Modica Way

This week in my “Buddhism, the Beats, and Beyond” class, we talked about Buddhist poetry. I told my class I am not a poet; I told my class I didn’t understand all the poems we read, either. But we talked about poems anyway, and we tried a version of the Natalie Goldberg exercise where you freewrite a list of statements all starting with the same opening phrase.

Modica Way

We took as our lead Allen Ginsberg’s “Why I Meditate,” which several students had been confused by. In our poems, we chose some other thing we do daily–why I walk, why I sing, why I dance, why I read–and we each made our own spontaneous, sometimes illogical list. The logic of our lists didn’t matter; what drew us in was the litany of the words themselves, ever-echoing that opening phrase: “I ______ because…”

I walk because the earth is round
I walk because my feet touch earth
I walk because my lungs breath green air
I walk because it rains invisible mist
I walk because you are here
I walk because sitting is too still
I walk because the earth is love
I walk because my body never tires
I walk to pump the billows of my heart
I walk because some people can’t
I walk because outside is bigger than inside

Modica Way

I walk because the afternoon is long
I walk because life is short
I walk because death nips our heels
I walk because the dog paces and whines
I walk because it is cheaper than gas
I walk because my feet can’t be still
I walk because the body is made to move
I walk because my brain never stops
I walk because I can’t stop
I walk because you aren’t here
I walk to find things I haven’t lost
I walk to chase the sunset
I walk because time marches on
I walk to meet a future version of myself.

Modica Way

My students are open and forthcoming, so a question soon arose. What makes a poem? How is a poem different from other things? Can a quick-jotted list be a poem? What about a story told in ordinary language like prose, but with line breaks?

We talked about Walt Whitman and his lists, and we listened to several of Diane Di Prima’s “Revolutionary Letters.” What makes a poem different from a letter, and what makes a poem different from a political rant? Sometimes the two sound the same, so what makes a poem unique?

Modica Way

My students and I quietly drafted our own ideas about what a poem is and what a poem is not, and we compared the results, which were remarkably similar. We seemed to think poetry is looser than other literary genres: poetry can take a form, but it isn’t limited to that form. We seemed to think that a poem isn’t defined by the particular arrangement of its words and rhythms–it can follow the format of a haiku or epic, list or refrain–but it is defined by the fact that its words are arranged with some sort of intentionality (whether formal or informal) chosen by the poet to express some sort of truth.

Modica Way

We read Gary Snyder’s “Riprap” after having listened to Snyder read several other poems, and we concluded that Snyder’s definition of poetry is as good as any. In “Riprap,” Snyder suggests poets lay words like rocks–carefully, intentionally–to create a path to truth. The way up Cold Mountain is slippery and steep, but a path cobbled together with whatever rocks are close at hand–shattered shards or polished river rubble–can make the way more passable. You still have to walk the path yourself; your experience of the mountain of truth will be uniquely yours. But a line of carefully laid stones can save your life along the way.

Wall at Central Square

It’s finals week at Keene State, which means I spent all last week and much of the weekend reading and commenting on student essay drafts.

Wall at Central Square

I’ve often said that the end of a typical semester is like the final two minutes of a well-matched basketball game. The final two minutes can see one team pull further and further ahead, or it can see a stunning come-from-behind rally. Anyone can win in the final two minutes, and you can see that in the eyes of veteran players, who know to steel themselves against exhaustion in order to get it done when it truly matters.

Wall at Central Square

In theory, no well-matched basketball game needs to last more than two intense minutes…but in practice, it takes almost four full quarters of play before that “get it done” mindset kicks in. The same seems to be true in any given semester. I’ve seen a lot of students “come from behind” during finals week, finally kicking into “get it done” mode after spending much of the semester approaching their paper topics tentatively. It isn’t a question of whether you can play two intense minutes of basketball, or whether you can produce decent last-minute revisions: it’s a question of whether you can play two intense minutes or produce decent last-minute revisions when you’re already sweaty and exhausted.

Wall at Central Square

Now that it’s finals week, I feel like a coach on the sidelines watching those final few minutes of play. I’ve spent the semester shouting and gesticulating, drawing up plays and patting players on the back. I’ve spent the semester repeating “Keep going,” “You’re doing a good job,” and “More of this, and less of that,” and I can’t count the number of times I’ve said some version of “Good try, now try harder.” Now it’s time for me to take a seat, hold my breath, and see what kind of game my “players” have during this week of all-nighters, caffeine mega-doses, and foxhole conversions. I have vivid memories of all those semesters when it was me doing last-minute revisions over unhealthy amounts of Mountain Dew, the “midnight muse” of procrastination my main inspiration. Now it’s time to see what kind of fancy intellectual footwork my students are capable of.

Wall at Central Square

In the meantime, I keep thinking of the photos I shot the last time I walked down Modica Way, the graffiti wall there reminding passersby that regardless of how well you do in school, business, or life in general, “you’re still gonna die.” As strange as it may sound, I find the sentiment oddly comforting, a reminder to keep things in their proper perspective. In any given semester, you play to win the game, but regardless of whether you (or your students) win or lose, eventually your play will come to an end: game over. In the meantime, how intensely can you pour yourself into your life, spending every last drop of sweat and leaving everything out there on the court, holding nothing back for “later”?

Shepard Fairey is a poser

Even icons and icon-makers occasionally fall prey to marker-wielding vandals. (Snapped on November 30, weeks after I blogged this image of Barack Obama hanging out with another sort of icon.)

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Iconic.

Pink eyes

This morning I was back on the beat in Cambridge, where as always there were new sights to see. By way of proof, compare the above shot to the same span of brick pictured here and here. My, how you’ve grown!

Two-faced ice cream cone

It’s become something of a tradition. On mornings when I’m scheduled to give consulting interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center, I arrive in Cambridge early, park my car at the Zen Center, then take a walk through Central Square, camera in hand. It’s almost a given that I’ll mosey over to Modica Way to see what’s up with the wall, knowing that street art is such a random and ephemeral genre, there will always be something new.

Door

Revisiting the same neighborhood every month or so (for that’s about how often I give interviews at the Zen Center) is an interesting exercise. About ten years ago, when my then-husband and I lived for several years at the Cambridge Zen Center, I walked the streets of Central Square every day, so I had the familiar knowledge of a pedestrian. These days I walk with a camera, so I see the same streets differently. Not only do I now view these once-familiar streets as an occasional visitor rather than regular resident, I now walk my once-daily beat specifically looking for things. When I lived in Central Square, I was typically intent on my destination as I hurried from here to there, then there, then somewhere else. When I lived at the Zen Center, I was so busy juggling the demands of my Zen Center duties, marriage, college teaching, and graduate studies, my attention was often elsewhere as I analyzed or obsessed over yesterday’s failures, tomorrow’s challenges, and today’s to-dos.

Tableau

These days, I’m still busy…but when I take my occasional Sunday strolls through Central Square, I’m on only one real errand: to see what I can see. Because I’ve walked these streets and sidewalks so often, I can screen out the old and ordinary, those things that were there last time, the time before, and the time before that. It’s not so much that I ignore these usual suspects, but I’ve learned not to be distracted by them. Like a beat cop who’s on a first-name basis with both the innocents and the troublemakers alike, I’ve learned which things I need to keep an eye on and which I can let slide. The way you notice something Really Unusual, I’ve found, is by first learning which things you can let slip from conscious awareness. Once a quick glance reveals a crowd of innocents standing around the T station, shooting the shit as always, you can zero in on the lone troublemaker trying to pass incognito in their midst. “Hey…you! Don’t you have somewhere you ought to be?”

Get out of jail free

This practice of selective attention–the ability to let the normal stuff slide through conscious awareness so the things that are New and Unusual almost demand your awareness–is something I first learned as a teenage birdwatcher. The way to find a bird in a tree is to look for any color, movement, or shape that doesn’t look like branch, leaf, or sky. New birders are sometimes fooled by wind-fluttered leaves, squirrel nests, or other foreign objects, mistaking tree-snagged plastic bags, for instance, for birds: “What’s that?” Once you’ve seen enough dry leaf clumps, random bits of litter, or branch snags, though, you become familiar with what those things look like, so you teach your brain to associate “bird” or even “something interesting” with “anything that doesn’t look like the usual stuff.” The same process of perceptive elimination works with auditory stimuli as well. If you want to excel at the art of birding by ear, you needn’t learn every possible birdsong or call. Instead, familiarize yourself with the usual ambient soundtrack of your daily neighborhood–the chips of cardinals, chirps of house sparrows, and twitters of finches–so you can sit up, alert, when you hear Something Different.

Drink the Kool-Aid

This all has relevance to meditation practice…but then again, what doesn’t? New practitioners are often dismayed and alarmed by the sheer volume of Stuff that passes through their minds during any meditation session: how can they possibly pay attention to it all? The answer, of course, is that you can’t, so you needn’t try: just as it’s futile to push any given thought away, it’s equally impossible to tend to, touch, or even notice every single thought as it passes. The point of meditation isn’t to stop the flow of thoughts, nor is it to manage it; there will be moments, minutes, and more when “you” get entirely swept into the stream and pop up, suddenly aware, what feels like hours later: “Where was I?” The point of dipping into your own internal slipstream isn’t to keep yourself separate and apart from its murky wetness. Instead, the thing you learn from occasional slips is that your mind is infinitely buoyant, eventually popping back into awareness like a fisherman’s bob automatically finding the surface. Awake!

Empty heart

The more you meditate, the more you’ll come to be on a first-name basis with your own usual suspects, both the innocents and the troublemakers. “Oh, here I go again,” you find yourself thinking mid-meditation. “The same old litany of neuroses, worries, complaints.” On one three-week meditation retreat, for instance, I literally spent days obsessing about food, meditating at first upon a mandala-like pizza with a mouth-watering array of fantasized toppings (“with extra cheese, pepperoni, sausage, and mushrooms, please!”) and then making a truly obscene list of foods I’d eat the second the retreat ended (“And can I get that with hash browns and eggs scrambled with onions, and some pancakes, and a slice of peanut-butter pie, please?”) A saner soul would have called it quits, figuring that anyone who spends so much psychic energy fixating on food simply isn’t cut out for meditation. Instead, I did what any Zen master would recommend. Every time I realized my mind had wandered, again, I brought it back to my mantra, again…and again…and again, welcoming every instance where I brought my mind back as its own kind of awakening: “Oh!”

Not ever as real as realized

When you’re a rookie practitioner, new on the beat, you’re on your walkie-talkie calling for backup every time a Food Fantasy, moment of Angry Angst, or another Lustful Interlude walks into your line of sight: “Danger, danger! Come quick!” After you’ve been doing this meditation thing for a while, though, you come to know everyone: “Yeah, kid, I saw that guy. He’s been hanging ’round doing nothing since before you were knee-high to a grasshopper. Let’s get back to looking for bad guys.” It’s not so much that you ignore your thoughts when you meditate: no veteran cop worth his badge ever fails to watch his own (and his rookie partner’s) back. But after you’ve been meditating awhile, your own Psychic Shit doesn’t bother you as much as it used to. You’ve seen it all and survived, so while things still rattle you, you know your inner equilibrium will find “center” eventually.

Above Modica Way

Like being perfectly aware of the neighbor’s television you can hear through your paper-thin walls but which you’ve learned not to focus on when you’re concentrated on something else, meditation is about training yourself to be aware of the present moment while not being attached to the endless stream of shady characters who amble down the street called Consciousness. Taking an occasional walk through my old Cambridge neighborhood, I don’t have to snap photos of everything. But knowing a little bit about the place, I snap into awareness–Awake!–when I see something that strikes my eyes as new.

Strange bedfellows

I knew I’d find President-Elect Barack Obama on this wall in Cambridge’s Central Square because of Steve’s photo from October. I had no idea, though, that the President-Elect has been keeping company with none other than the legendary Goldenstash.

Obama, etc

Earlier this month, Steve had posted another photo showing the pro-Obama sentiments of at least one Brooklyn street artist. “When in the past,” Steve wondered, “have we seen such motivation that people would paint a huge graffiti piece on a candidate’s behalf?” In the aftermath of Obama’s decisive win, some commentators have pointed to the Obama campaign’s skillful use of social networking tools as a way of motivating and mobilizing young voters. If online services such as Facebook and MySpace (as well as the President-Elect’s blog and Flickr photostream) can keep the Prez-To-Be in touch with the Wired Generation, why can’t street art, the most democratic of genres, serve a similar purpose?

Here’s an audacious proposal. Why not create a cabinet-level position in charge of graffiti propaganda? I hereby nominate the one and only Goldenstash as the first U.S. Secretary of Street Art. Yes, we can!

RIP Richard "Rico" Modica

One thing I love about being a place-blogger in an urban area like Boston or Cambridge is the way no one seems to care if you stop, snoop, and snap photos: there’s nothing you’re doing, after all, that’s any weirder than anything anyone else is doing.

Mixed messages

Although I know folks who have been asked not to take photos in particular public places, I’ve never been confronted for my shutter-buggery. Either I look boring enough that I don’t arouse suspicion, or I look weird enough that folks aren’t surprise when I do something quirky with a camera.

Usually when I snap photos in public places, I try to be discreet: not only do I not want people to think I’m taking photos of them, I don’t want to call attention to myself. One of the benefits of using a purse-sized digicam is the fact I can pull out my camera quickly, snap a few surreptitious shots, and then sneak it back into my pocket or purse before anyone’s noticed what I’m doing. If there are people milling around something I want to photograph, I’ll typically wait until they disperse, or I’ll refrain entirely from taking pictures. The last thing I want to do is make myself an object of attention while focusing my attention on some interesting object.

Iceman

As I was composing the above photo of the graffiti along Modica Way, for instance, I heard the crack and static of a police officer’s two-way radio as a faceless person passed behind me. “Holy crap,” I thought as I froze mid-shot. “All I need is for Mr. Cop to ask me what I’m doing in a graffiti-covered alley taking pictures.” After I’d snapped my shot, I looked down Modica Way to see Mr. Cop walking away unconcerned, a McDonald’s bag in one hand. I don’t know how Cambridge cops feel about street artists, but apparently hungry officers won’t interrupt their takeout breakfasts to harass place-bloggers who like to snoop and snap.

Click here for a photo-set of images from today’s and yesterday’s posts. Enjoy!

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