The Potluck

Yesterday morning, I went to the Cambridge Zen Center to practice and give teaching interviews, stopping on my way to photograph David Fichter’s “The Potluck,” a bright, larger-than-life mural depicting a happy gathering of all ages and races sharing an abundant meal. Yesterday was a gorgeous day—sunny and not too warm—so it would have been perfect for either a picnic or potluck, but instead, I started the morning by going to the Zen Center, where I spent a half hour quietly contemplating the Dharma room floor before secreting myself in the interview room, where I met individually with a handful of fellow meditators, one after another, each bringing some sort of question: a potluck of interactions, each presenting its own possibilities.

Dharma room

After I’d gotten home from the Zen Center, J and I took the T downtown, where we walked to the North End for Saint Anthony’s Feast: a whole other kind of potluck. Instead of the quiet minimalism of the Zen Center Dharma room, in the North End we encountered the pomp and camaraderie of an Old World religious festival, a marching band accompanying a group of men who carried a statue of Saint Anthony through the streets, stopping (and even raising the statue to second-floor level) when anyone wanted to pin money to the ribbons that adorned it.


Although most of us easily understand the pomp and protocol of a picnic or potluck, Catholic festivals can be a bit more mystifying to the uninitiated. Both J and I are Italian and were raised as Catholics, so we don’t raise an eyebrow when we see colorful saint statues decorated and adorned…but I can imagine the consternation and even concern that people from other religious backgrounds might feel when they see folks in the North End apparently worshipping or even “bribing” idol-like statues with kisses and cash.

Dollar-pinned ribbons for Saint Anthony

When I see the obvious reverence that attendees at Saint Anthony’s and other North End feasts display toward these saints, though, I see tradition, not idolatry. Italians in Boston’s North End have been celebrating Saint Anthony’s Feast for nearly a century, continuing a festive tradition they carried with them from their homeland. Saint Anthony’s Feast might not match the kind of picnic or potluck you see in mainstream America, but it does suit North End tastes and traditions.

Saint Anthony pinned with dollars

America is often compared to a melting pot, but that metaphor is all wrong. When you toss (and then melt) disparate cuisines in a pot, what you end up with is a homogenous mush, the various tastes and textures all pureeing to gray. America isn’t a melting pot but a smorgasbord—a potluck—where each community offers something characteristic to their own tradition, even if “my” cuisine doesn’t perfectly match “yours.”

Italian pastries

At a potluck, everyone contributes something, and everyone shares…but at a potluck, you have the opportunity to pick and choose, not every plate offering something for every palate. Do you prefer a quiet morning spent meditating in the shadow of a gold guy? We have that. Do you prefer a festive afternoon feasting among confetti and cannoli? We have that, too. Whether you stick with familiar foods or explore something new, you can help yourself to whatever you’d like, then come back for seconds. There’s plenty for everyone, and something to satisfy every taste.


As much as meditating at the Zen Center and feasting in the North End might seem like opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum, I find a lot of ways that Buddhism and Catholicism complement one another. Both Buddhisim and Catholicism offer a rich iconography of visual images: when newcomers come to the Zen Center, for instance, I make clear that the Buddha sitting at the head of the Dharma room isn’t a god to be worshiped but a visual representation of the clear, pure nature we all possess. Similarly, the money that festival-goers pin to statues of Saint Anthony or Saint Lucy aren’t idolatrous bribes: they’re expressions of gratitude and hope. A Catholic festival like Saint Anthony’s Feast suggests that if we make a point to be generous with saints, perhaps those saints will in turn be generous with blessings.

Saint Anthony shrine

Both feasts and potlucks, after all, are celebrations of abundance: there’s enough for everyone to eat, enjoy, and come back for seconds. On a gorgeous August Sunday, I can’t think of a better way to spend the day.

Click here for more photos from Saint Anthony’s Feast, which J and I had first visited in August of 2007…or click here for more photos of David Fichter’s “The Potluck,” which I’ve blogged in May of 2009 and February of 2011. Enjoy!


This weekend, J and I went to the North End to check out Saint Joseph’s Feast, the latest in a series of religious festivals that happen every summer in Boston’s Italian enclave. Of the various photos I shot of this year’s feast, my favorite is this one featuring a rather dejected-looking Saint Joseph statue draped in ribbons in an empty shrine.

An offering for Saint Joseph

The sight of this small statue standing forgotten while a larger, more colorful one was paraded through the neighborhood, stopping at every block so admirers could drape him with scapulars pinned with money, immediately reminded me of the ending of James Joyce’s “Araby,” in which an adolescent boy eagerly anticipates attending a local bazaar. Arriving late, the boy is disappointed to find half of the stalls closed or closing, the bazaar filled with a “silence like that which pervades a church after a service.” As the boy tries to find an acceptable gift for a girl he likes, he is disappointed to realize the wares are cheap and tawdry, not elegant or exotic as he had hoped.


I’m guessing we’ve all had moments like the one James Joyce describes in “Araby,” when we’ve realized something we once thought was magical is merely ordinary. The shrine in which Saint Joseph sat was a handmade thing, framed with ordinary wooden boards and adorned with tin foil and electrical lights. By night, Saint Joseph’s shrine must look heavenly to a child, lit with an otherworldly glow; viewed by adult eyes in the light of day, it’s just another facade for yet another festival.


Great care goes into the planning of any religious feast–imagine the devotion and dedication it took to design and apply every inch of tin foil–and yet at the end of the day, what lies underneath the pomp and spectacle is the stuff of ordinary life. Saint Joseph’s feast parades down the same old street that residents use every day; every year, these North End festivals happen in the same old neighborhood. We can, on special occasions, dress up the drab sites of our mundane lives, but ultimately the same old substance lies under the spiffed-up surfaces. Calling a bazaar “Araby” doesn’t make it any more exotic: bazaar-goers are still stuck in a nondescript corner of Dublin, and they still go home to their same old Monday-morning lives.

Passing procession

And yet, perhaps this is the wisdom of a religious festival, at least a Christian one. The very idea of incarnation insists that God himself took on ordinary flesh to dwell in the mundane world: before Joseph was a saint, he was just another dad to yet another kid. Every now and then, a bazaar comes to town and brings with it a break from the usual routine, and once upon a time, God adorned himself in flesh, was born in humble stall made of boards, and lay otherwise forgotten while the world distracted itself with its usual pomp and frivolity.

Blank tags

I had to check my photo archives to see how long it had been since the first time I’d seen the wall of blank dog-tags hung behind Boston’s Old North Church to memorialize the service-men, -women, and civilians who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq. It seemed like only a short while ago, but it was July, 2009, when a friend and I went to the North End to celebrate her birthday. How quickly I’d forgotten the details.

Tags and tree shadow

It’s the job of any memorial to help us remember, just as it’s the job of a journal, diary, or datebook to help us keep time. How much of my life would I forget if I didn’t have a blog and photo archive? When I was a child, my mother faithfully recorded a sentence or two a day in an inexpensive five-year diary she kept by the telephone, so on any given day she could refer back to what happened this time last year or the year before that. My blog and Flickr serve a similar purpose, and they’re far easier to search. If I want to remind myself how much milder this winter has been than last, for instance, all I have to do is read some of my posts from February, 2011, when I was fighting ice dams and navigating waist-deep snowdrifts. What a difference a year makes.

Shadow selves

That evening in 2009 when a friend and I went to the North End to celebrate her birthday, it was too late for the sun to cast shadows. This time, it was an unseasonably mild and memorably sunny weekend afternoon, and I remember one little girl reaching out to shake the tags, which jingled like coins on a belly-dancer’s belt. The sound of those tags ringing against one another is a memory I want to keep, so I’ll write it here to save against future forgetfulness. It’s the best way I know to keep time.

Ice wine martini garnished with frozen grapes

If you ever, on the occasion of a good friend’s birthday, find yourself in the Italian enclave known as Boston’s North End, don’t bother with a map, guidebook, or other source of guidance. Boston’s North End is such that anywhere you wander, you will find delightful surprises, and any restaurant you enter will serve you the meal of your life.

I’m convinced you can’t make a bad choice if you head toward the North End on a Friday afternoon with “food and drink” held gently at the back of your mind. First, you’ll aimlessly wander streets filled with history, personality, and charm. You’ll probably walk down Hanover Street, and you’ll probably remark about the Christmas-like tinsel decorations spanning narrow side streets: remnants from the last (or preparations for the next) Catholic saint’s day festival. You might climb up Copp’s Hill to overlook the harbor, and you might stop by the burying ground to pay your respects to the Reverend Mathers or to leave a coin atop patriot Robert Newman’s grave. However long and in whichever direction you walk, the distant landmarks of Zakim Bridge and the Custom House tower will be visible over one or the other shoulder. You can’t get lost in Boston’s North End, so let your feet take you where they will.


Once you’ve worked up an appetite, your thoughts will turn toward dinner, and you might briefly worry about finding a “good” place to eat. In a word, don’t. There are no “bad” places to eat in the North End, so let your choice be governed by whim and fancy. Does this place look alluring with its family-sized tables, or does that place look romantic with its tables for two? Do you prefer to compare menus, which in most places are prominently posted outside? Or are you adventurous, entering an establishment that doesn’t have a menu, just a chalkboard description of whatever someone’s Italian mama happens to be cooking today?

If you enjoy your food al fresco, you might choose one of several restaurants with open front windows, and if there are only two of you, your waiter might sit you right up front, where one of you can watch passersby in the street while the other watches the cooks in the kitchen. Either way, you’ve chosen well: in the North End, it’s impossible to choose poorly. Your handsome Italian waiter will present you with menus, but you won’t really need those, for this dark-eyed god of appetite will then regale you with velvet-voiced descriptions of tonight’s specials: cocktails you never dreamed possible, antipasto and pasta you couldn’t have hoped for, and entrees whose preparation, it seems, has been painstaking days in the making.


At first, all you’ll choose is whatever elaborately described cocktail your velvet-voiced waiter says he prefers…then under its powerful spell, you’ll pay heed to his other recommendations. At first blush, you’ll hesitate to order the three full courses of a traditional Italian meal: considering the sequence of antipasto, pasta, and entree, you wonder how stuffed and uncomfortable you’ll be by meal’s end. Immediately cast these thoughts from your mind. Your dark-eyed waiter makes his living from food–being Italian, he lives for food. He will not misguide you, so heed him. The three full courses of a traditional Italian meal are intended to be eaten slowly, with ample time for conversation; those entrees that have been painstaking days in the making will be savored over a glass of wine (chosen, of course, by your god of a waiter) only when the time is right, after other gustatory delights have been leisurely enjoyed in full.

When, at last, you’ve proclaimed “just right” over your vanished meal, the check will arrive…and you should refuse to bat a single eyelash. Now is not the time to think of budgets and economic downturns: this is the occasion of a good friend’s birthday, and for the cost of a subway ride and exquisite meal, you’ve traveled to Italy, been loved by a dark-eyed god, and slowly savored the flavors of heaven itself. What you have experienced is priceless, so calculate a generous tip, split the total, and offer silent thanks that in these days of budgets and economic downturns, both you and your friend are employed and deserving of occasional luxuries. Why should romantic restaurants filled with tables for two be reserved for first dates and anniversaries only? First dates are fleeting, and friendship is forever: budget accordingly.

Italian-American Band

After dinner, you and your friend will resume your rambling, stopping at any of a number of Italian bakeries where you will enjoy a scoop of gelato while buying cannoli for loved ones at home. There are no bad bakeries in Boston’s North End, so both your gelato and cannoli will be superb: the best you’ve ever had. The magic of the North End, especially on the occasion of a good friend’s birthday, is that you can’t possibly find bad food anywhere. Any restaurant you enter will be the best, regardless of its name. “Best” is the only way they serve food and drink in Italy and all those enclaves inspired by her.

The first of today’s photos comes from last Friday night; the rest come from Saint Anthony’s Feast in 2007, which I’ve previously blogged. There is a reason why Catholic saint’s day celebrations are called “feasts”: despite everything you think you know about dour-faced ascetics and fasting pilgrims, Italian celebrations both spiritual and secular are always about the food.


This week’s Photo Friday theme is Religion, which gives me good reason to re-post one of my favorite photos from last summer’s Saint Anthony’s Feast in Boston’s North End.


I’m usually shy about taking (much less posting) pictures of strangers, but I love the look of adoration in this woman’s eyes as she hangs a dollar-pinned scapular on a statue of St. Anthony. That look, I originally noted, “says everything you need to know about the spirituality of Italian-American festivals,” and it also says a lot about religion in general. Religion is the act of holding out hope in the face of both doubt and the impossible, repeating the rituals of those who have walked before you, joining with others who share your devotion, and daring to stand by your beliefs regardless of who is watching. That combination of hope, practice, fellowship, and testimony lies at the heart of all religions and is a human impulse to be cherished: the good within us seeking the good outside.


“It’s easy,” I wrote last August, “to scoff at someone else’s beliefs, seeing another’s spirituality as nothing more than superstition: my favorite wry definition of the word ‘cult,’ in fact, is ‘The house of worship down the street from yours.'” Whether we see ourselves as “religious,” we all have things we individually adore, and we all (presumably) have had moments of sharing that adoration with other, like-minded folks. The emotions of excitement, camaraderie, and pride sports fans feel at a game are expressions of a secular religion, sport serving as a spectacle around which fervent fans from both sides gather to hail the virtues of athletic excellence, teamwork, and personal sacrifice. Whether you are inspired by athletes, musicians, artists, actors, or writers, you too have presumably experienced moments of transcendence when you’ve gathered with like-minded devotees to share simple wonder, the performance of a perfect poem, stunning symphony, or beautiful ballet being enough to transport you for an ecstatic moment in time.

You might not call these “religion” but simply “amazement.” But what else is religion but the shared experience of awe?

Freeway revolt

Never underestimate the strength of a group of angry Cantabrigians.


As long as I can remember, there’s been a mural on the backside of the Microcenter store on Memorial Drive in Cambridge, MA commemorating the 1970s freeway revolt that is the reason why Interstate 95 goes around rather than through Boston. It might seem easy to pave a neighborhood: who in their right mind, after all, would stand in the way of the bulldozers of progress? Some twenty years before I moved to Cambridge to live for two and a half years at the Zen Center that’s only about a mile from this mural, a bunch of residents stood up to the road builders and said “Not in my backyard.” In a very real way, I owe the ongoing existence of the neighborhood that once was my neighborhood to folks I never met apart from their symbolic representations on this wall.

I was back in Cambridge yesterday giving consulting interviews at the Zen Center, a role that still feels foreign to me. I’ve been a Senior Dharma Teacher in my Zen school for four years now, but I still expect to be sitting on the student rather than the teacher cushion in the Zen Center interview room. Who am I to be giving anyone advice about anything, I wonder every time I pick up the bell that says “Next!” to Dharma room meditators awaiting an interview. On a good day, I’ll try to share a glimpse of what I’ve experienced during some eighteen years of Zen practice, and I let the person on the other side of my mat decide what to keep and what to reject. On a bad day, I take the tenuous job of “teacher” too seriously, saying more than is technically helpful and breaking the Number One Zen Dictum, “Open mouth, already a mistake.”

The Man = Federal Innerbelt I-95 worker

Spending any amount of time in meditation–on a certain level, eighteen years, eighteen minutes, or eighteen seconds are merely microcosms of the same immeasurable experience–feels a bit like standing up to an oncoming bulldozer. When I first began meditating, I’d often experience bouts of panic where I thought I’d literally die from the terror of simply sitting and watching my own karmic crap. In daily life, there are countless ways to ignore, drug, or drown out your inner insecurity, insanity, or inanity. When you’re sitting on a meditation cushion, however, you can’t reach for a drink, the TV remote, a bag of fattening snacks, or your preferred Distractor of Choice. When you’re sitting on a meditation cushion, the only defense you have against whatever you’ve spent your conscious hours ignoring is your own breath, and that’s a shield that feels as flimsy as air.

One of my favorite Zen sayings (and one I observe much more faithfully than “Open mouth, already a mistake”) is “You’re stronger than you think.” I suspect that had those nameless Cantabrigians who saved what would eventually become my erstwhile neighborhood seriously thought about how big a task standing up to a bulldozer is, they might never have undertaken it. Instead, activism starts with one action, and one action leads to another. The way you sit out a Dharma room panic attack, I’ve learned, is to use the mantra of “One more breath” like a lifeline: you can live an entire life surviving from breath to breath. I suspect the secret to a successful freeway revolt is something similar: signature by signature, you fill your petitions; moment by moment, you refuse to be moved.

Making a stand, with child

Today, some twenty years after the citizens of Cambridge said “no” to the freeway that would have bisected their neighborhood, the citizens of Boston’s North End, who have lived in the shadow of Interstate 93 since the 1950s, saw a long-promised park open where the Central Artery has since gone underground. There’s one sort of strength that says “Hell, no”; there’s another sort of strength that says, “Someday, this too shall pass.” The citizens of Cambridge earned their freeway-free neighborhood; on a sunny Sunday, even Memorial Drive is closed to vehicular traffic so locals and visitors alike can walk, jog, push baby-strollers, roller-blade, escort dogs, and otherwise move motor-free down a normally busy thoroughfare. The residents, too, of the North End amply deserve the parks that have replaced the freeway there. The last time I was in the North End, I kept looking slack-jawed at the sky, shocked to see air where an ugly Artery once stood. It’s been a long time coming.

Each of us, individually, is stronger than we think; collectively, gathered into neighborhoods and united by even the smallest vision of what could be, our strength is greater than bulldozers. One breath is the merest tickle; many breaths become a mighty wind. Heaven help the power that tries to fight that strength.


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