I’d just left Chinatown after reclining in a chair for hours inside a state-of-the-art dental school. Each white cubicle featured an oversized nature photo, and all the while I’d been gazing into the placid eye of a giant white swan while discussing the fate of my teeth.
Dusk had already shadowed the city. Masked, shadow-colored people were moving through the streets.
Walking up Tremont Street, I passed a murmuring man bundled in thick winter clothes. I watched as he softly, compulsively, rocked his body against a mailbox while tapping the fingers of both hands over his face, blind to the people moving around him.
In a brutally lit alley, I passed a heavy woman in screaming pink leggings, sitting on a low curb, torso curled over knees, face buried in hands. I hated that I had no cash to give her. Not that she was asking. She, too, was rocking, blind to anything passing by.
Inside the T station, a gray man with a leonine back-sweep of gray hair was nodding sharp, tiny nods, over and over and over, in agreement with the voices in his head, but without regard to the action around him. Around him were masked men and women, each gazing deeply into a smartphone’s blue eye, blind to anyone nearby.
The train came. Long ago I’d come to understand that passing by another’s merciless isolation propagates a helplessness that serves no one. All I had for such moments was a Buddhist practice I’d memorized for when one comes face to face with suffering. You stop, close your eyes, and begin breathing in the pain and suffering of others, and breathing out to them spaciousness, relief, serenity. It’s called Tonglen, from the Tibetan words for “giving and receiving,” exchanging self with others.
In the full-on version, you extend it first to yourself, then to someone you love, then to someone you don’t love so much, then to an acquaintance, a stranger, a community, until you are breathing in suffering and breathing out a wish for relief to the entire universe. It’s a heady experience, and doing even a truncated version has power. But then, the question of “power to do what?” taunts me.
I mean, can I have faith that my puny but heartfelt wish can deliver to any one of them even a single moment of inner peace? Or, as the Zen masters’ disclaimer suggests, is it a discipline meant only for one’s own spiritual muscle-building — or worse, a device to protect oneself from helplessness?
Around midnight, still consumed by that question, I walked Teacake the dog around the “Closed-Due-to-Covid” Cambridge Galleria Mall, where a slice of the Charles River slips underneath Memorial Drive and down a manmade channel to curl around a cul-de-sac. There, in summer, geese and ducks beg for food-court scraps. In winter, geese walk on the channel’s frozen face. By day, Teacake chases, in vain, the waddling flocks. At night, the birds are gone.
That night, the river was tar black, blind black, but for the city lights glittering on its skin. “Where do all those noisy ducks and geese go at night?” I asked Teacake, scanning the water but seeing nothing alive.
My gaze left the channel momentarily to watch an ambulance and police car pull up to the back of a hotel on the other side, and when I looked down again my mind jumped. Hovering in the lightless water in front of me, as serene as the moon, and as luminous, was a single white swan.
But how? Until 20 seconds before, my eyes had not left the vacant water. Had it approached from any direction, I would’ve seen the city lights gleam on its undulating wake. And what the hell was it doing here at midnight?
In profile, the swan looked like a white cutout against a black curtain, a living thing too vivid to be made of ectoplasm, but still more spirit than animal.
Maybe, I reasoned, this sudden, unnatural appearance was a divine response to my Tonglen dilemma. Is a white swan affirmation? But if so, dammit! To which part of the question?
We stayed, transfixed, for a long time. I would have stayed all night had I not made the earthbound mistake of bringing poetry down to prose. “Where’s its mate?” I wondered. “Don’t swans have mates?” Across the narrow waterway, bobbing in the city’s glow, appeared a mate where none was before, and the spell was broken.
My apparition turned as if remembering something and, slipping smoothly from one dimension to another, reemerged as an elegant and ordinary bird.
Back down by the great circular pool, the vanished ducks and geese began to squawk.