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.  

Even Longfellow Got the Blues

Every neighborhood has a party house. In the quiet, tree-lined streets just blocks away from Harvard University in the 1850s, that house was the Longfellow’s. Celebrated poet and Harvard professor, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow sure knew how to throw those ragers. On any given Saturday night, you might arrive with a bottle of wine and a festive cheese plate to find Charles Dickens standing by the fire place droning on about one of his new “little stories” set around the time of the French Revolution (Yawn–save it for your editor Chuck, this is a party!). Transcendental philosopher and literary goliath Ralph Waldo Emerson might be smoking cigars in the library with Dom Pedro II, the King of the Empire of Brazil. Fanny Kemble, the Idina Menzel of nineteenth-century theatre could be found entertaining guests around the Longfellow’s great dining room table. To be a cool kid invited to this kind of A-list hangout, which tells you a lot about what I consider “cool,” is all I can think about when I duck under the rope that cordons off one of the house’s side porches meant to keep out “other” tourists, but not a hometown tourist like me, and climb up on the porch to peek in the windows like some kind of burglar at her first day on the job.

Even before it was a host to nineteenth-century artistic, political, and cultural hipsters, the Longfellow House was already at the epicenter of history. Built in 1759, it remains a stately mansion constructed in the Georgian style, which is architectural shorthand for elegantly boxy with ornamental columns. The house sits back from the road, accessed through a gate and up a long walk leading up a several flights of stone steps to the front porch. It’s painted a cheerful lemonade yellow with crisp black shutters. There’s a tranquil garden tucked into the northeast corner of the property behind the house with paved walkways and arching, white trellises. Longfellow lived there for more than 40 years, and it’s easy to see why.

The first inhabitant of the house was an Englishman named John Vassall. He inherited a house on a large tract of land alongside a major stretch of road initially named The King’s Highway, now Brattle St., when he was 21. When I turned 21 I was a sophomore in college. I got a new stereo to listen to my bitchin CD collection from Columbia House Records. The Eagles Greatest Hits, Volume 2 never sounded so sweet, I assure you. John Vassall might have been just a teensy bit privileged. And in classic trust fund child style, he tore down the existing house to build the current mansion as his summer residence.

Vassall was pretty happy at 105 Brattle St. until the fall of 1774 when a little something happened us Massholes like to refer to as The Revo-FREAKING-lutionary War. We are also fond of bragging that this was, “the most wicked awesomest of all wars” because the “Brits might have stahhhted it, but we frickin finished it!” That is an historically accurate quote. Vassall was loyal to King George, which was going to be a very big inconvenience. That September Vassall packed up whatever wasn’t nailed down and fled to England. The Patriots confiscated all of Vassall’s properties, yelling “How do you like THEM summah houses?”

As the war got underway Boston was the first stronghold to see conflict. General George Washington set up his headquarters in Vassall’s recently vacated house in the summer of 1775 to oversee what would become known as the Siege of Boston, which lasted for ten months (so, you could say it was siege-light).

Washington’s Apothecary General (real job), Andrew Craigie, purchased the house in 1791. He lived there until he didn’t—because of the dying in 1819. Craigie undertook massive renovations to the house—adding on beautiful porches flanking both sides of the house, turning the library into a massive ballroom—and died leaving his wife, Elizabeth, in financial straights. At the time women had very few rights. They could not vote, could not attend college, and could not own property. They could, however, get saddled with their husband’s debt. The technical term for this type of gender disparity is “utter bullshit.” Like many of her peers, Elizabeth was enterprising, resilient, and creative. She earned money by opening the house up to borders. One of those borders was a young man with dark eyes, unruly hair, and genuine puzzlement about all of the snickering and smiling whenever he introduced himself as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Longfellow was just starting a professorship at Harvard College when he boarded at the Craigie home. It would be the house he eventually owned and raised his family in. It was also a creative sanctuary for Longfellow. He occupied a study on the first floor, the same room that had served as General Washington’s office. There he wrote many of his most enduring works such as the poems “Paul Revere’s Ride” and “The Village Blacksmith” as well as the epic poems The Song of Hiawatha and Evangeline, underneath the gaze of portraits of his buds like writer Nathaniel Hawthorne and painter Eastman Johnson, who went on to co-found New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. What a drag to have such slacker, nothing-burger friends. And also, Henry: no pressure.

The house is under the management of the National Park Service. In non-pandemic times, it is open for tours. I am out of luck on the recent Sunday morning that I visit and have to settle for creeping around the exterior and surrounding grounds. But even that proximity does the trick: I am nearish to “the room where it happens” (sorry Hamilton, get used to that over-use). I think this is part of what plays into what brings us to visit these types of places and motivates their careful and earnest preservation.

I want to plant my feet in the spot where General Washington looked out toward the Charles River to gauge its traffic—friend or foe. I want to slip into the cracks of history to get closer to the people who made it. This probably makes me weird, but hardly unique. Isn’t this why we collect things like Beatles memorabilia or outbid someone for JFK’s slippers? We want to scratch the itch to transcend our ordinary, regular selves and be a tourist in someone else’s life. But all vacations must end. As any of these individuals would tell us if they could: real life is not lived in preservation. And maybe that’s also what draws me to find out more about the lives lived behind any four walls. It’s inspiring to try and siphon a bit of greatness from a historical person or place, but it’s much more satisfying to leave reminding myself that at the end of the night, Dickens still had to go home and write the damn thing and even Longfellow got the blues.

Love Comes to Town

Only in Vermont would there be something known as the Valentine Phantom. Vermont is a state positively doused in good vibes—recycling and composting before it was trendy; supporting its flotillas of Co-ops; housing the factory headquarters of the other happiest place on earth: Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. And in 2018 crops of those “good vibes” became officially legal, so really, aside from winter lasting 8 months out of the year, why live anyplace else? Vermont has all of this and the Valentine Phantom, too.  

The first city in New England visited by the Valentine Phantom was Portland Maine, another bastion of funk and grooviness, in 1976. On February 14, Portlanders awoke to a day filled with chocolate, edible marvels of the boxed and wearable variety, packed restaurants, and empty florist shops to also discover white sheets of paper printed with big red hearts tacked to windows and storefronts all over downtown Portland. It was a kind of vandalism of the merriest, sweetest variety.

Montpelier got in on the act with a Valentine Phantom of their own in 2002. Someone or someones papered the windows of storefronts in the small crosshatch of main streets downtown with the same pieces of 8 ½ x 11 white paper imprinted with blazing red hearts. Since then, the Vday paper creep has migrated across the entire area of Vermont’s capital city, a compact grid of streets lined with beautiful nineteenth-century style brick buildings housing all types of retail spaces with the capitol building sitting a few short blocks from the town’s hub. In the years that the Valentine Phantom has been operating within city lines, the tide of paper hearts has extended to nearly every building including all the municipal buildings near the capitol and many of the side and secondary streets of downtown. And lest you think the Phantom is stingy with her papering, think again. Some windows have twenty paper hearts plastered across their surface, others a half dozen or maybe the one pressed against a front porch column like a moony suitor pining for his guy or gal.

I was lucky enough to be visiting friends in Montpelier a couple of days after Valentine’s and saw the handy work of the Phantom for myself–impressive in its scope and whimsy.

©SheilaMoeschenPhotos

Walking around town, taking it all in and snapping photos (how many pictures of the same heart-smeared café window does one truly need? Many. A lot.), I briefly wondered what it would be like for the Phantom to pay a visit to Boston. I pictured paper hearts fluttering on the tall, green walls outside of Fenway Park and crawling up the massive, grey pillars of the entrance to Quincy Market in Faneuil Hall. How charming! And then just as quickly, I imagined a liquored up pack of dudes tumbling out of one of the nearby bars, maybe one of them wearing a belt with a glittery cupid’s arrow pointed south, ripping down the pieces of paper and pretending to stuff them in their shirts because ha-ha boobs! and also because Bostonians can’t have nice things. Stay north, gentle Phantom.

My friends had told me about the Phantom in the same matter-of-fact way you explain to a child that the stove is hot and flowers need water to grow. In other words, there was no attempt to explain or theorize. It’s a group of high schoolers and their parents! It’s a couple of women that started it as a joke and can’t back out now. It’s an eccentric billionaire who has left money in his estate to keep the tradition going. Cracking the mystery isn’t the point.

The Valentine Phantom is a lot like Charlie Brown’s mythical Great Pumpkin. It’s as much as an idea as it is a happening. The Phantom is a courier, hauling a dispatch from our better selves to one another broadcast from every window and front stoop. Love. Give it. Share it. Express it today and every day. Tack your paper heart next to someone else’s and see what amazing things happen. Spread it far and wide and with great glee. Love. February 14 comes and goes. The paper hearts get taken down and recycled. The clear window panes return. But the Phantom of love remains.

Zen and the Art of Cross Country Skiing

We booked a short getaway at the historic Mount Washington Hotel a couple of days after the new year. There was holiday season stress to shake and a lukewarm agreement to give cross country skiing a try. As a general rule, I am pretty terrible at anything requiring even a hint of athleticism. Even mini-golf feels too daunting with all those angles and whatever it is that you’re supposed to do with your wrists. Strap a couple of strips of thin metal to my feet and put me out on a field of icy snow and it’s a guaranteed bad situation. But New England winters are long and notoriously punishing on your skin, your psyche, and your diet. I indulge in a bit too much hibernating that turns from restorative to Miss Havisham bleakness in the time it takes a banana to brown. Perhaps a tolerable winter-centric activity might help. A quick survey of available options–snowboarding (aka death on a shingle); ice skating (aka death on two blades); or snowmobiling (aka death in a supped up go-cart)—made cross country skiing seemed almost doable.

Built in 1902, the hotel squares its shoulders against the massive peaks of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, the highest peak in the northeast (aka death at six thousand feet, like, for real). It’s a beautiful beast of a place, bearing an unsettling resemblance to the murderous hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining. The long, white wings of the hotel stretch outward as if to embrace visitors, or if you’re still stuck on The Shining comparison, as if to smother them in some kind of supernatural rage.

Stepping inside the hotel is like falling back in time. Enormous white columns march down the length of the impossibly wide, grand lobby. Glittering chandeliers cluster overhead in bunches of exotic, glass fruit. Lush couches and chairs cluster around the towering brick fireplaces that look like they could have easily powered the Titanic. Standing out on any one of its expansive verandas overlooking the mountain range, you can almost see the procession of Model T’s snaking up the long, curving drive to the hotel, packed with steamer trunks and families eager to spend the summer months in the bracing fresh air and magisterial landscape of New Hampshire.

What is idyllic in June turns moody and foreboding cloaked in the snow and early gloaming of January, which is where we found ourselves, along with our instructor, Jim, an affable 60-something ski instructor with a sinewy body of a CGI Spiderman and the patience of a Buddha.

In the course of our lesson I have not managed to connect any of the dots to this practice.  I have slid and skidded, my feet rebelling underneath me, arms pinwheeling like Wile E. Coyote in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. I have wrestled with my ski poles—“Okay, looks like you’ve got the straps a bit tangled,” says Jim smiling the entire time, his tone laced with Mayberry conviviality. I have failed to master the basic motor coordination that, off skis, powers me through my day as an advanced biped. The call to give in to hibernation mode becomes a siren’s wail.

After the basics of “staying mostly upright on skis” have been covered, there really isn’t much else you can do with someone other than deposit them at the edge of a trail with a wave and jaunty, albeit slightly dubious, “have fun!,” which is just what Jim did as he turned and deftly glided out of sight.

I am torn between wanting to already declare, “Well, I tried! I guess this just isn’t for me,” dislodge my boots, clomp back to the ski lodge to medicate with a mug of hot chocolate, and giving it a genuine chance. A loophole in the adulthood contract most of us don’t want to talk about out loud is giving yourself permission to quit, to bail, to take a pass on things without losing too much sleep over it. Few of us live a reality where we have someone like the coach from Rocky hurling spit-filled, caustic encouragement in our faces to not give up, to want it bad, and to pummel the bastard (metaphorically speaking, hopefully). We rise and fall on every decision we make with on one else to blame or motivate but ourselves. I do the math and decide it’s worth trying to shift my “give it a shot” numbers into the black.

The trail ascended in a gentle incline, and I was pretty skeptical that I could make it very far. However, a few paces along and suddenly it was as if my body and muscles put my brain in the infant seat in the back and took the wheel. Everything that Jim had tried to each me segment by segment (and which I mucked up piece by piece) almost effortlessly gelled into one, cohesive, self-propelling engine.

I skimmed along the silky snow barely registering what my body was doing, which left me free to enjoy my surroundings. Thick stacks of towering pines flanked the trail, the view broken periodically by expanses of clearing—prairies in miniature, the “happy little” provinces of a Bob Ross world. An ice-encrusted river chased us from about twenty feet below the steady incline. It burst open at intervals in riotous pools of water rushing so fast it appeared green with churn. Every so often bird call sounded, but otherwise there was nothing but the rhythmic slivering of our skis.

Each time I tried to unstrap my brain from its car seat to focus on bending my legs or swinging my arms the way Jim showed me, I would skid out of step. Each time I let my mind wander to think about anything related to the daily regular—obligations, responsibilities, return anxieties about the general, dismal state of political affairs—I lost the cadence and fumbled enough so that I was forced to slow down and begin again. It was if the entire enterprise gently, but firmly, requested my inattention.

After a while it became easier to shift into the interior white space that mirrored the exterior one. I felt the lift that comes with getting a vacation from the constant and somewhat pointless vigilance we bring to a thousand different parts of our daily lives. This is trapeze artists’ trick of catch and release without question or hesitation—raw faith, blind trust that there is something apart from and more primal than you with its hands on the wheel. I relaxed into all of it, happy to bail after all.

 

No Peaking

This October I missed New England’s main event: peak fall foliage. For people unfamiliar with this phenomenon, each autumn the leaves all over this part of the country go on a hunger strike, leeching the green from their veiny hands to replace it with the most brilliant, jeweled earth tones of scarlets, oranges, and yellows. Natives and tourists alike flood the area to take in the sweeping hills made into patchwork quilts, rolling tree-lined back roads bursting with color, and various wooded parks and hiking trails that make you feel like you’re wandering around inside of a Life Saver candy roll. It is impressive. Even the most jaded, grizzled of us New Englanders who refuse to be awed by anything—“Ya got a shahhk in ya bathtub? Whatevahh.”—will stop in our tracks to stare, open mouthed at a stand of ruby red trees in someone’s yard.

Forecasters do their part to stoke “leaf peeping” (real thing, from the Latin folium gawkerus) by switching over to special weather maps during their broadcast. These track the change in foliage in undulating waves of red, orange, and yellow to depict where and when the trees will be at the height of their color. I think this is the equivalent of giving meteorologists a bone to gnaw on that tides them over during the dull months between hurricane and blizzard seasons. Also, people plan their vacations around this phenomenon. There could be airfare involved, certainly a rental car, and something recently ordered from L.L. Bean to fully look the part. Fall in New England is some serious, Everest-intensity level business for some.

I live in Boston, but had planned to take some time visiting northern New Hampshire a week or so after the weather maps predicted the high point of the foliage would have come and gone. From the way the meteorologists talked about it—“It’s OVER! There’s nothing left to see! Leaf peepers go home! You’ll never get that perfect Instagram shot now. FAILURES! Get out and don’t come back until ski season starts!”–I expected to find something that looked like the set of an animated Tim Burton film, all ashy, leafless trees and browns the color of a wet Crayola crayon.

While some trees were empty and others had their colors muted, elsewhere there were hills stamped with buttery gold and ochre, hiking trails draped in shades of burnt ginger and tangerine, and different varieties of bushes along the roads and in people’s yards showing off magenta hues. Even the marshes seemed to come alive (I guess “marsh-cast” is not sexy enough for weather folk), their grasses tawny in places, rust-colored in others. Plum and wine-colored leaves of boggy plants looked as if Bob Ross himself were painting them in real time. I gawked plenty. Everywhere I looked there was some new well of beautiful to tumble into. Peak, my ass.

It reminded me how much I’ve always disliked that term: peak. Too bad he peaked in high school. After her music career peaked in the 70s, she disappeared from view. It’s never good to peak too early. Peak is weak, apparently. It’s a firework burst that fades into the night sky before the crowd finishes gasping. It’s an idea perfectly suited to these times where “brand” and “platform” and “influence” and “likes” yoke our existence to a sinewave of data that tells us nothing, but we’re delusional enough to believe tells us everything. It’s a notion that speaks to how our attention gets repeatedly dragged over to the flashy, sexy, hot-thing-of-the-hot-minute the way cats follow the red dot of a laser pointer. It feels like we’ve gotten into the habit of assigning value to the things that arbitrarily spike to the top of a graph labeled “IMPORTANT THINGS RELATED TO YOUR SELF-WORTH AND LIFE’S JOURNEY,” which is, of course, bullshit. Life is not a few proud moments on a highlight reel; variety is threaded through our journeys for a reason.

A look around at the landscape, so alive and vibrant despite being “past peak,” revealed that nothing was over or ending or not worth experiencing. The maples and oaks that had shed their leaves made room for stands of white birches, their bark like polished ivory, to take center stage. Hardwoods seemed to shrink back, giving pines and evergreens room to be seen, readying their arms to catch the first snowfall. I could see these different players maneuvering around one another like dancers in a ballet, following a rhythm that we seem to have lost the ability to hear, but that urges us to pay the same attention to the valleys, the straightaways, the gnarly, foot paths as we do to those precious peaks.