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Popping up like mushrooms

Monday was a gray and damp day, with thick fog and misty drizzle in the morning. For the first time in a week, it was cool enough for the dog and me to walk to the Place of Pines and back. Few dog-walkers were out because of the threat of rain, and it was too cool for bugs.

Eastern wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus) fruit forming

There’s a solitary American wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus) I see blooming every year near where the trail forks toward Puritan Road, just past Beethoven Street. Right now, this shrub is done flowering and is forming green fruit that will in time ripen to red and burst. I stopped to take photos of these fruit in formation, but it was difficult given the paleness of the hanging globes and the lack of a contrasting background.

Solitary ghost pipe

I also photographed a solitary ghost pipe (Monotropa uniflora). It was odd to see just one blooming, as they usually grow in clumps. But I know now to look for others: if there is one blooming, there are presumably more, and the first appearance of ghost pipe always comes as a surprise, a reminder that it is later in the year than I think.

Mostly, these moist and steamy days are good for fungus and fern. There is a sensitive fern spontaneously sprouting by our back door, and dead stumps along the Aqueduct Trail are frilled with shelf fungus. Today there is a stand of mushrooms where there were none yesterday: a bit of fungal magic brought about by weeks of almost-tropical humidity.

Lime Bikes

Dockless bike-sharing has come to Newton, Massachusetts, which means our neighborhood is dotted with eye-popping green and yellow LimeBikes that people can rent via a smartphone app and then leave anywhere, with no need to return to a central location.

Needham Street Lime Bikes

When the city’s LimeBikes were first deployed, they were seemingly everywhere, prominently placed in front of stores, banks, and City Hall: anywhere people are likely to congregate. Now that people have been (presumably) riding them, the bikes are less visible. Instead of being parked in prominent packs, they now have scattered singly: a bike here and there, parked in front of houses or at residential intersections where riders have left them for their next hire.

Needham Street Lime Bikes

This means my daily dog-walks and routine errands have turned into a kind of Easter egg hunt: where, in a word, will I spot another Limey?

Although it’s been years since I’ve ridden a bike, I used to ride regularly. When I lived in Cambridge in the 1990s, my then-husband and I didn’t have a car, so my chief modes of transportation were my own two feet, the T, and my bike. Back then, I was young and fearless, riding in Cambridge traffic with nothing but a helmet and my own confidence to protect me.

Avalon Lime Bikes

These days, I wince whenever I drive past a cyclist, their bodies seeming so fragile and small. But I remember from my biking days that my sense of personal space was different then: as long as I could find an open area to maneuver my bike and myself, I felt shielded from larger, more lumbering vehicles, zipping in between cars and looking out for my own safety since I (accurately) assumed no one else was looking out for me.

City Hall Lime Bikes

Part of me would love to hop on a LimeBike: is it true when they say you never forget how to ride? But my older, creakier, more settled and sturdy self observes that I don’t have a helmet nor a definite destination: I have no need, in other words, to ride a bike when I can either drive or walk anywhere I’d like to go.

Hyde Playground Lime Bike

Recently, LeBron James explained how having a bike changed his life when he was a poor kid growing up in Akron, Ohio: “If you had a bike, it was a way to kind of let go and be free.” I remember the rush of freedom I felt when I was old enough to ride my bike to the library, pool, or even a movie all by myself. Remembering that breezy freedom of being on two wheels, I wonder whether the sassy confidence of decades past would reappear as soon as I straddled a seat.

It's post time

Every time J and I go to Suffolk Downs, we assume it will be the last time we watch live racing there. Back in 2014, the track announced it would be closing, and every year since then it has hosted three weekends of live racing: just enough to qualify for funding from the Massachusetts Gaming Commission.

Bearly broke a sweat

This year, however, is truly the end of the road for Suffolk Downs. The investment group that bought the property is planning to redevelop it for housing and retail, and if Amazon chooses to locate its second headquarters in Boston, Suffolk Downs is the site the city proposed for that project.

Ahead by a head

Horse racing is a dying pastime: as long as a handful of racetracks feature live racing, people far and wide can place bets via simulcasting. J and I have never placed a bet at Suffolk Downs: we go there to see and photograph actual horses and have no interest in the crowds of gambling folk staring at screens inside.

Backstretch

In its heyday, Suffolk Downs was a swanky establishment: the place to be. Those days, however, are long past. The grandstand, betting concourses, and dining rooms are large, and the crowds for live racing are modest. Every time J and I go to Suffolk Downs, we remark on how clean but run-down it is: a carry-over from a time when people weren’t glued to their TV, computer, and smartphone screens.

Let's go

For me, Suffolk Downs will always represent a simpler time: not only the heyday of thoroughbred racing (the sport of kings!), but also the days when I was a horse-crazy girl living in a suburb with absolutely no horses. Going to Suffolk Downs is like taking my inner child to a candy store. Everywhere you look, there are shiny, pretty horses walking and trotting and galloping, the stuff of my childhood dreams.

Whoa there fella

They can (and will) bulldoze Suffolk Downs and build something new and more lucrative on this plot of prime real estate, but there’s at least one horse-crazy lady who will remember it for the four-footed animals who trod there.

Click here for my photo set of photos from this weekend’s trip to Suffolk Downs. The track will offer one more weekend of live racing in August, then it will close for good: happy trails!

Hydrangea in shade

We’re having a heat wave here in the Boston suburbs, with 90-degree days forecast through the end of the week. I walk Toivo in the mornings, before the heat of the day, but we still had the neighborhood almost entirely to ourselves this morning, as even then it was too humid for all but the most intrepid dog-walkers.

Hydrangea

Toivo and I walk a bit more slowly on steamy mornings, and I try to steer us into the shade as much as possible. We’ve walked to the place of pines two days in a row, and we’ve had the trail to ourselves: just me, Toivo, and a cloud of mosquitoes hovering like a veil before my face.

Our backyard hydrangeas are blooming and looked a bit wilted in this afternoon’s full sunlight. A neighbor has a different variety of hydrangea planted in a shady corner of their yard, and I stopped Toivo long enough this morning to snap a few photos. In the middle of a New England heat wave, you have to take any excuse you can to linger in the shade.

Thou shalt not steal beer

This past weekend, J and I went to the annual open house at Spencer Brewery, the Trappist brewery located on the grounds of Saint Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, MA. I’ve been to the Abbey Church at Saint Joseph’s before, so I’ve seen where the monks pray, and this weekend’s open house gave me the opportunity to see where the monks work.

Beer flow chart

Walking around Spencer Brewery got me thinking about the Benedictine motto “Ora et labora,” which means “pray and work.” The schedule of monastic life at Saint Joseph’s makes sense if you remember that Trappists seclude themselves to focus on these two things. The liturgy of the hours offers a structured way for cloistered monks to spend their day alternating prayer and work, prayer and work, prayer and work.

A system of pipes

The public perception that cloistered monks and nuns are inactive and quietistic exists because we divide monastic orders into the categories of active and contemplative. Monks and nuns from so-called active orders work in the world as clergy, teachers, nurses, or missionaries. Contemplative monastics, on the other hand, live apart from the world in monasteries or convents.

Tanks and pipes

Contemplative orders point to the Biblical story of Mary and Martha to justify their vocational path. When Jesus visited the home of these sisters, Martha busied herself with the household logistics of hosting a guest while Mary chose to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen while he teached. When Martha complained that Mary wasn’t doing her share of the domestic chores, Jesus famously took Mary’s side, saying “Mary has chosen the better part.”

The division of monastic orders into active and contemplative, however, is misleading, as all religious communities (and all religious people) are a combination of both. Yes, Trappist monks live apart from the world and lead a prayer-centered life that is largely silent. But Trappists also live in communities that strive to be self-sufficient, and that necessitates the “work” half of “Ora et labora.” In contemplative communities, work and prayer are like two hands that work in tandem. One’s work supports one’s prayer, and one’s prayer supports one’s work. In my Zen school, we say “A day without work is a day without eating,” and a Trappist would agree with the spirit of that saying.

Where beer comes from

Years ago at a Christian-Buddhist retreat at the Providence Zen Center, Father Kevin Hunt traveled from Saint Joseph’s Abbey to represent the “Christian” portion of the retreat. During the time for questions, a retreatant asked Father Kevin how he could justify isolating himself in a monastery when there was an entire world out here in need of help. Father Kevin responded by asking the woman what she intended to do when she got home from the retreat, and she said she’d probably make dinner for her family and get her kids ready for another busy school week. “Excellent,” Father Kevin replied. “When I get back to the monastery, I have toilets to clean. You take care of your family, and I take care of mine.”

Palletized

We all work in our own separate ways: some of us raise children, some of us tend pets, some of us teach, and some of us sit at desks, toiling and typing. The important thing isn’t what you do when you work but why you do it. Trappist monks make jam, jelly, and beer because they need an income to support their prayerful practice. That prayerful practice is shared with the world in turn through the monastery’s hospitality. People like me can visit the Abbey Church at Saint Joseph’s because there is someone there whose work keeps the lights on and the toilets clean.

Pretty pout

Last week I taught the Thursday night Introduction to Zen Meditation class at the Cambridge Zen Center. Afterward, I found myself wondering how many times have I taught this class over the years. How many people have walked through the Zen Center doors, had a half hour of meditation instruction from a Dharma teacher like me, and then never darkened the door of a Zen Center ever again?

Pink blob

Zen Master Dae Kwang once said that Dharma teachers should teach the Zen intro class knowing that students might never come back: the goal, he said, is to give people a practice they can take with them and employ in their daily life, regardless of whether they return to a Zen Center. The Zen intro class, in other words, isn’t a recruitment tool; it’s the handing out of fishing rods. I’m not giving you a fish, nor am I insisting that you fish next to me. Instead, I’m giving you the tools you’ll need to plumb the depths of your very own stream, regardless of where the river of your life carries you.

Tom

The most important Zen Center isn’t the one you can walk in and out of; it’s the one you carry within you. When I sit to meditate, the first thing I feel is a flash of welcome recognition: the relief of coming home. Ahhh, my soul sighs. At long last you’ve quit your rush and bustle–at long last you’ve reunited with your true self in the Here and Now. This sense of quiet calm–this sense of settling one’s soul beside still waters–arises whether I am meditating at the Zen Center, in my car, or at my desk at home. It is a deep, settled feeling that isn’t a place but a connection with This Present Moment.

Jerry

This is why I don’t say much about the bells and whistles of Zen Center-style practice when I teach the intro class. Instead, I focus on the three things you need to practice anywhere, regardless of setting or ideology. These three things things–attention to body, attention to breath, and attention to mind–are always with you, regardless of your external circumstance or trappings. If you are alive, you have a body, a breath, and mind, and you will continue to have each of them in one shape or another until you die.

Both your body and your breath are limited by space and time. However much the mind might wander, the body and breath can exist only Right Here, Right Now. If you stop reading these words to pay attention to the slouch or straightness of your back, the precise position of each of your hands, and the actual angle of your skull upon your spine, you will for that moment be present Here, because that is always where your body is.

Bugs

Similarly, if you take a moment to observe your breath as it flows in and out, you will be present Here and Now because that is the only place where breathing happens. Try as you might, you can’t make up for yesterday’s lost breath, nor can you store up breath for tomorrow. Both the body and breath are perishable–they are rooted in the present moment and are destined to pass–but the mind deludes itself by thinking it is immortal and unchanging. This is where the mind (literally) wanders astray, venturing far and wide into the past and future where body and breath cannot follow, the self divided against (and thus in conflict with) itself.

The Wall at Central Square

This is why meditation feels like coming home, regardless of where you do it. The moment your mind realizes it is wandering and comes back to where your body and your breath are, you are instantaneously and temporarily whole. This magical moment of reunion is something some people never experience, but it is perpetually at hand, right under your proverbial nose.

Leafy

This morning I awoke in western Massachusetts, where I had been visiting A (not her real initial) for the weekend. Before packing my car to head back home, I wrote my morning journal pages in bed, listening to a distant dog barking and the emphatic bursts and bubbles of house wrens, robins, and song sparrows.

Gallery

None of those morning sounds were my concern: there was no need for me to hush, feed, or clean up after that distant dog, and the robins, wrens, and sparrows of western Massachusetts kindly take care of themselves. I have my own backyard birds at home, and my own awaiting tasks. I arrived in Newton around noon, and Toivo wiggled herself in a frenzy at the sight of me, and J gratefully relinquished my share of the household chores, just as I hand over his when he returns from business trips.

Airy

Everything, in other words, has quickly returned to normal: how could it be otherwise? Both humans and dogs (and backyard birds, I suppose) are creatures of habit, and I am so far sunk into the happy rut of my domestic days, I don’t quite remember how to function outside of it.

Natural light

Zen is widely seen as a crazy, spontaneous practice–the stuff of carefree Dharma bums and zany Zen Masters–but this popular perception overlooks the sheer repetitive monotony of monastic practice. For every spontaneous outburst recorded in a Zen Master’s collected teachings, said Master spent countless hours getting up every day at the same time, gazing for the same meticulously scheduled increments at the same habitual floor, chanting the same traditional words at the same regimented hours, and going to bed at the same precise time every night to repeat it all over again and again.

Doorway

Monasticism is the heart of Zen practice, and monastic monotony is the stable, steady heartbeat that sustains occasional spontaneity. How can you be truly free unless you have no need to wonder where and when your next meal will be or where and when you’ll lay down your head? Monastics free their minds by taming and harnessing their bodies; an ox long accustomed to the yoke has infinite freedom to wander anywhere in his untameable mind.

Through

It’s been a long time since I lived in a Zen Center, but my daily routine with its chores and domestic rituals is its own kind of practice. This morning I loaded my car and drove home to my mundane life carrying a weekend’s worth of dirty clothes: after the ecstasy, the laundry.

The photos illustrating today’s post are from Ellsworth Kelly: Plant Lithographs, an exhibit at the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, MA.

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