July 2013

Every horse-crazy girl's dream job

On Saturday, J and I went to Suffolk Downs to take lots of pictures, just as we did last year, and this photo is probably my favorite. When I was a horse-crazy little girl devouring books by Marguerite Henry and Walter Farley, being a jockey was on my short-list of dream jobs, right up there with “someone who writes books like Misty of Chinoteague and The Black Stallion.” Judging from the smile on this jockey’s face, she knows she’s living the dream of countless little girls like me who grew up in the city and could only read and dream about riding race horses.

Cooling down

Of course, being a jockey who rides race horses isn’t the only dream job of horse-crazy little city girls. As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child, and it takes an entire staff of people to prep and primp a race horse.

Last minute preparations

In between races at Suffolk Downs, while other spectators were making bets on upcoming races, J and I were watching each stage of the race-day process, so we had plenty of opportunities to admire the riders on the lead ponies who escort race horses to the starting gate…

Checkerboard rump

…and the members of the gate crew, who have the challenging (and dangerous) job of loading a thousand pounds of nervous, energetic horseflesh into the starting gate.

Loading into the starting gate

After having watched a handful of races from all possible angles, I’ve decided that being a jockey would be fun, but being a groom would be even better.

Say "Cheese!"

A jockey gets to ride a horse for the minute or two that the race actually lasts, but as soon as that race is over, a jockey hops off and is done, ready to ride whatever other horses she or he has been hired to ride.

Hopping off

A horse’s groom, on the other hand, spends a lot of time primping and preparing the individual horses under his care. First there’s the walk from the stable to the paddock…


…then the walk around the paddock…

Warming in the paddock

…then the official check-in where a man with a clipboard checks the number tattooed inside the horse’s upper lip to make sure this horse really is the one registered for the race.

Checking in

Next there’s time for quick spritz…


…then it’s time to saddle up.

Saddling up

During the race and in the Winner’s Circle, all eyes are on a horse’s jockey because her or his job happens at the climactic moment when months of behind-the-scenes preparation and training culminate in two minutes of glory.

Win, place, and show

But on a day-to-day basis, it’s a horse’s groom that spends the most time overseeing the mundane tasks of equine care. A horse and jockey have a working relationship that many horse-crazy city girls might dream of, but it’s the quiet moments before or after a race when you’ll see the true tenderness that endures between a horse and his tender.

Cooling down

Click here for more photos from Saturday’s trip to Suffolk Downs. Enjoy!

Johnny's Luncheonette

This afternoon J and I walked to Newton Centre for lunch at Johnny’s Luncheonette. We’d been to the doctor for our annual check-ups in the morning, so taking a few extra hours off to take a walk and go to lunch was a small reward. We don’t even try to go to lunch at Johnny’s on the weekends, when it’s typically packed with brunch crowds, but if we go on a weekday after the height of the lunch rush, we can usually get a table for two without having to wait.

Funky lamps

Johnny’s has a fun retro vibe with its linoleum diner counter, Art Deco light fixtures, vintage décor, and framed black-and-white class photos from “back in the day.” Every time we sit toward the back of Johnny’s Luncheonette, I try to get a picture of a fixture I call the Diner Diver: a pale blue mannequin hanging from the ceiling in a perfect back dive.

Diner diver

The menu at Johnny’s offers reliable lunch and breakfast standbys: classic diner fare. J typically gets the macaroni and cheese, which features penne rather than macaroni pasta with a blend of Romano, mozzarella, and parmesan cheeses, and I usually get the Jordan Marsh, which features two eggs, a grilled blueberry muffin, and a small fruit cup.

Johnny's Luncheonette sign

Today was busier than usual, so we sat at the counter rather than waiting for a table. As we were waiting for our food to arrive, we heard two women cheering near the coin-operated “claw” machine that stands near the entrance, tantalizing children with a colorful assortment of stuffed animals you can win if you’re deft enough to grab one.

“You won, you won!” the women–presumably a mother and grandmother–cheered as a young boy held a small, hot-pink stuffed Mickey Mouse and beamed. J started clapping, and I joined the women in cheering. “We’ve never seen anyone win anything, and you won” they exclaimed.

Vintage class photos

I don’t know if the boy was old enough to realize his hot-pink prize was probably intended for a girl, but that didn’t seem to matter to him or his mother and grandmother. As the family filed out the door and onto the street, the boy held the toy in two hands, looking at it with an air of overjoyed amazement, as if he couldn’t believe his good luck.

Revere Beach Sand Sculpting Festival

On Sunday, J and I took the T to Revere Beach, where we caught the final day of this year’s National Sand Sculpting Festival. This is the third year we’ve gone to Revere Beach to see the sand sculptures, and every year we marvel at the level of detail master artisans can achieve in a seemingly shapeless medium.

Revere Beach Sand Sculpting Festival

In the aftermath of this year’s Boston Marathon bombings, it was no surprise that the theme of this year’s festival was “Boston Strong.” The festival’s central sculpture—a towering wall featuring the names of the festival’s corporate sponsors—was flanked with American flags and featured images of runners, a tribute to law enforcement (including slain MIT officer Sean Collier), and a nod to the Good Samaritans, first responders, doctors, and nurses who helped victims.

Boston Strong

Revere Beach Sand Sculpting Festival

Collier Strong

Revere Beach Sand Sculpting Festival

The phrase “Boston Strong” represents the way an entire community came together in the aftermath of tragedy, stranger helping stranger, and I suppose sand sculptures are a good metaphor for this kind of community bonding. Individual grains of sand are neither strong nor special; they’re just gritty. En mass, however, grains of sand can either wear down stone or build towering structures. Given the nitty-gritty particulars of fate, what kind of structures might we build, together?

Click here for more photos from this year’s National Sand Sculpting Festival at Revere Beach. Enjoy!

Fountain and Story Chapel

This past week has been blistering hot in New England, with a string of 90-degree days. Although I don’t mind walking in rain, snow, or freezing cold, hot and humid days sap both my energy and resolve. Although my spirit longs to be walking, my body craves coolness, so I tend to lie low during heat waves, spending too much time inside, all but imprisoned in the two rooms where we have window air conditioners: a self-imposed exile.

Beloved daughter Maria

On Wednesday evening, however, I ventured out in search of shade, meeting a friend at Mount Auburn Cemetery for a sketch-stroll. Sketching is a slow, sedentary activity that works well on hot days, at least once you’ve found a shady spot with a breeze. In a woodsy cemetery like Mount Auburn, there are plenty of trees and quiet, secluded nooks where you can sit and serenely sweat. With no hurry to be much of anywhere, you can walk slowly, staring at stones and eschewing sunny spots. With nothing but a pencil, sketchbook, and random snippets of quiet conversation to entertain you, you can slow and sooth your heat-addled senses.

Celtic cross

After sitting for about an hour with our sketchbooks, my friend and I headed back to the cemetery gate, walking slowly. I had left a bottle of water in my car, but I knew it would be hot by the time we got there, so when one of Mount Auburn’s security guards drove by in his truck and offered ice-cold bottles of spring water—leftover refreshments from an early evening tree walk—I was happy to accept. At the still-hot end of a sweltering day, the only thing more refreshing than sitting a spell in the shade is gulping down a bottle of ice-cold goodness.

Click here for a photo-set from Wednesday’s cemetery stroll, including snapshots of the three sketches I made. Enjoy!

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

It’s a simple enough story. A few moments before the Buddha attained enlightenment, he was confronted by Mara, the tempter, who tried to interrupt his meditation. Mara tried the usual techniques, assailing the Buddha with lovely women and fearsome demons. Upon seeing the Buddha wasn’t swayed by desire or fear, Mara launched his most dangerous assault, leaning low to whisper a single question into Buddha’s ear: “Who do you think you are?”

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

It is a troubling and pervasive question. Who hasn’t heard an inner voice asking some semblance of this question, which is simultaneously an accusation and an invitation to doubt? Who do you think you are that you can attain enlightenment? Who do you think you are that you can offer wisdom to the ages: who do you think you are that you can have something to say, and actually dare to say it? Who do you think you are that you can dare dream to do something with your life: who do you think you are to dare do?

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

Buddha did the wisest possible thing in this situation: he refused to engage the question. Instead of launching into the puffery of autobiography—“Look at me and all I have done, accomplished, and learned”—the Buddha vanquished Mara by throwing him off kilter, off center, and even off his keister. When Mara asked Buddha “Who do you think you are,” Buddha said nothing but merely reached one hand toward the ground and touched earth with four gently straightened fingers. Who am I? Here I am.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

Traditional accounts of this tale say that after the Buddha touched earth, the earth and all its denizens themselves bore witness. What does that mean, exactly? To my ear, that means the Buddha returned to this moment, pulled himself out of the mental wrestling match that is obsessing on your own identity, and became aware (at last!) of what was transpiring around him in the natural world: green grass, towering trees, and flourishing flowers.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

You don’t have to be a Buddha to touch the earth, nor do you have to wait until Mara is staring you down, confrontational. At any moment, the earth endures; at any moment, the earth is largely ignored. Today, outside, what is happening right here, right under my feet? Today, right now, if I stretched my hand to my side, what would I find under my fingertips: grass and soil, sidewalk and concrete, carpet and upholstery?

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

It never hurts to return to the present moment, to the senses, to whatever is happening right now. Even in painful moments, there is no harm in returning to the raw, unadulterated experience of suffering. What does it feel like, really, to suffer, to ache in one’s innards, to grieve, to lament, to cry? Forget the story of grief you’ve long told yourself—the narrative of blame and regret, accusation and accountability. Some things just hurt, and there is no explaining it: in the absence of explanation, then, what does the pure, unedited experience of sorrow actually feel like? In the absence of interpretation, what experience is actually true?

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

When I was a child, long before I became a Buddhist, I used to dissect my own headaches. As a child prone to allergies, I was also (and still am) prone to sinus headaches: an awful kind of pressure that builds within your skull and makes you feel like you have a large, hulking animal standing on your face. Some sinus headaches relent with the use of decongestants; others fade in the face of painkillers. Other sinus headaches, however, simply stay, pressing into the crevices of your skull and aggressively arching against the contours of your own skin.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

Whenever as a child I encountered one of these obstreperous headaches, the kind that medicine is helpless to heal, I would consciously become quiet, hunkering into my own consciousness with a single-pointedness that only a studious child can muster. With the same attentiveness with which I watched marching lines of ants on a summer sidewalk or stalking herons picking off pond frogs, I observed and analyzed my own physical pain. Where did it originate from? Was it solid and confined, with clearly defined borders, or did it send snaky roots into distant synapses, sprawling? Was it a hot pain or a cold pain? A fat, burbling pain or a sharp, shooting one? Did it quietly creep or thunderously stampede? What color was it at the center, and what color faded delicately to a fringe at its edges?

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

When you clinically dissect your own pain, you might discover, as I did, something interesting. Physical pain at its root isn’t essentially unpleasant. Instead, it is a combination of elements that each in their own right is entirely neutral: a feeling of warmth combined with a sensation of pressure, or a pinprick of cold coupled with a sudden surge of tension. Nausea might strike as an overwhelming wave of motion; a stomach ache might feel like a slightly too-ripe fullness. “Pain” is a terribly imprecise word: surely we can do better than to lump so many disparate and ultimately interesting experiences—the one thing we all reliably share—under such an imprecise umbrella.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

One of the things I’ve learned from meditation—the eventual corollary to that childhood experience of simply observing my own suffering with a spirit of open curiosity—is that an adequately bored mind will contemplate anything you plunk before it. The operant word here is “contemplate,” not obsess. Obsessing is what we do when we attach a fixed narrative or agenda—an explanation—to our experiences: “I am hurting,” for instance, “because I was mistreated by my parents” or “It’s all my own damn fault, again” or “How could they have done that to me” or “I should have known better.” It doesn’t matter what story you tell yourself when you’re hurting: if you’re curious, a skilled therapist can help you untangle the threads of your own particular, favored narrative, or you can spend a day, week, or month sitting in silence, letting time and an inquisitive spirit do the untangling for you. It doesn’t matter what particular story you tell yourself when you’re hurting: what matters is the realization that whatever you tell yourself, it’s ultimately just a story.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” As children, we told ourselves (repeatedly) that words could never hurt us, repeating the rhyme as kind of incantation against harm. But words regularly hurt us, and others: we hurt from the insults and accusations of others, we hurt others with our own hateful speech, and we hurt ourselves—those hidden, horrible wounds—with the thoughts we recite, intone, and repeat in the inner sanctum of our soul: the most vicious kind of spell, because it invariably goes straight to its target, ourselves. (Who needs Mara when we tempt and torment ourselves so terribly?)

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

Words do hurt us because we believe them. We tell ourselves (and are told) stories to explain our experiences, and then we trust these words more than we trust our experiences themselves. Believing that “everything happens for a reason,” be batter ourselves with blame; believing that “nothing happens in isolation,” we accost our friends and families with accusations. Maybe it’s a conspiracy, or a willful tendency to self-destruct, or a mind-boggling confluence of cosmic forces entirely outside our control…but somewhere, somehow, something or someone caused whatever is happening to us, and we will cling like terriers to that belief.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

But maybe things just happen. Maybe it’s not anyone’s fault. Maybe suffering is the one universal in a sea of change—maybe the reality and the experience of suffering is the only thing we can rely on in a world filled with uncertainty.

If suffering is universal—if suffering is not just ordinary, but absolutely guaranteed—then it’s not our fault, the fault of our parents, or the fault of our exes and enemies. If suffering is simply inevitable, unavoidable, and omnipresent, like the hatching of blackflies in the spring, then we can save the energy we’d normally spend trying to explain, rationalize, or understand it. Instead of trying to fix the problem by trying to figure out who or what is to blame, we can simply experience the problem, for the experience of any moment of suffering—the experience of any moment, actually—almost always carries within it a suggestion of how it should be handled.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

If you listen to the moment, in other words, the moment itself will tell you how to handle it. Has a grieving mother ever had to wonder whether it is appropriate to cry? No. Her tears come naturally, in their own time, as will her eventual healing. But both the tears and the healing will follow a timeline you probably couldn’t have predicted, and they will arrive in ways you probably didn’t expect.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

So when Mara asked Buddha a seemingly innocuous question—“Who do you think you are?”—Buddha didn’t take the bait. Whatever story you tell yourself to explain Who and What You Are is irrelevant, for suffering truly doesn’t care: I can tell you quite definitively that pain has never retreated after the recitation of an impressive resume. Relinquishing the desire to explain, exonerate, or self-justify, we can listen as the whole wide world bears witness. Touching earth, we connect with the suffering world as it actually is and experience the instant enlightenment known as Truth.

I found this half-written essay in a forgotten folder of free-writes I’d written at last August’s BRAWN Writing Retreat. The random photos illustrating today’s post come from the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation in Waltham, MA. Enjoy!

The Wall at Central Square

One day last week while I was writing my hour, a curious thing happened. I came to the page uninspired: my promise to write was my only goad. On days when I’m uninspired, writing my hour feels like pure drudgery: more an act of will than creativity as each word ticks by like a slow-moving second-hand inching bit by bit closer to “done.”

The Wall at Central Square

But then, a pair of words appeared. I’d been describing a wending and rambling drive J and I had taken and how it took us through nearby neighborhoods I’d never seen. Isn’t it interesting, I wrote, how you can live in a place for years without exploring all of its streets, your feet following well-worn and familiar paths. This in turn reminded me how I learned to navigate Boston when I first moved here and relied upon public transportation, my knowledge of the city growing in discrete, piecemeal patches every time I explored a new-to-me subway stop and the neighborhood within walking distance of it. My knowledge of Boston was like a map drawn by foot, with scattered pockets that were explored and familiar while the largest portions remained unmapped and foreign: an inland archipelago of known neighborhoods stranded like islands in a vast and largely unknown landscape.

The Wall at Central Square

“Inland archipelagos” was the magic phrase: two words that shimmered to the surface of consciousness, announcing themselves as the title of an essay I’ve only begun to write. Those two words served as a kind of guiding or governing concept: the one central “hook” from which you can hang an entire narrative. Some writers need to start with a first line or a central image; some writers need to start with a title rather than discovering it by accident halfway between “I don’t know what to write” and “Done.” In my experience, though, the first line, central image, title, or other guiding concept doesn’t typically come first: instead, it arises only after I’ve groped around in the dark for a while, writing a meandering series of sentences that (seemingly) head nowhere.

The Wall at Central Square

I’ve been writing long enough to recognize that this is how it typically happens: I find a subject to write about only after I’ve started writing. I often think of this as being like a runner settling into stride: you start off stiff and awkward, but gradually you relax into a comfortable pace…but that will never happen until you lace up shoes and get moving. You’ll never find your stride unless you stand up first.

The Wall at Central Square

When I write my daily journal pages, this settling-into-stride often happens around the third page, the first two pages serving as a kind of warm-up where I rehearse the mundane details of the day. Those first two pages are like the casual chitchat workers engage in at the start of a meeting, catching up with what’s new before their boss clears her throat and announces, “I called you together today to discuss…” That ellipsis is the crux of the matter—the matter of substance—the magical transition between “How are you” and “Let’s get to work.”

The Wall at Central Square

Sometimes, that matter of substance appears in the form of a title, or a first line, or concluding remark: “Here is something I want to write a longer essay about.” Other times, a subject simply arises without announcing itself: suddenly one sentence leads to another, one paragraph leads to the next, and the next thing I know, I’ve written an essay where once there was nothing: spontaneous inspiration.

The Wall at Central Square

This proliferation of words is like an amoeba dividing or a cancer cell multiplying: an insubstantial thing becoming something with real matter and heft. Suddenly you realize the coarse stuff in your hand can be spun into something fine, long, and strong. You’ve literally found your material, a sturdy textile of text that’s stronger than steel.

Genki Spark

On Sunday J and I went to the Boston Common, where the multi-generational, pan-Asian women’s taiko drum troupe The Genki Spark appeared at this year’s Outside the Box music festival. J and I first encountered The Genki Spark when they encouraged runners with their bright and bold taiko drumming, cheering, and dancing at the Boston Marathon several years ago, and we saw them again this year, when they marched in this year’s Boston Pride parade. When J and I heard The Genki Spark would be performing on the Common this weekend, we took the T downtown to check out (and photograph) their performance.

Genki Spark

Most of this weekend’s Outside the Box concerts happened outside in hot and humid open-air venues. The Genki Spark, however, performed at the festival’s Spiegeltent, an air-conditioned structure that looked a bit like a yurt with wooden floors and walls and a red fabric, circus-top style roof.

Big top tent

The inside of the Spiegeltent featured mirrored walls (hence its name) and booth-style tables around the circular periphery, and rows of folding chairs in the center lined up to face the stage. The rectangular entry vestibule had a bar on one side where The Genki Spark displayed their promotional postcards and buttons, and the overall mood of the space was that of a saloon or dance hall. Sitting in one of the booths before the performance began, I felt like I should have been sipping a cocktail served by a buxom and well-bustled barmaid: something straight out of a Hollywood Western, not something in the heart of Puritanical New England.

Spiegeltent mirrors

Any tawdry associations the venue might have inspired at first glance, though, disappeared the second the Genkis whooped and hollered their way into the room after having (literally) drummed up an audience outside. The Genki Spark take their name from a Japanese word meaning “healthy, happy, and alive,” and this Genki spirit is immediately apparent at any performance.

Genki Spark

Sunday’s show was everything J and I have come to expect from Genki Spark performances: loud, energetic, and irrepressibly happy. Traditional taiko drumming is serious business—the stuff of samurai and stern-faced monks—but The Genki Spark channel that fierce boldness in a manner that is fun, festive, and decidedly feminine, with plenty of bright colors, smiles, and sparkle.

Genki swag

With their message of empowerment for women and girls of all ages—don’t be afraid to make a LOUD sound—The Genki Spark offer a version of Girl Power that is both robust and fun. You have to be strong and energetic to play a big drum, but there’s no reason you can’t be strong and energetic while wearing neon leggings, fringed shirts, and multicolored shoes.

Genki shoes

If I had a daughter, I’d want her to grow up genki: bold, assertive, self-confident, and happy. The Genki Spark embody a kind of female empowerment that incorporates cultural pride, self-acceptance, and all stages of sisterhood. Why should health, happiness, and self-assurance be reserved for girls who are reserved, young, skinny, or white? The Genki Spark clearly reveres woman-power as much as girl-power, suggesting that to embrace Who You Are in its entirety, you have to embrace your culture as well as your age: where you come from as well as where we’re all headed.

Genki Spark

These aren’t, in other words, Disney Princesses with ball gowns, tiaras, and impossibly wasp-waisted figures, tottering in high-heeled glass slippers. Instead, these are women who trade the rules of presumably “lady-like” behavior—“Keep your voice down” and “Keep your knees together”—for big, bold sounds made from a wide, well-grounded stance. Ranging in age from fifteen to fifty-something, the women of The Genki Spark might not be Disney Princesses, but they are something even better: strong women who show both girls and boys alike how to make a big, bold sound.

Little kids / big drums

This year’s Outside the Box music festival continues through July 21st with free performances on the Boston Common and City Hall Plaza. Click here for a schedule of upcoming performers, and click here for more pictures from Sunday’s performance of The Genki Spark: enjoy!

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