Ordinary things


Thoreau with replica house

I’ve been thinking a lot these days about Henry David Thoreau. This isn’t unusual: Thoreau is one of my favorite authors, and I spent a good deal of my doctoral dissertation analyzing his writing. I have a whimsical portrait of Thoreau over my desk because he represents many of the things I personally hold dear: he was a writer and a naturalist, a walker and a rebel. In a world insistent upon choosing sides, Thoreau was both an artist and a scientist, both poetic and political, both active and contemplative. When I try to imagine a well-rounded, grounded, and self-reliant person, Thoreau is who immediately comes to mind.

Spartan

I’ve been thinking more than usual these days about Henry David Thoreau because of “Civil Disobedience,” an essay published in 1849 that inspired both Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, and “Slavery in Massachusetts,” a lesser-known essay that Thoreau first delivered as a lecture in Framingham on July 4, 1854, after escaped slave Anthony Burns was captured in Boston and sent back south. In “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau describes the night he spent in jail after refusing to pay his poll tax as a protest against the Mexican War and its expansion of slavery, and in “Slavery in Massachusetts,” he condemns Northern cooperation with the Fugitive Slave Act. In both essays, Thoreau turns his eye with all its acuity on the social ills of his day, as if politics were no less interesting than natural history. This politically engaged way of looking at the world seems particularly helpful in 2017, exactly two centuries after Thoreau was born.

Stove and two chairs

Although the popular image of Thoreau is that of a quiet misanthrope twiddling his thumbs alongside a peaceful pond, Thoreau was outspoken during the most politically tumultuous time in American history. When Thoreau wrote “Civil Disobedience” and “Slavery in Massachusetts,” the political debate over slavery was ratcheting the nation toward civil war, and Thoreau was deeply engaged in that debate. Thoreau didn’t just sit back and ignore the political issues of his day; although he cherished his solitude, Thoreau wasn’t an escapist. Instead, Thoreau figured out how to balance engagement and renewal, speaking out on political issues as he was able, but also finding time to unplug.

Desk with guestbook

Ever since the election, I’ve been spending a lot of time following news coverage and political commentary on Trump, Trumpism, and the burgeoning resistance to both. There has been a surge on the left of people trying to learn and understand everything from the demographics of the white working class to constitutional law and immigration policy. While folks on the right raced to buy guns when Obama was elected, folks on the left are now racing to read books. Unlike Trump supporters who shield themselves from “fake news” by plugging their ears to any coverage that doesn’t come straight from the President himself, people on the other side of the political divide have been reading widely and deeply, seeking multiple perspectives in an attempt to stay informed.

Thoreau's snowshoes

This attempt to stay informed, however, can get tiring: sometimes I envy the quiet complacency of the right, who can sit back and trust that America will magically become Great now that Trump is in charge. Had Hillary Clinton won the election, I would have presumably done the same, patting myself on the back for doing my civic duty at the ballot box and considering my job as a citizen to be over. Since the election, however, I find myself moonlighting as an activist, keeping a constant eye on breaking news, receiving daily text messages and emails urging me to contact elected officials on the issue du jour, and otherwise staying vigilant, ready to cancel plans and rush off to protest the latest executive order, unsettling tweet, or constitutional crisis.

Thoreau's bed and desk

In the aftermath of 9/11, people quickly learned that you can’t remain on high alert forever, but that doesn’t mean you should let yourself be lulled to sleep. Beth recently wrote about self-care during the resistance: if you plan to be an effective activist in the long run, you have to prioritize and pick your battles. This is, again, where I find Thoreau to be particularly inspiring. Thoreau spoke out against slavery, the Mexican War, and other political outrages of his day, but he also managed to take daily walks, write in his journal, keep a careful chronicle of wild flora and fauna, and tend his garden. Thoreau, in other worlds, figured out a way to simultaneously exist and resist.

Weathered

What Thoreau didn’t do, of course, was stay inside glued to either CNN or his Facebook feed: instead, he was outside and active. A lot of modern-day critics of Thoreau argue (rightfully) that his activism was largely symbolic: the single night in jail Thoreau describes in “Civil Disobedience” didn’t single-handedly bring down slavery. But just because an act of protest is symbolic doesn’t mean it is isn’t powerful, as many of the accoutrements of power are themselves symbolic.

Peace

Donald Trump didn’t magically become a different man when he raised his hand and took the oath of office, but that symbolic action marked a monumental transition of power. Some of the most alarming news items these days stem not from official policy Trump and his administration has enacted, but the tone-setting influence of angry rants and recklessly worded tweets. Words are nothing more than symbols, but that doesn’t mean words don’t matter.

Adirondack Writers' Guild

By writing about his night in jail, Thoreau preserved it for the ages, reminding generation after generation that “under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” The concept of civil disobedience–Thoreau’s insistence that the government is a machine, and private citizens can strip government of its power by intentionally becoming a “counter-friction to stop the machine”–is not new or earth-shattering: had Thoreau not written “Civil Disobedience,” both King and Gandhi would have found inspiration elsewhere.

Henry David Thoreau's grave

But the fact remains that Thoreau did write this essay: he planted a seed. The tree of peaceful protest would have found some other method of germination had Thoreau never tended it, but he was a faithful servant in freedom’s garden. A solitary and sometimes cantankerous man, Thoreau probably never envisioned the communal movements that both King and Gandhi led: what started as one man spending one night in jail has inspired massive collective movements that have changed the world. Even the largest earthquake starts with a tiny tremor.

February

History is neither a marathon or sprint; instead, history is a relay race. Thoreau did nothing more than pick up the baton of justice and pass it on, and we should expect nothing less of ourselves. It’s important to show up–to engage in faithful, regular deeds, even if those deeds are small–as a way of claiming our priorities. It is not necessary to do everything, but do not fail to do something. As you are able, act. If you cannot act, speak up; if you cannot speak up, listen. If you can neither act, speak up, nor listen, by all means pray. Remain faithful in small things, and trust your acts will be echoed by others, achieving a cumulative effect. We’re in this for the long haul, and there is a need for all sorts of acts and activism.

Teatime

I often take macro shots when I’m feeling uninspired: the act of zooming in to look closely at something feels like an antidote to ennui. I think this traces back to the quizzes I’d sometimes see in children’s books in the dentist’s waiting room, where ordinary objects were photographed in microscopic detail and you were challenged to guess what you were looking at. These quizzes always pointed to the utterly alien nature of even the most mundane objects, a toothbrush or human hair becoming fascinating when you looked at it closely.

Witch hazel in bloom

My fascination with macro shots is also a carry-over from my days as an amateur botanist, when I spent a lot of time looking closely at wildflowers. Most flowers are prettier up-close than they are from afar, the intricate structure of petal, pistil, and stamen being revealed only upon close examination. Some wildflowers are so delicately detailed, you can accurately identify them only with the assistance of a jeweler’s loupe, the four apparent petals of an enchanter’s nightshade, for example, revealing themselves to be truly two only under magnification.

Wooden coffee stirrers

I like the way macro shots force you to look closely at a single thing, the larger context being cropped away. Instead of an entire forest, you can contemplate a single leaf on a single tree, reality reduced to a solitary thing full of hidden complexities. I tell myself that if I can focus on something small, I can understand larger phenomena through extrapolation; the focusing, after all, is the skill to be honed. William Blake’s suggestion that you can “see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower” is deeply comforting to those of us who were bookish children, accustomed to traveling the world from the safety of our bedrooms, the pages of a book being larger than life.

This is my contribution to this week’s Photo Friday challenge, Macro.

Gray day

When you live in New England, you become a connoisseur of light. Yesterday the light was gray, like pewter, the world cast in monochrome with scant shadows and slivers of trees snaking across the sky like veins.

Mixed precipitation

When I was a child in Ohio, winters were long, but so were the days. I’ve lived in New England for more than two decades, and I’m still surprised when the sun starts setting in the afternoon, long before dinner. In January, daylight is scarce and precious, so you make every attempt to save and savor it.

Yesterday was a gray-sleeting day, the ground carpeted in dense, sludgy snow: yesterday, I never saw the sun. Instead, daylight diffused through clouds and wind, the mist falling sideways beneath umbrellas, the damp seeping into pores and corners, and the light landing on shallow surfaces like silver.

I'm with her

On Saturday, J and I took the T downtown, where we converged on Boston Common with some 175,000 other folks for the Boston Women’s March. I knew tens of thousands of people had registered, but it was clear the turnout would be larger than expected when we arrived at our local T station more than an hour before the march and saw a crowd of pink-hatted women, men, and children waiting for the second of two back-to-back, already-full trolleys.

Love wins

J and I regularly take the T to Red Sox, Bruins, and Celtics games, so we have a lot of experience squeezing into crowded trolleys. Saturday’s crowds, however, were like nothing we’d ever seen. At each of the dozen T stops between the Boston suburbs and the heart of downtown, platforms were packed with throngs of people wearing pink hats and carrying posters. “Grab back,” one man’s sign urged, while another man wore a ballcap with a “Strong men support strong women” pin next to one that said “No f*cking fracking.”

Hear me roar

At each stop, some people on the platforms would shake their heads, determined to wait for the next, presumably less-packed train…but at each stop, a brave handful would squeeze into the train, and the rest of us would jostle closer to our neighbors, making as much room as possible.

Make America love again

At one point, the trolley was so densely packed, my back was solidly pressed into that of a pink-hatted woman behind me, as if we were propping one another up. Whenever the trolley swerved around a curve, we standers and strap-hangers all swayed together, and whenever the trolley screeched to a sudden stop, we leaned deep against our neighbors, keeping one another on our collective feet. After one particularly awkward lurch, I apologized to a seated couple for nearly landing in their laps, then I laughed. “I guess none of us is in danger of falling: we don’t have enough room.”

The future is nasty

That crush of bodies on the T was merely a foretaste of the feast to come. At the March itself, the crowds kept growing. As we approached the Common from the Public Garden, we could see a solid sea of pink hats and signs stretching from Charles Street to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Finding a spot where we could, in theory, see the rally stage, we were soon engulfed in a mass of humanity whose signs, shirts, and hats proclaimed all manner of progressive messages: “Be kind,” “Love wins,” “Words matter,” “Climate change is real,” “Diversity is our asset.”

Sad!

I’m not a fan of crowds, which sometimes make me claustrophobic. But the massive swell of pink-hatted protesters on Boston Common on Saturday didn’t feel like a crowd: instead, it felt warm and safe, like a hug or a snug blanket. It was a press of friendly flesh where we all quite literally had one another’s backs as we listened for nearly two hours to speeches by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, Massachusetts Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, local labor leaders, civil rights activists, clergy, and local schoolchildren.

Liberty & Justice

One of the questions frequently asked of this weekend’s marchers, particularly by Trump supporters, is why are you marching? Why march against a President who has just taken office and hasn’t yet had time to implement any policies: why not wait and give him a chance? I have a very simple answer to this question. Trump, his administration, and the Republican Congress will have a chance to implement their policies whether I like it or not. But even though I didn’t elect the man driving this particular train, I marched on Saturday because I recognize humans are social creatures, and in a democracy we are bound together by a social contract.

Flag hijab

After a campaign where our civil unity was stretched to tatters, I marched on Saturday to affirm one simple truth: regardless of who is in the White House, we citizens here on the ground need to have one another’s backs. As a white woman, I marched to affirm black lives. As a straight woman, I marched to affirm LGBT rights. As a United States citizen, I marched to affirm the rights of immigrants and their families. As a Christian, I marched to affirm the civil liberties of Muslims, Jews, and other targets of post-election hate crimes. And as a woman, I marched to affirm that women’s rights are human rights, every person deserves affordable health care, and every woman has the right to decide what happens to her own body.

Pussy Riot

The biggest irony of Saturday’s march, however, is that J and I never actually marched. Because the crowd on Boston Common was so enormous, after the rally ended, we spent nearly an hour inching toward Charles Street, where the march began. After chatting with an older woman whose hat was covered with faded pins from decades of past marches, J and I decided to make an early exit, gently pushing and squeezing our way through the crowd toward Park Street, where we boarded a trolley for home. (Thank goodness for a tall man with a “Give a Hoot / Don’t Pollute” jacket, who sliced through the crowd ahead of us: we literally followed his coattails to open ground.)

No 2nd class Americans

But even though J and I didn’t actually march at Saturday’s March, it was enough to have been there. It was awesome to be subsumed by a crowd of peaceful protestors. It was inspiring to surge on a sea of positive energy even though we were collectively protesting an election that was an affront to our shared values. And it was encouraging to affirm what we believe is the bedrock of our American democracy: rights and dignity for all, and promises based on facts, evidence, and reality.

Truth matters

Instead of moving our feet, J and I took a stand, and I’m immensely glad we did. Watching news coverage of marches in DC and around the world makes me realize the awesome power of millions of people who’ve got one another’s backs.

Expect resistance

Click here for more photos from Saturday’s Boston Women’s March. Enjoy!

Wake up and do good

At first I wept, sobbing myself to sleep last Tuesday night when it became clear that hate would triumph over hope. Last Wednesday was gray and drizzly, and I spent the day at home half-heartedly grading papers while cycling between despair and rage. I wasn’t upset because my candidate lost, but because my country and fellow citizens had.

Together we are an ocean

While driving to campus last Thursday morning, I struggled with what to say to my students. It felt like an entirely different world since I had seen them on Election Day, when we had hoped to make history. My grief and anger were still raw: if we couldn’t shatter the glass ceiling, I told myself, then we’d just have to smash the whole goddamn patriarchy. But anger isn’t a plan, and my job is to teach, not sputter with inarticulate rage.

Unity

At some point between parking my car and walking into my morning class, I decided what I wanted. Instead of breaking things, I wanted to build things. Instead of letting my fears and anger turn into divisiveness–the very thing that swept our President-Elect into power–I’d turn my rage into awareness, my disappointment into determination, my fear into ferocity. I didn’t ask to be on the front line of a resistance, but in the aftermath of an election where a demagogue deceived the most vulnerable with hateful slogans and empty promises, teaching critical thinking is a revolutionary act.

Love trumps hate

Regardless of who’s in the Oval Office, I told my students, we’re the ones on the ground doing the real work of democracy. Now that the ballots have been counted, we’ll get down to business of protesting, letter-writing, and loving our neighbors. While others use rhetoric to divide, we’ll speak words of encouragement. And when we see hatred or bigotry, we will refuse to be idle bystanders. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and we’ll fight like hell to protect them. Regardless of who is in the Oval Office, we are the ones who will look hatred in the eye and say “Not on my watch.”

Don't despair, don't hate

Today’s photos come from a student-led Unity Walk and Hope-in-Action Rally at Framingham State. You can read more about the event here, and you can view additional pictures here.

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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