I always feel like I should say Something Profound at the turn of a new year, a time when so many folks look back before looking ahead. Try as I might to convince myself that New Year’s Eve is somehow different and more magical than any other winter evening, however, I can’t seem to pull it off. Year-round, I’m fairly contemplative; year-round, I’m fascinated by the incessant flow of time. Why, then, should this night be any different from any other?


Heavy drinkers refer to New Year’s Eve as “amateur night”: one night a year when merely casual drinkers decide to tie one on. I’ve already described how I feel something similar about Thanksgiving, that one day a year when everyone makes a conscious effort to Be Grateful. The older I get, the more befuddled I find myself at these enforced periods of frivolity: why should I be more grateful, more merry, or more happy this day rather than that? I’m all for gratitude, happiness, and celebration…but what if one’s emotional compass isn’t precisely aligned to those red-letter days when everyone else insists on merry-making?

74 1/2 with wreath

I have to admit I look forward to January 1st mainly because it marks a return to ordinary time: the period after the expected elation of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. J and I don’t do much out of the ordinary to mark the holiday season, and this leaves me feeling out-of-step with friends and colleagues who are more intentional when it comes to their annual merry-making. If you’re happy all year round, why should it be so extraordinary that you don’t go out of your way to be Extra Happy during the months of November and December? On Christmas, I was overjoyed simply to turn off my laptop for a much-appreciated day off spent walking around Beacon Hill with J, taking pictures. Forcing myself to do something more on Christmas would have felt arbitrary and artificial, like sitting for those portrait photographers who carefully arrange you into some stilted pose and then urge you to “Act natural!” The contentment I feel year-round is candid and unsolicited: it arises naturally on any given day, not just the red-letter ones.


On January 2nd, my emotions become my own again, free from the external input of holiday hoopla. New Year’s Eve offers the once-a-year opportunity to see one year transform into another…but every day offers the opportunity to see one moment dissolve into the next. Tonight is a night when amateur clock-watchers try to compete with those of us who are perpetually obsessed with time’s passage: who cares about the passage of one year when you can spend your days hearkening to every passing minute?

True-blue sports fans have to chuckle at the scoreboard noise-meters that “remind” spectators when they should cheer: if you’re a true-blue sports fan, you don’t need to be prompted to “get loud” at the critical juncture of a game, and it seems to me that happiness is something similar. If you’re genuinely content with your everyday life, you don’t need the extra stimulus of the holidays to remind you of that fact; without streamers, noise-makers, and party hats to tell you when to be happy, you can simply pay attention to your life and respond appropriately.

Knock here

Tonight, J and I are staying in for New Year’s Eve; tomorrow, we’ll do our usual Friday routine, tending to the pets and taking time in the afternoon to watch the Winter Classic on TV, an understated nod to annual festivities. It isn’t every night that a New Year comes knocking, but every night you choose how you live your life, with every year like every life being nothing but an endless sequence of moments. At each critical juncture, you decide what to do with this moment and the next and the next, your New Year’s resolve continuing ad infinitum, This Present Moment reflecting the practice of every other.

Click here for a photo-set of images from Christmas on Boston’s Beacon Hill: enjoy, and happy New Year!

DeLuca's Market

Last night, A (not her real initial) and I took the T into Boston, where we took an afternoon stroll down Newbury Street, across the Public Garden, and up and down Charles Street, where we explored the lobby in the swanky Liberty Hotel before refreshing ourselves with tea, dessert, and conversation at the Cafe Bella Vita.


When my then-husband and I lived in Beacon Hill more than a decade ago, we spent a lifetime measured out in coffee spoons at the Bella Vita. I was a graduate student at the time, and my ex was a computer programmer, so we’d sit at a table for two with our individual work: I would sit with a textbook, notebook, or stack of student papers, and he would sit with his laptop. We were young and hungry, and the Cafe Bella Vita was a clean, well-lighted place where we could engage in our individual pursuits together, in public, as if to persuade ourselves that we weren’t just toiling alone.

I’ve written before about my married days in Beacon Hill, the place where I learned to realize the depths of hunger. When my ex looked back on the lifetime in coffee spoons we’d spent at the Bella Vita, he remembered it as the happiest time in our marriage; when I recall those days, I recall them as being among my darkest. How can two people share the same tiny apartment, the same neighborhood, and even the same tiny table for two and still live in entirely different universes?

Savenor's Market

The swanky Liberty Hotel used to be a prison, and that fact gave A a creepy feeling when we walked into the lobby, trying to maintain the illusion that we were actually guests at the hotel rather than sightseeing locals. A is sensitive to the psychology of shared spaces: to her sensibilities, the very walls around us were imbued with the decades of suffering accumulated by the place’s previous, unwilling occupants. How could you check into a room (or even sit swilling drinks in the hotel bar) knowing that countless souls before you had wept and wailed behind these walls?

To my eye, the Liberty Hotel is an interesting example of prison architecture, a topic that has interested me since I read Michel Foucault in graduate school and later visited Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol. Whether you re-purpose a jail as a hotel or a museum, you are making a conscious decision to redefine the emotional architecture of the place, redeeming it from a lifetime of bad memories. A and I walked into the same swanky lobby last night, in other words, but we inhabited completely different spaces therein, with me marveling at an architectural wonder and A feeling the ghosts of time past.

Private courtyard

I can understand A’s discomfort, for all of Beacon Hill is a haunted place for me, given the lifetime in coffee spoons I once spent there. If I allowed myself to focus on the psychology of the neighborhood’s shared spaces, I’d find reason to weep on every street, there being ghosts behind every lamppost and old bones under every cobblestone. There’s no need, in my mind, to search for the paranormal, as there’s not a single spot on God’s green earth that isn’t haunted by heartbreak. Why else can’t I enjoy the simple refreshment of tea and dessert with a friend without remembering the woman I was all the other times I sat in the same cafe?

Last night, as A and I refreshed ourselves at the Bella Vita, there was a twenty-something couple sitting at the next table from ours, each of them working individually on their own laptop. The entire time they sat beside us with gadgets and coffee spoons crowded onto their tiny table, I found myself wondering about the psychology of that shared space. Will one day they look back on last night as being the best of times or the worst of times? Will they someday agree about this time in retrospect, or will they each someday discover that sharing a single table doesn’t mean you’re inhabiting the same world?

I didn’t take any photos during yesterday’s trip to Beacon Hill, so the photos illustrating this post come from my photo archives: a whole other kind of ghost.

Art this way

When my then-husband and I lived in Beacon Hill in the early ’90s, we lived underground in an apartment I wryly referred to as the “Hobbit Hole.” In the past, I’ve described it thusly:

The hobbit hole

Our so-called “garden flat” was almost entirely underground: we had to crouch over to crawl through our own door. (Yes, the door is that short; yes, the ground is that sloped. In a sense, we lived under Beacon Hill in a humble little hobbit-hole.) The apartment was euphemistically termed a one bedroom, but really it was a studio apartment with a doorless, closet-less back room that technically couldn’t be counted as a bedroom. Our kitchen was in the front room, as was our shower: the shower was literally a closet that opened right into the living room. The only place in the apartment where you could close a door behind you was in the toilet: everything else was open.

More than a decade ago, living in a cramped, under-lit cubby-hole where “I felt perpetually crowded in an apartment that never had enough light,” I experienced Beacon Hill in particular and Boston in general as a lean and hungry place, somewhere I lived curled within myself like a seed that didn’t know which way to strive toward the light.

Newborn art fan

At yesterday’s Beacon Hill Art Walk, there was no question about light: it could be found up, up, UP in the sunny blue sky that shone through crevice-like courtyards where paintings, pottery, and other artful bits nestled in inviting nooks. I have to admit I spent as much time ogling the maze-like spaces we walked through–narrow alleys, private courtyards, and dark passages–as I did admiring art. When I lived all-but-under Beacon Hill, I fantasized about the folks who lived above ground, with access to sunlight and space: a horizontally defined Other Half who lived their lives in storied floors (first, second, third) while I existed, potato-like, underground. Yesterday, in the name of art, I got a glimpse at how that Other Half lives.

Art appreciation

The tony townhouses of Beacon Hill are tightly crowded together, but they shelter a surprising amount of space behind and between them: a hidden maze of private alleys, secret courtyards, and cloistered gardens. Every spring, the Beacon Hill Garden Club offers a tour of the neighborhood’s hidden gardens: well-tended spots of green within brick and mortar borders. Although yesterday’s Art Walk didn’t venture into any entirely enclosed gardens, we did stroll down several alleys that are normally closed behind lock and key, accessible only to residents. For the sake of art, it seems, even the Other Half opens (some of) its doors.

If you live in a crowded urban environment, you need a quiet green space to call your own, and even our basement-level garden flat had a tiny, bricked rear patio where we could never manage to grow flowers. In retrospect, we should have abandoned our attempts to acquire a green thumb and grabbed a palette instead, painting flowers in a crowded corner where everything leafy and light-loving refused to grow. Art, I’ve learned, can bring a spot of sunshine to a corner previously crowded in shade.

Click here for a photo-set from yesterday’s Beacon Hill Art Walk. Enjoy!
UPDATE: Click here to see Leslee’s post (with pictures!) from the afternoon.


Yesterday I spent the day walking around Boston and Cambridge, MA. Chris and I lived in the so-called “People’s Republic of Cambridge” for two and a half years; before that, we lived in Boston’s Beacon Hill for two years. Although it’s been nearly six years since we lived in either place, Boston and Cambridge still feel like “home” to me, primarily because I spent so much time walking (and biking) through both towns.

It’s always weird to return to a place where you used to live: you always notice the way things have changed and the way things have remained the same. Yesterday was particularly strange since I’ll always associate Boston with my PhD studies. We were living in Beacon Hill when I started my studies at Northeastern, so when I defend my dissertation on campus in April, we’ll have to drive down to “the Hub” for that momentous event. So yesterday as I strolled the streets of Cambridge and then Beacon Hill with the latest batch of diss chapter comments nestled in my bag, I had a strange desire to go back to our tiny apartment at the corner of Charles and Revere Streets in Beacon Hill.

The hobbit hole

Here’s where it all began. Our so-called “garden flat” was almost entirely underground: we had to crouch over to crawl through our own door. (Yes, the door is that short; yes, the ground is that sloped. In a sense, we lived under Beacon Hill in a humble little hobbit-hole.) The apartment was euphemistically termed a one bedroom, but really it was a studio apartment with a doorless, closet-less back room that technically couldn’t be counted as a bedroom. Our kitchen was in the front room, as was our shower: the shower was literally a closet that opened right into the living room. The only place in the apartment where you could close a door behind you was in the toilet: everything else was open.

Before we moved in, our landlady had rented to a single (gay) guy. Once while we were living there, an old friend (lover?) stopped by to see “Jay” and was shocked to have me, a woman, answer the door. “Oh, thank God!” he exclaimed after I explained that “Jay” had moved out. “I thought he’d gone straight on me!” Having been designed to house a live-in servant for the townhouse upstairs, that apartment would have been perfect for a single person; for a married couple, though, it was a tight squeeze. Looking back on our years in Beacon Hill, I felt perpetually crowded in an apartment that never had enough light.

When I turned the corner to stand outside that tiny little door yesterday, I half expected to find it open; I guess part of me would have liked to have gone inside. We were living in that apartment when Kurt Cobain committed suicide, and we were living in that apartment when the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed. I always associate those two events with that apartment: I remember the precise spot in the front room where I was standing when the radio reported Cobain’s death, and I remember the precise spot in the back room where I sat folding laundry while CNN aired live footage from the Oklahoma City aftermath.

In double-checking the date of Cobain’s death, I discovered a creepy irony. My dissertation defense is scheduled for April 5, 2004: 10 years to the day since Cobain’s death. I’m not sure what (if anything) that coincidence means, but I’d like to think that what goes around doesn’t always come around. Ten years later, I’d like to think I’m a better, different person than I was when I stood there, shocked, staring at the radio in a cramped, too-dark underground apartment. They say the more things change, the more things stay the same: well, I’d like to think the same is true in reverse as well.