07/30/2013 03:24 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2013

A Blue Poppy Grows in Detroit

I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I've never thought much about Michigan and far less, Detroit. But here in Berkley, just outside the city, I've realized my closed-minded mistake.

There's an almost unimaginable diversity and depth of experience available here if you're willing to look beyond the disaster of bankruptcy and the devastating statistics regarding poverty and crime.

I'm not saying that Detroit is a totally happy or healthy place. It isn't. But there are places and people here who put the rest of us to shame, and it only takes openness to blow away the prejudice and presumptions.

Put differently, if you practice mindfulness in Detroit, you just might see the local version of the elusive blue poppy: a fragile, courageous flower that blossoms for a few short days once every seven years in the high Himalayan Mountains.

Why? Because, staying present is the key to seeing things as they are, freshly and directly. Wonder thrives once we stop looking for the things we expect to see.

So here's what I expected to see in Detroit: demoralized people and a divided society in which I'd feel more comfortable behind the safety of my own race and socio-economic class. There are people living in the greyness of horrendous poverty here, but they don't define the landscape, and there are pockets of privilege, but they're fraught with insidious danger.

When I recognized my prejudice and took the risk of dropping my assumptions, I entered a whole new world. In the gastronomic world of Detroit, there are fried pickles and fried hot dogs, greasy sliders made in castles, awesome pizzas that settle your stomach after exotic martinis, and ornate drinks served in the semi-darkness of a speakeasy.

The nightlife of Detroit is also a world unto itself. On the infamous 8 Mile, I found a club where you can be whatever you want to be including yourself. At the Birdcage, creative expression is celebrated with tolerance and a brave joy. Drag queens have so much to teach about humanity and welcome. I've never felt so embraced with respect, or so surrounded by people simply happy to be out and about.

In contrast, I also found a mainstream nightclub in a posh neighborhood that utterly lacked in decency. Where I expected to feel comfortable, I felt threatened by the predators circling their prey on the dance floor. Here, the bouncers don't offer protection from lechery and callous disrespect, or ignorance and bigotry. But, that's enough about the only "bad" experience I had in Detroit; it's time to return to the unforeseen delights.

There was the night I walked on an avenue populated by the loudest and proudest bikers I've ever encountered. Mind you, I've always hated motorcycles, but I loved watching hundreds of adults revving their Harleys and gloating with the thrill of deafening the unwitting pedestrians. Then, just one street over, there's a zoo with happy animals, about a million lily pads and somewhat fewer turtles, and a whole family of glorious adopted gardens.

I met friendly and vocal, humorous and helpful people here. They add new vocabulary to the English language, such as "staycation" (definition = what you do when you stay home on holidays, or alternatively, what happens to people who never leave Michigan). They threaten to list their misbehaving children on eBay, but don't mean it (of course). They make Michigan Left Turns at red lights, and usually demonstrate patience with ignorant out-of-state drivers.

Best of all, I realized that people in the Detroit are multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic and multi-everything-else-you-can-imagine. It seems there are communities in the metropolitan area that model the kind of tolerance and sensitivity that the rest of the world so desperately needs. There's no need to melt away diversity when the richness of difference is embraced with respect. Detroit may be bankrupt, but the city's true assets -- its citizens -- are priceless.