While many aspects of life are coming back in full, Peter Hedlund’s pandemic-inspired tradition is coming to a close.
Nearly every day for the past year, the Arlington resident has been waking up extra early and shuffling down his walkway to a square chalkboard affixed to his front fence.
There, Hedlund has bent down and with a piece of chalk scribbled an uplifting message — a quote from a rock group or activist, or a passage from a book — meant to inspire people walking through his neighborhood; those who sought an escape from being indoors during the pandemic.
“Being outside was one of the safer places to be, and for most of the last year we were all walking around with masks on and not able to connect with people as we normally would,” said Hedlund, 50. “It was just to brighten people’s day a little bit.”
But after a full year of posting hopeful, humorous words for people strolling by his home on the corner of Central Street, Hedlund has decided to give up the daily practice, a symbolic choice that coincides with the state lifting nearly all COVID-19 restrictions on May 29.
This week, Hedlund, whose messages have become something residents have looked forward to seeing each day, placed a cardboard sign next to his green chalkboard announcing that a tradition meant to help people through the pandemic was drawing to a close.
“Hi! Last year on May 28, I started this daily quote board as something to do during the pandemic,” wrote Hedlund, a landscape architect. “The last day will be this Saturday, May 29, when the state opens up again.”
A picture of his announcement was recently shared on a Facebook page for Arlington residents, where people said they looked forward to Hedlund’s messages on walks, a moment of shared connection with their neighbors and one of the few activities they could enjoy when much of daily life was shuttered.
“A round of applause to the ‘Quote of the Day’ house in Arlington,” someone posted in the group on Tuesday. “EVERY DAY for the past year, a highlight of our day was reading your ‘Daily Quote’ on our Covid-walks.”
Hundreds of people liked the post.
“I had so much appreciation for this board,” another person wrote. “Kudos for keeping up with it.”
Hedlund first attached the chalkboard to his fence at the start of the pandemic, after it was given to him by a friend who had done something similar. He brought it back to Central Street and found a home for it on the small white fence in front of his property.
The project gave Hedlund something to look forward to each day. He would get up at 6 a.m., feed his cat and dog, and then walk outside to the sign before anybody might spot him.
“I don’t like people seeing me write the quote up there,” he said. “I want people to think it just appeared.”
Hedlund, a father of three, would pluck daily inspirations from various sources before jotting them down.
Of course, there were some rules: Nothing too political, and steer away from anything offensive. The intent was to be “positive or funny or give people a little something else to think about” besides COVID-19 and the grim news cycle, he said.
He posted quotes by Mark Twain, Eleanor Roosevelt, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Maya Angelou. Sometimes he got sayings from the Internet, or took suggestions from friends and family. Soon, he came up with themes, like “‘Winnie the Pooh’ week,” or “‘Seinfeld’ week,” or “Movie quotes from the 1980s week.”
“People can only handle so many uplifting quotes before they get sick of it, so you have to mix things up,” Hedlund said. “You can’t take yourself too seriously.”
One quote was from Matthew Broderick’s character Ferris, from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” It said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.”
Another, by acclaimed writer Nora Ephron, read, “When your children are teenagers, it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you.”
Over time, his fanbase grew. Neighbors let him know they looked forward to the daily affirmations, while strangers would thank him, saying they read them on their daily pandemic walks.
Beyond connecting with neighbors, it also helped Hedlund stay in touch with loved ones he couldn’t see during the pandemic. Every day he would snap photos of his chalkboard, and send the quotes to different group texts.
“There’s probably 30 different people I text this out to every morning,” he said.
Hedlund, who would often write the forecast in the corner of the board, only missed a few days the entire year because of heavy rain. Otherwise, he never skipped a beat. He even enlisted the help of a neighbor to carry the torch when his family went out of town.
“Once you start doing something everyday, and it’s a little bit of a public thing, you can’t stop,” he said.
But nothing lasts forever, he said. And wrapping up his impromptu project on May 29 — almost a year to the day when it first started — felt like perfect timing — a symbol of the world coming back to life.
“I had a friend once, way back in college, who had a theory: You have to leave at the peak; you can’t overstay your welcome,” he said. “It’s a little bittersweet.”