Boston


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.

Anthony and Jesus

Yesterday J and I went to Boston’s North End for the 100th annual Saint Anthony’s Feast. As a good little Catholic girl in Ohio, I grew up praying to Saint Anthony whenever I lost something. I remember my Mom explaining that praying to Saint Anthony wasn’t a magical guarantee you’d find whatever you’d lost, but repeating Saint Anthony’s prayer would help you stay focused while you kept searching. The purpose of the prayer wasn’t to find your lost things for you; the purpose of the prayer was to keep you from giving up hope.

Processing

It’s been years since I’ve prayed to Saint Anthony…and truth be told, it’s been years since I’ve been to church. But whenever J and I go to a religious festival in Boston’s Italian enclave, the pomp and iconography feels natural, like returning to one’s motherland.

Both J and I are a mix of Italian and Irish, we both are lapsed Catholics, and we both wonder how outsiders–that is, people who are neither Catholic nor Italian–react when they see a large statue being paraded through thronged streets, trailing ribbons pinned with money. What would a proverbial man from Mars make of such a spectacle? What, for that matter, do two lapsed Catholics make of it?

Saint Anthony buttons

I don’t personally believe Saint Anthony is a man looking down from a cloud, making sure people’s prayers get answered. But that doesn’t mean I make light of Saint Anthony’s Feast. Regardless of our own lapsed Catholicism, J and I made sure to stop at a makeshift shrine where a smaller statue of Saint Anthony stayed throughout the festival, pinning a donation alongside everyone else’s and accepting a small button in return.

Because I was raised Catholic, I know every dollar pinned to Saint Anthony’s train represents someone’s sincere prayer: a wish for something lost, a hope for something denied, or an expression of gratitude for something granted. (When my Mom taught me how to pray to Saint Anthony, she also explained that if your prayer was answered, you were obligated to thank Saint Anthony as many times as you’d petitioned him.)

Grand procession

Seeing all the prayers pinned like a cape to Saint Anthony’s statue, who am I to hold myself aloof from those who search, seek, hope, and sometimes lose hope? Haven’t we all lost things, and don’t we all continue to search? One person loses their car keys, another loses a ring, still another loses an important document. It is a universal fact of life that anything that can be held can just as easily be lost. Isn’t any of us lucky to reach the end of our days without losing our faith, heart, or mind?

Pinning offerings

Anne Lamott once said there are only three prayers: help, thanks, and wow. Pious Catholics appeal to Jesus, Mary, or Joseph when the Big Stuff is on the line, but even those of us who are feeble in our faith trust Saint Anthony with our trifles. As the patron of lost things, Saint Anthony is privy to our mundane frustrations, and he knows more than anyone the tiny trinkets we hold dear. How can anyone who hasn’t lost all hope belittle him for that?

Click here for more photos from this year’s Saint Anthony’s Feast. Enjoy!

Millet

Yesterday J and I went to the Museum of Fine Arts to see an exhibit of French pastels. Pastels are a fragile medium: fine paper is vulnerable to light, and chalky pigments are prone to fading and smudging. For a short moment of time, these works were taken out of protective storage and displayed for all to see, and I appreciate the opportunity to admire them.

Cassatt

All works of art are handmade, but these pastel drawings seemed more immediate and tactile than paintings or sculptures. A brush stands between an artist and her paints, but pastels are held directly in an artist’s hand. The smudginess of pastels make them a perfect medium for landscape and portraiture, as they handily capture the fuzzy nuance of clouds, foliage, and skin tones. Looking at the blurred lines of these drawings, I could easily imagine the hands–indeed, the very fingers–that drew and blended them.

Mary Cassatt's pastel box

My favorite item in the exhibit wasn’t a drawing but an artifact: a well-used box of pastels formerly owned by Mary Cassatt. J is a long-time admirer of Cassatt, and before I knew him, he decorated his guest bathroom–now my bathroom–with prints of her paintings. You have to get your hands dirty to draw with pastels, so seeing tangible proof of the mess Cassatt made with her drawing supplies was thrilling, like seeing Virginia Woolf’s ink-stained hands in The Hours. Fine art can seem like an abstract or heady thing, but any individual artwork was created by a flesh-and-blood human. Mary Cassatt’s pastel box was a tangible reminder of the actual hands that drew her works.

Click here for more photos from the MFA’s French Pastels: Treasures from the Vault, which closes this weekend.

It's post time

Every time J and I go to Suffolk Downs, we assume it will be the last time we watch live racing there. Back in 2014, the track announced it would be closing, and every year since then it has hosted three weekends of live racing: just enough to qualify for funding from the Massachusetts Gaming Commission.

Bearly broke a sweat

This year, however, is truly the end of the road for Suffolk Downs. The investment group that bought the property is planning to redevelop it for housing and retail, and if Amazon chooses to locate its second headquarters in Boston, Suffolk Downs is the site the city proposed for that project.

Ahead by a head

Horse racing is a dying pastime: as long as a handful of racetracks feature live racing, people far and wide can place bets via simulcasting. J and I have never placed a bet at Suffolk Downs: we go there to see and photograph actual horses and have no interest in the crowds of gambling folk staring at screens inside.

Backstretch

In its heyday, Suffolk Downs was a swanky establishment: the place to be. Those days, however, are long past. The grandstand, betting concourses, and dining rooms are large, and the crowds for live racing are modest. Every time J and I go to Suffolk Downs, we remark on how clean but run-down it is: a carry-over from a time when people weren’t glued to their TV, computer, and smartphone screens.

Let's go

For me, Suffolk Downs will always represent a simpler time: not only the heyday of thoroughbred racing (the sport of kings!), but also the days when I was a horse-crazy girl living in a suburb with absolutely no horses. Going to Suffolk Downs is like taking my inner child to a candy store. Everywhere you look, there are shiny, pretty horses walking and trotting and galloping, the stuff of my childhood dreams.

Whoa there fella

They can (and will) bulldoze Suffolk Downs and build something new and more lucrative on this plot of prime real estate, but there’s at least one horse-crazy lady who will remember it for the four-footed animals who trod there.

Click here for my photo set of photos from this weekend’s trip to Suffolk Downs. The track will offer one more weekend of live racing in August, then it will close for good: happy trails!

Madonna of the Star

Several weekends ago, J and I went to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to see Heaven on Earth, an exhibition of works by Fra Angelico. The highlight of the exhibit is a collection of four reliquaries originally commissioned by the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The Gardner Museum owns one of these reliquaries, and the others are visiting from Florence’s Museum of San Marco: the first time in two centuries that the four pieces have been displayed side by side.

Assumption and Dormition of the Virgin

Heaven on Earth is an eye-popping display of radiant richness. J and I went to see the exhibit the weekend it opened because J is a fan of Italian Renaissance art, and Fra Angelico (aka Guido di Pietro) is one of his favorites. Seeing these four reliquaries in person, I can see why.
Fra Angelico’s paintings gleam blue and gold in a darkened gallery, museum-goers crowding and craning to admire intricate details up close while attentive guards repeatedly reminded us to step back.

Annunciation and Adoration of the Magi

You can’t blame us for hovering close. The figures in these paintings are small; unlike a mural or altarpiece, a reliquary doesn’t offer much space to work with, and Fra Angelico had a lot of iconographic ground to cover. These four reliquaries depict in sumptuous detail key moments from the life of the Virgin Mary: the annunciation and adoration of the Magi, the infancy of Christ, Mary’s dormition and assumption, and her coronation in heaven.

The Coronation of the Virgin

Although Fra Angelico was Italian, his paintings reminded me of the works J and I had seen at the Museum of Russian Icons earlier this year. In each case, an intricately detailed painting is intended as a window from this world to the next, the physical properties of gilt and pigment serving a larger spiritual purpose. Museum-goers at the Gardner were looking at rather than through Fra Angelico’s artistry, but it was impossible not to feel transported by so much grandeur collected in one small space.

Frozen lagoon

Today J and I took the T into Boston, where we had lunch at Quincy Market then walked the Greenway to Chinatown, through Chinatown to Boston Common and the Public Garden, then through the Public Garden and down Newbury Street to Mass Ave, where we caught the T for home.

Mehdi Ghadyanloo, Spaces Of Hope

It was good to be out walking on a gray and warm day. Nearly all the snow has melted, so the earth looks bare and barren–just muddy, as if the landscape were under construction, caught between seasons. Plenty of people were out, Boston living up to its reputation as a pedestrian city. One of these days, we’ll keep track of the various languages we hear on a typical trip downtown and back: today we heard Spanish several times and Chinese at least once.

Holocaust memorial

At Haymarket, we walked through the weekly farmers’ market, with stalls selling produce and fresh fish arranged under long tents. Not all the food for sale is local: there were bags of out-of-state oranges piled into pyramids next to flattened skids of emptied cardboard boxes. Whether from near or far, the food was hawked by farmers, fishermen, and wholesalers who seemed eager to haggle. Yes, you could buy similar fruit, fish, or vegetables at your neighborhood grocery store, but would you have an actual conversation with your grocer before heading for home?

Chinatown gate

In Chinatown, there were red paper lanterns hanging from utility wires in advance of next weekend’s Chinese New Year’s celebration along with even more open-air merchants selling fruit and firecrackers out of trucks and car trunks. Everywhere, people were walking and trying to do business: merchants in Haymarket and Chinatown, panhandlers outside of T stations, and buskers in the Public Garden.

In case you forget where you are

At City Hall, there were families skating on a rink leftover from Christmas; at the Public Garden, small throngs of twenty-somethings were out on the ice, walking where the Swan Boats and ducks float in summer time. The ice was porous with puddles–I wouldn’t have trusted it–but more enticing than the chance to walk on water was the promise of the yellowing willows that fringe the lagoon. If the willows are brimming with yellowing buds, spring can’t be far behind.

View from footbridge over Leverett Pond

Today J and I took a trolley to Longwood, where we walked the Emerald Necklace to Jamaica Pond and back, stopping for lunch along the way. It was a perfect day for walking–partly cloudy, warm, and windy–with bare ground and long, stark shadows.

Muddy River at Longwood

All along the way, there were scattered throngs of pedestrians, Lycra-clad joggers, dog-walkers, families with strollers, and one rollerblader in shorts, taking advantage of the weather. In January, any day above freezing is a delight, so a day in the 50’s felt like spring, even with a brisk wind.

Sailboats in winter

The stretch of Emerald Necklace J and I walked today–a woodsy stretch of path connecting the Back Bay Fens, Olmsted Park, and Jamaica Pond–follows the Muddy River and runs through otherwise busy Boston neighborhoods, snaking along Brookline Avenue, crossing Route 9, and running parallel to the Jamaicaway with its constant stream of vehicular traffic. There is, in other words, no denying you are in the heart of a busy city.

Yellowing willow

But the genius of Frederick Law Olmsted is this: when he designed the Emerald Necklace, he knew natural landscapes needn’t be distant and untamed to refresh the human heart and mind. At no point today were J and I more than a literal stone’s throw away from traffic and densely populated urban neighborhoods, but we enjoyed the placidity of walking among trees and geese and flowing water all the same.

Leverett Pond

Olmsted believed that city-dwellers need green spaces to help soothe the stresses of urban life, and I think he was right. After we’d had lunch and were retracing our steps back toward Longwood, J and I saw an elderly couple sitting on a park bench overlooking Everett Pond. The woman had a walker and the man fingered a well-worn rosary as they sat chatting in Russian. How good it must have been for their bodies and souls to sit outside on a sunny January day, and how good it was for us, as well.

Long shadows at Longwood

Once we’d returned to Longwood, J and I boarded a crowded trolley headed toward home. Standing alongside fellow strap-hangers didn’t feel any more stressful than walking alongside dog-walkers, runners, and baby-strollers. During the hour or so J and I had been walking, our daily lives felt very far away. At a time of year when cabin fever is endemic, it’s a welcome gift to spend an afternoon outside.

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