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March 07 Newsletter » Is This Chelsea?

Recently, I became interested in tracks and pathways of all kinds: the secret trails worn into the earth by woodland creatures going about their everyday lives; the broad crowded streets in our city, that had their beginnings as Native American paths through the forest; the 'sky trails' of jets and birds winging their migratory way. All of us weaving patterns of living. Thinking about this, I became aware that every day, I too, wear an invisible path into the concrete of streets and sidewalks, subway stairs and elevator floors, as I go back and forth, back and forth on my 'accustomed rounds': home, subway, zendo, grocery store, home … again and again.

I’ve lived in Chelsea for the last 43 years (oh my). While there is something comforting and reassuring about the predictability of my habitual path, I’ve also noticed that this very idea of safety and predictability has the power of putting me to sleep, dulling (or boring) me into disappearing into my thoughts (planning, revisiting the past, dreaming etc.). Gone is the newly minted experience of people and surroundings, the quickening alertness to the moment that is actually our natural heritage.

Realizing this, I tried to stay 'awake' as I went on my way past the movie theater and the deli, the cleaners and the news agent, but my habitual mind could be quite the trickster. It even disguised itself as 'practice, ' suggesting seductive things like, 'why not use this walk to memorize your koan,' or 'hey, how about working on a haiku.' This mind is apparently blind to the humor of paradox..

One day, leaving the subway at my usual 23d street stop, I emerged from an unaccustomed exit to find myself standing on a sunlit street totally disoriented. Which way was what? The sign said 6th Avenue but where was I facing? Where was 23d Street? The buildings all looked strangely unfamiliar, as though I had never seen them before. A moment later, I figured things out and instantly — everything fell back into place.


However, in that disoriented flash, I made a discovery. Suddenly, I was completely, freshly present — the way you are when arriving in a new city or a strange place for the first time. Do you remember that feeling? You have baby-new eyes. There are no well-worn pathways. You are there without associations or orientation. The streets, the buildings, the neighborhood are all intensely present as simply themselves.

I wondered how 'Chelsea' would look if I could see it with such fresh eyes. How would I see the neighborhood without 'knowing?' It took only a slight mental adjustment, an inner suggestion that the scene I was experiencing was unfamiliar, to switch my perspective. The buildings stood there, revealing to me Chelsea’s layering in time: an old two story clapboard house rubbing shoulders with a glass fronted apartment dwelling, a row of tree-shaded Victorian brownstones with high tech kitchens glimpsed through front windows, the severe towers of the 1950’s housing development, an ancient and tiny jewelry store squeezed between a Thai restaurant and a chic boutique, the raw look of new art galleries fitted into ex-garages and warehouses.

And here were the people. The teenagers (black and white) nodding time to the music on their earphones, the gay men holding hands, the gaggle of dog owners and their pets companionably hanging out, the widow with her cane emerging from her long-time rent-controlled home, the mom carefully adjusting the hood of her stroller, the homeless man holding open the door of the bank, the red cardinal singing in the dusty street tree, the scrabbling, flapping pigeons, and the rat who suddenly crossed my path shadow-quick, to disappear behind the boards of a building site.

Like a stranger, I breathed in the hum, the beat, the life of this corner of the great city, so different and so similar to other corners, so old and so new – Rome, Pompeii, Shanghai, New Amsterdam, New York.

Not to say that this is an every-day exercise to do. That would make it precious and artificial, defeating the purpose in no time. The way I see it, it’s just a from-time-to-time wake-up call to the miracle of the daily path.

grass growing from a crack in the sidewalk

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