Aqueduct trail

Not far from our house, a pair of paths comes close to crossing, their two courses running along a pair of underground aqueducts that once brought water from the outlying suburbs of Boston into the thirsty city. During the proverbial dog days, the aqueduct trail nearest our house offers a welcome spot of shade, and year round, it provides a green corridor for the wild creatures who find shelter in the suburbs: the turkeys who stride through backyards, the hawks who perch over parking lots, and the raccoons that doze in the forks of fat pine boughs, visible only to the folks who look up and into the trees.

Red-tailed hawk

I used to walk Reggie religiously on the segment of trail nearest our house, using it to circle our block: a quiet place for an elderly dog to sniff and pee. I still walk this trail several times a week, either with J or with our beagle, Melony: it’s a shady shortcut to other places, or a green detour around the block. I’m sure we have neighbors who have never set foot on this trail, which wends through backyards and occasionally skirts quiet driveways, the trail seemingly ending at a stranger’s house. But the path predates any of these backyards, driveways, or houses: the path continues on, further than I’ve ever walked on it, ending at a reservoir several miles from our house, a lingering sign of urban thirst.

Red-tailed hawk

Whenever I walk along the aqueducts, I encounter people I seldom see elsewhere in our neighborhood: dog-walkers, joggers, mothers walking their backpack-laden children to school, and pairs of women pumping their arms as they walk-and-talk their daily workout. One morning while I was walking Reggie, who was old and arthritic at the time, we passed an elderly woman wearing a neck brace sitting on a log, as if her caretaker had planted her there to rest a while. “You’re so patient with him,” the woman said, nodding toward Reggie: one old soul recognizing another. “What other choice do I have,” I thought but didn’t say, returning her silent nod instead.

Red-tailed hawk

We live in an age where most of us don’t know where our water comes from. We turn the tap and water magically appears, or we buy water in plastic bottles at the store, our empties choking the ocean for all eternity. In our neighborhood, household water coolers are popular, so we see a steady stream of trucks delivering large jugs of spring water for home consumption. Water from one state is trucked into another to perpetuate an illusion of purity: if you can’t see where your water comes from, you don’t have to worry about where it’s been.

Molting

I seldom think about the old aqueduct while I’m walking the path that marks its course, but sometimes I do stop in my tracks, imagining the pipes that still lie buried like a bony spine beneath my feet. My walks trace an abandoned way of water, but does the water itself remember how it once flowed?

Several years ago, a catastrophic leak in the present-day water supply for the greater Boston area forced local officials to draw water from the Chestnut Hill Reservoir, which was formerly fed water from Framingham sent along one of these old aqueducts. I’ve walked past the reservoir in Framingham, I’ve walked along the old aqueducts here in Newton, and I’ve walked around the reservoir in Chestnut Hill, my feet tracing the ways that water once wended to quench the thirst and douse the fires of Boston. Now that the western suburbs suck water from even more westerly communities, we drink the water in our own backyard only in an emergency.

Red-tailed hawk

In the natural world, water carves its own channels, finding the lowest course and following centuries-old paths. In the natural world, water has a memory so long and strong, Native Americans made promises intended to last as long as the grass grows and river flows. The way of water is steady and resilient, effortlessly returning to its accustomed flow. We humans are the ones who forget the way of water: we humans are the ones who don’t know where to quench our thirst or how to wend our way home.

Although I did indeed walk on the aqueduct trail today, I didn’t take any photos. The picture at the top of today’s post comes from last October, and the other photos are from July, 2011.

Squirrel midden

Our backyard dog-pen is fringed by a row of towering spruce and pine trees that serve as a curtain between our yard and our neighbors’. They say good fences make good neighbors, but a line of towering trees makes the best fence of all because it shelters an assortment of nonhuman residents. By day we’ve seen red-tailed and Cooper’s hawks in “our” backyard conifers, and after dark we’ve heard both screech and barred owls. At least one raccoon occasionally naps in these trees, and year round they harbor chickadees, nuthatches, and downy woodpeckers.

Squirrel midden

Right now, our backyard spruces are particularly attractive to our neighborhood gray and red squirrels, who have been feasting on spruce cones. Squirrels eat spruce cones the way humans eat corn on the cob, sitting on a comfortable perch and biting off one scale at a time to expose the tasty seeds within. What’s left behind is a pile of green and brown scales and the central “cob” that held them together. These castoff piles of inedible detritus are called “middens,” and they serve as an undeniable sign that squirrels have been feeding here, just like the snack wrappers and soda cans left by hungry litterbugs.

Squirrel midden

I read that red squirrels in particular can build middens large enough for them to burrow into, like human hoarders wedged between piles of salvaged newspapers and pie tins. If you’re going to assemble a trash heap as large as a garage, you might as well get some use out of it. Our backyard dog pen is right next to our garage, and so far the scattered piles left by snacking squirrels haven’t come close to rivaling its size, but I’m still surprised at how many middens I found this morning once I started looking for them.

Squirrel midden

I knew our neighborhood squirrels are voracious things, gladly cleaning out our bird feeders as quickly as we fill them. Now I know that squirrels are as messy as they are insatiable, leaving behind spruce tree “empties” to map the geography of their appetites.

Dharma room

Whether you sit by yourself at home or with others at a Zen center, meditation is an intrinsically solitary activity. As soon as you settle onto your cushion, there is nothing to entertain you but the parade of thoughts in your head. Regardless of who might be sitting, squirming, or sleeping on either side of you, what happens in your mind during meditation is entirely your business. Nobody can save you from your thoughts, and nobody can either blame or praise you for them, either.

Dharma room altar

Several weeks ago, headlines highlighted a study that revealed many people would prefer to shock themselves than to sit quietly with their own thoughts: presumably we’ve reached a point where our collective consciousness is so accustomed to the constant stimulation of electronic gadgets, we can no longer tolerate simple solitude. What future does meditation have in a society where we can’t stand our own quiet company?

Stigmata

We might blame smartphones and other high-tech devices for eroding our collective attention spans, but the problem predates these devices. Henry David Thoreau decried his generation’s interest in news stories and light reading, even the low-tech entertainments of books and newspapers serving as mindless distractions. Years ago, before smartphones were ubiquitous, I remember walking through the Public Garden on a sunny afternoon when every lone person I saw was listening to music on headphones: an endless parade where each person marched to her or his own personalized soundtrack. Even a homeless man had a battered boom box perched atop a shopping cart piled high with his possessions, the volume loud enough to drown out any semblance of solitude. Why spend quiet time with your own thoughts when even entertainment is easily portable?

Haloed

Over the years, I’ve learned I actually enjoy solitude. I like sitting and doing nothing; I like the sheer boredom that comes from simply observing whatever thoughts roll by. Meditation is the formal practice of doing nothing in quiet isolation, but there are plenty of other things I do that are similarly solitary. Although sharing your writing is a social task, the act of writing is inherently solitary. A lot of novice writers like the attention that comes from having an audience, but many of these writers crumble when faced with the quiet loneliness of the blank page.

Buddha and friends

I’ve often said I was fated to become a writer because I like the sound of pen scratching paper. It’s fine and good to enjoy any attention or acclaim that might derive from something you’ve written, but at a certain point, you have to enjoy (or at least tolerate) the lonely hours it takes to produce, revise, and polish that work. There might be people who are born with a natural talent for meditation, writing, or both, but I’ve certainly never met any. In my experience, both writing and meditation are deep-rooted things that flourish with sustained attention. If you’re going to last as a meditator or a writer, you’d better like spending time with yourself, your closest companion being the cushion beneath you or the blank page before you.

This is my contribution to yesterday’s Photo Friday theme, Solitude.

Northern flicker - June 6 / Day 157

This morning while I was taking out the trash, I happened to look up at the very moment a Northern flicker was flying from one pine to another, the yellow undersides of his wings flashing in the morning light. We’ve seen flickers in our backyard before: although flickers are woodpeckers, they love to forage on the ground for ants, so suburban yards and parks with mowed lawns provide ideal habitat. While larger woodpeckers prefer deep woods, flickers don’t mind living on the woodsy edge of suburbia, where ants and other insects abound.

Flicker in foreground; flying sparrow in background

After this morning’s flicker disappeared into the trees, he squealed then cackled. Flicker squeals (a call often transliterated as “kyeer”) sound similar to the calls of red-bellied woodpeckers, and their high pitched cackles sound similar to those of pileated woodpeckers. Whenever I hear a flicker, in other words, I automatically think of the other woodpeckers it could be, with “flicker” being (unfortunately) the least exciting alternative.

Flicker in foreground; mourning doves in background

Compared to seeing a red-bellied or pileated woodpecker, seeing a flicker isn’t hugely exciting: these are, after all, birds that don’t mind frequenting yards and parks. But on a day when all you’re doing is taking out the trash, just happening to look up at the very moment something other than a sparrow or grackle flies by feels fortuitous: a flash of fortune on an otherwise normal morning.

The Wall at Central Square

The other night, I made a list of demons. I suppose “fears” is a more accurate term for the items I typed into a private Google document, but “demons” is also a fitting description. Now that it’s summer and I have time to work on the nonfiction book I’ve been largely procrastinating over the past few years, I decided to grab my personal demons by the horns by listing all the fears that have been keeping me from writing.

The Wall at Central Square

In about 15 minutes, I came up with about the same number of fears, many of them contradictory. I’m afraid I won’t finish the book, but I’m also afraid I’ll finish and it won’t be perfect. I’m afraid I’ll never publish the book, but I’m also afraid I’ll publish and face the letdown of not knowing what to do next. I’m afraid that if I finish and publish the book, nobody will read it…but I’m also afraid people will read it and think I’m pretentious, hypocritical, or self-absorbed. I’m afraid, in a word, to write the book, but I’m also afraid not to write it.

With this particular menagerie of demons in mind, I went back to a list I wrote sometime in the late 1990s, when I was hopelessly mired in the middle of a PhD dissertation that refused to be written. What I wrote then sounds entirely familiar:

The Wall at Central Square

I scare myself when I think that…

1. I won’t finish my dissertation.
2. My dissertation won’t be good enough, or scholarly enough, or theoretical enough.
3. I won’t be able to get a job after graduation.
4. I’ll leave something out of my dissertation.
5. I’m already too far behind.
6. I’ll get stuck.

The Wall at Central Square

Apart from the fear about getting a job after graduation, the demons I wrestled with while writing my dissertation more than a decade ago are pretty much the same as the fears I face today, as I try to write a book-length piece of creative nonfiction. The fear-demons that plagued me when I was working on my dissertation didn’t, in retrospect, have anything to do with that specific project, which I did indeed finish. Instead, they had everything to do with me tackling a big, daunting task that threatened to take forever to finish. That task could have been a dissertation, a marathon, or a mountain: regardless of the goal, the demons kept whispering “You can’t” and “You won’t” and “Who are you to dare think you could?”

The Wall at Central Square

It shouldn’t be surprising that I or anyone would face this sort of insecurity, as even the Buddha himself wasn’t immune from this kind of thinking. One of my favorite stories about the Buddha involves him sitting down to tea with his arch-nemesis, Mara the tempter. Mara is the demon who besieged the Buddha with doubts and fears the moment before his enlightenment, trying to distract him from his meditation with lascivious thoughts, arrows of fear, and the niggling question, “Who do you think you are?” The prince who would become the Buddha wasn’t immune from such thoughts…but he became the Buddha because he persevered in the face of his fears, touching earth to ground himself.

The Wall at Central Square

In his later years, Buddha went a step or two further, actually befriending Mara. According to one legend, Mara the tempter visited the Buddha late in life, after they’d each settled into their roles as Enlightened Teacher and Cosmic Distractor. Instead of rejecting Mara, Buddha asked him into his home for a cup of tea, and Mara complained he had grown tired of his job. “It’s so frustrating to be the bad guy who everyone hates,” Mara lamented. “It’s so tiring to be the good guy who everyone worships,” the Buddha countered, “with people constantly invoking your name and seeking your assistance and approval.”

The Wall at Central Square

After a pot of tea and conversation, Buddha made peace with Mara, the two of them deciding they weren’t that different, after all. Buddha, in fact, beseeched Mara to continue in his role as tempter, because without Mara the tempter, there could be no Buddha the teacher. Instead of enemies, Buddha and Mara are a kind of couple—a cosmic Good Cop, Bad Cop—who work together in tandem, each working off the other.

The Wall at Central Square

So who am I to think I could write a big, daunting project without sharing a cup of conversation with my own demons? Without fear, there can be no accomplishment, and as every gym-rat knows, without pain, there is no gain.

It’s important and helpful to count your blessings, but it can be fruitful, too, to count your fears. Buddha knew that he couldn’t hide or escape temptation; instead of even trying, he was wise enough to befriend his demons. Now that I know the things I’m afraid of when it comes to writing this current work-in-progress, there’s no reason not to write it. That is, after all, what I’m doing right now, with both the Buddha and a gaggle of demons looking on.

Blue hydrangea

It’s just after noon, and I’m sitting on the screened porch listening to a grackle flap and splash in our backyard birdbath. It’s too late to sit on the patio, which is now drenched in sun, but it is comfortable on the shady porch, where I can hear the rustle and flutter of birds.

Day lily

A single cicada sang this morning, emitting a shrill and simple whine. That sound will grow and expand as the summer moves to its climax, the sound of insects and birdsong being one surefire way to place oneself, temporally, in the season.

Right now, I hear two separate birds clucking and chuckling, but I can’t name either. Alarm calls sound similar across species, so the grackle clacking by the birdbath sounds akin to the chirping squirrels. One gray squirrel moves from the bird feeder to drink from the birdbath, perching on a stone rim the same color as his fur. Another squirrel hangs from the feeder, only his tail betraying his presence. Blue jays call from a distant yard, and a cardinal whistles intermittently, its song too placid to seem insistent.

Sunny spiderwort

Along the perennial bed, chipmunks dart and scurry. Even a quiet suburban backyard isn’t very quiet, instead bustling with activity. The soundtrack changes with the season, and the seasons themselves cycle and repeat. There is nothing particularly special about today: it is an ordinary July day, the likes of which happen every year. But today, unlike other, more hurried days, I stepped outside, ready to listen.

How many mornings did the Buddha, then a mere prince, see the morning star rise as he sat in meditation? One day the morning star rose like any other, but the Buddha finally saw it, his mental clouds parting to reveal a hitherto-hidden truth: everyone has it, they just don’t know it. It’s a statement so simple as to defy credibility: is this all the Buddha attained after six long years of striving and seeking, after having renounced his throne, his wealth, his family, health, and even sanity?

Bumble bee on spirea

Is this present moment all the Buddha attained? Yes, indeed. All the Buddha attained was the entire world, and his entire life, delivered in the instant that is Now. If we don’t attain the present moment, whatever else can we attain? If we don’t live in the present moment, where else can we possibly dwell?

I wrote this entry earlier today, during a free moment I had before lunch. The photos illustrating today’s post come from past summers, the hydrangeas, day lilies, spiderwort, and spirea that are blooming today looking just like those from seasons past.

Halcyon Lake

I didn’t take any pictures at Mount Auburn Cemetery yesterday, when Seon Joon and I walked there. But I’d taken pictures when A (not her real initial) and I walked at Mount Auburn this time last year, and I’d taken pictures when Leslee and I walked at Mount Auburn the year before that. I’m in the habit, it seems, of meeting friends for cemetery strolls in July, when it’s hot and the shade beckons.

Woman and child

I’m not alone in this regard. Yesterday at Mount Auburn, Seon Joon and I saw a steady stream of visitors exploring the cemetery on foot and in slow-coasting cars, and as we enjoyed conversation and a brisk breeze atop Washington Tower, we were joined by a quiet queue of other visitors enjoying panoramic views of Cambridge, Watertown, and a hazy Boston skyline.

I’ve written before about my history at Mount Auburn, a place I started visiting when I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center in the mid-1990s. That means I’ve been going to Mount Auburn to walk, birdwatch, sketch, and simply unwind for nearly twenty years. Seon Joon had never been to Mount Auburn, so now that she’s moved to Cambridge, I felt an odd obligation to introduce her to one of my favorite places. I know from experience that if you’re going to weather the urban intensity of Central and Harvard Squares, you need to know where to find quiet pockets of green serenity.

Beloved daughter Maria

Mount Auburn, like any cemetery, is intended as a final resting place for the dearly departed…but for nearly twenty years, it’s served me as an interim resting place, a green oasis where I’ve returned, repeatedly. Seon Joon used the image of a compass point to describe Mount Auburn: here is a known place in a sea of unfamiliar places, somewhere to plant a figurative map-pin as she navigates a new city. I like to think of Mount Auburn as being a kind of secular Mecca: a compass-point that wields a magnetic pull, the faces of its faithful turning and re-turning to this spot that beckons like a green beacon.

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