So I mentioned that we’re redoing the Lama House kitchen…
Rinpoche told us the time was right, showed up with some gigantic windows to turn the terrace into an enclosed working space, the labor to install them, and a boatload of ideas for how to improve both interior and exterior. We went on a fieldtrip to the kitchen store and picked out cabinets and countertops. Rinpoche drove, vetoed my choice of kitchen sink, but validated the cupboard color. With the project manager, we sat down to figure out dates. When the sales lady told us delivery and installation occurs eight weeks after the order is placed, the project manager and I looked at each other and mouthed the words, “forget it.” After all, that puts us roughly ten days before Karmapa arrives. Ten days that will be very useful for cleaning up everything after installation, setting up all the event material, and you know, not having any margin for late delivery.
Rinpoche looked up from his own calculation and said, “I think it’s okay, then,” without the tiniest hint of irony. And so, here we go. While the inside kitchen is being fabricated over at the factory, the outside kitchen is being built right in place. We’ve got a skill saw in the garden, caution tape closing off the kitchen door, and sawdust everywhere.
The guys spend their days laying tile, fitting windows, and preparing for the installation of the counters. I come by occasionally to make aesthetic comments or organizational decisions, or, you know, to find out that nobody will be able to access the basement for two days and then to scramble to inform all the people who use the basement and to help them move whatever they might need in the next two days. No big though.
In return, I insisted that the countertops be eighty-eight centimeters high and definitely not ninety-one. We’re short around here! And I don’t want to have sore shoulders every summer for the next ten plus years from cutting vegetables above my means… As a result, they um, had to shave three centimeters off every single piece of wood for the counter supports, which they would not have had to do if I had accepted ninety-one centimeters. All’s fair in love and war and home renovation, right?
It’s a lesson in teamwork, in developing relationships through the process of creating something together, all the while figuring out how to communicate to get things done and be kind and joyful at the same time. These are pretty rad people to begin with, but the meaning makes a difference. Whatever we might be stressed about, annoyed about, or take personally, we let go, because we’re invested in a goal—get this kitchen in place, and properly, for Karmapa and before Karmapa arrives—and that goal trumps whatever a priori or emotions we might have at one moment or another.
Hopefully tomorrow we’ll be able to walk on the tile again, and we’ll just see what comes next after that!
I have decided that I need a tripod. The world captured in low light feels like my heart; it trembles but yearns to be seen clearly. Capturing those moments still that should be blurry but for the grace of a stable support: this is the use of a tripod in photography and of meditation in life. Such moments are the precipice where one yearns to feel, but the risk of being seen naked if we truly lay ourselves open still seems far too great. And so we stay in the shadows, where it’s safe, where the beauty of ambiguity cradles us with its ungraspable-ness. We hide amidst the blur. There is comfort in confusion. Sometimes I realize how much of me really doesn’t want to become enlightened. To see the illusion of all things. I like my things real. I like my cake decadent; I like my sorrow sharp; I like my joy effervescent. Well, I used to. Now, I still like my cake, but I resent that it makes my intestines sad. I still like my sorrow because it reminds me there are things I don’t understand, but I am mystified by how I can’t seem to turn its sharpness into an understanding that will change the way I act. I still like my joy, but it frightens me because I cling to it. After all, the only transition possible from temporary bliss is to something less than bliss, and it hurts every time. And yet this hurt hasn’t yet changed my vision so that I truly see the beautiful things in life as being as unreliable as they are. As just an essenceless apparition that will dissipate either now or later, unexpectedly or unwontedly. I asked Jigme Rinpoche about art again today. We were talking about the renovation of the Lama House kitchen, working out details of countertops and credenzas, and which direction the stove should face. It was all very concrete and pleasantly comprehensible. Since January I’ve had this bug in the back of my mind, from our last conversation about life, my life, when he told me, enthusiastically, that it was quite a good idea to be an artist. So I asked why, just there, amidst the sawdust and reflection over water filters.
“Rinpoche, when we talked in January, I had mentioned about wanting to be a professional artist.”
“You want be a professional artist?” He perked up, with what seemed like the same enthusiasm in January.
“Well, I used to. Since I’ve been here, I’ve more been focusing on other things. It’s more on the side now. But when we talked about it, you had said that this was not a bad idea, quite a good thing actually.”
“Because then you can bring to everything.” And he made a gathering motion. And I sort of framed my ideas around this sentence, trying to see how they fit, and what it all meant. And some notions came up, like how art is a way to turn all of life into a reflection, and one that can be shared. And how viewing the world through an artist’s eye means that one is always looking with some kind of perspective, rather than just being caught up in the experience. I wandered over the idea that maybe in Rinpoche’s view being an artist doesn’t actually mean one has to make things, but is much more about the way one looks at things and approaches things. I think I kind of short-circuited on this idea, and we pretty much had the above conversation verbatim a second time. I walked away nearly as unclear as before, but with the recognition that until I’m ready to make a commitment to artistry, the view or the act, I’m never going to be able to make very much sense of what Rinpoche says to me on the subject. I keep trying to give up on art. I keep trying to “let it go” and see if the urge abandons me. So far it hasn’t, but so far I’m also not willing to shoulder the responsibility of whatever Rinpoche was making reference to (what is that motion a gathering of?) and what I apparently refuse to see or clarify for myself. An artist who wants so badly to be an artist but is so unwilling to claim the role. A bit like a bodhisattva who wants to badly to be free and free others but is unwilling to renounce her shackles. When the day comes. You’ll be the first to know.
Okay, so, a mini-onslaught of camera experiments, as promised. The same picture (more-or-less) taken with different camera settings. As I’m being extremely scientific about the whole thing (ahem, not), I can’t precisely specify what settings yielded what pictures. For the moment, I’m just trying to get a feel for things.
The utter basics…like if I make the aperture small enough, I can take a picture in low daytime light that comes out almost back. I’ve spared you any of those. Also, that if I open the aperture and increase the shutter speed, I can get decent light even at night, but um…things get blurry real fast. I’ve subjected you to one of those.
I’ve been able to take passable photos of the candle offerings next to the stupa for the first time ever, and I’m overjoyed. This spot at Dhagpo is one of my prime comfort-seeking locales, and I envision a whole ton of candle pictures that are basically the same but ever-so-slightly different in our future.
I’ve stalked all over the Lama House searching for the best mid-morning light window. Does it figure that it appears to be the window just outside of Karmapa’s room?
As I play around with being behind the camera, the metaphoric nature of taking photographs becomes ever more evident. I used to think of a photograph as just a freeze frame of the immutable, physical world. But I stopped thinking of the world as immutable or objective a while ago now, and taking photographs only affirms that understanding. What the eye sees is not objective. The shots that we choose, how we frame them, tones, depth of field, angle. No two photographers would take the same picture, even of the same subject matter. Our images reveal our interests, our views, our bias even.
It’s funny, I think of myself as a big picture person, developed frontal lobe as the brain scientists would say. And yet I like taking pictures of small-things up close, like a way of becoming intimate with the details of the world. I seek out low light and warm light because they feel cradling and haunting. This last is not so easy in the Dordogne, and here I start to see my Californian-ness. I can deal with the cold in the winter, but the grey wears me down and I get lonesome for sunshine and frequent hugs and high fives.
Maybe this is what the camera is for though, I can’t help think. It is a way to talk to oneself, to say, “Ah yes, this is what my solitude looks like,” and make peace with that. This is my hope anyway, and where all my fumbling clicks and winding of the gears and geared toward taking me. Another tool on the path, you know?
In other notes, cake. This one I made for my friend Tokpa, one of my prime inspirations for finally daring to get behind the lens. He and his camera are leaving for Nepal tomorrow. His journey was originally planned to document the inauguration of Sherab Gyaltsen Rinpoche’s new monastery and the anniversary of Shamar Rinpoche’s passing away. When the earthquake hit, he decided to go anyway, to help fix up an orphanage run by friends and well, take pictures, because sometimes that’s what there is to do.
And so I made cake, because that’s what there is for me to do. A French pound cake, what they call a quatre quarts, or “four quarters,” because it’s one quarter butter, one quarter eggs, one quarter sugar, and one quarter flour. You’d hardly know it’s pound cake, as light as it is from whipping the eggs and sugar. I added a teaspoon of baking powder, but if you want a more typical pound cake texture, you can leave it out. I also browned the butter, for that special savory something, and threw in a chopped pear because leftovers and why not, and it was delicious. This cake is remarkably easy to put together and incredibly refined when finished. For the moments when words don’t suffice, but we still need something.
Do I start by saying…I bought a camera? Ahem, with a lot of help from my mother, I bought a camera. A real one—an awesome but not too scary my-first-DSLR kind of camera—a Nikon D3300. If all goes well you will be more consistently overwhelmed with pictorial support for these ramblings. I’m just starting out, thinking about things like aperture and shutter speed in practice for the first time, instead of just wondering how much more precisely I might be able to capture the world around me if I had some power over such things.
I guess I’ve effectively started with the camera, so now I just have to figure out how to segue into the rest. It’s strange, looking at these pictures. I like them. I’m still working out the whole lighting and composition thing and will be for a while I imagine, but on the whole they’re okay. Pretty snapshots that remind me of my childhood, details from the house I grew up in, flora and scenery that strike me as particularly Californian, plus a couple pensive travel shots from the road home (back to France, I don’t know where the hell home is anymore. I suppose I have more than one and that’s a blessing more than anything).
The pictures are a little nostalgic, maybe even a tad brooding, but largely comforting. I hope there’s a hint of unease sifting through it all…the sneaky whiff of impermanence permeating all the pretty things. But it’s a far cry from the distinctly unsubtle reminder of impermanence that’s in the foreground today.
A 7.8 earthquake hit Nepal yesterday morning. The Bodhanath Stupa cracked right through its eyes, from top to toe. The minaret next to Swayambhu Stupa exists only in the form of a pile of rocks. Nearly two thousand deaths have been counted in Kathmandu and surrounding villages have not yet been accounted for. Most of the monasteries are okay, but not all, and the master teachers are calling for prayers and joining in their support for the deceased, wounded, and disenfranchised.
How strange that this place where I walked less than a year ago should now be so dramatically redesigned by a shudder of the earth. How strange that catastrophes like this happen so frequently and we can do so little beyond join our hands and send a few bucks or even fly halfway around the world to collect the rubble and try to find and feed those that remain. How strange that death is present like a drop of rain hovering over us ready to fall at any moment and we so rarely feel its impending arrival. How strange that devastation washes over this earth regularly and suffering permeates the planet in both visible and invisible ways at every moment and we are so adept at sidestepping its implications.
How easy it is to be lost in the urgency of what needs to be done without remembering why. How easy it is to adopt a rhetoric of care for others while nurturing frustration and malcontent. How easy it is to speak of focus and deliberation while engaging in distraction and agitation. How busy I manage to keep myself to avoid facing death. Death.
It’s coming for me. Every moment is an ending. One that I ignore, clinging to the next moment’s beginning. Every moment could be the ending of the life and self I know. And I’m not ready. I’m trying to be ready, to get ready, to learn to face impermanence and give up the illusion that all I see and know has truth and existence to its nature. To appreciate that what I perceive is as weightless as a dream and as ever changing. And that this is neither good nor bad, but simply freeing.
But um, I don’t. Not yet. And if I had to bet, I’d bet a lot of the people that lost their lives or their homes in Kathmandu hadn’t quite got that one down yet either. So pray them for them.
And pray for us all, that we learn how to live with our dying, with the ending in every moment. And if you don’t pray, write a poem; sing a song; hug a friend; climb a mountain; do a thing that reminds you how fleeting we are and that the business of learning how to live with impermanence is a shared one.
Love and good luck.
From this article about developing character and becoming “deeply good.”