Dusk, especially summer's dusk has always held magic for me. Even our words for this time lost between day and night are beautiful: twilight, gloaming, owllight, le crepuscule (to the French).
Crickets celebrate, Mourning Doves coo and somewhere a baseball game plays on a radio. The opening line of a Robert Frost poem comes to mind, " I have been one acquainted with the night". I choose to take it literally.
When I was a kid I was ambivalent about that light and what it represented. I knew the house would feel stuffy and mundane after the night air: the joy I'd known outside, would dim. But it was nice to be welcomed home too.
All these years later, I still pause before crossing the threshold - tired, often thirsty, but not wanting to break the spell.
Why do I walk?
I'm guessing that you were with me up until that last one. Let me explain. There's nothing like walking to food-too-delicious-to-be-good-for-you, that makes the eating of it guilt free. It works regardless of what the actual relationship is of calories burned to calories consumed.
Which is exactly how I found myself on a picnic blanket in Tower Park, a good book in one hand and a smorgasbord of deliciousness from Blue Ribbon BBQ spread before me.
This isn't what you were expecting when I said BBQ? A few years ago I would never have gone to a BBQ place for a salad, but a friend introduced me to it and now it's all I order at Blue Ribbon. The salad is big, crisp and refreshing. It comes with savory, still warm from the oven pulled chicken, that you mix into the cool greens. Add to that homemade balsamic dressing, croutons made from their dense, rich corn bread, and as if that weren't enough, a hearty hunk of the corn bread itself. Oh, and don't forget a side of their pickles!
Now doesn't that sound good?
Take a moment and imagine yourself there:
toes in the cool grass,
birds calling in the trees above,
fresh sweet potato pie melting on your tongue,
and the happy glow that comes at the end of a long walk.
It doesn't matter that Tower Park is a thin strip that runs between Mass. Ave (one of the busiest roads around) and the Minuteman Bike Trail (full of bikers, rollerbladers and walkers of all ages on such a sunny, summer afternoon). It doesn't matter that I feel a blister mysteriously forming, on of all places, the side of my middle toe. This - the walk, the indulgence, the sky above, the joy of shade - is summer.
A couple historical notes about the park:
Not long ago I saw an open house advertised and couldn't resist taking a closer look. Before I even stepped inside, I knew the house was not for me; the roof was bowed and mossy, the exterior walls were mottled with mold, and even from the ground I could see that the second story window frames had lost chunks of wood. But I was there, so I went in.
With my first step on the azure carpet, I was cloaked in the scent of dust, disuse, and Renuzit air fresheners. Do I even need to mention that the next room had faux panelling and shag carpet? Visions of my childhood bedroom filled my mind and I wondered, would it be rude to leave without even signing the book? Then I saw something I knew I had to see before I left. Off the dining room was a screened in porch, the sort that belongs on a building referred to as "the camp". It had that same rough, well-used feel, where the screens are sturdy and the carpentry may or may not be. And most importantly, at one end hung a wide wooden porch swing. I climbed on, casting an eye at the beams to see if they were sound and began to swing. Back and forth. Drowsily push off with my toe - back and forth. A chickadee called. A squirrel complained unseen from a branch high above, and I thought, maybe this house has some potential. Such is the powerful draw of the porch swing.
Last summer, while trying to find a new route to the library, I stumbled on a street that knows the value of the porch swing. On Parker Street, which is at the most a quarter mile long, there are no fewer than seven porch swings!
There are swings that appear purely ornamental, on porches so full of flowers and sculptures I can't imagine anyone relaxing there. While other swings sway beneath wind chimes and grape vines, begging you to sit, sip an icy lemonade, and sing "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess.
My absolute favorite, however, is one that by all rights shouldn't be there at all. This house doesn't even have a porch by conventional standards; it's more of a landing. The inhabitants didn't let such minor details get in their way. No, they removed the railing and attached the swing in its place!
You can get a better sense of just how tiny a space it is from the side view.
A few years back when we were sure we didn't want to live in our old apartment any more, but not quite sure which town we wanted to move to, each prospective spot seemed to be defined by its proximity to a bus, the Minuteman Bike Trail or "the Res". More than one agent spoke rhapsodically of walking along the Res on a summer evening, then "popping" over to Mass. Ave. for a bite to eat. In my mind I pictured a giant lake, held in check by massive levees so thin that people crossed them tightrope-walker style. I have no idea what inspired this image, but not surprisingly, even though I had a good idea where the reservoir was, I never spotted anything like what I'd imagined when I went looking for it. Eventually we settled on a different town to call home, and I stopped wondering about the Res.
In November, my curiosity was reawakened when Vicki left a comment on the blog, which lead to us discussing local places to walk. She mentioned the Arlington Reservoir, and when I explained I'd never been able to find it she gave me wonderful directions based on landmarks (my favorite kind). On a cold, damp, Sunday morning, armed with a chai (her directions involved a Starbucks parking lot) I was ready to search for the elusive Res.
Down the cement stairway next to Starbucks and Trader Joe's, across the bike path and onto Hurd Field, everything was just as Vicki had described. She'd said that the Res could be entered from the far side of the soccer field. I'd seen that field from the vantage point of the Trader Joe's parking lot many times and had never noticed a path. Maybe it was the sort of path that was so covered in undergrowth that you could only spot it if you knew what you were looking for. If I don't find it, I consoled myself, at least it wasn't a waisted trip, and I took a sip of my chai.
I followed a trail worn into the grass along the edge of the field, and there it was. A lovely wide bridge leading to the Arlington Reservoir. Clearly, I hadn't spent much energy on my earlier efforts to find this trail.
The trail went over a dam and through some woods that separated the water from the back yards of neighboring houses. In the soggy grays and browns of November, it wasn't much to look at. Even so, there was beauty to be found.
The tangle of bare branches made lacy patterns across the gray sky and water alike.
I like how the water creates a continuum, so the leaves on shore are distinct individuals, then under the water they start to blend, until finally they're a wash of muted colors. Someday I'd like to paint this picture. What a great challenge.
No matter how many times I see a swan in the wild, I am always dumbfounded that something so large and beautiful can make a life so close to humans. North America has a couple native swan species, but the Mute (seen here) is a transplant. They're often found in parks and sheltered waterways like the Res, which makes them seem more tame than wild. This photo was taken as the swan moved away from a couple mothers and toddlers who had lured it close to shore by throwing small pebbles in the water. I doubt those mothers knew that Mute swans are known for being aggressive. Swans are so graceful, it's easy to forget their strength.
Now that summer is here, I want to make a follow up visit. I'd like to see if the Res in full bloom is a walking destination, or if its the sort of place that is a boon to the neighborhood, but not worth travelling to. I'll let you know what I discover.
Where have all the dandelions gone? During our oh-so-soggy spring, these little tufts of gold were everywhere, often the brightest spot on a very brown landscape, but now that summer is in full swing they've all but disappeared. I realize that this is good news to many people and that there's a whole industry devoted to the eradication of these shaggy, golden orbs, but I miss them.
Dandelions are just as bright and cheerful as daffodils, that other golden sign of spring. The dandelion is not as tall as the daffodil, in fact it's usually about the same height as the grass around it. Could height be the reason why one is adored and the other hated? If so, then why aren't buttercups reviled? They, like dandelions, grow along roads and across lawns but I've never seen a commercial for a product promising to leave your lawn buttercup free.
Maybe people's frustration with dandelions is that they are so uncontrollable. I was surprised when I learned that dandelions were actually brought to North America by English settlers. They wanted the flowers for their nutritional properties. Of course, like energetic children, the flowers refused to just stay put. Each flower becomes a ball of mini seed-gliders, perfectly designed for maximum spread, sometimes traveling several miles.
Of course, as anyone who has ever planted tulip or daffodil bulbs knows, these plants have a way of migrating as well. It's not uncommon to see a single bloom in the woods, far from a tended garden, or in the middle of a yard. I like to call these transplants "squirrel gardens".
I think the common dislike of dandelions can be traced to the adage "a weed is a plant growing where you don't want it to". I'd go so far as to say a weed is a plant you didn't have to buy. We'll spend large amounts of time and money to plant swaths of flowers across our property, but a flower that can do this on its own is unappreciated.
So aside from its incredible survival skills and gorgeous color, what's there to like about dandelions? I read in Yankee magazine this spring that dandelions greens, especially those first tiny spikes are for many people a taste of spring. I was all set to try them this year, and was scoping out locations where I'd be likely to find ones which hadn't been chemically treated, when I read in a recipe, "If you love bitter greens like arugula, you'll adore dandelions". I do not love, I do not even like arugula. Eating dandelions was clearly not for me. Which leaves all the reasons I liked dandelions as a kid.
It just occurred to me that the 4th of July may be the perfect holiday. It feels like a real holiday with a purpose and traditions, not just an excuse to have a day off from work like President's Day. There are no gifts to be purchased and while cooking is expected, it can be as elaborate (a Martha Stewart inspired BBQ) or simple (hotdogs and s'mores over a campfire) as you want it. I actually had my first taste of sushi on the 4th. For many people the day means getting together with family, but unlike Thanksgiving or Christmas, no one gives you a pitying glance if you say you're spending it with friends. And last but not least, so many people feel the urge to travel over this weekend, that normally crowded places become wonderfully hospitable for those of us who opt to stay home.
Growing up, both the 4th of July and Christmas meant visits from my grandmother. Every July and December my grandmother would arrive at the airport, a purse the size of a breadbox on one shoulder and the other arm stretched out to give hugs. Her visits marked the two big holidays in our year: Christmas and my grandmother's birthday, a.k.a. the 4th of July. Traditions involving food, nostalgia, music and lights arose around both. These holidays have a surprising amount in common; both are founded on events in the past, yet we celebrate them by focusing on the society that we wish to be. On the 4th and the 25th we spotlight those times when we as a people reach out to one another, see ourselves as part of something larger and do the right thing.
However you choose to spend the 4th, may you be awash in goodwill and optimism.
The first week of July, every year, the Lions Club Carnival rolls into town and takes over part of the athletic fields. As I type these words, I can hear the music of the rides. It's just loud enough for me to realize I don't know current, pop music - at all; but it's not so loud that turning on my own music wouldn't drown it out completely. I like being in the quiet of my office and knowing that not so far away people are attempting to pop balloons with darts, quiet their stomachs after a ride on the Zipper and eat cones of cotton candy without getting cobweb-like wisps of it through their hair.
Each year there's talk about how the carnival has gone down hill, or has grown a bit seedy, compared to years gone by. I've never been to a carnival, the travelling sort where the midway promises giant, overstuffed toys as reward for your skill (or luck), that hasn't been a bit dirty and let's just admit it, low class. That's just as much a part of the experience as fried dough, the clink of a lapbar absentmindedly shaken by an attendant and the whine of over-tired, over-stimulated little ones. On some level, I think the garish, loud, chaotic elements of the carnival are exactly its appeal. As a teen it seemed like Vegas. It's a different world from our orderly, everyday existence.
No matter what people's thoughts on the rides and the midway, I've never heard a word against the annual fireworks show. Not many towns in the area put on their own fireworks shows, being so close to Boston and the famous Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular. While no suburb could possibly compete with the show the Pops puts on, it's televised nationwide after all, I'll take the hometown experience every time.
Last night as the daylight started to fade, cars streamed into Lexington center. Troupes of families toting lawn chairs converged on Mass. Ave, making their way toward the high school. Many people with dogs or especially young children opted for the reduced vision, but increased space of watching from the Battle Green. Blankets formed little islands of color, with dogs, children and frisbees tumbling and racing in between.
Most years I plan fireworks night so I have time to walk to the carnival and stand in line for fried dough before finding a place to view the fireworks. But yesterday it dawned on me that it was already July and I hadn't had my favorite summer treat, a pretzel cone from Rancatore's. So I walked to Lexington center just as everyone else seemed to move away from it.
Rancatore's is a local, ice cream institution. I think I've mentioned here before, that they are one of the few places in town that stays open past 6pm. Year round, you can get your ice cream fix until 11pm; now that's civilization. Of course the best part of living in walking distance is their ever changing variety of ice cream and frozen yogurt flavors. Yesterday they weren't offering my favorite, the almond chocolate chip frozen yogurt in a pretzel cone, so I tried Peanut Butter Hydrox Cookie. The peanut butter flavor was mild, but very much like a Peanut Butter Cup and then the Hydrox bits were just a tad soft so they felt like part of the ice cream, rather than a crunchy shock. And then the cone. The flaky, salty goodness of a pretzel against the smoothness of the ice cream is perfection. I considered taking a picture of it for the blog, with a nice background of all the other people in line who that thought fireworks were best enjoyed with ice cream, but I was too busy enjoying mine.
Summer days make for great postcards, but I love summer nights. Summer nights invite you to stretch your day into the dark, to feel the cool grass between your toes, watch the fireflies dance and listen to the last calls of the birds as they drift off to sleep. Of course as I neared the high school and the carnival, those quieter summer scenes were replaced by the rhythmic screams of riders on the Pirate Ship and a group of teenage boys carrying what appeared to be plastic chairs from an elementary school, laughingly asking people if they needed a seat. Some families had staked out a parking space well in advance, and now sat on the roofs of their minivans eating snacks and awaiting the show.
A rogue firecracker went off from a neighboring street and the crowd cheered. In the quiet that followed a father could be heard saying soothingly, "That's what fireworks are. Just cover your ears and you'll like the next one". Seconds later a whistling sound filled the air and the show had begun.
As always, I was amazed to see how many people could resist the pull of a fireworks display and were actually walking away from the show (and toward the rides). A man to my left was watching the fireworks through his iPhone as he recorded a movie of it. On my other side was a photographer who frantically set up his tripod as the first rockets exploded, and sweared loudly when his camera instead of screwing onto the tripod, fell in the dust.
At that moment a scene from Eric Weiner's Geography of Bliss popped into my head. Weiner was in Bhutan, researching how a country so poor, could be so happy. A learned man asked him why he was always writing things down. "Just be", he said. " Just experience". Weiner copied down every word, then stopped, realizing the irony of the moment.
Was either of the men recording the fireworks, enjoying them as much as he would have if he'd watched the fireworks directly, rather than through a lense? And then I realized I was doing it too; I was composing blog drafts of the experience in my mind as it was happening rather than just experiencing it.
So I stopped.
I breathed in the acrid smoke. I felt the concussions of sound hit my chest. I watched the embers sizzle and snake across the sky.
And I smiled.