Newton


Tree of heaven

After spending too much time this week glued to my bad-news feed, on Wednesday afternoon I stepped away from my desk to do some errands in West Newton. There, in the deep-slanting light of a summer afternoon, a sprawling tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) stood, its boughs brimming with clusters of yellowish, pink-tinged seeds.

Tree of heaven fruit and foliage

I’ve seen trees of heaven before, but I’ve never been stopped in my tracks by one. The species is invasive and often grows in places where other trees can’t, like urban alleys and streets: the tree that famously grew in Brooklyn was a tree of heaven. But a gangly “ghetto palm” sapling in an alley is quite different from a full-grown tree setting down roots next to a grassy ballfield, with ample room to spread an expansive crown.

When I got home, I looked on Google Maps to see if the playground in West Newton has a name, and indeed it does: Eden Playground, a fitting place for a tree of heaven to grow. Female trees of heaven bear samaras, which are winged seeds that spin like helicopters as they fall, and right now the tree at Eden Playground is heavy-laden with them. Whereas maple samaras have twin seeds with wings shaped like rabbit ears, trees of heaven bear clusters of single-seeded samaras, each one twisted like a egg noodle.

Tree of heaven fruit

Before setting out to do errands on Wednesday, I started reading Strong for a Moment Like This, a collection of daily prayers and Scripture meditations the Reverend Dr. Bill Shillady emailed to Hillary Clinton during last year’s presidential campaign. (A more sensational title for the book would have been “Hillary’s Emails.”) I became curious about Rev. Shillady’s book after reading his oft-shared (and, unfortunately, partially plagiarized) email to Hillary the morning after her defeat to Donald Trump. I suspect I’ll need lots of prayer and devotion to get through the next four years, or however long it takes our country to jump off the Trump Train.

Trees of heaven are quick-growing but not long-lived: who knows how long the one in West Newton (or her forebears, since this tree spreads via suckers as well as seeds) has been quietly growing in an edge of forgotten soil behind a gas station. What ballgames has she witnessed, and what playground dramas? How much car exhaust and human angst has she absorbed, exhaling oxygen to the clouds? With her toes in the earth and her arms spread toward the sky, this tree of heaven enjoys the best of both worlds, rooted in the dirt but stretching toward the heavens.

Tree of heaven fruit

These days I genuinely wonder how we can collectively spread our limbs toward love, the only counter to hate. I struggle with this personally, as my grudge-holding heart sometimes feels as twisted as a spinning samara. Is more prayer necessary, or more devotion? If I were Hillary Clinton, I’d still be doubled-over with rage, as I was the morning after the election and still sometimes am when I scroll my bad-news feed. How can we sprout from the dirt of division and expand into the flower and fruit of love?

There is, I trust, no hate in heaven, not even righteous indignation; I believe hate gets stripped away in the wash of God’s love. But here on earth, where meanness rages, lies are perpetuated, and the evil and greedy reap great rewards, where does the God of justice hide?

Into this life a little light falls, as do spinning samaras, and occasionally trees have ample room to spread and shine. Perhaps that is the only taste of heaven we’re presently permitted.

Mountain laurel

This time of year, when the mountain laurel is blooming outside our front door, I silently thank whoever it was who planted it. I love flowers but don’t have a green thumb, so I’m grateful that someone chose to surround our house with rhododendrons, euonymus, and pieris as well as spiderwort and spirea: a flowering legacy that continues from year to year despite burying snows and nibbling rabbits.

Mountain laurel

Want to make a lasting difference in the world? You can have and raise children, or start and grow a charity, or make and donate millions. Or, you can plant a long-lived and hardy perennial, something green and growing that will outlast you. They say the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, and I’m grateful to the gardeners who had the foresight to plant the flowers and shrubs that fringe my house with beauty now.

Little Free Library

Little Free Libraries have been popping up everywhere in Newton these days. We’ve had a Little Free Library in our neighborhood in Waban for a couple years now; there have been two at “The Street” in Chestnut Hill for nearly as long; and in the past few weeks, others have appeared in front of the Waban Library Center, a house on Beacon Street, and a house in Newton Centre.

Take a book, leave a book

Anyone can put up a box filled with books with a sign telling passersby to take a book and leave a book, and it seems our neighbors are fond of reading and encouraging others to read. Although I mostly read books borrowed from the public library these days, having so many Little Free Libraries around is encouraging me to re-visit my shelves, looking for books I’ve read and don’t plan to revisit.

No book-lover likes to weed out books; ideally, we’d keep every book we’ve read or wanted to read. But giving books away is different. Leaving a book in a Little Free Library feels like the bookish equivalent of catch-and-release fishing. Having held a book in your hands for a little while, you set it free for some other reader to enjoy.

Vanhoutte Spirea

At some point this week, I blinked and spring slipped into summer. Trees that were leafing are now in full leaf, and fragile spring flowers have faded and given way to hardier replacements.

Just bloomed

Where there was honeysuckle, now there is beauty bush, and lily-of-the-valley is blooming where there had been glory-of-the-snow. In our front yard, the pieris is starting to fade, the mountain laurel is about to bloom, and the turkeys that were loud and emphatic only a week or so ago have started to quell and quiet.

When, exactly, does spring start and summer begin? At exactly the moment when green passes into green, the pale neon glow of fresh foliage deepening into a more somber and shadowy hue.

The beautiful uncut hair of graves

One of the benefits of being a long-time student of American literature is the way poems and other texts worm their way into consciousness. Today J and I went walking at Newton Cemetery, and I kept thinking of Section 6 of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”

READ

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it is any more than he.

Two weeping Madonnas

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Tinsel heart

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?

Hell money

Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe of the vegetation.

Budding lilac

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white, Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

Flowering dogwood

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Weedy

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and from offspring taken soon out of their mother’s laps,
And here you are the mother’s laps.

486,867th Dead of AIDS

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

Cauliflorous redbud

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.

Canada goose

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.

Male and female mallard

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
What do you think has become of the women and children?

Canada goose

They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.

Male and female mallard

All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

Tulips

Nothing is stronger than love

Today is Patriots’ Day–Marathon Monday–so J and I walked to our usual spot on Commonwealth Avenue here in Newton to watch today’s Boston Marathon. The daffodils and crowds of spectators were both out in force, it being a beautifully mild, sunny day.

We run as one for Martin Richard

I took the usual assortment of photos–pictures of runners, wheelchair racers, runners pushing teammates in wheelchairs, cute dogs, clever signs, and people handing things out. Every year, there are spectators who stand on the edge of the course handing out slices of fruit, cups of water, wet paper towels, and handfuls of ice. Even though there are official water stations and medical tents offering pretty much anything a runner could need, bystanders go to great lengths to lend a hand to passing runners, the same folks and families showing up each year to offer handouts.

The ice guy

I normally think of running as a solitary sport: it’s just you, the road, and the sounds of your own two feet as you try to settle into your own stride. But watching the Boston Marathon makes me think that perhaps running–at least long-distance running–is actually a team endeavor. Yes, you and your sneakers might be out there pounding the pavement on your own, your mind providing its own endlessly looping soundtrack of self-encouragement: You can do it! Push through the pain! Pace yourself, pace yourself! But beyond this inner loop is another, louder litany fed by others: the cheering of strangers and the well-wishes of friends.

Orange slices

It can be difficult to remember your training over the long haul: there occasionally are lonely miles when we all yearn for encouragement. Anyone motivated (or crazy) enough could run the Boston Marathon course pretty much any day of the year if they were willing to dodge cars and swerve around pedestrians. On any other day, you’d be just another jogger, just another runner training for that long race in April. Only on Marathon Monday do entire towns (literally) stop traffic on your behalf, closing down schools and businesses so there will be plenty of people on the sidelines, on your team, cheering and pulling for you, some anonymous stranger they’ve never met.

Wet paper towels

After the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, security for subsequent races has been tight: you’re always aware at the back of your mind of the state police officers and military police in their black uniforms, watching. While the rest of us clap and cheer, security officials stay on high alert, looking for anything unusual.

Blue and yellow mohawk

This year, after terror attacks in Nice, Berlin, and Stockholm taught us all that hijacked vehicles can be used as weapons, authorities here in Newton beefed up the barricades blocking off roads leading to the marathon route. The giant plow-equipped salt-trucks parked where there used to be sawhorses and parked police cruisers were clearly intended to send a message to anyone thinking they might plow a vehicle into runners and spectators: Not so fast, buster.

Road block

Although it is obviously (and perhaps sadly) necessary to have police, medical personnel, and other official helpers on hand to ensure a safe and smooth race, what I want to remember from today’s Marathon are the unofficial helpers: the folks who decide to hand out water, ice, or fruit simply because they had those things on hand and other folks needed them. We appreciate that people in the helping professions show up and do their jobs, but that doesn’t excuse the rest of us from lending a hand.

Have a drink

Click here for more photos from today’s Boston Marathon. Enjoy!

First forsythia

Today I opened the windows. That sounds like an ordinary, unremarkable thing, but anyone who has lived in New England (or anywhere with seemingly interminable winters) knows that Opening Day is a momentous occasion. For the first time in months, I can sit at my desk and listen to birds singing, cars driving down the street, and cyclists, joggers, and pedestrians chatting as they pass. (“We’ll have maple syrup,” one unseen passerby says to another: can it get more quintessentially New England than that?)

Today I opened the windows

Today I wore sandals, cropped pants, and a long-sleeved shirt: long sleeves because of a brisk breeze that still carries a hint of chill, but sleeves I could roll up in the warm sunshine. Today I drove to campus for a midday meeting, and I didn’t care how far away I had to park: simply being outside in the fresh air, sunshine, and birdsong was divine.

Right now as I type these words, I make a mental list of the outdoor sounds I hear: chirping house sparrows, a trilling cardinal, a distant chainsaw, innumerable passing cars. Tomorrow or the next day or the next, these sounds will become background noise: a distraction to tune out while I’m working. But today, these are the most beautiful sounds in the world.

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