Boston in Boitsfort

I recently learned a new term for an ages old human trait. I have been listening to a series of talks by Pema Chödrön called “The Freedom to Choose Something Different.” In this series, Chödrön refers to a Tibetan term called Shenpa. Shenpa is the feeling that arises when we are hooked or triggered by an external force. In other words, it is the feeling of being irritated or annoyed by something or someone. In one of her examples, she explains that it can be as simple as getting irritated by a person taking more than their fair share of yogurt in the breakfast buffet line.


The rising of Shenpa is a very natural, human phenomenon. It is not something to feel badly about. The “choosing something different” part comes in how we respond to Shenpa. Take the example of some serious giving in to Shenpa that I witnessed in Boitsfort yesterday afternoon (please bear with me as I set the scene leading up to the incident).


I had taken myself on a little solo field trip into Brussels proper. Our stint in Belgium derives its origin in my husband’s decision to study for his doctorate at a university in Brussels. Having gone through the process of earning my doctorate (while also working full time), I know from experience that it is an all-consuming process. We live together, but my husband’s mind and being are entirely bent on wallowing in philosophy. It can bring up some Shenpa in my own being, so I have been working on creating my own world here in the capital of the EU. Yesterday, I realized that I have the freedom to choose a new adventure every weekend. While my husband is at home wallowing with the dog, I am free to explore.


So yesterday, I did just that. I took public transit into downtown Brussels. I sat on bus 17 and then 95, listening the third of Alice Hoffman’s books in a row that I have devoured, vowing to embrace gratitude instead of irritation for this form of travel. It worked. On my own, I was free to look out the window and watch the city pass by. With no dog to wrangle or anyone else’s emotions to worry about, I was free to just enjoy. And enjoy I did.


The sun was shining, and it was relatively quiet as I wandered along at my own pace through Place Sablon and down toward Grand Place. I walked through a Brocante with crazy expensive antiques, admiring but not buying.


I walked in and out of little shops, continuing to admire but not buy. I looked longingly at a Koshi bell in the music shop where I purchased my traveling collection of rhythm instruments that I bring with me to the refugee center each week. The sound of the Koshi bell, if you haven’t heard one, is like a waterfall of the most breathtakingly peaceful, beautiful energy. The studio owner of Tree of Life Yoga once walked around the room, gently swaying one of her four Koshi bells as we lay resting in Savasana.


But enough about my love affair with Koshi bells, which I currently admire from a distance because they are out of our unfunded graduate student budget (hint hint, feel free to send me a Koshi bell any time).

I did wander into a hair salon to look at the beautiful array of wooden rings that I have been admiring for the entire year I have been living in Brussels. I tried on every single one at least once and several two or three or four times. None of them fit. I placed the wee tray back into the window and saw two more on little iron display fingers. I tried first one and then the other on. Not to sound too Goldilocks, but the second fit just right.


Je prendrai celle ci (I’ll take this one), I told the woman blow drying a woman’s black, wavy hair.


I slipped it on my finger, feeling buoyant from the bountiful (albeit) brief uplift that comes with consumption culture and wandering outside and across the street to my favorite children’s bookstore. I am certain that in another life I was either a traveling storyteller or children’s librarian (or both; I have likely embodied a storyteller in many variations over my many lives).


This particular shop is called Le Wolf, so you can see where the affinity begins. I discovered this shop when my dad was here for a visit last spring. They had placed a little red riding hood themed wooden mural out front with holes for tourists to poke their heads through for photos. We participated, of course, for what I like to call a “mom shot.” I always send these photos to my mom, though this may be my excuse for taking ridiculous and fun photos without feeling too much embarrassment. My inner child is alive and strong, and I definitely indulge it on a regular basis.

On this particular day, I wandered through the shop, following the wolf paws that pad along the shop floor. I picked out art cards to send to friends and family and a birthday gift for my dad. When I noticed there was a small eatery (which in my thimble bladder mind meant the possibility of a bathroom), I asked the shopkeeper if they had toilettes. The gift of being able to empty said tiny bladder instantly elevated this shop to my favorite of all downtown establishments.


Side note: Brussels is not only the only city where you have to pay for a glass of water at a restaurant. There are also no public restrooms to be found. Those shops (and even some eateries) charge up to a euro for a person to use their toilettes. For someone with as tiny a bladder as mine, this can really add up. Granted, I often will go to a coffee shop and get a pastry or espresso (I realize that the latter really defeats the purpose of using a restroom) just because I refuse to pay money to pee. Do Belgians just have bladders of steel? It’s possible that in a country, which honors artisan beer so highly that children have simply been trained from birth to ignore the call of nature for as long as possible.

But I continue to digress.


I wandered through Grand Place, where they were setting up a strange juxtapositioning of Asian Kubota and miniature Atomium and then back toward the stop for bus 95. Along the way, I bought a fairly ridiculous clearance hat in my favorite color of blue-green. You really think I can pull this off? I asked the shopkeeper. Of course, she said in French. (The dream of the 90s may be alive in Portland, but the style of the 80s and 90s is alive and well in Brussels).

I’m not sure she would have given me an honest answer, but I didn’t really care if she was right. Life is too short to care too much about how ridiculous I look when I walk out the door. Besides, with a wild mane like mine (curly, frizzy, and out of control, particularly in such a humid climate), I am already embodying a bit of the preposterous simply by being.


Side note: As a child of the 80s, I tried without success to straighten my hair. I desperately wanted to be able to crimp it (in hindsight, I realize this would have served only to make me look even more outlandish, but hey…it was the 80s). I could manage to get the sides fairly straight, albeit a very thick straight. However, the back of my thick mane always eluded me, so I wound up with pseudo-straight sides and very frizzy posterior locks. If there was any moisture in the air, everything poofed out into a gigantic football of frizz.


At least this hat will cover the majority of my curly locks, which my husband continues to demand are beautiful and I should refrain from cutting off.


Do you have to deal with this every day? I ask, grabbing tufts of my hair in both hands and pulling it out to the side. I will happily trade you!


Additional side note: I would be ever grateful if you can recommend a hair style that makes thick, curly hair easier to deal with and that does not involve an electric clipper.


After stopping for a patisserie snack to stave off crankiness from hunger (hangry, I believe it is currently being referred to in certain circles), I got on bus 95 and headed home. I stepped off the bus and back into the sunshine at the stop before the terminus in the little Boitsfort corner of Brussels where my husband and I reside mere feet (meters, inches, centimeters, etc.) from the Forêt des Soignes. Feeling buoyant and happy that I had survived an entire round trip on transit without giving in to Shenpa, I began to cross the street. I didn’t even flinch (very much) when the light changed green and  the bus starting within moments after I stepped off (typically, the light stays red here for so long that I might as well have gotten off and walked to the terminus instead of waiting on the bus).


I did as I was taught as a much younger, tinier version of my current self, and I looked both ways (in Europe, you look for cars, bicycles, and multiple forms of transit…in this instance, tram cars). Just before entering the second pedestrian crosswalk, I was stopped by a scene unfolding in front of me. A woman had tentatively begun to walk into the crosswalk from the sidewalk on opposite side of the street. She wore black leggings, a black hooded vest, and headphones.


A car coming around the roundabout entered into the crosswalk, slowing just before hitting the woman. The car was not moving too fast and thankfully did not make actual contact, but the woman flew into a rage I have not seen since living in the greater Boston area. She screamed at the driver of the car and refused to leave the crosswalk.


I’m going to call the police, she yelled. A man in a fiery bright orange sweater (Shenpa color?) exploded out of the car. He pushed right into the woman, and I thought he might actually attack her. He was stopped by several other people, who had gotten out of their own cars to engage.


Watching from a safe distance on the sidewalk (I did cross the street), I decided there were enough people overseeing the situation that I did not need to add my own being to the foray.


Cars were lining up behind the stopped tan car with the screaming bodies in front of it. the woman was now demanding the man get out of the way so she could take a photo of the license plate. A woman in a fur coat talking on a cell phone opened the passenger side door. She had a bored look on her face as she spoke into the phone.


Oui, elle est folle (yes, she is crazy), she said into the phone, as if this was something that happened all the time (maybe in her world, it does).


I watched for another moment and then drew myself away, turning to walk toward home. Still reeling from shock and the storm of energy rippling out from the epicenter of the Shenpa tremor, I commenced texting my husband.


This guy almost hit a woman in a crosswalk. She was walking across, and now she’s blocking his car and screaming at him. Other people got out of the cars because the guy got out and started pushing the woman and like attacking her.




That was some serious insanity right there.




When the woman yelled at the guy from sitting her and stood in the crosswalk, he started driving into her.






Right?!?!?!?! What the hell? Clearly the woman was a bit more upset than she really needed to be because it’s the time of day were it’s hard to see people with the sun, but still…


Yes you don’t mess with pedestrians in the crosswalk in Brussels.


Really? Is that a thing? The whole incident was shocking. I am still in shock. What I don’t understand is why the guy got so upset. He almost hit her with his car and then attacked her. Zero to 100. Like that.


Aggressive drivers. Road rage.


Yeah. He was already worked up. She was just the excuse he needed to blow.


The conversation continued on to more urgent matters, like getting a resupply of coffee since we had run out, which constitutes an emergency in our home, and fresh bread.


As I walked home, I tried to imagine what I would have done had it been me in the crosswalk. I realized that I have been in that very same situation at least once since moving to Brussels. I am pretty sure I was angry, but I also recall remorse from the driver. One person actually shrugged their shoulders and made a face like, Oops!


Oops, I remember thinking? There’s no room for oops.


I also remember thinking, Well, I am alive, and carrying on my way, hoping the driver had been rattled into paying closer attention to pedestrians, at least for a little while.


Witnessing how quickly so many people can get drawn into one person’s aggressive response to Shenpa was a powerful reminder of how easy it is to justify violent behavior and to create a cascading effect of negative, violent energy into the world.


I have my moments and challenges with Shenpa, but this scene served to remind me, too, to stay vigilant and awake at the wheel so that I am able to pause and not give in to Shenpa when I feel its nascent beginnings in my own being.


We do have the freedom to choose something different, and it is this path that I prefer to walk along, even if it leads me ever farther from the conventional, chaotic current.

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