Cambridge


Mannequins thinking of spring

This morning for the second Sunday in a row, I woke up early, did my morning chores, then drove to the Cambridge Zen Center, where I meditated for one session before heading to Harvard Square, where I wrote my morning journal pages over a small cup of Burdick’s dark hot chocolate.

Respect art / Not art

Sitting one rather than four Sunday morning meditation sessions means your practice is necessarily concentrated. You can’t space out for minutes at a time, figuring you’ll pay attention later. Knowing you have only thirty minutes to sit following your breath, you pay close attention to every minute, saving nothing for “later.”

This, in my experience, is the difference between living at a Zen Center and simply visiting. When I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, I quickly grew accustomed to the mundane nature of Dharma room practice, taking it for granted and not paying as close attention over time. When you live in a Zen Center, it’s easy to show up in body but not fully in mind. When you drive in from the suburbs to sit a brief half hour, on the other hand, you take care to pay close attention to that time, recognizing it as a precious respite in a sea of hurry.

Outside Warby Parker

A cup of dark hot chocolate is like this too. Burdick’s chocolate is rich, intensely flavored, and delivers a day-long buzz: a whole day of energy in one small cup. If I lived next door to Burdick’s, I might take it for granted, growing too accustomed to a mid-morning pick-me-up. Instead, a concentrated cup of dark chocolate is an occasional reward I give myself on those Sundays when I get up early and go to the Zen Center as planned: a good start to a new week, capped with something strong and just a little bit sweet.

Burdicks

This morning after sitting a single session at the Cambridge Zen Center, I slipped out of practice and walked to Harvard Square, where I treated myself to a small dark hot chocolate, just as I did several weeks ago on my birthday.

Reflective self portrait

This time, I brought a full-size notebook, tucking it in my purse so I could sit alongside the anonymous women of Cambridge: young women in pairs, chatting, and middle-aged women like me, shrouded in invisibility as we sit writing or reading over our solitary beverages. Early on a Sunday morning, men seem to venture into Burdicks only briefly to purchase coffee or chocolates to go, or they hurry in to join a wife or daughter after having accomplished the manly work of parking the car.

This, I’ve decided, is one of the key differences between women and men in our culture. Women willingly go places alone, sit alone, and are perfectly content to be left alone as long as they have a book, magazine, or notebook to occupy themselves. Men, on the other hand, need women to accompany them. A man needs a woman to pull him out of his isolation, to drag him into chocolate shops he’d never venture into on his own, and to make introductions and small talk and niceties. A man needs a woman (in other words) to do the emotional labor of socializing.

Letter writing

A lone woman–particularly a lone woman of a certain age–embraces her invisibility; she cherishes it, in fact, after so many years of being the object of others’ eyes. A man, on the other hand, needs a woman on his arm–the younger and prettier the better–to become visible, to be noticed, to make both an entrance and an impression. A lone man loitering is a threat–an object of suspicion–but a lone woman slips unobtrusively under the radar. The proverbial fly on the wall was, I am certain, female. Who better to observe and record the actions of others than a creature who is small, insignificant, and overlooked: a mousy creature, not a preening peacock.

Chocolate pigs??

There are, of course, exceptions; the differences I’ve outlined between women and men are, after all, conditioned, not innate. When I first arrived at Burdicks this morning, there was a young man sitting alone at a table across from me. Before I could wonder whether he was waiting for a wife or girlfriend, however, this young man pulled out a camera: a large SLR with a fancy lens that served to justify his presence. Snapping a shot of the delicate, dangling lights overhead–the same lights I’d surreptitiously shot with my phone, with no fancy lens necessary–this young man promptly packed his expensive camera into his backpack and left: mission accomplished.

Journal pages

When I chose a table this morning, I didn’t sit alongside this man or at the row of empty tables near him; instead, I squeezed into a single table between two lone women, one on either side. The ways that women and men behave in public are conditioned, not innate, but they are conditioned deeply. Men take up space with their backpacks and large cameras, and women (especially those of a certain age) shrink into the spaces between, our invisibility a silent, secret strength that allows us to see.

Eeyore

Yesterday after months of secret angst, I turned fifty. Now that I’ve passed that venerable milestone, I realize what I had been dreading wasn’t being fifty by turning fifty. Among women of a certain age, there is a widespread expectation (spoken or implied) that you should Do Something Grand for milestone birthdays, and my usual low-key celebratory style felt completely inadequate, at least in my imagined build up to The Event.

You are enough

But now that the auspicious occasion is officially over, I can say I celebrated as I (if nobody else) saw fit. In the morning, I went to the Zen Center, left after one meditation session, then walked to Harvard Square, where I explored the old burying ground–there is nothing like visiting graves of the centuries-ago deceased to put your life in perspective–before stopping at Burdick’s, where I treated myself to half a slice of raspberry-chocolate cake and a small dark hot chocolate. And under the combined influence of meditation, a brisk walk, and high octane chocolate, I did something I love to do but hadn’t done in ages: I sat in a cafe and wrote, starting with nothing to say and eventually finding words to describe why turning fifty has been unsettling. I wrote my way, in other words, into my own sort of clarity.

Street salamander

This is how I’ve navigated the first fifty years of my life, so why wouldn’t it be an apt way to celebrate the commencement of the next? After that first decadent treat, the rest of the day unspooled like any other Sunday: J and I walked to lunch at our favorite Thai restaurant, where our waiter surprised us with ice cream, and then we played with the dogs in the yard in the afternoon, as we normally do.

It was a quiet and contemplative day–no grand trips or parties or eye-popping spectacles to advertise on social media–but it was a day with all the things I love: walking and meditating and time with J and the dogs. And it was a day, too, with not one but three deserts: Burdicks cake and hot chocolate in the morning, Thai ice cream at lunch, and a slice of chocolate peanut butter cake in the evening. It was a day, in other words, with an abundance of delights.

Pooh and Eeyore

At some point, I’ll blog the journal entry I wrote yesterday at Burdicks, but for now all that’s necessary is to note I had a quietly delightful day and couldn’t have wished for anything better. If the way you spend your birthday is the way you’ll spend the coming year, please sign me up for fifty more.

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.

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.

RIP Bowie

Starting a new semester always feels like plunging into a bottomless lake: you’re instantly subsumed into a dizzying blur of motion, and it takes a while to find your equilibrium. I sometimes wonder what it is like for folks who work a regular job where every day is pretty much like the last, without the excitement and upheaval of starting over, again, every three months or so. It there comfort in being settled into a predictable routine, or does that routine quickly become a daily slog?

Shhhhh

After several years of teaching nothing but first-year writing, this semester I’m teaching a 200-level literature class on “The American Short Story.” I taught a similar adult education class in New Hampshire years ago, but what worked with a small group of adults meeting one night a week after work doesn’t necessarily play to a brimming classroom of 18- to 20-something-year-olds. When you teach a class for the first time in a long time, it’s easy to doubt both your knowledge and abilities: is teaching a skill you always remember, like riding a bike, or can you grow so rusty, you forget how to do it over time?

Speakers

Preparation is essential to good teaching: the classes where you walk in and try to “wing it” are invariably the ones where everything goes wrong. But there is such a thing as over-preparation. When I look back on the detailed class-plans I crafted for that long-ago adult ed course, I’m amazed I ever had time to be so organized. In retrospect, I realize my typewritten plans were designed for my own more than my students’ benefit: having pages of notes as a safety net made me feel more confident even if I never actually referred to them in class.

Tongue

Looking back on that long-ago adult education class, I remember how the best sessions took on a life of their own, my students steering the discussion into corners my notes never anticipated. I suppose that’s how teaching goes on the good days: you prepare your script, then you let yourself improvise as the moment unfolds. Plunged into the dizzying blur of the present moment, you kick your legs and flail your arms, relieved to realize you never forgot how to swim.

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