October 14, 2009: “A thing of beauty. . . “

Years ago at a wedding reception at Cambridge Meeting, I met a man from Philadelphia who, apparently, lived in a recently gentrified neighborhood. He talked about his neighborhood association deciding to hang planters from the street lights on his block. “God, no!” he told the association. “I mean, why don’t you just hang out a sign saying, ‘Yuppies live here. Please come rob us.’ !”

I thought of that man yesterday as I walked home from Ricky’s, a nursery/garden center right smack dab in the center of bustling Union Square, cradling a big, gorgeous pot of flame-colored mums. Living, as I do, in a semi-gentrified neighborhood (i.e. with people like me side by side with people out of work or working several jobs just to get by) and aware, as we all are, that although the recession abates, unacceptably high unemployment stubbornly continues, what was I doing? Surely  decorating my front porch with a $9 pot of flowers both flaunts my financial ease AND begs to be ripped off.

But just before I got home, I passed a man who, judging from his accent, his clothing, and his skin color, might very well be either out of work or working several jobs to get by (Of course I could be wrong and hope I am). When he saw those flowers he smiled broadly: “Oh! How beautiful!”

Later, yesterday, I had the distinct pleasure of hearing Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist and Nobel laureate, give a lecture at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre  (when in an expansive mood, I consider Harvard’s campus part of my neighborhood, too.) In passing, Pamuk said something to the effect that novels set in small villages in non-Western countries show us that characters living in such places, people of color, perhaps, Muslim, perhaps, certainly people who haven’t read many books, are as “deep” as Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary and Oliver Twist. (I hope I understood him correctly!)

As John Keats reminds us:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:*

Its loveliness increases; it will never

Pass into nothingness; but still will keep

A bower quiet for us, and a sleep

Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

[*See “Bright Star” —it’s quite as beautiful as the mums on my front porch.]

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3 Comments

  1. We happened to be in Queens near the end of October, and because it was an unfamiliar neighborhood (very diverse in terms of ethnic background, but surprisingly different, and to my eye, less attractive styles of housing from Somerville or Cambridge or Medford) and it suddenly struck me, noticing the houses decorated for Halloween, that the act of decorating for holidays or putting out flowers, not something I’ve ever done much, was actually an expression of faith in one’s neighbors, expressing a belief that the decorations would NOT be stolen or vandalized, an expression of AWARENESS of one’s neighbors and neighborhood, kind of like putting on a jaunty hat or a brightly colored scarf… I think because it was less a yuppie neighborhood and more a neighborhood of immigrants trying to gain a foothold in a new place, I found it touching.

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