Guinness is good for you, People's Republik, Cambridge, MA

This week’s Photo Friday theme is black & white. Although this photo isn’t black and white, the writing on the wall is. It’s a well known fact, of course, that God drinks Guinness (I’m surprised, in fact, that Augustine has never alluded to this in her interview with the supreme Deity.) And it is also a well known fact that God frequents (and dispenses advice on the chalkboards of) a pub called the People’s Republik located halfway between Central and Harvard Squares in Cambridge, Massachusetts (our former fair city).

The People’s Republic of Cambridge (as the city is fondly known by diehard Cantabrigians) is indeed a left-leaning, earthy-crunchy place. Last night I drove down to Cambridge to give a Dharma talk at the Cambridge Zen Center with my friend Mark (aka Zen Master Bon Haeng). The Dharma talk was merely an excuse to visit my Zen friends, sleep over at the Zen Center, and then spend today in Cambridge. Visiting the Zen Center for me is a chance to reconnect with old friends, soak in some strong practice energy, and stroll the streets of my past. It’s like going home.

The Cantabrigia, Cambridge, MA

Even though today was rainy, I spent most of the day walking. I have a certain ritual when I’m in Cambridge: there are certain places I revisit, certain routes I walk, certain sights I take in. This morning, for instance, I had breakfast at the Greenhouse Cafe in Harvard Square, and then I walked to Mount Auburn Cemetery for a stroll. When we lived at the Zen Center, nearly every spring morning I’d ride my bike to Mount Auburn where I’d spend the morning birding, then I’d ride to the Greenhouse Cafe to eat breakfast and write up that day’s bird sightings.

The Greenhouse Cafe is one of my favorite places to write whenever I’m in Cambridge: the waitstaff doesn’t bother you needlessly, and the other patrons are colorful and intelligent, the usual Harvard crowd, so the eavesdropping is better than most. When we lived in Cambridge I was mostly vegetarian, so there was a certain guilty thrill in going to the Greenhouse at lunchtime for a grilled tuna salad sandwich and a heaping plateful of sinfully crispy french fries. (Surely they used lard to fry those taters: vegetarian decadence!) During our Zen Center years, the Greenhouse Cafe was my clean well-lighted place, a place where I could share space with anonymous people.

Harriet Jacobs, Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA

If the Greenhouse Cafe is my favorite place to write in Harvard Square, Mount Auburn Cemetery is my favorite place to walk. Although I typically went there to go birding, Mount Auburn is simply a beautiful place to walk: today I didn’t have binoculars but went to Mount Auburn to seek out the grave of Harriet Jacobs, author of the 19th century autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. (I’d assigned excerpts of Jacob’s narrative in my Women’s Lit class, so I wanted to show my students a photo of Jacob’s grassy grave.) It started to drizzle while I was strolling around Mount Auburn, but that didn’t matter: I had an umbrella, and the cemetery’s landscaping, tombstones, and funerary statues looked even more lush and lovely in the rain.

After returning from Mount Auburn to Harvard Square, I stopped in at Bob Slate’s Stationers (a paper fetishist’s paradise) and then had a sinfully decadent cup of hot chocolate at Burdick’s Cafe. Burdick’s was crowded and I couldn’t find a free table, so I shared one with an older woman who was reading a New Zealand guidebook in preparation for an August trip with her son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren. “Do you come here often?” she asked over her first cup of decaf cappuccino. When I explained that I live in New Hampshire but had come to Cambridge to give a Zen talk, she asked what I’d talked about. “I talked about how Zen is about living in the present moment. It’s impossible to save it.”

Tower, Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA

“How do you mean?”

“Well, it’s like exercise. You can’t stockpile fitness: you have to exercise everyday. Zen’s the same way. Each moment is new, so each moment you have to keep practicing.”

“It’s like cod liver oil,” the woman remarked.

“Excuse me?”

“It’s like cod liver oil. My mother made me take a spoonful of cod liver oil everyday when I was a child up through the age of 15. But today, if I want the benefit of cod liver oil, I’d have to start taking it again.”

“Well, yes, exactly!” I laughed. “That’s it exactly. Zen’s just like cod liver oil: you have to take it everyday.” Only in Cambridge could you sit down with a total stranger, enjoy a cup of sinfully rich hot chocolate, and talk Zen without batting an eye.

“So, what else, besides time, can’t one save?” the woman asked. It was a perfect koan: I was stumped. What else, besides time, can’t one save? By this point, the woman had drained her second cup of decaf cappuccino. “I don’t know,” I stammered as she packed to go. “Have a good time in New Zealand!”

After she’d left and I had that clean, well-lighted table to myself, I realized the perfect answer to the woman’s question. We can’t save our lives: we all, gradually and invisibly, are marching toward mortality, inching our way to our grassy grave. “You can’t save a decaf cappuccino,” I should have told her as she swallowed the last drop. “You have to live your life and drink your cappuccino before it gets cold. You can’t save it: once it’s past, it’s gone for good.” That answer, though, came too late: it wasn’t written like the words of God in black and white for me to read off a wall, and in the moment it took me to think it up, the opportunity to say it had already passed. I’m flexible, it seems, but sometimes I miss those the amazing opportunities when they reveal themselves.