy. The natural world can survive (and probably would be better off) without humans, but humans need the tangible stuff of nature to make intellectual sense of the world.

The Keystone Arch Bridges trail wends along the West Branch of the Westfield River, and the dirt road A and I followed was alternatively icy and muddy, a ridge of hard-pack snow sliced by muddy tire ruts. We had to pay close attention to the ground underfoot as we walked, at one point focusing so intently on our footfalls, we missed a clearly marked trail junction.

Waterfall

The mind is elusive, but the body undeniable. The best ideas, in my opinion, aren’t rooted in the fragile neurochemistry of the brain but in the muscular strength of the gut, the rising and falling diaphragm, and the perpetually beating heart. Or, as the character of Japhy Ryder said in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, “The closer you get to real matter, rock air fire and wood, boy, the more spiritual the world is.”

A keystone arch bridge is as material as it gets, each block of stone weighty and substantial. The railroad bridges in Chester were constructed in the 1830s without the use of mortar. Marvels of engineering, keystone arches are pieced together so that the pull of gravity holds each stone in place, weight being distributed across the arch and down its legs. Locking this structure in place is the keystone at the arch’s apex: the last stone set is the one that holds everything together.

Double arch stone bridge

When you are hiking on treacherous trails, you have little time to think; with so many things to pay attention to, you have little energy for discursive thought. This is one of the things I like about hiking: whereas walking down a smooth, level path is an invitation to thought, the literal balancing act required when you walk a treacherous trail pulls you out of your head and back into your body. Hiking isn’t a spur to thinking, but an antidote to it.

Like Whitman, I’m not interested in ideas that “prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds, and along the landscape and flowing currents.” The mind is a creature that wanders into illusionary realms, but the body is a concrete thing that exists nowhere other than here and now, in the tactile world of water, rocks, and trees.

Waterfall

In The Dharma Bums, Ray Smith falters while hiking the Matterhorn because he fears the things that might happen: he might fall, he might get hurt, he might fail to make it to the top. Japhy, on the other hand, is as unselfconscious as a mountain goat, hopping from boulder to boulder without a thought of risk or danger.

“The secret of this kind of climbing,” said Japhy, “is like Zen. Don’t think. Just dance along. It’s the easiest thing in the world, actually easier than walking on flat ground which is monotonous. The cute little problems present themselves at each step and yet you never hesitate and you find yourself on some other boulder you picked out for no special reason at all, just like Zen.”

Double arch stone bridge

This weekend, A and I took turns being Japhy, one of us staying stable and upright whenever the other wavered or wobbled. This is one of the benefits of befriending one’s complement: you have a buddy to back you up.

The dictum “No ideas but in things” is itself an idea, and any one of us alternates between ideation and action, these two modes working best when they move hand-in-hand. Ideas are the right foot; tangible objects the left. Step by step, each in turn, is how we move forward, whether slow and faltering or steady and sure.

Snowy patio

We got about a foot of snow from winter storm Niko: not exceptional by New England standards, but the biggest storm of the season so far. Today was sunny, as is typical after big snowstorms: a perfect day for digging out.

Miss Bling in a blanket

Before J got started with roof-raking and snow-blowing, I had two tasks: clear my car and shake snow from the trees. Clearing my car was easy enough: the trick is to use a push-broom to brush the bulk of the snow, start the car and leave it running with the heat on, and then clear the windows, windshield, and mirrors with an ice scraper. Once you’ve cleared most of the snow, the sun will take care of the rest.

The snow-shaking is a more involved task. Our house is fringed with rhododendrons and evergreens, and these get weighed down after every snowfall. Although I like the look of tree limbs laden with snow, it’s not good for trees and shrubs to be bent double, so after I cleared my car, I circled our yard with my push-broom, shaking the snow from bent boughs.

Snowy backyard

The shrubs alongside the garage and driveway are easy to reach, especially with a long-handled broom, but the rhododendrons on the far side of our house are less accessible, growing as they do in the narrow strip of yard between our house and the neighbors’ hedges. Wintertime is the only time I squeeze into this space between our rhodies and their hedge, a messy tangle that feels a lot wilder than its location right alongside our house would suggest.

Today, the rhododendron leaves were curled lengthwise and frozen, hanging like brittle green cigars that rattled woodenly as I knocked the snow from their branches. Sometimes, when a bough is bent low to the ground with snow, it springs up with a swish when you liberate it. Other times when you shake an overhead limb, the snow showers down in a diamond-glitter burst. I’ve learned to turn my face and close my eyes before knocking the largest overhead boughs, but sometimes out of the corner of my eye I’ll see a hint of rainbow as the snow turns to diamond-dust then dissolves in midair.

Gray day

When you live in New England, you become a connoisseur of light. Yesterday the light was gray, like pewter, the world cast in monochrome with scant shadows and slivers of trees snaking across the sky like veins.

Mixed precipitation

When I was a child in Ohio, winters were long, but so were the days. I’ve lived in New England for more than two decades, and I’m still surprised when the sun starts setting in the afternoon, long before dinner. In January, daylight is scarce and precious, so you make every attempt to save and savor it.

Yesterday was a gray-sleeting day, the ground carpeted in dense, sludgy snow: yesterday, I never saw the sun. Instead, daylight diffused through clouds and wind, the mist falling sideways beneath umbrellas, the damp seeping into pores and corners, and the light landing on shallow surfaces like silver.

I'm with her

On Saturday, J and I took the T downtown, where we converged on Boston Common with some 175,000 other folks for the Boston Women’s March. I knew tens of thousands of people had registered, but it was clear the turnout would be larger than expected when we arrived at our local T station more than an hour before the march and saw a crowd of pink-hatted women, men, and children waiting for the second of two back-to-back, already-full trolleys.

Love wins

J and I regularly take the T to Red Sox, Bruins, and Celtics games, so we have a lot of experience squeezing into crowded trolleys. Saturday’s crowds, however, were like nothing we’d ever seen. At each of the dozen T stops between the Boston suburbs and the heart of downtown, platforms were packed with throngs of people wearing pink hats and carrying posters. “Grab back,” one man’s sign urged, while another man wore a ballcap with a “Strong men support strong women” pin next to one that said “No f*cking fracking.”

Hear me roar

At each stop, some people on the platforms would shake their heads, determined to wait for the next, presumably less-packed train…but at each stop, a brave handful would squeeze into the train, and the rest of us would jostle closer to our neighbors, making as much room as possible.

Make America love again

At one point, the trolley was so densely packed, my back was solidly pressed into that of a pink-hatted woman behind me, as if we were propping one another up. Whenever the trolley swerved around a curve, we standers and strap-hangers all swayed together, and whenever the trolley screeched to a sudden stop, we leaned deep against our neighbors, keeping one another on our collective feet. After one particularly awkward lurch, I apologized to a seated couple for nearly landing in their laps, then I laughed. “I guess none of us is in danger of falling: we don’t have enough room.”

The future is nasty

That crush of bodies on the T was merely a foretaste of the feast to come. At the March itself, the crowds kept growing. As we approached the Common from the Public Garden, we could see a solid sea of pink hats and signs stretching from Charles Street to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Finding a spot where we could, in theory, see the rally stage, we were soon engulfed in a mass of humanity whose signs, shirts, and hats proclaimed all manner of progressive messages: “Be kind,” “Love wins,” “Words matter,” “Climate change is real,” “Diversity is our asset.”

Sad!

I’m not a fan of crowds, which sometimes make me claustrophobic. But the massive swell of pink-hatted protesters on Boston Common on Saturday didn’t feel like a crowd: instead, it felt warm and safe, like a hug or a snug blanket. It was a press of friendly flesh where we all quite literally had one another’s backs as we listened for nearly two hours to speeches by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, Massachusetts Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, local labor leaders, civil rights activists, clergy, and local schoolchildren.

Liberty & Justice

One of the questions frequently asked of this weekend’s marchers, particularly by Trump supporters, is why are you marching? Why march against a President who has just taken office and hasn’t yet had time to implement any policies: why not wait and give him a chance? I have a very simple answer to this question. Trump, his administration, and the Republican Congress will have a chance to implement their policies whether I like it or not. But even though I didn’t elect the man driving this particular train, I marched on Saturday because I recognize humans are social creatures, and in a democracy we are bound together by a social contract.

Flag hijab

After a campaign where our civil unity was stretched to tatters, I marched on Saturday to affirm one simple truth: regardless of who is in the White House, we citizens here on the ground need to have one another’s backs. As a white woman, I marched to affirm black lives. As a straight woman, I marched to affirm LGBT rights. As a United States citizen, I marched to affirm the rights of immigrants and their families. As a Christian, I marched to affirm the civil liberties of Muslims, Jews, and other targets of post-election hate crimes. And as a woman, I marched to affirm that women’s rights are human rights, every person deserves affordable health care, and every woman has the right to decide what happens to her own body.

Pussy Riot

The biggest irony of Saturday’s march, however, is that J and I never actually marched. Because the crowd on Boston Common was so enormous, after the rally ended, we spent nearly an hour inching toward Charles Street, where the march began. After chatting with an older woman whose hat was covered with faded pins from decades of past marches, J and I decided to make an early exit, gently pushing and squeezing our way through the crowd toward Park Street, where we boarded a trolley for home. (Thank goodness for a tall man with a “Give a Hoot / Don’t Pollute” jacket, who sliced through the crowd ahead of us: we literally followed his coattails to open ground.)

No 2nd class Americans

But even though J and I didn’t actually march at Saturday’s March, it was enough to have been there. It was awesome to be subsumed by a crowd of peaceful protestors. It was inspiring to surge on a sea of positive energy even though we were collectively protesting an election that was an affront to our shared values. And it was encouraging to affirm what we believe is the bedrock of our American democracy: rights and dignity for all, and promises based on facts, evidence, and reality.

Truth matters

Instead of moving our feet, J and I took a stand, and I’m immensely glad we did. Watching news coverage of marches in DC and around the world makes me realize the awesome power of millions of people who’ve got one another’s backs.

Expect resistance

Click here for more photos from Saturday’s Boston Women’s March. Enjoy!

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.


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