A Week Of Cake, With Mocha Cheesecake And More

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We had a week of cake. Maybe you have to be stubborn to be in the Dharma. There’s a lot of Aries around here.

I made this carrot cake for my birthday. It’s one of the best I’ve ever had and definitely the best I’ve ever made. If you like dense, direct carrot cake (some people like fluffy carrot cake with pineapple and coconut, which is lost on me), this is a serious win. I opted for a little less frosting with a hint of lemon zest to brighten the spices in the cake.

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Then there was chocolate genoise with wild blackberry mousse (adapted from here and here, with agar subbed for gelatin for veggie friendliness).

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I also made a Snickers inspired tart, which has yet to have a written recipe, but if you feel like improvising, it involved peanut shortbread, homemade caramel, peanut butter white chocolate mousse and milk chocolate ganache. All the elements are simple, but the combination is a show stopper.

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And finally, mocha cheesecake (recipe after the jump).

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Above are a few drawings in the current series, plus a garland-cum-birthday card for one of the cake recipients, which pretty much captures how I feel right now:

Sometimes there are no words. And sometimes we don’t need any.

I have nothing profound to say. I am surrounded by good people. And I get to make them cake. Life is alright I guess.

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Double Anniversary And Peanut Butter Oatmeal Cookies

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Tomorrow is my birthday, which marks twenty-five years that I’ve been on this earth. And Monday was my Dhagpo anniversary, which marks one year since I arrived in this magical corner of the Dordogne.

Birthdays are good for a lot of things—taking oneself to the symphony, eating midnight cake with best friends, exploring ancient caves in distant lands. I guess I’ve had some pretty stellar birthdays. Tomorrow I get to make lunch for my favorite wily old Tibetan, meditate with the Buddha’s relics, and eat cake with my Dhagpo family. The goodness of my life takes my breath away.

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Which reminds me of another thing birthdays are good for: taking stock and giving thanks. What have I done in this year of my life? Moved a few thousand miles around the world; fallen in love; accepted responsibility; faced heartache; realized dreams. I’ve become a part of something bigger than myself, for which I am ready to give my all and teach my heart to open.

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Which is no easy thing. I told a friend yesterday that when I really look and let myself feel, beneath the quotidian flotsam, I always have the sense that my heart is broken. He said, “A broken heart is an open heart.” I chided him for inexcusable cliché. He laughed me off and said, “Fine, but it’s true.” And damn it all, but it is true.

I’d like to heal my heart, to sew up all the cracks and feel better once and for all. But a heart with no cracks lets nothing in. And feeling fine is a fixed affair, while the world is not a fixed place.  So, okay world, thank you for breaking my heart. With change, and beauty, with terrifying uncertainty, and ear-ringing possibility, with everything that I cannot determine, and to which I can only open.

I’m in for another year. Let’s do this thing.

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I mentioned cake, but that’s for tomorrow and so there are no pictures yet. For now I give you cookies, because who doesn’t like cookies and plus these had people raving. If you think it is both distastefully wholesome and rather uninventive to add oatmeal to peanut butter cookies, I understand. I thought so too. I only did it because I wanted to use up some oats on the same day I needed to stave off a possible too-much-peanut-butter-and-jelly-by-the-spoonful catastrophe.  Fortunately, it turns out the result is much greater than the sum of its parts. Two familiar flavors with two awesome textures meet up for homey, toothy, utter satisfaction.

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Recipe…

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Precious Human Body And Apple Jelly Spirals

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Rain is trammeling down the twilight. The drops form a shower of diamonds in the blue-grey light of evening. I am sitting under the gentle parabola that caps the Institute and listening to two brave souls from this winter’s study retreat on The Jewel Ornament of Liberation recap the explanations on the precious human body. This body is precious because it is difficult to obtain.  Precious because it is easy to lose. Precious, for, once obtained, it travels unerringly towards its end. This body allows us to reflect on our suffering, to act to alleviate it, and to aid others with their suffering as we develop understanding through such reflection.

Let’s say the suffering of beings is like a vast desert of cracked earth (me talking now, not Gampopa). Then I suppose compassion and the just action that unfolds therein is the nourishing rain which allows the tender shoots of wellbeing and clarity to set forth their first leaves and all that follows. In the face of such immensity, at times I feel like a single drop of water destined to evaporate upon immediate impact with the steaming heat of so much anguish.

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Perhaps this is melodramatic. Also, perhaps–from another point of view–this is the answer. For though we experience our selves and our lives and all of our manifest suffering, this experience is also illusory. We are not formed and fixed as we believe ourselves to be. Our suffering is subject to change, as our self is subject to change. As a drop of water is wont to evaporate and the most parched earth is blown away by a gentle wind, so our suffering may be soothed, if we awaken to its temporality. Change is kind. It feels cruel when we do not welcome it, but in fact, change can be a balm.

It’s a harsher form of change to accept that that this body will not last. But there’s work to be done in the meantime. Reflection to call the rain.

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For me, reflection pairs well with manual activity. This way, the benefit of beings gets accomplished not only through deepened understanding, but also through better afternoon snacks. Plus, this precious human body needs loving nourishment. Lately, the dining hall kitchen has taken to fielding me puff pastry scraps that can’t be reused for big group meals, and I’ve taken to turning them into tasty spirals to go with post-lunch coffee or tea. This is the perfect happy ending for all those homemade spinach triangle leftovers or times you needed a round sheet of puff pastry but could only find a square one.

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You can fill a puff pastry spiral with just about anything: nut butter or, duh, Nutella, sweetened cream cheese, good old-fashioned cinnamon-sugar. I chose to get a little ambitious here and make a batch of fresh apple preserves. It’s remarkably easy and totally ups the schmancy factor. You end up with a crispy, tender, gooey, sweet moment of worldly, impermanent, totally delicious happiness. (Bite me post-modern literary and grammar mores; I will use as many adjectives as I want to, and I nearly ended this sentence with a preposition.)

Recipe…

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Because Banana Bread (Honeyed Orange Banana Bread!)

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So apparently there’s this not so new phenomenon in the English language where people use the word “because” followed by a noun rather than an independent clause (grammar and context can be found here). There’s a whole meme cult around “because racecar.” Which is funny to begin with, and beyond that, as a lover of both language and the absurd, I’m a fan of the general proposition. Even if I’m around two years late to the party.

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For instance, if some one asks, “Why are you late to lunch?” you say, “Because banana bread,” smile adorably, and hold up a plate of warm bread, which wafts heart-melting deliciousness. Tardiness absolved.

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I’m not sure this evolution (devolution?) of language has made it into French yet, but as we know, I’m a fan of inter-continental exchange. Thus the banana bread. A staple of American comfort food, which is readily embraced by every other culture I’ve tried it on. It’s been well-received in New Zealand and Ghana as well.

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This version is spiked with honey and orange zest, plus a pinch of nutmeg. Because creativity. Also because leftover oranges, but it’s a welcome mix so no worries over the initial motivation. It’s moist and chewy and sweet and everything banana bread is supposed to be, plus a tiny bit exciting. Honey, citrus, oooh. Because we can (what can I say? Independent clauses are great too.)

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Anticipation And Spring Blossom Panna Cotta

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I am sitting at my desk in the office, tapping away in the ever-too-few minutes before dinnertime. Dinnertime here is a fixed affair. If you don’t show up to the dining hall between seven-thirty and eight in the evening you’re out of luck, your soup and salad and quiche or other go to some hungry Jack on the prowl for leftovers and, what’s more, you get a light slap on the wrist for missing a meal you signed up for. Thus, this time is precious, as it is limited. Whatever activity I choose to engage in must be done in twenty-six minutes. I can stretch it to forty-six if I don’t mind dirty looks or guilt-inducing jokes from the kitchen crew for showing up at the last minute.

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Not that I mind, just that I’m conscious and try to be conscientious of the fact. Which isn’t easy on a day like today, when my brain jangles with ideas edging their way hurriedly toward the exit, but my fingers can’t type fast enough and the thoughts seem to risk disappearing out my ears or back into the vortex of dark matter that is my cerebral functioning or intangible mind or whatever you prefer according to your tradition.

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Apparently, sudden doses of concentrated sunshine makes me slightly high, if we take this rush of thoughts and words to be the effect of springtime. Could also be that I just got handed the schedule of events for this summer, and the anticipation of future activity revs my excitement-ometer far beyond its recent norm.

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Last week I wrote about sadness and hardship and an ineffable vision of pain. I also made a remark about how joy seems to be deeply entwined with future happiness. Now, I’m noticing some nuances. The levity I feel today comes both from this and from the simple fact of being occupied. My thoughts have things to do other than observe the parts of themselves that are rooted in fear and doubt, which is what they seem to do when they lack distraction. Also, my vision of the future is tied to meaningful work. Summer means lots of visiting teachers, lots of coordination and big, fancy meals and content people with sated appetites and tickled palates. Summer means using the random assortment of talents and skills I’ve got in this life for the easily-observable benefit of others. Summer means affirmation.

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It also means working like a crazy person until I fall on my face, come Semptember–in a caffeine-and-possibly-sugar-induced stupor and the waves of befuddled loss that accompany too much free time after having none at all. Interesting fact about vision, at least at the level at which I’ve got it: seeing what happens inside of me doesn’t change what happens. At least not very fast. Understanding the source of my anguish, when it arises, doesn’t make it go away. Realizing the temporal nature of my anticipation doesn’t make it any less consuming. But perhaps it does give me a bit more patience with the ups and downs and ins and outs.

And this is a worthwhile affair. Because whether I’m overwhelmed with anguish or carried away by joy, there are things to be done in this life. And it is useful to be capable of action, regardless—no, not regardless—with great regard and kindness for the storm inside.

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In the meantime, it is springtime, and impermanence is showing its finer features in a sudden flurry of fleeting floral display. Possibly too much alliteration; I apologize. In any case, as a cook, springtime means to me short windows of awesome flavor potential. Trees that have edible fruit also have edible flowers, and many that don’t have edible fruit also have edible flowers (but in this case it’s best to ask some one who’s very well informed). Springtime flowers taste at once familiar and unexpected. We’re all used to vanilla, which is, at its base, a floral flavor, and many of us have also come to know orange blossom, lavender, rose, and others that have recently become popular. So why not walk out your front door and try the neighborhood special?

My favorite way to capture a clean flavor in a dessert without it getting lost in a bunch of caramelized sugar/flour/cake madness, is in a cream. Panna cotta is the simplest, purest way I’ve found, and it’s also ridiculously easy to make. I used the flowers of an ornamental Prunus variety, a close relative of almond and apricot trees. The flavor is lightly astringent and well…flowery. Basically, find a flower that smells great and comes from a plant that produces other things you can eat. Be bold; have fun; it’s springtime.

(Four minutes to get to dinner and hopefully not too many typos!)

Recipe…

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I Could Cry

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It is spring, and I could cry with joy. Not that winter was so bad. It was mild in fact, with just a bit of frost and nary a snowflake in sight. But three days hence, all decked out in sunshine, I am nothing if not grateful.

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Lately I’ve developed a habit of collapsing unexpectedly into a puddle of tears, and usually not for joy. I generally flee human company at such times, marvel at the unpredictability of my experience of the world, and try not to judge too much. Emotion–it’s a thing sometimes.

It’s a thing a lot these days. I find myself overcome with paralyzing sadness or desperate hope, none of which lasts but all of which shakes me around like an acorn on an oak branch in the midst of a winter storm. It’s all I can do to hang on.

So that’s what I try to do. Hold it together when I can, let it go when I can’t. Ask for help; accept that help. And also just generally try not to leak overwhelmption all over the place. Because that’s heavy, overwhelmption is, and most people have enough of their own to carry without me dousing mine all over them unbidden. And, um, I think it’s generally working.

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But the thing about being an acorn in a storm is you can either watch the storm or close your little acorn eyes and just not. Erm, duly noted that acorns don’t have eyes and this analogy has overstayed its ability to be applicable, but you see what I’m getting at here…I’m trying to be an acorn with my eyes open.

And in the storm of my emotions, there’s a lot to see. I see how joy is based on believing in future happiness. I see how sadness comes from a vision of future loss. I see how pain grows from witnessing others’ hardship and my own, and feeling trapped in an inability to fix or often even lessen that hardship in the moment.

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As far as I can tell, looking and holding on is what there is to do. The ability to be helpful, to others and myself, increases with understanding. I’m not useless, even if I feel like it on occasion. I’m just a lot less useful than I’d like to be.

But this is the deal with keeping our eyes open. The more we pay attention to all the uses we could fill in this world, the more we experience the limits of our present usefulness. Which is hard, but it’s not bad. I am doing the best I can do. I’m pretty sure we all are. And if I keep paying attention, and somehow learn to balance sadness and vision and motivation, my best will continue to grow. And I think that’s all I can ask for. Storms are not that comfortable, but acorns need rain to grow into oaks (usefulness of analogy regained–ha!).

Another New Year

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Losar Tashi Delek! I.e., Happy Tibetan New Year.

This is the New Year’s card I designed for the center. It was, um, kind of a giant headache trying to produce an image I like and feel confident offering to represent Dhagpo in a limited amount of time, but it’s also very cool to be able to put my artistic background to use in service of others (and myself, but hey, a little publicity never hurt). It was also not this psychedelic in Illustrator, but whatever WordPress color coding, it’s fine.

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Other than that, this week and this day have been filled with irresolute half-summer, half-winter weather, sudden baking extravaganzas, and joyful bouts of group practice. Seven o’clock this morning found me in the temple listening to a drum beat and long Tibetan horns, invoking the New Year in the protection of the lineage.

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If this year is as wild as a wind horse, let it also be as graceful.

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Let the clouds bring quiet, and let them lift to reveal the clarity of blue sky and undistracted mind.

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Let every sweetness be an offering.

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Choco-Crusted Lemon Tart And Peace In The Kitchen

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I’m sitting here by the old closed-up pool at a picnic table listening to the wind stir the oak leaves and breathing in the perfume of onions drifting over from the dining hall. Each time I take a deep inhale of the sour spiciness, there’s something inside me that says, yeeees, gooood, and thinks both that for a split second, everything is perfect, and also that if only I could possess that smell or immerse myself in that smell, if I could just exist within that smell, then everything could always be perfect. I’m like that with all food, all the time. The hours passed poring over food blogs, daydreaming, planning step-by-step in repetition the recipes I’m going to make, imagining the taste and texture of this, that, or the other thing I envision eating—it’s a deep need to believe that happiness exists within these objects and experiences.

But what is the nature of this imagined happiness?

I want to bask in the glory of sifting and mixing and pouring and measuring, what I want, how I want, with no interruptions, light pouring through the windows and antique every-kitchen-tool-ever to complete my quaint existence. I want to pull perfect tarts from the oven and slide them onto trivets in front of smiling faces and give all of my love without error or hesitation and have it received without doubt or miscommunication. I want to turn all of my anguish into something beautiful to be shared without ever having to meet the world between the experience of pain and the act of creation. I want a life where it doesn’t hurt to hurt and where all of my joy is heralded by a joyful reception from others.

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But since I can’t have this, what do I make of the wishes I can’t help making?

Peace. I am wishing for peace. Peace in the kitchen, at least. Someday, I would like a kitchen that is mine. From which I can share, and with the intention to share, but one which itself facilitates that sharing.

Should I be wishing for the patience and vastness of mind to manifest sharing, or benefit, or whatever vague feel-good altruistic term avoids talking about self and volition? Patience and vastness of mind, yes, definitely, maybe. But also, I am wishing for good conditions. I am wishing to grow and do the hard work such that someday I no longer need to be roughed up by the universe in order to develop peace in the kitchen. I am wishing to develop such a deep inner peace that my life manifests the outer conditions for peace because when you no longer need to be bothered to learn how to deal with being bothered it becomes more efficient to just do the work. When I am ready for peace in the kitchen and the life in the world that goes with it, it will come.

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Underneath everything else, I just want my motivation to be good. Sometimes I feel completely nonsensical, talking from one side of my mouth about enlightenment and then, on the everyday level, being so, so invested in um…cake, and nostalgia-inducing photos with vintage linens and weathered wooden cutting boards. It’s hard to know what I should want, or maybe just what it’s okay to want. I want whatever’s right, you know?

But then, inside of that, there are all of these very specific, personal wantings that feel right to me, but also they’re just there, and it’s hard to know if they’re for the good or not. They feel absurd in their specificity. I stumble, wondering what due I have to want such and such a thing, because if my goal is truly to benefit all beings, shouldn’t I not want anything specific and just let it all come to me?

But what is “it all,” and how will it come? We must act, after all. Perhaps it’s not better to make specific wishes or open ones, so long as you’re clear about the purpose of your wishes. Specific wishes come naturally to me; I better just make worthwhile ones.

I want a peaceful kitchen, Universe, with a big south facing window, a sturdy oven, and a lot of cast iron pans and wooden bowls and cake stands. But I want a peaceful kitchen if and only if it will let me help more, only if I can be the best me in a peaceful kitchen. If I only want a peaceful kitchen to be unbothered, and to never have to face others and myself, please Universe, never let me have it.

About the tart. It’s basically the best lemon bar filling on top of chocolate shortbread. Because even though lemon and chocolate come together less often than chocolate and orange, they really are a good pair. And lemon bars are great, and shortbread is great, so what could be wrong with this? Nothing, unless the slices are too slight and the crowd too numerous. There are worse ills to be faced in the world, fortunately, and more tarts to be made. Happy baking, whether yours is a peaceful kitchen or a rather more chaotic one.

Recipe…

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Super Fluffy Sugar Cookies And How To Give Love

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The French don’t really do Valentine’s Day. For them it’s half “Feast of Saint Valentine,” some mostly-forgotten Christian tradition and half some imported, commercial American thing. Personally, I’ve had my share of lamentable coupledom V-days that don’t bear revisiting. Despite this, the kitsch and sweetness of the idea of Valentine’s Day never gets old. Every year when February rolls around, I have a deep urge to make all things pink and heart-shaped and tell everyone I know just how much I love them. The French, in my experience, are also not huge on open displays of affection, but a Californian’s gotta do what she can in terms of cultural exchange.

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Lately, I’ve been noticing a thing, about culture and personality. I grew up in a culture that I will massively generalize as open and bright–effusive, if you will. It’s flip-flop culture, invite-you-for-a-beer-and-barbecue culture, bear hugs and back slaps and complicated high five culture. It’s open collar, short shorts, Technicolor t-shirt or just no shirt culture. Bikinis, bicycles, sun tans, and long tangled hair. It’s all those simple stereotypes you see in movies, plus all the layers of nuance that reality and one person’s individual experience of the world add.

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It’s a culture I was never comfortable in growing up. I was quiet and dark, physically self-conscious, naturally introverted and preoccupied with being deeply intellectual, imperatively creative, and also just a nerd. Over the course of my teenage years and early adulthood, I learned my own culture. I practiced having a sense of humor and starting friendly conversations with strangers. I trained in the art of high-fives, fist bumps, and bracing hugs. I developed a style of dress that lets me feel expressed and that connects to the society that I come from.

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But I’m not in that society any more. All of the modes of communication and habits and needs that I developed to live and love in a certain kind of American culture suddenly don’t apply. Here, my colorful clothes say extrovert instead of artist. A certain kind of friendliness can be misinterpreted for allure, and all of the tricks and tools I learned to get over my shyness no longer work because, um, they’re in English, and my life is now in French.

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I want to connect with the people around me, but I don’t always know how. I bake a lot of cake, and that’s not a joke. It’s a way to offer a part of myself to show that I care. Fortunately, food love transcends culture, even if the French aren’t as fond of peanut butter in their baked goods as we are in the States. At the same time, it’s just one way. It’s a way that connects and a way that comes naturally to me. But I admit, I feel a little stuck.

I feel like I’m back to being fifteen years old, finally lifting my head from the pages of my book and realizing that there’s a whole world around me, a whole universe of brilliant, genuine, tender human beings to share with and love if I can just learn to speak their language and understand their ways. I asked a friend yesterday if it shows that I feel a bit out of sorts. He laughed and said, “We can tell that when you say something, you’ve been thinking about it for three hours…or three days.”

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It’s funny to be seen. For so many years, I deliberately hid in the pages of my books and colors of my paints, and when I finally chose to be brave and go into the wide world and share and trust and be a person with other people, I tried to learn fast and not mess up too obviously. I’ve always been afraid I’d get kicked out. From where, to where, by whom…it’s not so clear, but the fear is present all the same. On my own, I’ve always felt like an alien, a small woodland creature, or a wildling spirit mistakenly left in the world of humans. I think we are many to feel this way. We try to keep our strangeness inside, and we think of others as being united and not strange.

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The gift of Dhagpo, of community in general, and this one in specific, is both the inevitability and the ability to be seen. We are all together all the time. We work and eat and live and study and love and suffer and grow together. It’s impossible to be here without eventually both discovering and revealing all the bizarreness we generally do our best to hide.  And I’m beginning to see, it’s not so bizarre as that. It’s just the way we are in this life, the things we have yet to understand, the trust we have yet to develop, but that grows, day by day, in others and ourselves.

I don’t really understand how the French show love as a culture. And I don’t yet understand very well the particular kinds of love that speak to each brilliant and bizarre individual with whom I live and love and grow. But to realize that this is what I am seeking—how to love, and also how to be loved—this is a good beginning. And for now, there is cake, and cookies too.

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