Cats In Trees, Moons, Leaky Ceilings, And Choices

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This is a picture of a cat in a tree, taken by my love at twilight yesterday, in a friend’s garden.

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This is me on a swingset, same twilight, same garden.

Last week marked the beginning of downtime at Dhagpo. The period of the year when paperwork gets done, when it’s not a crisis to come down with a cold, and when you can take a day at home (occasionally, if truly needed) and only venture out to pick up the kid in the evening from a friend’s house and snap a couple kitten shots in the process.

Life isn’t a pressure cooker like it is in the summer time. It’s more like endives braising on the simmer burner; the heat rises slowly so you almost don’t notice, but every once in a while a bittersweet smell floats through the room. It’s the time of year when all the work you haven’t done because you were busy running around taking care of urgent things comes back to the surface. When all the inconsistencies and ambiguities that the overbooked-ness of summer allows for start to suddenly seem a lot more uncomfortable, simply because you have the space to notice them.

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The full moon (taken with a flash, thus the disco-Kandisky effect) probably doesn’t help. Sometimes it seems like everyone is asking for clarity and nobody knows how to furnish it. Me first, of course.

I started my morning with the discovery of a two-meter long fissure in the Lama House ceiling, from which a parade of water drops was permeating the dining room table, the seat cushions, the carpet, the old parquet floor. Fortunately, the source of the leak is easily fixable (a broken part in a toilet reservoir); remains to be seen if the same is true of the ceiling (this is my makeshift leak solution–post chair and carpet removal).

photo 4I had planned this morning as a comm department day–for tying up loose ends of old articles on Dhagpo’s blog and getting on schedule with new ones. Suffice to say the ceiling took the lead in the list of priorities. In the meantime, got some news about developments in the comm department. It’s funny, or maybe not that funny, how somebody just asking for a clear description of what I can and cannot do feels like an ultimatum (especially when it comes in the form of a mile-long official e-mail). I kind of just want to say, “I’m trying to do everything that needs to be done, but sometimes the ceiling starts to leak, or the sheets needs to be rematched, or my team, who have patiently gone four months without a regular monthly meeting, sends me a polite e-mail proposing we all have tea.”

And I have to ask myself why it feels like an ultimatum. We’re volunteers after all; we’re here because we choose to be and not because some one makes us or pays us or threatens our kids. Maybe it’s just the other person’s stress seeping through the computer screen in their typed-out words. Or maybe it’s me, realizing I’ve spent nine months investing in an idea and projecting an idea of what I can do that doesn’t match up with what I can actually do. Or what I want to do, after all. Or also what seems right to do. In any case, ain’t nothing worse than a good dose of self-awareness.

So I’m trying to get clear and get calm and get on board with the changes. Be gentle and patient and not whine too much. It’s just that the ceiling is leaking. And I stepped in the puddle, so now my socks are wet. And it’s the full moon and I feel like a cat in tree who got herself up but isn’t sure how to get down or even how far down she needs to go.

It’s not, um, very comfortable. But I think it’s probably the best place to be. The moments when you’re stuck, and all you can do is look, are also the moments when you maybe start to see something clearly. So if you need me, I’ll be busy working my way around this tree.


The Rhythm of Reflection


Today we went for a walk in the woods. Something I used to do all the time when I lived near the mountains in the US, and something I’ve done only rarely since moving to France. I mean, I live in the woods, so I guess I technically walk in the woods just going from place to place, but going for an actual hike is a rare occurrence. It’s a Sunday thing, to fill up mind and body with green freshness before the week starts.

Tomorrow regular Dhagpo life starts again. The last two weeks have been a different kind of rhythm, two different kinds of rhythm, actually. The first week, we spent in retreat, studying a teaching Karmapa gave here this summer and practicing together throughout the day. The center was closed and we were focused on the meaning of what we do; it felt like a proper vacation in that for a whole week, I just got to relax: enjoy my friends, enjoy meditation, enjoy the teachings…chill out. We closed it out with big group dinner (including this pear cake with butterscotch frosting), and then, the second week came.


Hours of meetings a day to define what our department is about, how it contributes to communicating Dhagpo’s values and cultivating resources for the center’s activity, and what other department it would be good to work with in order to further these missions. It’s rich business, this reflection, but holy smokes it’s exhausting.

Of course the whole idea was to start with a basis in the meaning of our efforts here and then bring that into the practical sphere. And it worked; our discussions came back much more often to how our activity demands and teachings patience and to the importance of connecting the hard parts with what it can develop for the community, rather than resting simply in the sphere of goals and difficulties. That said, in terms of my own responsibilities, I couldn’t help but see all the things I feel I’m supposed to accomplish face-to-face with all the potential and actual obstacles. The desire to devise a system and lock down a perfect solution is visceral. Finding a balance between different activities in different departments, the different needs of different volunteers as well as other departments, the grey areas in Dhagpo’s structure…I just want to find a way to make it all work smoothly and reliably right now, or better yet, yesterday.


But as life frequently reminds us, a theoretical solution often does not solve an actual problem. Karmapa told us that something “only becomes a problem when we try to solve it fast or over and over again.” And that, I think, is the real lesson. When we wish for our challenges and stresses to be other than they are, they magnify to take up all the space in our minds and we become trapped by them, in them. And if we just let go of the idea that we need to fix it now and stay cool with the work at hand instead, while of course maintaining a clear view of our objectives, harmony between all the different elements comes on its own.


This is what I keep telling myself. And yet, those moments when my Google cal has so many overlaps that it defies the time-space continuum–I have trouble remembering. And when this or that person comes to say that this or that thing really should be done differently when I’ve worn myself out trying just simply to get it done, I have trouble remembering. And when I look at life reeling out before and feel like it might always be this fight between my own expectations and the way people and things work, I wonder just what is possible.

But hey, it’s not for nothing we have guides. Karmapa says we “shouldn’t over-the-top worry,” but “just follow our daily responsibilites.” Okey dokey, here goes. So, back to the salt mines, doing my best to remember that “if you keep practicing […] automatically there’s harmony.”

Things Unfold: Paris, The Pyrenees, Other Pieces

So, it’s been a month.


Did a few things.

My Papa came to town. We went to Paris. Visited the latest Frank Gehry building.


Visited the oldest art store in town.


Ate a lot of pastry. (This is the nicest picture, but if I put them all…you’d be impressed by how much sugar we managed to consume in three days, and that’s not counting hot chocolate consumption).


We worked our way south, chateau by chateau, bigger and bigger: Beauregard, Cheverny, Chambord.


There may have been bicycling involved, but the helmet/neon vest pictures are too incriminating to be posted online. You’ll just have to use your imaginations.


Excess, even beautiful excess, always makes me grateful for simplicity. I run a house with eight guest rooms. I shudder in sympathy for the person responsible for cleaning this place.

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All eight guest rooms filled up at the end of September. After Papa made it safely back to the States, Dhagpo rhythm picked up for a final summer shabang. The famous/infamous Lama Ole Nydahl came to town. He’s a walking polemic, and I’ll abstain from commenting on politics and just say he’s warm and personable face-to-face, at least in my experience. To be fair, my interaction is generally limited to offering duck confit and fresh fig tarts rather than arguing about religious rights, and yet, it’s not every important person who is kind to those that serve them. Beyond that, we each have to find a teacher that we understand and respect, and that is a personal business.

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Right on the heels of the busy weekend, we gave ourselves a weekend off. It was mon amour’s birthday and we took ourselves to the mountains with a small troupe of friends.


It’s been a while since I’ve asked so much of my body, and partway up the 3,000 foot ascent, I wondered why we find it necessary to risk our lives accomplishing such feats. We were smart enough not to try for the peak with the wind and fog and ice, but even so, the wilderness is pretty much a risk by nature (oyvay, pun not intended but un-ignorable). And yet, once I got to the top, I felt the same affirmation as always: I’d do it again.


The world is vast and we are priveleged to have the luxury to consider its beauty, to have the security and stability in our lives to take such risks. Sometimes I forget that, just how much of a luxury my liberty is. Sometimes it helps to exercize it, to go climb a mountain and remember what privelege allows us. It helps me come back grateful and perhaps more ready to work with the other priveleges I can fall into taking for granted.

This week and next are community time at Dhagpo, a week of practice and study retreat followed by a week of organizational meetings. Both can be trying; both tend to show me my limits–of patience, of concentration, of wakefulness. And both are a privelege of enormous proportions: to have access to the Dharma and to have the opportunity to take part in Dharma activity. Whatever the ascent, we have to climb the mountain.

After The Summer


À la rentrée. This, this is the hopeful refrain of the moment. When the new year starts. Dhagpo’s program functions like the school year, with an autumn through spring schedule, then pretty epic summer school. For volunteers, summer is the busiest time of year, and vacation is a week in June to recharge and a week in September to fall on your face. Then we come back and the resident curriculum restarts and housekeeping things like annual budgets and structural meetings happen. In theory, it’s a little bit calmer.


In short, summer is over. Aside from one bigger-than-usual course at the end of September, we can all let out the breath we’ve been holding the last three months. Now that this moment has arrived, I don’t so much know what to do with it.

I mean, show up here and say hi for the first time in a while. I miss you guys. I miss the process that goes into making this place alive. I have a few excuses about why I haven’t been around, some better than others and one pretty good one. I lent my camera to the photo/video department for official reporting, and that sort of cramped my style. I cooked a lot and made a ton of cake, but it pretty much all went straight to the table and when it didn’t by the time I had a moment to consider writing about it I had a hard time mustering up the motivation to type out a whole damn recipe and on top of that say anything other than, “It tasted really good.” So there’s that.


And as for life, as for all those juicy reflections of practice and activity and what it is I’m trying to do here as and those certain things I think we’re all trying to do here as human people…well, between Karmapa’s visit and, um, another thing, my whole sense of perspective has been so thoroughly knocked out of its usual, comfortable orbit that I haven’t really want to put words on it all just yet.

But okay, I feel like I owe you guys an explanation, and also life is life and sometimes you just have to tell it like it is even when it makes you feel a bit queasy and cheesy and worried about the future. What happened is…I fell in love.


Now, I know that this is normal and happens to pretty much everybody and thus requires pretty much no explanation, but, but, I’m still so surprised about the whole thing and feeling around for the right words that I have the sense that I am supposed to say something. But what can a person say about such a phenomenon? It is only in the experience that we remember what this strange mystery is. That goes for me anyway.


For my part, I was all set. I hadn’t been single for that long, but you know, long enough to get used to it. Three years alone for a relatively solitary person in a community with a strong tradition of monasticism can yield a certain stoicism about the matter. My official approach was that sharing my life with some one sounded nice, but I was a) not totally convinced I’d be willing to give up my autonomy if such a some one should appear and b) rather skeptical that said some one actually would arrive or was even to be found.


I know it’s incredible, the self-absorption one can develop in solitude, but on the other hand, I was just trying to be pragmatic about the matter. The pool of applicants was relatively small. An attractive, single, straight male who is intelligent, knows how to laugh and how to be serious and get shit done, who likes art and food and nature—who has dedicated his life to the Dharma, to the lineage, and to the activity of our guides and teachers. Who is not put off by the fact that I’m planning to go into retreat for at least three years of our life together and that this point is not up for debate, only causes and conditions. And also who I can live with. And who can manage to live with me.


You can understand why I was skeptical, I think. I mean, I was pretty sure I had met all the possible options. It’s not a super huge community, after all, and though I was far from seeking a mate, a girl can’t help but notice when the rare single-man-below-retirement-age crosses her path. And considering the specificity of my criteria, some ravishing person walking in off the street would never qualify for the post. Not only do I want some one who knows what his life is about, but it’s got to be the same thing as mine. In a world with a population of over seven billion, Dharma practitioners to begin with and Karma Kagyü Buddhists to boot aren’t that abundant at the end of the day. And it’s not just about the lineage, but the commitment and understanding in regards to the teachings. We can grapple with it and live it and express it in different ways, but when push comes to shove, there has to be some agreement on the sense. So, all that considered…hopes not so high.


Well, sometimes life surprises you. And you get tasked with renovating a kitchen with some one you’d met briefly in the past, who you first knew as some one’s partner, but who isn’t any more, as the father of a tiny person you’d become friends with over the years, who still is that, who has a reputation for his temper, but who is softer and more thoughtful than you’d imagined in actuality. Who always asks if he can make tea before filling the electric kettle, who always offers you a mug, who always washes and dries and puts away his own before leaving the kitchen.

Who tells you in the beginning he doesn’t want to pull you away from a direction in which you are meant to go. Who tells you later on that he’ll wait the three years for you whenever they come. Who reminds you at the right moments that one of his deepest wishes for you is that of the transmission he himself had the merit to receive earlier on in this life. Who has a picture of your heart teacher hanging above his hearth.

Who takes you to the Sunday market with the same joy and stillness that he sings the evening prayer with you. Who makes space in the closet and tells you to take your time. Who knows how to cook and clean and garden, to do handiwork and do paperwork. Who quotes Shantideva to you when you’re anxious and who makes very loving fun of you when you’re all fired up. Who’s that mix of all the normal life things some part of you has always wanted and also the understanding that none of it matters if we don’t put it to use to benefit others and develop towards enlightenment.


It’s scary you know? Being in love. I’d forgotten that feeling of heart-stopping when you realize everything you have to lose. But maybe there’s a kind of restfulness in knowing that in any case, I’m going to lose it all, and what matters is to make it count, to put all of this joy and blessing to work to carry us up the rungs of understanding to something, someday, that goes beyond ourselves. It’s hard work too—this business of being in love. Coming back to patience and listening and continuously choosing to let go of that autonomy you willingly put aside for the benefit sharing your life with some one (or some ones, for sometimes your some one comes with a smaller some one and a canine as bonuses).


I guess that’s about what I can say on the matter. It’s a day-to-day affair. It’s practice, on the path, just like everything else and somehow unlike anything else. It’s kind of entwined with everything right now, so I’ve been mostly just focusing on figuring it out…well, and enjoying the hell out of it. I make no promises on regularity of posting here for the moment, but know that I’m around, thinking of you guys, working on a new rhythm and figuring out how to put all the pieces together with love and joy and the wish that it all goes for the good.

What We Receive


This is a doodle I did in the translation cabin today. It was my first time doing an official simultaneous translation, for the Interreligious Meeting between Jigme Rinpoche and Archbishop Le Gall of Toulouse. Since Rinpoche speaks in English, I had downtime in between translating the archbishop, for which I was grateful because, on account of all the Bible quotes and references to concepts I have mostly not encountered (consecrated virgins anyone…?), the translation required a good deal of focus and some ingenuity to go along with it.

Though I’ve been translating written material pretty much since I arrived at Dhagpo, up till now there hasn’t been a particular need for a native English speaker to do oral translation. But as the center welcomes more anglophones, and particularly native or germanic anglophones, it seems there’s a growing demand. I don’t know how it will all sync up with the rest of my responsibilities, but generally speaking…I’m pretty tickled by the idea of doing more of this. Having an activity for the center that also brings me in contact with the teachings is a wish I’ve had for a long time, since my current main activity often involves being elsewhere during teachings (making lunch and going to morning teachings don’t fit so well together).

And I’m grateful to have begun this new adventure on this particular weekend. The exchange between Rinpoche and Archbishop Le Gall took place as part of Dhagpo’s 40th anniversary and also in connection with Jigme Rinpoche’s summer course, with a special focus on gratitude for the master teachers and the transmission they have ensured. We collectively received instructions and permission to practice the Guru Yoga of the 16th Karmapa and the empowerment of the 15th Karmapa, which go together. Rinpoche reminded us yet again of how blessing is a connection with the qualities of the bodhisattvas. We receive blessing when we commit, with confidence, to practice and the path, and thus open ourselves to its effect.

It’s methodical and, in this way, reassuring, to me at least. Being able to open a new door in supporting the transmission of these teachings during these days so pregnant with gratitude and so entwined with history is as good a symbolic as a girl could ask for.

Emaho! (…a term which comes from certain Tibetan prayers and is generally translated as “Oh wonder!” It’s a kind of exaltation of joy and compassion that rolls off the tongue easily such that it becomes a frequent exclamation in times like these…times of gratitude, times of change.)



Welcome to after-Karmapa.

I hope you followed during on the 40th anniversary blog or on Facebook! I can’t supply you with much, at least not in the way of pictures. Though I can try to paint you some with words. It’s funny how quickly it all turns over; the tents go from humming and buzzing and being filled with two thousand people to just standing empty to being slowly taken apart one metal support at a time.


Here are the images that rest the brightest in my mind and the reflections that flesh them out:

I see the Lama House team in all its forms and subdivisions. The kitchen crew at seven in the morning and five pm, the service team at 11:45, the girls showing up to clean the bathrooms surreptitiously mid-morning and afternoon, the lady for the laundry, my friend who filled the altar bowls on the terrace, all the willing, friendly people who came to do the dishes, the security guys who were always extra grateful for their lunch or dinner plate, not having to eat the cold salads of the dining hall all five days straight. More people than that with more roles than I can list…planning it all was a major event in and of itself. But the magic of it all is the way that working together carries us.

I was petrified of how tired and strung out I might be at the end, and yeah, I was tired and strung out, but I was also still fairly relaxed. And this is because I had a team I could count on who knew what they were doing, who did it with joy, and who communicated with me so I could do my best to make things work for all of us. It seems I did all right, as the response was positive and overall people said the atmosphere was fluid and pleasant, that the behind-the-scenes didn’t show too much. I learned that being responsible means being present and that it is not physically possible to be in more than one place at one time; I have not yet figured out a solution for this conundrum, but maybe sharing the overall responsibility with a second person could be an option next time.


I see the garden filled with set tables and smiling faces, the parasols, the koi pond, the buffet with our shiny new chafing dishes (Thank you budget commitee! I promise it was worth it!). I got to see old friends, make new ones, and connect with people face-to-face whom I have thus far only corresponded with via internet.

I don’t know what it’s like to run the welcome center, cook in the dining hall, organize the teaching space, coordinate the translation, or do any of the other various things that make up an event at the center–and there are numerous: fundraising, communication, hospitality, security, first aid, sound and video, parking lots, trash pick-up, the snackbar, the rituals. It blows my mind how much energy, how much dedication, and how many details go into welcoming Karmapa and all those who come to receive the teachings. I get the sense we are all adapted to the activity that we do…we find our way to the tasks and domains that challenge us and move us forward, the places where we can give and be pulled along the path by our wish to help and offer. I still get overwhelmed from time to time by the good conditions in which I have found myself and gratitude for my place here.


I see Karmapa’s broad back, faintly purplish in his robes under the moonlight, at midnight, in the garden. He came just to see what was new in the kitchen, late one evening after a meeting. He had told us earlier that day not to worry so much about the future, that most of the time it’s enough to come back to daily life and practice, and this resolves the vast majority of problems. Watching him take in the moon, the peach tree, the catalpa, the little A-frame herb garden made of pallets, I remembered meeting him for the first time in India two-and-a-half years ago. I told him hello from the teachers in Santa Barbara and he seemed surprised to meet me there, in that place and time, so far from home. The other night, I wanted to ask him, did you think we would find ourselves here, now? With the vision he has, I bet he could easily see it if ever he looked.

Me, I didn’t, I couldn’t…but somehow I made my way here, and that is what counts.

Still Here In The Best Way

No photos…no background…not even much to say.

I apologize for the silence, for the absence. It’s been a bit selfish, honestly, all of the hum and buzz I haven’t been able to share because I’ve been so busy living it.

Karmapa arrives tomorrow. The kitchen is probably eighty-five percent of the way to its final state, but good enough for now. Some tiles to redo on the walls, a little bit of electrical work that we’ve temporarily sorted out with extension cords…we do what we can after all! Somehow, all of life feels more alive in these moments where we act together. Where the meaning is apparent because we act directly out of gratitude–for our teachers, for the teachings, for the path itself.

The garden is set up with tables for ninety. The fridges are full; the dishes are clean; the beds are made. The dining room could use a bit of dusting; the kitchen schedule needs to be printed, but all told…we’re ready.

Internally, as much as externally, I think. Karmapa coming is like a door opening wide…you just accept everything. Otherwise you lose yourself in the details–the organization, the expectation, the easy trap of busy-ness, stress and importance. And this is not point. After all, what’s the good of a bodhisattva if we don’t let his presence take us beyond the ordinary?

What that will turn out to be, this next week long, I can only imagine. But honestly, I’m trying not to, but rather just to let the moments come one by one and see what they become.

Apologies again for the silence, but guess what…other people are keeping up the good work! If you want to know more about the happenings, check out Dhagpo’s fortieth anniversary blog. There’ll be new articles every day. Not sure yet if English translation will be immediate or come a bit later, but at the very least there will be pictures and you can always Google translate if you’re curious for more. ;)

Promise to be back like usual when the blessing calms down just a little. Miss you guys. See you on the other side…

Looking For The Low Light


This mist of busyness plus the-rest-of-life-ness has been continuing. The kitchen project is racing forward all of a sudden it seems. Suffice to say that the kitchen I’ve known for the last two years is no more, just an empty space with shockingly dirty walls…I guess twenty-six years of life and action will do that to a place. In the meantime, we’re cooking in the new outdoor space, which is smaller but has all the joy of newness and a place created with care.


All of this means lots of spontaneous rearranging of affairs and minor kitchen panic from trying to prepare a meal without knowing where the hell anything is. This week feels like trying to stop sand from pouring down into the bottom of the hourglass. I feel like things may be slipping through the cracks and yet the sand pours down so smooth and soft that I stop paying attention to details and simply focus on the feeling.


There’s no way I’ll be able to write all the e-mails I want to write in a week, or have all the conversations that need to be had, accomplish all the tasks. And as each week gets closer to Karmapa’s visit I know that somehow in the time he is here, every thing I have not done before will land squarely on my head in those five days.


And I just think, okay. Things will slip through the cracks. Time is limited. And it keeps spilling out below me. So what to do but relax? Go to the lake and have a drink with friends when your brain can’t crunch any more numbers or formulate any more e-mails and the basics of your to-do list have been crossed off even if the non-basics are literally unending. Let it be a little. Play with your new prime lens and try to understand in life and in photography that place where everything glows a little before the sun disappears and it all goes dim. Every moment is a tiny flash of impermanence, in all its continuous glory. Every second a death from one moment to another, each grain of sand sliding down below us.


I can capture it in an image, but even the image I think have captured and can hold is a fiction. All things pass. So what is there to do but live them and let them go, and dedicate them when they are good?

Throw up one’s hands and laugh a little, perhaps.