Free Holistic Escapes in Boston
I could use a healthy escape from the wintry mess that is my neighborhood, but I just don’t have the cash to head for a spa or fly to warmer climes. Can you recommend any local escapes?
Snowy in Somerville
Like urban dwellers who only visit their historic and cultural sites when they are presenting them to out-of-towners, we often undervalue the opportunities for healthy escape that are in our own neighborhoods. Let me remind you of some that might surprise you, plus a great one that could use your help coming into being:
We tend to tend to think of libraries and bookstores as places to acquire information or purchase the latest bestsellers, but it’s undeniable that the best ones offer cozy opportunities for escape, particularly in the winter. Who wouldn’t want to sit in a comfortable chair and unhurriedly browse through all types of books? The best libraries or bookstores to escape to for the afternoon are not necessarily the largest or most comprehensive. The older, smaller branch or annex libraries are often the best. The pace is slower, and the librarians have time to help and even recommend a nice spot where you can read undisturbed. Don’t forget that membership in one Boston area library entitles you borrowing privileges from other area libraries: call your local library for details. For the best bookstore escapes, I recommend the independent booksellers over the chain stores (to find one near you, visit www.booksense.com). In the opinion of this literary loiterer, used bookstores are the best for their slow tempo, unusual finds, and relaxed staff.
Another unsung means of local escape are small museums. Yes, the Museum of Fine Arts has the big exhibits and well-known masterpieces, but if it’s escape you’re looking for, you’re not likely to find it among throngs of noisy schoolkids. It’s the small museums that avoid the tourist crowds and give you just enough culture feel satisfied but not overfed. Try out the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (www.gardnermuseum.org), one of Boston’s most underappreciated cultural gems. Its stunningly beautiful skylit (and free-of-charge) courtyard is an oasis in winter in which to sit and reflect. Harvard University also has a variety of modest-sized museums (see www.harvard.edu/museums) to suit many tastes; they charge reasonable admission fees and provide a haven for solitude-seekers. For the full rap on local museums, visit www.museumsofboston.org.
Holy buildings have long provided refuge for the weary, and many of Boston’s churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious centers open their doors to the general public, some generously offering up their spaces for quiet reflection in between services. For a directory listing of Boston’s remarkably diverse religious institutions, visit the website of Harvard’s Pluralism Project at www.pluralism.org. Although I am not a Catholic, I have found cathedrals to be great places from which to escape the urban hustle and bustle, particularly during organ practice times. A great antidote to the pervasive anxieties about Islam that many of us may have unconsciously absorbed in recent years is to visit a local mosque. I recommend checking out the Islamic Society of Boston (www.isboston.org), on 204 Prospect Street in Cambridge. The ISB is active in the interfaith community, and in educating the public about Islam. Mosques in America welcome visitors, and tours for the curious can be arranged at most facilities. As with any religious institutions with which you may be unfamiliar, it’s best to call before arriving for information on when and how to visit.
Used as a means for walking meditation and prayer, labyrinths continue to grow in number and popularity. Etched into church floors, carved into gardens, or landscaped into parks, labyrinths are enjoying a much-deserved resurgence. Unlike garden mazes, labyrinths are not a puzzle, instead providing one continuous path to pace. To find a labyrinth near you, visit the website of the World-Wide Labyrinth Locator at http://wwll.veriditas.labyrinthsociety.org. Winter walkers may choose to inquire ahead of time whether a labyrinth is set up for year-round use. Boston College has designed a striking labyrinth (see www.bc.edu/alumni/association/labyrinth.html) in memory to the 22 BC alumni lost in the 9/11 tragedy. As to how to walk a labyrinth, BC Professor Rebecca Valette recommends “there are many approaches to the walk. Begin by quieting the mind and then follow the path that is right for you: “1) The Path of Silence: Empty your mind of the hubbub and commotion of the outer world. Open your heart to the silence of the walk; 2) The Path of Image: Follow the images or dreams that arise in your imagination; 3) The Path of Memory: Walk the sacred path in the memory of a friend or family member who has passed away; 4) The Path of Prayer: Recite a prayer, a Bible verse, or a line of poetry; 5) The Path of Questioning: Concentrate on a question. Don't expect an answer. Simply be content to explore the possibilities.”
It has always surprised me that a world-class city such as Boston lacks a sizable indoor botanical garden or conservatory, a spacious indoor greenhouse where one can escape the barrenness of winter into a paradise of lush, humid, verdant tropical life. With your support, however, that might finally change. The Darwin Project (www.darwinboston.org) is “a collaborative process to create the vision, to design, and to build Boston’s Botanical Garden and Conservation Learning Center on four acres of land on the Rose Kennedy Greenway located at the heart of downtown Boston. A beautiful outdoor gateway garden and unifying landscapes will welcome you to the site. The Botanical Garden will be enclosed in a spectacular 21st Century expression of a classic glass conservatory. It will form an urban oasis where residents and visitors can linger on cold winter days and where school children can touch and learn about plants and animals…The Darwin Project also will try to reconnect adults with the imagination and freedom of expression we came by naturally as children, but may have lost as the challenges of our fast paced lives and work have filled in those spaces.” Sign us up!
Snowy, I hope these places are worth your putting on your Wellingtons and trompling out to. One need not fly to Hawaii to find inner bliss in January.
First published in Boston Natural Awakenings magazine's January 2006 "Ask Karlo" column.