Tag Archives: Boston


A couple of nights ago, we went over to Freestone’s at six. The bar was pretty full, and a courteous older man moved over so we could sit in two contiguous seats. I ordered scallops, and Carol drank orange juice and tonic water (she had eaten earlier, so she stole from my plate instead of ordering). We chatted about this and that, the bar emptied out, and eventually we wound up chatting with the courteous man who had moved over for us. He was from Boston, “an old Boston Brahmin family,” he said. We agreed that the world view of Bostonians ends at the Connecticut River. He told us that when he had gone to UCLA to do doctoral work, an elderly relative of his had exclaimed: Poor boy, you’ll be so far from the ocean out there. “She didn’t realize that there’s another whole ocean out there! It’s even bigger than the ocean here!” he said. Now I have heard this exact same anecdote told any number of times, but never with the level of detail he brought to it: he gave the name of the person who had said it and when she had said it, and he claimed to be a direct witness because she had said it to him. Perhaps he had worked this old anecdote into his own memories of leaving New England; perhaps the incident as he told it was actually the original of that now-widespread anecdote; perhaps his elderly relative had heard the anecdote and used it knowingly, with that extremely dry humor of some elder New Englanders which young people take too literally. So I just had to tell him the anecdote about Mrs. Cabot of Boston, who had to entertain Mrs. Smith of Ohio while Mr. Cabot did business with Mr. Smith; Mrs. Cabot said, “And where did you say you come from, Mrs. Smith?”; “Ohio,” said Mrs. Smith; whereupon Mrs. Cabot said, “Mrs. Smith, here in Boston we pronounce it ‘Iowa’.” He did not particularly care for my anecdote, perhaps because it was all too evidently made up.

For last

Cambridge, Mass.

From Geneva, Illinois, to Richmond, Indiana; from there to Cambridge, Mass., and then to Concord, Mass.: orbiting around the “hub of the solar system.” Today was the day to fall down the gravity well, and into Boston, the Hub, itself.

Boston’s cultural institutions shaped me in ways I only dimly realize: Fenway Park, Symphony Hall, 25 Beacon Street; and perhaps more than anything else, the Boston Museum. So thence I road the Green Line trolley cars today.

Walking down Hollis Street towards the Davis Square subway station, along a narrow brick sidewalk where a tree has grown and uprooted bricks and spilled out over the granite curbstone and taken up more than half the sidewalk, so there’s just room for one person to pick their way between it and the white picket fence.

I got off the E-line trolley at Northeastern so I could walk the last few blocks to the Museum. First stop: the musical instruments collection. I thought every great museum had a musical instruments collection, and was shocked when I went to the Art Institute and found they did not. Another way Boston has shaped me: seeing musical instruments as art, not as beautiful objects for making music. I looked particularly at a mountain dulcimer made by James Edward Thomas, simple, elegant, painted black.

To the Asian art to look at Chinese hand scrolls. A scroll titled “Peach Blossom Spring,” by Qiu Yung of the Ming dynasty era, caught my attention. Excerpts from Tao Yuanming’s “Account of Peach Blossom Spring” accompanied the scroll:

During the Taiyuan reign of the Jin, there was a native of Wuling who made his living catching fish. Following a creek, he lost track of the distance he had travelled, when all of a sudden he came upon forests of blossoming peach trees on both shores. For several hundred paces, there were no other trees mixed in. The fragrant herbs were fresh and lovely, and the falling petals drifted eveywhere in profusion. The fisherman found this quite remarkable and proceeded on to find the end of the forest.

The forest ended at a spring and here the fisherman found a mountain. There was a small opening in the mountain and it vaguely seemed as if there were light in it. He left his boat and went in through the opening. At first it was very narrow, just wide enough for one person to get through. Going on a few dozen paces, it spread out into a clear space.

The land was broad and level, and there were cottages neatly arranged. There were good fields and lovely pools with mulberry, bamboo, and other such things. Field paths criss-crossed, and dogs and chickens could be heard. There, going back and forth to ther work planting, were men and women whose clothes were in every way just like those of people everywhere. Graybeards, and children with their hair hanging free, all looked contented and perfectly happy.

When the people saw the fisherman, they were shocked. They asked where he had come from and he answered all their questions. Then they invited him to their homes, where they served him and killed a chicken for a meal. When it was known in the village that such a person was there, everyone came to ask him questions.

The villagers said that their ancestors had fled the upheavals during the Qin dynasty and had come to this region bringing their wives, children, and fellow townsmen. They had never left it and thus had been cut off from people outside. When asked what age it was, they didn’t know even of the existence of the Han dynasty, much less the Wei or Jin.

In some ways, the story of Peach Blossom Spring reminds me of Boston.

The show of quilts from Gee’s Bend has at last reached the Boston Museum — it was at the Art Institute a while ago, before we started living outside Chicago. Polly Bennet, one of the quilters, said the following — one of the best statements for any artist, or craftsperson, or manufacturer:

Up until the start the quilting bee [a cooperative manufacturing effort in the community of Gee’s Bend], I just use old throw-away clothes [to make quilts]. I started buying material in ’66. I was one of them that built the quilting bee up. For that time I was making stuff that was being ordered. Star quilts, Trip around the World, –and a pattern they call Four Star. People would know my name and ask for a quilt I make. And I always make things just for my own pleasure, too. I like to try something I ain’t never made before. And I work on it until I get it straight. I want it fixed right because my quilts might go somewhere I ain’t never going to go, so they going to say, “This quilt made by Polly Bennet.” I got to put my best on it.

I particularly noticed this remark because during the trip out here, my sister Jean talk about what it is like getting her book published. Books and quilts go out, and people use them for what they will. Did Polly Bennet ever think the quilt she made in 1942, at the age of 40, this two-sided quilt in blocks, did she ever think it would wind up hanging in a museum rather than spread out over someone’s bed? Well, maybe she did –maybe she dreamed it just that way.

Carol joined me at the museum after work, and we saw an Italian film there, “After Midnight” (Dopo Mezzanote), part of the museum’s excellent film series. While waiting for the film to start, C. came up to say hello, someone I had known when I worked at the Watertown, Mass., church. The narrator of the film said:

Tales, where do they come from?… Tales are like dust in the wind…. Perhaps places are the best way to tell stories.

And then, describing the heroine, Amanda, the narrator says:

Amanda wishes she had a better life, but mostly she settles for dreaming about it — which is a common attitude.

We caught the trolley, and transferred to the Red line, and came back out here to Cambridge. So I finally made it in to the Hub. Maybe it would have been better to go to Fenway Park, but the results would have been the same.

Tomorrow — on to New Bedford, and the end of the trip.


Cambridge, Mass.

You’ve probably heard the saying, Boston is the hub of the solar system. And you may well have thought, What East Coast snobbery, or What a dated sentiment from the early 19th C. when Boston was the literary center of the United States, or What a provincial thing to say, or maybe you didn’t think anything at all because you felt it was so patently untrue.

I have said all those things to myself, and have always used that saying with a sense of irony. “Hub of the solar system,” spoken as if it has quotation marks around it. But it’s also true for me, because I know I have been shaped by Boston-area literary heritage, by Boston-area instituions, by Boston area people. So here I am, in Cambridge, right at the edge of the hub of the solar system.

Not that I ever want to live in Boston, or even in Cambridge. I’d rather be outside the hub of the solar system. New Bedford will be close enough — or, I should say, far enough away.

And I do fit in, here in Cambridge. I ran into someone I went to middle school with, and an old friend saw me from the bus and sent me email saying hi. Walking over to the farmer’s market at Davis Square, I saw A. and T.’s house, and the house where R. and her sister M. used to live. Boston and Cambridge are smallish provincial places where you do know people.

So here I am, and while we’re here I’m enjoying being in Cambridge, next door to the Hub. Jean and I walked up Mass. Ave. towards Harvard Square to visit bookstores today. Jean stopped in at Robin Bledsoe, who sells art, architecture, and horse books (Jean was looking at the horse books). We went to Harvard Bookstore, where I found a translation of Japanese travel narratives, a book on the Cambridge (England) Platonists, and a Perry Mason novel.

Looking through the used nonfiction books, I wound up standing next to a tall thin young woman talking to a young man. I got the impression she had just graduated from college. She was telling him about a job interview that she had gotten with what purported to be an advertising agency. “So I got all dressed up, in like my best businessy clothes, and went in for the interview.” Then she told about her first interview, though I missed part of what she said, and she was called back the next day for a second interview. “So I walk into this room full of men in suits, and I’m wearing my business outfit, and they start talking to me, and they were saying I’d be good for the job.” I squatted down to look at a book, and missed a sentence or three. “It turns out I’d have to go door-to-door for like four hours a day, selling door-to-door. When I got back home, I was like, Nick, I got duped, I thought I had a real job, but it wasn’t at all, it was like going door-to-door.”

While we were at Harvard Bookstore, Jean saw that Michael Cunningham was going to be reading from his latest book tonight. So tonight we went to hear him read.

We got there 50 minutes early to be sure to get a seat. The reading was in the bookstore, and there wasn’t much room. Twenty minutes before he was to start, it was standing room only.

He came up to Cambridge from a stay down in Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod (how very Boston). He was wearing a faded pink t-shirt, was very tan, with bleached-out hair, the picture of a Provincetown beach bum. He is a charismatic speaker, and he reads quite well. I have to admit I have not read any of his novels. I felt a little guilty that I was taking up one of the precious few seats. But then I realized that I belonged there, too. I’m a reader and a booklover, and unlike music lovers we don’t have concerts; unlike art lovers we don’t have gallery openings; our social events are author readings. It was good to be in a room full of book lovers, and it didn’t matter if we were in Cambridge, or Provincetown, or Geneva, Illinois — for readers, anywhere there’s a book and someone to read it, it’s the hub of the universe.

Spring watch

Home from the Boston area, where Opening Day is considered one of the great religious holidays that welcome the arrival of spring. I know some of you follow basketball, and there were a number of people wearing orange in church yesterday. I, too, hope that Illinois goes all the way. But basketball is a sport. Baseball is religion.

Depressingly, the Boston Red Sox dropped their season opener to the hated New York Yankees. (Please, no nasty comments from Yankees fans, or I will have to remind you what happened last fall, in just four games.) I’m convinced one of the reasons Universalism began in New England is because we New England baseball fans needed an optimistic religion, a religion that assures us that everything will turn out fine, that some day the Red Sox will be perennial winners.

What’s that you say? Universalism started before baseball was even invented? Bosh! I don’t believe it. Haven’t you heard of the Winchester Profession, the 1803 profession of faith of Universalism, which clearly states “We believe that there is one God, whose nature is love, who will finally restore the Red Sox to their righteous place as perennial winners”? This clause was carried over in modified form to our current profession of faith, the UUA “Principles and Purposes,” where it is clearly stated: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote the goal of Red Sox Nation with peace, liberty, and the annual demise of the hated Yankees.”

There you have it. Now if we could just get some decent pitching….

Knowing a city by its bookstores

One of the great things about being an interim minister is that you get to move around the country. In the past three years, we have had the luck to live near three of the great cities of the United States. Last year we were near Berkeley, California; the year before that, we lived outside Boston; and this year we’re living near Chicago. I define a great city as one that has lots of independent bookstores.

I just spent the afternoon and evening in Chicago, where of course I spent hours in a bookstore. I was up in the Lincoln Square neighborhood, and stopped in one of those used bookstores with books piled everywhere. “Should I check my backpack?” I asked the owner. “No,” he said, “but be careful going around corners. You don’t want to start an avalanche.” He wasn’t kidding.

You learn a lot about a city by its bookstores. I always zero in on the religion section. In Chicago bookstores, you always seem to find lots of historical criticism of the Bible and general hardcore theology books, which I attribute to the influence of the University of Chicago, and there always seems to be a smattering of “Christian inspirational” books. In Berkeley bookstores, you’ll find tons of books about eastern religions and east-west studies, partly due to the influence of the university, but also because Berkeley is a Pacific Rim city that looks west more than east. In the religion sections of Boston (and Cambridge) bookstores, you find lots of scholarly books about Western religious traditions, but also a surprising number of books on Confucianism because Harvard has become a center for neo-Confucian studies.

Each of the great bookstores of each city tell you a little more about the character of the city. Berkeley has Eastwind Books, specializing in East Asian writers, and where I first got books by Lu Xun, an amazing Chinese writer of the early 20th C. The Seminary Coop Bookstore in Hyde Park in Chicago is quite simply the best academic bookstore I’ve ever seen. And the Mass Bible Society in downtown Boston carries an excellent selection of books on liberation theology and liberatory theologies, as well as good story books for children. (On their Web site, click on the “Bookstores” link, and then on the link “The Bible and Homosexuality” — yup, they’re liberal Christians.)

Trivialobservations, I suppose. But I do find it interesting that different places address different religious questions. And what I’ve seen in the bookstores plays out in the UU congregations I’ve served in each of these three places. Trivial, perhaps, but fascinating.