Because Once You Enter My House, It Becomes Our House

Back in November, when J and I were newly boosted and the daily number of new COVID cases in Massachusetts was low, J and I went to the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, briefly roaming the grounds before heading inside to see the colorful fringe towers at the heart of Jeffrey Gibson’s INFINITE INDIGENOUS QUEER LOVE.


November’s trip to the DeCordova was in part a purification ritual. The last time J and I had gone to the DeCordova was January 6, 2021: a pandemic-appropriate birthday celebration, where we wore masks to wander the grounds before the day turned strange.

Rainbow towers

Among the many things I missed during the height of COVID lockdown, wandering museums was near the top of the list. After we learned how to Zoom with friends, order grab-and-go takeout from our favorite restaurants, and schedule curbside pickup from our favorite stores, we were still denied the joys of museum bathing: something I enjoy so much, for years I’ve kept a tradition of going to a museum on or around my birthday.


Wandering the DeCordova grounds in January 2021 and going inside the museum in November 2021 was a step toward reclaiming an activity I enjoyed in the Before Times. I love the reverent attentiveness of museums. While the Zen Center is still shuttered, museums are the closest thing I have to an indoor sacred space outside my own home.

Three towers

This year on my birthday, J and I stayed home. Thanks to the Omicron variant, COVID cases are surging here, and we’ve spent my winter break hunkering at home, retreating from the risk of infection. Once the semester begins, my retreat will end; for now, I’m enjoying the tranquility of a self-imposed stay-at-home order.

The future is present

In the early days of the pandemic, it sometimes felt like we’d never return to our once-cherished activities. In the first days of the Vaccinated Times, it felt like life was returning to normal, but Delta then Omicron complicated matters.


I’m now realizing that life in the age of COVID will be a hybrid entity: in some ways like the Before Times, and in other ways not. We talk of “the pandemic” as if it were a monolithic thing, constant and consistent from one week to the next, when in actuality, the pandemic has its own seasons and cycles.


J and I aren’t currently going to museums even though they are open…but we know we will return, eventually. Case counts will surge, case counts will fall: sickness will come and go in waves, and we’ll learn to surf those changes, venturing out when it’s safe and going to ground when it’s not.

Question authority

William Wordsworth said that poetry is “emotion recollected in tranquility,” and as I look at the photos I took at the DeCordova last January and again last November, I experience a kind of vicarious thrill. During the reclusive moments of a pandemic, we sustain our spirits with the memory of past adventures recollected in tranquility.



There is in our neighborhood a house that has fallen into neglect. Tall weeds and saplings overshadow the grass, vines are clambering up the walls, and a storm-toppled tree spreads an umbrella of roots over the yard and sidewalk. Every time we pass this house, I say to J, “That house is returning to the elements.” In the absence of a diligent caretaker to keep the weeds at bay, even a suburban home quickly succumbs to wildness.


I thought of that house last weekend when Leslee and I visited the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in nearby Lincoln. Every time I am at the DeCordova, I make a point to visit (and photograph) Steven Siegel’s “Big, with Rift,” an installation featuring towering piles of newspapers that are slowly succumbing to decay.

I’ve blogged this installation twice: first in November, 2013, when it was ripening in autumnal glory, and again in January, 2015, when it seemed soggy and dejected beneath a thin layer of wet, sludgy snow. Whereas the other installations at the DeCordova remain more or less the same every time you see them, the compostable nature of newsprint makes Siegel’s piece necessarily temporary.

Don't climb the (toppled) art

I last visited “Big, with Rift” in August, 2015, when it was sprouting ferns and flowers. Poison ivy was climbing one side of its craggy mass, and a chipmunk had burrowed a hole into one exposed edge. What started out as art was quickly becoming nature: you could almost feel the surrounding trees welcoming this looming paper pile back into the fold as one of their own.


Given what I’d seen two years ago, I wasn’t hugely surprised last Saturday to see the latest stage in decomposition. “Big, with Rift” has fallen, its newspaper columns collapsing upon themselves while greenery still sprouts from their toppled tops. Like a neglected house, “Big, with Rift” is returning to the elements, its organic innards returning to the soil and nourishing the next generation of decomposers.


How the mighty have fallen, you might say, or you might draw droll conclusions about Fake News and the “failing New York Times.” There is something sad about a broken statue or toppled tower, but there’s nothing more natural than yesterday’s news becoming the subject of today’s decay.


It was hot and humid on Saturday, so Leslee and I didn’t spend a lot of time walking the grounds at the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, choosing to spend more of our visit inside the air conditioned comfort of the museum galleries. But before we headed for home, we took a quick stroll to see the sculptures in Alice’s Garden and the grassy fields alongside the park’s entrance.

Queen of trees

I always enjoy seeing sculptures outside, as if in their natural habitat. A piece such as Richard Rosenblum’s Venusvine (pictured right) would make little sense indoors. Instead of being held captive in a gallery, Venus needs to curl her toes in the dirt and sprout her sinuous self among the trees.

Although Venus is rooted, like a tree she can unfold her slender arms and toss her twiggy head in both sunshine and storm. Does she tickle from the talons of birds perched on her head, and does she enjoy the summer songs of birds whispered into her ears?


Today Leslee and I went to the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum to see an exhibit of abstract paintings by New England women artists. I’m not an expert in abstract painting, but that’s part of the medium’s appeal. Because these works aren’t trying to represent anything specific, viewers like me are free to find their own meaning in them.


Viewing abstract paintings is like looking at the passing shapes of clouds, the flashing forms reflected in moving water, or the flickering colors that glow from the center of a campfire. You can let your eyes rest from their mundane work of deciphering meaning. With no symbols to interpret, you’re left to enjoy the wordless nuance of color, shape, and texture.


When I first encountered modern and contemporary art, I struggled to make sense of it. If a painter isn’t trying to represent something like a face or landscape, how can you tell if it is “good” or not?

Only after abandoning this attempt to understand and assess abstract art did I learn how to enjoy it on a purely aesthetic level. When I look at flowers or eat a good meal, I don’t fret over what that food or flowers mean. Instead, I make a purely subjective decision about whether I liked this thing, and why.


When I walk into a gallery of abstract paintings, some works grab me and others don’t. Some works pull me in and all but beg me to keep looking at them, and others whisper “Keep walking; there’s nothing to see here.” With the works that beg me to look, I ask myself the simple question of why: why am I drawn to this piece, and what about it do I find interesting, appealing, or engaging?


This subjective question of why opens far more doors than the interpretive question “what does this piece mean?” There are many works I like without knowing what they mean. The things I like about such works are purely aesthetic. I might like a particular arc of brushwork or an eye-popping complement of colors. Something about a particular painting resonates with me while another work leaves me unimpressed and unmoved.


This almost visceral way of interacting with paintings allows for a variety of personal responses; I don’t know what any given artist was trying to say or suggest in a particular painting, but I know there are works I feel warm and almost friendly toward. “Could I live with this painting” is one question that sometimes comes to mind. Is this a piece that could hold my interest for more than a day or two, or is it one I’d quickly learn to overlook or ignore?


I sometimes wonder what museum guards think about the works they protect, given the long hours they spend in any given exhibit. Guards are paid to watch museum-goers, not the art itself, but when you spend entire shifts in a gallery day after day, you must acquire a certain familiarity with the works you’re watching over.


Surely long-time museum guards develop a fondness for some works over others. Just as we inevitably like some neighbors or coworkers more than the rest, I like to think museum guards “make friends” with some of the paintings they sit with.

I’m glad Leslee and I went to the DeCordova today. Given the long hours I spend writing and reading, it sometimes feels good to just look at beautiful things without any need for interpretive explanation.