Today I am just happy.
When I look back at this week, it has been so full. Weekdays can barely be distinguished from weekends but somehow there is a balance amidst all the activity. Meetings beyond count. 20 hours and 800 lines of event budgeting. Driving lessons. Dinner out with friends. Time spent working with the construction team on the new kitchen; time spent constructing the plan for Karmapa’s visit with the kitchen team. The community mini-retreat that is our monthly morning of group practice. A talk with my sister; e-mails with my parents. The first of a series of community discussions about our Future, capital F and what we’d like to share about it with Karmapa when he comes.
No moment has lacked richness. I did so incredibly many productive things and somehow still had time to make this cake and have a cup of tea with friends this afternoon. I know my two a.m. budget finish line from last night will make me tired tomorrow, but mostly I’m stunned that I’m not already flat on my ass.
This same amount of busy-ness and activity in the past would have knocked me over. I’d have been sick and tired and grumpy as hell. I think partly I have learned how to do more, but also I have learned how to fret less. When I see a whole crap ton of things to do coming, I’m not immediately petrified that it is totally impossible for me to do them and thus not immediately incapacitated and totaly stressed throughout it all. From all of the doing that I’ve been doing at Dhagpo these last two years, I’ve developed some confidence that…I can accomplish things.
And that if I can’t, I can say so and find a way to work with that.
There’s also another aspect. Which is this place and its people. There’s something in the water, or the trees, or the history, or maybe something much less abstract than that. I think it’s what we call blessing. That often sounds so mystical, but Jigme Rinpoche is quick to remind us that blessing is anything but mystical. It’s practical.
As I grasp it, blessing works like this: understanding leads to change, and both understanding and change develop exponentially more with a group, and multi-exponentially more with a qualified guide who can point you in the right direction to help you refine your understanding.
At Dhagpo, we have all the pieces. We are blessed. Hard work becomes less hard because it is meaningful and shared, and what we normally think of as not-directly productive (ahem, lieeesure) becomes productive because it supports the bonds that help us work well together. Even cake is a practice when it is an offering.
And so, I’m both grateful to be able to and quite happy to offer you this springtime version of French spice cake. Like typical French pain d’épices, this cake is honey-rich and has a good dose of ginger. But unlike typical French pain d’épices this cake does not have the I-suppose-nostalgic-but-always-disappointing texture of cardboard. And it does have a touch of allspice for additional depth and a generous spread of sour cherry jam for that springtime boost. Moist, surprisingly light, and delightfully simple to make (No creaming butter! Yay for French baking techniques!), it’s perfect for a Sunday afternoon on the deck, or however you like.
So I mentioned that we’re redoing the Lama House kitchen…
Rinpoche told us the time was right, showed up with some gigantic windows to turn the terrace into an enclosed working space, the labor to install them, and a boatload of ideas for how to improve both interior and exterior. We went on a fieldtrip to the kitchen store and picked out cabinets and countertops. Rinpoche drove, vetoed my choice of kitchen sink, but validated the cupboard color. With the project manager, we sat down to figure out dates. When the sales lady told us delivery and installation occurs eight weeks after the order is placed, the project manager and I looked at each other and mouthed the words, “forget it.” After all, that puts us roughly ten days before Karmapa arrives. Ten days that will be very useful for cleaning up everything after installation, setting up all the event material, and you know, not having any margin for late delivery.
Rinpoche looked up from his own calculation and said, “I think it’s okay, then,” without the tiniest hint of irony. And so, here we go. While the inside kitchen is being fabricated over at the factory, the outside kitchen is being built right in place. We’ve got a skill saw in the garden, caution tape closing off the kitchen door, and sawdust everywhere.
The guys spend their days laying tile, fitting windows, and preparing for the installation of the counters. I come by occasionally to make aesthetic comments or organizational decisions, or, you know, to find out that nobody will be able to access the basement for two days and then to scramble to inform all the people who use the basement and to help them move whatever they might need in the next two days. No big though.
In return, I insisted that the countertops be eighty-eight centimeters high and definitely not ninety-one. We’re short around here! And I don’t want to have sore shoulders every summer for the next ten plus years from cutting vegetables above my means… As a result, they um, had to shave three centimeters off every single piece of wood for the counter supports, which they would not have had to do if I had accepted ninety-one centimeters. All’s fair in love and war and home renovation, right?
It’s a lesson in teamwork, in developing relationships through the process of creating something together, all the while figuring out how to communicate to get things done and be kind and joyful at the same time. These are pretty rad people to begin with, but the meaning makes a difference. Whatever we might be stressed about, annoyed about, or take personally, we let go, because we’re invested in a goal—get this kitchen in place, and properly, for Karmapa and before Karmapa arrives—and that goal trumps whatever a priori or emotions we might have at one moment or another.
Hopefully tomorrow we’ll be able to walk on the tile again, and we’ll just see what comes next after that!
I have decided that I need a tripod. The world captured in low light feels like my heart; it trembles but yearns to be seen clearly. Capturing those moments still that should be blurry but for the grace of a stable support: this is the use of a tripod in photography and of meditation in life. Such moments are the precipice where one yearns to feel, but the risk of being seen naked if we truly lay ourselves open still seems far too great. And so we stay in the shadows, where it’s safe, where the beauty of ambiguity cradles us with its ungraspable-ness. We hide amidst the blur. There is comfort in confusion. Sometimes I realize how much of me really doesn’t want to become enlightened. To see the illusion of all things. I like my things real. I like my cake decadent; I like my sorrow sharp; I like my joy effervescent. Well, I used to. Now, I still like my cake, but I resent that it makes my intestines sad. I still like my sorrow because it reminds me there are things I don’t understand, but I am mystified by how I can’t seem to turn its sharpness into an understanding that will change the way I act. I still like my joy, but it frightens me because I cling to it. After all, the only transition possible from temporary bliss is to something less than bliss, and it hurts every time. And yet this hurt hasn’t yet changed my vision so that I truly see the beautiful things in life as being as unreliable as they are. As just an essenceless apparition that will dissipate either now or later, unexpectedly or unwontedly. I asked Jigme Rinpoche about art again today. We were talking about the renovation of the Lama House kitchen, working out details of countertops and credenzas, and which direction the stove should face. It was all very concrete and pleasantly comprehensible. Since January I’ve had this bug in the back of my mind, from our last conversation about life, my life, when he told me, enthusiastically, that it was quite a good idea to be an artist. So I asked why, just there, amidst the sawdust and reflection over water filters.
“Rinpoche, when we talked in January, I had mentioned about wanting to be a professional artist.”
“You want be a professional artist?” He perked up, with what seemed like the same enthusiasm in January.
“Well, I used to. Since I’ve been here, I’ve more been focusing on other things. It’s more on the side now. But when we talked about it, you had said that this was not a bad idea, quite a good thing actually.”
“Because then you can bring to everything.” And he made a gathering motion. And I sort of framed my ideas around this sentence, trying to see how they fit, and what it all meant. And some notions came up, like how art is a way to turn all of life into a reflection, and one that can be shared. And how viewing the world through an artist’s eye means that one is always looking with some kind of perspective, rather than just being caught up in the experience. I wandered over the idea that maybe in Rinpoche’s view being an artist doesn’t actually mean one has to make things, but is much more about the way one looks at things and approaches things. I think I kind of short-circuited on this idea, and we pretty much had the above conversation verbatim a second time. I walked away nearly as unclear as before, but with the recognition that until I’m ready to make a commitment to artistry, the view or the act, I’m never going to be able to make very much sense of what Rinpoche says to me on the subject. I keep trying to give up on art. I keep trying to “let it go” and see if the urge abandons me. So far it hasn’t, but so far I’m also not willing to shoulder the responsibility of whatever Rinpoche was making reference to (what is that motion a gathering of?) and what I apparently refuse to see or clarify for myself. An artist who wants so badly to be an artist but is so unwilling to claim the role. A bit like a bodhisattva who wants to badly to be free and free others but is unwilling to renounce her shackles. When the day comes. You’ll be the first to know.
Okay, so, a mini-onslaught of camera experiments, as promised. The same picture (more-or-less) taken with different camera settings. As I’m being extremely scientific about the whole thing (ahem, not), I can’t precisely specify what settings yielded what pictures. For the moment, I’m just trying to get a feel for things.
The utter basics…like if I make the aperture small enough, I can take a picture in low daytime light that comes out almost back. I’ve spared you any of those. Also, that if I open the aperture and increase the shutter speed, I can get decent light even at night, but um…things get blurry real fast. I’ve subjected you to one of those.
I’ve been able to take passable photos of the candle offerings next to the stupa for the first time ever, and I’m overjoyed. This spot at Dhagpo is one of my prime comfort-seeking locales, and I envision a whole ton of candle pictures that are basically the same but ever-so-slightly different in our future.
I’ve stalked all over the Lama House searching for the best mid-morning light window. Does it figure that it appears to be the window just outside of Karmapa’s room?
As I play around with being behind the camera, the metaphoric nature of taking photographs becomes ever more evident. I used to think of a photograph as just a freeze frame of the immutable, physical world. But I stopped thinking of the world as immutable or objective a while ago now, and taking photographs only affirms that understanding. What the eye sees is not objective. The shots that we choose, how we frame them, tones, depth of field, angle. No two photographers would take the same picture, even of the same subject matter. Our images reveal our interests, our views, our bias even.
It’s funny, I think of myself as a big picture person, developed frontal lobe as the brain scientists would say. And yet I like taking pictures of small-things up close, like a way of becoming intimate with the details of the world. I seek out low light and warm light because they feel cradling and haunting. This last is not so easy in the Dordogne, and here I start to see my Californian-ness. I can deal with the cold in the winter, but the grey wears me down and I get lonesome for sunshine and frequent hugs and high fives.
Maybe this is what the camera is for though, I can’t help think. It is a way to talk to oneself, to say, “Ah yes, this is what my solitude looks like,” and make peace with that. This is my hope anyway, and where all my fumbling clicks and winding of the gears and geared toward taking me. Another tool on the path, you know?
In other notes, cake. This one I made for my friend Tokpa, one of my prime inspirations for finally daring to get behind the lens. He and his camera are leaving for Nepal tomorrow. His journey was originally planned to document the inauguration of Sherab Gyaltsen Rinpoche’s new monastery and the anniversary of Shamar Rinpoche’s passing away. When the earthquake hit, he decided to go anyway, to help fix up an orphanage run by friends and well, take pictures, because sometimes that’s what there is to do.
And so I made cake, because that’s what there is for me to do. A French pound cake, what they call a quatre quarts, or “four quarters,” because it’s one quarter butter, one quarter eggs, one quarter sugar, and one quarter flour. You’d hardly know it’s pound cake, as light as it is from whipping the eggs and sugar. I added a teaspoon of baking powder, but if you want a more typical pound cake texture, you can leave it out. I also browned the butter, for that special savory something, and threw in a chopped pear because leftovers and why not, and it was delicious. This cake is remarkably easy to put together and incredibly refined when finished. For the moments when words don’t suffice, but we still need something.