June 2017


Floating flowers

This morning as I was driving to the Zen Center, I saw a homeless man standing at the exit from the Turnpike, where traffic often gets stopped at a light. I have a policy that if I’m stopped at a light on my way to the Zen Center and see a panhandler, I give him or her a dollar, no questions asked. I figure it would be bad karma to ignore someone in need while bustling off to do spiritual practice.

Monkey see

I know all the arguments against giving money to panhandlers: they’ll probably just use the money to buy booze or drugs, and giving handouts to the homeless only enables bad behaviors. I’ve heard all these arguments and recognize their validity, but when I’m on my way to the Zen Center, I ignore those arguments. Regardless of what any given homeless person does with the money I give them, I like to think that for one moment, they encountered someone who is happy to give them something they need: a purely human experience of one person sharing with another. If I were in their place, I hope someone would have the generosity of spirit to do the same for me.

Stormy seas

When I give money to panhandlers, I try to make eye contact and smile, figuring life on the street is difficult and human kindness hard to find. I don’t pretend to have saintly motivations: it makes me feel good to share a spot of good cheer, and makes me feel grateful to realize I can indeed spare a dollar. When I give money to panhandlers, I’m acting, in other words, as much in my own interest as that of anyone else: this is something I do because it makes me feel good, and if it helps someone else, that’s a blessing upon blessings.

RIP Adam West

This morning, the man I gave a dollar to held a sign saying he was a veteran and homeless. His face was tan and well-worn, but underneath his world-weariness was a hint of radiance: a face that in happier times had found ample reasons to smile. “God bless you,” the man said, and I thanked him: you never know when you might need the prayers of a stranger. I wished the man well and drove on: the light had changed, and there were cars behind me.

Don't forget me

That would have been the end of it, but this: hours later, after I’d left the Zen Center and was walking through Central Square, I saw the same man standing in front of H Mart counting a fistful of wrinkled dollar bills. I quietly hoped he’d saved up enough blessings upon blessings to buy himself lunch and the right to sit down in a clean, air-conditioned place for a half hour or so: a respite of dignity in a life marked by untold sorrow.

Sherman Alexie poses so everyone can take their fill of photos.

Last night I took the T into Harvard Square to see Sherman Alexie read from his new memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, at Harvard University’s Memorial Church. I had never seen Alexie in person, but I knew from radio interviews and other media appearances that he has a razor-sharp sense of humor, and that quick wit was apparent in his reading, which at times felt more like a standup comedy routine than a serious literary event.

For us and our allies

Alexie didn’t take questions, wryly noting that with the sort of subject matter his book discusses, a Q&A session would quickly turn into a Twelve Step meeting. Instead, Alexie regaled the crowd with anecdotes and pointed observations on everything from the smelly state of his luggage after a nine-day book tour (think damp underwear) and his reaction to the election of Donald Trump. (No indigenous Americans voted for Trump, Alexie claimed, except perhaps seven Republican Indians. Alexie’s main observation about the election was that white liberals now know what Native Americans have felt since colonial days: namely, what it’s like to be stripped of power by an unholy trinity of corrupt government, business, and religious institutions.)

Organ

Amid such sidenotes, the central theme of Alexie’s talk (and his new memoir) was the death of his mother, Lillian, in 2015. After spending his career creating various fictionalized versions of his father, Alexie realized he had never given his mother her due. Alexie described his mother as an epic character: one of the last surviving speakers of the Coeur d’Alene language and the person who should have led her tribe. But instead of being revered as a leader, Lillian Alexie and her greatness went unrecognized, as the contributions of indigenous women often are.

Eagle podium

In addition to reading excerpts from his book, Alexie led his audience through an irreverent and honest recollection of his last encounter with his mother as she lay dying in one of the houses where he and his siblings had grown up. This account was simultaneously heart-rending and humorous, often veering from one emotion to the other in the course of a single sentence. Poverty, Alexie explained, was his family’s spirit animal, and humor was a coping strategy he honed out of necessity. His mother, Alexie explained, didn’t teach him their tribal language, telling him that English would be the weapon he’d need to survive. She was right.

Overhead

Lillian Alexie was beautiful, Alexie explained; in photographs from her younger days, she looked like Rita Hayworth or what Alexie called a “reservation Audrey Hepburn.” Lillian was a short woman–barely five feet tall–but Alexie said she never seemed small until she was laid low by the cancer that killed her. Alexie’s relationship with his mother was complicated. Shocking her family by turning affectionate in her final days, Lillian Alexie continued to be passive-aggressive, telling Sherman in full earshot of his siblings that he had the best hair of any of them.

Book signing with Sherman Alexie

Alexie is a master story-teller; anyone who has read any of books or seen one of his films knows that. But telling a story on paper and captivating a live audience are two separate skills, and Sherman Alexie is a master at both. Whatever skills Sherman Alexie has honed over a long and decorated literary career, however, he nevertheless insists that Lillian was a more skillful storyteller than he is. After a career of trying to mold himself into a facsimile of his father, Alexie has finally admitted how much like his mother he was all along.

In clover

I rarely sit down to write with a specific thing in mind; instead, I wait to see where the words lead. This means the first few paragraphs of my daily journal pages are often a scattershot account of mundane concerns and quibbles. Only after the first few paragraphs have made their way from brain to page do I settle into the deeper, more substantial stuff that’s on my mind: the inner tune I’m humming beneath the surface static.

Yellow vetch and red clover

For this reason, I often tell my students to start revising early drafts by deleting their intro paragraph, especially if their second paragraph does a better job of cutting to the chase. Intro paragraphs (and especially opening lines) are difficult to write: most of us don’t get them right on the first try, especially if we start out not knowing exactly what we want to say.

Instead of assailing readers with the rhetorical equivalent of throat-clearing and ahem-ing, start with a paragraph that goes straight for the jugular. Especially if you’re writing a short piece, there is no time for dilly-dallying.

Alongside the World Trade Center

Today J and I went downtown to see the Tall Ships that are in town for this week’s Sail Boston festivities. It was a warm and sunny day, and there were thousands of people strolling along the waterfront, many of them queued to board the ships in port. J and I didn’t board any ships, but we walked alongside them, admiring and taking pictures from shore.

Happy kid

Security for the event was tight: earlier this week, I heard a radio interview with the Massachusetts Undersecretary of Homeland Security, who explained Sail Boston had received the highest possible risk rating from the Department of Homeland Security given the large number of people it was expected to attract to a variety of land and sea venues over a large area. Today, J and I saw local and state police everywhere, a mobile Homeland Security command center, and massive plows and salt trucks parked at every intersection to prevent unauthorized vehicles from gaining access.

Our Lady of Good Voyage

On our way home, J and I stopped at Our Lady of Good Voyage, a new church built in the Seaport neighborhood to replace a tiny chapel that once bore the same name. The new church is on a now-busy corner with new skyscrapers, upscale offices, and luxury apartments on all sides: an island of calm in the city’s hottest (and rapidly developing) new neighborhood.

Inside Our Lady of Good Voyage

One thing that traditionally Catholic cities do well, I think, is provide places for contemplation in otherwise bustling neighborhoods. Our Lady of Good Voyage was open to passersby today, so Jim and I went inside to sit a spell, admiring the maritime-themed decor and relishing the chance to sit somewhere quiet, apart from the bustling crowds.

Ship models and stained glass

When I lived in Beacon Hill as a stressed and over-worked graduate student, I occasionally visited two Franciscan shrines in the heart of downtown Boston: the St. Anthony Shrine on Arch Street, and the St. Francis Chapel in the Prudential Center. Although both shrines offered frequent Masses for nearby workers to attend on weekdays, I never actually went to Mass at either. Instead, I appreciated them as open and available spaces where anyone could step inside, take a seat, and enjoy a quiet moment of private contemplation.

At a time of my life that was busy and bustling, those sacred spaces provided a safe and reliable harbor in the midst of my own personal storms, and I trust Our Lady of Good Voyage will do the same for its new neighbors.

Robot kid

I recently started reading David M. Levy’s Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives. The book was published last year, but I checked it out from my public library last week, when I upgraded my smartphone and am hyper-aware of how reliant upon technology I am in my daily life.

Mindful Tech is filled with exercises encouraging readers to observe how they interact with technology, and it’s encouraging me to revisit and reflect upon my own use of email, social media, and other apps. Although I was one of the last of my friends and colleagues to get a smartphone several years ago, I quickly became dependent upon it for a wide range of uses.

Robot

On a typical day, I use my phone to check email, access my calendar, manage to-do lists, and follow news stories. I take photos on my phone, and I use my phone to post those photos to Instagram, Flickr, Twitter, and Facebook. I manage blog comments on my phone, I read Kindle books and New Yorker articles on my phone, and I use smartphone apps to pay for parking, manage my library holds, and time my meditation and writing sessions. Although I do occasionally use my phone to make phone calls and send texts, I mostly use it throughout the day, every day, to manage my time and daily tasks.

Given all the things I do on my phone, it’s easy to become an obsessive checker, even when such checking isn’t helpful, useful, or efficient. In the summer and on weekends during the school year, for example, I’ve gotten in the habit of checking school email on my tablet in the morning, before I begin my morning journal pages. I don’t check email then because I have time to answer any important emails I’ve received overnight but because I want to make sure there aren’t any important emails awaiting. What I’m looking for when I check email in the morning, in other words, is permission to start my day…and when I phrase it that way, it doesn’t sound like a good or healthy thing.

Molten

When I check school email in the morning on my tablet, what I find in my inbox sets the tone for what’s to follow. If there aren’t any urgent emails in my inbox, I am relieved I can start the day with a clean slate. But if there are urgent emails awaiting me, one of two things happens: I either get sidetracked into answering those emails right away, which always takes longer than I’d planned, or I put off answering those emails for later, which means the thought of Unanswered Messages hangs over my head like a boom that’s just waiting to drop.

On a purely rational level, checking email just to check doesn’t make much sense. Unless I have time to answer any urgent emails immediately, there’s no reason not to put off checking until after I’ve written my journal pages: any student who has waited overnight for an answer can surely wait another half hour or so. Levy’s book is encouraging me to look more closely at habits such as these, not with a prescriptive aim of telling me how I should interact with technology but by encouraging me to ask honest questions of myself. Why do I check email or interact with social media the way I do, and how well are those choices working for me?

Robot Kid

I’ve just started reading Levy’s book, so I don’t know what conclusions I’ll ultimately draw from it. But already, it’s been helpful to think about my work habits as a series of choices that are largely under my control. Although I can’t control all the parameters of my work life, there are some basic habits I can enforce, such as making a conscious effort to bring my awareness back to my body as I am working: how am I breathing? How is my posture? Where in my body do I feel stiffness or tension?

This simple act of bringing attention back to one’s body is a meditative act that can be done anywhere, including at one’s desk while doing work, so it makes sense that Levy encourages it. The mind can wander, but the body can only be here. The moment you bring your attention back to your body, your focus instantly and automatically returns to the Present Moment: a low-tech attention exercise that can be done anywhere at anytime, with or without a smartphone in hand.

Mountain laurel

This time of year, when the mountain laurel is blooming outside our front door, I silently thank whoever it was who planted it. I love flowers but don’t have a green thumb, so I’m grateful that someone chose to surround our house with rhododendrons, euonymus, and pieris as well as spiderwort and spirea: a flowering legacy that continues from year to year despite burying snows and nibbling rabbits.

Mountain laurel

Want to make a lasting difference in the world? You can have and raise children, or start and grow a charity, or make and donate millions. Or, you can plant a long-lived and hardy perennial, something green and growing that will outlast you. They say the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, and I’m grateful to the gardeners who had the foresight to plant the flowers and shrubs that fringe my house with beauty now.

Little Free Library

Little Free Libraries have been popping up everywhere in Newton these days. We’ve had a Little Free Library in our neighborhood in Waban for a couple years now; there have been two at “The Street” in Chestnut Hill for nearly as long; and in the past few weeks, others have appeared in front of the Waban Library Center, a house on Beacon Street, and a house in Newton Centre.

Take a book, leave a book

Anyone can put up a box filled with books with a sign telling passersby to take a book and leave a book, and it seems our neighbors are fond of reading and encouraging others to read. Although I mostly read books borrowed from the public library these days, having so many Little Free Libraries around is encouraging me to re-visit my shelves, looking for books I’ve read and don’t plan to revisit.

No book-lover likes to weed out books; ideally, we’d keep every book we’ve read or wanted to read. But giving books away is different. Leaving a book in a Little Free Library feels like the bookish equivalent of catch-and-release fishing. Having held a book in your hands for a little while, you set it free for some other reader to enjoy.

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