This is the kind of snow that serves up in beauty what it lacks in volume. Big, wet flakes drape themselves on every surface, every limb, every wire, painting scenes of childhood dreams, the kind that animated Currier and Ives and allured Robert Frost.
It is the kind of snow in which evergreens bow under the influence of a million flakes while their bare-leafed neighbors strut their stuff, flaunting every bend and twist and curve beneath their glaze of white.
It is the kind of snow I love walking in, a bit, but mostly enjoy admiring from inside a warm, cozy home. No events will be cancelled today; most plans will not change; most people, I imagine, will just marvel at winter’s gentle beauty as they go about their day.
Yet I also wonder about the panhandlers who frequent the Squares where the local commerce happens. The ones who singsong their plaint, serenading you as you walk past, asking you either to buy their one copy of a shopworn paper or give them spare change. Your choice: spare change or newspaper. (I imagine that is to wiggle around the “no soliciting” rules.) They are part street musicians; part vendors; part local color; part nuisance. The lines between the parts keep shifting.
Still, where exactly do they live? Where are they in this snow?
And the clerk at the local stationers. We spoke a bit this week about the store’s closing next month, he with traces of fear he meant to stifle but could not hide. It was a raw, unexpected moment of intimacy that neither he nor I quite knew how to handle.
The stationers is on a corner. Just across the street in one direction is a bank, a credit union to be precise. And just across the street in another is a church. The clerk is flanked by the domain of commerce and the realm of the spirit. One might be given to imagine that when in need, this is the place to be, nestled in the midst of the currencies of earth and heaven. Yet I fear the clerk might fall in between, neither of them reaching out to scoop him up in his hour of need.
What role, do we, his neighbors, patrons, fellow sojourners, have toward him and the panhandlers and all the others who might not welcome this snow, whose needs have not been met by the world in which they live?
Still the snow falls, draping the trees. It seems so lovely outside.
In 1798, upon remembering that his artificial dove took an ignoble nose dive on its maiden flight, and being overcome with “humiliated self-esteem,” Xavier de Maistre decided to go for a walk.
Marveling at the ease with which the birds overhead managed to stay aloft, he awakened to a brand new sense of awe for all the unrecognized majesty around him.
So he wrote:
“A sense of profound admiration, of a kind I had never before experienced, lit up my soul. I thought I was beholding nature for the first time. I was surprised to hear the buzzing of the flies, the song of the birds, and that mysterious, indistinct hubbub* of the whole living creation as it spontaneously celebrated its author…
‘Who is the author of this brilliant mechanism,’ I exclaimed… ‘Who is he who, opening his creative hand, let the first swallow take wing… who ordered the trees to rise up out of the earth… who placed you on the earth’s surface to beautify it?’”
Awkwardly, he realized that he had said all this out loud.
Of course, the people around him stopped and stared, wondering who was this madman, proclaiming infatuation with the common wares of the world. He retired to his room again. Although in a much repaired state of mind.
I hope that you and I, too, become a little intoxicated with creation’s majesty every now and then, even if it causes people to stop and stare at us.
*It is interesting that de Maistre uses this phrase, for it is so reminiscent of kol demamah dakah, the still small voice, or the hushed murmuring, that Elijah witnesses (I Kings 19:12) in the wilderness.
This quote is from the book A Nocturnal Expedition Around My Room, written by Xavier de Maistre and translated by Andrew Brown. Enjoy!
There are squares all over the place here. “Square” as in: “an open area or plaza in a city or town, formed by the meeting and intersecting of two or more streets and often planted with grass, trees, etc. in the center.” (dictionary.com)
Now, given Cambridge’s density, the definition needs a bit of tweaking. While we are heavy here on the intersection part, we are a bit sparse on the open area, grass, trees, etc. part.
Still and all, we have the more famous squares: Porter Square, Harvard Square, Davis Square, Inman Square. Those are intersections that anchor neighborhoods which have spawned local shopping districts that attract fierce loyalists. People become devoted to their squares, even as the squares, in turn, reflect the passions and the nature of their people.
But then we also have the more modest squares. Walk just a couple blocks in any direction and you will bump into a plaque proclaiming this non-descript intersection or that “Such-and-Such Square”.
Or more precisely, and poignantly, “So-and-So Square”. These squares, both great and small, we learn, are given the names of people. And they are not just about the people, but about the people in that place.
Famous people, common people, rich people, modest people, natives and newcomers. No companies or businesses or commercial sponsors. Just the people who lived here, worked here, loved it here, called here home.
The names remind us that once upon a time, people possessed a love of place, and of neighbors, history, familiarity and blessings that constancy of place affords. They remind us that people once put down roots so deep, that their memories remain long after they passed away.
They remind us that “place” is not fungible, that each place is unique; that despite the fact that when we bump into a mall on a highway somewhere, and it is a often hard to tell whether we are in Maryland or New York or Ohio or Wisconsin, still the uniqueness of place stirs. These “squares” remind us that each “place” has a personality that bulldozers can bury but that truly can never be erased.
The names and signs have a lot to do with it. I know that in Baltimore our neighborhoods also have names. And it is the people who actually know the names and boundaries they inscribe that feel the greatest sense of belonging to and ownership of place. But so many people don’t know those names, don’t feel the connection. And the names and signs are too few.
There is something wonderful about the pride and abundance of these oversized namings in these undersized intersections, nested within these large district-forming squares, that populate this place with sweet, enduring memories.
It is good to see a place so pleased with itself.
(Photo: Pooh’s reading place, made from carved tree trunk, on street in Porter Square district)
I rarely worry you with all my worries about what we ingest. My family has all but silenced me on that. As my oldest son says when I talk about yet the next thing we cannot/should not eat: “Eating will kill you. Not eating will kill you faster.”
However, there are times to break the silence.
I think most of us would agree that our food system, if not broken, is badly in need of repair. We have paid the devil in the coin of health of self and soil for the blessings of volume now.
So while we have lots of food today, the quality of that food (never mind the quality of the soil that must grow our food tomorrow) has been severely compromised.
All that being said, I focus your attention on soft drinks, and particularly the caramel-colored ones. The triple threat of those sodas (sweeteners, containers and colors), along with the wasted calories we absorb imbibing it, the wasted dollars we spend on buying it, the emissions we give off transporting it, the energy we use bottling, tossing, even recycling the packaging, leads me to encourage you to rethink your soda-drinking habits.
Here is an article that tells you things about: the cans (BPA in there), the color (the caramel is carcinogenic) as well as the sweetener in the diet stuff.
So, when we can save money, be more environmentally friendly, reduce packaging and shipping, make ourselves healthier, perhaps live longer, all by doing just one thing, consuming less soda, it seems like a proper and compelling message to share.
Even the birds today seem to be calling for a fresh start.
What if all our stuff had to be laid out in the open? What if everything we owned had to be on display, stacked on shelves without doors, hung on our walls, dangled from our ceilings?
What if we had no closets or cellars or attics or storage units that could gobble up, chug down and otherwise conceal - from ourselves as well as others - all that we had?
How would that affect our consumer appetites? How would that change what we bought and kept? (Confession: I say this as I prepare today to go to a local consignment shop to buy a book tote. My defense is that 1. the “new” one I am to buy is old, used, and would otherwise be tossed and trashed, and 2. my old one is tearing and leaving tracings of its innards all over my sweaters. I suppose you could argue that I should just use one of my canvas grocery bags. They are serviceable and large and sturdy enough. And you would no doubt be right. But, well, that just doesn’t seem, um, stylish enough.)
A blog I saw says that the Amish do not have closets. They hang their clothes on hooks on their wall. When the hooks are full, their wardrobe is complete. (And yes, I suppose it does depend on how many hooks they put up but the picture showed one neat row of seven hooks with one outfit on each hook. I trust it is genuine.)
Forty years ago, biofeedback burst on the scene allowing us to be more aware of our bodies and how we could control what were (up til then) considered uncontrollable physiological events affecting stress, heart rate, tension, etc.
More recently, we are being told that smart meters, which give us real-time feedback in home energy-use, will, like biofeedback, help make us better people. (Okay, not really. But we are told that the meters can help us figure out where our energy waste is which in turn will allow us to cut our use, our emissions, and our bills. And billions of dollars of stimulus funds were allotted to this, though the implementation is becoming more controversial than was anticipated.)
But what about general consumption? What about all those things we buy everyday? What if all our closets and drawers and boxes and bins and cellars were suddenly to spill out their innards, revealing to all, especially us - their owners - just how much we actually possessed. Somehow I think I would be horrified!
Which is why, perhaps, I am so enchanted with the wall of mugs and glasses that graces this tidy kitchen. It gently reminds me that perhaps “fullness” is closer than it appears, that our possessions should grace and not just fill our lives, that few items well-used are nubbed with the rubbings of everyday and so become carriers of our memories, surrogate diaries that we drink with our morning tea.
(Photo: shelves in my Cambridge kitchen)
Avram and I are living a scant half mile from The Harvard Museum of Natural History and pass it when we walk almost every day.
It is open 361 days of the year (closed New Year’s, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas), has free admission always to those with Harvard IDs and free admission Sunday mornings for all Massachusetts residents.
It was increasingly embarrassing, therefore, that we had not yet gone. So yesterday morning we packed ourselves up (hand lens in tow) and trekked down for a late morning’s entertainment.
You have to hand it to the museum. It knows how to make an entrance. Or at least its architects did. The building is set 200 feet back from the road with an unimpeded view from street to stair. The walkway is like a teacher’s stare, holding you fast to the path to be trod. The visitor has a long time to contemplate what is on the inside by being gradually overwhelmed by what is on the outside.
(I can’t tell you more about the building, though, because while the keepers of the museum clearly have great regard for nature’s history and achievements, they seemed to give scant attention to human history and achievements. That is, there is no mention on their website, at least none that I could find, about the age, materials, construction techniques, architecture, or history of the building in which they are housed. It is as if the building is accidental and disconnected from their medium, as if nature is someplace far out there, exotic, distant and removed from what we build, live in and live on. That is a pity and a gulf which I imagine will be bridged over the next decades as they continue to refine their message and purpose.)
The exhibits, however, are extraordinary. At the very top of the stairs is the Ware Collection of Glass Flowers, displaying case after case of precision replicas of flowers and their various parts, exquisitely designed and created by Leopold Blaschka and his son Rudolph (heirs to a magical family of glass-makers) made entirely of glass. The Blaschka’s are the Audubon of flowers, only offering their creations in glass and 3-D. The artistry defies description and it exhausts the mind to think how they did it all. Just the two of them.
Next to that is an equal display of nature’s creative prowess in The Mineralogical and Geological Gallery. This room has something like an acre of cases of the magic and variety that nature creates in more durable forms. The expansiveness was, unfortunately, a bit overwhelming if one attended to the details. (That is a critique of this human mind, not of the exhibit.)
But taken as a whole, as a celebration of the awesome variety, agility, responsiveness of nature to the opportunities and demands it faces over time, it was absolutely invigorating.
Then imagine our surprise when, as we were trekking along miles of aisles, we lit upon this display: two rounded columns of deep-hued stone, looking for all the world like tablets ready to be etched with God’s sacred charge.
They are elbaite, we were told, a crystal of the tourmaline group which can sport any number of vibrant colors. (Even more suggestive is that the crystalline structure of the tourmalines is powerfully reminiscent of a Jewish star!)
Perhaps the Ten Commandments were not carved on simple stone slabs, after all, but emblazened on glorious technicolor crystals?
The world does offer endless possibilities - and it is so very good for us to be reminded of that, as often as we can.
(Photo of elbaite crystal at the Harvard Museum of Natural History)
If Earth is our “Home,” it too has closets, those dark, earnest places where we tuck things away, treasures and trinkets and all sorts of things. Things we have in excess and things we can’t yet use. Things that are exhausted and things that need to ripen. Things that clasp our memories and things that await their day. Things we love and things we fear.
We keep them, guard them, have a hard time parting with them for they are part of us. They are our passions, our feelings, our ideas and our dreams caught willy-nilly in the amber that oozes from our lives.
Closets are acts in three tenses – past, present and future—with long intermissions. They encompass the ones who chose to save, the ones who guard the treasures and the ones who will remember and redeem them.
Which, it seems to me, explains why mountaintop removal is, for so many of us, so heinous and odious.
If each generation is the heir to all prior generations, then we are the inheritors, the stewards, of Earth’s precious estate, charged, among other things, with being “the keepers of the closets.” Mountaintop removal is nothing less than a brigand’s assault on our Home, our heritage and our trust.
Mountaintop removal ransacks our wardrobes, bulldozes the past that was stored up for us for more discriminate use. It removes all distinction of sacred and profane, open and closed, space; flattens all time to the urgent, insistent “now”; violates the attribute of having without using, of saving for the next generation.
Mountaintop removal doesn’t just make a mess, spilling out the densely packed guts of Earth’s closets, staining and destroying the rooms where we live. It raids and robs our children of their portion of Earth’s estate. Mountaintop removal implicates us all in ransacking and consuming those things we were entrusted to protect.
Judaism’s trope of M’dor l’dor, from generation to generation, is a call for us to remember the gifts of our parents, and for us to hand to our children a world that is full of promise: better, richer, and healthier than the one we inherited.
It is a calling we cannot neglect.
(Photo courtesy of Ohio Citizen Action)
It all begins with pockets. And bags and pouches, baskets and buckets, anything that helps us carry more than our eagerly cupped hands can reasonably hold. And the more we can carry, the more we will want.
For while at first desire builds capacity, soon the tables turn, and capacity begins to build desire.
I learned this recently by grocery shopping on foot.
In the suburbs, I would drive to the food store armed with my shopping list crafted in response to three questions:
1) What do I need? (We will ignore the problem of the flabby boundaries of “need” for the moment.)
2) What do I want?
3) Where will I store it?
I shudder to think what my cart would look like if it were bounded only by the first two questions. Where, after all, do appetites and desires end?
But thank goodness the practical aspect of limited shelf-space at home serves as a semi-conscious check on my buying. My “pantry” is very much like my stomach. When it is full, I am done.
(It is a blessing, I know, that the third question is about space and not about money. While I may pass up a certain item if I feel its cost exceeds its value, I do not limit my list to fit within a weekly budget. It is a blessing indeed to worry about running out of space before running out of money.)
But when shopping on foot, my list of things to purchase is shaped by somewhat different questions:
Can I get it home?
Will it fit into my nifty little rolling cart?
Can I carry it?
Can I get it home with all the other stuff I have to get home?
My shopping list these days is built as much by volume as by need. Triage is a big part of it.
How I hold and transport things are huge determinants of what I buy these days.
Which is not a new lesson, I know. In his scary but insightful book called, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, Paco Underhill tells merchants how to get customers to buy more. One method: make sure they never run out of carrying space. When their hands (or baskets) are full, he tells the merchant, customers will stop buying. So… make sure you have baskets - big ones, easy to carry or push around - scattered throughout the store so customers always have space to drop in one more thing.
Similarly, a recent study reported by Scientific American teaches us that cities that reduced the availability of parking spots (in conjunction with other appropriate design and mobility initiatives) also reduced the presence of cars (thereby reducing miles driven and greenhouse gas emissions) and improved the quality of life.
Building capacity builds appetite. Reducing capacity reduces appetite.
There is a move afoot now to reverse the standard of building regulations. Instead of requiring a minimum number of spaces per construction area, it is being suggested that there be a maximum number of spaces.
All of which is to say, as appetite is a goad to technology, so technology is a goad to appetite.
This is not a call to halt exploration, discovery, progress or the grand imagination of the human spirit. It is a call to be wise about how we employ our imagination and our progress.
We must seek to channel the best of technology so we can seek to channel the best use of our appetites.
How big, after all, must our pockets be?
(Photo: my folding, rolling shopping cart)
Up a ways in New England, a mile or so from my childhood camp, was an old house that sat beside a sizable lake called Lovewell Pond (which the locals preferred to pronounce “lovel”).
Once a summer or so, each bunk could sign up for an overnight at that house. We begged for the privilege, for staying there meant skinny dipping in the lake, eating ‘smores, cozying up around an open fire, baking fresh biscuits in the morning and otherwise reveling in summer’s long enchantment.
One of the things I remember most about that house was the rag rugs. Throughout the living room and along the screened-in porch that ran the length of the house were rag rugs. About a dozen of them. They were dirty, for they held the sand and mud and dirt and dust that accumulated in such a vibrant outdoor place, and, with the way they were woven, were nearly impossible to clean. But they were colorful, and sturdy, and confident, and enigmatic, and comforting in their own way.
I was young and unable to understand why they fascinated, attracted, repulsed and made me sad.
But today, I read the following passage by Carolyn Steedman in a book called Domestic Space and it conjured up that house on the lake:
“... the rag rug is made from the torn fragments of other things: debris and leavings, the broken and torn things of industrial civilization. The rag rug carries with it the irreducible traces of an actual history and that history cannot be made to go away; but ways of writing it and wanting it (and what it represents) are actually somebody else’s story.”
Indeed. The rag rug - besides being a serviceable artifact that softens the tread and perks up the house (all the while holding in dirt that should have been cleaned up and discarded years ago) - is a silent witness to past vibrancy - not just of industrial civilization but of private lives. It is made of the surviving remnants, the ‘out-lasters,’ the enduring fabric that colored and covered the unfolding of now-hidden outings, occasions, dreams, dressing up. It is both celebration and sorrow, containing stories it can never tell and memories we can never hear. It is hard to know which is sadder: that it must remain mute or that we must remain deaf.
But no one makes rag rugs anymore. (Okay, I am sure someone is preserving the craft but of course I mean that it is not the typical, homespun, ordinary task that it once was.)
And that makes me wonder:
Where are the “rag rug” equivalents of today?
What will capture and preserve the fabric of our lives for those who come after us?
What do we lose by trashing the threads of the past?
And how would knowing that the cloth of our lives would become the useful embroideries of tomorrow affect the ways we lived?
(Photo from vintage chic)
The home, as Mary Douglas reminds us, is an “embryonic community.” It is a small version (the seed, the germ) of life writ large.
So perhaps, when issues concerning multinational commerce and nutrient trading confuse us, or when the ethical motivations that gave rise to them get drowned in the waves of market capitalization, we can return to the more familiar place of home and remind ourselves what these structures are morally designed to do.
Douglas (citing Jon Elster) teaches us:
The well-stocked home presents in small the essential problem of the commons. Its reserves are going to be a common resource for the denizens of the home if they can restrain their impatience….
If the homesteader consumes all his reserves in time of plenty, the home will be unable to supply his future needs… Opportunism traduces his overall plan. Stealing from the future prosperity of his own home, he free-rides on his own attempts to make himself a home, but the free-rider is the same person as the one who is providing the good things. This is the beauty of the model: since whoever free-rides on the goods of his own community is going to lose by its destruction.
(Mary Douglas, “The Idea of a Home: A Kind of Space,” Social Research, Vol. 58, No. 1 (Spring 1991) pp. 295-296)
The earth is our shared home. Together, we are all the homeowner who will lose by its destruction. To raid the reserves of our shared pantry in times of plenty, as we did in the 20th century and continue to do today, first in ignorance and then in defiance, without planning for a way to replenish our stock is like the homesteader eating his seed corn.
It is not just greedy. It is not just irresponsible. It is death.
We cannot live off fish if there are no more fish to catch. We cannot sell our corn if there is no more corn to harvest. We cannot water our fields if there is no more water in the well.
We must plan for tomorrow amidst our satisfaction today. Otherwise there will be no tomorrows to enjoy.
Now this is snow. Normal accumulation for Boston for an entire winter is 42.2 inches.
As of January 25, 49.6 inches have graced this region. And 10-20 inches more are expected today and tomorrow. The snow is falling somewhere around an inch an hour right now—a welcome diversion for a southern transplant with a soft spot for the white stuff on a cozy sabbatical morning but trying enough for the hardy, winter-proofed New Englanders. They are ready to get on with their lives.
Cities and snow don’t really go together. The biggest problem of course is where to put it all? Forget about renting out parking spaces. Folks with any spare real estate could earn a bundle renting out dumping spaces (otherwise colloquially known as “snow farms”). It’s seasonal income but it could be quite lucrative. (By the way, what did Philadelphia do with all that snow before the Eagles/Vikings game and how did they move it so fast?)
What is fascinating is how the snow changes sidewalk etiquette.
With so much snow piled up in such small public byways, often only a single lane is left to accommodate foot traffic. Everyone has to plan ahead.
The question is not who has the right-of-way. That smacks of rules, rights, claims and counter-claims. It is not that way at all. Rather the meeting is an exchange of gentility, graciousness, even chivalry. Upon approaching a narrow impasse one party steps aside, pausing in their journey, almost imperceptibly signaling to the on-comer that their advancement, their passage, may proceed uninhibited.
In return, a glance of gratitude, an ever-so-slight “pay-it-forward” nod of acknowledgment.
Sometimes you are the beneficiaries of such benevolence. Sometimes the bestower. It all seems to even out.
The other engaging snowy sidewalk culture is the ubiquitous presence of towering snowbanks, smoothed and rounded, looming up on either side as we wend our way through snow-bound walks.
This pristine palette of snow in easy reach of roving fingers and at perfect viewing height, is irresistibly transformed into ephemeral neighborhood billboards: proclaiming cupid’s latest announcements, folksy admonitions uplifting spirits, “kilroy was here” prints made by tiny hands; or simply a lengthy tracing of wainscotting for those more rushed or less talented.
Public spaces in city-snow become unavoidably, self-consciously, even intentionally shared. We are made mindful that we are all in this together, that our lives, otherwise parallel, hidden and kept apart behind locked doors, are in truth intertwined. I could be here for you and you for me if only we so choose. If only we knew each other.
There are 8 apartments in this four-floor walk-up (whose square footage is probably, all told, no bigger than some local Baltimore McMansions). We have briefly met four owners, to date, in chance encounters on the stairs. But we have not been invited into their apartments, nor, for some reason, have we invited them into ours.
At least, not yet. Perhaps the snow will change that.