Sign of spring?

Shall we file this one under “Goes without saying?”

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.

Modica Way

For all the times I’ve shown you the graffiti wall along Modica Way in Central Square, Cambridge, I’ve never shown you the photo-mural on the opposite wall.

I heart you

For whatever reason, I tend to focus on the color and changeability of the graffiti wall more than the monochromatic sameness of the other wall. I suppose the officially sanctioned permanence of a photo-mural isn’t as interesting or illicit as an ever-changing wall painted by street artists. Some civic-minded folks organized, designed, and then erected the mural, which commemorates the faces and flavor of Central Square…but knowing the mural is going to be there with its predictable black and white photos every time I’m in the neighborhood, I tend to ignore it. The graffiti on the other wall is unpredictable and always surprising, so the same old photos on the other wall seem tame and reliable in comparison. Although I’ve occasionally snapped photos of the other side of Modica Way, I’ve never found a reason to blog them. “If it bleeds, it leads” is the dictum of the mainstream media, and “if it’s colorful, it’s bloggable” seems to have become my unofficial policy. Images of someone else’s black and white photos always seem to take a backseat.

Faces

You miss a lot, of course, if you focus only on the colorful, remarkable things. Much of life is monochromatic and predictable: in fact, you could rightfully argue that the best things in life are tame and reliable. Colorful graffiti offers the excitement of novelty: turning the corner onto Modica Way, you’ll never know what sort of colors, shapes, or images will be there to greet you. But there’s something to be said, too, for reliable predictability. Temporary exhibits might draw us back to the same old museum, but there’s a reassuring comfort in knowing the permanent exhibits are still there, inviting us to take another look.

Rev. Larry Love (RIP)

Truth be told, the photo-mural on Modica Way isn’t as unchanging as I seem to think it is, and therein lies the true lesson of all things monochrome. Passersby have and do put stickers and Magic Marker messages on it–the most primitive form of graffiti–and someone occasionally cleans these up: the towheaded tyke pictured on the far right here is no longer labeled as a white devil, and the fellow with his thumb up here is no longer holding a flower. Impermanence does indeed surround us: yesterday’s Magic Marker commentary might be scrubbed by tomorrow. Even if the mural itself doesn’t change, the faces depicted therein certainly do: the celebrated Central Square figure of the Reverend Larry Love, a deranged but lovable fellow who wandered the streets (and occasionally directed traffic) in colorful costumes when I lived in Cambridge, died in 2001, but an image of him in his makeshift police uniform keeps his memory alive on Modica Way.

Inbound

After having unofficially participated in November’s National Blog Posting Month, I feel like I’m returning to the monochrome world of posting when and how I can. The month of November showed me that I can post something every single day if I really put my mind to it, but now that December has started, life will be less colorful (and thus presumably less bloggable) as my academic workload turns from “fairly busy” to “that time of the semester when I’m buried in paper-piles.” On the one side of Modica Way, colorful graffiti points to the creative impulse that makes something out of the blank slate of bare brick…or that, at least, paints over yesterday’s ephemera with today’s novelty. On the other side of Modica Way, a collage of decade-old (and older) photos invites the commentary of marginal marker scribbles: given what someone else saw then, what can you say today?

Last month, I spent 30 days typing words on the blank slate of an empty screen, and for the next three weeks, I’ll be writing comments on papers, my marginal scribbles seeming mundane and monochromatic compared to November’s colorful conversation. I’ll post when and how I can, even if it’s only an occasional postcard, until I come out on the other side of the current semester.

Click here for the complete photo-set from the other side of Central Square’s Modica Way. Enjoy!

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.

Strange bedfellows

I knew I’d find President-Elect Barack Obama on this wall in Cambridge’s Central Square because of Steve’s photo from October. I had no idea, though, that the President-Elect has been keeping company with none other than the legendary Goldenstash.

Obama, etc

Earlier this month, Steve had posted another photo showing the pro-Obama sentiments of at least one Brooklyn street artist. “When in the past,” Steve wondered, “have we seen such motivation that people would paint a huge graffiti piece on a candidate’s behalf?” In the aftermath of Obama’s decisive win, some commentators have pointed to the Obama campaign’s skillful use of social networking tools as a way of motivating and mobilizing young voters. If online services such as Facebook and MySpace (as well as the President-Elect’s blog and Flickr photostream) can keep the Prez-To-Be in touch with the Wired Generation, why can’t street art, the most democratic of genres, serve a similar purpose?

Here’s an audacious proposal. Why not create a cabinet-level position in charge of graffiti propaganda? I hereby nominate the one and only Goldenstash as the first U.S. Secretary of Street Art. Yes, we can!

Parking by permit only

I took this photo two weekends ago, during a morning stroll before going to the Cambridge Zen Center to give Sunday morning consulting interviews. I give consulting interviews–a chance for Zen practitioners to ask one-on-one questions of a Senior Dharma Teacher–about once a month, and I always try to arrive in Cambridge early so I can take a quick walk before ending up at the Zen Center. It’s a chance to clear my head before sitting down to Clear My Head, and it’s a chance for me to take pictures in a place I lived before I had either a blog or a camera.

Wall with ladder

I’ve often noted the conundrum of adjunct teaching. During semesters when you’re under-employed, you have plenty of time but little money. During semesters when you’re teaching a full- or over-load at several different institutions, you have plenty of money but little time. Finding just the right balance of the two precious resources called “money” and “time” seems as impossible as determining both the position and velocity of sub-atomic particles, with some sort of uncertainty principle decreeing you’ll never simultaneously have enough of both.

This summer, I’m in the “plenty of money, not enough time” category. Although I’m never exactly rolling in cash, this summer the institutions where I teach had no problem enrolling my classes–apparently in this tight economy, lots of folks are heading back to school–so I’ve found myself teaching more summer classes than I’d planned on: a full-load of three classes during both summer terms rather than the two classes per term I’d planned on. The result is a summer spiral where it feels like I’m spending my so-called vacation continually moving between classes: one moment teaching in Keene, the next teaching online, the next prepping to teach in Keene again, etc.

Permit only

A surprise influx of fecundity is nothing to complain about: I’ve had more than my share of hungry summers where under-enrolled classes have been canceled and I’ve watched with alarm as months of few or no paychecks have nibbled away my summer savings. Still, I sometimes wish I lived in a more temperate temporal clime where I had world enough and time to enjoy modest windfalls when they come. Instead, I’ll continue to clear my head when and where I can, knowing that while money can be saved, time cannot. In the face of a summer influx of activity, I know hungry months will come, and even in the face of a full summer load, it’s possible to find moments of Enough-ness when a short Sunday walk yields a brimming bushel of the ephemeral world. Given such lovely lushness, I’ll imbibe as I can.