Boston newcomer Brian Arundel struggles to make sense of the locals’ reckless driving, knack for obscenities, and seeming disregard for the welfare of strangers.
"If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the people who drive us crazy, can be our teacher.” —Pema Chödrön
There’s this thing that drivers do here when the light turns green: shoot out and turn left in front of you, before you can make it through the intersection. My fellow transplants call it the “Boston left,” and it’s so engrained in local culture that it’s actually more common than not. Recently I consulted the Massachusetts driver’s manual, suspecting that rules of the road were different here than in the rest of the country. But no, it’s right there on page 95: “When making any left turn, you must first yield the right-of-way to any oncoming vehicle.” Yet if you have the audacity to follow the rules and drive straight through, preventing the other driver from executing the turn, you will quickly discover the creative genius of a native Bostonian’s obscenities.
Admittedly, this is a small thing, but on a daily basis, at nearly every traffic light, it adds up. Besides, the Boston left is just the tip of the iceberg.
Where else in winter do residents mark shoveled parking spaces with orange traffic cones? Or with chairs, coffee tables, shopping carts, and baby strollers? Although the cones do contribute color to otherwise bleak winter streets, I had failed to understand the logic of the practice until a neighbor filled me in: Because he had done all the work to shovel a spot, he explained, he didn’t want someone else coming along and taking it. I suggested that none of us actually owns the street, and if everyone thought like he did there would be nowhere to park when it snowed. If, on the other hand, we all shoveled out our cars and left a spot vacant for the next driver—as people do in the rest of the country—we’d minimize the inconveniences of winter parking. I received only a confused stare.
I’ve been actively practicing Buddhism since 1999, and in that time I’ve lived in five different cities and on both coasts. Buddhist practice steadied me after I’d spun downward into depression and substance abuse, and it remains my constant guide regardless of tradition or how often the scenery of my life changes. I studied Zen in Maine, Kagyu in Seattle, Gelug in Oregon. My first experience with Vipassana was at the Seattle Insight Meditation Society, led by Rodney Smith. Over the years, somewhat like a Buddhist Goldilocks, I found Zen and Tibetan a bit too extreme but Vipassana just right. And until the last relocation, I’d convinced myself that I was making progress.
Excerpted from the Spring 2013 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly, available on newsstands and by subscription.
Brian Arundel is a book editor and writer whose fiction and nonfiction essays have appeared in a number of literary journals. His play, Sam, Sara, Etc., is forthcoming from Červená Barva Press.
Illustration by Wesley Allsbrook