Forsythia with utility box

It’s a color we haven’t seen in New England since autumn, when half of the maples turned gold and the other half turned red: a clash of primary colors. In the meantime, winter was a time of gray and white, starkly monochromatic and more trying, I think, for its lack of color than for its intensity of cold.

Forsythia

In winter, we saw occasional splashes of color: a dash of red on a passerby’s hat, or a welcome shot of green on a knitted scarf. And year-round, there is in Boston at least the briskly bright yellow of taxicabs, and the similar shade of reflective vests worn by cyclists and joggers to avoid getting hit by those same taxis. But the gold of the season’s first forsythia is different: living and thus far more precious. Even the most brilliant neon doesn’t glow with the ardor of a forsythia in full flower, for these cells are alive and burning, not so much carrying color as singing it.

We haven’t seen this color naturally occurring in New England since autumn, for in winter not even the sun burns yellow, its winter glare being harsh and white, the color of ice. Only after the trees leaf and the sun’s rays are tempered by green will they turn yellow like a child’s crayon. In the meantime, our most trusted trove of gold grows on trees.

I am, apparently, so smitten with this particular forsythia in Newton’s Waban Square, I blogged a nearly identical picture this time last year (click here, then scroll to the second photo).

Coming soon

It looks like downtown Waban is getting a new ice cream shop, conveniently located on my weekend dog-walking route. I can already feel myself getting softer in the middle.

Ca$h for your Warhol

In trying economic times, you don’t have to be a starving artist to be on the lookout for an alternate source of income. This offer of cash for your Warhol is a not-so-gentle jab at Brandeis University, whose doomed decision earlier this year to bolster their budget by selling the school’s art collection turned out to be a public relations disaster, earning them nothing but ridicule.

Fresh paint

In the aftermath of my friend JW’s death last week, I’ve experienced a new appreciation for the intangible wealth that is friendship. I shot these photos on my way to the Cambridge Zen Center for a Dharma teachers’ meeting this past weekend, and it was like stumbling onto treasure to see my long-time friends Jen and Jody there. “Make new friends but keep the old,” an old song advises. “One is silver and the other gold.” Old friends are as precious as gold because they’ve seen you–and loved you–through years of changes and challenges. Seeing Jen pregnant with her second child, I remember the joy I felt when we spent some time alone together during her first pregnancy and the happiness of her double baby shower with another long-time friend, Stella. I knew Jen before she was pregnant, before she was married, and before either of us grew into our long Dharma teacher robes. Jody, too, has been a friend through many changes: a musician who once collaborated with my ex-husband, she’s stuck around while he hasn’t. It’s wonderful to spend even a short time with someone who knew you when you were one half of a couple and still loves you after the dust of divorce and heartache has settled.

Fresh paint

In the aftermath of loss, being able to come together with old friends to commiserate a shared loss is invaluable. Last night, I made a two-hour drive to Rhode Island and back to attend JW’s seven-day Buddhist memorial ceremony at the Providence Zen Center. One of the three jewels in Buddhist practice is the community called sangha, and to me it was worth a four-hour round-trip to hug a handful of friends after having chanted, shared stories, and wept in a Dharma room packed with fellow mourners. JW himself was a treasure: a man whose kindness, loyalty, and good humor helped Zen practitioners all over the world for the 20 years he worked for the Kwan Um School of Zen and its international sangha. Approaching PZC last night, I felt a twinge of emptiness knowing JW wouldn’t be there, omnipresent clipboard in hand, to greet guests and see to their needs. That emptiness melted, though, when I heard a Dharma room of people, all gathered in JW’s memory, who were already there chanting for him. Make new friends, and keep the old, even if some of your golden friends have left this suffering world behind. The memories and love you carry in your heart are priceless indeed.

Goldenstash = stash o' gold

This is my belated contribution to last week’s Photo Friday theme, Wealth. Originally, I had intended to end with this “pot of gold”-themed photo of Goldenstash, which I spotted on my way to the Cambridge Zen Center this weekend, but I got sidetracked by another, more intangible sort of wealth. It’s all good.

The Day-Before-Easter Rabbit

Yesterday morning, as if on schedule, our resident rabbit appeared in the backyard and stayed there, sniffing and nibbling, through hours of drizzle until afternoon downpours drove him away. On the day before Easter, shouldn’t he have been busy with other things?

Whatever your preferred sign of spring, we’ve seen them all these days.

Magnolia bud

Daffodil

Robin

Tulip

Ready for Easter

Here’s hoping your Easter Sunday is sweet and springy.

You slay me

It’s been some fifteen years since I finished my Master’s degree at Boston College, so it’s been some fifteen years since I’ve set foot in Gasson Hall with its life-size marble sculpture of the Archangel Michael overpowering Lucifer. Some fifteen years ago, I was a backsliding Catholic, so the iconography of an angel slaying Satan didn’t seem hugely relevant to me: newly arrived in Boston, I was young, hungry, and struggling to balance the demands of graduate studies with the unanticipated rigors of college teaching. Looking at Michael and Lucifer, it was difficult to decide which was more personally relevant to me: was I the angel who slew, or the demon who was slain?

Archangel Michael overcoming Lucifer

As a graduate Teaching Fellow at Boston College, I occasionally brought my freshman composition students to Gasson Hall so they could sit in the rotunda and write in Michael’s shadow. In retrospect, I don’t know what I was trying to accomplish; I guess I thought my students would be awed and inspired by an epic struggle cast in stone, even if they (like me) didn’t entirely believe the mythological details. Having been stunned into silence the first time I’d stumbled into Gasson Hall, I guess I wanted my students to experience something similar, with pen in hand. In retrospect, some fifteen years later, I have no idea what (if anything) resonated with my students at all.

That’s how teaching is. You try to take your students to places they’ve never been, and you hope they’ll share the awe and inspiration you’ve felt. And yet, sharing is a tenuous experience: you can lead a student to water, but you cannot make him think. If I was undecided, some fifteen years ago, how or whether the Archangel Michael was relevant in my marginally Catholic life, why did I think a sculpted stone would speak better to my students?

Paternal

In Buddhist iconography, the bodhisattva Manjushri is typically shown wielding a sword, just as the Archangel Michael does inside Gasson Hall. Michael’s sword is a weapon of divine judgment, and Manjushri’s sword is the blade of perfect wisdom cutting through illusion. In the fifteen-some years I’ve been teaching college writing and literature, I sometimes wonder whether I carry Manjushri’s sword or a wet noodle: having led so many students to water, what exactly have I accomplished? Have I landed any body-blows on the demon of ignorance, or have I been unarmed by his master maneuvers?

Loyal

With age (and with the retrospective wisdom of fifteen-some years of climbing the same mountain semester after semester), I’ve come to believe that Time holds the sharpest sword of them all. When I was a young, hungry, and struggling Masters student at Boston College just beginning to teach, there was no magical sword of wisdom anyone could have handed me. I had to learn how to teach by teaching, just as my students had (and still have) to learn how to write by writing. The collective teachings of the ages–the example all the the world’s Michaels and Manjushris–are there to inspire and guide us, but ultimately we have to take up our own sword, handling it awkwardly at first but eventually–after some fifteen years, perhaps–perfecting our grip and learning how to manage its heft in our hand. There is no better teacher than Time, who wields a scythe that slashes constantly and repeatedly, slicing back and forth with each passing moment and month. In time, even our most obdurate illusions will fall away, sliced, like stone under a sculptor’s chisel.

Congratulations to Dr. Tim Lindgren, who defended his doctoral dissertation last week in the basement of Boston College’s Gasson Hall. You can click here to read his dissertation, “Place Blogging: Local Economies of Attention.”

Su Bong Sunim Memorial Garden

Email is an impersonal way to find out a dear friend has passed, but sometimes there’s no better way to break bad news. In my Zen school, we chant Kwan Seum Bosal–the name of the bodhisatta of compassion–when someone is in need and Ji Jang Bosal–the name of the “Earth Treasure” bodhisattva–when someone dies. Right now, the names of Kwan Seum Bosal and Ji Jang Bosal are echoing around the globe as members of my Zen school learn via email that one of our own–a long-time and dear Zen-friend–has passed, leaving a bereaved wife and many devastated friends.

Leafy Buddha

In the immediate aftermath of shocking news, you have no words to express (much less explain) what has happened: all you have is a sad, stunned feeling, like a punch to the chest. The beauty of chanting, I’ve found, is that you don’t have to say anything. Once you take up your moktok–the hollow wooden instrument used to keep time during chanting–and open your mouth, the familiar melody takes over, like an oft-repeated prayer that prays itself. When Zen Master Seung Sahn died several years ago, Zen practitioners around the world chanted “Ji Jang Bosal” in his memory; when MBTA operator Terrese Edmonds died last spring, folks at the Cambridge Zen Center, having read the news in the paper, intoned the same chant. It doesn’t matter how near or far death strikes; when you receive word of bereavement, either your own or that of another, there’s only one proper response: Ji Jang Bosal.

Weathered

Years ago when I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, we’d come together every evening to chant Kwan Seum Bosal for those in need or Ji Jang Bosal for those who’d died: as a community, we carried one another’s heartaches. Every time I go to the Cambridge Zen Center to practice, I look at the names written on cards on the altar: one card listing those who are struggling, and one card listing those who have died. It’s a reminder that we’re all in this together: at any moment, any one of us will find ourselves suffering or bereaved, and at any moment, any one of us might die. We chant to give one another solace in times when words can’t express our sympathies, and we chant to remind ourselves that none of us is immune from suffering and death.

Standing Buddha

When I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, residents would sometimes use the main meditation room for solo practice during the day, when others were at work or in their rooms. Sitting meditation nicely lends itself to solitary practice, but the sound of chanting seeps through walls and windows. Whenever I’d come home to the Zen Center during the day and would hear the sound of one of my house-mates chanting, I’d pause to listen: Kwan Seum Bosal means someone needs help, and Ji Jang Bosal means someone is grieving. In that brief moment of listening, I’d silently chant along with my unseen house-mate, not knowing the precise story behind her or his intention. From day to day, the names and faces we chant for may change, but the chant itself–and the emotion behind it–stays the same.

I was living at the Zen Center when both of my grandmothers died, and I was living at the Zen Center when my father was diagnosed with (and successfully fought) cancer. In all three cases, chanting by myself and with others brought me great emotional solace: it was something I could do, I found, even when my heart was broken, the fluid ribbon of a familiar melody carrying me even when my voice trembled with sobs. In the aftermath of tonight’s email, I have no words, but I have a clear intention: Ji Jang Bosal Ji Jang Bosal for the one we have lost, and Kwan Seum Bosal Kwan Seum Bosal for those of us left behind.

Collared

I’d love to know the story behind the large canine pinch collar someone has put around a tree in the vicinity of Cold Spring Park. Are Newton trees so rambunctious, they need prong-collar correction? Or did some dog, on his way to Cold Spring’s newly debuted off-leash area, throw off the choke of oppression before he got there?

Whatever the explanation, this much I’m guessing: this tree’s bark is probably worse than its bite.