Day 5: Karmapa Comes And Meaning Comes

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In the pocket of my purse, I have one crushed marigold. I slid it off a thread this morning outside the monastery. Its cold, soft petals yielded against my fingertips. Strands and strands of flowers hung over the truck that carried Rinpoche to us yesterday. After all the uncertainty and all the waiting, it now feels only natural that he is here. He couldn’t have made this easy; it wouldn’t have been his style.

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Today was a card catalogue of varicolored moments. The deep red of the practice room and the oily tan slick of butter tea as our voices intoned the words for “calling the lama from afar.” I held the notes with my whole heart. A blue-grey house of juxtaposed rectangles, where I waited to serve tea, and the burgundy robes of the monks I met there. Rabke, from Kalimpong shedra, the academy from whence will come many or most of our future teachers, said to me, “Rinpoche told us that we will study hard and when we finish we will each work three years for him and then we can choose where we will go to teach. He said to us, ‘You are all my sons, and you will do as I ask.’”

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He paused quiet for a moment and then added, “We are very lucky to have known such a great lama.” I thought of the waves of Bordeaux-cloaked bodies, the sea of shaved heads, bare left shoulders, and open gazes. I wonder, “Who are these young men and women that look so alike to me?” Each of them has likes and dislikes and memories and dreams of his and her own, and each of them, like me and the band of Westerners whose stories and ways and wonderings I know much more in detail is mourning. We are so many orphans.

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The afternoon was colored brown, the lacquer tint of the biography booklet I handed out by the hundreds, winding my way through the rows of meditators and offering Asian style, the book in my right hand with my left hand to my elbow as a gesture of respect to give with both hands. There was a slash of green as I sat on the hillside, staring over the valley at the old monastery, a cappuccino colored compound tucked behind the new brick buildings. The ten-year retreat monks live here, nearly the last handful of practitioners in the modern world who keep all 253 traditional vows of the ethical discipline. And just in front, on the opposite rooftop, the cremation stupa received its final adornments for tomorrow’s ceremony. I saw a Pantone of silk flags and painted medallions. The rest is shrouded, waiting for the final moment.

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Dusk fell blue-grey with a smear of rainbow beside the monastery. I wondered if it was a nod from Shamarpa to his disciple. The bands of color appeared just as we assembled to receive Karmapa on his arrival. The road turned crimson and gold with robes and prayer scarves as thousands of people lined the street in welcome and expectation. “We are like children at times,” I couldn’t help but think. I stood by the door a ways back, to see but hoping not to disturb. After the flags and horns and drums had past, Karmapa alit from the car and the crowd pressed forward to meet him.

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All of the love and eagerness fused into a collective surge. The flowers meant to be strewn at his feet jumped out of the offering hands from the impact of those behind. Golden petals struck Karmapa’s temples and his brow. I tried to step back but found myself moved forward. Jigme Rinpoche appeared, sentinel and protector, striding forward, his sturdy arms pressing back the bodies like Moses parting the Red Sea. My eyes stung and my throat closed. I glimpsed for maybe spare seconds a raised arm, a focused gaze, the tops of their precious heads, but just this–and awareness hit me like the salty cold of the ocean.

It’s not a memory or an idea. It’s not a concept and it’s not so clear in words. It’s a sudden snap of understanding. Blessing so often feels like a rising light, something gentle and clarifying. This was like a breaking window. All of the holds barred inside of me exploded like shattered glass. There are no more adjustments or attempts for revisions–this is living and we are here. Tomorrow, something ends and something new begins. E ma ho!

 

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Day 4 Encore: A Peek At Swayambhu And Rinpoche’s Arrival

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Let’s be honest. Today was strange. We started the morning at the Swayambhu Stupa, well almost. We walked around the base of the hill, turning the thousands of pocket-sized to room-sized prayer wheels lining the perimeter. Halfway through the journey, we got a message calling us up to the monastery for duty. Guests to be greeted and information to be diffused.

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From mural filled walls and endless rounds of prayer beads, we found ourselves pouring tea, or just drinking tea, and waiting. It was a day of waiting. Waiting for guests, waiting for news, waiting for Rinpoche, waiting for the rain to stop. When I finally found a moment to meditate, all the practice spaces were under lockdown to be straightened before the arrival of the body. I sat in a plastic chair for ten minutes to do protector practice and then I sat in a plastic chair and slept and tried not to drool too much.

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If I’m being a little rough around the edges, I’ll blame it on the strangeness of these times. I whined a little about the absence of time for sitting practice today, and I got the response, “Helping is practice too.” And it is. And I’m grateful. And sometimes I get so caught up in the movement that I forget that I’m practicing, and I just do.

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And behind all the action there are memories that play on repeat, emotions that sing their familiar song, and questions that ratatat regularly but quietly behind all the activity. I haven’t given myself time to look at all that much lately. I don’t know if it’s because I don’t want to or because the times call for another approach, if when the wildness of these days has passed, I’ll stop to see what comes up and I’ll be totally bowled over or if it will just be…what comes up.

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I know that I can feel the distance between the action of the day and the action that burgeons ceaselessly inside. When Shamar Rinpoche’s body finally wound its way up the hill, preceded by flags, and drums, and bone trumpets in the early dark under a light rain, all I could feel was that I didn’t know what to feel. I saw the silk-shrouded coffin through my camera lens and I mostly felt the importance of this angle or that stray shaft of light. I lifted my eyes to look, really look, and with all the roiling that started to rise inside, I flipped my eyes back to the digital version of the world to stay safe behind duty and a story to tell.

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In the soft crush of the crowd snaking around the stairway angles to lay a prayer scarf at the foot of the coffin, I realized I hadn’t thought toward this moment at all. My guru is here, in mind and in body, not united but at least in the same place, for the last time for at least a little while and only now do I think of all I wish I could offer. I can mentally multiply this unusually short silk scarf that I fortunately found stuffed into my purse a thousand times, a thousand times a thousand times, and more, but it doesn’t make up for all the moments I have lost thinking about things other than devotion, other than what I wish to give, the qualities I aspire to develop, the being I aim to become, the image of wisdom I see in my teacher who is now before me.

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I see the chill glow of bare fluorescent bulbs. I feel the wet, pulpy masses of trampled flower petals under my feet. I hear my thoughts pinging hollowly against one another in the absence of time to unroll each unruly notion and lay it out to dry and see what it has to say. This is my life passing, and I’d rather not lose it while I’m still in the act of living, just by forgetting to pay attention.

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Of course, sitting in the empty restaurant of the hotel at precisely midnight, I can be a little honest. Looking is hard. Choosing to see is not so easy. I think I might be mostly finished grieving. Mourning the specific death of Shamar Rinpoche in this incarnation at this time. I know I’ll have moments of wistfulness all my life when I am faced with questions I know he could have answered perfectly that I will have to answer imperfectly myself. I also know that when I make the space to pause and listen, he is here: his wisdom, his teachings, the love without limit he taught me to feel and inspired me to develop. Still, understanding that in quiet moments has yet to change all the other moments that I spend fighting loss and letting go. My life is a battle against impermanence, and it is one I am going to lose. I would like to give up fighting.

Day 4: Newsnewsnews

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A voice just came crackling across the intercom. “We request that you exit the hall and line up along the road to welcome the body of His Holiness Shamar Rinpoche.”

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Since yesterday night, the rumors have been flying thicker and with seemingly greater degrees of credibility. The body will arrive this morning at eleven. The body is being held at the airport awaiting a final permission document from the government. The body is on the road from Swayambhu Stupa. The body is just leaving the airport.

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In any case, he’s coming. The road is lined with red carpet and marigolds. My heart is trying to hold itself steady. All the memories and emotions of these last six weeks are circling around me. Some one standing next to me just muttered out, “In any case, he precedes his body.” And whether it is Shamarpa’s mind or our own expectations, a feeling of waiting hangs in the air. When the car pulls up the drive, will we crumple or breathe a slow sigh of relief or just carry on as we have been? To each his own, I think. In any case, he’s coming.

Day 3: First Meeting–Shar Minub

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Morning comes with birdcalls and the klaxon of car horns. Breakfast is continental, though the golden-brown rolls, sweet smelling and shiny with eggwash, call to mind the Chinese bakeries of my childhood. Traffic is light at seven in the morning, and the winding, unnamed, unname-able roads carry us through commercial centers, family homes and mostly mixes of the two. It’s a jigsaw puzzle style of city planning, where, as one person remarked, you put the buildings you want first and figure out where the streets fit after. They don’t fit neatly, but they leave space enough for a swirling soup of buses, camions, and motorbikes mixed with roaming pedestrians, chickens and the occasional hog. Cornfields, rice fields, and Alexandra swears she saw a cannabis field, dot the sides of the road.

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As we begin to climb into the outlying mountains, red and gold posters appear amidst the signs advertising tech colleges and Montessori school. Two plastic banners flutter on either side of the telephone poles, emblazoned with faces I know. Karmapa and Shamar Rinpoche. They line the road toward Shar Minub, announcing the event like any other happening of note. A Buddhist cremation in Nepal is like a museum exhibit or a jazz concert back home, just a part of the culture. Red gates pop up to mark the entry to the monastery, and in the clear light of morning, we arrive.

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I can hear the bone trumpets and the vertical drums beaten double-time. I’ve never been here before, but the music says we’re home. We get nametags and drinkable water and an escort past a trail of signs marked “Overseas guests.” The main temple upstairs is packed to the edges with monastic folks, so we settle into a secondary temple space with a projector screen showing the happenings above us.

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A couple hundred local monks are carrying out a different ritual on the other side of the room from us. And just outside the door, a couple more Newari women are conducting the ceremony of their tradition. The drums beat to different times; the chant move at different rhythms, the melodies flow through different octaves. Almost everything is provisional. The temples are basically scaffolding of the future finished buildings that have been hung with yards to miles of brilliant, primary colored fabric to create presentable, enclosed spaces. The cement floors of the bathrooms were poured in the last few weeks and the walls are everyone’s favorite blue hardware-store tarpaulin.

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It should be chaos, and it’s certainly a turbo jolt of stimulus, but somehow, it works. We sit on the long, red strips of carpet, using rolled up rain coats for meditation cushions, and we unwind the silk cases of our practice texts to add our own individual rituals to the medley being conducted. At nine o’clock, monks stream through the lines of meditators pouring butter tea into plastic cups and handing out a booklet entitled, “Wishing Prayer for Rebirth in Sukhavati,” the realm of joy associated with Buddha Amitabha and thus, Shamarpa. And for a few minutes, all the voices join, and all the practices become one practice, and it’s no better or worse than before, just a simpler image of the togetherness that underlies the apparent chaos of this moment.

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All of today is like this: dispersal and gathering. Pictures and experiences of how phenomena come together and come apart. The monsoon clouds gathering shadows over the hillside; minutes later turned into an explosion of raindrops on the rice paddies, the brick walls, and our skin. Yards of brocade reduced to piles of ribbon and stray thread, then woven back into tapestries around the edges of the cremation stupa. The diaspora of my Dhagpo family throughout the monastery this morning for different responsibilities and activities followed by the reunion of my American Dharma family who live across the world and country most of the time but found ourselves together today around a lunch table in Nepal. We cried surprisingly few tears, but not because we aren’t mourning. I suppose because this is the good part of saying goodbye to our teacher; saying hello to each other. Somehow it’s easier to face an uncertain future together.

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Day 2: We Arrive, And That’s About All

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Sitting on the other side of the airplane from Doha to Kathmandu. Katya’s semi-profile against the twilight through the window. I can safely say we made it. Through maybe the easiest international customs experience I’ve ever had and the most amicable customs officers. A brick interior, low light, and all the desks made from varnished wood patterned with cutout stars. We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto, and not the Dordogne either.

We arrived in the darkness of early nighttime, after nine p.m. I always notice the air of a new place before all the rest. The air here is dense but not heavy, like lace you can walk through. Tribhuvan International Airport smells like egg noodles cooked in broth and men’s cologne. Which is only reasonable, considering I saw about three other women besides us on the plane. I think it’s reasonable to say Loïc impressed the crowd, travelling alone with us four ladies.

I’d forgotten from India the cultural fact of being stared at. It’s not comfortable, but I find it less aggressive than I used to. I’m surprised, though we only saw the sights and smells and sounds from the taxi in the darkness, everything felt softer than I had imagined. Nepal is calmer than any other developing country I have visited, and certainly calmer at night. Poverty is still poverty–the trash piles, the half-built skeletons of construction projects, the hungry roving canines, the fluorescent-lit bodegas; these things remain.

I don’t know if it’s me or this country that’s different, maybe both, but I find it all less harsh and less surprising than I remember from India or Ghana or even Mexico at times. Somehow the open buildings, the rutted streets, the concrete corridors…they just look like some people’s homes. It’s not my home or the home that I know, but it’s some one’s place, loved and lived in like any other.

I don’t want to romanticize poverty, but I don’t want to denigrate the proprietors of this place, its society, or its culture. And what’s more, in many ways, one could say I’m a beneficiary of this culture. Gautauma Buddha was born in Nepal, which makes this place part of my heritage, the culture that I have chosen and embraced and to which I have consecrated my life.

What do I think of that? I don’t know. I know the lights of Swayambhu stupa on the hilltop, seen from the hotel terrace, fill me trust. I know the bats overhead and the cawing of the monkeys is as exotic as it ever was, and yet also just the landscape of a place, a history, and a transmission. I know I’ll wake up at five-thirty in the morning to meditate, then meet my companions, and go see our teacher’s monastery and practice with thousands of other disciples with whom I both share and don’t share many kinds of culture–European, Asian, American, Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana. But we share a goal—freedom—and a love—for our teacher. And through this, we learn. And that is enough.

 

**Logistical note. I’d heard there is wifi throughout Kathmandu, and I was hopeful that I would be able to post updates throughout the day. Unfortunately, internet access does not extend to the monastery, so unless I stumble upon another technical miracle, I may be limited to a single post in the evening. I’ll try to include as much as I can. Thanks for your patience and for coming along!

Day 1: Dordogne>Paris>Doha

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I think it’s technically Day 2 already, but, having been on the road for nearly twenty-four hours, we’re gonna stick with Day 1. Thanks for your patience as things get rolling over here.

This is yesterday’s lunch, a final taste of Europe before embarking on a week in Asia. With any luck, the next food photo you see will be momos. (I can’t deny that right after hommage, practice, and community-building, the gastronomic aspect of this trip tempts the foodie pilgrim in me–culinary experiences can be spiritual too!).

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I’m writing you from Doha International Airport, in Qatar. It’s the first time I’ve ever been through the Middle East, and though the airport hardly counts as visiting, it’s nice to dip a toe in a culture that has long been distant and remains mysterious. Makes me curious to come back. Maybe it’s un-PC or un-feminist or uneducated to say it, but I find the abaya beautiful. The women floating by as columns of black seem confident and at ease. Of course, I’m just seeing a slice of upper class, Western-inflected culture from a sleep deprived, travel-delirious perspective, but this is the reflection that comes to mind.

It’s a good reminder that this journey is taking me elsewhere from what I know. Though the customs may be familiar through my study and practice of Tibetan Buddhism, the experience will be quite different in its actual cultural context, not mention the unprecented nature of this event.

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We’ve had a hell of a day+. We spent eight hours on the road yesterday, driving from Dhagpo to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, broken up by a lunch break on the grassy knolls of the rest stop. I felt grateful to be able to begin this trip by offering up a meal made with love for me and my travelling companions. Doing so allowed me to reflect on and set the tone of this trip.

We’re here to give, in both concrete and intangible ways. In concrete ways like homemade hummus, dolmas, sandwiches on fresh-baked bread, and a giant chocolate chip cookie cake. In intangible ways like wishes for health and safety and opening through this incredible journey.

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As loopy as a six hour flight and a seven hour layover and a four hour flight may leave us–with culture shock as an added bonus–it’s our intent to show up ready to help with whatever needs doing. Setting up, serving tea, just being present.

Part of pilgrimage is going to powerful places and benefitting from the charge of their energy and history. Another part, and maybe these aren’t separate things, is using the change of scenery and the effort expended to accomplish it as a way to reset our habitual thought processes. The place becomes a process for asking new questions and discovering new capacities.

What is devotion? Community? Service? Who do I become when I put these things at the forefront of my thoughts and actions? And how do I do that, anyhow?

Ask it. Answer it. However the answers come. Live it. Let it be.

This is the quest, and these are the notes from the road. Thanks for coming along.

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Goodbye For Now

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We ship out on Saturday.

My flight is paid for. My visa’s been filed. The generous people filling in for me have the lowdown on what to do. The wedding cake I promised to make is ready to go.

What’s left to do? Laundry, for one thing. Sandwiches and granola bars for the road trip to Paris. Also packing and groceries and finishing organizing the house for the Rinpoche who will arrive, um, ostensibly before I do.

Also things that are a little less logistical and somehow a little more essential. I haven’t really been sleeping lately. I’m trying so hard to accomplish so many things that it’s easier not to sleep. I think I’ve also been trying to pretend that I’ve finished mourning and this trip is just about hommage and offering and connecting. It is about that–that’s at the heart of this journey. But it’s not whole story. Heartbreak and loss are still with me. Lately I’ve developed a resistance to them. I want to be done with emotions, with running into the same sadnesses that have yet to lose their futility, the same questions whose answers remain uncertain.

I’m not alone, but I feel alone. I am loved and surrounded by good and giving people. Yet inside, there is an aloneness that comes from knowing that only I can sort out the aching and confusion that are inherent in this life. Even a Buddha can’t make you enlightened. He shows the way, but it’s up to us to walk the path. As some great master in a text I can’t remember the name of wisely pointed out: The light of the Buddha’s wisdom is like the sun; it reflects off every body of water without exception. But um, there’s only so much the sun can do for a pond covered in leaves.

Which is a hard truth, and I’m living it lately. I think the best thing to do is be alone–physically, if I can find a moment or two–and use the quiet to flick off a couple leaves so I can feel the Buddha’s light.

I want to come back to you, from the road, on the road, with an open heart and a brimming ink well. I want to be the best witness I can be, a clear pond to reflect this moment back in all its grandeur and integrity. The purpose of this project, the intensity and consistency with which I’ve been writing leading up to this trip and the work I mean to do while I’m on the road, is about assembly and transmission. About allowing people to come together to take part in and benefit from this momentous occasion. For me it’s a form of offering, a way to receive all of your generous offerings of financial and moral support, and a way to connect us all to the vision and activity of a truly great being to benefit…well, everyone.

It seems worth it to take a couple days to reflect on the matter before diving in. Thanks for coming along; see you on the other side.

**This post is part of a larger project culminating in a week of creative journalism in Kathmandu Valley, Nepal chronicling the cremation (possibly from afar) of the Tibetan spiritual master Shamar Rinpoche. To find out more or make a donation to this project, go here.

The Stars Are There Too

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Apparently things are still up in the air.

The Nepalese government is having hearings or sessions or discussions or some such things, and I’m cooling my jets on political opinionism. Everybody’s got their life to live, their priorities to look after. Being upset about situations that I cannot change or that I have done what I can to change is not a priority.

I’ve been wondering a lot lately what politics really means. Aren’t we all inevitably striving to accomplish our own goals in line with our own values? Perhaps, but distinctions can still be made. Google defines politics like this:

“The activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power.”

If we take this for definition, politics is the activity of people whose goals and values are dualistic and self-centered: me and my people. The goal of Buddhism is to break free from dualism and clinging to the idea of one’s self. For me there’s a contradiction between valuing my teachers and their teachings and identifying with and feeling a need to defend my lineage and our heritage. The purpose of the lineage, the whole reason it’s been kept alive and why it matters that it remain intact is to benefit all beings without exception. So, uh, maybe it’s time to give up on the sectarianism. I can belong to a tradition without naysaying or begrudging any others.

That said, I do hope that the cremation can take place in Nepal. But hopefully for the right reasons. Because Shamarpa’s monastery is there–because it would be good if his cremation and the monument that will remain after can help develop positive activity there.

But beings will do as beings do, and we each have to live out the consequences of whatever states of mind we cultivate. I, for one, am trying to give up on righteousness and illwill. So whatever happens happens. At least if everything is up in the air, the stars are there too to light the darkness.

**This post is part of a larger project culminating in a week of creative journalism in Kathmandu Valley, Nepal chronicling the cremation (possibly from afar) of the Tibetan spiritual master Shamar Rinpoche. To find out more or make a donation to this project, go here.

 

Infinitesimal Mirrors

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This is a flower.

Lama Puntso sometimes tells this story about how Gendun Rinpoche used to admonish all his disciples. He would say, “You see a flower and you think, ‘Oh, what a beautiful flower.’ I see a flower and I multiply it in my mind a million times. A million times a million times. And then I offer it to the Buddhas.”

This is a flower. A million times. A million times a million times. Here Buddhas, have a flower. You too. Have a flower.

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This is a double rainbow.

It appeared over the temple after yesterday’s evening storm. In Tibetan Buddhism, rainbows are considered signs of the miraculous powers of great beings. In Western science, rainbows are considered a refraction of light through innumerable tiny molecules of water.

Science feels miraculous. That beauty comes from energy we cannot touch bouncing off of teeny particles that are mostly empty space.

The universe is filled with beings struggling to be great. It is a miracle that we are here.

**This post is part of a larger project culminating in a week of creative journalism in Kathmandu Valley, Nepal chronicling the cremation (possibly from afar) of the Tibetan spiritual master Shamar Rinpoche. To find out more or make a donation to this project, go here.

 

Waiting For News

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It’s stopped raining for the moment, but I thought I might be fighting a power outage to get this post up. It’s been thundering since yesterday and my last foray from the office to the Lama House left my shoes soaked through to pointlessness. I can’t help it; the storm makes me think of Shamarpa. Bringer of storms. Of sitting in the same place two months ago waiting for the electricity to come back so I could type up the last few menu plans in preparation for his arrival at Dhagpo. The anticipation, the anxiety, the joy. Gratitude.

I’m wearing the same dress today that I was wearing the day he died. I remember thinking through a tear-filled haze, “Why did I put on a black dress today? I didn’t mean to be in mourning.”

This time I chose it on purpose. There had been some pseudo-news trickling through the grapevine that today we’d find out with finality whether or not the cremation would be in Nepal or not. It felt like a tribute to wear this dress, though I was hoping for better news than last time. Of course, in reality, there was no news. Just the realization that even if I someday finish mourning Shamarpa’s physical death, I’m still going to spend my whole life mourning the daily death of all my expectations and desires. And it’s not a bad thing, just another habit to integrate.

Part of me thinks, “Maybe I should invest in some more black.” And part of me thinks, “If I’m going to spend my whole life in mourning, maybe I’ll give up black entirely. There’s no point in overdoing it.” And then the absurdity of this line of thought kicks in and I realize that philosophizing my fashion choices is just another way to express sadness. And whatever color I wear, life is still coming for me.  Which makes it time to take all my melancholy and go work on the wedding cake I’ve got to make for 130 people before I leave town. Because learning to take care of here and now is what will carry me through all the rest.

**This post is part of a larger project culminating in a week of creative journalism in Kathmandu Valley, Nepal chronicling the cremation (possibly from afar) of the Tibetan spiritual master Shamar Rinpoche. To find out more or make a donation to this project, go here.