Monday Muse: Before Sunset
Welcome to the first installment of what I'm calling Monday Muse. Mondays are tough, and I hope to use this space to share inspiring people, stories, ideas, and experiences that I come across each week. The hope is to start the working week off with a smile and a reminder of the beautiful, true, and good in our every day lives.
Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise trilogy comprises some of my favorite movies, capturing, more than any other recent films, the texture of modern romance. The first installment gets at the electricity in the air while falling in love in a romantic setting (Vienna in this case)--the way the world feels made for love. As Jesse and Celine walk the European streets, the city takes on a magical quality as various eccentrics pop out of nowhere and give the couple memory after memory.
Something similar's been happening to me and my girlfriend this summer. We live in Jamaica Plain, a quirky, hip neighborhood of Boston, and lately everywhere we go we encounter someone who seems to have appeared out of fairy dust, meant just for us. A few weeks ago, while walking back from Jamaica Pond, we passed an elderly woman crossing the street. It was late in the evening, night was imminent. A soft breeze was blowing off the pond. She looked at us and lit up with a smile. "Such a beautiful evening, no?" she remarked. Her accent sounded vaguely Eastern European--Russian perhaps? We smiled and concurred. Then she stopped on the sidewalk and leaned over, a twinkle in her eye. "Let me give you some advice: Stay young!" She laughed. "You know why we get old? We worry. The key is to give everything to God. Just pray and let go of your worries. Then you shall be young forever!" She laughed again and waved her hand toward the starry skies. We bid her goodnight as she shuffled off into the summer night.
Yesterday a similar encounter occurred, again at twilight at Jamaica Pond. As we walked along, we heard a concert on the bluff above us. We climbed up in time to hear the end of an acoustic guitar set with an audience of picnic goers and families from the neighborhood. As it was breaking up, we caught sight of what can only be described as the living incarnation of Walt Whitman. The man was dressed in an elaborate 19th-century suit, flowing white beard, and some amazing hybrid of a bowler and a top hat. Of course, we had to meet him. He was delighted. It turns out he is the one and only Gerry Wright, a Jamaica Plain resident and naturalist who's avocation is performing his one-man play about Frederick Law Olmsted.
Olmsted was one of the most dynamic people of the 19th century. He's most famous as a landscape architect, of course, designing Central Park (incredibly, his first commission), Prospect Park, and the Emerald Necklace--a series of parks and gardens in Boston, of which Jamaica Pond forms the capstone. Before the Civil War, he traveled through the South and published his observations on their slave society in Northern magazines, galvanizing the antislavery movement. During the war he helped lead the Sanitary Commission, one of the first private-public ventures by the Federal government, alleviating the terrible conditions in U.S. Army hospitals.
I've never studied Olmsted directly, but he seems to lurk everywhere. He crops up all the time in my research on the Civil War. My mom recently read an engrossing biography of the man that she keeps telling me about. And last year Sara devoured Devil in the White City, a mystery historical fiction about the serial killer H.H. Holmes. Olmsted briefly appears in the context of the Chicago World Fair, which he helped create. Clearly, this man is calling to me.
Suffice it to say, I already knew the outlines of Olmsted's amazing story. But Gerry surprised me even more. We learned that Olmsted was also one of the first white people ever to see Yosemite Valley in California, heading out there after the war to run a gold mine of some sort. Gerry's face sparkled as he told us about his kindred spirit. "People think of Yosemite as John Muir's place, which it certainly was," he explained. "But Muir was a spiritual seeker, who left society to live in the wilderness. Olmsted, to my mind, was the true representative of American democracy: he brought the wilderness to the masses through his parks."
Gerry's channeled Olmsted for years, while also portraying Whitman and Charles Darwin in other one-man shows. He's performed all around the country, and was invited by the National Park Service to Yosemite and Boston's historic sites. He watches over Jamaica Pond, the crown jewel of Olmsted's Emerald Necklace, like a sage grandfather. A beautiful wooded hill overlooks the pond to the west, owned by a Greek Orthodox seminary on the other side. The seminary has been seeking to sell the woods to developers, prompting Gerry to launch a crusade to save them. His strategy? Write to the patriarch of the Greek church and quote the prelate's own conservationist theology as reason to protect the hill. Incredibly, the patriarch wrote back, and the school halted its attempt. I mean, talk about taking it to the top--the only rung up higher would be God himself.
I'm not sure what accounts for characters like Olmsted and Gerry Wright. How do some people have such wide, expansive souls and others--as we saw in Charlottesville on Saturday--such narrow and crude ones? Whatever it is, that zest for life, that energy to throw themselves into causes to preserve communities--natural and urban--and make them flourish, inspires me. Our country's in a dire moment. If we could all harness the creativity and democratic spirit of Olmsted--if we could be friends with those local gems who preserve the past for us, like Gerry Wright--we might recapture the happiness and authenticity of the great American community.
The twilight faded on Gerry, Sara, and me. As it darkened, he seemed truly to have stepped out of the past. I half expected him to vanish before our eyes, his spirit blowing into the magical trees and waters flowing around us. A tip of the hat and a twinkle from his eyes nearly did the trick. A mid-summer night's dream.