Graffiti


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!”

PROJECT

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.)

SF

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.”

Stacked

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.

Packed

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.

Pink

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.

Band-aid

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.

Peeling

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.

Skull

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.

Pink eyes

This morning I was back on the beat in Cambridge, where as always there were new sights to see. By way of proof, compare the above shot to the same span of brick pictured here and here. My, how you’ve grown!

Two-faced ice cream cone

It’s become something of a tradition. On mornings when I’m scheduled to give consulting interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center, I arrive in Cambridge early, park my car at the Zen Center, then take a walk through Central Square, camera in hand. It’s almost a given that I’ll mosey over to Modica Way to see what’s up with the wall, knowing that street art is such a random and ephemeral genre, there will always be something new.

Door

Revisiting the same neighborhood every month or so (for that’s about how often I give interviews at the Zen Center) is an interesting exercise. About ten years ago, when my then-husband and I lived for several years at the Cambridge Zen Center, I walked the streets of Central Square every day, so I had the familiar knowledge of a pedestrian. These days I walk with a camera, so I see the same streets differently. Not only do I now view these once-familiar streets as an occasional visitor rather than regular resident, I now walk my once-daily beat specifically looking for things. When I lived in Central Square, I was typically intent on my destination as I hurried from here to there, then there, then somewhere else. When I lived at the Zen Center, I was so busy juggling the demands of my Zen Center duties, marriage, college teaching, and graduate studies, my attention was often elsewhere as I analyzed or obsessed over yesterday’s failures, tomorrow’s challenges, and today’s to-dos.

Tableau

These days, I’m still busy…but when I take my occasional Sunday strolls through Central Square, I’m on only one real errand: to see what I can see. Because I’ve walked these streets and sidewalks so often, I can screen out the old and ordinary, those things that were there last time, the time before, and the time before that. It’s not so much that I ignore these usual suspects, but I’ve learned not to be distracted by them. Like a beat cop who’s on a first-name basis with both the innocents and the troublemakers alike, I’ve learned which things I need to keep an eye on and which I can let slide. The way you notice something Really Unusual, I’ve found, is by first learning which things you can let slip from conscious awareness. Once a quick glance reveals a crowd of innocents standing around the T station, shooting the shit as always, you can zero in on the lone troublemaker trying to pass incognito in their midst. “Hey…you! Don’t you have somewhere you ought to be?”

Get out of jail free

This practice of selective attention–the ability to let the normal stuff slide through conscious awareness so the things that are New and Unusual almost demand your awareness–is something I first learned as a teenage birdwatcher. The way to find a bird in a tree is to look for any color, movement, or shape that doesn’t look like branch, leaf, or sky. New birders are sometimes fooled by wind-fluttered leaves, squirrel nests, or other foreign objects, mistaking tree-snagged plastic bags, for instance, for birds: “What’s that?” Once you’ve seen enough dry leaf clumps, random bits of litter, or branch snags, though, you become familiar with what those things look like, so you teach your brain to associate “bird” or even “something interesting” with “anything that doesn’t look like the usual stuff.” The same process of perceptive elimination works with auditory stimuli as well. If you want to excel at the art of birding by ear, you needn’t learn every possible birdsong or call. Instead, familiarize yourself with the usual ambient soundtrack of your daily neighborhood–the chips of cardinals, chirps of house sparrows, and twitters of finches–so you can sit up, alert, when you hear Something Different.

Drink the Kool-Aid

This all has relevance to meditation practice…but then again, what doesn’t? New practitioners are often dismayed and alarmed by the sheer volume of Stuff that passes through their minds during any meditation session: how can they possibly pay attention to it all? The answer, of course, is that you can’t, so you needn’t try: just as it’s futile to push any given thought away, it’s equally impossible to tend to, touch, or even notice every single thought as it passes. The point of meditation isn’t to stop the flow of thoughts, nor is it to manage it; there will be moments, minutes, and more when “you” get entirely swept into the stream and pop up, suddenly aware, what feels like hours later: “Where was I?” The point of dipping into your own internal slipstream isn’t to keep yourself separate and apart from its murky wetness. Instead, the thing you learn from occasional slips is that your mind is infinitely buoyant, eventually popping back into awareness like a fisherman’s bob automatically finding the surface. Awake!

Empty heart

The more you meditate, the more you’ll come to be on a first-name basis with your own usual suspects, both the innocents and the troublemakers. “Oh, here I go again,” you find yourself thinking mid-meditation. “The same old litany of neuroses, worries, complaints.” On one three-week meditation retreat, for instance, I literally spent days obsessing about food, meditating at first upon a mandala-like pizza with a mouth-watering array of fantasized toppings (“with extra cheese, pepperoni, sausage, and mushrooms, please!”) and then making a truly obscene list of foods I’d eat the second the retreat ended (“And can I get that with hash browns and eggs scrambled with onions, and some pancakes, and a slice of peanut-butter pie, please?”) A saner soul would have called it quits, figuring that anyone who spends so much psychic energy fixating on food simply isn’t cut out for meditation. Instead, I did what any Zen master would recommend. Every time I realized my mind had wandered, again, I brought it back to my mantra, again…and again…and again, welcoming every instance where I brought my mind back as its own kind of awakening: “Oh!”

Not ever as real as realized

When you’re a rookie practitioner, new on the beat, you’re on your walkie-talkie calling for backup every time a Food Fantasy, moment of Angry Angst, or another Lustful Interlude walks into your line of sight: “Danger, danger! Come quick!” After you’ve been doing this meditation thing for a while, though, you come to know everyone: “Yeah, kid, I saw that guy. He’s been hanging ’round doing nothing since before you were knee-high to a grasshopper. Let’s get back to looking for bad guys.” It’s not so much that you ignore your thoughts when you meditate: no veteran cop worth his badge ever fails to watch his own (and his rookie partner’s) back. But after you’ve been meditating awhile, your own Psychic Shit doesn’t bother you as much as it used to. You’ve seen it all and survived, so while things still rattle you, you know your inner equilibrium will find “center” eventually.

Above Modica Way

Like being perfectly aware of the neighbor’s television you can hear through your paper-thin walls but which you’ve learned not to focus on when you’re concentrated on something else, meditation is about training yourself to be aware of the present moment while not being attached to the endless stream of shady characters who amble down the street called Consciousness. Taking an occasional walk through my old Cambridge neighborhood, I don’t have to snap photos of everything. But knowing a little bit about the place, I snap into awareness–Awake!–when I see something that strikes my eyes as new.

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