Quotable Tuesdays

QT-roethke

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My Hair And Other Topics: Change Through Appearance

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About my hair…I have a lot less of it now. If you’ve known me for a while, you know my hair means a lot to me. More as a tool than a vanity thing, though vanity, of course, plays a part. My hair is one of the main ways I process transitions in my life, those moments when I need to change something on the inside, and the easiest way to set things in motion is by making it show on the outside. When the change is visible, I’m more committed.

I’ve worked my way through everything from bicced bald to butt-length tresses. Dreadlocks and numerous shades of purple, pink, and red have also made appearances. After I shaved my head in 2008, I waited three-and-a-half years to feel like “myself” again because at that point in time me had uber-long, fairy-who-wandered-out-of-the-forest hair. I needed it. Those long locks helped me feel like things I needed to show were visible: that the world is too much sometimes, that though I am trying to get by in normal reality, daydreaming comes easier, that I’m definitely a bit bizarre and also probably more sensitive than average, that I believe in magic, and if you give me the chance, maybe I’ll enchant you.

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(Ahem…apologies to all the people I cropped out for this vanity project. Thanks to all the people who took these pics…Di, Reubs, Bettina, Tay, and thanks extra to my sis for being uncroppable). Anyway…

I lived a lot of years with all that hair or without it but feeling like it was a part of me. I don’t think it’s fair to be categorical about what it all meant, but in the process that led to cutting my hair, a few specific things about what it signified for me kept coming up. So we go from there. When I had long hair, I always felt that people were more inclined to take care of me. Maybe it has an element of little girl-ness to it. My long hair always made me feel a little like a princess from one of my childhood storybooks (they did pretty much all have seriously long locks). I got to be the main character and enchanting and the one you root for and all that, but, in the end, somebody else saves the day, and I just get to ride away on the white horse.

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Maybe this makes me sound more helpless or hapless than I probably am or hope to be, but in the background, I can’t help fighting the outer circumstances that make life hard. Yeah, I want to be a good person, and help others, and develop on the path, but there’s always this part of me fighting what is. Impermanence is such a bitch; it hurts, deep. I have always maintained the part of me that holds on to things I cannot keep. I recognize myself in what is beautiful, not necessarily because I am, though who knows, depends on the day–but because that is what seems good and right to me. I have been told and I have repeated that romantic nostalgia is my primary emotion. I have always been attached to feeling deeply, having big emotions, expressing them, and having them recognized.

So much of my identity as an artist up until recently was about this. So much anguish, but beautiful anguish. If you read enough of these blog archives, you will find certain recurring terms. Keening over moors, wailing like a banshee, feeling small and sorrowful, untamed.

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This is a choice I have always made about how to relate to the world: feeling like I don’t belong to it. Which, in a way, is a rebellion against the fact that its rules apply to me. This is the plot conceit in literature referred to as “man versus nature,” though in this case it’s more “girl versus the nature of reality.” It’s a good story. It’s compelling, with lots of juicy struggle.

But it’s also tiring. All of its resolutions depend on waiting for people and circumstances other than myself to change. Its rich, emotive drama is never-ending. And I…don’t want that anymore.

I think—I’m okay with not being so damn special. I’m okay with not having some kind of magical distance from the gritty, boring, real world, with not always being protected by my paintbrushes and poetry, my big emotions and ready tears, and my wave of a wall of long, long hair. I’m okay with everything I experience not being colored by some kind of profound, sweeping meaningfulness. I’m okay with just doing the hard work, dealing with mundane shit, and looking like a total ass because investing in anything and standing for it—people, projects, ideas—means giving everyone around you the opportunity to disagree with you and judge you. I’m okay with letting reality apply to me.

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Accepting that I am part of this reality seems like a necessary prerequisite for understanding it. And that’s the proposition, isn’t it? Accept the situation. Understand its roots. Realize that it is not permanent. Get free.

And in real terms, that means getting my shit in order and prioritizing. Is it more important to me to protect my vision of myself and the vision that others have of me or is it more important to let others see all of my weaknesses, biases, and failures, so that I can a) grow out of them, and b) get over the importance of myself and how I appear to others? Especially if maintaining this complex system of veils and appearances takes hours of my life that could otherwise be spent on…getting actual things done: anything—reading transcripts, having conversations, doing prostrations, ironing the Lama House couch covers, writing all this perplexing nonsense out for myself, so that I can make sense of it and also share it with you guys.

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And so. I cut my hair. And frankly, I’m thrilled. I still shed in the shower and I still sort of have to do my hair in the morning if I sleep on it too funny. But it’s sooo much easier. I feel it inside as much as outside. Yeah, I know. It’s just a step. I still probably spend the greater part of my time defending my sense of self and keeping up appearances, but at least I can (um…sometimes) admit that I’m doing it, and I have the inner conviction that comes from deciding I don’t want to keep digging myself into this same hole.

That conviction gives me a second of pause before I react when I feel threatened, or, when it’s too late for that, it gives me the perspective to realize when I’ve acted out of fear and self-preservation rather than looking at a situation as a whole. It also seems to slow down the falling-into-depression business because I’m committing to failure as part of the path instead of feeling like I have no power over it and am thus doomed. So that’s something.

Coincidence…or not? This week is Losar. The Lunar New Year. Six days of wrathful protector practice, two ritual fire offerings, the raising of new prayer flags on the hill, and the installation of a golden Kalachakra in front of the Institute, a symbol that represents the Buddha’s teaching across the three times, through the universe and through our own body. It is an auspicious time for change.

May our aspirations be granted—not by somebody else, but by ourselves, because we are committed to realizing them.

Quotable Tuesdays

QT-Virginia

From the original 1897 New York Sun editorial, “Yes Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus.” Read it; it’s magic.

Dharma Doodles, Real Words, And Blueberry Chèvre Salad

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Pre-study session whiteboard doodles. “When we take to the road, we don’t know where we will wind up in the end.” Walking the Buddhist path, the goal is to wind up enlightened. In order to do that, I have to understand where I am now, as this allows me to choose the road that leads from here to there. My life is a constant ping-pong between developing an understanding of what enlightenment means and developing an understanding of myself. I wanna connect the right dots, you know?

Yesterday my friend Katya and I presented a segment of The Jewel Ornament of Liberation in the main hall of the Institute.  Gampopa wrote the text in the eleventh century, and it describes the path to enlightenment in logical, step-by-step detail. Gampopa wrote it based on his own experience of realizing enlightement. Thus, what he described was not an abstract philosophical treatise, but something more along the lines of his field notes. “Go left at Bodhi tree to find spiritual master. Pause for homage to Three Jewels.”

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I, as it happens, have not attained enlightenment. Presenting this text put me face-to-face with my actual experience of the world in relation to the experience I aspire to embody. I can say the words. I did my best to say them clearly and with a touch of humor to keep things lively. I can grasp that old age is painful and death is frightening. I can even cogitate that we will all experience these difficulties and thus, we are all in this together. Better to care for each other than go it alone, in other words. But I don’t know it in my bones, not really.

You want to know what surprised me the most about presenting a teaching for which I have the utmost respect and which I feel ill-prepared to truly transmit? Rather than dragging me down, the enormity of the gulf between my understanding and my aspiration became an anchor. Crossing this gap is why I am here. If I want to get where I am going, I have to start somewhere. And the only place I can start is where I am. So here we go.

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I’ll choke on a French word or two, talk a little too fast, and my answer to most questions will be that I don’t know, because I don’t, and that’s perfect.

In the meantime, people keep having birthdays, so I highly recommend this pineapple upside-down cake from Epicurious. And for my birthday, some one gave me organic dried blueberries, which turned into a Perigord-inspired (minus the duck confit, but I guess you could add that if you had the fancy) salad of endive, walnut, aged goat cheese, fresh pear and dried blueberries. Tossed with walnut oil, lemon juice, and a smattering of fresh parsley, it proves both that I live in an awesome region and that I am capable of making food other than cake. I encourage you to give it a go. If you also live in a place where you can find local walnuts and goat cheese, A+.

Precious Human Body And Apple Jelly Spirals

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Rain is trammeling down the twilight. The drops form a shower of diamonds in the blue-grey light of evening. I am sitting under the gentle parabola that caps the Institute and listening to two brave souls from this winter’s study retreat on The Jewel Ornament of Liberation recap the explanations on the precious human body. This body is precious because it is difficult to obtain.  Precious because it is easy to lose. Precious, for, once obtained, it travels unerringly towards its end. This body allows us to reflect on our suffering, to act to alleviate it, and to aid others with their suffering as we develop understanding through such reflection.

Let’s say the suffering of beings is like a vast desert of cracked earth (me talking now, not Gampopa). Then I suppose compassion and the just action that unfolds therein is the nourishing rain which allows the tender shoots of wellbeing and clarity to set forth their first leaves and all that follows. In the face of such immensity, at times I feel like a single drop of water destined to evaporate upon immediate impact with the steaming heat of so much anguish.

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Perhaps this is melodramatic. Also, perhaps–from another point of view–this is the answer. For though we experience our selves and our lives and all of our manifest suffering, this experience is also illusory. We are not formed and fixed as we believe ourselves to be. Our suffering is subject to change, as our self is subject to change. As a drop of water is wont to evaporate and the most parched earth is blown away by a gentle wind, so our suffering may be soothed, if we awaken to its temporality. Change is kind. It feels cruel when we do not welcome it, but in fact, change can be a balm.

It’s a harsher form of change to accept that that this body will not last. But there’s work to be done in the meantime. Reflection to call the rain.

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For me, reflection pairs well with manual activity. This way, the benefit of beings gets accomplished not only through deepened understanding, but also through better afternoon snacks. Plus, this precious human body needs loving nourishment. Lately, the dining hall kitchen has taken to fielding me puff pastry scraps that can’t be reused for big group meals, and I’ve taken to turning them into tasty spirals to go with post-lunch coffee or tea. This is the perfect happy ending for all those homemade spinach triangle leftovers or times you needed a round sheet of puff pastry but could only find a square one.

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You can fill a puff pastry spiral with just about anything: nut butter or, duh, Nutella, sweetened cream cheese, good old-fashioned cinnamon-sugar. I chose to get a little ambitious here and make a batch of fresh apple preserves. It’s remarkably easy and totally ups the schmancy factor. You end up with a crispy, tender, gooey, sweet moment of worldly, impermanent, totally delicious happiness. (Bite me post-modern literary and grammar mores; I will use as many adjectives as I want to, and I nearly ended this sentence with a preposition.)

Recipe…

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