Massachusetts


Come From Away

Last night J and I went to the Boston Opera House to see Come From Away, a musical retelling of the story of Gander, Newfoundland, where 38 planes were stranded for nearly a week after the terror attacks of 9/11.

On September 11, 2001, the population of Gander nearly doubled as 7,000 travelers were forced to disembark there after the United States shut down its airspace. Come From Away dramatizes some of these travelers’ stories, and it also portrays the town’s response as locals flooded emergency shelters with supplies and opened their homes to confused and frightened travelers.

Although I knew many travelers were stranded in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I didn’t know the full story of how (and why) planes were diverted to Gander. Initially, passengers on the 38 planes didn’t know why they were landing in Newfoundland: in order to avoid widespread panic, flight crews didn’t divulge the full details of what was happening on the ground in New York, Washington, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. As a result, puzzled passengers were literally flying (and landing) blind.

Even after the diverted planes landed in Canada, passengers were prevented from disembarking, as nobody knew if there were additional terrorists on the planes. Flights were diverted to Gander and other remote Canadian airports because authorities feared they were carrying explosives, and isolating the potential danger at remote airports was deemed a safer option than having the planes land in densely populated areas.

Once the tired and disoriented passengers were allowed to deplane, the town of Gander hurried to provide food, shelter, clothing, and other necessities for the “plane people.” An elementary school was transformed into an emergency shelter, the local hockey rink was commandeered to hold and refrigerate bulk shipments of food, and extra televisions, phones, and computers were installed so stranded travelers could watch news coverage and reach out to loved ones back home.

Come From Away did an excellent job dramatizing the hospitality Gander, Newfoundland showed in the aftermath of 9/11 and the impromptu community that arose among locals and their transient guests. Not surprisingly, my favorite character in the musical was an SPCA worker who tended the 19 dogs, cats, and chimpanzees (!) riding as cargo in the stranded planes.

Although Come From Away wasn’t the best, most profound, or funniest musical I’ve ever seen–Hamilton, Fun Home, and The Book of Mormon take those honors, respectively–it was entertaining, sweet, and alternatingly heart-breaking and humorous. From beginning to end, I was captivated by the story of how residents in a remote town opened their doors to strangers in the aftermath of a dark day.

Sunset from second floor women's restroom

Today has been a very long day with a beautiful sunset in the middle of it.

Holly berries

I used to wait until after Thanksgiving to start listening to Christmas music, but in recent years I’ve loosened my own rule. During the light of day, I don’t yearn for holiday music, but last night while I was running Friday afternoon-into-evening errands, I switched from the news on NPR to Sting’s “If On a Winter’s Night,” a CD that is perennially appropriate in late autumn-into-winter.

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the pagan nature of Christmas: a holiday of light at the darkest time of year. Years ago when I taught in New Hampshire during the week and spent my long weekends in Massachusetts, there were many weeks when my Thursday night commute was brightened by isolated houses on lonely roads that had colorful Christmas lights. Those lights guided my way like beacons in a storm.

These days, my commute is significantly shorter, but I dread the darkness of winter more than the cold. Even a short commute feels long when the way is dark, so while I don’t need the cheer of Christmas carols when the sun shines, after dark I appreciate the company of songs designed for the longest nights of the year.

Autumn oak

I’ve already mentioned that November is my favorite month, and here’s another reason why: November light glows like no other. This year, the end of October was gray and rainy, and my mood was as dismal as the days. But so far, November has been brisk and bright, the waning days gleaming golden.

Golden glow

I’ve lived in New England for more than 25 years now–just over half my life–and that is long enough for me to know this: November light is precious because it is both short and short-lived. The nights are noticeably longer now: the afternoon class that used to be bathed with setting sunlight now adjourns in darkness, and the days will continue to shrink. The beaten-bronze glow of stubborn oak trees–the last to leaf in spring, and the last to drop in autumn–will soon fade and fall. Come December, the landscape will be drab and the days dim.

But for now, every moment of November light is precious. When you know a thing is dying, you cherish every moment you share.

Reflected

Several weeks ago, on my way home from a medical appointment in Chestnut Hill, I stopped at Hammond Pond to snap a few pictures of the mute swans there. Hammond Pond sits directly behind a busy shopping complex and directly abuts a parking lot. The mute swans don’t seem to care, however. They just mind their own business, paddling and dabbling in the calm water while busy humans like me zip and hurry past.

November

The past two months have passed in a blur. I’ve been teaching a double-load this semester, so even before my Dad died in mid-September, I’ve been preoccupied with the juggling acts of teaching, tending the house and pets, and simply staying upright. At the end of most teaching days, I arrive home completely tapped, wondering where I’ll find the energy to do it all again tomorrow. But somehow, the days, weeks, and months pass, and I’m still standing, still juggling, still trudging forward.

Every day this year I’ve made a point to take at least one picture, a continuation of the 365 photo challenge I’ve done in past years. Some days, I post my daily picture on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter; other days, I post it only on Flickr, where I keep an album of days. At the end of the year, I like to scroll through my year at a glance. I feel a small sense of accomplishment knowing I did at least one creative thing every day, even in the face of daunting deadlines and to-do lists.

At some point, I set the expectation that my blog is where I post longer essays: entries that are longer than my simple picture-and-caption social media posts. That means that during semesters like this one, my blog grows cold. Every month, I promise myself to write daily and post to my blog more often, but busy days without writing turn into busy weeks, busy months, and busy years.

In past years, I’ve participated in NaBloPoMo by committing to blog daily during the month of November. I don’t know if I can realistically post something every single day this month, but I want to at least try to post more frequent “postcard posts”: just a photo and a couple sentences, a brief note to check in with myself and say “wish you were here.”

Immature Cooper's hawk

On Friday afternoon while I was out running my usual weekly errands, I saw an immature Cooper’s hawk perched on the lattice outside Eastern Bank on Commonwealth Avenue. I was at the gas station next door, so I got out of my car, took several pictures, walked over to the bank and took several more, then returned to my car to pump gas before driving away.

Immature Cooper's hawk

During the five minutes or so I was walking around a bank obviously taking pictures, not only did nobody ask what I was doing, nobody even acknowledged my presence. I had, in other words, reached peak invisibility as a Middle-Aged White Woman. Had I been a black- or brown-skinned man taking pictures outside a bank on a Friday night, how long would it have taken for someone to report my suspicious behavior?

Immature Cooper's hawk

I remember taking pictures once on a side street near MIT’s nuclear engineering labs. The buildings look unremarkable from the outside but presumably contain sensitive research inside. I was crouched on the sidewalk photographing an interestingly-angled shadow when a campus security vehicle pulled up and an officer gruffly asked through a lowered window what exactly I was doing.

Filler 'er up

I straightened up and offered some feeble explanation about noticing an interesting shadow on the sidewalk, but it was immediately clear it didn’t matter what I said. The officer simply chuckled and good-naturedly told me to Carry On, his entire demeanor changing the moment he saw I was the most (presumably) harmless of creatures, a Middle-Aged White Woman.

Peekaboo

I know the suspicion that awaits black- and brown-skinned folks who commit the crime of birding while black. Cameras and binoculars are tools of surveillance: threatening in the “wrong” hands, but innocuous if those hands are older and whiter. In broad daylight on a Friday afternoon in suburban Boston, a sharp-clawed killer was perched in plain sight, but nobody noticed him or the presumably harmless individual who both spied and shot him. “If you see something, say something” is the motto of the age of homeland insecurity, but what happens when your preconceived notions knit a veil of blindness right over your eyes?

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