The Secret Life of the Street

Australian Zen teacher Susan Murphy on finding solitude in the city

Susan Murphy

©Clara Natoli

THERE IS A KIND OF attentiveness that can be cultivated and deeply relished, and a whole secret life of the street that it brings to light. It gives to the human-made world almost the same kind of delight that the lover of the natural world (and I am also one of those) might take in lizard eggs, bird colonies, feathers, droppings, rocks, and lichens. It does not oppose the wild and the made worlds but conjoins them, finds their overlap and resonance, sees the wild in the made, pays to the rust stains on an old corrugated iron wall the same receptivity it gives to dewdrops delicately strung in a spider's web. It includes but goes beyond spotting and classifying.

Just as you might dream your way into the inner life of a honeysucker hatchling by entering the downy inside of a tiny abandoned nest with your finger, you might dream and play your way into the imaginative resonance of the street. To take up the street with your imagination and follow its back ways into time is to allow the overlooked, overgrown, and half-ruined faces of the street to become the topography of your most intimate being.

In my own looking around I have met people who walked the storm water tunnels; people who walked the underground train system in the quiet between midnight and three a.m. on Sunday mornings, searching for the "false starts," the abandoned tracks, the odd buildings said to remain in obscure places; people who visited disused gasworks, brick-pits, the underneath of old wharves; people who boat up old industrial canals, who comb landfill sites and take tours through sewage treatment plants; people in Sydney who know about the underground passageways linking old mental asylums with landing-stages on the harbor. There's a lovely freedom in momentarily stepping back into the privilege freely taken by children, finding the gap in the cyclone wire fence and sauntering along in that heightened state of casual alertness, just having a good look around.

From Upside-Down Zen, © 2006 Susan Murphy. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, wisdompubs.org.

Image: ©Clara Natoli

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