What You Cannot Do

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I don’t know if I’ve ever been so scared in my life as when I first took the Metro in Paris, by myself. The day before, my host mom, Rosine, had taken me to the station to make sure I got the right card for all the places I needed to go, had found me a map, pocket-sized to keep me from looking like a tourist, and had double checked that I understood how the lines were marked and which way they went. She even took the trip with me to the language school and walked me right up to the door, despite the fact that it was Sunday and the place wasn’t even open. When Monday came, I arrived without incident. All my fears that I would take the wrong metro – get horribly lost, be stranded interminably in an unknown quarter of the city, find myself with insufficient language skills to clarify my plight – were for naught. However, I suspect that, if not for Rosine’s caretaking and instruction, I might well have done just that.

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Through all of the three months that I was in France that first time, Rosine was my rock. For the duration, I was shaky on my feet. I was just a kid, learning to play the part of an adult, figuring out what it means to take care of myself, and starting to ask what it means to be responsible to and for others. I felt like an anomaly, an untamed California child, bursting with passion, ambition, and uncertainty. I wanted to be a real artist; I wanted to be worldly; I wanted to be feminine and adult and intelligent. I read Kerouac and Calvino, passed my days in museums and parks, gazing at masterpieces, eating macarons, and wondering when it would all start to make sense.

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When I faltered, when I needed comfort, or just whenever, Rosine was there. She made giant pots of Lapsang Souchong and sat with me over cup after cup, talking through my teenage angst and the confusion of being an American in Paris with no real purpose to my stay. Despite language school, despite a little doodling at a local atelier, everywhere I went felt like a check mark on a travel brochure, and everyone I met seemed to be another transient foreigner.

It was Rosine who told me about les Café Philos, where people meet to talk philosophy. She told me about the neighborhood where I would find all the commercial art galleries. She convinced me to make the trek to FIAC, the contemporary arts fair held in some distant corner of the city. She kept the freezer stocked with ice cream and the fridge stocked with cornichons and rillettes, on the premise that everyone could profit from their presence, but really because she knew I loved them and that they helped cheer me up on days when I couldn’t make sense of who I was or who I might become.

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In the years since I left Paris, I’ve kept in touch with Rosine through holiday letters and occasional e-mails. I still feel the twangs of teenage insecurity when I look back on those days, and I give thanks to goodness for the support I had to get through it. But, also, life rolls on, and I don’t think much about that time anymore. I pause often to remind myself to get in touch again soon, yet I only manage to do so once in a blue moon. I’ve been in France three weeks already, and I haven’t managed to actually send the e-mail that says, “Hey, I’m close by, how’s things? I miss you.”

And then yesterday I got an e-mail from my Dad. He had lunch with old family friends, the ones who had first introduced me to Rosine and her family when I was finishing high school early and planning what adventures to embark upon. They kept in touch more regularly and had new news of things.

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The cancer Rosine had been in remission from has come back in full force. At this moment, she hasn’t even the strength to walk. In all probability, the disease will kill her, and maybe soon.

It’s a funny thing that’s not funny at all. I wish I could send all the letters I never sent, write all of the emails I didn’t make time to write, explain ten or twelve or fifty-thousand more times how grateful I am for the love I received. I wish I could go back to that time and be less angsty, less chaotic, less troubled and turbulent. I wish all of these things for myself because I don’t know how or what to wish for her. What can you do when some one you love is in pain? What can you do when anyone at all is passing out of this world and into unknown quarters?

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I’ll tell you what. You can do your damnedest to let go of your guilt and regret, to move past your fear and sorrow, and to ask, what, what can I possibly offer? I am trying to do this right now. It’s not so easy. What I can do is call and express my love and support, and ask if it is helpful if I come for a short while to say hello and also possibly goodbye. I can make wishes for her pain to be less than it might otherwise be and for her journey to be beneficial, whatever it may be. What I cannot do is change what faults I may have committed. What I can do is let go of my preoccupation with my own actions and focus on some one else’s needs.

Another thing I cannot do is change the reality that, once born, we all must die. Here I think of Dharma, where it is taught that death is a doorway. Maybe what I can do, then, is my very best to see some one I love safely through, with as much grace and care as I can muster in the face of mortality and the unknown.

Arch **Note: All the photos in this post were taken in Paris in 2005, during the time I stayed with Rosine and her family.

The Making of Things…like a Chocolate Frangipane Tart

IMG_1105On Sunday, I made this tart. And it was, ahem, not one of the prettiest things to ever come out my kitchen. I had the best of intentions. I discovered an actual tart pan in the kitchen of the Lama House, so that my tart could actually resemble a tart, rather than whatever would ensue from the tart ring I had planned to fabricate out of tin foil. I successfully adapted my frangipane in the direction of a pastry cream to account for a slight deficit of almond meal. I had exactly the right amount of chocolate for the ganache. It was going to be gorgeous enough to impress the natives of France, which is truly the land of tarts.

But then I started the actual process of making it. The dough baked much faster than I anticipated, so that it was dark at the edges but still quite blond at the base. The frangipane bubbled up one side, and even after I remedied that by covering it with ganache, the ganache got all ripply while I was transferring the tart to the fridge. Not to mention that half the crust shattered while I was unmolding the darn thing. I ate the shards of pate sucree as consolation. One must get through these things somehow.

After all that, I wasn’t exactly, totally looking forward to presenting it to my cohort. They’d found out that I worked as the pastry chef at a restaurant in California, and I aspired to live up to what the term “patissière” signifies, though in truth my experience brings me nowhere close to the true pastry chefs of either France or the US. I cached the thing in the fridge and somewhat ruefully brought it out after lunch, hoping it would at least be tasty enough to overcome its aesthetic shortcomings.

cuttingtartAlex snapped this pic of me deliberating over portioning. 🙂

We cut it into thin slivers to share it among the many of us that there were, and everyone hurrahed as we dug in. I feared that the frangipane was maybe a teeny bit overdone and that the salt wasn’t evenly distributed, but no one remarked it. In fact, every one was thrilled. It’s amazing how even such a small thing as a slightly unsightly pastry can bring about a collective joy that is quite out of proportion with the sum of its parts.

The next day, some one stopped me in the stairwell to thank me again. She said, “It was a moment of perfection, like I haven’t had in ages: the crust was tender, the frangipane was just sweet enough, the chocolate was soft, and the temperature was – ah, just right! So thank you for that.”

And I thought, this is the reason why we make things. Because even though, every time you start, uncertainty nips at your heels, and during each step along the way, unforeseen obstacles may befall you, when it’s all done, you may have something to give, something that extends beyond the borders of what you thought possible to bring something meaningful into the lives of others. Even if it’s just a single moment of gastronomic joy, it matters. What we share and what we can exchange far outweighs the doubts and struggles that go along with bringing anything into this world, be it a pastry, a painting, a song, or an idea.

Recipe after the jump… Continue reading

Chocolate Chip Cookies and

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Sometimes you move to France. And sometimes when you get there, the home you wanted waits for you. But sometimes also, you realize, home is many places, many people, experiences, histories, sounds, and flavors.

Sometimes, after years spent studying French pastry, the thing you most want to bake in France is chocolate chip cookies. And you’re proud to share them even when they come out different shapes and even if they seem a little pale on account of the French conception of “brown” sugar. Because sometimes the act of sharing is better than worrying so much about whether what you have to give is good enough. And sometimes you learn that when you give what feels natural to you, it feels natural to others too. Even the French like chocolate chip cookies.

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And apparently people also like the stories I have been spinning in this small corner of the interwebz. As with the cookies, they are made spur of the moment, out of memories and wishes and hands outstretched, a not small amount of sugar, a large amount of care, and a teeny bit of trepidation.

This is all to say that, last week, for the first time, purelysubjective got Freshly Pressed! And holy cow, the amount of support and excitement that has been sent my way is slightly overwhelming and also totally wonderful.

Welcome to all you new folks, and thank you ever so much for sharing your time and your thoughts and your presence. You are lovely and excellent, and I am so pleased to have you here. Though I have not had the chance to shake your hand or make you dinner, I can give you the recipe for my all-time favorite chocolate chip cookies, which have a vast following among chocolate chip cookie aficionados in the States and have also garnered the stamp of approval of the French, if my couple dozen compatriots may be allowed to represent their country. I’m gonna go with yes.

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These cookies pass the chewy middle, crispy edge test. They have the proper brown sugar/vanilla/butter flavor that defines a chocolate chip cookie – in my world, at least – and enough salt to balance the sweetness and punch up the whole eating experience without becoming a “salted” cookie. Also, they require no special flour or weird quantities as some of the currently popular “best” chocolate chip cookies do (I’m looking at you New York Times). They are easy, classic, and damn delicious. Thanks for being here; have a cookie.

Recipe after the jump…

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A Home for the Heart

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Whenever I leave the country, my mother says to me, “Don’t fall in love with a Frenchman,” or an Indian or a New Zealander – or wherever I am going – and move far away permanently. So far, so good.

But what does it mean, anyway, to fall in love? I’ve been seriously in love twice in my life and temporarily in love a few more times than that. Every time I fall there is the sense that I’ve found something that I’ve never found before, and yet which I’ve been looking for. Of course there’s all the usual suspects: joy, curiosity, the desire to be near. I’ve come to think of love as finding a home for the heart.

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The world is a rough place. Dreams are slow in the making. Disappointment frequently crashes in. Fear wheedles all along the way. Falling in love has the sense of finding a safe place, some one you can depend on. That when you feel weak, there is some one to remind you of your power. That when you are bereft, there is some one who remains by your side. That when you are overcome with doubt, there is some one whose faith in you does not waiver.

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And yet, the older I get – the more love I experience, and the more love I give – this notion begins to falter. What seems like a valid idea in theory doesn’t stand up in practice. What sadness I have is all my own, and no one else can ease it. My fear is fierce enough to take even the most well intended words of comfort and turn them into condescension. Who could cut through that but me?

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Lately, though, something is changing. I am falling in love, in a new way. This time, I have fallen not for a person, but for a place. Maybe it is France; maybe it is the Dordogne; maybe it is the few hundreds of square meters that make up Dhagpo Kagyu Ling. Whatever it is, the effect is this: I wake up in the morning feeling wonder, and I pass through the day feeling gratitude. The trees standing on the hillside remind me to be strong. The chickadees amidst the juniper remind me to be joyful. The quiet corridors of every building remind me to be patient, to be restful, and to take care with what I carry, my own bundle of desires and uncertainty.

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The difference, I think, between falling in love with a place and falling in love with a person is that, with a place, I have a better sense of what comes from outside and what comes from within. Home is not a place you inhabit; it’s a feeling you create. There is no home for my heart other than the one I build myself. From outside I can draw inspiration, but from inside must come strength and faith and the determination to rest with what is whilst working towards ever-greater understanding of what that means. Being in love with a place, I can see that my lover is a mirror in which to see myself and, through that reflection, grow, rather than thinking of it as a separate source of understanding or happiness, and then becoming dependent on it, which I am wont to do when the lover in question is a person.

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But, as with any love, there are pitfalls here too. I’ve become attached. My mother should have warned me against green woods, stone buildings, and places rife with curiosity and care, as well as their inhabitants. I’ve fallen hard for this place, and I want to stay. Sorry Mums. But, as with everything in life, impermanence is a factor. As a US citizen, I get three months in France until I need a lot of paperwork and, either a lot of money, or a fairly particular reason for being here, or I have no choice but to head home. I suppose this is the trouble with falling in love with a place rather than a person.

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A Birthday and a Cake

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Yesterday was my birthday. And I baked a cake. The first cake, the first anything, that I have baked in three months. A brown butter pound cake with hints of cardamom and orange flower, nods to my recent Indian adventure.  I kept it in my casier, my personal cubby, where it could cool in peace and stay safe from preemptive taste-testers.IMG_1008

Come evening, I cut it into squares and we ate them with herbal tea and French chatter about local wildlife and recent films, both good and bad.

It was divine. Soft, moist, with a dark brown crust on top that peels away in a single layer and melts in your mouth, the mark of a true pound cake.

IMG_1007Recipe after the jump…

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Like Every Fairytale Ever

IMG_0988I have arrived in France. For the next three months, I am a resident volunteer at Dhagpo Kagyu Ling, the European seat of HH Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje. What to say?

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For a few hours a day, I cook for and caretake Lama Pourtsela, our resident Tibetan monk who is getting on in years but as good-natured as ever. He likes to play pranks, such as taking me to the temple to recite mantras and then ditching me mid-syllable after having torn me away from washing the kitchen floors. Things like this. There are some other community chores, like cleaning the general kitchen after a meal or doing laundry, but it’s simple handwork, all underwritten by good intentions for supporting a community of learning and practice.

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In the morning, I wake in the woods in my leetle caravan, cozy, heated, permeated by early birdsong and the shadows of trees in dawn light. If a dozen good-looking Frenchmen could stand in for the seven dwarves, then I could be Snow White these days. This community, tucked amidst mossy hills, cached in countryside architecture, could be the setting for every fairy tale ever.

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At eight, there is pain de campagne or muesli for breakfast, and some one or other charming is forever offering me a hot coffee. At eight-thirty, we have an hour of class each day. I arrived at the perfect moment, as a new round of courses has just begun. I’m studying the fundamentals of meditation, The Way of the Bodhisattva, and The Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind Away from Cyclic Existence. In other words, the essentials. When I’m not working or studying, I’m free to practice in the temple or the study room, which both have beautiful shrines and shiny wood floors that lend themselves to prostration.

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Beyond that, there are woods to be wandered, friends to be made, stories to be read, and stories to be told. Bienvenue à Dhagpo.