A Morning Walk and Being a Flâneur

A few years ago, Rachel Pieh Jones did a blog series called Let’s Go Flaneuring. The series was based on a French word flâneura word that was popular in nineteenth century France, particularly among writers. Essentially a flâneur was someone who walked (or rather – strolled). As the flâneur strolled, they observed. So they strolled and observed, and then they strolled and observed some more, and often they took notes or recorded their observations in their heads. But basically, it seems like a writing technique based on strolling and observing.

As I read more about the flâneur, I was fascinated by this idea of strolling in the familiar and in doing so, being able to craft stories from the commonplace. To take a step away from glorifying busy lives and instead embracing the idea of a slow and thoughtful stroll seemed not only delightful, but also wise.


I think about this today – a Wednesday morning. Usually I have one thing on my mind as I walk to work, and that is coffee. Coffee is my morning medicine, my adrenaline push, and my comfort in a cup. But I’m approaching a birthday, and suddenly I want life to slow down.

The sky is beginning to lighten as I get off the subway at Park Street and step out into Boston Common. Though the sun has not yet risen over the Atlantic Ocean I know by the light in the sky that it will be a bright, sunny January day.  I stop and look around. To my left is the State House, it’s gold dome already reflecting the morning light. In back of me, the Boston Common stretches toward the Public Gardens with tall buildings looming large in the distance. In front of me is the steeple of Park Street Church, a historic church that spoke out against slavery in the early days of the abolitionist movement.

I begin strolling from Boston Common up Tremont Street. I pass the famous Granary Burying Ground, Boston’s third oldest cemetary where the likes of Paul Revere and Samuel Adams are laid to rest. As I reach School Street, a florist delivery drops off its morning boquets at the Omni Parker Hotel – cherry blossoms and light pink tulips. They are stunning, a sign that sometime down the road the bright and beautiful colors of spring will come. A woman nods at me, as though she knows what this flâneur is thinking.

I turn at School Street and head down to Washington Street. At the corner of Washington and School Streets, the bronze statues commemorating the Irish famine look at me in mournful memory. I smile. My family could tell you a story about my misunderstanding of these statues, but that’s for another day.

My office is a half block shy of the Old State House but instead of my usual “pick up the pace, there’s coffee in sight” I slow down.

Today I am a flâneur, and I don’t want it to end too soon.

But it does end. I’ve reached my office and the Starbucks right next door. It’s the end of this stroll. Work is calling, and I don’t get paid to flâneur. 


The problems of the city are not lost on me. Homeless still huddle in doorways. There is always an argument going on, even at early hours. Garbage is still wadded together, made mushy by the recent rain. City grime is ever-present.  But what better way to confront these and seek the welfare of the city than by taking a step back, turning my quick steps into a slow stroll, and learning to observe.

In the the middle of my morning prayers, there is a longer prayer about being raised up from sleep and despair by God’s compassion “that at dawn I might sing the glories of thy Majesty.” Taking a step away from busy and entering into the stroll of the flâneur gives me time to sing the glories of God’s majesty in the midst of Boston’s city streets.

When a Lion Needs Courage

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The Wizard of Oz is well-known by many. It is referenced in writing and in conversation; called an ‘icon of pop-culture’ for Americans. In terms of characters, there is Dorothy, a sweet cheery girl from Kansas who just wants to get home after she is displaced from the prairies to an unknown land. There is the Scarecrow, who longs for a brain, a Tin Man who longs for a heart, and a Lion who wants courage. Their journey is full of adventures as they set out to find a wizard in an emerald city who can give them what they most want in the world. The story takes us through their journey, until finally they realize that Oz is just an old man from Omaha, Nebraska who is a ventriloquist. He has played into the delusion that he is a wizard for years, but is now tired of it. Ultimately, he shows the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion that throughout the journey they showed characteristics that demonstrate they already possessed a brain, a heart, and courage. Getting Dorothy home turns out to be a more difficult accomplishment.

These characters are used regularly to talk about the characteristics of intelligence, kindness, empathy, and courage.

About that lion- I don’t think of myself as a timid person. I’m loud, strong-willed, and can be stubborn. My family can attest to the fact that I have a temper, and I don’t always use that temper in the right way. But there are times when I long for more courage in writing and in speaking. I long to gently, but clearly, speak into situations.

Early this morning was one of those times. 

Around 6:40 every morning you will find me at the subway station in Cambridge, waiting for a train to take me three stops into the city. The protocol is the same every day: the train pulls up, the doors open, you wait for people to get off the train, and then you step in, hoping there is a seat.

Today as the doors opened, a woman around my age began to step out. As she stepped out, she almost tripped. Our eyes met and I looked inside the doors to see what was blocking her. A much younger man had blocked the door, causing her to stumble and lose her balance. As I realized what was happening, our eyes met and we shook our heads. We were both puzzled and somewhat stunned. I looked at the younger man and said “Whoah!” He turned and shouted out the door “Call the f*&^@in’ police why don’t you?” The door shut and the train began to move.

The man was standing and moved across to the other side. He looked at me and shouted “f’in terrorists! Do you think it’s easy for me? Do you think it’s easy? I’ve seen people die!”  At this point, I got up and walked purposefully over to him. I looked at him and said “I’ve seen people die as well. A lot of us have seen people die.” He looked at me and stomped off to the other door, where he shouted at us again that none of this was easy. At the Park Street stop he got off.

At this point, most of us in the subway were shaking. It was a difficult way to begin a Monday morning. The subway is always a kaleidoscope of color and diversity and everyone was feeling the heavy weight of what went down. As a health professional, my guess is that he had PTSD and severe anger issues.

But it still wasn’t okay. It still isn’t okay.

As I relive the incident, I wish I had calmly but forcefully said “You need to stop.This is not okay.” Or I wish I hadn’t even gotten on the train, I wish I had taken the time to walk with the woman, to make sure she was okay and that she knew she had support.

I feel like the Lion in the Wizard of Oz, begging for courage. Only instead of an elderly man who was living out a delusion, I want courage from God to stand up for what is right, whether in speaking, writing, or everyday living. At the core, I lack courage. I am a people pleaser and I want people’s approval. But wanting people’s approval stifles me and too often leaves me keeping my mouth shut, thinking after the incident of what I want to say.

The incident felt awful and I was in tears by the time I arrived at my office. Thankfully, I have colleagues of many colors and backgrounds who help me process and move forward. There have only been two other times in the nine years that I have been riding the subway where I was truly disturbed, and the reality is, it’s easier to handle when it happens to me than when it happens to others.

But it illustrates to me what my prayer and word for the year need to be. Quite simply, I need courage. I need courage to speak up stronger and better.

And so on this Monday morning, with my heart beating and my soul raw, my prayer is this: Lord have Mercy. Give me courage to get out of the safe bubbles that are so easy to find and crawl into. Help me to  confront the wrong in myself first, and then gently, but firmly, speak up for others.

In Memory of George

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George was one of those guys that I saw early morning. As I would wander up Tremont Street from the Park Street T Station he would be setting up in front of the Granary Burying Ground. This cemetery is Boston’s third oldest cemetery and the final earthly resting place for the likes of Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere.

Outside of this historic cemetery, George would set up his earthly belongings. It was a perfect spot in many ways — never in the direct sunlight, but always in the line of visitors to Boston who might spare a dollar or two for the homeless.

So early morning I would walk by and we would greet each other. No matter how grey the day, George would smile. His personality showed through and as I would pass by he’d never fail to say “Have a good day Babe!” Maybe it’s because I’m daily growing older, but somehow I loved that he called me that. I never gave George money. We would just talk and then I would go on to work and he would continue on in his day.

It was the beginning of August that I realized I hadn’t seen George for a couple of days. Perhaps, I reasoned, it was too warm and he’d found another spot. Two days later as I passed by his place in front of the iron fence of the cemetery I stopped cold. Flowers adorned the fence and there hung a picture of George along with a typed story about him. I gasped aloud as I read it. The picture resembled a magazine cover with a banner over the top that read “Rest in Peace.” The bottom had these dates:

October 7th, 1972 – August 4th, 2016

George Dagraca, 43 years old, had died. 

I felt a sense of shock and sadness. I didn’t know George’s story, I had never heard it. We were early morning greeters and our conversations didn’t go deep. Turns out, he was a heroin addict, addicted to those highs that could temporarily remove him from some of the pain of his youth.

Along with the picture was a eulogy of sorts, by someone like me who met George on his daily walks.

We don’t fully know who we will meet in life, who we will touch and who will touch us. Many like me mourn his death and somehow that gives me hope. Because if we who barely knew him care about his death and mourn our short, daily connection, how much more so does the God who sees a sparrow fall?

My faith holds me tight in times like these. Earthly status means nothing to a Heavenly God. Whether our lives be small or great, he counts the hairs on our heads, the freckles on our noses. He cares about our habits, our diseases, and the addictions that sometimes kill us. This is the goodness of the Lord.

A favorite verse comes to mind many times when I walk on Tremont Street and I think of it today:

“I would have despaired, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage,  Wait, I say, for the Lord!”*

I walk up Tremont Street, a sky brightening over the Atlantic Ocean. Sparrows sit on the fence above George’s memorial.

In a sky brightening,in sparrows chirping, and in a homemade memorial I see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. And it is enough. 

You can read more of George’s story here. 

*Psalm 27:13-14

The Pulse of a City

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I hear sirens as I’m walking up from the subway onto Tremont Street.  I turn my head and see the blue and red flashing lights of an ambulance. Instinctively I know that the ambulance is heading to Tufts Medical Center in the heart of Chinatown. If I had seen those same lights on Storrow Drive I would know that it was heading to Massachusetts General Hospital. If on the Arborway, it would be heading to the medical area at Longwood.

I know these things just as I know the bus schedule, the subway schedule, where the homeless hang, and when traffic will be gridlocked around Boston University Bridge.

I know that on September 1st you don’t want to go out at all, because students are moving in and couches, chairs, and stuffed animals, symbols of a childhood that passed too quickly, fill the streets. I know when there is a Red Sox game, or a Bruins game. I know that the best night to go get cappuccino and canolis in the North End is Monday. I know the best Pakistani restaurant and the worst coffee places. I know the subway stops where I need to watch my back, and others where I could go on the latest train and be completely safe.

I suddenly realize that I know the pulse of this city like I know my own pulse. This city has become my city. The realization brings panic and assurance. Panic, because I’ve never lived anywhere this long before. I’m always the one who is leaving. When you’ve had a lifetime of moving, it’s not easy to stop. Panic because I’m not ‘from’ here – and I don’t want to be ‘from’ here. Assurance because I love the familiarity, I love the city, I love the early morning walk from subway to work. I love the evening walk from subway to home. Comfort because there is a sense of belonging that I never imagined I would achieve. Assurance in the friendships I have formed and the strange sense of community that I sometimes feel.

This is forever the third culture kid story – assurance and panic; belonging and not belonging; native and alien; comfortable and uncomfortable. We feel grief and loss with movement and we feel guilty and restless with stability. We are always living a paradoxical life.

How do we work through this paradox and continually adapt to where we have been placed?

I wrote this in a piece called “Homelands” and I stand by it today:

We learn to listen, to look outside of ourselves, to see others and remember it’s not all about us. We learn to grieve well, to use that holy gift of laughter and laugh hard, to cry when we need to. We learn that it is not disloyal to love two places at the same time. We learn the art of entry. We learn that ‘homelands’ can change, and we can adapt to them, adapt with them. 

We learn the pulse of a city. 

Anniversaries and Durgin Park


 My mom and dad met, courted, and got engaged in the city of Boston. They attended college in the city and when we asked Dad when he first noticed Mom, he said “Our junior year, when I was class president and your mom was secretary. I thought she was very efficient.”

And with those romantic words, an uncommon union was born.

So on Tuesday, to celebrate their anniversary of 64 years, we took them to a restaurant they remembered from their college years. Durgin Park is a Boston institution. It has been a landmark of the area since 1827. Their tag line is “We serve history!’ If walls and red, gingham table cloths could talk, they would have tales to tell. Instead, the people who tell these tales are the wait staff. If you want no-nonsense staff who talk back to you and tell you what’s what – Durgin Park is the place for you.

We were fortunate to have Gina – the head hostess – as our server. Gina is Sicilian and has worked at the restaurant for over 40 years. Behind her quick tongue and biting retorts is a heart that loves people and it warmed our hearts to find that she was sincerely interested in who we were. As we ate Yankee Pot Roast, Boston Baked Beans, and corn bread she sat with us and told us some of the history and stories of Durgin Park.

The restaurant served sea men who got off work at 6:30 in the morning. They would come over after long shifts to eat and drink. After a few drinks, they would say all manner of things to the women who worked there. After a while, these women tired of it and decided to give it back. And give it back they did and they do. You do not mess with Durgin Park wait staff!

Don’t go to Durgin Park if you want a quiet, romantic evening. Go if you want to find out more about Boston and experience the Boston that is so much better than the arrogant academics. Go if you’re tired of business men and women who rush through the streets in their chic black uniforms. Go to Durgin Park if you want old Boston. Go if you want to talk and be talked at; go if you want to be served history.

On Tuesday, we chose to be served history as we celebrated my parents. It has been 64 years of marriage on two continents and many houses and cities. The results are obvious. Five children, seventeen grandchildren, spouses of grandchildren and soon to be ten great grands. But there is so much more. The years of prayer and stubborn commitment; the years of travel that included too many goodbyes and hellos to count. And always the years of joy that were woven through all of it.

Durgin Park was witness to one more important thing in history – the celebration of my parent’s life together.

So if you get to Boston this summer, head to Durgin Park, ask for Gina – and tell her the family who celebrated their parent’s 64th anniversary sent you. If she needs further reminders, ask her about her hair dryer.

Thoughts on Pain, Justice, and the Tsarnaev Trial

Just blocks from the grey, nondescript government building where I work, three thousand jurors were called on to fulfill their civic duty. After filling out lengthy questionnaires they went through arduous questioning and cross-questioning. Ultimately those three thousand dwindled down to 12 with a couple of alternates. They were initially not known by name, instead they are Juror #1 all the way to Juror #12.

These men and women, under oath, will ultimately decide the fate of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – the Boston Marathon bomber.

Today is the anniversary of that bombing, and last week the verdict came out. Guilty on all 30 counts. The next step is for the jury to decide whether Tsarnaev will receive the death penalty. It’s ironic that in this state, a state where the death penalty was abolished in 1984, that so many on the streets want this and more for the bomber. The hatred of this young man is palpable.

Cambridge was home to Dzhokhar for years as he attended elementary, middle, and high school at public schools. A picture of him at prom Junior year shows him smiling beside my daughter, she a year older than he. It was the year she was elected prom queen.

How long its been since that day! Though only a few years, in events its been eons.

News cameras circle like hawks around the area, as they have done for weeks. And those who are victims of the attacks continue to live lives of emotional and physical pain.

Boston, indeed Massachusetts has had a taste of the collective tragedy that other cities and countries have experienced at a much more prolonged and larger scale. The grief has given way to anger, and has moved now to relief that a trial is actually almost over.  Most people would say they “just want it over”, want justice to be served.

What is justice when it comes to events like these? What outcome will ease the pain of the event? What am I to think as I observe the events from the sidelines? Many who have been wronged never receive justice from the people or countries that committed violent acts against them. And then there’s Dzhokhar himself, recently caught on film in prison orange, feet chained and escorted by two guards walking him quickly into a building. I read an old article from The Atlantic written soon after the bombing took place that warns against empathy for the bomber.

All these attempts to get inside Dzhokhar’s head and understand his mental processes have an unintended side-effect: empathy. Just as reading novels is proven to increase our empathy, reading dozens of articles hinting at different possible motivations increases our empathy for the main character of this story.

Let’s remember, though, that it might not be deserved, that it might even be grotesque and wrong. We still know very little. We have a responsibility to try to understand context and not to whip up misplaced hatred. But we should also be careful not to invent justifications for a heinous crime, and even more careful not to suggest that our own imagined justifications lessen the suspect’s moral culpability.

In the end it just doesn’t matter how sweet Dzhokhar’s classmates say he is if he’s guilty of all he’s alleged to have done. [from Enough Sympathy: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Is Not a Victim]

Human justice can only take us so far, can only ease the pain of loss by small increments. Human justice can offer some comfort and solace, some recognition of heinous acts, but it falls short of providing real healing. And yet, it’s all we have.

Today on this anniversary I feel deeply sad. I feel sad, yet humbled and encouraged, by the victims, who continue to move ahead despite hundreds of doctors appointments, counseling sessions, and nightmares. I feel sad for the city, a city brought to its knees, a city so in control and proud that is suddenly out of control. And I also feel sad for a life wasted by a terrible choice to commit a crime that left so many injured, both in body and in soul.

But this I know: Evil did not win. Not that day. Not any day. It feels like it does, but it doesn’t. Evil will not, cannot win. While its effects are horrific, its lifespan is short, its days are numbered. Grace, Mercy, and Forgiveness will win. For their lifespan is eternal.

I’ll end with the words I wrote two years ago: “And so I pray the only words I know how: Lord have mercy. Hear our prayer. Free us from our pain.”

Seven Feet Under

Boston and surrounding areas are literally buried in snow. The entire public transportation system – commuter rails, subway, trolleys, ferries – have all shut down. The only thing moving is snow plows and a couple of buses that are groaning and creaking their way along snow filled roads. We have had seven feet of snow in two weeks.

Outside our apartment is a mountain of snow. We think there is a car in there somewhere but there is no way to tell.

With far less snow I have been known to shake my fist and unreasonably yell at God and man, but this is so unbelievable that all I can do is shake my head in that disbelief. And laugh.

My husband and I plan our clandestine escape. We will leave jobs, home, everything and just go. We will go to warmer places and we won’t come back until June – when sunshine is predicted and all of life feels bearable. Of course, for this to work, the airport has to be open so even our escape is thwarted.

I’m doing all I can to escape the weight of snow – all the weight, not just the physical stuff but all it brings with it. Anyone who waxes poetic about snow has never dealt with seven feet of it in the city. (That would be Robert Frost who stops in the woods on snowy evenings….) A picture taken in the Southeast part of the state shows a parking space shoveled and heavily guarded by statues of Mary and Joseph. My friend sends it to me with the caption “I wonder who would dare take this parking spot!” Anything to add joy or humor to this seven-foot weight is welcome.

Who would dare take this spot

Here’s the thing: I’d love to indulge in a heaping helping of self-pity topped with whipped cream, but there are hundreds of thousands of people in the same place, and many of them are worse off. You can see it on the faces of people who get paid by the hour: when the subway or bus is late or doesn’t arrive at all, their pay check will suffer. You can see it on the faces of young, single moms just trying to get kids to day care and themselves to work. You can see it on the faces of the elderly, worn down with the weight of age and snow. And you can see it on my face.

It struck me yesterday while walking home from work that any thoughts of self-pity need to be replaced with solidarity. We are all in this together. We are all cold. We are all buried under snow. We are all tired. We are all late. We all hate Robert Frost.

I need to bury the self-pity seven feet under — like the car outside my doorstep. But can I indulge a moment longer? Just until the next snow storm due on Saturday?

Picture Credit: https://www.facebook.com/groups/48295380725/permalink/10153029374700726/?pnref=story