Thursday, December 30, 2010

Concord at Christmas

A bit of a travelogue post here, maybe of interest to Unitarians who haven't had the opportunity to visit some of our historic sites...

Taking advantage of the sabbatical over Christmas, I inserted a week of vacation into December so that we might go to my husband's home of Rhode Island for Christmas.  While we were there, Peter (the aforementioned husband) really wanted to go to Concord with our daughter, and we hadn't had time over last summer's visit.  Our daughter really enjoys the Henry books by D. B. Johnson, which tell stories from the life of Henry David Thoreau through portraying Henry as a bear.  We have a complete set of the books, as does our church. 
Henry Climbs a MountainHenry Builds a CabinHenry's NightHenry Hikes to FitchburgHenry Works
Peter and I lived in Gardner, MA for two years (just beyond Fitchburg, where Henry hikes to in one of those books, which is how we got introduced to the books) and visited Concord several times during that period.  However, this was our daughter's first visit to Concord, and the first visit of Peter's mother, as well, although she's a Rhode Island native.  It's not as big a tourist spot for the Catholics as it is the Unitarians, it seems.  As the home of Unitarians Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louisa May Alcott, among others, it's a big spot for Unitarian Universalists to visit.  In fact, Peter had given some tours for UU youth groups during our time there.

It was a snowy day when we stopped by the woods by Walden Pond.  The state park was open to visitors without an entrance fee, so we drove in a little, but then drove back out to go first to the visitor's center.  The clerk there was impressed that our six-year-old recognized Henry David Thoreau, and gave her a free button.  I got a new blue water bottle with "Walden Pond" written on it to use at church, since my old one is showing some wear after I left it at a wedding and they didn't discover it for a few days, although I still love that it's insulated.  Peter got a pencil.  And we had a nice conversation with the clerk, who informed us that he had been to Jackson many times for the Civil War Muster.  He also plays Henry in their dramatic productions and has a picture of himself as Henry the Bear drawn by D.B. Johnson of the Henry books.  We were suitably impressed with this information.  We then went over to the reproduction of Thoreau's cabin and peered in its windows.  I hadn't seen it before, or hadn't remembered it if I had seen it.  The cabin is impressively small.  It's smaller than the sheds many people have just to house their outdoor tools.  The woodshed for the house was almost as large.  But, as Thoreau explains in the Henry books, the house it just for when it rains, the world outside is his real house.  Deeming it too cold to hike down to the pond, although it looked beautiful with the snow falling on the trees, we proceeded on to downtown Concord.

Every other time I've been in Concord I think I've run into other colleagues there, but this time was the exception, probably because it was so close to Christmas.  I expected Concord to be a bit more decked out of the holidays, but it had enough wreaths and greenery to make us feel holiday cheer.  I don't know what I was expected--I think I had some ridiculous unconscious expectation of carolers in top hats and bonnets and sleighs going down the street.  We parked near the Unitarian Church and had lunch after walking over to look at the monuments and find the small plaque amidst the large war monuments which marks where Henry David Thoreau spent his night in jail.  Since the jail period is the subject of one of the Henry books, it was of particular interest.

From there we hopped back in the car and drove up to the Old Manse, where Emerson and Hawthorne both lived.  Nathaniel Hawthorne etched some words in the windows we had learned on a previous visit, but we didn't opt for the tour this time, as it was less likely to hold a six-year-old's interest.  We did take a detour from Unitarianism into Revolutionary War history to walk across the Old North Bridge next to the Old Manse to see the statue of the Minute Man, and see the site of which Ralph Waldo Emerson would later pen in his "Concord Hymn":
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
My daughter deemed it too spooky to go to the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery where Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, and Bronson and Louisa May Alcott are all buried, as well as other Unitarian figures (Emerson with an amusingly large huge raw chunk of marble and Alcott and Thoreau with small markers), and as we drove by it appeared closed.  Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing wrote the poem "Sleepy Hollow" for the cemetery's founding:
No abbey's gloom, nor dark cathedral stoops,
No winding torches paint the midnight air;
Here the green pines delight, the aspen droops
Along the modest pathways, and those fair
Pale asters of the season spread their plumes
Around this field, fit garden for our tombs.
It was not the season for pale asters, anyway, and it would've been cold, even though the road goes right up to Author's Ridge.  Last time I was there I saw Alcott's, Emerson's and Thoreau's grave.  I'll have to look next time for William Ellery Channing's marker and some others.

We then proceeded on to Orchard House, where the Alcott family lived and Bronson Alcott founded the Concord School of Philosophy.  I've been reading Alcott's Little Women to my daughter, in preparation for this Concord trip, although it's a bit old for her.  Here we learned that Louisa's sister May Alcott (who is most like Amy March in Little Women) was an artist who taught Daniel Chester French to sculpt.  French was also a Unitarian and he sculpted the Minute Man statue at the Old North Bridge and, more famously, Abraham Lincoln in DC's Lincoln Memorial.  French also sculpted Thomas Starr King, our famous Unitarian for whom Starr King School for the Ministry is named.  The statue of Thomas Starr King is the one that California removed from the National Statuary Hall in order to put in the statue of Ronald Regan, to the great dismay of Unitarians everywhere.  (French is also buried in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.)

Peter pointed out that of all the abolitionist transcendentalists we had visited this day, Louisa May Alcott was the only one who served in the Civil War.  The tour guide told us that Emerson had kissed the bride at one of Louisa's sisters' weddings, and that Louisa had been a bit jealous of that, saying something to the effect of although she was determined to never marry, apparently a kiss from Emerson would've been a tempting reason to do so.  Upon leaving, we picked up an abridged chapter book of Little Women more suitable for early readers in the gift shop.  Our local bookstore had not had such a thing before we left. 

Full of Unitarian history, we called it a day from there, driving out on the road Orchard House was on to wherever it went.  Where it went was Lexington, where we passed their Minuteman statue and their Unitarian church, but did not stop and tarry there, for it was snowy and we had miles to go.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

For World AIDS Day

Today is World AIDS Day, so to create an opportunity to help people think about doing something for World AIDS Day, I'm going to tell you a story.  This is the story of how I first became involved in the issue.

Long before I knew that I knew anybody with AIDS or who was HIV+, long before I had the unfortunate honor of performing my first funeral for a man who died from AIDS, I recognized in myself a fear and a prejudice.  That was the start.  I knew that I was unreasonably fearful of people with AIDS, to the point where I feared I would act in a prejudicial manner towards somebody with AIDS.  My friend Manda and I had volunteered the previous year (1995) for a program called "Alternative Spring Break" and had spent our spring break working for the physical disability rehabilitation center in Warm Springs, Georgia the year before (we met during that program), and were both considering doing the program again.  I think it was Manda who first suggested that she was interested in the program that would volunteer at the Mobile (Alabama) AIDS Support Services.  At any rate, we both decided to apply to spend our spring break with a group of about 20 University of Georgia students working for MASS (now called "South Alabama Cares").  I knew I had this prejudice and fear about AIDS, and I faced the decision in myself about whether to confront it or whether to live with the prejudice and fear.  It wasn't consistent with my view of myself as a religious and moral person to leave this unchallenged.  Therefore, I decided that I had to go to Mobile.

ASB did a lot of training with us before we left to prepare us for the trip.  Honestly, I don't remember much of it.  I was the oldest student on the trip--all the rest were undergrads, and I was a graduate student.  We were mostly women, with, I think, two men in our group.  I remember late-night discussions about theology on the trip when one of the young men told someone that he didn't believe in God.  I was, and am, agnostic myself, so was right in the middle of the debate that ensued.

On our trip we encountered some sexism that I still remember.  Our van broke down with a flat tire when we were on a day trip to the beach.  Two of us in the group had experience changing tires, Manda and myself, and were preparing to figure out how to change the van's tire when along came a state trooper.  He decided to oversee the project and wouldn't let the two of us help.  Instead he insisted that two unprepared students--the two boys--complete the project.  Manda and I took a long walk on the beach instead, cooling our heads so we wouldn't get in an altercation with law enforcement.

Another memorable part of the trip was that when we were working for MASS the local television station did a story on us, as did the local paper.  A local businessman was so impressed with our service that he took us all out to a little seafood restaurant in the middle of nowhere along the ocean.  At the end of the meal he gave everyone a card of thanks for our work, and in it was a crisp new $100 bill.  The new $100 bills had just been released in March of 1996, and none of us had seen them yet.  It was quite a gift, and obviously still memorable to me.  It was amazing that a stranger would do this for us.

But nothing was as memorable as the work we did.

Honestly, I think MASS wasn't quite prepared for how much work 20 college students can accomplish in a week, and a lot of the time we were doing busy work.  I think one afternoon we just raked leaves.  Another large portion of one day was spent taking strips of condoms and tearing them into individual packages to be put in the bowl where people could grab them as they entered or exited the center.  We processed thousands of condoms in this way, and there are a lot of amusing pictures of us sitting or standing in these huge piles of condoms.  Sometimes we just did filing.  It was a lot of the same sort of stuff (aside from the condoms) that we could have done for any agency.

And then one day we told that some of us could go out to a home of a man who was living with AIDS.  This man was now blind, and having trouble taking care of himself between learning to live with blindness and with AIDS, all by himself.  Manda and I both went out on the crew that went to clean up his home.  And it was the hardest thing we could imagine.  That's where the fear I was holding in myself had to finally be addressed.  I had to know by the end of that day that I had come in contact with the virus, and that I was okay.  I knew intellectually how one contracts HIV, but inside myself I still felt fear about ordinary physical contact--shaking hands, hugging--with someone with HIV.  By the end of the day I would be able to if not put that fear inside me entirely away, at least put it into perspective.

The trip had a lasting impression on me.  When I got back to Athens, I started volunteering with the local AIDS support agency.  I would end up working on an AIDS-related topic for my master's thesis, as well.

In the end, I've learned a lot about HIV/AIDS, but by working, living, and worshiping with people with HIV/AIDS, I've learned a lot more about myself.

Addendum:  Manda has blogged back about her memories of that day in Mobile.  You can read her story here.