Haunted

New England is haunted. I suppose you could say the same for places like New Orleans, San Francisco, and Chicago. But I’m a life-long New Englander and have the most experience with this area. And besides, it’s almost required by law around here for us to be ego-centric jerks about this kind of thing.

Take a step in any direction around one of these towns and you’ll inevitably come upon the resting place, dwelling place, or meeting place of the deceased folks who lived and worked and fought there and probably invented something annoyingly vital like shoelaces or love songs. I only recently discovered a new piece of history hiding in plain sight on a busy boulevard in a town just a couple of miles from where I live. It’s a granite plinth that marks the spot of The Black Horse Tavern. On April 18, 1775 The Committee of Safety (very believable name) met in The Black Horse Tavern for a heated discussion about British oppression. I assume they were just about to get their act together and really, we mean it this time, do something about those crap policies when they woke up the next day to find the Revolutionary War was happening. Talk about your two birds, one very, very large stone situation. The granite piece sits at the edge of a sidewalk alongside a BP Gas Station. Maybe one day they will add another marker: This site once a shrine to fossil fuel, late capitalism, and man’s audacious stupidity.

I like encountering these traces of our forebearers. It’s nice to know that we’re not the first ones to screw things up or make some solid improvements that just might outlive us. I enjoy standing in front of a house clearly removed from this century. Maybe it’s a neat, boxy Georgian-style house with its regimented window placement and demure, chaste doorways (suck it Federal-style with your lofty balconies and fancy friezes). I read the little sign that tells me this house belonged to William Braddock, 1770 and make my brain squint trying to imagine Mr. Braddock at home. Maybe he’s seated at his desk, oil lamp burning low, his head tilted toward a piece of paper, a quill in hand as he ardently writes—a letter, a poem, a treatise against those damn, oppressive British policies. A life runs outside the lines of history.  

It was a friend of mine who told me about The Black Horse Tavern. She was doing some ancestry research and discovered family ties to the place. She asked if I wouldn’t mind going over to photograph the marker to give her a better perspective of the surroundings. As I stood there, I realized I had probably walked by this spot dozens of times without noticing the granite post. To see or not to see, that is the question. I apologize for nothing, Shakespeare.

Ghosts always announce themselves. But is it the wind? The cat fooling around with something? The back stairs settling? Better not to look too closely, not to notice too much. How comfortable we’ve become substituting whatever is bleating from our pocket-sized technology for wonder and curiosity and astonishment. And so New England spoils me with its old timey, spooky burial grounds pressed up against regular houses and its moss-covered statues and deserted hulls of textiles mills waving as if to say “Look at me! Look over here! Wrap your dumb mind around something completely different for a change!”  

Because once you start noticing, you can’t not notice (I apologize for nothing, English teachers). It adds up. All the weird, interesting, unsettling, funny, beautiful things—past and present littering your everyday—jumble together in the strangest and most interesting mosaic. You tuck these things away in little storage units like old library card catalogues. Without even trying, your cache of brilliance and creativity and introspection and insight and empathy and curiosity and appreciation and idea-having balloons. It’s the best kind of bloat you’ve ever experienced: all of the pleasure and none of the guilt. No, it’s definitely not the wind or the cat. It’s just you—haunted.  

Benched

The green wreath tacked to the back of the wooden bench was no bigger than a dinner plate. A note card fixed next to the wreath, lacquered over in tape, read:  

Please do not remove this wreath. It is for my late husband to whom this bench is dedicated.

I glanced to the right of the card to see a thin, gold plaque bearing the name of the man. Beloved husband. The year of either his death or the bench dedication (or both) etched in underneath. I sat down, looking out across the broad expanse of the pond and its shorelines that cut in and out like a stock market graph as the man must have done on many days.

The bench was one in a curved line of others placed around the perimeter of this stretch of Spy Pond. It’s a mid-sized body of water sunk around the town of Arlington, Massachusetts, a suburb just outside of Boston. The pond formed an epoch ago from the kettle hole left by a receding glacier. New England: where ancient is always trending. Also like so many other things in New England, Spy Pond had its own brush with history in April of 1775, right around the time that whole Revolutionary War was kicking into gear. An elderly woman named Mother Batherick who lived close by was out gathering dandelions when she happened upon a group of British Redcoats fleeing from a supply train that had been commandeered by Patriots. Mother Batherick took six Redcoats prisoners (without dropping a single stem or flower is how I imagine the story going from tavern to tavern). Take note: that’s why you don’t mess with New England chicks.

On the December day I visited an early start to winter had left a lid of ice on the pond.

The metallic sheen trapped the black spines and twisted arms of the barren trees in its surface making them look like photographic negatives. Of course I thought about the man sitting here day after day, season after season, watching the pond shift and change depending on the light, the weather, his own mood. I thought about him coming here to throw off his burdens—the bad day variety and the world weary kind. I thought about him sitting here alone or with others, drawing peace and joy from this spot, his spot. I thought about the comfort that comes with having a place where it feels like eternally falling into an embrace, a place where you are unequivocally received.

It’s a radical act these days—finding places to drop anchor, from a soul perspective. We’re seduced with so much of the immaterial: the stuff stuffed into THE CLOUD (I am still extremely skeptical of that whole business), the disembodied voices of Siri and Alexa, the technological genies that grant our consumer wishes, the barcode that stands in for paper money. Grounding feels vital. Seeking spaces to act as touchstones seems as necessary as building the storm cellar in Kansas.

One of mine is a short hiking trail that runs along a brook. I will stop at the same outcropping of rocks that looks out over a cascading series of wide stones, smoothed over by the furious water to look like the kind of steps built for the stages of award shows and plantation verandas. I will lean against a familiar tree with its trunk bowed out in a gentle, cursive line, just perfect enough to tuck my shoulder into. I will pause at the quiet, flat stretch where the water is often still and the light pours down through the pine trees in gauzy ribbons. I don’t own any of this, and yet it somehow feels like it’s all mine, that it’s here just for me. I’m all for this kind of benign selfishness, this harmless tyranny over spots where we can slip out of the smallness of our lives and get closer to ourselves.

“Dad’s gone over to sit on his bench,” must have been a sentence uttered in the man’s house too many times to count. Why that particular bench and not one that faced a different view—more trees, less trees, a lake house with a sunny dock—I’ll never know and I’m not supposed to. I’m just a visitor, stopping by on my way to some place else.

Snow Down

Winter has finally arrived in Boston just in time for spring. The seasons have been steadily migrating for quite a while now, which is totally nothing to worry about if you’re psyched about the prospect of taking an evolutionary leap and growing gills or think you might be able to harvest soybeans in your bathtub. The cold settled into New England right on time in December. The white stuff failed to make a real appearance until just recently, dousing us with enough snow pack for sledding and plowing and shoveling and swearing and the ceremonial lugging out of your ironing board to use as a precious parking space saver. We took our whole damn country back from England, you think we’re going to let some yahoo swoop in with his freaking Yaris and take our parking space we spent two hours clearing? Think again, pal.

The upside about our bizarro winter is that when the snow shows up relatively late in the game, at that point you’re only driven to fits of rage and despair from the unrelenting cold and not necessarily from a combination of arctic freeze and merciless snowfall. Which is to say you might actually find the occasional snowy day a bit enjoyable. To be sure, that joy will sour when you’re hiding Easter eggs under six inches of fresh powder, but the first couple of snowstorms can be something worth embracing.

I took myself into the city during one of our recent storms. The snow fell mostly overnight, but lingered throughout the following day in the form of that softly spitting type of precipitation, the kind that forces you to turn on your windshield wipers every few minutes to wipe the view clean. It happened to be a holiday weekend so the city already had a lazy, sleepy feel to it. The storm added to the stilled atmosphere with less cars and buses on the street and fewer people scuttling to work and appointments. Walking around the sparsely populated streets, I felt like the city was showing off just for me. I could tell from the other people I encountered—photographers, couples and families strolling, runners, and dog walkers—we shared the same sense of sweet insulation, of pleasant transportation out of what was familiar and typical to what was suddenly changed.  

I adore my gritty, funky, uptight, ball busting city in every season, with all its warts, weird angles, eyesores, and staggering beauty. The snow made everything in town look different; everything from brownstone steps coated in white drifts to statues appearing particularly stark against the snow to the walking paths along the river blanketed over like an urban tundra, became majestic, astonishing, and artful. The snow also made the entire city feel different, as if Boston were a big rig suddenly downshifting from 75mph to a crawl, inviting you along for the ride.  

I let myself become aimless, tracing familiar routes made unfamiliar from the storm. I stopped often and just stood, not reaching for my camera, but planted, breathing in the sharp, cold air without the metallic tinge that usually laces the city atmosphere. I released whatever sense of urgency I had to make the most of my time in town and instead let the time make the most of itself.

Be quiet, just look, the city sighed between the thin strands of falling snow. Slow down, spend time, spend your attention here, right where you are, which is all there is any day, rain, snow, locusts, or shine. It was the kind of imperative you feel hiking in the woods or exploring a sandy coastline; it was a startling directive from a place built on centuries of industrial churn and a voracious demand for action, growth, biggah, tallah. It was something to be ignored at your own loss—the chance to glimpse and savor the city’s sister self before it receded into the memory of just one more snowy day in winter.