It’s been a whirlwind day that started with the usual chores before dawn, followed by teaching on one campus, hurrying home to pick up Groucho for a vet visit, then ferrying Groucho home before dashing off to an evening event at the other campus: one day that’s felt like three. As I get ready to do my evening chores before starting the roller coaster ride all over tomorrow, it feels like several lifetimes ago when I went to the Zen Center last night and took a few spare moments to shoot photos of graffiti after dark: a moment of quiet calm before the start of another whirlwind week.

The Wall at Central Square

During the last week of classes, when students and instructors alike are sleep-deprived and swamped with work, you learn to accept words of encouragement wherever you find them.

Will finish on Sunday

Painters know that before you get down to work, you have to prepare your canvas. If you’re a street artist, this means painting over the work of those who preceded you, creating an empty space for your own design. Although graffiti might seem to be a hurried medium, creating a multicolored design takes time. Each layer of paint has to dry before you apply the next, so you can’t hurry the process. First you have to prepare your canvas, then you have to work through each stage to complete your work-in-progress.

The Wall at Central Square

This week is finals week at Framingham State, so I’m busy with end-term grading. I have two classes’ worth of essay portfolios and final exams to read along with quiz averages and participation grades to calculate. Every term, I tell myself I’ll finish these grading tasks early, keeping well ahead of my paper-piles, and every term, things go more slowly than I’d anticipated. It takes a while for layers of paint to dry, and it takes a while to read through a thick paper-pile.

Open door - May 7 / Day 127

Every finals week, I find myself checking off a whole list of tasks before I get settled down to the business of grading. On Monday, I balanced the checkbook and paid bills; yesterday, I went grocery-shopping and led practice at the Zen Center; today, I did laundry and caught up with my two online classes, which are at the start and middle-point of their respective terms. Just because I have a huge grading pile doesn’t mean the other aspects of my life grind to a halt: the dogs still need to go out, the dishes still need to be washed, and I still need (or at least prefer) to wear clean clothes.

The Wall at Central Square

When I first started teaching, I thought this urge to check off tasks before settling down to grade was pure procrastination: surely I was looking to keep myself busing doing anything but grading. Now, though, I’m not so sure. Just as it’s easier to paint a new work if you start with a fresh, empty canvas, it’s easier to focus on grading if you aren’t wondering whether the bills are overdue, the refrigerator is empty, or your students are filling your email inbox with confused queries.

The Wall at Central Square

These last few days, in other words, I’ve been preparing my canvas, creating a clean, clear space where I can concentrate on the task at hand. Today, I had a long to-do list; tomorrow, all that’s on my list is “grade.” Now that I can scratch “Feed the blog” off today’s list, I can focus without distraction on that looming paper-pile. Like the street artist who signed his work-in-progress “Will finish on Sunday,” I know the task at hand will be done in due time.

Be back manana

Any new project deserves a clean slate…or a freshly painted wall, in the case of street art.

Graffiti forest

For years I’ve been photographing the ever-changing assortment of street art on the Wall at Central Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen an urban forest of graffiti trees there. Usually, the trees I see outlined on brick walls are painted by shadows, not by spray cans.

Tree shadow

An urban wall of bricks is a bit like a forest of trees, each individual fitting among its fellows to create a larger, stronger structure. A quick walk around Central Square on a brisk Sunday morning reveals more than a few trees finding shelter in the city, undeterred by walls and fences.

Callery pear against blue sky


Just like that, it’s the last day of November, and I’ve reached the end of another stint of National Blog Posting Month. Publishing thirty posts in thirty days seems easy enough when you start off, and it seems easy enough in retrospect…but there were days between then and now when “thirty in thirty” seemed an impossible goal.

Alfredo was here!

There are a few things I learned about blogging this past month. First, it really does help to have extra photos stockpiled for future usage. When I shot a handful of window-shopping images last December, for instance, I had no idea I’d end up blogging them this November. Rather than limiting yourself to taking only those pictures you immediately plan on using, go ahead and take the first picture, then the second, then the third. The photos you don’t use today might come in handy on a rainy day.

Second, preparation for blogging really does start the night before. If you write a rough draft of a blog-post the night before you plan to post it, you can take your time composing and revising it in your head, even when you aren’t at your computer or online. Just thinking about posting is typically the first step toward actually doing it…and actually starting a draft makes finishing that draft much easier and more likely.

The Hulk times two

Third, it’s a good idea to have at least one emergency post on hand just in case you need to post something quickly or at the last minute. There were many days this month when I wasn’t sure whether I’d find the time and opportunity to post. Even if I had something I wanted to post on a given day, I can never guarantee that I’ll make it online in time to publish a post. People get sick, laptops malfunction, work intervenes, and Internet connections get interrupted. On any given day, you might have plenty of time to write a long, detailed post…or you might have just enough time to sigh, shake your head, and envy those with more reliable schedules.

Now that I’ve officially fulfilled my NaBloPoMo commitment, I’m looking forward to blogging a bit less frequently these days. December is an extremely busy month for college writing instructors, so I’m looking forward to having some extra time each day to read student papers or do other teaching tasks rather than figuring out what to “feed the blog.” November is one of the year’s shorter months, but you’d never know that from the level of anxiety and self-doubt successful bloggers feel when considering how their journal scribblings relate to real, sharable stuff. There have been days this past month when something as simple as counting to thirty seemed entirely impossible.

Pixelated Marilyn

I’ve been to the Zen Center twice this week: first on Thursday night, when I answered questions at a Dharma talk, and again this morning, when I gave consulting interviews. On Thursday, I arrived in Cambridge early enough to meet a friend for a late afternoon chat in Harvard Square. During the time it took me to park in Central Square and then stroll down Modica Way snapping a quick set of photos on my way to the subway, I got doused by a quick afternoon shower. During the time it took me to take the subway from Central to Harvard Square and then make a quick stop at the drugstore, the rain stopped and my clothes began to dry…until the heavens re-opened in a torrential downpour. Finally, after my friend and I had enjoyed a leisurely cup of hot chocolate, a stint of stationery shopping, and a soothing glass of iced tea, the sun came out, making for a bright and brisk sunset.

In bloom

Today’s weather has been more constant than Thursday’s: it’s been sunny and summery all day long. But today’s constancy doesn’t belie Thursday’s fickleness. August is a transitional month where lingering heat waves and sudden summer showers gradually but inevitably give way to the brisk days of September. Given the August weather now, you never quite know what the August weather will be like next.

The spray-painted, stenciled, and wheat-pasted works on the wall at Modica Way are similarly fleeting. Given I’d snapped those quick photos on Thursday, I figured I wouldn’t see anything new this morning…but between then and now, the wall at Central Square has burst into bloom, last week’s graffiti being covered by this week’s. August is the season when nature seems to kick into overdrive, with goldfinches finally getting around to lining their nests with late summer thistle-down while backyard cicadas and crickets grow deafening, cramming as much volume as possible into waning days.

Check yo self

Neither schoolchildren nor their parents need advertisements to remind them that back-to-school is imminent: August itself suggests as much. Already it’s getting dark earlier, the first acorns have begun to drop, and drought-distressed trees and shrubs are getting a head start on their autumnal colors. August rain comes and goes, and Saturday night graffiti artists will surely spray-paint over any art that’s grown stale. Walking past the Same Old Wall on my way to meditate upon the Same Old Mind, I’m reminded that everything is constantly changing: the weather, the walls, and my own fleeting thoughts.

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Who am I?

This morning on my way to the Cambridge Zen Center for mid-morning practice, I walked down the graffiti-covered alley known as Modica Way, as I usually do whenever I visit the Zen Center. I’ve showed you many individual images of the ever-changing graffiti on this wall, but I’ve been wanting to assemble a panoramic shot of the entire thing to give a truer sense of scale. It’s one thing to view something in pieces; it’s something else entirely to take a long view.

Viewing through

Giving Sunday morning consulting interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center feels a bit like stitching together a wide-angle panorama from the individual pictures of another person’s life. The folks who come into the interview room to ask me questions–or in many cases, just to talk–are often fixated on some individual aspect of their life: mainly, whatever problem is the most pressing right now. It’s human nature to zoom in on whatever is troublesome right now; because you’re so close to the problem, it seems overwhelming and huge. It’s difficult to step back and take a broad view, figuring out how this individual scene fits into the much longer play called Your Life.

As a Senior Dharma Teacher, a large part of my job in giving consulting interviews is to give newer practitioners a sense of perspective. Yes, right now Problem X might seem insurmountable, but having struggled with Problem X (or something similar) myself over the years, I can assure you it’s a passing problem. Just give it five, ten, fifteen years or more to marinate, stew, and simmer. This isn’t about the quick fix; it’s about slow growth. As my grandfather used to say about marriage, “Being married is easy. It’s only the first fifty years that are tough.”


I can’t count the number of times, for instance, that new practitioners have asked whether they are doing something “wrong” in meditation, claiming that the practice isn’t “working.” When I ask them what “working” would look like–how, in other words, they would know they’re doing meditation “correctly”–I usually get a vivid sense of what the person wants from their practice: they want meditation to make them calmer, happier, more blissful, etc. What is interesting about this, of course, is that meditation doesn’t really offer any of these things: if you’re meditating to become “more this” or “less that,” you’re missing the point of meditation, which is to make peace with what is. If you sit down to meditate only to realize how extremely scattered you are, you’re doing your meditation exactly right. Instead of getting rid of your scattered-ness, meditation means waking up and making nonjudgmental peace with it: “Right now in this place, I’m scattered. What’s it like, right now in this place, to Be Scattered?”

In the zoomed-in, closely cropped version, this view of meditation practice seems insane. Why would anyone in their right mind spend time making nonjudgmental peace with the very flaws they want to eliminate? If you want to become calm, why sit with a racing mind? If you want bliss, why sit and stew in your own miserable juices? The reason “why” emerges only in time, in the long, wide-angle view that takes years to develop. Sometimes, meditation feels good in the moment…but most of the time, you won’t realize until later how the seeds of self-acceptance have taken root in your psyche. Years later, after having struggled with and finally forgiven yourself, time and again, for your own scattered, stressed-out nature, you’ll notice yourself not getting so upset about it. Being scattered and stressed won’t be as much of a Big Deal because you’ll have perspective: “Oh, yeah. This is a passing mood. It comes, I fight against it, I eventually get tired and give up fighting, and it eventually leaves of its own volition.”


Once you recognize the patterns that repeat themselves through the overlapping pictures that stitch together into the panorama of your personality–once you recognize that you often fall into the same habits, obsessions, and behaviors Buddhists call “karma”–you’re one step closer to being free from it. Once you recognize the pattern (“Whenever I have one glass of wine, I end up drinking the whole bottle”), you’re that much closer to managing it (“I’m making a conscious decision not to drink that first glass”). But even after you’ve grown adept at recognizing and managing your karma, you still aren’t rid of it. The patterns don’t go away; you just see them more clearly. Your karma still wants that glass, that bottle, that brimming barrel of wine, and time and again, in each individual moment, you face that pattern and make peace with it. Yes, my mind wants alcohol; I’m consciously saying no. Yes, my mind wants to wander; I’m consciously bringing it back. This pattern will repeat five, five hundred, five million times, and you’ll train yourself through long practice: “Every time my mind wanders, I bring it back to the moment, to my breath, and I do it gently, with infinite patience and self-forgiveness…even when I’m not feeling patient or forgiving.”

It’s a habit, like my grandfather’s view of marriage, that takes a long time to cultivate…but that’s okay, because it’s the practice of a lifetime. In the short view, we’re all just beginners stumbling our way through a play without knowing our lines; in the long view, that play is a great cosmic dance that will lead, prompt, and nudge us, all in due time.


Click here for the complete photo set from this morning’s walk down Modica Way. For a larger view of the final panoramic picture, click here and scroll from left to right.

The panorama’s perspective is distorted toward the right side of the image: because my photo-editing software couldn’t stitch together the dozen-some photos I took, I had to merge these photos in batches, and the merge of the final two pictures reflects a different aspect-ratio than the previous merges of four pictures. Next time, I’ll know to assemble the panorama in even sets: a bit of perspective gained over time, with experience.

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Street art isn’t a very portable medium, so if there’s a particular work or artist you want to see, you typically have to travel to it rather than waiting for it to come to you. Since the mysterious street artist known as Banksy is a Brit, I’d always assumed I’d never see one of his clever, politically pointed works in person, only online. That’s why last week, on my way to a Thursday night talk at the Cambridge Zen Center, I made a point to walk my usual beat through Central Square, knowing that others had spotted some of Banksy’s handiwork on a brick wall on Essex Street.

I’ve been a fan of stenciled street art since spotting the little listener a street artist named chalkoner left on the stairway entrance to a record store in downtown Keene several years ago. Stenciled street art is a more controlled, composed medium than freehand pieces, with the artist sketching a design and then creating poster board stencils before using spray-paint to apply the various colors and shapes. A stencil artist can apply a particular creation in multiple locations, as Shepard Fairey did with his infamous Obey/Andre the Giant theme, but Banksy is known for site-specific creations that typically employ a combination of stenciled images and freehand slogans.

Anonymous passerby

The particular wall on Essex Street that Banksy chose for his tongue-in-cheek critique on the coddled, contained nature of today’s society is right around the corner from the graffiti-wall on Modica Way I’ve photographed so often, and it’s the same wall where I’d spotted Shepard Fairey’s Barack Obama mingling with Goldenstash in November, 2008…at least until that iconic image was defaced. (Click here for Steve’s earlier image of that Obama-art.) In other words, this is a wall I know, having watched various bits of graffiti appear, disappear, and be replaced over the years. (Further down Essex Street, for instance, there once was an endearing stenciled image of two camera- and binocular-toting sightseers which has since been cleaned up.)

Street art appreciation

It was a bit weird to see this otherwise bland brick wall on an otherwise nondescript Cambridge side street suddenly become a sightseeing destination because the usual graffiti had been replaced by Street Art By Somebody Famous. As I approached Essex Street on Thursday evening, there was a throng of pedestrians and cyclists stopped to snap photos with cell phones, and several passing cars slowed down to look, confused, in the direction everyone else was looking, trying to figure out what exactly was so special about this brick wall compared to any other.

After snapping my own handful of pictures, I took a stroll over to Modica Way to see what was new there, then I circled back to Essex Street, where a young couple was now standing in front of the wall, talking and pointing. Had I not known they were there to admire the famous Banksy, I would have thought I’d stumbled upon the site of some obscure religious apparition, the faces of Jesus and Mary on a blank wall.

Instead, it’s just what you get when you combine some stenciled spray-paint, chalk, and more than an ounce of audacious creativity.


Click here for the half-dozen images I shot of the Essex Street Banksy in Cambridge’s Central Square.

While in Boston, Banksy also left some social commentary on a wall in Chinatown. The buzz online is that Banksy is trying to create publicity for his new movie, which sounds interesting in its own right.

One of the best things about street art, of course, is that you never know what random goodness any brick wall will offer.

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Pretty chicks

J and I have an ongoing joke about the number of perfect strangers who talk to us whenever we go anywhere in public. We regularly get asked for directions, or if we’re dressed in Bruins gear on the way to or from a hockey game, folks will ask us who the Bruins are playing, or what the score was, or what we think about a particular player. Folks will inquire about J’s camera, or they’ll make chitchat about the weather, how crowded the trolley is, or any other sort of random topic. It’s as if in place of the proverbial “Kick me” sign, someone stuck a sign on our backs that says “Talk to us: we’re friendly!”


J and I speculate that we must look normal, nonthreatening, and otherwise approachable: if you’re lost and need directions, you don’t want to look like a creep by asking a solitary member of the opposite sex for help, and you don’t want to bother a couple who looks Too Young, Too Hip, or Too Completely In Love to take time for your problems. J and I, on the other hand, apparently look Just Right. We don’t look like we’re too cool to be bothered, but we also don’t look like we’re so lonely and desperate, we’ll latch onto anyone who strikes up a conversation.

J and I look, in other words, perfectly average, and it seems that random strangers like to talk with average folks. Over the several years we’ve been dating, J and I have given countless directions to out-of-towners, once helped a guy in Atlanta buy baseball tickets from a sidewalk scalper, and last weekend tried (unsuccessfully) to explain to a young bewildered Asian woman why there were so many sports fans on the T even after the Red Sox season is over. (Apparently, they don’t play ice hockey where she comes from.)


Although neither of our respective exes was actively antagonistic toward strangers, neither J nor I had this experience of being so popular with strangers when we each were married. Although I occasionally had folks ask me for directions when I lived in Boston and took the T to and from school, strangers didn’t regularly talk to my ex and me when we were together in public. J and his ex-wife didn’t go to as many events as J and I do, so they had fewer opportunities to talk to strangers, but still, J insists that he didn’t talk to as many random folks when he was married as he does now that he’s dating me. Whatever secret conflicts and resentments both J and I experienced in our previous relationships, I’m guessing that tension was apparent to the strangers who didn’t talk with us. Sometimes you get a “vibe” that a silent couple is harboring hidden hostilities, and apparently J and I don’t project that vibe. Whereas my ex-husband often accused me of flirting or trying to upstage him if I simply behaved in my normal outgoing fashion, J doesn’t feel threatened if I speak up and act friendly with folks, so I do.

Bang bang

Yesterday afternoon, after having stopped to chat with a neighbor we’d seen raking leaves on our way to brunch, we dropped by another neighbor’s house for an open house fundraiser for Connect Africa, an organization that provides business and educational support for Ugandan villagers. While J and I browsed crafts made by Ugandan women working to support AIDS orphans, we chatted with the neighbor who had organized the open house, her husband, the friend who founded Connect Africa, and several women who were also browsing the handicrafts. “You should buy one,” I advised one woman who was tentatively considering a pile of intricately woven baskets. “Then you can use it to carry the jewelry you’ll want to buy.” I pointed to a small basket I’d filled with beaded bracelets and necklaces, and the woman nodded. Later, while J and I were selecting a colorful woven mat, agreeing that we’d find somewhere to put it, I saw the woman I’d talked to standing at the jewelry table filling a basket.

J and I ended up buying two armfuls of handicrafts, much to our hostess’ delight. “This is great,” J remarked, admiring a goblet-shaped basket he’d chosen as a desk-organizer. “Every time I look at this, I’ll think about where it came from, and the story behind it.” After we’d said our goodbyes and headed home with our African treasures, J observed, “You just spent more time talking to the neighbors in one afternoon than my ex-wife did the entire time we were married.”

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