Boston


Works by Clara Lieu

I don’t normally listen to the radio on my way to and from campus: I prefer the company of my own thoughts. But on my drive home from Curry College today, I turned on the news to fend off sleepiness, and that’s when I heard it: a verdict had been reached in the trial of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Works by Clara Lieu

The verdict was announced as I pulled into my driveway, and I sat in my car to listen to the first few counts: guilty, guilty, guilty. And just like that April day two years ago, I found myself weeping for the victims, the violence, and the sense of violation. Here in Boston, we take the Marathon bombings personally. A crime was committed in our own neighborhood, and we embrace the victims of that crime as our own.

Works by Clara Lieu

Throughout Tsarnaev’s trial, I’ve followed media reports of testimony that gave additional details of a story that hits too close to home. I repeatedly watched surveillance footage of carjack victim Dun Meng escaping from the Tsarnaev brothers at a gas station I pass every time I drive to the Zen Center, for instance, and I was stunned to learn that one of the bystanders who tended to BU graduate student Lingzi Lu as she bled to death was Dr. James Bath: J’s primary care physician, and the doctor who gave me nebulizer treatments when I had a respiratory infection last fall. I’m both sobered and saddened to realize the doctor who literally pumped breath back into my body was also there with Lingzi Lu when she breathed her last.

Works by Clara Lieu

After sitting in my car to hear the verdicts on the first few counts against Tsarnaev, I came inside, turned on the radio, and dried dishes through the rest: guilty on all thirty counts. The verdict doesn’t bring back any of the victims, nor does it restore severed limbs or bring solace to traumatized souls. Neither a verdict nor a sentence can bring closure, as some wounds are too wide to heal. But hearing a jury officially pronounce Tsarnaev guilty on all counts brought a sense that justice had been served. Whether the jury sentences Tsarnaev to death or to life in prison, the decision that matters was announced today. Having seen the destruction the Tsarnaev brothers wrought, a jury decided there is no ideology that can excuse such cruelty.

The photos illustrating today’s post come from a November exhibition of works by Clara Lieu at Framingham State University’s Mazmanian Gallery.

Twirling

Back in December, dancers from the India Society of Worcester performed before a Boston Celtics game J and I attended. There were several troupes of dancers, each dressed in colorful, flowing skirts or loose-fitting, spangled pants. As the dancers twirled to uptempo music, I shot photo after photo, knowing there would come a point later in the winter when I’d be so tired of a monochromatic palette of Overcast and Snow, I’d cherish any spot of light and color.

All a-swirl

We’ve officially reached that point. As I type these words, both darkness and snowflakes are falling, with a blizzard forecast for tonight into tomorrow. For the fourth time in so many weeks, J and I are hunkering down, hoping we don’t lose power and knowing we’ll have to dig out once again when the storm is over. The snow in our yard is waist-deep, and I wonder when we’ll see our buried lawn again: sometime in April?

Strike a pose

Every winter, I find myself relying upon a tried-and-true handful of coping strategies to stoke the inner fires: anything to get myself through these doldrum days. I wear a bright pink coat because the color cheers me, and I like to imagine myself as a bright beacon in a season when most folks wear black or other shades of dark drab. I don’t scrimp on footwear, knowing I’m far happier when my feet are warm and dry: the pricy Huntress Wellies I’ve been clomping around in most of the winter have been worth every penny.

On the Jumbotron

And I know to use music as a kind of medicine, listening (and dancing) to salsa on Pandora as I do my morning chores and pulling out the big guns–not one but two Bellydance Superstars CDs–on my dreary, gridlocked drives to and from work, the grocery store, or other errands. Such upbeat and exotic music helps me imagine I’m someplace warm and colorful, and I can imagine myself barefoot and shimmying in a bright, jingling outfit rather than waddling flat-footed in boots and a bulky coat.

Intermission

February in New England feels like waiting. We dig out from one snowstorm then brace for the next; we count the days until pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training. March is muddy and messy, but at least it holds the hope of spring. February, on the other hand, is just winter grown old.

Ready to begin - turn off your cell phones!

Last week J and I went to a matinee BSO concert. Symphony Hall is an insulated, bunker-like space: it’s sometimes described as a building inside a building, with the outside walls keeping the street-sounds out and the inner walls keeping the sound of music in. When you’re inside Symphony Hall, it’s as if the outside world doesn’t exist. Inside Symphony Hall the environment is warm and attentive, with every ear attuned to an incoming wave of music. Outside, the world is cold and cacophonous, both the winter wind and the blare of car horns battering your senses the instant you leave.

Warming up

Both phones and photography are forbidden during BSO performances, so any photos I take show pre-concert warmups or the hush of intermission. February in New England feels like an intermission between the thunderous timpani of winter and the peaceful piccolos of spring. In February we sit like a lone cellist, our fingers poised over silent strings we’re well-practiced and ever-eager to play, waiting.

Ready for his closeup

Back in November, when J and I walked around downtown Boston on Thanksgiving Day, we photographed a bronze statue of Edgar Allan Poe that had been unveiled in October. Before seeing the statue in person, I’d seen photographs of it, so you might say its reputation preceded it. But before I judged the merits of Poe’s new statue, I wanted to see it face-to-face.

Taking it all in stride

Now that I’ve personally seen the statue, which is titled “Poe Returning to Boston,” I can say with confidence that it is simply dreadful. I like Edgar Allan Poe, and I hate this statue, mainly because it immortalizes in bronze all the stereotypes Poe spent his life fighting against. Poe wanted desperately to support himself and his family as a respectable literary man, writing serious literary criticism and whatever poems and short stories would pay the bills. Because some of Poe’s popular work was indeed popular, appealing to the Gothic and sensational tastes of the 19th century reading public, serious-minded writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow rejected Poe, pegging him as a sensationalistic hack.

Keep off

“Poe Returning to Boston” both reflects and codifies this derision, portraying Poe not as a serious intellectual but as a madman rushing around town with wild hair, a vampirish cloak, a pterodactyl-sized raven, and an anatomically accurate heart dropping out of his suitcase. The statue isn’t a portrait as much as a caricature that appeals to popular misconceptions about a much-misunderstood man.

Poe profile

Poe might have been a rootless wanderer who never attained during his lifetime the level of literary respectability he aspired to, but that doesn’t mean he was a fiendish freak who rushed down sidewalks with body parts in his bag. The symbols in popular works such as “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” are just that–symbols–so portraying them alongside Poe seems overly literal-minded. Should we immortalize Stephen King alongside life-size renditions of Cujo or Christine even though those reflect only one part of his oeuvre?

A tell-tale heart

Looking at “Poe Returning to Boston,” you’d never know there’s more to Poe than his scary stories. In addition to writing literary criticism, poetry, and an adventure novel, Poe invented the detective story. Most folks see Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as being a respectable chap, but he borrowed the idea of Sherlock Holmes from Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin. Why is this less lurid aspect of Poe’s career overlooked in favor of his Gothic tales? If the literal-minded among us insist on associating Poe with ravens and beating hearts, why not also associate him with detectives and magnifying glasses?

Raven's head

Emerson famously dismissed Poe as being a mere jingle-writer, but there’s really only one thing distinguishing Poe from both Emerson and Longfellow: the latter had money and thus didn’t need to live off their writing. Emerson was born to a well-bred family of ministers–the New England elite–while Longfellow was the son of a lawyer. Both Emerson and Longfellow married well, with Emerson receiving a cash annuity after his first wife died and Longfellow receiving as a wedding present from his in-laws the house that now bears his name.

Ragin' raven

Poe, on the other hand, was the orphaned child of Irish actors: in the 19th century, a much-maligned and oft-impoverished lot. Poe wanted to be accepted and embraced by other members of the Boston literati, but he couldn’t afford to limit himself to high-brow literature. Like Mark Twain after him, Edgar Allan Poe was a writer of diverse talents who wrote whatever would sell. This doesn’t make him a sell-out; it just means that he (unlike Emerson and Longfellow) had to spend at least part of his time catering to popular tastes. 

Turning his back on Boston

Most passersby who see “Poe Returning to Boston” know very little about the man and his work: instead, popular culture contents itself with cliches and caricatures. According to the popular belief, Poe was a disturbed man who wrote disturbing stories. But doesn’t the popularity of Poe’s Gothic tales tell us more about his audience than it does about his own personal proclivities? Poe’s most successful (and well-remembered) works are the ones that gave his audience what they wanted, which was thrills, chills, and the ability to wash their hands of such sensationalism when they were done. Don’t we still blame the media for producing the violence-drenched entertainment we gladly, greedily, and guiltily consume? If there’s anything that Poe’s tell-tale heart reveals, it’s the darker side of his audience’s psyche, not his own.

Thank you, Rondo

Last night, J and I went to the TD Garden to watch the Boston Celtics play the Dallas Mavericks. When we bought tickets for this particular Celtics game at the start of the season, we didn’t know that Celtics point guard, team captain, and 2008 world champion Rajon Rondo would be traded to the Mavs right before Christmas. When we heard Rondo had been traded, J and I were saddened: Rondo was the by far the best player on this year’s Celtics team, and he was the only remaining player from the 2008 championship team. But when we realized we’d be in the house when Rondo came back to the TD Garden in a Mavericks jersey, we knew we’d be on our feet, cheering.

Rondo on defense

Whenever a former Boston sports star returns to town after a trade, sportswriters speculate about how he’ll be received. Will diehard fans cheer their former favorite, or will they greet him with boos? In my experience, diehard fans are loyal fans, especially when a player didn’t ask to be traded. In December, J and I saw the Celtics play the Washington Wizards, and the hometown crowd went wild when former Celtics captain Paul Pierce was introduced, even though it’s been more than a year and a half since Pierce was traded. When it comes to championship players like Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Rajon Rondo, the adage “Once a Celtic, always a Celtic” seems to apply. Diehard fans, in other words, don’t forget what a player did to contribute to the team even after the color of his jersey changes.

Rondo!

So last night, a sold-out crowd of diehard Celtics fans went wild when Rajon Rondo was announced as part of the Mavericks’ starting lineup, and we cheered again when Rondo scored the first bucket of the game, and we cheered even louder when a video tribute to Rondo was shown during the second quarter. As the game went on and Rondo hit shot after shot, the cheers turned to good-natured groans: how could we have been so stupid to trade such a player away? (Had Danny Ainge, the Celtics President of Basketball Operations and architect of the Rondo trade, been shown on the Jumbotron, I’m sure HE would have gotten booed.)

Rondo!

Basketball is a business, and both teams and players have to keep their eye on the bottom line: gone are the days when a player spent his entire career with a single team. But just because team owners and player agents remain hard-nosed when it comes to the business of basketball doesn’t mean fans can’t play favorites. Paul Pierce just doesn’t look right in a Washington Wizards jersey, and Rajon Rondo doesn’t look right in Mavericks’ blue, either. In my mind and heart alike, Pierce, Rondo, Garnett, and the rest will always be a part of the team that won another championship for Boston.

Thank you, Rondo

Apart from the first and last photo, which I shot with my phone last night, the other photos illustrating today’s post come from past games when Rajon Rondo played for rather than against the Celtics.

Orange Twist, Jean Stamsta (1970)

This past weekend, I went with friends to see an exhibit of fiber art at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. Whereas the quilts we’d seen at the Museum of Fine Arts this past summer were two-dimensional, hanging like tapestries on the gallery walls, the woven, stitched, and crocheted works currently on display at the ICA are billed as sculpture, a medium that exists in all three dimensions.

Elsi Giauque, Élément spatial (Spatial Element), 1979.

Sculptures are inherently pedestrian, inviting viewers to walk around and view them from multiple angles. Whereas a painting has only one good side, sculptures have many. Most sculptures are solid and substantial things, their shadows being the only part of them that potentially moves. But fiber sculptures are knitted from the negative space between individual strands, and this gives them an opacity that solid sculptures lack. Looking at a woven work, you’re simultaneously looking through it, your fellow museum visitors becoming part of the piece as they stroll past or linger to look.

Françoise Grossen, Inchworm, 1971.

Whenever I linger to look at fiber art, I experience two complementary impulses. The first is an almost irresistible urge to touch the piece, using my fingertips to read its texture like braille. To me, textiles are inherently tactile, so there is something inexplicably cruel about an exhibit that asks you to admire fiber sculptures with your eyes alone. The second impulse I experience when viewing sewn, knitted, or woven works is the urge to make my own. If curators won’t let me touch what others have made, then the only way to satisfy my eager fingers is to keep them busy with work of their own.

Ernesto Neto, SoundWay, 2012.

I never learned how to knit, but I was a crafty kid during the heyday of both macrame and latch-hooking, and in college a roommate taught me how to cross-stitch. In each case, I enjoyed the calming repetition of each individual knot or stitch following the next: a meditative monotony I practiced long before I knew what meditation was. It’s been years since I’ve either knotted or stitched: whenever I’m tempted to begin again, I remember all the projects I started but never finished, my interest in textile arts focused more on the process than the finished product.

Hooked and Twisted

When I started cross-stitching in college, I’d often do it while watching TV with my roommates, the predictable parade of one stitch following another fitting nicely with the desultory conversation that good friends enjoy over an interesting show. I particularly remember cross-stitching while watching CNN at the start of the First Gulf War, my roommates and I having friends and classmates who had been called up to serve mid-semester. It felt like our civic duty to watch the news even though there was nothing tangible we could do to help, and cross-stitching gave our nervous hands something to do that felt productive.

Xenobia Bailey, Sistah Paradise’s Great Wall of Fire Revival Tent, 1993.

These days I read during the hour or so I spend after taking the beagle out and getting settled for the night. While J readies dinner, I read with the TV in the background, the sounds of sports or news serving as a sonic backdrop. I could, in theory, spend this time knotting or stitching, but for the time being I enjoy reading, my particular talents leaning more toward texts than textiles. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate fiber arts with the vicarious joy of someone who can remember herself doing something similar.

Click here for Leslee’s account of our trip to the ICA. If you’re in the Boston area, this week is your last chance to see Fiber: Sculpture 1960-Present, which is on display at the ICA until January 4. Enjoy!

Christmas tree and Custom House clock-tower

These days it gets dark in New England by 5 pm, and I find myself cherishing every bit of brightness. When I lived in Keene, I’d leave my porch light on when I left for campus so I wouldn’t have to come home to a dark house, and when I moved to Newton but continued teaching in Keene, I’d spend much of my evening commute looking for houses with Christmas lights, candles in the windows, or lit porch lights: spots of cheering brightness on a long, dark drive home.

Christmas tree with Black Friday shoppers

December is a festive time for some but a gloomy time for others. For years I lived with someone who suffered severe seasonal affective disorder, so the period between November and March was volatile, with spells of despair interrupted by anger and upheaval. When I see lit Christmas lights, my inner eight-year-old relishes the brightness and sparkle…but my adult self remembers the loneliness and despair the season brings for far too many. When I see a lit Christmas tree, part of me hopes that at least one lost soul might see it as a beacon of hope in a dark time: a light left on to guide each one of us home to a place both festive and warm.

This is my final, Day Thirty contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

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