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.”


Leave it to a parking lot in SoHo to figure out the best way to pack as many cars (and graffiti) into a small space as possible.


J and I took a whirlwind day-trip to Manhattan on Saturday, arriving by train at Penn Station just in time to walk to SoHo, check out Greg Lauren‘s latest art show, grab lunch in Little Italy, and then walk back for our return train. Although we were in Manhattan for only about five intermittently rainy hours, we each took hundreds of pictures, New York being the kind of place where you can completely submerge yourself in sensory stimulation. Even in five hours–only about 300 New York minutes–you can absorb a month’s worth of color, movement, and shape: sights to savor on a quiet day.

I’ll have more photos to share, along with impressions of Greg Lauren’s show, later in the week. In the meantime, I have several stacks of papers (and the usual schedule of classes) between me and a Tuesday night grading deadline. I’ll see you on the other side, after I’ve (metaphorically) unpacked.


This week promises to be busy, but I’m still showing up at the page, still writing. It’s as if I’ve reached a point where walking and writing are such a guaranteed part of my daily routine, I know they’ll happen whether life gets busy or not.


Life always gets busy, so don’t postpone the important stuff. That’s one thing I’ve learned over the years–don’t wait until you have the time, because you won’t. Life’s busy-ness isn’t the kind of thing that comes and passes, leaving you a blissful break when you can get your life together. Instead, life’s busy-ness is like the coming of waves, one after another. There is no end to waves, as water by nature perpetually moves. Even at low tide, when waves recede, the water still moves and your floating leaf of a life is tossed on its surge. Don’t wait for the ebb and flow to relent. Instead, strengthen your sea-legs and learn to walk on water.

Imaginary meat

For years I spent more time not writing than writing, my notebook lying neglected when life got busy. I’d tell myself I’d get back in the habit of writing when life calmed down–next week, tomorrow, or after the next deadline. But procrastination is self-perpetuating, and next month leads to the next month, tomorrow to the next day, and this deadline to the next and the next and the next. There is no end to noisy demands on one’s time, and one’s notebook never complains, sitting silent and neglected when you fail to write for days or even weeks on end. And so gradually but inevitably you move from being a writer to being someone who wants toplans tomeans to write.


Every day I have a long to-do list, and every day my to-do list contains the things I failed to do yesterday. But every day I walk Reggie, and nearly every day I write in my journal. Through sheer force of habit, these two things–walking and writing–have become as automatic as eating, bathing, or brushing my teeth. I’ve come to see them not as optional additions but as absolute essentials: the daily maintenance it takes to be “me.”

And so on busy days, I don’t skip writing, although I might write less than usual. But I set pen to page even on busy days, seeing that routine as being central to my productive functioning. Coffee-drinkers don’t skip their morning cup because they’re busy; they see that morning infusion as being the impetus that fuels their day, even (especially) when they’re busy. I don’t drink coffee, so my morning walks and my morning pages are my version of caffeine: the two things that get my day rolling.


I’ve given up trying to catch up; being caught up is as elusive as the rainbow’s end. If I’ll never catch up–if another wave of busy-ness will surely follow this one–there’s no use in waiting for calm, tranquil seas. Write right now, I tell myself, even as the boat rocks with the waves of activity. There will be plenty of tranquility when I’m dead, but no opportunity for writing then.

I wrote these paragraphs in my notebook yesterday morning, on a day I had time to write but not blog. For the complete photo-set of images from this weekend’s walk down Modica Way in Central Square, Cambridge, click here. Enjoy!

We delete users unfit to date!

Online dating isn’t an exclusively urban phenomenon: there are, presumably, plenty of people in need of a fix-up and looking for chicks in the suburbs, exurbs, and rural areas. But only in the city will you find subway billboards advertising online dating sites, and there’s something ruthlessly urban in this Boston sign promising to “delete users unfit to date.” It’s a jungle out there, people: the Sex in the City crowd isn’t afraid to apply the rules of survival of the fittest in the search for a “keeper.”

Human are stupid

Neither are city dwellers (at least the ones with indelible markers) shy about correcting others’ grammar-goofs. On the same subway ride into Boston this past Saturday, J and I spotted this bit of grammatical repartee on the window-sill of an MBTA green line car. “Human are stupid” says one vandalizing subway rider. “So is your grammar,” responds the second. On this National Grammar Day, it’s intriguing to realize that in the city, even the Grammar Police are willing to indulge in some corrective graffiti every now and then.

This is my belated contribution to last week’s Photo Friday theme, City Life.

Shepard Fairey is a poser

Even icons and icon-makers occasionally fall prey to marker-wielding vandals. (Snapped on November 30, weeks after I blogged this image of Barack Obama hanging out with another sort of icon.)

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Iconic.

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