Given

IMG_2758 I run the risk of getting into enormous trouble for posting this photo on the Internet. But it’s worth it, because this lady deserves an homage.

This is my momma. I put her on a train today, and cried through my smile as it rolled away from me down the tracks. It’s been a year almost since I saw her last, and I dunno when I will see her next and somehow this uncertainty and distance magnifies every part of what we share.

This person brought me into this world. And kept me here and showed me how things are done around here. And put up with me learning. I can’t get my head around that. The accumulation of so many lived moments, so many instants of deciding to love some one and to act for them and accept for them. So many hours puking while pregnant, so many perfectly packed lunchboxes, so many teenage crises, so many Thanksgiving turkeys, so many hugs goodbye on so many uncertain adventures, so many inconsistent calls from distant places, so many grand plans, so many sudden changes.

These last two weeks with my mom are for us, but the lessons of them are for everyone I love, most especially my parents. I’d have to write a book to explain it, and maybe I will someday, but tomorrow I’m heading off for ten-day retreat and I still have ducks to line up, so forgive me for the shadowy summary:

Everything I have, have ever had, has been given to me. Opportunities, resources, kindness, skills, things. Sometimes I’ve had to put work in to realize them or receive them, but in every case, there was somebody on the other side offering…either creating the conditions for me to achieve or acquire something, or quite simply handing it over. So this post is for astonishment, and for gratitude. And for wanting to be worth all of these offerings, to offer as much back.

Tomorrow I’m taking to the road with seven other adventurers to spend a week and a half looking at our minds and living with each other while doing so. Practicing focus, practicing kindness. It’s part of this road of learning how to care for others (and me too!). It also means a bit radio silence in this little corner of the internet for anyone keeping track. But don’t worry, I’ll be back. Your readership is a gift and I’m grateful to show up for it.

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I Used To Wish I Could Live In A Castle

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Light the hall with braziers, wear only dancing shoes, and parade a thousand dresses with patterns to outdo the wallpaper.

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I used to wish for banquets and balls. Sunken gardens and painting studios aglow with northern light. Woods to get lost in on horseback, libraries with shelves so tall that ladders glide along their lengths. I used to wish for long set tables and the sound of horse-drawn carriages on cobblestones. Long rows of cabbages and carrots, the gentle cluck of hens. Simmering pots over open fires and the click of silverware near smiling faces. Four poster beds and feather pillows.

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Castles were color; prosperity; joy.

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This was, I guess, before I knew that in their day, castles’ abundance came at the expense of starving peasants. That their inhabitants bathed but once a year. That many died of lead poisoning for the vanity of their powdered faces. That artists lived in hovels uncared for by their patrons and the northern light of upstairs rooms was reserved for the embroidery to which women were restricted.

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Not so awesome, actually.

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The life of castles was one of luxury and abandon, for the most part. A fire that burns bright and then goes out. What became of all the knights and ladies? Probably not much I’d care to follow.

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And yet, there’s still something about those windows over the river. All that golden light, so much imagined laughter.

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I guess I would still take one, if you offered. Is the heating bill included?

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We could make something of castle, put its sturdy old beauty to good use.

We could fill a castle with little round cushions and people seated cross-legged. Maybe put Nagarjuna next to Maupassant along the library walls. Switch out the Sun King for Buddha Shakyamuni. It could be fun.

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Not that we really need castles for the good work of the path. We can do it anywhere. It’s just a memory I have, even if a bit misplaced. Castles were togetherness and safety. Now they’re just museums, but the imagery remains. And I can’t help asking…

Is a banquet or a ball entirely frivolous, or can we still don dancing shoes from time to time, on the road out of samsara?

City Of Lights Redux

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I’m in Paris with my mums. Just a five day visit before bringing her down to the Dordogne to meet my French BuBu family and show her what her kid has been up to in the forest of Southern France.

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We’re basically having a blast, doing all the things we both want to do in one of the cultural and culinary capitals of the world. We went to a cooking class to discover the secrets of authentic macarons (spoiler: Italian and not French meringue is the base of the cookie batter), saw a concert in the famed Sainte Chappelle, ate a crepe on the banks of the Seine, and hit up the two best pastry shops in town (Pierre Hermé and Pain de Sucre if you’re looking for tips on culinary couture).

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We did a double doozy of retrospectives at the Grand Palais: Japanese printmaker Hokusai and seminal Franco-American feminist Niki de Saint Phalle. Both shows are rich and varied catalogues of the artistic evolution of their subjects, though visiting both in one afternoon is not for the faint of heart.

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We’ve been rambling the old stone streets, window-shopping the contemporary glamour, and fine-fooding our way through this renowned metropolis. Somehow, it’s not quite the city I remember. I remember Paris as a cold city, rich with color, but difficult to unlock.

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I lived here—if you can call taking the metro in from the burbs every day for three months living in a place—briefly as a teenager. It was my first real move away from home, and all of the history and magnificence seemed to be holding secrets of truth just beyond my reach. Coming back now, I still see how the city is marked by a history of great minds, cultural crossroads, and several hundred years of wealth and artistic genius. It is nothing if not beautiful.

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And I revel in its beauty. Everything from architecture to enterprise is aesthetic, and within it all are new ideas explored and old legacies conserved. The people themselves are works of art: their dress, their carriage, their language, their regard. The whole thing is a regale. And it is no longer a mystery.

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I used to ache for a lucidity of which I found traces in art and beauty. Flashes of self-awareness and awareness of the nature of things. I strove to find the answers to the why and how of being human in such places, and I scoured books and paintings, music, haute couture, gastronomy, all manner of creation for such gems of understanding. I found a lot. Snippets of wisdom sprinkled amidst a vast ocean of creation.

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But most of all I found expressions of the deep yearning of humankind to understand itself. Amongst creators I have always felt that I am with my own people. Those who believe that the suffering and the joy of life have meaning, that as humans we can elevate ourselves, and that it is not futile to search for this meaning and the means to realize it. This is the work of artists in my eyes.

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In the years since I left Paris and my teenaged self behind, the teachings of the Buddha have come to describe this path for me, and to respond to its questions. I no longer cling to art as the salvation to my waywardness, and I’ve learned that clinging in general is not so much a useful approach to life. I have the freedom to not like a lot of art, and even to be bored by it. I have the cognizance to realize that all beauty is not well intentioned or elevating.

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Paris no longer seems to me an inaccessible monument to human understanding, but a place like other places in the world, where people live and strive and suffer and achieve and die and take birth to do it all some more. And though the mystery has rubbed off, I can admit, I like this place. There is, after all, a certain comfort in being surrounded by both art and beauty, and in rubbing shoulders with so many humans who are seeking to perfect their own potential in the ways that they know how.

Thanks for the encouragement, Pah-reee…

Goose Egg Grapefruit Chocolate Cake And A Question Of Choice

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A friend of mine, a regular visitor to the center, has geese. Like ya do; it’s pretty common in the Dordogne. Sometimes I arrive at the Lama House to be greeted by a basket full of super jumbo-sized eggs with dark, giant yolks and silky smooth whites. They make the creamiest scrambled eggs and the omelette-iest omelettes. They also make good cake. I don’t think I could pick out a goose egg cake from a table full of regular ones, but I do think if you made the same cake with goose eggs or chicken eggs, there would be a subtle taste and texture difference, as goose eggs have slightly more fat than chicken eggs. That said, eggs are eggs and when you give me eggs, you pretty much always get cake.

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I have made a concerted effort to dial back my cake production recently in support of other activities. After spending the better part of September and October working through the fact that it’s okay with me to never become a master baker or a successful professional artist, now I’m in the interesting position of seeing what rises to the top when I create space for other priorities.

A teacher in whom I have a lot of confidence recently told me that if I am serious about aspiring to teach Dharma one day myself, competence in Tibetan language is an essential foundation. Which I will gain in approximately two hundred years if I keep going at the rate I’m going. Not so useful for results in this lifetime.

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But what is my goal in learning Tibetan anyway? But what is the goal with teaching, really?

At the end of the day, I just want to get better at being a person until I’m so good at it that I no longer have to come back and be a person again in order to keep working on being a person. And I want to help others do that too.

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Almost since I first discovered Buddhism, teaching has been in my mind. I’ve never been so grateful to people in my life (other than to my parents, who gave me this life) as to the people who have helped me start making sense of this life, who gave me the tools to observe my own mind. Early on, one of my teachers said that we must ask ourselves what our responsibility is for the teachings we have been given—to put them into practice and also to conserve them and help make them available to others. If those who came before us had not made the effort to safeguard the teachings and transmit them authentically, we would not be able to receive them now.

And a light went off in my head, and I thought, “Holy shit. That’s a serious debt.” I am fortunate to have come into contact with this wisdom, fortunate beyond measure as far as I can tell. It’s not easy to find a truth that corresponds with both who you are and the way the world is, i.e. the nature of reality. When you find it, you owe it to others to get the word out. That’s how I see it anyway.

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It’s more than a little daunting though. I am little and dreamy and untamed. I like colors and cake and playing around in the woods. And it’s not nothing to say you want to teach Dharma. When you take that on, you put yourself up as a bridge between people and the masters who can truly guide them; you represent your own teachers and the tradition you have been trusted with. You can’t be on an ego trip and you seriously have to know your shit (you should probably give up cursing, too). But somebody has to try. And even if I don’t make it in this lifetime, I get the sense I’ll learn more trying than I would doing anything else.

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And so, what to do? Do I need to do anything particular? Spending more than an hour a week studying Tibetan is probably a good start. After that, the possible wheres and whens and hows are other questions and other choices that will be answered by time and copious research and hopefully a bit of feedback from people with longer vision than mine. In the meantime, cake to supplicate the Buddhas such that the path becomes clear.

This cake is special. I made a trial one that didn’t so much work. But it had so much potential I came back a day later to give it another go. FYI, I never do this. Generally, I make random experiments while taking careful notes and the good stuff shows up here. But this time, I took the time to alter the technique and up the chocolate quantity, and I’m so glad I did. What makes this cake special, besides its evolution, is its crumb. This is a dense cake, but it is also super tender. Rare combo. I’m proud. Please try it. You’ll be proud too.

Recipe…

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Fire And Smoke And Hard Work

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Garsang day. It means smoke and fire and offering. Long trumpets and twin cymbals and the shaking of your veins when the music plays and sound waves melt into heat waves and it all rises in vaporous spirals and white ashes.

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They call it purification. I’m not sure I know what that means, but I’ll take it, though I heard recently that there is no purification without suffering. Maybe it’s like being strained though a sieve; you have to be pressed through a very fine mesh to leave the grit behind.

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Maybe it wasn’t suffering they said, but hardship. Because suffering, I believe, means resowing the same tendencies that run us through the wringer every time. But purification–purification means leaving bad habits behind, means choosing to look instead of to act when the old traitorous urges rise.

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Sometimes life lessons and growth and religion and ritual are not old books or wrinkled brows. Or anyway, sometimes they are those things mixed with poetry, and blessed baked goods, and butter sculptures, and wishes that it all transforms into something sacred enough, rendered carefully enough, willed with enough force and love and attention that it can nourish even those whose very nature defies receiving sustenance or aid.

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I don’t mean wishes where you wish some one else will take responsibility for you but wishes where you wish it so bad you will do anything to make it happen.

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What it takes to make a wish happen could seem complicated , but really it’s simple. Cause and effect, action and reaction. It’s a law. You can call it physics or you can call it karma; maybe it’s energy that oxidizes matter or maybe it’s intention that changes perception. But at the end of the day, there are two things that count:

You have to know how it works and you have to do the hard work to make it work for you.

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Quotable Tuesdays

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I have about a million ideas. I have a full-on site redesign in my head for this place. With a sweet logo and a hand-designed font. I want to rewrite the about page and better organize my links. I want to make this place more lively, easier to navigate, and all around more fluid. I lack a few things though. Time is an easy excuse. I’m also short a few notches of technical expertise, though a few dozen hours on WordPress forums and Adobe how-to sites might get me through that one. So in the end it’s doable. It just might take me a few years to put in place, hehe.

Until, then, I thought, why not try and add a weekly post? Something simple that I can put together without stressing over being witty or profound or having time to make a cake. Something people can rely on, to add a little something to their day. I’ve decided to let other people do the hard work for me, thus—quotations! I like quotations because they allow us to use others’ words to express our own ideas: the things that touch us, that change us, that encapsulate how we think. A body of chosen quotations can reveal much more about a person than their own words on a subject might.

Also, I’ve started stocking up good quotations recently, and I need somewhere to put them. ;) Now that I’ve worked out the kinks of RGB versus CMYK versus a couple other things, and my colors come out about right (this image was a very pukey purple the first time I uploaded it), I’m hoping this can become a nice shared ritual for us all. I’ll do my best to be consistent. Happy Quotable Tuesday!