Given

IMG_2758 I run the risk of getting into enormous trouble for posting this photo on the Internet. But it’s worth it, because this lady deserves an homage.

This is my momma. I put her on a train today, and cried through my smile as it rolled away from me down the tracks. It’s been a year almost since I saw her last, and I dunno when I will see her next and somehow this uncertainty and distance magnifies every part of what we share.

This person brought me into this world. And kept me here and showed me how things are done around here. And put up with me learning. I can’t get my head around that. The accumulation of so many lived moments, so many instants of deciding to love some one and to act for them and accept for them. So many hours puking while pregnant, so many perfectly packed lunchboxes, so many teenage crises, so many Thanksgiving turkeys, so many hugs goodbye on so many uncertain adventures, so many inconsistent calls from distant places, so many grand plans, so many sudden changes.

These last two weeks with my mom are for us, but the lessons of them are for everyone I love, most especially my parents. I’d have to write a book to explain it, and maybe I will someday, but tomorrow I’m heading off for ten-day retreat and I still have ducks to line up, so forgive me for the shadowy summary:

Everything I have, have ever had, has been given to me. Opportunities, resources, kindness, skills, things. Sometimes I’ve had to put work in to realize them or receive them, but in every case, there was somebody on the other side offering…either creating the conditions for me to achieve or acquire something, or quite simply handing it over. So this post is for astonishment, and for gratitude. And for wanting to be worth all of these offerings, to offer as much back.

Tomorrow I’m taking to the road with seven other adventurers to spend a week and a half looking at our minds and living with each other while doing so. Practicing focus, practicing kindness. It’s part of this road of learning how to care for others (and me too!). It also means a bit radio silence in this little corner of the internet for anyone keeping track. But don’t worry, I’ll be back. Your readership is a gift and I’m grateful to show up for it.

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I Used To Wish I Could Live In A Castle

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Light the hall with braziers, wear only dancing shoes, and parade a thousand dresses with patterns to outdo the wallpaper.

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I used to wish for banquets and balls. Sunken gardens and painting studios aglow with northern light. Woods to get lost in on horseback, libraries with shelves so tall that ladders glide along their lengths. I used to wish for long set tables and the sound of horse-drawn carriages on cobblestones. Long rows of cabbages and carrots, the gentle cluck of hens. Simmering pots over open fires and the click of silverware near smiling faces. Four poster beds and feather pillows.

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Castles were color; prosperity; joy.

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This was, I guess, before I knew that in their day, castles’ abundance came at the expense of starving peasants. That their inhabitants bathed but once a year. That many died of lead poisoning for the vanity of their powdered faces. That artists lived in hovels uncared for by their patrons and the northern light of upstairs rooms was reserved for the embroidery to which women were restricted.

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Not so awesome, actually.

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The life of castles was one of luxury and abandon, for the most part. A fire that burns bright and then goes out. What became of all the knights and ladies? Probably not much I’d care to follow.

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And yet, there’s still something about those windows over the river. All that golden light, so much imagined laughter.

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I guess I would still take one, if you offered. Is the heating bill included?

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We could make something of castle, put its sturdy old beauty to good use.

We could fill a castle with little round cushions and people seated cross-legged. Maybe put Nagarjuna next to Maupassant along the library walls. Switch out the Sun King for Buddha Shakyamuni. It could be fun.

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Not that we really need castles for the good work of the path. We can do it anywhere. It’s just a memory I have, even if a bit misplaced. Castles were togetherness and safety. Now they’re just museums, but the imagery remains. And I can’t help asking…

Is a banquet or a ball entirely frivolous, or can we still don dancing shoes from time to time, on the road out of samsara?

City Of Lights Redux

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I’m in Paris with my mums. Just a five day visit before bringing her down to the Dordogne to meet my French BuBu family and show her what her kid has been up to in the forest of Southern France.

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We’re basically having a blast, doing all the things we both want to do in one of the cultural and culinary capitals of the world. We went to a cooking class to discover the secrets of authentic macarons (spoiler: Italian and not French meringue is the base of the cookie batter), saw a concert in the famed Sainte Chappelle, ate a crepe on the banks of the Seine, and hit up the two best pastry shops in town (Pierre Hermé and Pain de Sucre if you’re looking for tips on culinary couture).

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We did a double doozy of retrospectives at the Grand Palais: Japanese printmaker Hokusai and seminal Franco-American feminist Niki de Saint Phalle. Both shows are rich and varied catalogues of the artistic evolution of their subjects, though visiting both in one afternoon is not for the faint of heart.

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We’ve been rambling the old stone streets, window-shopping the contemporary glamour, and fine-fooding our way through this renowned metropolis. Somehow, it’s not quite the city I remember. I remember Paris as a cold city, rich with color, but difficult to unlock.

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I lived here—if you can call taking the metro in from the burbs every day for three months living in a place—briefly as a teenager. It was my first real move away from home, and all of the history and magnificence seemed to be holding secrets of truth just beyond my reach. Coming back now, I still see how the city is marked by a history of great minds, cultural crossroads, and several hundred years of wealth and artistic genius. It is nothing if not beautiful.

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And I revel in its beauty. Everything from architecture to enterprise is aesthetic, and within it all are new ideas explored and old legacies conserved. The people themselves are works of art: their dress, their carriage, their language, their regard. The whole thing is a regale. And it is no longer a mystery.

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I used to ache for a lucidity of which I found traces in art and beauty. Flashes of self-awareness and awareness of the nature of things. I strove to find the answers to the why and how of being human in such places, and I scoured books and paintings, music, haute couture, gastronomy, all manner of creation for such gems of understanding. I found a lot. Snippets of wisdom sprinkled amidst a vast ocean of creation.

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But most of all I found expressions of the deep yearning of humankind to understand itself. Amongst creators I have always felt that I am with my own people. Those who believe that the suffering and the joy of life have meaning, that as humans we can elevate ourselves, and that it is not futile to search for this meaning and the means to realize it. This is the work of artists in my eyes.

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In the years since I left Paris and my teenaged self behind, the teachings of the Buddha have come to describe this path for me, and to respond to its questions. I no longer cling to art as the salvation to my waywardness, and I’ve learned that clinging in general is not so much a useful approach to life. I have the freedom to not like a lot of art, and even to be bored by it. I have the cognizance to realize that all beauty is not well intentioned or elevating.

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Paris no longer seems to me an inaccessible monument to human understanding, but a place like other places in the world, where people live and strive and suffer and achieve and die and take birth to do it all some more. And though the mystery has rubbed off, I can admit, I like this place. There is, after all, a certain comfort in being surrounded by both art and beauty, and in rubbing shoulders with so many humans who are seeking to perfect their own potential in the ways that they know how.

Thanks for the encouragement, Pah-reee…