Adventure, Authenticity, Buddhism, Curiosity, Displacement, Food, Illusion, Meditation, Memory, Sensitivity, Spiritual Practice, Travel

Strip Malls as Spiritual Teachers?!

Diagonal Plaza

Beautiful or boring? Small business refuge or real estate dregs?

The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. – Marcel Proust

Colorado is blessed with dramatic landscapes and sweeping sunny skies that inspire many people, myself included, to relocate here.  Some folks even call this place “God’s country”.  I wonder if these are the same people who’ve littered the Front Range with decidedly profane strip malls, box-like buildings and even ho-hum churches whose juxtaposition against the majestic Rocky Mountains is as shocking as a coffee splatter on a Vermeer masterpiece. As a highly visual person with an equally sensitive nervous system, my eyes often send what feels like jarring signals to my body when confronted with dissonance. When I first moved to Denver from the Boston area, my spirit deflated every time I drove along Colorado Boulevard, a seemingly endless stretch of asphalt lined with a sprawling hodgepodge of structures, like a Monopoly board gone amok.  With space relatively plentiful around Denver, it appears that little attention was given to design, aesthetics, and planning in that and other parts of the city. The result? Gazing up at the mountains offered a heavenly view whereas looking toward the street was a kind of visual purgatory with no obvious place to rest the eyes.

My Zen teacher Cheri Huber likes to say that the “quality of your life is determined by the focus of your attention.”  When it comes to strip malls, this statement could be interpreted as guidance to not look at them at all if they trigger my nervous system, instead focusing my attention on structures and environments that my eye considers more palatable.  Avoiding strip centers altogether along the Front Range, while not impossible, would severely restrict my choices of places to shop, run errands or even take yoga classes. I’ve had to find a way to, if not fall in love with these buildings, at least co-exist with them.

Recently I moved to Boulder which, while not devoid of utilitarian and cookie-cutter architecture, strip malls and otherwise, has a higher ratio of open space and the immediacy of the foothills as counterweight. Last week, realizing I needed to renew my driver’s license, I went online to find the address of the closest DMV.  According to a Google map, it’s near an intersection I’ve crossed many times, coming from all directions, yet I couldn’t recall seeing a building there. Was it in a strip mall or otherwise unremarkable edifice that I had simply trained myself not to notice?

The office was tucked inside a strip center called the Diagonal Plaza which, unlike its namesakes in Spanish colonial cities, was neither grand nor lined with inspiring municipal buildings. The exterior brick wall of this plaza (whose modern definition might be: not-so-fancy place) had a menu of signs indicating the tenants. In addition to the DMV, the building hosted a check cashing outfit, a Himalayan restaurant, a Mexican eatery, a swimsuit store, a dry cleaners, a tattoo parlor, the Colorado Driving Institute, and some other shops. It was a sufficiently diverse mix of businesses to pique my interest. Stepping inside, there was something about the layout and feel that reminded me of being in Israel seven years ago, when a short-lived medical problem sent me to a doctor whose office was in a mall-like structure. That memory helped me switch into adventure mode. Could I treat this place with a tourist’s detached curiosity?

My encounter at the DMV went smoothly, with barely a wait. Still, I emerged with a growling belly and, tempted by the “Drivers License” specials at 100% Mexicano across the corridor, decided to deviate from my normal diet and have lunch.  While waiting in line to give my order, I chatted in Spanish with the man in front of me, originally from Mexico City, where I once lived. That pulsating megalopolis burst with its own crazy architectural mixture of grandeur, squalor and everything in between. During my Mexican sojourn, I often found the most flavorful and satisfying food at street vendors and simple family run establishments, rather than at the more trendy European style eateries that populated my neighborhood.  And so it was with this off-the-radar cafeteria-style restaurant. I hadn’t realized how much I had been missing good fish tacos, rajas (ancho green peppers) and agua de melon (canteloupe juice) until I polished it off rather unmindfully.  For a moment, I was tempted to eat meat again simply to try their chicken with mole sauce, to compare their torta de barbacoa (inadequately translated as a beef sandwich) with those I bought from a man who pushed his umbrella-ed cart along my street, and birria, a soul saving lamb stew that got me through many days at my consulting job in Mexico City.

On the way out, I visited the swimsuit shop, a compact no-frills showroom. The proprietress told me she had recently relocated her mostly online business and that this little mall was much nicer than the warehouse she had inhabited before. I bit my lip, unwilling to imagine how dreary that must have been. Looking around, I noticed she carried hard to find quality brands with tasteful and flattering designs. As I left, I took her catalog and marveled that this uninspired building concealed at least two gems. While far from the marriage of container and contents and aesthetic excellence that I often long for, I was reminded, again, that appearances can deceive, that authenticity and quality exist in surprising places and that, if I choose to don my adventure goggles, I can approach even the sorriest of strip malls and most pitiful of plazas with an attitude of curiosity.

Buddhist monk Pema Chodron wrote a book called The Wisdom of No Escape, about saying ‘yes’ to life in all its manifestations. When difficult or unpleasant feelings arise, Buddhists sit with the discomfort in meditation and try to embrace the experience with compassion, rather than finding temporary relief through distraction. In my case, I am frequently overwhelmed by an urge to seek greener grass in the form of new landscapes, all the better if a plane ride is involved. And, despite my ongoing Buddhist practice, I’m not yet able to always plunk myself on my meditation bench and allow the restlessness to pass through me. Now I at least know where I can hit the reset button with tacos and a glass of agua de melon. Sometimes enjoying delicious food can also help with having new eyes, at least temporarily.

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About ilona fried

Writer, Feldenkrais champion, Aikidoka and explorer of internal and external landscapes.

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