Echo Bridge, not far from Echo Bridge

Recently the city of Newton has decorated selected utility boxes with historic images of area neighborhoods, giving bored pedestrians and motorists stuck in traffic something to look at while they wait for their light to change. The utility box at the corner of Chestnut and Elliot Streets in Newton Upper Falls, for instance, features a vintage postcard of Echo Bridge, which is right nearby, and a utility box at a busy corner in West Newton shows a nineteenth century street scene.

West Newton then and now

Utility boxes are, of course, utilitarian, filled with wires and switches and other necessary electrical gadgetry: most of the time, I walk right past utility boxes without even noticing them, much less considering what is either inside or on them. But these days, I find myself searching for electrical boxes as I drive around doing errands, trying to spot and collect the decorated ones like so many Easter eggs.

Great blue heron on electrical box

I suppose if you have to have utility boxes, you might as well make them interesting to look at, a bit of artfulness to complement their utility. Even an unsightly box becomes interesting when you stick vintage photos on it: an invitation to imagine what might have happened at this very intersection a century or so ago.

A village of traditions

STEAM Expo and summer reading pennants

Last week when I went to the Newton Free Library to return a book, I saw that librarians had strung a line of handmade pennants promoting the mayor’s annual Summer Reading Challenge. As a child, I loved these challenges, as I loved to read and cherished the excuse of a “challenge” to indulge in a beloved summer pastime. Summer reading programs are designed to entice children who would prefer to do anything other than read, but I didn’t need any sort of enticement.

Summer Reading pennants

When I was a kid, signing up for a summer reading challenge meant you’d be rewarded for the number of books you read, with prizes such as stickers and T-shirt decals for each milestone. Although I didn’t need such prizes to lure me to the library, every year I signed up regardless because getting rewarded to read was like piling prizes atop of prizes. What I looked forward to each summer, after all, was the freedom to read more than I could during the school year, when both classes and assigned homework got in the way. Rewarding me for reading in the summer time was like rewarding a child for eating candy.

Summer Reading pennants

In Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, Gretchen Rubin advises against using rewards to encourage someone to cultivate a habit, as the habit itself should be its own reward. If the only reason you’re reading is to earn a sticker or T-shirt, you’ll probably stop reading after those rewards have ceased. For me, summer reading prizes were more of a bonus than a bribe, but I can understand Rubin’s perspective. If you’re trying to encourage a child who doesn’t like to read, offering prizes might work in the short term, but the reading habit will “stick” only if a child discovers he or she actually enjoys reading for its own sake.

Summer Reading pennants

Even now, I look forward to summertime as a chance to catch up with reading. During the school year, I spend too much time prepping classes and grading student papers. Summer is when I remind myself that the whole reason I became an English major, after all, is the simple fact that I love to read. During the lazy days of June, July, and August, I let my curiosity lead me, reading whatever catches my interest. Sometimes I’ll read something because a friend on Goodreads recommended it, like Carine McCandless’ The Wild Truth, or sometimes I’ll read a book because it’s related to a recent news story, like Rachel Hope Cleves’ Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America. When I hear an author I like is coming out with a new book, I immediately request it from the library, content to wait my turn along with the other early-birds. This means my summer reading list is a kind of planned serendipity where new books I’d forgotten I’d requested, like Judy Blume’s new novel or Oliver Sacks’ new autobiography, suddenly show up, ready for me to read them: a surprise that is its own reward.

Many turns

This afternoon on my way home from an errand, I stopped at Boston College to walk the memorial labyrinth there. I’ve blogged about this labyrinth before: as someone who loves both walking and walking meditation, I’m fascinated by labyrinths, which are designed to contain an entire pilgrimage–there and back–in a single constrained space. Of the various labyrinths I’ve walked over the years, the one at BC is probably my favorite with its smooth stones and fringe of green grass. Why go on pilgrimage when the earth underfoot is so clearly holy?

Labyrinth green

When I taught at BC for a semester two years ago, I had high hopes of walking the labyrinth there frequently: how simple would be, I thought, to take a quick pilgrimage every day after class? In reality, though, I walked the labyrinth only once that semester, on September 11. The BC labyrinth is a memorial to alumni who died during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the anniversary of that tragedy pushed me out of my office and onto the labyrinth’s curvy course. Apart from that one day, however, I repeatedly told myself I didn’t have time to take a detour toward the labyrinth on the way from my office to my car. While teaching at BC three days a week for an entire semester, I repeatedly told myself I was too busy to take even a few extra minutes for a leisurely stroll.

You are here

Now that I’m not teaching at BC, I see each of the times I didn’t walk the labyrinth after class as being a missed opportunity. The fact that I felt I didn’t have time for a contemplative stroll meant I most definitely needed to take one: whenever you’re too busy to meditate, of course, is when you need meditation the most. As soon as I started walking the labyrinth today, I remembered a curious fact: when you’re walking a labyrinth, time seems to stand still. Whereas moments before you were checking your watch and ticking through your to-do list, the moment you start walking a labyrinth, time slows as you carefully attend the step underfoot, trusting the way There will eventually bring you back Here.

Afternoon light

Bee on purple coneflower

Every year, summer announces its arrival in ways that don’t necessarily correspond to human calendars. To some, Memorial Day marks the traditional start of summer, but for others, summer arrives with the summer solstice or the July 4th holiday. Memorial Day is in May, the summer solstice is in June, and the 4th of July is (obviously) in July, which means summer arrives either gradually or repeatedly over the course of a month or so, depending on whose calendar you follow.

Purple coneflower

For me, there are two surefire signs that the height of summer is really here: cicadas and coneflowers. Earlier this week, while J and I were walking to lunch on a humid day, I heard the year’s first cicada calling from a shady spot along a woodsy trail that wends through our neighborhood. To my ears, the first cicadas of summer sound shrill and sharp, as if recently honed. Only in August will the collective chorus of cicadas have a deeper, more rattling sound, as if their voices have both deepened and dulled with age.

Purple coneflowers

Last Friday, I took a moment to photograph the purple coneflowers blooming in a garden alongside the Hyde Playground in Newton Highlands. Purple coneflowers are one of my favorite flowers: I love their eye-popping combination of purple and orange as well as the textural contrast between their pleated petals and spiky centers. The fact that these Hyde Playground coneflowers are garden plantings rather than wild blooms doesn’t make them any less a harbinger of summer: regardless of who planted them, these coneflowers open (and are beset with neighborhood bees) only when the sun stirs them.

Purple coneflower

So you can forget about the dog days of summer; we’ve reached the days of coneflowers and cicadas. What do dogs know about summer that the flowers and bugs haven’t already told them?

Russian nesting dolls

This month at the Newton Free Library, there is an exhibit of Russian matryoshka dolls in three glass cases in the main entrance hall. Normally I don’t pay much attention to the monthly displays in these cases: they’re simply something I pass on my way to pick-up or drop-off books. But because I know J admires Russian nesting dolls, I stopped long enough to snap a few photos, the way you do when you see something you know a loved one would love.

Russian leaders nesting dolls

What initially caught my eye was a medium-sized Mikhail Gorbachev doll that contains within him his Soviet-era predecessors. I had to snap a photo to share with J because I knew that years ago during a business trip to Prague, J bought a large Boris Yeltsin that contains within him the same sequence of Russian leaders all the way back to the tzars. Although I’m no expert when it comes to Russian history or Russian nesting dolls, I recognize the zeal in J’s voice when he recites the names of Russian leaders like a litany, the smallest tzar not much larger than a grain of rice.

Russian nesting dolls

J is a connoisseur of matryoshka dolls, but I’m just a newbie, drawn to pay attention to something simply because someone I love is an admirer. I suppose this is how parents become well-versed in dinosaurs, Legos, or anything else their children love obsessively. I have to admire a collector’s zeal, even if I know little about his or her collection. When it comes to Russian matryoshka dolls, I admire the meticulous way one figure fits into another, a single doll containing an entire collection, each individual packed with its predecessors like a person carrying his own history.

Willow tree in bloom

Only after spring arrives and the trees burst into flower do I realize how much of the winter I’ve spent looking down. In winter, I trudge around in a bulky coat, hat, and scarf; on the coldest days, I top it all with a hood. Thus bundled, I keep my eyes down, my attention focused underfoot on the treachery of ice and snow. Like a mummy, my view of the world in winter is just a slit through swaddles.

Oak catkins and leaves

Spring sets my feet free in sandals, the sidewalks finally clear underfoot. In spring, you appreciate anew the miracle it is to walk the earth. In the spring, you don’t have to watch every step; in spring, your whole body feels as light as shirtsleeves. Walking at the end of an interminable winter feels like freedom, your ankles liberated from boots and the sinew-testing challenge of knee-deep snow drifts.

Dogwood flowers

Come summer, after the trees have finished leafing, their crowns will contain my view like a cap and I’ll look to the ground once again, searching for flowers and ground-creeping plants. But in early spring, the world’s inverted, with an ephemeral fury of flowers high overhead: blooms against blue.

2015 Boston Marathon

After the winter we weathered here in Boston, it would have taken a lot more than rain to keep us from watching this year’s Boston Marathon. Today was cold, rainy, and windy–as miserable as this past weekend was lovely–so the crowds were smaller than usual but as enthusiastic as ever: diehard fans undaunted by a little damp.

2015 Boston Marathon

Today’s weather was the kind that looks wretched from inside but isn’t that bad when you’re actually out in it. Somehow being in and among other cheering fans distracts you from your own discomfort. There weren’t as many families with pets and children as there have been in fair-weather years, but there were still some hearty souls who weren’t scared away by the forecast.

2015 Boston Marathon

The families with children and bundled babies between Miles 18 and 19 in Newton all looked like old pros when it comes to New England weather. Both their rain gear and general nonchalance suggested they’d been to other soggy Marathons, or had sat through rain delays at Fenway Park, or had weathered rain, sleet, and snow at Gillette Stadium.

2015 Boston Marathon

J and I have been to more than our share of foul-weather sporting events, including New England Revolution games that continued despite pouring rain and one infamous Patriots’ game where we had to dig out our seats from a half-foot of snow. From these events, I’ve learned that cheering vociferously really does keep you warm, as does hand-clapping, foot-stomping, and other kinds of movement.

2015 Boston Marathon

At the Marathon, at least, you aren’t tethered to a single assigned seat, so when you get cold, you can pull up stakes and walk, cheering the nonstop stream of runners from a new and moving vantage point.

2015 Boston Marathon

In past years, J and I have established a routine where we initially watch the race from the corner of Chestnut Street and Commonwealth Avenue, then we walk toward the massive block party at Newton City Hall, walking alongside the runners as they pass large houses on one side of the road and the backside of Newton Cemetery on the other.

2015 Boston Marathon

This is my favorite segment of the Marathon route, as the crowds thin and the sidewalk peters out into a dirt path. As you walk alongside the runners, you can hear the hypnotic rhythm of their footfalls along with the sotto voce conversations between running partners as they prepare to face Heartbreak Hill. “This is where the race gets interesting, isn’t it,” I overhear one runner ask another. “Yes, it is,” the second responds.

2015 Boston Marathon

Today there was a lone man standing along this segment of the route quietly uttering encouragements: “Great Job!” “You’re looking good!” “That’s a good, steady stride!” His observations were the kind a running coach might tell his charges, but none of them were shouted, merely spoken as if the man were addressing a person right beside him, or himself.

2015 Boston Marathon

After the noisy hoopla of drums, cowbells, and clapping spectators the runners had just passed through, and given the festive music and upbeat DJ they’d hear over a loudspeaker at City Hall, this man’s encouragements seemed as subtle and subliminal as one’s own heartbeat pulsing a litany of encouragement from within.

2015 Boston Marathon

Click here to see more photos from today’s soggy Boston Marathon. Enjoy!

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