Massachusetts


Turkey tracks in snow

Friday was a sleety, stay-at-home day, and yesterday I cleared a crust of snow and freezing rain from our cars early in the day so they would bake clean in the sun. Yesterday, the unshoveled sidewalks in our neighborhood–all the sidewalks, since you can’t shovel freezing rain–were crunchy with a topping of snow over ice, which gave good traction underfoot. This morning, though, even the snow has frozen slick, and we’re expecting rain and temperatures above freezing–melting weather–tomorrow into the week, which will turn everything into a slippery slop.

Welcome to not-quite Spring in Massachusetts.

I’ve lived in New England for three decades now–most of my adult life–and for all that time I’ve said New England doesn’t have a proper spring. Instead, we go straight from snow to mud to heat, without the weeks of temperate weather and wildflowers the Midwest gets in March. In New England, March comes in like a lion then stays, the threat of spring snowstorms lurking into April.

But climate change is affecting this: we get as much rain as snow these days, along with an abundance of bare frozen ground. Last weekend’s storm dumped more than a foot of snow on our backyard: only the second plowable snowfall of the season, and the first accumulation to stay a while.

This coming week’s temperatures in the 40s with rain aren’t quite Spring, but they certainly aren’t winter, either. Sunlight is the cleanest way to melt snow, shrinking it steadily into the dry air. Rain melts snow, too, but in a way that turns streets, sidewalks, and backyards into puddles by day and skating rinks by night.


Unmasked

I’ve lived in New England for decades, but there are two things that will never seem natural to me: how early it gets dark here in winter, and the lack of a proper spring.

Since the time change, it’s dark when I walk Roxy after dinner. She has a light on her collar, and I carry a flashlight, but we are regularly startled by other walkers who dress in somber colors and don’t carry a light, their forms materializing out of the darkness like solid ghosts.

Tonight, it started drizzling just as Roxy and I set out, and after we turned toward home, forked branches of lightning lit the sky, followed by rumbling thunder. Since when, I wondered, do we have thunderstorms in November?

As we approached the house, a flock of roosting turkeys gobbled en masse from the trees across the street, as unsettled by the thunder as I was. You never know what surprises lurk on suburban streets after dark.


Stumped

Today is gray and rainy, which I don’t mind since the leaves are still aglow with November fire. The wind is rattling the windows, and I’m happy to be inside at my desk with a mug of tea, writing.

Free

This morning when I walked Roxy, there was a red upholstered chair on the curb outside a house down the street, its arms worn and torn, but its color reassuringly autumnal. The scent of damp, fallen leaves was ripe in the air, and Roxy insisted on sniffing every decaying pile.


Turning oak

November sunlight is my favorite kind. It angles low through gold and copper leaves, gleaming like light refracted through stained glass.

As the days shorten, November sunlight is precious. The days of December through March are dreary in New England: either too dark or too glaring. November light is bronze and burnished. Knowing what comes next, I soak in as much sunlight as possible, storing it in my heart like a battery against dark days to come.



The morning after

Last night felt almost like the Before Times, with herds of children roaming the streets, in some cases accompanied by attentive and even costumed parents, and in other cases roaming free and unfettered by adult supervision. This morning, the sidewalks are littered with stray candy wrappers, and lawns boast the crumpled remains of inflatable ghosts and monsters, ready to go into hibernation for another year.


Over the falls

A (not her real initial) and I hadn’t seen each other in-person since February, 2020, when we’d met to see an exhibit of street art and orchids at Tower Hill Botanic Garden.  As was true of many of the things we did in the early months of 2020, A and I had no idea we were living in the Before Times.  Instead, we took for granted our ritual of occasionally meeting halfway between our respective homes to enjoy a walk, art exhibit, or conversation over lunch…until COVID put an end to that.

Over the course of the pandemic, A, a mutual friend, and I have had the requisite Zoom happy hours to celebrate Christmas and each of our birthdays, with gifts shipped ahead of time.  More frequently over this past year, A and I scheduled Saturday night phone calls to keep in touch.  Without the need to stare at a screen, we were free to talk while folding laundry, piecing together a puzzle, or lounging with the dog:  the kind of leisurely conversation that is the antidote to Zoom fatigue.

Now that both A and I are fully vaccinated, we planned to meet yesterday for a walk in central Massachusetts…but when a cold, rainy forecast put a literal damper on those plans, we met in Northampton instead.  Equipped with rain gear and umbrellas, we walked around the Smith College campus, had lunch downtown at Sylvester’s, and went shopping at Thornes Marketplace:  the exact sort of thing we did countless times before the pandemic shut down our social lives.

Yesterday, everything seemed sharper, brighter, and more wondrous.  Repeatedly since J and I attained fully vaccinated status several weeks ago, I’ve had an unbidden and entirely spontaneous realization:  we lived.  While the virus raged, we hunkered down and followed every public health advisory.  We washed our hands, kept our distance, wore our masks, and avoided crowds.  We stayed home and didn’t socialize.  And now that we’re fully vaccinated, we’re enjoying re-entry, trusting the same science that kept us safe to continue to protect us in this next-normal.

So yesterday, when A and I settled in for a late lunch at Sylvester’s, I knew I had to order eggs.  Since J and I stopped going to restaurants in March, 2020, I haven’t had eggs, bacon, waffles, or pancakes:  foods J and I order when we go out for brunch, but don’t cook at home.  The process of re-entry has been a series of re-introductions:  the first time seeing friends again, the first time eating at restaurants again, the first time strolling through a mall and window-shopping again.  Words can’t describe how wonderful it is to enjoy these simple pleasures again.

Concord River from North Bridge

Warm November Sundays are especially sweet when you know the dark days of winter aren’t far behind.

Masked

Today J and I drove down Beacon Street into Boston. It was the first time we’d been in the city since March 1, when we saw Bobby McFerrin perform at Symphony Hall: our last normal outing during the Before Time, before we went into quarantine on March 14.

David Ortiz Bridge

It was strange to drive from Newton into Brookline then Boston after so many months at home. As we passed Boston College, we didn’t see a soul, and at Cleveland Circle, we saw teams playing softball while wearing masks, as if that was how the sport was supposed to be played. As we drove through Kenmore Square and into the Back Bay, we marveled at empty parking spots–plenty of street parking in a town where parking is always at a premium.

Lansdowne Street

We’d driven into Boston to see the new Black Lives Matter mural outside Fenway Park, so after turning around in the Back Bay, we drove back to Kenmore Square, parked on Beacon Street near Boston University, and walked toward Fenway. In a city of pedestrians, we had the streets and sidewalks largely to ourselves–yes, there were other walkers, but not near the number we’d normally see, and nearly all of them masked.

Open year round

It was outside Fenway Park where things started to feel weird. We’ve been avoiding places where we might encounter large groups of people, but there were no crowds around Fenway, and in pre-pandemic times, there were always crowds around the Park: throngs of baseball fans on game days, and throngs of sightseers every other day. The relative absence of people was odd, eerie, and preternaturally unsettling.

Your local mask dealer

Lansdowne Street was open to pedestrians, with tables set up for people to eat outside–and there was indeed a handful of people enjoying a sunny summer day while dining al fresco. But there were no vendors hawking baseball programs, no gravel-voiced ticket scalpers, no jugglers or caricature artists or stilt-walkers. There was a lone vendor selling sausages from a cart who asked almost apologetically if we wanted a cold beverage, and after initially demurring, we turned around, said yes, and tipped him $7 for a $3 soda: the least we could do.

Lansdowne Street

That is when we heard the crack of a bat and the roar of canned crowd noise from inside the park as an announcer intoned the next player at the plate. It was game day in an age with no fans in the stands, players competing for a TV audience and a handful of cardboard cutouts while the streets outside were nearly empty.

Yaz

Walking up Lansdowne Street hearing the sounds of a game played to an empty ballpark, I remembered all the times J and I have gone to games at Fenway Park, cheering ourselves hoarse in the outfield bleachers before streaming down the stairways and flooding into the street with thousands of other fans. The empty streets around Fenway felt simultaneously apocalyptic and surreally normal: on the one hand, so many COVID dead; on the other, the allure of spectator sports and casual outdoor dining.

Google tells me that Fenway Park held 37,731 fans in the Before Times, when living souls packed the stands. Google also tells me that as of today, 162,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. Do the math: that’s more than four Fenways of fans who have been struck, flied, or forced out, game over. What have we as a nation done to mourn these, our presumably beloved dead? Instead of mourning or even pausing, we’ve instead rushed to reopen for the sake of the economy, for the sake of our sanity, for the sake of denial in an amnesiac age.

Black Lives Matter

“Black Lives Matter,” that mural outside Fenway says…but what about the lives of all those lost grandmothers, grandfathers, aunties, uncles, and elders? What have we done to remember and mourn in our rush to return to normal as if none of this–including the lives and deaths of all those lost souls–had ever happened?

Welcome to Fenway Park

During the early days of the pandemic, we often told ourselves that we were all in this together, but now we each navigate these strange days on our own: some of us still sheltering at home, others venturing out and congregating. I remember the first Red Sox game J and I went to after the Boston Marathon bombing: it was both scary and reassuring to be outside in the sun with other fans, game day being a soothing ritual that brought us all together into the reassuring embrace of an anonymous crowd.

Retired

These days, though, crowds are places of contagion, and we steer clear of strangers whose faces are shrouded behind bandanas, gaiters, and masks of all kinds, all of us struggling to get back to normal in a time that is anything but. Who haunts the streets around Fenway Park on a sunny August day: are they the ghosts of those we’ve lost, or our memories of game days past?

Do more of what makes you awesome

This past weekend, J and I walked to our local elementary school and back, then we took my car for a short Sunday drive. Because of the Coronavirus, we’ve been self-isolating at home for more than a week, leaving the house only to take the dogs out and go for a daily walk around the neighborhood, so going for both a walk and a drive, no matter how short, was a welcome relief from our self-imposed quarantine.

At the local elementary school, nobody was around. Normally on a sunny weekend, there would be kids playing on the playground equipment, but signs strictly forbade this: too many touch surfaces. A house across from the school had an encouraging message drawn on the driveway with sidewalk chalk, with no sign of the kids or parents responsible for the message.

I bought a new car nearly a month ago, only to have it sit sadly in our driveway during this period of social distancing. On Sunday, J and I took “Trudy Subaru” for a short drive to keep her engine running, driving past the local hospital then up Route 16 to Commonwealth Avenue and back. The hospital was quiet, with only a handful of cars in the outside lots and no emergency vehicles coming or going. From the outside, it looked like a sleepy Sunday afternoon, with no obvious sign of an impending pandemic.

Commonwealth Avenue, on the other hand, was bustling with families, couples, and singles out walking, jogging, pushing strollers, and escorting happy dogs, each person or group keeping the requisite six feet between themselves and others. On Monday morning, Governor Baker would announce a stay-at-home advisory that closes nonessential businesses but still allows people to go outside and enjoy the fresh air, and on Sunday it was clear folks were relishing the right to be Healthy and Happy on a brisk and bright March day.

I always describe April’s Marathon as being Massachusetts’ unofficial celebration of spring, with folks and families coming out to socialize while watching a race that is in some ways just an excuse to go outside and let down the usual New England reserve. This year, the Marathon has been postponed until September, an unimaginably distant time, so it made sense that this weekend, after a long week of social distancing, our neighbors were doing exactly what they’d do on Marathon Monday, minus the actual race.

On Sunday, J and I took a drive for the car’s sake, but it was just as good for us to get out of the house and rev our inner engines.

Budding forsythia

After spending much of yesterday afternoon going to multiple stores to do the weekly grocery shopping I’d usually do at one, today it was a relief to stay home. Instead of walking to lunch as we normally do, J and I took a sunny afternoon walk around the neighborhood, and we weren’t the only ones. With museums and libraries closed, concerts and sporting events canceled, and store shelves emptied of goods, walking in the open air is one of the few things we can still safely do.

Lilac leaves

The irony of this weird and unsettling week is this: the weather has been beautiful, the lilacs are starting to leaf, and the forsythias are almost ready to burst into bloom. Outside, March is settling into spring; inside, we stay glued to devices that deliver a constant stream of bad and worrying news.

When J and I went walking this afternoon, it was a pleasant relief to stop at a nearby intersection, stand in the street, and talk to a handful of neighbors who, like us, were shaking off a weekend case of pandemic-inspired cabin fever. As we traded stories of grocery lines and plans for telecommuting, we stood in a wide circle with the prescribed six feet between us: a brief spot of socializing in the age of social distancing.

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