At The Oars (with Brownies for Sustenance)

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Si tu demandes une question aux maîtres, ils vont te donner la réponse qui va le plus te faire galèrer.

I could translate this like this:

“If you ask a question of the masters, they’re going to give you the answer that will make you work the most.” Reasonable enough. However, this misses the more particular sense of the word “galèrer.” It comes from the word “galère,” as in a galley, one of those enormous wooden ships built by nations in days of old that were out to take over the world. The verb “galèrer” refers to the dolorous business of rowing said craft when the winds were down. So now you see.

IMG_1843My friend Loïc said this to me last week in relation to the nature of planning one’s life around the study and practice of Dharma–what the Buddha taught. At the time I thought, “Pfft, everything about my journey has been super natural thus far. One week I was in Santa Barbara, the next in India, and now I live in France. I hardly had to anything but show up. It all just happened. Clearly this whole rowing-a-giant-boat business is a matter of perspective. He must be overthinking things.”

Yesterday I had a meeting with Jigme Rinpoche, a master teacher in the Kagyu Lineage and the spiritual guide of the center. I had a simple question: “Do you think it’s appropriate for me to prepare for a long-term retreat?” He had a simple answer: “Yes, I think it’s good.”

I promptly floundered. I had been mentally anticipating this meeting for weeks, debating about asking this question for months, considering this possible path for years. I crafted an extremely precise and thoroughly reflected e-mail just to request the meeting. Seventy-two seconds after showing up…that was it. I queried for more specific directives; books to read, things to do. Rinpoche nodded and said, “Yes, I think it’s good you came back. You live here in the community; keep studying, meditate, prepare for some years.”

IMG_1849And just like that, my whole life is different. By being the same. Somehow I thought that the decision to prepare for retreat, to someday do a long retreat, would instantaneously catapult my days and thoughts into a more enlightened form. I thought that something important and tangible would change. I think I thought life would get easier. That making a big choice would somehow get me out of making all the little hard choices that fill up a day.

Read or draw? Meditate in a rush before dinner or sleepily after dinner? Write a blog post or answer e-mails? Start learning Tibetan or start a new art series? Shredded carrots or beets with lunch?

These questions don’t go away. They seem small and silly written out, but they tend to be enormous and weighty in the course of day. I was so hoping that settling on a big important goal would get me out of these kinds of questions, of the business of everyday life. But the thing about Dharma, the thing about masters, is that all they ever do is throw you back into the business of life. Because life is where transformation happens. Even though retreat often seems like a method of stepping out of life for a while, it’s actually the opposite. In retreat, you spend nearly all day meditating, which to me means watching my brain argue with itself until the futility becomes apparent. Then, calm starts to arise on its own.

The business of life is no different. Watching myself fight out these questions until I learn to ask them more peacefully. When I stop and think about it, nothing seems more sensible than that preparation for retreat comprises the same activity as the rest of life.  Make art; make food; study Dharma; meditate; be a person in the world with other people. Try to be patient. Try to be kind.

The brownies I made for a friend whose ship is taking him away from France and back to the US, and eventually to India. Transition times, even when transition means coming to terms with life staying the same, necessitate a bit of comfort food to offer the finest thread of stability when all else becomes fluid. If you have any childhood brownie memories, these are likely to be the perfect fit. They are chewy and dense and rich, almost veering toward underbaked even when fully done, but without hitting that mouth-glued-together effect that causes some brownie recipes to flounder. Also, they have the crackliest of crackly tops. And finally, they are ridiculously simple to make, practically the most basic recipe I’ve ever used and definitely the best so far.

Recipe follows…

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Spelt Bread, For the Love of You

IMG_1821I took a picture of you laughing. It’s grainy because the light is low in the kitchen. You laugh at me often: when I squeak at unexpected occurrences, when I dance while I’m cooking, when I try to convince you to do what I want when it’s not what you want. Your laughter. It’s how I knew that you remembered me when I came back from six weeks in California. You chuckled and said, “She always tells me, ‘Don’t eat that. Don’t eat that. Don’t eat that, Lama!'” In your particular mix of Tibetan, French, and Old Age, it sounded like “Pomo, Lama no mangiez; no mangiez; no mangiez!” I laughed too, and I was glad that you remembered me.

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There are a lot of things you don’t remember these days. Then again, maybe it is more precise to say you remember certain things, and only those things now. You remember practice. You remind me every hour, “Mahakala. Mahakala,” until five o’clock rolls around and it is, indeed, time for that ceremony. You remember that the rest of us would do well to practice also. You interrupted me in the middle of this paragraph, closing my computer, pointing toward the temple, and saying, “Go. Go.” I nodded acquiescence and snuck off to the office to keep writing.

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You remember where the spelt flakes are in the cupboard, so that when you are hungry–which is all the time–you can find a snack. I know if you’ve been by because I’ll find a trail of errant flakes, sprinkled newly on the counter since the last time I wiped it clean. You remember that you are not allowed to eat sugar, but that you love it above all else. The first week we met, you tried to stick your fingers straight into my birthday cake and grab a mouthful before I whisked it to safety. We have these confrontations often and mostly I win, because I don’t want you to drop dead on my watch and also because I’m, um, a little vain of my baked goods. Don’t go putting holes in my cake, Lama.

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Every now and then I sneak you a cookie. A small one. I’m not supposed to. None of us are, but you’ll find them on your own if we don’t give them to you, and fortunately your diabetes hasn’t come back, and the amount of joy these little treats bring…I guess it’s a question we each ask ourselves. How much longer might you live without a biscuit or a peach or a bite of cake? How much more joyful will life be for the time you have with a biscuit or a peach or a bite of cake?

This is a gift you give us, along with your laughter and your dedication to the path: the cognizance that life is fleeting. You live on the border now. I see it when I’m with you. You drift between languages, between times and countries. Some days in your mind it is years ago in Tibet. You talk to me about the masters that you know, the ceremonies held. I only catch a word or two, a name sometimes, but your devotion envelops me. Sometimes you forget that I am here, struck as you are by the color of the sky or the sound of a bird. When you catch me by your side, you say, “Pomo, look,” and point at the thing of beauty with awe.

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You remind me that the world is awesome. That I am blessed to be in it. To be granted a life to devote to understanding. You remind me to use it well, for it will leave me–this birth, this body, this place and time and context. In all likelihood, you will leave me first.

I carry the knowledge heavy, but with gratitude. For that, I remember to laugh instead of despair when you open the pot of rice before it’s done cooking. For that, I stop whatever I’m doing to help you find your prayer beads when their location has slipped into the mists of your memory. For that, I make loaf after loaf of bread until I hit upon the one that’s good enough to make you happy as well as healthy. For the love of you, I do my best to make my own life count.

Recipe follows…

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Full Summer

IMG_1728Made it. The journey took me twenty-six hours, two planes, two trains, two cars, and a bus (let’s not count the elevators and staircases and pounds of baggage I was carrying), but I’m here. And I’m thrilled.

There’s not much in life that stands up to a warm welcome. And when you live in a community of forty or more people who all exclaim and say, “Ah, mais c’est bon de te revoir!“–“Oh, but it’s good to see you again!”–well, let’s just say I have a solid case of the warm-fuzzies.

IMG_1731I’m getting settled back into the kitchen here. I was lucky enough to return in time for the last day of a course with the venerable Beru Khyentse Rinpoche, a Tibetan master who teaches often in the West. I made this tart Sunday night for two of his attendants who stayed with us. Sorry, no recipe, as I just kind of threw it together. You can too if you’re in an off-the-cuff tart mood. It’s just sautéed bell peppers and onions layered with tomatoes and potatoes, all inside of a crumbly pâte brisée.

IMG_1735We are, as the French say, en plein été here. In full summer. It’s an apt term. There is a richness in the air that fills you up. Deep yellow sunshine, a Pantone array of flowers, and the whistle and whizz of things on wings living out their warm-season lives.

IMG_1746I am glad to be a part of it.

To Go Onward

imageI’ve got my traveling shoes. I’ve got two bags Tetris-tucked full of all the objects for my life this next year, and perhaps, probably, more than that. I’ve got hugs goodbye, boarding passes, a passport con visa, a ride to the airport and a ride home (home! my home–in France!) from the train station. I’ve got a heart full of willingness, a mind full of questions, and a purse full of books to read on the plane. All this to carry me onward into what life comes. I am anxious. I am filled with anticipation. I am ready.

See you on the other side.

Honey Rosemary Cakeletes and A Happy Head Trip

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I got new glasses. So I’m a hipster. So shoot me. But first, let’s have a chat about personality. Then you can see how you feel.

A friend of mine told me yesterday that he was surprised by the amount of sadness I express here in my writing, as opposed to how joyful he finds me in life. I thought two things, mainly.

1) Sadness is important to me. It animates a great deal of my creative work. I often observe sadness as the stigmatized stepchild of emotions: portrayed as being for the weak, the sensitive, the mentally ill, even. Thanks world. And yet, whenever we turn this stigma on others, we turn it ever more fiercely upon ourselves. This is not a good system.

Despite this, for my part, I have also discovered that sadness can be a form of wisdom. My own wistfulness reminds me that life is impermanent, that loss is inevitable, and that we are all living within this truth. The ache of being human pushes me to continue striving towards greater kindness and understanding, because this is a hard truth and these are the best tools I have found to soften the hardship therein. Thus the frequent appearance of said sadness in these pages, if we can stretch that ancient lexicon to this new media.

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2) My own perception of myself is enormously limited. I think of myself as winsome, moody, occasionally charismatic, witty in the right company, and (more than) a little bizarre. Yesterday I got called “effervescent.” Wait, what, me?

I suppose this is not new news, but I’m tripping out over here, guys. Personality, man, it’s just…kind of made up. But it also works. I bought these glasses because I like feeling like a retro nerd. I’ve been wanting to write more, and these glasses make me feel like the awkward but charming protagonist of an eighties movie. You know, the girl with the crew neck sweatshirt and full-waisted skirt who spends way too much time in the library. I want to be that girl, except that instead of discovering that Jake Ryan loves me too I want to discover my literary voice.

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And the glasses actually help. But at the same time, though I have my own ideas about who I am, and what my glasses add to that, it’s totally based on my own personal narrative, as is all of my personality. My personality, according to me, is how I think of myself. I know that sounds annoyingly cyclical, but think about it. Every person I interact with has their own experience and opinion of me (do you really think I’m a hipster, still? …Oh well.).  Each opinion is not more or less valid than my own; I just encounter it less frequently.

In a way, my experience of myself is like that of any stranger’s on the street: an opinion formed based on a given number of interactions and a preexisting history. Sure, it’s my history, but that’s a technicality. I think this is kind of the greatest thing. Me suddenly seems so fluid. And exciting. I can rediscover myself in new ways with every person with whom I interact. Suddenly this me I’ve been lugging around all these years feels dynamic.

How bout that?

Do I sound sad today, huh? I’m all zippy and giddy! Let’s make cake. That’s still my response to pretty much everything. Some things don’t change. But hey, you never know.

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This cake teeters between proper cake and decadent muffin territory. It’s more elegant than your average muffin, so I’m calling it cake, despite its frosting-less nature. You can decide for yourself. All you really need to know is that it is spongey and moist and perfumed with honey and rosemary. This is a tactile cake: in your hands as you peel back the paper wrapper; in your mouth as you sink teeth into chewy goodness; against your tongue as you savor herbal, tangy sweetness. Also, it’s absurdly easy to make. Being an oil and buttermilk cake, it requires no softening or creaming of butter. Just measuring and mixing. You can make it even if you don’t have buttermilk, by mixing half a cup of regular milk with half a teaspoon of your favorite vinegar. Caaaake! Do it.

Recipe follows…

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The Beautiful Things (Hearty Cornbread Among Them)

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This is the city at night, a strip of fireflies in the darkness. The blackness of the ocean beyond, and the blackness of mountains before. I’ve been getting my mountain time in lately, soaking up the chaparral and smell of sandstone mingled with oak leaves.

IMG_0700My mom and I had dinner with an old friend on Friday. He took us to the El Encanto, a fancy old hotel recently reopened after years of renovation. The waitresses sported gray, tailored cocktail dresses and the menu erred toward molecular gastronomy. We ate on the terrace, looking into the hillside. Mountain time. The silhouette of eucalyptus trees always makes me gasp, even if they are damned invasive.

Wally is an old-school business man who sold the family business into what he thought were good hands and watched it dwindle to nothing. He is eighty-seven; he calls himself a bachelor and then says, “a widower, I suppose, but I don’t like the sound of that.” When I ask him how he is spending his days, he tells me, “I don’t get out much. There isn’t a cure for the sort of malaise I’ve got.”

rosecandleSomewhere between the valet parking, the swirls of French butter, and the sound of the word malaise, I got the sense that I’d fallen into The Great Gatsby. My friend is perhaps the gentleman Jay Gatsby would have lived to be if he had learned to love less recklessly.

Wally says, “I only ever got really loaded once in my life: the night I got out of the army.” He asks me, “Do you know what they call a quantity of champagne?” I ponder, “…a Magnum!” He chuckles, “That’s just a little one. They go up and up. There’s a Methuselah and a Salma, Salma-something, and a Balthazar, and anyway, it was the biggest one.” A Nebuchadnezzar. Fifteen liters. I looked it up. He says, “There were twelve of us. We drank the whole thing between us. I remember coming home with that giant bottle of champagne. Well, it was empty by then. I don’t remember how I got home, but I remember arriving at home with that bottle.”

So perhaps not Gatsby in his drinking habits, but at least a bit in his lavishness and loneliness. He gives me a hundred dollar bill in a tiny envelope and a vintage Instamatic camera for my journey. I give him a kiss on the cheek and a promise to write him about where the hundred dollars goes.

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As I pass through my days lately, the moments kaleidoscope together. Books I have read, people I have loved, trails I have walked, meals I have shared, cities I have known. My life has been rife with beauty. Positively teeming with it. And yet, wending throughout, there is the reedy melody of sadness. The purple whisper of a violin always in the back of my mind.

I don’t call mine malaise–wistfulness usually, or nostalgia–but the word feels familiar. I look at my friend, his tall back tilted over, his hands shaking despite his strength. I may have the camera now, and the places to take pictures of, but we are no different. We hearken to the places that feel like home, whether it’s a foreign country or a favorite restaurant. We mourn the loss of all the humans and hours that have passed in all such places, which we will see no more again. Then we take our sadness, and set it to one side, and carry on living. Carry on making more beautiful things for which we will surely mourn when they are past, but which, for now, hold our hearts in place.

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Bread is a beautiful thing. It is simple and humble and can be shared. It brings a lot of joy, but the loss when it is finished is not so great; it’s easy to make more. This one is homey and earthy, made with a mix of grains and just a skosh of molasses for depth. I whip up a mini batch for days when I’m in the mood for multi-grain bread but don’t want a whole giant loaf. Being a quickbread, this is more fragile than yeasted dough, but I find it’s still a great sub for sandwich bread, especially toasted, open face.

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Recipe follows…

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Green Tomatoes Are the Greatest But Confetti Is a Close Second

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Times is wild ’round here lately. The garden is going gangbusters and the city is covered in confetti (deployed via confetti-stuffed absurdly painted egg; see above). These two things combined equal one simple truth: it is August in Santa Barbara. The warm weather height of growing season and the week of ridiculousness that we call Fiesta! In theory, Fiesta celebrates our city’s Spanish heritage, but this story generally leaves out the historical tidbit that the “holiday” was devised by mostly Anglo shop-owners to attract tourists.

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It’s fine though. Mariachi bands on the corner and margaritas imbibed in broad daylight on the main drag are a hoot for one week out of the year. Flamenco and taco stands also abound. Don’t ask me what all the confetti is about. It’s just fun.

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For me, Fiesta is a time to see my city through others’ eyes. All the giddy, goggling out-of-towners remind me that, hey, this place is rad. That palm trees are total show-stoppers when you remember to notice them and terra cotta roofs are dang charming. This loose, languid culture and climatic perfection are most people’s dream, and they are my quotidian. But not for long. In two weeks I’m peacing out for the humid, verdant woods of the Dordogne. Which is more than cool with me, but let’s not forget to profit from the fresh tomatoes and confetti explosion while the time is ripe.

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About these tomatoes. Words. Can’t. Explain. But since that’s about what I got to go on, let me attempt. These tomatoes are tangy and creamy at the same time, toothy and unctuous all at once. They are fresh and decadent. They are a study in contrast: zingy from the dill and vinegar, buttery from their own sweet flesh, and perfectly balanced by the savory flavor of searing and the bitterness of parsley. Also, ten, maybe twelve,  minutes from pan to plate. Do it. Oh, and fyi, green tomatoes here means unripe other-colored tomatoes, not ripe green zebras or similarly confounding heirloom varieties.

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Recipe follows…

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Five Days Later

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It is painted. And on the wall. With friends!

IMG_0693There’s something about making wishes that works.

Since I came back to town, I’d pretty consistently think, “Dang, the art scene here is pretty dynamic and burgeoning. It would be so cool if I could be involved in that in some way while I’m in town.” Bang. One Facebook chat away–the chance to reconnect with old friends, make new friends, and make art.

I find it truly awe-inspiring each time a person or opportunity finds me from out of the ether to invite me to make art. Perhaps we artists have a tendency to feel disowned by society; I certainly do. Too much talk of “artists on the fringe” when I was young or some such thing. For this reason, I am continually stunned to discover, as my work and career progress, that, actually, the world wants creators. There is space for us and a place for us and appreciation for what we do. Magical mysteries, these. I am grateful.