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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