Historic Shell sign

The vintage Shell gasoline sign at the corner of Magazine Street and Memorial Drive in Cambridge is (like the freeway revolt mural near the same corner) something I’ve passed countless times, both when I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center a decade ago and now whenever I return to Newton after practicing in Cambridge. When I lived at CZC a decade ago, I didn’t have a hungry blog to feed, nor did I carry a camera with me. But now that I’ve been staying in Newton every weekend, driving to and from the Zen Center a couple times a month, and perpetually looking for quirky, blog-worthy sights, I’ve been meaning to stop and take a picture of this sign.

When people think of landmark Boston signs, they immediately think of the Citgo sign in Kenmore Square, which is visible over the outfield at Fenway Park (and thus known and loved by Red Sox fans around the world). But the Cambridge Shell sign is something only a Cantabrigian would know and love. And only the People’s Republic of Cambridge (as citizens of my once fair city are wont to call her) would officially declare an old gas station sign a historic landmark even though during one point in its poorly maintained past, the sign read HELL after the neon bulbs in its initial letter burnt out.

Old & new

Knowing this sign is not simply interesting to look at but actually historic–and knowing my personal history of having passed it so often–I’ve been meaning for a long time to stop and photograph it. And yet, every time I pass it, I have some reason or another not to stop. Usually I’m in a hurry to get back to Newton, or I have other errands to run, or the weather is bad for shutter-snapping. On Sunday, however, the weather was picture-perfect: bitterly cold, yes, but with a crisp, blue sky that makes a perfect backdrop for a yellow and red sign. As I started to pass the Shell station on Magazine Street on my way to turn onto Memorial Drive, an Inner Voice (my muse?) urged me to stop. “There’s no time like the present,” this metaphoric voice suggested. “If you don’t stop and take a picture on a clear, blue-skied day, what exactly are you waiting for?”

On Sunday, I’d gone to the Zen Center to give consulting interviews–a chance for me to meet one-on-one with newer practitioners and answer whatever questions they have about their practice. Consulting interviews are an optional thing. Although on retreat you’re expected to have kong’an (koan) interviews with the Zen Master, during Sunday mid-morning practice, consulting interviews with senior teachers are optional: you can opt in, or you can literally bow out.

Historic Shell sign

When I lived at the Zen Center a decade ago, I often skipped going to consulting and even kong’an interviews. When you live in a Zen Center, you have countless opportunities to interact with teachers, sit retreats, and otherwise immerse yourself in Everything Zen, 24/7. What need is there, you ask yourself, to go to an interview to ask questions of a senior teacher who is invariably going to tell you to practice more, keep a “don’t know” mind, and figure things out for yourself? Only after I moved out of the Zen Center did I realize how precious those (often missed) opportunities really were. When I’m in Keene, the Zen Center and the people who practice there are an hour and a half away; even when I’m in Newton, the Zen Center is a half hour away by car (and about twice that far away by T). How much easier it was, I sometimes think, when I lived in the Zen Center and could literally roll out of bed and find myself face-to-face with a Zen Master!

Nowadays, I find myself in a funny position, the meditation cushions having turned. When I was sitting in the student seat, I put off going to interviews, figuring I’d have more time some other time. Now that I’m just as busy as ever (albeit with different things), I now find myself sitting in the teacher’s seat, wondering why more practitioners don’t make the time to practice, go to consulting interviews, and ask more (and more insistent) questions. If there’s one thing I’d go back and tell my younger self–if there’s one thing I’d tell the folks living and practicing at the Zen Center now who don’t think they “need” to go to interviews–it would be this: practice as much as you can while you can. Unlike a certain gasoline sign in Cambridge, your Current Condition isn’t a protected historic monument: instead, you never know when your Current Condition will change, you’ll move away, and your easy access to a thriving practice community will become much more complicated. If you knew that the picture-perfect conditions of Today were going to change Tomorrow, would you make a point to do all the things you’ve been putting off? Impermanence surrounds us, protected landmarks notwithstanding. If we don’t take pictures, go to practice, or ask questions now, what exactly are we waiting for?