A friend of mine, a regular visitor to the center, has geese. Like ya do; it’s pretty common in the Dordogne. Sometimes I arrive at the Lama House to be greeted by a basket full of super jumbo-sized eggs with dark, giant yolks and silky smooth whites. They make the creamiest scrambled eggs and the omelette-iest omelettes. They also make good cake. I don’t think I could pick out a goose egg cake from a table full of regular ones, but I do think if you made the same cake with goose eggs or chicken eggs, there would be a subtle taste and texture difference, as goose eggs have slightly more fat than chicken eggs. That said, eggs are eggs and when you give me eggs, you pretty much always get cake.
I have made a concerted effort to dial back my cake production recently in support of other activities. After spending the better part of September and October working through the fact that it’s okay with me to never become a master baker or a successful professional artist, now I’m in the interesting position of seeing what rises to the top when I create space for other priorities.
A teacher in whom I have a lot of confidence recently told me that if I am serious about aspiring to teach Dharma one day myself, competence in Tibetan language is an essential foundation. Which I will gain in approximately two hundred years if I keep going at the rate I’m going. Not so useful for results in this lifetime.
But what is my goal in learning Tibetan anyway? But what is the goal with teaching, really?
At the end of the day, I just want to get better at being a person until I’m so good at it that I no longer have to come back and be a person again in order to keep working on being a person. And I want to help others do that too.
Almost since I first discovered Buddhism, teaching has been in my mind. I’ve never been so grateful to people in my life (other than to my parents, who gave me this life) as to the people who have helped me start making sense of this life, who gave me the tools to observe my own mind. Early on, one of my teachers said that we must ask ourselves what our responsibility is for the teachings we have been given—to put them into practice and also to conserve them and help make them available to others. If those who came before us had not made the effort to safeguard the teachings and transmit them authentically, we would not be able to receive them now.
And a light went off in my head, and I thought, “Holy shit. That’s a serious debt.” I am fortunate to have come into contact with this wisdom, fortunate beyond measure as far as I can tell. It’s not easy to find a truth that corresponds with both who you are and the way the world is, i.e. the nature of reality. When you find it, you owe it to others to get the word out. That’s how I see it anyway.
It’s more than a little daunting though. I am little and dreamy and untamed. I like colors and cake and playing around in the woods. And it’s not nothing to say you want to teach Dharma. When you take that on, you put yourself up as a bridge between people and the masters who can truly guide them; you represent your own teachers and the tradition you have been trusted with. You can’t be on an ego trip and you seriously have to know your shit (you should probably give up cursing, too). But somebody has to try. And even if I don’t make it in this lifetime, I get the sense I’ll learn more trying than I would doing anything else.
And so, what to do? Do I need to do anything particular? Spending more than an hour a week studying Tibetan is probably a good start. After that, the possible wheres and whens and hows are other questions and other choices that will be answered by time and copious research and hopefully a bit of feedback from people with longer vision than mine. In the meantime, cake to supplicate the Buddhas such that the path becomes clear.
This cake is special. I made a trial one that didn’t so much work. But it had so much potential I came back a day later to give it another go. FYI, I never do this. Generally, I make random experiments while taking careful notes and the good stuff shows up here. But this time, I took the time to alter the technique and up the chocolate quantity, and I’m so glad I did. What makes this cake special, besides its evolution, is its crumb. This is a dense cake, but it is also super tender. Rare combo. I’m proud. Please try it. You’ll be proud too.
Garsang day. It means smoke and fire and offering. Long trumpets and twin cymbals and the shaking of your veins when the music plays and sound waves melt into heat waves and it all rises in vaporous spirals and white ashes.
They call it purification. I’m not sure I know what that means, but I’ll take it, though I heard recently that there is no purification without suffering. Maybe it’s like being strained though a sieve; you have to be pressed through a very fine mesh to leave the grit behind.
Maybe it wasn’t suffering they said, but hardship. Because suffering, I believe, means resowing the same tendencies that run us through the wringer every time. But purification–purification means leaving bad habits behind, means choosing to look instead of to act when the old traitorous urges rise.
Sometimes life lessons and growth and religion and ritual are not old books or wrinkled brows. Or anyway, sometimes they are those things mixed with poetry, and blessed baked goods, and butter sculptures, and wishes that it all transforms into something sacred enough, rendered carefully enough, willed with enough force and love and attention that it can nourish even those whose very nature defies receiving sustenance or aid.
I don’t mean wishes where you wish some one else will take responsibility for you but wishes where you wish it so bad you will do anything to make it happen.
What it takes to make a wish happen could seem complicated , but really it’s simple. Cause and effect, action and reaction. It’s a law. You can call it physics or you can call it karma; maybe it’s energy that oxidizes matter or maybe it’s intention that changes perception. But at the end of the day, there are two things that count:
You have to know how it works and you have to do the hard work to make it work for you.
I have about a million ideas. I have a full-on site redesign in my head for this place. With a sweet logo and a hand-designed font. I want to rewrite the about page and better organize my links. I want to make this place more lively, easier to navigate, and all around more fluid. I lack a few things though. Time is an easy excuse. I’m also short a few notches of technical expertise, though a few dozen hours on WordPress forums and Adobe how-to sites might get me through that one. So in the end it’s doable. It just might take me a few years to put in place, hehe.
Until, then, I thought, why not try and add a weekly post? Something simple that I can put together without stressing over being witty or profound or having time to make a cake. Something people can rely on, to add a little something to their day. I’ve decided to let other people do the hard work for me, thus—quotations! I like quotations because they allow us to use others’ words to express our own ideas: the things that touch us, that change us, that encapsulate how we think. A body of chosen quotations can reveal much more about a person than their own words on a subject might.
Also, I’ve started stocking up good quotations recently, and I need somewhere to put them. 😉 Now that I’ve worked out the kinks of RGB versus CMYK versus a couple other things, and my colors come out about right (this image was a very pukey purple the first time I uploaded it), I’m hoping this can become a nice shared ritual for us all. I’ll do my best to be consistent. Happy Quotable Tuesday!
Having a record of my thoughts is a strange phenomenon, and knowing I’ve let those thoughts out into the world to be seen by others makes it even more so. I clicked through some posts of the recent past to check out what I’ve been living, according to myself, and also to see what shape the blog and this narrative take over time. And I had the funny feeling of talking to two different people. One who’s tentative and questioning and willing to breathe deep and sigh out, blink at the flowers in the field and not understand things. And another who’s energetic and brimming with anticipation and trying to tie answers onto questions in the hopes of being able to put them in a drawer and slide it shut with a reassuring thunk.
This art thing. It’s not an answered question.
I still want everything I’ve ever wanted from my art practice. Wealth, recognition, community, affirmation. I still cradle daydreams of Chelsea gallery openings and the Metropolitan Costume Gala. But looking up show submissions and reading contemporary art news isn’t really what I spend my time doing. Occasionally, once in a while, I browse the call-for-entries website and think about the opportunities I’m missing, and muse about the totally viable professional art career I could have if I just spent, I dunno… maybe ten hours a week would be enough. It’d be slow, but I could update my website, and start a real series, keep up with the industry, get in contact with other artists, improve my exhibition history. Okay, it would take more than ten hours a week. More like fifteen or twenty or nearly full time.
There’s this irony that kills me. I feel like I finally have the skills to succeed in the art world—the diligence, perseverance, the understanding that success is not about talent and it’s not about me on any level but actually about hard work and being in the right place at the right time. I’ve developed the resilience to not be crushed by critique or rejection (some of the time) and the perspective to bounce back in the moments when I am. I finally have the toolkit for this goal I’ve been cradling all of my life, and what do I with it? I just…let it go, I guess.
Maybe this is me grieving, again, publicly.
The other day in a philosophy class, we were talking about how to carry out projects while dealing with impermanence. And just like that, I said this: “For me, creating a plan or carrying out a project in the face of impermanence is about having a long-term objective and being able to check in and see if my actions line up with my objective. For a long time I wanted to be a professional artist, and I had to ask myself what I needed to do for that. Show work, connect with people related to that, etc. Recently, that’s changed. Now what I want is to put art to work as a tool for reaching enlightenment. And I realize that the reason I’ve been so stressed for a while is because the pressure I’ve been putting on myself no longer lines up with the goal I have.”
And it was so simple. It slid out just like that in the past tense. And when I said it, I thought, “Yeah, that’s so it.”
But there’s still some part of me that’s not ready to give up. That’s like, “Yeah, but I can have enlightenment and a show at the MoMA too, right?” And maybe I can, if we ignore the fact that enlightenment is really far away and what I’ll actually have, if I ever find myself in this position, is a step along the path and a show at the MoMA too. Thing is, even if I can have it, even if one day I might have it, clinging to the dream isn’t helping me.
Tomorrow we’re starting a two-week study retreat, picking up Mipham Rinpoche’s Gateway to Knowledge where we left off. I’m pretty sure we’re still somewhere in the middle of suffering, ahem, the first Noble Truth. And on the weekend we’ll be having this year’s round of Autumn Meetings. And the week after that my plan is to hunker down and pass driver’s ed, so I can get my French license in one more step of committing for real to this place and this path. Then there’ll be meditation retreat and budgets for next year and translation projects and so, so many good things that I’ve decided to do instead of spending thirty hours a week becoming an artist.
And all of this aching is just that: aching. Maybe I can’t change it yet, but I don’t want to hold on to it either. I want to give up the things I don’t need, so I can do the work that will change something. Me, others, my ignorance, our suffering at the hands of impermanence and our confusion about what that means.
Maybe this is renunciation: cradling a tender spot until I finally give up wishing for things I am not willing to create. I’m going to die, you know, one of these days. And I can’t take the MoMA with me. There’s so much love in that dream—all I wish I could give through creation. Maybe I can give it, and the dream just needs a new direction.
The dharma is more durable and the lighting’s just as good.
(I’m not sure this pun is comprehensible. It’s partly a Buddhist joke and partly an in-my-head joke. In Buddhism, the wisdom of the Buddhas and the teachings are often compared to sunlight, which clears the obscurity of ignorance. And in my daydream, the lighting is that of the MoMA, which is perfect because, well…it’s the MoMA.)
Yesterday at lunchtime someone told me it was good to see me smiling again, and it made me want to shout or cry or run away. Instead I just shook my head and said, still smiling, “Oh come on, there are already so few places where it’s okay to feel things…” and left it at that. And he just affirmed that he was glad that I was doing better, and I spent the rest of the day working out why that’s not okay with me. Let me try and explain.
If you saw me crying in the temple in the evening, soggily saying my prayers. If you saw me climbing the hill to the Institute with a closed face and a cloud knit into my brow. If you passed me midmorning at a picnic table with pens and paper when I could have been, maybe should have been, in some one else’s natural order of things, already tapping away at a computer in the cold darkness of the office. If you heard me singing hymns at the top of my voice while hanging out laundry to dry. If you worried that I was not okay. If you wondered what was wrong.
Let me assure you. I’m okay. But lots of things are wrong.
My socks have holes in them. The milk I drank with breakfast makes my stomach hurt. I can never seem to conjugate the conditional past tense correctly in French, and it worries me that I seem to use it so often—all the things I would have done, or should have done. I hung my laundry on the line but it keeps raining just enough that the afternoon sun isn’t enough to dry my clothes and they’ve been out there four days now.
It’s been a year since my parents decided to get divorced and even though we’re all mostly adapted now, I still have to work hard not to choke when some one kindly says, “It must be hard for you being so far from home. You must miss your family,” and I say, “There’s not much sense in missing my family. The family I grew up with doesn’t exist anymore.”
It’s been three-and-a-half months since my teacher died and I try not to talk about it too much because I wonder how much you can grieve publicly before people tire of you or tune you out. Or maybe I just don’t know how to talk about my grief because I’m no longer willing to treat it as something to get over.
Things are always wrong. Sometimes it’s big things and it’s definitely always little things. I have spent my life trying to forget this, to look on the bright side and wait for things to get better. And they always do. And then they un-get better later. And every time I experience loss anew, it feels like the first time. I’m as shocked and disoriented as I ever was. Doubt rises, confidence ebbs, and the ability to move forward temporarily suspends. With time, and softness, and grieving, I find my way back. I relearn how to live with a family that’s pieces instead of a unit, without the physical presence of the teacher who’s guidance I seek daily, with holes in my socks, with a stomach ache, wet laundry, and a busted conditional past tense.
I get so used to it that I start to forget. From one day to the next, comfort sneaks back. I feel better not because I’ve learned how to live with loss but because I haven’t lost anything new lately and I’ve returned to ignoring the old losses. But loss is not a jar that you can shake, that you can take things out of and put things into. Loss is an ephemeral thing. A stinging pain brought to life by the meeting of a wish for something and the reality of the absence of that thing. Loss is wishing for things to be some other way than they are. Loss is a refusal of the fact that this world is dynamic down to its very atoms, that we don’t even understand what makes matter be there, and yet we relate to all things as though they should be there when we want them, miss them, need them.
And I’ll tell you what. Loss hurts less when I remember that it’s normal. That for all my scientific and philosophical training, the table looks like a table to me, a thing I can rely on. I’m expecting it to be there tomorrow and the day after and five seconds from now. And if one day my table burns or breaks or yields to thieving hands, in its absence I will still refer to it as a wholesome thing.
My table will still exist for me in the memory of my table, even though it never was more than a collection of whirring atoms in a certain arrangement in a certain time and place, and maybe not even that. And my family as an integral thing exists in my memory, which is what allows me to think of it as a broken thing today. And because my teacher was once with me, now I feel he’s gone. My life is a series of labels that I do not want to change. But the world we experience is nothing other than the expression of change.
And I haven’t learned how to smile about that yet. I’ve learned how to sing about it, write about it, dance, paint, think, and cry about it. But I have not yet learned how to feel joy without forgetting sadness. I can do contentment, gratitude, even love mixed with sadness. But joy’s too shiny and seductive for me to live it and leave space for loss. I’m working on it, but at least for now, I have a favor to ask.
Please, don’t wish me to feel better. I will, one day or another. But also, what goes up must come down. And for the time being, the fall hits hard. So please, let me be shadowy—rainstormed—if need be. Let me be quiet and dark, tear-stained and tired-faced, when the time calls for it. It’s for a good cause. I’m trying to understand impermanence.
À propos of nothing…rhubarb tart. I could stretch it and make a connection. Rhubarb is a seasonal vegetable, an obvious sign of the changing times; summer into fall is the kind of impermanence I can wrap my head around, even if this Indian summer we’re living in the Dordogne is, in its own way, another kind of denial. But whatever the temperature, the leaves are falling off the trees and the acorns are hitting my roof with an insistent “thwack!” and change is, you know, happening to everything.
This tart is just right for an Indian summer that hangs on into October. Bright and fruity with late-season rhubarb and plums, but sidling into autumn with a warming crumble topping. Perfect for afternoon tea as reward for staying awake through long hours in meetings (that’s how we did it), or also just because, or also with ice cream for dessert or with coffee for breakfast. You decide.
Recipe… Continue reading