Newton


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.”

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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.

Stella through raindrops

Winter storm Stella arrived this morning, right on schedule: the tracking of storms has gotten so reliable, we’ve known for days Stella was on her way, bringing with her over a foot of snow and blizzard-force winds. Although local stores were flooded yesterday with shoppers buying armloads of bread, milk, and eggs, I’d done my grocery shopping on Friday, well in advance of the last minute rush. J and I have weathered enough winter storms, we know the drill.

Front walkway

A few days before a big storm, J and I make sure we have a week’s supply of groceries and other essentials: pity the folks who get snowed-in without toilet paper, kitty litter, or aspirin. We check our flashlights and battery-powered radios, fully charge our phones and other devices, and stock up on library books and Kindle downloads.

If a storm sounds particularly daunting, I’ll make sure my car has a full tank of gas in case we lose electricity and need to use a car-charger to power our phones, and I’ll withdraw some extra cash in case ATMs and credit card machines are down. The day before the storm, J will bring the snowblower onto the back porch so it’s ready to clear a path to freedom, and I’ll park my car at the end of the driveway, just in case the snowblower dies and I have to “Subaru-through” to the cleared road.

Midday

The truth is, we’ve rarely needed these extreme measures: when we’ve lost power in past storms, service has been quickly restored, and we’ve never been snowed-in for days. In an emergency, we could probably survive a week or more on the staples we keep in our pantry. But when the wind is rattling the windows and a billowing blur of tiny snowflakes is falling as fine as sifted flour, there is comfort in knowing the cupboards are stocked and the home fires are stoked.

Snowy patio

We got about a foot of snow from winter storm Niko: not exceptional by New England standards, but the biggest storm of the season so far. Today was sunny, as is typical after big snowstorms: a perfect day for digging out.

Miss Bling in a blanket

Before J got started with roof-raking and snow-blowing, I had two tasks: clear my car and shake snow from the trees. Clearing my car was easy enough: the trick is to use a push-broom to brush the bulk of the snow, start the car and leave it running with the heat on, and then clear the windows, windshield, and mirrors with an ice scraper. Once you’ve cleared most of the snow, the sun will take care of the rest.

The snow-shaking is a more involved task. Our house is fringed with rhododendrons and evergreens, and these get weighed down after every snowfall. Although I like the look of tree limbs laden with snow, it’s not good for trees and shrubs to be bent double, so after I cleared my car, I circled our yard with my push-broom, shaking the snow from bent boughs.

Snowy backyard

The shrubs alongside the garage and driveway are easy to reach, especially with a long-handled broom, but the rhododendrons on the far side of our house are less accessible, growing as they do in the narrow strip of yard between our house and the neighbors’ hedges. Wintertime is the only time I squeeze into this space between our rhodies and their hedge, a messy tangle that feels a lot wilder than its location right alongside our house would suggest.

Today, the rhododendron leaves were curled lengthwise and frozen, hanging like brittle green cigars that rattled woodenly as I knocked the snow from their branches. Sometimes, when a bough is bent low to the ground with snow, it springs up with a swish when you liberate it. Other times when you shake an overhead limb, the snow showers down in a diamond-glitter burst. I’ve learned to turn my face and close my eyes before knocking the largest overhead boughs, but sometimes out of the corner of my eye I’ll see a hint of rainbow as the snow turns to diamond-dust then dissolves in midair.

Newton City Hall, right near Newton City Hall

When Massachusetts announced it would allow early voting this year, I wasn’t sure I wanted to take advantage of it. I like the annual ritual of walking to our local polling place after work on Election Day to vote alongside our neighbors, and I was afraid early voting would feel as impersonal as mailing in an absentee ballot.

Civic duty done.

I shouldn’t have worried. Today after lunch J and I walked to Newton City Hall to cast our early ballots, and along the way we saw a half dozen strangers sporting “I voted” stickers. One be-stickered man said hello as he and his partner passed, and his friendliness reminded me of the annual melting of New England resolve that happens on Marathon Monday. There’s something about doing your civic duty that makes even the most reticent New Englander a bit more cheery, whether that civic duty involves casting a ballot or cheering on passing runners.

He's with her.

At City Hall, a handful of volunteers stood outside with signs reminding us to vote yes to protect farm animals. Inside, a police officer sat quietly in a corner while a pair of election volunteers steered J and me to a check-in table where workers tapped our names into tablets, verified our address, and handed us a double-sided ballot and early-voting envelope.

There wasn’t a line to check in, but the dozen or more ballot booths lined along a nearby hallway were full. “At this rate,” an election worker told J as she applied a precinct sticker to his ballot envelope, “there won’t be anyone who hasn’t voted by election day.” Indeed, as of yesterday more than a tenth of all Newton voters had already cast their ballots, and who knows how many more voters will turnout before early voting ends on November 4th.

Newton City Hall, right near Newton City Hall

After I’d filled out my ballot and sealed it in its envelope, I had to wait at the ballot box while two adolescent girls in soccer uniforms politely asked the election volunteer if they could have a voting sticker even though they were clearly too young to register. The worker gave each of them two stickers: “One for this outfit, and one for your next.” Maybe in four years, these girls will be old enough to cast their own ballots, emboldened by the realization that they too can be President.

Little Free Library

Today on my way home from an errand, I left books at two Little Free Libraries in Chestnut Hill (pictured here in August, when the world was both warmer and leafier). I’ve described before the sense of serendipity the Little Free Library in our neighborhood inspires: taking a book that a stranger left for anyone’s enjoyment feels like claiming a grace freely given. That grace, I’ve found, works both ways: leaving a book for someone you’ll never see feels expansive, a small act of kindness that opens your heart with a sense of abundance and generosity.

Little Free Library

Although I know full well the joy that comes from possessing a full-to-brimming bookshelf, giving books away creates a different kind of satisfaction. Giving a book to a stranger you’ll never see makes you feel both generous and amply blessed: only someone who has enough can happily share with no need for stinginess. When I leave a book at a Little Free Library, I imagine myself as setting it free to fly wherever it is needed. I like to imagine the person who will claim the book that was formerly mine: someone I hope will enjoy it as much as I did and who might even have enough abundance of heart to share it in turn.

First crocus

This election season has been filled with too much aggressively inflammatory rhetoric from a certain politician who wants to Make America Hate Again. According to said politician, America is a place that needs to wall itself in like a treasure-hoarding dragon, there not being enough Greatness to go around. When I hear the exclusionary hatred espoused by said politician, my fists clench with a miserly tightness: if there isn’t enough grace, then surely it makes sense to keep ourselves In and all the others Out.

But when I walk outside on an almost-spring day–when I see crocuses poking through the bare soil or tiny spots of green sprouting from seemingly dead twigs–I’m reminded that the world is amply abundant and not-at-all miserly. In the spring, green is a grace freely given, and in a nation that is truly great, so are acceptance, inclusion, and joy.

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