This Is A Place Of Practice

IMG_2554

“C’était bien passé?”

People ask this question all the time: it went well? Most of the time I say yes. Sometimes I say definitively no. And periodically, I take the time to truly reflect and express the infinite shades of possibility between the one and the other. Having just returned from a week of retreat and facing this query frequently, I can safely say the experience engenders the latter.

IMG_2595 IMG_2611 IMG_2604

It went like this.

Bowled over by beauty and the strength of this place of practice. Equally bowled over by the strength of my own mind, both to accept its own nature and to flee in a frenzy from said nature. I’m no expert on the nature of mind, but the Buddha and his disciples said a few things about it, and the ones that stick out to me lately are these:

“The nature of the mind is clarity.”

“The nature of the mind is creativity.”

IMG_2671 IMG_2651 IMG_2626

At times my mind feels spacious, and I rejoice in the tranquility. At times my mind feels spacious, and I recoil from the openness, unsure what to do with all the empty space. At times my mind is active, and I revel in its dynamism without holding tight to what insights arise. At times my mind is active, and I flutter frantically through my thoughts, trying to gather them all before they pass, as a mouse gathers straw for warmth before the winter. At times I am wonderstruck by where I am in this journey, and at times I am desolate with my own limitations.

IMG_2650 IMG_2652 IMG_2640

To me, being well means being conscious, neither holding on when what we see is hopeful, nor minding overmuch when it is less than comfortable. I have experienced meditation retreats utterly replete with marvel and exhilaration. This trip was steadier, in some ways harder, but more clear. And not entirely lacking for marvel, either (ahem, the pictures…). It went well.

IMG_2712 IMG_2701 IMG_2704 IMG_2676

And whatever wisdom arises, be it blissful or blindsiding, there’s always beauty to carry the day. The power of this place and the devotion of those who have wrought it, whose dedication permeates every stroke of paint in the nearly-finished temple, every stick of bamboo by the koi pond, which rolls in waves over the gate from the cloisters of long-term retreat—this wells confidence in what we can uncover through practice: our own untarnished wisdom, for the benefit of all beings.

IMG_2681

Advertisements

Turning Back The Clock

IMG_2370

Last night most of the Western world gained an hour’s sleep. I woke to chatter of birds rather than the subtle sound of early morning darkness. I woke rested, which I needed, and spent most of the morning working on a new drawing. I haven’t made time for art in the last couple weeks and the simple fact of curling into my corner chair and spreading colored pencils across the teeny expanse of my desk (a scrap of chip board nailed to the wall of my caravan) felt nourishing in ways I can’t explain.

IMG_2382

This is a strange phenomenon I often undergo. An inability to devote time to things that support clarity of mind when I don’t understand what their purpose is other than that and when I don’t understand what it is about them that centers me. Like meandering walks in the woods and through the micro-villages speckled across our nearby hillsides. Until last Wednesday, I hadn’t taken a walk just to walk in months. Rambling amongst the old stone houses and mossy rocks, I let go of tensions and expectations I hadn’t even realized I was holding onto.

IMG_2386

Often in the Buddhist world, we talk about how the goal of meditation practice is not “peace.” It is the ability to rest with the nature of mind–be it calm, be it tempestuous, or be it otherwise. Because I’m not totally sure whether certain things fall into the “peace” category or the “nature of mind” category, I often hesitate to devote time to them, fearing I could be using my hours more wisely.

In one of my classes this week, we talked about the simple (but generally ignored in the daily unfolding of life) fact that death can arrive at any moment. It was a bit like the Buddhist version of the first time I heard the statistic about how many people die in car crashes every day, and all of a sudden I realized, “That could be me. Now.” It is easy to forget, it almost seems necessary to forget, in the moment-to-moment activity of being a person.

IMG_2385 And yet, when I forget this fact, I wind up trying to hold on to everything. All the information I might need in a day. All the tasks I could accomplish. All the wisdom I could develop. To forget that I can die, that I will die, that I might die today, is to believe that, instead of dying, I might be able to hang on to all of my interests, all of my dreams, and all of my desires with no end in sight. Which is heavy, that.

Which leads me to a place where–even when I am engaged in an activity that clearly counts as “productive,” like studying or working on planning for the kitchen–in my head I’m all over the place, trying to keep track of a million things at once, and often devoting half of my energy to agonizing over the fact that I might be failing to do so accurately.

IMG_2381

Sometimes, rationalizing what is good and why is not helpful. Sometimes, it’s just a trap, a way to keep running in circles, feeling like we are getting somewhere because we can’t see that the course only loops back on itself. Sometimes, our belief in the future becomes a reliance on the future, which then becomes a habit of putting aside activities that ground us in the present because we don’t know what value they purport for said imagined future.

It bothers me that I don’t know what art is for. It bother me that I can die, that I will die, that I might die today. And it also bothers me that I don’t really know how to integrate that information into the business of living. But since I can’t turn back the clock more than one hour a year, it seems the best approach is just to keep working on it for the time that I’ve got.

The Conditions For Blessing, Like Sweet And Savory Pumpkin Seed Brittle

IMG_2365

We’re learning a new practice. Compassion practice, but of a particular nature. Designed to be done together, done extensively and done in repetition over several days. We flipped from hours of organization to hours of spiritual apprenticeship. It’s a rich transition.

IMG_2356

During tonight’s study session of the text, Lama Puntso nut-shelled our objective like this,

“What allows us to receive blessing? It is the opening of the heart .”

For us, as Tibetan Buddhists, there are prayers, there are offerings, there are drums and candles and mantras recited many times and times again. There is the sense, the history, and the community of this practice. It is the story in its integrity that works. To take the enlightenment of the Buddha as example and train ourselves in the same nature, that of wisdom and understanding.

IMG_2340

It’s a complex story, but one that works. I have seen it in myself and in those around me. There is kindness here, and understanding that grows and grows. And at its base is this: to learn to see clearly and to open. Which is what blessing is after all, a connection with our own nature, which is fundamentally clear and open, just currently a bit confused.

IMG_2364

One of the fundamental tenets of Tibetan Buddhist practice is generosity. In that spirit, all ceremonies include offerings and one of the general propositions for life is to train ourselves to dedicate every experience of well-being for the benefit of all.

This pumpkin seed brittle is made for that. The spices are subtle; they add a richness, a mysterious depth that beguiles without inspiring thoughts about curry or the like. The salt balances perfectly the caramel and the totality of crunchy complex flavor engenders the wish to share with others and spread the goodness around, as far and wide as we can imagine. It will be on the offering plates in the temple tomorrow and is well worth putting on your plate too. Continue reading

Harvest Time and Blackberry Port Jam

IMG_1969

I grew up dreaming of rural life. I read Little House on the Prairie and dreamed about making hay and picking apples.

IMG_2227I studied agriculture, farmed for a couple years, and picked a lot of prickly pears one September in Arizona. But in the end, I decided I was not a farmer, and maybe I had better stick to the kitchen. Which is still mostly where I consider my domain. But, I have to say, the last month has rekindled my love of all things homestead-oriented.

IMG_2154You see, in the Dordogne, it rains all the time. And things just grow. Apples and grapes and peaches and blackberries and even hazelnuts and sunflower seeds and mushrooms that cost twenty bucks a pound at home if you’re lucky enough to find ’em. Cêpes and chanterelles and amanitas de cesar, if you’re wondering what all is the in the fruit crate up there. Magic, in other words. Edible magic.

IMG_2118All I have to do is go outside with a bucket or a basket or a brown paper bag. Bounty, my friends. It sets my head spinning. In the best way. And I get to feel agricultural without doing all the hard work of planting things and picking weeds and such. It’s a good deal.

IMG_1989This blackberry jam is my go-to grown-up preserve. You can eat it on toast with butter, but it is divine for more adventurous culinary uses. Excellent in salad dressing for a hearty green, sandwiched between two halves of a linzer cookie, or, my personal favorite, an almond butter, bacon, and jam sandwich on grilled ciabatta. Don’t even ask questions. Just do it.

Recipe follows…

Continue reading

The Best And The Worst And Cinnamon Walnut Meringues

IMG_1993

Recently, I have been spending my life in the kitchen. There has been lemon meringue pie, cheesecake, blackberry jam, peach galette, and these, the best of the bunch by far: cinnamon walnut meringues, with a hint of molasses. I generally think of meringues as sophisticated, highbrow food. Absurd yet adorable meringue mushrooms on Yule log cakes or dainty piped florettes in pastel colors. But these, these are homey in a deep way. The warmth of cinnamon and molasses, the earthiness of walnuts…yes. I think there’s something deeply nostalgic about molasses and cinnamon for Americans. I sink into wordless bliss when I bite into one of these.

IMG_2005

To me, that’s the best thing about food. That it can nourish our hearts, as well as our bodies, that it can tie us together and bring us back to ourselves when we wander astray. I put a basket of these guys in the community room and when I came back later, there was a note, rhapsodizing the joy this little meringue brought to some one’s afternoon, at just the moment when she really needed the culinary equivalent of a hug.

This is why I bake. This is why I cook. This is why I spend hours of my life reading and plotting and experimenting around food.

But it’s not the only reason. I wish it were the only reason.

The other reason is because often I can’t not. Because thinking about food is so natural and so much simpler than so many other things in life that it’s actually a problem sometimes. Let me explain.

IMG_1992

It goes like this: Important project in the back of my mind that should probably be accomplished sooner rather than later? But there’s blackberries that need to be harvested and turned into jam or they’ll go to waste! Painting stuck in a tough spot waiting to be resolved? Those egg whites have been sitting in the fridge for more than a week–it’s now or never. Anything at all remotely distressing or uncertain? Time to bake a cake, feel productive, be commended by lots of happy people eating that cake, and leave any worries for another day.

IMG_1997

This is the worst thing about food. That I use it as a distraction from addressing uncertainties, when I actually feel better if I just face up to them. And often, in the stress that goes along with ignoring important business, I wind up consuming a lot more of all such baked goods than I would if I were willing to listen and pay attention to my own needs and questions. You can’t blot out the natural changes of life or the inquietude that goes with those, even the good changes, but you can give yourself an awful stomach ache trying. Take my word for it.

A fortunate fact about meringues is that they’re mostly air, so even if you panic eat six or seven, you mostly end up with a sugar head ache and a renewed conviction to approach both the baking cupboard and your worries more mindfully.

Recipe follows…

Continue reading

To Stay And To Go

IMG_1920

It is morning. I am sitting next to Lama at the Lama House. He is slurping tea with godspeed…and now he’s out the door. Presumable to the temple, to practice. Amen.

IMG_1898

I am sitting at the Lama House by myself, listening to music written by a friend across the world (this makes me cry–listen!), and thinking about movement. In slightly variable ways. For instance: As humans, we go places. Three weeks ago, my guitarist friend was sitting next to me with his own bowl of French muesli. Now he’s in LA, maybe eating Pop Tarts while waiting for a visa to India. It is bizarre how we can traverse the Earth these days. It is also natural to move with changing times and seasons and necessities. Weather moves. Animals move. We move.

IMG_1904

Also, though, we sometimes decide not to go places. Sometimes, staying put is a new form of movement.

I am the closest I have ever been the Venice Biennale, one of the largest and easily the most esteemed curated art fair in the world. And I’m not going. I thought a lot about it, and talked it over with friends and teachers to double check my decision making.

I used to daydream about the Biennale. When I was a teenager, Ed Ruscha covered an entire room in chocolate wallpaper for his exposition. The decadence! The cultural commentary! The rush of creation and dialogue! I wanted in. Not to mention the canals and cappuccinos and cobblestoned streets under autumn skies.

IMG_1925

Those things still interest me. They still seem lovely and rich. But actually, they seem like luxuries. And lately, my heart wants home and simple and stability. Luxury sounds…like something that would be pleasant to save for another day. I used to chase adventure and newness and things outside to shift what is inside of me. Today, it seems right stay put and let what’s inside shift in its own time.

Specters and Fresh Starts

IMG_1946

Yesterday, I took down what remained of this summer’s art installation. It wasn’t much. The paintings had been sold during the few days of the inauguration, so they were gone. The sculptures had apparently started to wilt in the humidity of the Dordogne, so they were gone. I found them clustered together behind the structure like a group of bewildered veterans. Halfway through July, there was a course held that needed to use part of the space, so the fundraising team opened up the installation space by removing half of the paper enclosure. Suffice to say, that was gone.

IMG_1945

I apologize if I sound a bit hard. I don’t mind that art gets old and changes. Yes, there is something bewildering in the fact that a once-dynamic, giving creation can become a pile of rubble. But that’s impermanence for you. And the experiences that people had while the space was complete, and that which the paintings still bring to those who have them now…that goes on for a while.

IMG_1949

Art is about communication, about sharing and creating space for all types of experience and perception. One thing I have left from the exhibition is a beautiful, fat stack of wishes and positive aspirations written by strangers and friends who passed through and felt moved to share.

IMG_1953

I think what’s strange, what gives me pause, is looking at a work of art that, it seems to me, no longer functions. As I was popping the last, tangled paper boxes off their fishing wires, some one came by to ask what I thought of the space opened up. It’s still beautiful, he said. I suppose he’s right. But to me it looks like a ghost. I’d rather it be gone, than lingering half-made. Incomplete work bothers me. Maybe because it reminds of what I could and feel I should be completing. Expired art says, “And what now?”

IMG_1961

Maybe something like this now.

Honey Rosemary Cakeletes and A Happy Head Trip

hi

I got new glasses. So I’m a hipster. So shoot me. But first, let’s have a chat about personality. Then you can see how you feel.

A friend of mine told me yesterday that he was surprised by the amount of sadness I express here in my writing, as opposed to how joyful he finds me in life. I thought two things, mainly.

1) Sadness is important to me. It animates a great deal of my creative work. I often observe sadness as the stigmatized stepchild of emotions: portrayed as being for the weak, the sensitive, the mentally ill, even. Thanks world. And yet, whenever we turn this stigma on others, we turn it ever more fiercely upon ourselves. This is not a good system.

Despite this, for my part, I have also discovered that sadness can be a form of wisdom. My own wistfulness reminds me that life is impermanent, that loss is inevitable, and that we are all living within this truth. The ache of being human pushes me to continue striving towards greater kindness and understanding, because this is a hard truth and these are the best tools I have found to soften the hardship therein. Thus the frequent appearance of said sadness in these pages, if we can stretch that ancient lexicon to this new media.

IMG_0645

2) My own perception of myself is enormously limited. I think of myself as winsome, moody, occasionally charismatic, witty in the right company, and (more than) a little bizarre. Yesterday I got called “effervescent.” Wait, what, me?

I suppose this is not new news, but I’m tripping out over here, guys. Personality, man, it’s just…kind of made up. But it also works. I bought these glasses because I like feeling like a retro nerd. I’ve been wanting to write more, and these glasses make me feel like the awkward but charming protagonist of an eighties movie. You know, the girl with the crew neck sweatshirt and full-waisted skirt who spends way too much time in the library. I want to be that girl, except that instead of discovering that Jake Ryan loves me too I want to discover my literary voice.

IMG_0652

And the glasses actually help. But at the same time, though I have my own ideas about who I am, and what my glasses add to that, it’s totally based on my own personal narrative, as is all of my personality. My personality, according to me, is how I think of myself. I know that sounds annoyingly cyclical, but think about it. Every person I interact with has their own experience and opinion of me (do you really think I’m a hipster, still? …Oh well.).  Each opinion is not more or less valid than my own; I just encounter it less frequently.

In a way, my experience of myself is like that of any stranger’s on the street: an opinion formed based on a given number of interactions and a preexisting history. Sure, it’s my history, but that’s a technicality. I think this is kind of the greatest thing. Me suddenly seems so fluid. And exciting. I can rediscover myself in new ways with every person with whom I interact. Suddenly this me I’ve been lugging around all these years feels dynamic.

How bout that?

Do I sound sad today, huh? I’m all zippy and giddy! Let’s make cake. That’s still my response to pretty much everything. Some things don’t change. But hey, you never know.

IMG_0651

This cake teeters between proper cake and decadent muffin territory. It’s more elegant than your average muffin, so I’m calling it cake, despite its frosting-less nature. You can decide for yourself. All you really need to know is that it is spongey and moist and perfumed with honey and rosemary. This is a tactile cake: in your hands as you peel back the paper wrapper; in your mouth as you sink teeth into chewy goodness; against your tongue as you savor herbal, tangy sweetness. Also, it’s absurdly easy to make. Being an oil and buttermilk cake, it requires no softening or creaming of butter. Just measuring and mixing. You can make it even if you don’t have buttermilk, by mixing half a cup of regular milk with half a teaspoon of your favorite vinegar. Caaaake! Do it.

Recipe follows…

Continue reading

The Beautiful Things (Hearty Cornbread Among Them)

IMG_0708

This is the city at night, a strip of fireflies in the darkness. The blackness of the ocean beyond, and the blackness of mountains before. I’ve been getting my mountain time in lately, soaking up the chaparral and smell of sandstone mingled with oak leaves.

IMG_0700My mom and I had dinner with an old friend on Friday. He took us to the El Encanto, a fancy old hotel recently reopened after years of renovation. The waitresses sported gray, tailored cocktail dresses and the menu erred toward molecular gastronomy. We ate on the terrace, looking into the hillside. Mountain time. The silhouette of eucalyptus trees always makes me gasp, even if they are damned invasive.

Wally is an old-school business man who sold the family business into what he thought were good hands and watched it dwindle to nothing. He is eighty-seven; he calls himself a bachelor and then says, “a widower, I suppose, but I don’t like the sound of that.” When I ask him how he is spending his days, he tells me, “I don’t get out much. There isn’t a cure for the sort of malaise I’ve got.”

rosecandleSomewhere between the valet parking, the swirls of French butter, and the sound of the word malaise, I got the sense that I’d fallen into The Great Gatsby. My friend is perhaps the gentleman Jay Gatsby would have lived to be if he had learned to love less recklessly.

Wally says, “I only ever got really loaded once in my life: the night I got out of the army.” He asks me, “Do you know what they call a quantity of champagne?” I ponder, “…a Magnum!” He chuckles, “That’s just a little one. They go up and up. There’s a Methuselah and a Salma, Salma-something, and a Balthazar, and anyway, it was the biggest one.” A Nebuchadnezzar. Fifteen liters. I looked it up. He says, “There were twelve of us. We drank the whole thing between us. I remember coming home with that giant bottle of champagne. Well, it was empty by then. I don’t remember how I got home, but I remember arriving at home with that bottle.”

So perhaps not Gatsby in his drinking habits, but at least a bit in his lavishness and loneliness. He gives me a hundred dollar bill in a tiny envelope and a vintage Instamatic camera for my journey. I give him a kiss on the cheek and a promise to write him about where the hundred dollars goes.

IMG_0697

As I pass through my days lately, the moments kaleidoscope together. Books I have read, people I have loved, trails I have walked, meals I have shared, cities I have known. My life has been rife with beauty. Positively teeming with it. And yet, wending throughout, there is the reedy melody of sadness. The purple whisper of a violin always in the back of my mind.

I don’t call mine malaise–wistfulness usually, or nostalgia–but the word feels familiar. I look at my friend, his tall back tilted over, his hands shaking despite his strength. I may have the camera now, and the places to take pictures of, but we are no different. We hearken to the places that feel like home, whether it’s a foreign country or a favorite restaurant. We mourn the loss of all the humans and hours that have passed in all such places, which we will see no more again. Then we take our sadness, and set it to one side, and carry on living. Carry on making more beautiful things for which we will surely mourn when they are past, but which, for now, hold our hearts in place.

IMG_0698

Bread is a beautiful thing. It is simple and humble and can be shared. It brings a lot of joy, but the loss when it is finished is not so great; it’s easy to make more. This one is homey and earthy, made with a mix of grains and just a skosh of molasses for depth. I whip up a mini batch for days when I’m in the mood for multi-grain bread but don’t want a whole giant loaf. Being a quickbread, this is more fragile than yeasted dough, but I find it’s still a great sub for sandwich bread, especially toasted, open face.

sliced

Recipe follows…

Continue reading

Five Days Later

IMG_0672

It is painted. And on the wall. With friends!

IMG_0693There’s something about making wishes that works.

Since I came back to town, I’d pretty consistently think, “Dang, the art scene here is pretty dynamic and burgeoning. It would be so cool if I could be involved in that in some way while I’m in town.” Bang. One Facebook chat away–the chance to reconnect with old friends, make new friends, and make art.

I find it truly awe-inspiring each time a person or opportunity finds me from out of the ether to invite me to make art. Perhaps we artists have a tendency to feel disowned by society; I certainly do. Too much talk of “artists on the fringe” when I was young or some such thing. For this reason, I am continually stunned to discover, as my work and career progress, that, actually, the world wants creators. There is space for us and a place for us and appreciation for what we do. Magical mysteries, these. I am grateful.