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March 2011

The Madonna Timeline: Song #36 – ‘Don’t Tell Me’ – Winter 2001

{Note: The Madonna Timeline is an ongoing feature, where I put the iPod on shuffle, and write a little anecdote on whatever was going on in my life when that Madonna song was released and/or came to prominence in my mind.}

Don’t tell me to stop,
Tell the rain not to drop,
Tell the wind not to blow
Cause you said so…
Tell the sun not to shine,
Not to get up this time, no, no,
Let it all by the way,
But don’t leave me where I lay down.

This takes me back to the end of 2000 and the start of 2001. Madonna, and the hoe-down country image of the Music era, had almost turned me onto country cowboy duds – I distinctly recall trying desperately to find a fitted plaid cowboy shirt, distressed jeans, and, gasp, cowboy boots (even if the lady herself once proclaimed she would never go out with guys who wear them).

Tell me love isn’t true
It’s just something that we do
Tell me everything I’m not but
Please don’t tell me to stop.
Tell the leaves not to turn
But don’t ever tell me I’ll learn, no, no,
Take the black off a crow,
But don’t tell me I have to go…

The video for ‘Don’t Tell Me’, directed by Jean Baptiste Mondino (who also did the far more brilliant ‘Open Your Heart’ and ‘Justify My Love’), is a passable bit of start-stop studio magic, notable for Madonna’s whole-hearted embrace of the country look and a bit of line-dancing that she was about to take on the road for her Drowned World Tour later that year. As for the song, it melds the techno-blips and dry vocal style of the Mirwais years with a vaguely country-ish tune written by Madonna’s own brother-in-law Joe Henry.

It’s both puzzling and fitting that this song was written by someone other than Madonna herself; it seems tailor-made for her in the message department, but the abstract lyrics are almost a bit too obtuse for her usual pop poetry. Still, she makes it her own (and almost unrecognizable from its original incarnation as ‘Stop’ performed by Mr. Henry himself).

Tell the bed not to lay
Like an open mouth of a grave,
Not to stare up at me
Like a calf down on its knees.
Tell me love isn’t true
It’s just something that we do
Tell me everything I’m not but
Please don’t tell me to stop.
Tell the leaves not to turn
But don’t ever tell me I’ll learn, no, no,
Take the black off a crow,
But don’t tell me I have to go…

It’s a sweetly-stubborn refusal to never stop loving someone, a gentle but determined statement of affection even in the face of rejection – both romantically and in a broader sense. Featuring her tell-tale trademark defiance, a hallmark of any pop performer who manages to last beyond what was then almost two decades, it was, and remains, a shining moment from the Music era.

In addition, ‘Don’t Tell Me’, and Madonna’s performance of it on the David Letterman show, marked her first moment of public guitar playing. Her skills on the instrument grew quickly after that first shaky song, but kudos to her for being brave enough to do it.

Don’t you ever
please don’t, please don’t,
please don’t tell me to stop
Don’t you ever tell me (don’t you), ever
Don’t ever tell me to stop.
Song #36: ‘Don’t Tell Me’ – Winter 2001
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The Return of an Old Friend, And a New One

When Alissa and I both lived in the South End (way back in the 90’s… yikes) one of our favorite places to share dinner was Geoffrey’s Cafe. It epitomized the South End to us – charming, whimsical, and filled with affable locals – with just the right amount of comfort food, cocktails, and delectable offerings to quiet the rumbling tummy.

When they left the original South End location, it was a sad day for those of us who enjoyed the neighborhood feel of the restaurant, as well as the consistent food. One of my last dinners there was actually with Alissa and her Mom.

Now, they have returned to the Back Bay, occupying what used to be Laurel, but in a much more funky and fun way. Gone are the dull beige trappings of neutral doldrums, replaced with walls steeped in the deepest red and dotted with a band of circular mirrors that undulates and ripples along the room. Crystal lamp shades dangle and sparkle throughout the space, while rich dark wood grounds it all. The space has also been opened up, and with a 1500 square foot kitchen in the back, there can be no complaints of claustrophobia.

The best part is that all the charm, camaraderie, and culinary craftiness of its former South End location (and subsequent Roslindale incarnation) remains intact. Original founder Michael Aplin was kind enough to greet me while I waited at the bar, shaking my hand and treating me like a long lost friend. He related his latest canine adventures, including a trip to Scranton, PA to rescue a dog. It’s a joy to talk to him and listen to his stories, and the easy-going kindness he exudes extends to all patrons.

I often wonder how those who have lost their partners manage to bounce back and still treat the world so well, when by all appearances it has not returned the favor. Michael seems to have done so, and it was a pleasure being in such good company. That pleasure is certainly enhanced by a cocktail, and Geoffrey’s is still a champion in that department as well.

I tried the “Ginger, Not Mary Ann” – and it’s a delightful doozy. Anything that incorporates gin and ginger beer in it is a grand thing in my book. More than a couple of these later, I was feeling rather wonderful, and when Alissa showed up, all smiles and splendor, it felt like we had gone back in time to a happier place. That’s the way it is with old friends.

We had each come a long way from those days of the gay 90’s, but our friendship, and ability to laugh at ourselves, had not changed in the least. Even in catching up on the sadder parts of life, it was good to be together again in the city where we first met so many years ago.

I don’t have that many really close friends that I can trust no matter what – I can probably count them on both hands – but the ones I do have have been with me through the good and the bad, and they’re the people that have become family. I know I can rely on them regardless of what position we’re in, how far apart we are, and how much time has passed. Alissa is one of those friends.

Before we departed, Michael came back out and brought us each a bag of homemade granola for breakfast the next morning. A gracious gift, from a gracious man – and it would prove to be badly-needed.

After saying good-bye to Alissa, I headed back out to grab a cocktail with BosGuy. We’d been trying to meet up for drinks for a few months, ever since we began corresponding through our blogs. He’s one of my favorite reads for his take on Boston’s restaurants, as well as his enviable travels.

We met at Sister Sorel’s, where we managed to find an open pair of seats at the bar. In person, he is just as witty and erudite as he is on his blog, and it’s always reassuring to find that the real person matches an online persona perfectly. (I’m told some don’t…) After a couple of Gypsy’s (another gin-soaked concoction) I had to call it a night, and bid BosGuy adieu until the next time.

(This is when the granola came in handy. Had I not had a bowl of it when I got home – and a couple glasses of water – I would have been a sorry case the next day. As it was, I slept in and felt only slightly the worse for wear. The perfect set-up for a dinner in Quincy with Josie and the Pussycats…)

 

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Shangri La

Despite my propensity for silk robes, leisurely activity, and bar lounging, I am, at heart, an adventure-seeking boy. It explains my unlikely love for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Adventures in Babysitting, The Goonies, Treasure Island, and anything involving a journey of some kind. It’s also the main reason for the restlessness of my heart. Satisfying all those terms is the book I’m currently reading, The Heart of the World by Ian Baker. Detailing the search for the magical Shangri-La of Tibet – a storied waterfall region that promises both physical and mental transcendence – it is also a spiritual journey, steeped in Buddhism and grounded by adventure.

So far, it is pure escapism – the perfect antidote for the previous few days of stalled Spring. A lit candle, a comfortable conversation couch, a free hour or two – luxuries all, and the greatest luxury in the world – a good book.

 

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A Dream Press Release

What terrors lurk on the border between sleep and wake? What wonders exist on the plane of that netherworld? It is initially a place of peace and repose, but it can turn quickly into a hostile landscape, filled with terror and troubled by the most fantastical and grotesque distortions of what once felt real. From this surreal abyss, Alan Bennett Ilagan draws the inspiration for his latest project ~  BARDO: The DREAM SURREAL.

Bardo: The Dream Surreal marks the first proper projectby Ilagan since 2009’s ‘FireWater’. (Not taking into account photo exhibitions, tours, and a wedding.) And it is a full-fledged project, with words and pictures, images and writing. It’s got the rough assemblage of his earlier work – raw and unpolished in spots, as in the days before it all got so digitally perfect – yet it has the heft and substance of something deeper than the fluff he sometimes favors. Bardo: The Dream Surreal is a bit of a dream treatise, exploring the cloudy realm of the in-between, stretching the limits of what is real, and confounding the expectations of anyone that thought they knew all the tricks of the artist.

It is abstract, and much of it remains almost frustratingly unexplained. Ilagan has never been this obscure or hidden, and while parts of it feel like an inside joke, the very disorientation it provides is a perfect metaphor for the dream world the project inhabits. Despite its abstraction, the project feels more vivid than some of Ilagan’s recent work. Bardo is a Tibetan phrase that translates to ‘in-between’ and was originally used to describe the immediate state between life and death. Since that time, it has come to mean any state of in-between – most commonly the state of dreaming.

Rather than going the analytical route so common with dreams, Bardo: The Dream Surreal takes an earnestly surreal approach, not bothering to explain anything away or offer deeper meaning. For many, even the most delightful and happy of dreams carry with them a certain tension – and this “surreality” can be both wondrous and frightening.

A few of the images here are disturbing – most convincingly in what they leave unseen (a broken robin’s egg, a pile of feathers from a dead bird) – and some of the written passages are filled with subtle dread and underlying tension (the idea of a creature – unnamed – lurking in the water of a pool, or the notion of a television stuck in repeating time), and this is where the project is at its best. Ilagan displays a deft touch in bringing such dread just to the surface without being heavy-handed about it, and there it lingers, sinister and devious, silently staring you in the face.

Balancing the darkness and the menace is the light-hearted whimsy that once made some of his less-serious projectssuch a joy to behold. The imagesof a scarf in a weeping larch, a sweater at the bottom of a pool, and Ilagan himself as a merman are as fanciful as they are compelling. What’s more interesting is how subliminally his own persona is buried within the project. Aside from the merman passage and a few early pool shots, there is little of Ilagan himself here. And yet we seem to be entirely engulfed in his own dream, which manages to be both gloriously limitless and fatally claustrophobic.

 

Not unlike most of our dreams, there is a bit of a nightmarish quality to the whole scene, but Ilagan wisely underplays the darker tones. It’s as if he has sounded a low-toned bell and simply let it ring out, with wavering repercussions, and an alternately growing and fading anxiety.

It will be most interesting to see where the artist goes from here. Like many of his projects, Bardo: The Dream Surreal is unlike anything he has done before, a characteristically-uncharacteristic artistic turn, and if it’s far less revealing than some of his work, it also shows marked artistic evolution. In some ways, this project feels like one ominous, extended preamble to something larger, a grand set-up for the next stage of the journey. As such, it’s both a tease and an end unto itself, not unlike a dream.

 

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Disrobing for a Day Nap

Our place in Boston is a second-story floor-through – meaning it has windows in both the front (living room and kitchen) and back (bedroom and bathroom). As such, we are fortunate to have a bay window that lets afternoon sunlight into the bedroom, flooding the space with light. This is one of my favorite places to take an afternoon nap. After a few minutes of reading, I find it easy to slip into snooze-mode for a couple of hours, even in the bright sunlight.

 

It is quiet here, too, despite being in the middle of the city. When I worked for John Hancock I sometimes made it home for lunch, luxuriating in the mid-day quiet, pausing in the brief respite of peace. It was – and remains – a restorative moment and place. (These days I wouldn’t make it one-sixth of the way to Boston on my lunch half-hour, but on long weekends it’s a manageable, easy trek.)

Sleeping in a bed bathed in sunlight is its own priceless excursion. In the simple there is so often the sublime, and I didn’t even have to leave my bedroom to find it.

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You Saw Me Standing Alone

We first caught a glimpse of it as it began its ascent. We were returning from dinner, and to the left it hung behind the houses and buildings along the way, slipping behind a bank of clouds by the time we returned home. A little while later it appeared again, and I grabbed the camera and the tripod and went out into the front yard.

It was cold, but not unbearably so. Wrapped in scarves, bundled up to the ears, I stood on the porch looking up into the sky. There, behind the bare branches and emerging from the clouds, came the moon. Rising slowly above the horizon, it lit up the night. I snapped a few photos, but the moon stayed obscured behind the branches. I went back inside and waited for it to fly a bit higher.

Half an hour later, I went back outside. There she was, clear of the trees, and teased by clouds on either side of her. She looked magnificent, resplendent in her super-closeness. I stared up at her and focused on her face. It seemed as if the moon was pulsating, beaming light in waves, or my eyes were adjusting and readjusting to it – I could not tell which, but beneath the wavering light everything fell away.

I wanted to make a wish, I wanted to ask a question, but all that came to my mouth, almost inaudibly, was “Moon…” More of a whimper, the whisper of a plea, and then it was gone. Still I stared at the glowing orb above, soon to be shrouded in clouds, and my doubts and worries did not go away. Yet there, in the moonlight, in that moment, it was all right.

Tonight, we make our Spring wishes…

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The Madonna Timeline: Song #35 – ‘Amazing’ – Fall 2000

{Note: The Madonna Timeline is an ongoing feature, where I put the iPod on shuffle, and write a little anecdote on whatever was going on in my life when that Madonna song was released and/or came to prominence in my mind.}

You took a pretty picture and you smashed it into bits,
Sank me into blackness, and you sealed it with a kiss.
If only I could let you go, why do I need you so?

Neatly dove-tailing with the latest news that William Orbit has scored the soundtrack for her next directorial effort, workingly titled W., ‘Amazing’ is one of the last collaborations Madonna shared with Mr. Orbit. From 2000′s Music, it was one of the only two cuts they produced together for that album.
While the worst of his work with her is treacly and uninspired (‘Time Stood Still’ and ‘Runaway Lover’ for example), the best of it shimmers and soars (‘Frozen’, ‘Ray of Light’ – hell, the entire Ray of Light album).

It’s amazing what a boy can do,
I cannot stop myself.
Wish I didn’t want you like I do
Want you and no one else…

A movie score could be the perfect bit of alchemy to set his ambient sonic moodscapes to flight, doing for W. what Trent Reznor did for The Social Network. Of course, this is all guesswork and speculation at this point – Madonna has been characteristically quiet during her creative mode. (Though I wish she would get back into the studio and make some new music.)

You took a poison arrow and you aimed it at my heart,
It’s heavy and it’s bitter and it’s tearing me apart.
If only I could set you free,
You worked your way inside of me.

‘Amazing’ is one of the brighter, poppier moments of the Music album, but like most Madonna songs it has an ambivalence that runs throughout it. She was about to marry Guy Ritchie at the time, but based on this song (and the eventual outcome of the marriage) things were not completely smooth-sailing. No one captures that push-and-pull better than Madonna.

It’s amazing… Love you and no one else…
Song #35: ‘Amazing’ – Fall 2000
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And At The Break of Day

About the only thing I can control in life is my artistic output (and what I wear). This is somewhat infuriating, as I tend to need control to feel safe and secure. Without that control, I often have to rely on others who are usually not as dependable as me. Sorry, but the truth is the truth, and one of my greatest strengths is my dependability and sustenance. (You don’t keep a website going with daily posts for eight-plus years, or hold down a job for almost ten if you are inconsistent or unreliable.)

That said, it’s not always fun to find the control, (and even those enterprises over which I have complete autonomy aren’t entirely joyful all of the time). This passage, another from John Tarrant’s Bring Me the Rhinoceros, has been teaching me to let go. It’s been a revelation – and a rather freeing one at that:

Maybe nothing will change and the uncertainty will continue. What has changed is that he doesn’t torment himself with his thoughts. He has breakfast, goes to work, comes home, has dinner, plays with the children, reads a novel. He lives. He does not require the moment to be different in order to be happy. He is happy…

The Buddha doesn’t say that nothing happened, that someone didn’t beat you, that no pain was caused. He is not encouraging you to pretend you are a robot, to go into denial, or to take up positive thinking. He just says that feeding the story of suffering makes you suffer. And he doesn’t say that not feeding the story of suffering will make you happy. His words are a koan; they take away the story about suffering. How happiness appears is your business.

This koan raises the idea that freedom might be freedom from your own stories about life and who you are and who you should be. When you first see that you suffer from your thoughts, you might want to get rid of the difficult, painful thoughts and put good ones in their place. This is not the koan approach. What might it be like if you got rid of the painful thoughts and didn’t put anything in their place? Then you might not be struggling to make the world fit your fiction. You wouldn’t suffer from bad art…

When the Buddha made his discoveries, he said, “I have found the builder, and I will not build the house of pain again.” Without your fictions, life has a simplicity that is full of beauty.

There is nothing I dislike.

~ John Tarrant, Bring Me The Rhinoceros

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How to Smudge a Home

My husband Andy has been a big proponent of smudging since I met him. He’s probably the more spiritual of the two of us (I grew up in the land of the religious/superstitious). However, over the years we have each integrated practices of the other into our lives, and the art of smudging is something I attempted this past Friday.

It is, from what I’ve read and what he’s said, a Native American practice used to purify places and objects by removing negative energy and spirits. I imagine there are similarities in the incense used in other religious ceremonies. Personally, Andy and I have been in an end-of-winter funk, so anything that might drive bad feelings and energy away is fine by me.

Andy’s smudge wand of choice is made of white sage (Salvia apiana). A dried bunch of leaves and stems are tied tightly together, the end of which is lit and then blown out. The idea is that the smoke produced will drive any evil spirits or bad energy from the area – in this case, our home.

 

I started by opening all the doors of the house. (There has to be somewhere for the negative energy to escape.) The icy winter chill had just begun to dissipate, the snow outside was melting, and birds chirped in the backyard. Once the doors were propped open, I started in the attic. Lighting the end of the sage smudge in the darkened unused end of our attic was a moment of reflection in itself. Once lit, the aroma filled the space. It was part herbal cigarette, part incense, and part holiday turkey dinner. All in all not a bad fragrance – it was the scent of the hearth, the scent of centuries.

I carried the burning bundle of sage in a sea shell, to catch the ash, but it smoldered slowly, and was not in the least bit messy. The plumes of heavy smoke I envisioned clouding my vision and nose were mere wisps of fragrant air, wafting in my wake and purifying the surroundings.

Moving methodically throughout the house, careful to turn off lights and shut doors behind me, I envisioned the path being cleared before me. The stale spirits of negative feelings, the residual winter blahs, and the wilted memories of sadness were being swept up and driven out by the smoking smudge. It was an act of symbolism, an act honoring Winter, but politely letting her know it’s time to go. It was also an act of rebirth and renewal.

While I’m not about to run out and become a shaman, there is something to be said for the spiritual practice of smudging, especially when it’s about to be Spring. It’s about letting go, and moving forward. Whether or not there are evil spirits rushing forth from our house and screaming from the smoke of sage, is debatable, but the peace of mind it brings, the idea of a new start – those are very real, and very reassuring.

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Boston Reunion

This guy has been asking me for change since 1994. That’s almost seventeen years of panhandling dedication. He can usually be found early in the day around Boylston Street, near Finagle-A-Bagel (best bagels in Boston) and across the street at Five Hundred Boylston. The first time I saw him was in May of 1994. I was just finishing up my Freshman year at Brandeis and was elated that the summer was still ahead of me. It was a glorious sunny day in Boston – actually, it was hot – one of those freak May days in the 80’s, when you try to order an Air Conditioner at midnight because you can’t take it anymore at such an early date. I digress…

 

I was in the midst of taking photos of the street scene, well, mostly myself amid the street scene, and I thought that with all the photos of me posing with friends, it would be neat to include one of this stranger and myself posing like we knew each other. He was shirtless, so I didn’t get too close, and had a floppy hat on, but I told him I’d give him a dollar if I could snap our photo together. He happily obliged. Back then he was younger, and seemed happier, if such a thing can be discerned from a two minute meeting on the street. I still have that photo somewhere – someday I’ll dig it out to compare, but I can see it clearly in my mind, and I recall the broad smiles we mustered for the camera.

Since that first meeting, I’ve seen him countless times in the same vicinity, at all times of the year. Once he was screaming and swearing, so loudly and vehemently that I crossed the street to avoid him. Mostly though, he was quiet and considerate and accepted a simple, “I’m sorry” if you didn’t have any change to spare.

The last time I was in Boston he was back in front of the bagel place, sitting as you see him here. I had my camera with me and said I’d give him a dollar if he would let me take a picture. He gave a slightly quizzical smile and said, “A dollar for a picture? Sure.” I explained that I had taken his photo many years ago, and he just nodded, clearly not remembering. His life was no doubt filled with more interesting and adventurous moments than mine, and there’s no way I would expect him to remember a college kid snapping a quick pic.

There’s something both sad and reassuring about his “work”, and the difference at what I captured then versus now. Back in 1994 it was spring, the world was sunny, and we each had a long life ahead of us. Now, it is winter, the world is windy, and we’ve each spent a good portion of our lives living in what I’m guessing are wildly disparate ways. I don’t dare venture a guess as to who’s had it tougher, or who has found the most meaning in existence, or even who is better off now than then. Those types of answers can never be completely answered. And to be honest, there are many May days when I’d like nothing better than slumming around blissfully on Boylston Street, taking in the height of a Boston Spring, and living off the kindness and generosity of strangers.

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The Madonna Timeline: Song #34 – ‘Angel’ –1985

{Note: The Madonna Timeline is an ongoing feature, where I put the iPod on shuffle, and write a little anecdote on whatever was going on in my life when that Madonna song was released and/or came to prominence in my mind.}

The iPod has picked 1985’s ‘Angel’ for the next timeline song – I was ten when it came out. I don’t remember much about when I was ten, except for a handful of Madonna songs. Like most of the ‘Like A Virgin’ cuts, this reminds me of driving in the car with my Mom and my brother – it was his cassette tape, and it was on perpetual play.

Why am I standing on a cloud, every time you’re around?
And the sadness disappears, every time you are near…
You must be an angel, I can see it in your eyes,
Full of wonder and surprise,
And just now I realize…

It is a quintessentially-80’s trifle, all synths and breathy echoes, and Madonna’s delicious laughter. Easy on the ears and the mind, but the perfect microcosmic emoting of the wonder and joy of infatuation.

Walking down a crowded avenue
All the faces seem like nothing next to you
And I can’t hear the traffic rushing by,
Just the pounding of the heart and that’s why…

No one captures the exuberance, and, I would argue, the innocence, of the beginnings of love better than Madonna. Especially at this stage of her career, when all was still shiny and new – she had the perfect grasp of a pop song – centered around romance, founded on a wish and a prayer, and wedded to a catchy melody and driving beat.

Now I believe that dreams come true,
Cause you came when I wished for you.
This just can’t be coincidence,
The only way that this makes sense is that,
Ooh, you’re an angel…
Clouds just disappear…
Song #34: ‘Angel’ – 1985
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Taking It All Off

It begins, as so many things do, with a change in wardrobe. Style often leads substance ~ testing the winds, paving the way, setting the journey. This time, this day in fact, feels different. It begins with a shedding – of skin, of hair, of chrysalis, of excess. A metamorphosis – an evolution – the way around the world. And all from a simple change of clothing.

There is power in what we wear. Like it or not, it matters – appearance matters. You can pretend it’s what’s on the inside that counts, and you can tell that to your kids and students, but there are truths to this world that they will discover regardless of your best intentions.

I’m jumping ahead, when really this is still the early stages of the beginning – and it starts with what you decide to put on your back in the morning. For the end of winter, a toned-down palette, a less-fitted silhouette, and a simpler way that approaches minimalism.

There may be peace found in neutral tones- cream, beige, slate, charcoal, gray, and black. Perhaps a dash of some tan, maybe a somber bit of olive green or the formerly dreadful navy – but all subdued, all designed specifically to not stand out – the focus turning to the head, the hands, the skin.

And then, slowly, and almost imperceptibly, the focus moves inward. It’s a new thing to have fashion begin the search for the soul, but how could it have happened any other way?

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Riding Over Charles

On my last morning in Boston, the sun had started to come out. The cost? About twenty degrees, leaving the walk decidedly chilly, and the lanes icy. My quest was for a vial of patchouli oil for an upcoming project, as well as a stop at a Tibetan store. I can’t help where the muses lead, and I’m an utter failure at refusal. To their credit, they have yet to let me down, and that’s not something you can say about many people who happen to be so disappointingly real.

That morning they led me over the Charles River and into Cambridge. During my years at Brandeis I spent a great deal of time in Cambridge – scouring Harvard Square for music and books, making regular trips to Pearl Art Supplies at Central Square, and scoping out the paper and pagan stores in Porter. All three locations have changed immensely since those mid 90’s days – some for the better, some for the worse.

It’s always reassuring to see a bevy of bookstores – especially with the decline of so many other individual establishments – and even Borders. A bookstore is one of the happiest places on earth – filled with the hopes and dreams of possibility. My yearning for other lands and new adventures can almost always be quelled, or at least subdued, by a few hours in a bookstore.

My reasons for seeking out a Tibetan store are less clear. I only know that it is the path I’m currently on – and the signposts, like the one above, are leading me where I’m supposed to go. This particular store is one I had visited a few times before – and the gentleman who runs it has always been kind.

He’s one of those calm and centered people that I often assume knows the secret to life, but keeps it hidden happily inside his head – and I’ve always been afraid to blurt out such a silly, all-encompassing question. Instead, I observe, secretly hoping to suss out some little kernel of wisdom to take with me, furtively gaining some access to a higher plane. As I arrive, he is hanging a few items of clothing outside, despite the brutal cold. Somehow, within the store and immediately without, the chill has dissipated.

The colors are riotous, but instead of inspiring restlessness and collision, they come together and work to calm the nerves with a sweetness of vision and incongruent harmony. I thumb through a few racks of clothing, beaded and embroidered with metallic thread, shot through with jewel-like tones, both wispy of silk and heavy of wool. Various Buddhas and sun gods watch over the store, a thousand eyes upon me, yet I do not feel my customary discomfort at being watched.

The owner does not hover like most storekeepers. He continues in his task of hanging clothing, once in a great while coming in to ask if I am finding everything all right. “It’s a lot to see,” he says with a smile. I agree.

The objects are enchanting – there are rows of jewelry, shelves of scarves and blankets, piles of bags and pouches, bowls of felt flowers and woolen crafts, boxes of incense, and elaborate deities scattered throughout. At one point he returns, lighting a stick of incense, and as the smoke fills the small space, I am transported to another place. A scarf that I had passed by at least twice suddenly opened up to me, its colors perfectly complementing the Jack Spade bag I just got. A pair of flowing pants in light purple and beige – a color combination I had long admired – peeked out from one of the racks. All the treasures to which I had previously been blind suddenly appeared before me. Simple stuff, superficial stuff to be sure, but something clicked in a deeper way. And all the while the shopkeeper smiled. When I was ready to go, he handed me my bag, and asked me to wait while he came around from behind the counter.

Eyeing the limp scarf hanging lifelessly around my neck, he said, “Let me teach you how to tie it – may I?”

The Best-Dressed-Man in me wanted to scoff and laugh, but the polite gentleman my parents raised kept me silent. I expected him to go through some elaborate motion just to show me how to slip a simple European knot into it, and that’s how it began. But then he injected a twist – literally and figuratively – and it made all the difference.

“This is better – it keeps your chest warmer,” he said, patting himself right above his heart. It was the best kind of secret, one that I hadn’t even thought to ask, and one that I needed most to know.

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