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Black birds

I went to the Zen Center twice this week, leading sitting on Sunday night then giving consulting interviews on Tuesday. Whenever I settle on a cushion at the Zen Center, it feels like coming home and plugging in. Whereas the rest of my life might be running me ragged, going to the Zen Center and focusing on only one thing helps me calm, collect, and renew myself.

Minds closed eyes blown

I sometimes imagine consciousness as being like a beam of light or a stream of water. When a flashlight shines widely, its brightness is diffused; when rivulets branch and wander, their stream weakens to a trickle. When you tightly contain either a beam or stream, however, you experience its true power: focused light becomes laser-sharp, and concentrated water both stings and penetrates.

During the school year, my energy is scattered among obligations, and during the summer, my attention is relaxed and diffuse. When I settle on a cushion at the Zen Center, however, I feel a sudden surge as I harness my energies, reining them in like a large, tractable horse with ample abilities to either prance or pull.

Fresh flowers

Today J and I went to the Boston Public Market, a year-round, indoor market for local farmers, foodies, and artisans that recently opened at Haymarket, where farmers have been selling fish and produce for years. The outdoor stalls at Haymarket are loud and chaotic, and the indoor stands at the Boston Public Market are equally busy, with passersby browsing, tasting samples, and otherwise enjoying the ambiance.

Sweet Lydia's

Although J and I were technically “just looking,” we ended up buying chocolate bars from Taza Chocolate, candies from Sweet Lydia’s, and a jar of wildflower honey from the Boston Honey Company. J also bought a fieldstone coaster from American Stonecraft: now, whenever he sets a cup of tea on his desk, he’ll remember the story of how the stone beneath his mug was dug from a New Hampshire farm field, then cut and polished into a work of art.

American Stonecraft

It’s funny how knowing the story behind a stone, chocolate bar, or jar of honey makes that thing more valuable: instead of miraculously appearing at the grocery store, a square of Sweet Lydia’s maple bacon caramel was made by a real human being. Although we weren’t in the market for fresh flowers or locally brewed beer, J and I enjoyed browsing the Public Market’s embarrassment of local riches. A public market is a feast for the senses, regardless of how much you buy.

Echo Bridge, not far from Echo Bridge

Recently the city of Newton has decorated selected utility boxes with historic images of area neighborhoods, giving bored pedestrians and motorists stuck in traffic something to look at while they wait for their light to change. The utility box at the corner of Chestnut and Elliot Streets in Newton Upper Falls, for instance, features a vintage postcard of Echo Bridge, which is right nearby, and a utility box at a busy corner in West Newton shows a nineteenth century street scene.

West Newton then and now

Utility boxes are, of course, utilitarian, filled with wires and switches and other necessary electrical gadgetry: most of the time, I walk right past utility boxes without even noticing them, much less considering what is either inside or on them. But these days, I find myself searching for electrical boxes as I drive around doing errands, trying to spot and collect the decorated ones like so many Easter eggs.

Great blue heron on electrical box

I suppose if you have to have utility boxes, you might as well make them interesting to look at, a bit of artfulness to complement their utility. Even an unsightly box becomes interesting when you stick vintage photos on it: an invitation to imagine what might have happened at this very intersection a century or so ago.

A village of traditions

STEAM Expo and summer reading pennants

Last week when I went to the Newton Free Library to return a book, I saw that librarians had strung a line of handmade pennants promoting the mayor’s annual Summer Reading Challenge. As a child, I loved these challenges, as I loved to read and cherished the excuse of a “challenge” to indulge in a beloved summer pastime. Summer reading programs are designed to entice children who would prefer to do anything other than read, but I didn’t need any sort of enticement.

Summer Reading pennants

When I was a kid, signing up for a summer reading challenge meant you’d be rewarded for the number of books you read, with prizes such as stickers and T-shirt decals for each milestone. Although I didn’t need such prizes to lure me to the library, every year I signed up regardless because getting rewarded to read was like piling prizes atop of prizes. What I looked forward to each summer, after all, was the freedom to read more than I could during the school year, when both classes and assigned homework got in the way. Rewarding me for reading in the summer time was like rewarding a child for eating candy.

Summer Reading pennants

In Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, Gretchen Rubin advises against using rewards to encourage someone to cultivate a habit, as the habit itself should be its own reward. If the only reason you’re reading is to earn a sticker or T-shirt, you’ll probably stop reading after those rewards have ceased. For me, summer reading prizes were more of a bonus than a bribe, but I can understand Rubin’s perspective. If you’re trying to encourage a child who doesn’t like to read, offering prizes might work in the short term, but the reading habit will “stick” only if a child discovers he or she actually enjoys reading for its own sake.

Summer Reading pennants

Even now, I look forward to summertime as a chance to catch up with reading. During the school year, I spend too much time prepping classes and grading student papers. Summer is when I remind myself that the whole reason I became an English major, after all, is the simple fact that I love to read. During the lazy days of June, July, and August, I let my curiosity lead me, reading whatever catches my interest. Sometimes I’ll read something because a friend on Goodreads recommended it, like Carine McCandless’ The Wild Truth, or sometimes I’ll read a book because it’s related to a recent news story, like Rachel Hope Cleves’ Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America. When I hear an author I like is coming out with a new book, I immediately request it from the library, content to wait my turn along with the other early-birds. This means my summer reading list is a kind of planned serendipity where new books I’d forgotten I’d requested, like Judy Blume’s new novel or Oliver Sacks’ new autobiography, suddenly show up, ready for me to read them: a surprise that is its own reward.

Many turns

This afternoon on my way home from an errand, I stopped at Boston College to walk the memorial labyrinth there. I’ve blogged about this labyrinth before: as someone who loves both walking and walking meditation, I’m fascinated by labyrinths, which are designed to contain an entire pilgrimage–there and back–in a single constrained space. Of the various labyrinths I’ve walked over the years, the one at BC is probably my favorite with its smooth stones and fringe of green grass. Why go on pilgrimage when the earth underfoot is so clearly holy?

Labyrinth green

When I taught at BC for a semester two years ago, I had high hopes of walking the labyrinth there frequently: how simple would be, I thought, to take a quick pilgrimage every day after class? In reality, though, I walked the labyrinth only once that semester, on September 11. The BC labyrinth is a memorial to alumni who died during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the anniversary of that tragedy pushed me out of my office and onto the labyrinth’s curvy course. Apart from that one day, however, I repeatedly told myself I didn’t have time to take a detour toward the labyrinth on the way from my office to my car. While teaching at BC three days a week for an entire semester, I repeatedly told myself I was too busy to take even a few extra minutes for a leisurely stroll.

You are here

Now that I’m not teaching at BC, I see each of the times I didn’t walk the labyrinth after class as being a missed opportunity. The fact that I felt I didn’t have time for a contemplative stroll meant I most definitely needed to take one: whenever you’re too busy to meditate, of course, is when you need meditation the most. As soon as I started walking the labyrinth today, I remembered a curious fact: when you’re walking a labyrinth, time seems to stand still. Whereas moments before you were checking your watch and ticking through your to-do list, the moment you start walking a labyrinth, time slows as you carefully attend the step underfoot, trusting the way There will eventually bring you back Here.

Afternoon light

Rabbit overlord

The Lawn on D is exactly what its name implies: a rectangular patch of grass along D Street in South Boston, next to the Boston Convention Center. Although I’ve walked past the Convention Center on numerous occasions, I didn’t know there was a lawn there until this past weekend, when I met friends to check out a temporary installation of giant inflatable rabbits.

Beside a bunny

As I approached the Lawn on D on Saturday afternoon, I heard upbeat music blaring from loudspeakers before I spotted any enormous bunnies. “I have to let you go,” the young man walking ahead of me shouted into his phone. “I’m on my way to a party.”

And he was exactly right: there’s nothing like giant inflatable rabbits to transform an otherwise bland rectangle of lawn into a festive atmosphere. Titled “Intrude,” Amanda Parer’s installation of giant white rabbits is intended to shock and unsettle: where did these behemoth bunnies come from, and what exactly are they doing here? As an Australian, Parer knows the environmental havoc invasive rabbits cause…but in Boston this weekend, the big bunnies’ cuteness undermined any real sense of invasive threat.

Hug a bunny

As it turns out, kids of all ages love white rabbits, even if they are both invasive and alarmingly large. On Saturday, there were parents posing their kids among the rabbits, and twenty-somethings taking selfies, and a seemingly interchangeable cast of characters lounging beside and even beneath the bunnies. Rabbits are quintessentially cuddly, and giant inflatable rabbits are infinitely huggable, as soft and inviting as fluffy pillows or clouds.

Passersby

Art is something many people associate with indoor, buttoned-up places where signs and guards tell you to keep your distance: you can look, but you can’t touch (much less hug) the art. At the Lawn on D, the whole concept of art as an indoor endeavor seemed entirely irrelevant. More than an exhibit or installation, Intrude felt like a beach party or backyard cookout, with throngs of people congregating around lounge chairs, ping-pong tables, and a seemingly irresistible set of swings.

Stretch

What does it take to turn an otherwise nondescript rectangle of grass into a communal conversation piece where kids of all ages can relax and play? Nothing more than an inflatable invasion of large, cuddly creatures that are entirely out of place but immediately make themselves at home. Now that Amanda Parer’s rabbits have come and gone, I can’t imagine how empty the Lawn on D must feel without them.

One bunny, two minions

Bee on purple coneflower

Every year, summer announces its arrival in ways that don’t necessarily correspond to human calendars. To some, Memorial Day marks the traditional start of summer, but for others, summer arrives with the summer solstice or the July 4th holiday. Memorial Day is in May, the summer solstice is in June, and the 4th of July is (obviously) in July, which means summer arrives either gradually or repeatedly over the course of a month or so, depending on whose calendar you follow.

Purple coneflower

For me, there are two surefire signs that the height of summer is really here: cicadas and coneflowers. Earlier this week, while J and I were walking to lunch on a humid day, I heard the year’s first cicada calling from a shady spot along a woodsy trail that wends through our neighborhood. To my ears, the first cicadas of summer sound shrill and sharp, as if recently honed. Only in August will the collective chorus of cicadas have a deeper, more rattling sound, as if their voices have both deepened and dulled with age.

Purple coneflowers

Last Friday, I took a moment to photograph the purple coneflowers blooming in a garden alongside the Hyde Playground in Newton Highlands. Purple coneflowers are one of my favorite flowers: I love their eye-popping combination of purple and orange as well as the textural contrast between their pleated petals and spiky centers. The fact that these Hyde Playground coneflowers are garden plantings rather than wild blooms doesn’t make them any less a harbinger of summer: regardless of who planted them, these coneflowers open (and are beset with neighborhood bees) only when the sun stirs them.

Purple coneflower

So you can forget about the dog days of summer; we’ve reached the days of coneflowers and cicadas. What do dogs know about summer that the flowers and bugs haven’t already told them?

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