Freeway revolt

Never underestimate the strength of a group of angry Cantabrigians.


As long as I can remember, there’s been a mural on the backside of the Microcenter store on Memorial Drive in Cambridge, MA commemorating the 1970s freeway revolt that is the reason why Interstate 95 goes around rather than through Boston. It might seem easy to pave a neighborhood: who in their right mind, after all, would stand in the way of the bulldozers of progress? Some twenty years before I moved to Cambridge to live for two and a half years at the Zen Center that’s only about a mile from this mural, a bunch of residents stood up to the road builders and said “Not in my backyard.” In a very real way, I owe the ongoing existence of the neighborhood that once was my neighborhood to folks I never met apart from their symbolic representations on this wall.

I was back in Cambridge yesterday giving consulting interviews at the Zen Center, a role that still feels foreign to me. I’ve been a Senior Dharma Teacher in my Zen school for four years now, but I still expect to be sitting on the student rather than the teacher cushion in the Zen Center interview room. Who am I to be giving anyone advice about anything, I wonder every time I pick up the bell that says “Next!” to Dharma room meditators awaiting an interview. On a good day, I’ll try to share a glimpse of what I’ve experienced during some eighteen years of Zen practice, and I let the person on the other side of my mat decide what to keep and what to reject. On a bad day, I take the tenuous job of “teacher” too seriously, saying more than is technically helpful and breaking the Number One Zen Dictum, “Open mouth, already a mistake.”

The Man = Federal Innerbelt I-95 worker

Spending any amount of time in meditation–on a certain level, eighteen years, eighteen minutes, or eighteen seconds are merely microcosms of the same immeasurable experience–feels a bit like standing up to an oncoming bulldozer. When I first began meditating, I’d often experience bouts of panic where I thought I’d literally die from the terror of simply sitting and watching my own karmic crap. In daily life, there are countless ways to ignore, drug, or drown out your inner insecurity, insanity, or inanity. When you’re sitting on a meditation cushion, however, you can’t reach for a drink, the TV remote, a bag of fattening snacks, or your preferred Distractor of Choice. When you’re sitting on a meditation cushion, the only defense you have against whatever you’ve spent your conscious hours ignoring is your own breath, and that’s a shield that feels as flimsy as air.

One of my favorite Zen sayings (and one I observe much more faithfully than “Open mouth, already a mistake”) is “You’re stronger than you think.” I suspect that had those nameless Cantabrigians who saved what would eventually become my erstwhile neighborhood seriously thought about how big a task standing up to a bulldozer is, they might never have undertaken it. Instead, activism starts with one action, and one action leads to another. The way you sit out a Dharma room panic attack, I’ve learned, is to use the mantra of “One more breath” like a lifeline: you can live an entire life surviving from breath to breath. I suspect the secret to a successful freeway revolt is something similar: signature by signature, you fill your petitions; moment by moment, you refuse to be moved.

Making a stand, with child

Today, some twenty years after the citizens of Cambridge said “no” to the freeway that would have bisected their neighborhood, the citizens of Boston’s North End, who have lived in the shadow of Interstate 93 since the 1950s, saw a long-promised park open where the Central Artery has since gone underground. There’s one sort of strength that says “Hell, no”; there’s another sort of strength that says, “Someday, this too shall pass.” The citizens of Cambridge earned their freeway-free neighborhood; on a sunny Sunday, even Memorial Drive is closed to vehicular traffic so locals and visitors alike can walk, jog, push baby-strollers, roller-blade, escort dogs, and otherwise move motor-free down a normally busy thoroughfare. The residents, too, of the North End amply deserve the parks that have replaced the freeway there. The last time I was in the North End, I kept looking slack-jawed at the sky, shocked to see air where an ugly Artery once stood. It’s been a long time coming.

Each of us, individually, is stronger than we think; collectively, gathered into neighborhoods and united by even the smallest vision of what could be, our strength is greater than bulldozers. One breath is the merest tickle; many breaths become a mighty wind. Heaven help the power that tries to fight that strength.


This is my belated contribution to last week’s Photo Friday theme, Strength.