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Elisia’s exit reminded me of the old days when my group of friends rode the Fitchburg train together.

Boston is so close to my old life, when I lived in Fitchburg and rode the commuter train to school in Waltham. After exploring Boston for a day, the next day Will and I spent the whole day traveling old routes, walking old paths, gaining new perspectives on old vistas.

First we took Route 2 out to Fitchburg. I pointed out the spot where I was pulled over for speeding, and Massachusetts forgot to ask me to pay the ticket for FIVE YEARS. I became disproportionately excited to see the Exit 32 sign to Leominster. When I lived out here I rode the train to school every school day for three years. I got on the same train at the same time every morning, and rode into the city with all the same people. We got to know each other. I even did my Masters Thesis on how fear and feelings of safety are managed on the commuter rail train when packed in there with strangers. My very best friend at that time was Elisia, who lived in Leominster. She has a lovely English accent and we were all delighted the day she told us the highway exit to her home was number 32. We made her say it a dozen times. We giggled with glee and found opportunities to ask about Exit 32 (prounced in Lissy’s English accent) whenever we could, from then on.

A 2005 photo of the house when I lived there.

What it looks like now. Not much change. A new fence, solar panels, a bigger tree, and neglected garden and lawn.

Our first stop was my old house. The old neighborhood looked almost exactly the same except that the trees along the street were larger. The landscaping around my old house looked ratty and unkempt, and there was a For Sale sign out front. I was sad that none of the trees or lilac bushes I had planted had survived. There was a new fence in the back yard and solar panels. I recalled shoveling snow from that driveway so many times.

We drove around the town of Fitchburg, Massachusetts. It has tiny pockets of commerce scattered around the outskirts leaving the center almost desolate. No people walking, and many empty buildings. When pawn shops and consignment shops for children’s clothes are on main street, it’s a sign that people are shopping somewhere else. My two favourite sightings from my past were the library, and of course the train station. It’s a sad town and I felt validated for never liking it while I lived there.

Walden Pond, from the end where the train passes close by.

We returned to Route 2 toward Boston and stopped at Walden Pond, made famous in Henry David Thoreau’s book. While traveling to school I had looked out the train windows at the pond, twice a day, day in and day out for more than a year before I realized which pond it was. Then I read Walden again, despite not liking it the first time I read it, and realized that Thoreau even mentions the train.

Will in the pond. It was a hot day and the cool water felt good on our feet.

I splashed around, getting water on my head and back, and cooling off. {photo by Will Murray}

The pond today is a park, visited by nearly 500,000 people a year. It is open to swimming, fishing, and boating, and is surrounded by trails. Though Thoreau kept fit by jogging around the lake every day, visitors who want to emulate his experience are asked not to run on the trail that follows the shore, but to keep their running activity to the trails farther away.

Will and I explored the brand new beautiful visitor’s center, and then made our way to the pond. The pond is always more serenely beautiful than I expect, for so famous a tourist destination. Today it is protected land, and I get the sense that it is more forested and more lush than when Thoreau lived there. There are many easy trails to follow and we followed them. On the far side of the pond, Thoreau’s cabin no longer exists, but there are granite stones set to show where it used to be. Nearby is a large mound of rocks left by people in remembrance. He wasn’t living there at his death, but close friends the Alcotts (including the famous author Louisa May) laid the first stones at the site after his death. It began a tradition.

The site of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin. You can see the pile of rocks to the left.

A large pile of stones carried by admirers from around the world. Many contain messages from those who left them.

As we prepared to leave, I gave the all-day parking pass that we had purchased to the next car that pulled in to the lot. It was a small car packed with kids that looked around the age of 20, and they were so grateful for the pass. I try to do this whenever I can, handing over a parking pass when there is still time left on it. I think having to pay to park a car is annoying, so I cheat the system. I’m such a law-breaker rebel!!

Next we went to the campus of Brandeis University, where I received my BA and MA in 2007. It was 6pm and nearly empty of people. I was surprised to find every door unlocked. We wandered across the entire campus and you can bet I marched us right inside every building I wanted to explore.

First of all we went into the art building. My first two years at school I knew the Art building because of my job. I modeled for the painting classes. It was good money ($10 an hour – the highest pay available to a student on campus) for very little work. I am not shy about my body and found it interesting and challenging to find new creative poses and then to hold perfectly still. The students were amazingly kind and grateful, and always let me watch them work during breaks. Finally I had completed enough required courses that I had room for an elective, and I took a beginning oil class. The classroom was just as I remembered it, except for a new ugly ducting tube on the ceiling.

Art room Spring 2019.

Painting of art room. Fall 2006.

We walked through the Student Union building where I had talked with Anita Hill the year before she became a professor there, and where I had heard Thomas Friedman tell us why the World Is Flat. (At the University I also heard lectures by Howard Zinn, Azra Nomani, and President Jimmy Carter – it was a good place to hear people.) Up the hill we passed the library with floors that sink down instead of rise above ground level. We climbed the stairs at the Brown Social Science Center, up to the Anthropology Department. It’s still an old, outdated building, but filled with many happy memories. The halls smelled the same. Many of the professors I knew are still there, I could see, from bios posted on a bulletin board. I wrote a note on a paper towel from the bathroom and left it for Laurel, the woman in the office who keeps everything running. I said “Hi, I miss you all.”

We walked up all the steps of the Rabb Graduate Center and on up the hill to the Mandel Quad, where I took an Introduction to Judaism class once I realized I was attending a Jewish-centric school. Ha! Can you believe I had no idea until I arrived on campus? I’m so silly. Finally we went over to my other favourite building on campus: the Mandel Center where I took most of my classes for conflict resolution, mediation and peace building. It’s my favourite because that is where I met two of my best friends in all the world, Mads and Romain, who were also in the conflict resolution program.

This statue of Louis Brandeis is hard to resist. I wanted to show him more stuff, but he was focused on making the world a better place.

It began to rain as we walked back down the long hill. I told Will things like, “if you had a class at the Art building, then your next class was up here at Rabb, or the Mandel Center, you would just be late. That’s all there is to it.” I remembered having a law class at the top of the hill, then auditing a society & economy class with Robert Reich (well-known American economist and political commentator) down at the Slosberg Music Hall at the bottom of the hill. I was always late, and the packed theatre room never had seating available, so I sat on the floor with the other students who couldn’t arrive early.

Will and I were soaked through when we found our car at the bottom of the hill. I had spent a week with Will 24/7 and I am an introvert and used to living alone. Prior to the trip we had scheduled in two days away from each other. I drove him to the train station and he caught a train home to Providence. I drove to a random hotel that I had chosen because it was the cheapest in the whole Boston area, ha ha. I planned to visit with friends for two days and then go meet Will in Rhode Island for the final week.

A glimpse of the Harvard Campus

A glimpse of the Harvard Campus

DSC_0747As I said in my previous post, we took the opportunity to explore some local campuses while Tara and I visited Massachusetts. Friday morning we went to work with M and thus were able to explore the city site of UMass Boston, which we agreed was our favourite of the trip. The student body was diverse and humming with life. The atmosphere was welcoming and comfortable.

We walked to the John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum from there. I sat in a sunbeam in the foyer and got our itinerary a little more organized while Tara explored and was subsequently captured by an octogenarian who gave a personal 15 minute tour. From the brochure: “The library’s archives include more than 8.4 million pages of the personal, congressional, and presidential papers of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. It also houses the papers of Robert F. Kennedy and more than 300 other individuals who were associated with the Kennedy Administration or mid-20th Century American history.” There are also photographs, audio recordings, printed materials and film.

R and Tara walk through a Harvard courtyard

R and Tara walk through a Harvard courtyard

Soon R showed up and insisted on taking T to the Harvard campus, which he knew from having worked there a few years previous. Tara repeated interest in West Coast schools and not East Coast schools, but my friend revealed his ulterior motive: “Yes, but if you go to school here, we get your mother. I have to try.”

We made a quick trip through Harvard Square, which is the neighborhood surrounding the old campus. We walked through the campus itself, which was lovely in the waning Fall colours. Those historic brick buildings are gorgeous in any season.

Yellow leaves and red brick

Yellow leaves and red brick

Veritas, the Harvard logo meaning "truth," above a boar's head.

Veritas, the Harvard logo meaning “truth,” above a boar’s head.

Then we hit Rte 2 and went out west to see my beloved E and her family. When I went to school here, I lived out in Fitchburg and rode the commuter train to campus. It was the closest I could be to town and afford a house. Ever the clever opportunist, I used the situation to my advantage and did my Masters Thesis about negotiating fear among strangers on commuter rail trains. The one hour and ten minute ride one way provided lots of captive subjects to interview.

Crazy for donuts!

Crazy for donuts!

When we arrived in Fitchburg we had requests: Tara wanted to stop at Dunkin Donuts (they don’t exist in the West), and I wanted to stop at the old Halloween store. Not because of the season – that was merely a fabulous coincidence – but for the building itself, as you will see. At the donut shop, the staff were in costumes, and a nun greeted us as we walked in. “Hello! Can I take your confession?” Little did she know, R has his own congregation in Carlisle, and was in the act of pointing out to her that nuns don’t take confession, when she acknowledged it herself. And then she fed us donuts, so for the next ten minutes we really didn’t care anymore about job descriptions in Catholicism.

To our disappointment, the Halloween Store has gone out of business. However, it did not dim our enthusiasm for long, because Tara and I promptly marched around back. This is why:

My favourite grafitti spot is in Fitchburg, Mass. I find it powerful that such beauty is created and then destroyed weeks, or even days later, when the artists come back to paint something new.

My favourite grafitti spot is in Fitchburg, Mass. I find it powerful that such beauty is created and then destroyed weeks, or even days later, when the artists come back to paint something new.

I don't know what ICH stands for, but this is amazing.

I don’t know what ICH stands for – maybe the artist – but this is amazing.

Don't you think these artists should be working in graphic design in New York or something?

Don’t you think these artists should be working in graphic design in New York or something?

Happy and goofing around

Happy and goofing around

Years ago I stumbled around the corner onto one of the artists at work. I said that I periodically took photos of the work (since it’s always changing) and asked what he thought of that. He was pleased to have my appreciation, and didn’t mind the photos. He wouldn’t give me his name, and said there were three artists (this was in 2007) who had permission from the building owner to paint back there. He pointed out the signatures of the different artists on their different work, and then pointed out his own tag. He joked about how expensive it was to buy paint, about running from the cops now and then, and then he told me it is serious business. It is Art, and not vandalism, and with a purpose. On that day a freshly painted VT was up there, commemorating the tragedy of Virginia Tech that spring.

At long last we made our way up into the hills of Fitchburg (a place that brags about being the second hilliest city in the nation, compared to San Francisco), and my girlfriend E. We waved goodbye to R and joined the family as they got their boys ready to go trick or treating. The Lego Movie was big in their household this year, so the oldest went as Vitruvius, and the youngest went as Micromanager. They were awesome. And lest you think that my friends were the only amazingly creative and capable parents out there assisting kids with homemade costumes, let me set the record straight. These were some of the best I’ve ever seen. There was a six-foot Olaf (from the movie Frozen) obviously made by the 10-year old who wore it, a flying pig with pig hind quarters jutting out behind the girl, with wings and fiber optic tail. There was – I kid you not – a child dressed as one of those arcade games where you drop the claw and get a stuffed animal. The boy was inside the clear “glass” part, with a claw hanging down, and stuffed critters around his waist. One girl went as “bubbles.” She wore a pale leotard and tights and cap, and was covered from head to knees in clear balloons, looking for all the world like a clump of bubbles from the bath. Obviously there were lots and lots of Elsas (Frozen), but that goes without saying. I would describe more, but I can’t remember them all.

Vitruvius and Micromanager prepare to hit the Ashburnham streets

Vitruvius and Micromanager prepare to hit the Ashburnham streets

New England trick-or-treating

New England trick-or-treating

We went to the city of Ashburnham to trick or treat. It was from right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Hundred year old homes with big porches and families sitting outside to see the trick or treaters. Beer in one hand, bucket of candy in the other. There were red, gold, orange, and yellow leaves cascading down onto us and the streets, and Tara and I kicked through piles of leaves with glee! Up and down the hills in the frosty air, we saw parents calling hello to each other, kids squealing with delight when they recognized a classmate. So much perfect fun.

But that was not the end. Next we found our friend S and her kids, and piled into our cars and went to her house. We had pizza and hummus with carrots. The boys sprawled on the floor and watched Neverending Story, Tara went upstairs to catch up with a long-missed friend, and the grown-ups sat and talked and laughed and emptied the wine bottles. If I was moving to this town for the first time again, I would feel so lucky to meet these exact same people. Oh, how I love them.

Finally the night was over, and for the second night my friends gave up their own bed to sleep on the floor while Tara and I luxuriated. I can’t understand why I haven’t taken advantage of this arrangement sooner! Friends of mine across the country: be on alert.

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