Three Months

 

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This is Will. William Mati Georges to be precise.

This is his first ever photo, taken by his papa perhaps an hour after his arrival. Welcome to the digital age, kiddo. He came into this world at 8:59 in the morning on November 16 of last year. He slid in after a cool four hours of labor, weighing seven pounds four ounces and measuring 19.7 inches.

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We spent his first four days at the hospital, as per French habit/regulation. His tiny arms and legs moved without intention and his little blue eyes opened rarely and only to stare out at the world as though being awoken was a mild disturbance. He cried mostly at night and his little bleating calls filled up my whole consciousness. My body ached from the business of bringing him out of it and into this world, but we walked circles and circles at two in the morning anyway until he finally fell asleep in my arms.

I learned to feed him and clothe him and bathe him and every step felt like learning the customs of a new culture. I felt like a refugee in a foreign land: disoriented, a little fearful, but infinitely grateful to be in this new place. Not that where I came from required fleeing, but it is certain that there’s no going back.

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There are joyful little milestones that slowly unfold him like a love note where each word reveals a great, new meaning. I see him starting to truly see the world. His little eyes, still blue, can focus now. His little hands can grasp. He can make lots of little noises to talk to me in between silence and screaming. He can smile, and he does, and often. He’s becoming more and more some one, more and more himself. I’m becoming more and more used to being some one’s mother and reveling ever more in being his.

We’re all different now because of Will. His sister is a sister now. His father has a son. And all together, we have him. He’s ours and we’re his as much as any of us can belong to each other in this life and in this world. I’ll tell you what. He’s a keeper.

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Family Practice

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Happy Boxing Day! Merry post-Christmas and Hanukkah. Joyful early New Year.

I spent the holiday with my love, and it was good. Our munchkin was with her mom, but we’ll do presents and the regular extravaganza when she comes back this way on Monday. It’s funny, everything still feels new to me…the whole deal with family life, where I wake up every morning and re-notice with surprise, “Oh, I’m not alone. There’s somebody/ies here next to me who care that I’m here who want to take care of me and want me to take care of them too.”

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I think it’s good for me, family life. Good for my pride. I no longer get to be the master of everything. We never really are in this life, but it’s an illusion I kept up when I lived alone. It hurts sometimes now, sticking my nose in my own self-centeredness, seeing how accustomed I am to making my choices and deciding my priorities precisely based on what I want, when I want, and how I have the habit of being patient and available exactly when I feel like it and not particularly the rest of the time.

There’s a sort of kindness necessary when facing these things, the ways in which we are not as awesome as we imagine ourselves when there’s no one there to reveal otherwise. I think this is part of the true value of people who love us. They lead us to care about them so much that we are willing to admit when we are at fault. And then they are gentle with us when we don’t know how to be gentle with ourselves, upon facing the fault in question.

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On a related note, it’s amazing what can happen when you put two such people in one place. Having been on my own the last few years, coupled with the fact of my parents still-kind-of-recent divorce and the various transitions that followed, my concept of family has gone through a rough transformation. It’s become something unstable rather than stabilizing, and often something imagined or remembered more often than experienced. Last month, though, I had the good fortune to get a revamp on the goodness of what family means.

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My mom came to visit and of course, she and my love met for the first time while she was here. For me, it was a little bit like worlds colliding. At the same time, it was weirdly natural. Maybe this is the connection that comes from caring about a same person, or maybe I just have the incredible luck to have a mom and a partner who click. Suffice to say, to my intense relief and even a bit to my surprise, they got on swimmingly.

I didn’t think they’d detest each other or anything, but I didn’t expect their meeting to create the all-inclusive warm fuzziness that it wound up making. This is the ephemeral but ever-wonderful feeling of family. It was like being a kid again, where I just felt safe and snuggly all the time. I guess that is the power of multiple people who love you in one place. I suppose I know by now that we can’t rely on such things or expect them to last, but holy crap. It was awesome. I hope everyone gets to feel like that sometimes. Especially during the holidays.

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In other notes, during my mom’s visit, we went to Auvergne, to visit the monastery for the coming-out of retreat for those who have just finished three-year retreat. A handful of courageous men and women come back to the rest of the world, either to continue where they left off, with the skills and knowledge acquired during their retreat, or to visit family and organize business before returning to the retreat centers for another three-year cycle of practice.

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This is Cedric, my love, sitting at his place in the temple, the same seat he took every day during one of his two long-term retreats. He gave my mom and I a fully guided tour of all the different centers. We joked about me making wishes for the center I’d like to wind up in one day, though of course I’ll go wherever Karmapa tells me to, if/when the time comes. My mom mentioned her relief upon discovering actual rooms inside actual buildings rather than somber stone chambers carved into the rock.

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Sometimes this life feels like a dream. I try to remind myself that it is. That even a long life passes in the blink of an eye when you reach its end. That the dreams we make for this life have their value so long as they keep us moving toward wakefulness. That the stresses we add are no more than dust in the wind; it’s enough to blink and they’ll wash away, so long as we don’t rub our eyes and scratch our poor hopeful eyeballs. That a life of practice is a sacred thing, and that it is through vigilance of our mind that we respect it.

And so, Happy Holidays y’all, from this foggy corner of my mind…er, the Dordogne. xx

Day 7: This Is Blessing

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So, this is pretty much it, Nepal. Today was the day where we did all the things.

We trundled through town at eight in the morning to Boudhanath Stupa, A white massive with a golden peak and glimmering eyes of wisdom on each of the four sides of its crest. We spun prayer wheel after prayer wheel, pausing only to make a donation to add to the blowing strands of prayer flags strung from the top of the stupa to its outer edges and to prostrate in the summer sun on the aged wooden planks laid out before the vast, luminous dome.

But of course practice must be balanced with forays into worldly life to check its effects, so we paused before lunch to do the shops. Dharma shopping isn’t much less exhausting than regular shopping in terms of choice and visual stimulus and decision-making, but it’s extra joyful because all of the objects are beautiful, sacred, and inspiring, and people tend to dharma shop for others more than for ourselves, which turns out much more gratifying.

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Favorite finds of the day include mottled green and pink stone beads for mala making, textured rice paper for cards, and a carved stamp with the symbol for the victory banner of the dharma, which I connect to because it’s my refuge name. I also might really like dharma shopping because it involves lots of stones and gems. I briefly wanted to be a lapidary as a kid, and though the career aspirations didn’t last, my fascination with mineral objects remains. I treated myself to the great pleasure of picking out a smoky topaz and a white opal to offer for the Buddha statue in Dhagpo’s Institute when it gets formally filled later this year.

I managed to finish all my errands before lunch, and took a few final turns around the stupa. For the first time all week, my mind became patient, open space and my thoughts settled naturally on making wishes. The tin rattling of the prayer wheels echoed the unreeling of my aspirations—come back to us soon; stay with us even in your absence; let us all become bright in the aura of your radiance. Away from the monastery, away from responsibility and activity, the utter brilliance of the moments I have lived these last few days finally seeped into me. I felt some lurching and tears rising inside and I let it. This feeling that throws me sobbing on the ground at times turns out not be loss but gratitude. So I multiplied it a million times, a million times and million times, and offered it to the Buddhas. I like this system; it’s pretty nice actually.

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We ate lunch on a rooftop terrace staring straight into the eyes of the stupa. Boudha, Katmandu, the valley, Nepal…this place is as special as everyone said. Since I’ve been here, my days and thus my mind have been permeated with pictures of enlightened beings, mantra repetitions, the sound of ceremonial instruments, and the smell of incense. I have been as grumpy, as tired, as uncertain and as heartbroken here as I ever have been in other places in my life, but here, whenever I pause to look up or catch my breath, what appears grounds me and inspires me.

The momos were as good as they’re cracked up to be. Mine were cheesy and onion-y on the inside, and chewy and tender on the outside. Win. We ate fast. Rumors said Karmapa would give blessing at two at Shar Minub. The rumors were true, and we found ourselves in the steaming upper temple room at Shar Minub, packed liked devoted sardines into the space before our teacher.

Karmapa said a lot of things today, but these two stuck out: “I don’t think there really is a change. This is about continuity. What can we continue?” That Shamarpa’s wisdom, his blessing, his guidance, and simply his mind, are with us always and wherever. Only his physical manifestation has departed. So really, this transition is about the connection we are able to uphold and not at all about the state-of-being or location of a man. Which I suppose we knew, but everything’s more convincing when Karmapa says it. His knowing is a stable, integrated knowing and not the kind of hopeful, intellectual knowing that I’ve got going.

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And then he said, “Go back to your daily lives with courage.” Which I think I might need. We arrive in Paris at eight p.m., which is four hours later in Nepal and in our bodies. We drive six-to-eight hours home to arrive at some unholy hour of the morning, and the next day Shabdrung Rinpoche’s course beings and we get going as if we’d never left.

Except not. Because we have left. Because we lived this week. And gave and saw and shared and practiced and received. Because the words of our teachers and the power of their minds have left their imprints on us, and we are different to whatever extent we can let them sink into us.

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We walked the 350 steep, stone stairs up to Swayambhu after Karmapa’s teaching. We arrived streaming sweat and aching. This place is one of Shamarpa’s places. His past reincarnations helped establish it and nurture it. His picture is on the altar of the tiny temple for what it’s worth, and I found it worth a lot. I bent my forehead to the picture frame and quiet came. I didn’t want to step away, but I am learning how. How to carry closeness with me; how to connect to being cared for.

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When we left Shar Minub this afternoon, people started gathering and pointing to the sky. I looked up. I’m getting used to this whole rainbow thing. There may still be a part of me that wants to record all the dates and locations of all the rainbows in relation to all the dates and locations of all the auspicious dharma happenings and see if there’s really any statistical significance in their appearances. And then the rest of me understands that it matters truly not at all whether there are more or less or where and when they are. It think it only matters that when we see them, we feel loved and capable of loving, inspired by wisdom and capable of becoming wise. Still though, I can’t help starting to believe. Rainbows equal masters; equal enlightened mind. Today was statistically significant.

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We were trudging down the pitted road and I was staring at my shoes and I sloped forward. When I gazed up from the gray mud and gravel, at first I only saw clouds. A high contrast puff lingering in front of the afternoon sun. As my vision adjusted to the brightness, I looked for crepuscular rays, those dramatic beams of light that typically jut from behind illuminated clouds. But there weren’t any. There was a diffuse aureole of gentle luminosity, steadily deepening from white to pastel to Technicolor rainbow. I’ve never seen a rainbow cloud before. It looked like how I imagine the aurora borealis, but steady rather than wavering and more varied in its hues. It was beautiful. Gazing up at the gentle, colored glow felt like the warmest hug. I thought, “Hi.”

And then I tucked the rainbow into my heart, and held it there, and kept on walking.

Day 2: We Arrive, And That’s About All

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Sitting on the other side of the airplane from Doha to Kathmandu. Katya’s semi-profile against the twilight through the window. I can safely say we made it. Through maybe the easiest international customs experience I’ve ever had and the most amicable customs officers. A brick interior, low light, and all the desks made from varnished wood patterned with cutout stars. We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto, and not the Dordogne either.

We arrived in the darkness of early nighttime, after nine p.m. I always notice the air of a new place before all the rest. The air here is dense but not heavy, like lace you can walk through. Tribhuvan International Airport smells like egg noodles cooked in broth and men’s cologne. Which is only reasonable, considering I saw about three other women besides us on the plane. I think it’s reasonable to say Loïc impressed the crowd, travelling alone with us four ladies.

I’d forgotten from India the cultural fact of being stared at. It’s not comfortable, but I find it less aggressive than I used to. I’m surprised, though we only saw the sights and smells and sounds from the taxi in the darkness, everything felt softer than I had imagined. Nepal is calmer than any other developing country I have visited, and certainly calmer at night. Poverty is still poverty–the trash piles, the half-built skeletons of construction projects, the hungry roving canines, the fluorescent-lit bodegas; these things remain.

I don’t know if it’s me or this country that’s different, maybe both, but I find it all less harsh and less surprising than I remember from India or Ghana or even Mexico at times. Somehow the open buildings, the rutted streets, the concrete corridors…they just look like some people’s homes. It’s not my home or the home that I know, but it’s some one’s place, loved and lived in like any other.

I don’t want to romanticize poverty, but I don’t want to denigrate the proprietors of this place, its society, or its culture. And what’s more, in many ways, one could say I’m a beneficiary of this culture. Gautauma Buddha was born in Nepal, which makes this place part of my heritage, the culture that I have chosen and embraced and to which I have consecrated my life.

What do I think of that? I don’t know. I know the lights of Swayambhu stupa on the hilltop, seen from the hotel terrace, fill me trust. I know the bats overhead and the cawing of the monkeys is as exotic as it ever was, and yet also just the landscape of a place, a history, and a transmission. I know I’ll wake up at five-thirty in the morning to meditate, then meet my companions, and go see our teacher’s monastery and practice with thousands of other disciples with whom I both share and don’t share many kinds of culture–European, Asian, American, Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana. But we share a goal—freedom—and a love—for our teacher. And through this, we learn. And that is enough.

 

**Logistical note. I’d heard there is wifi throughout Kathmandu, and I was hopeful that I would be able to post updates throughout the day. Unfortunately, internet access does not extend to the monastery, so unless I stumble upon another technical miracle, I may be limited to a single post in the evening. I’ll try to include as much as I can. Thanks for your patience and for coming along!

In Spare Moments (you think about sadness and make tarte aubergine).

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In spare moments, you find yourself running up the hill to Lama House, down the hill to the community room, up the hill to the Institute, down the hill to the main kitchen, up the hill to the library, down the hill to your caravan, giddy through it all. In spare moments, you find yourself occupied by recipes to test, drawings to begin, people to take tea with. In spare moments, you find stillness amidst all the action.

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And in the stillness, you remember. You remember, times were, you weren’t so happy as this. You remember disbelieving in impermanence, your sadness had lasted so long. You remember the struggle to stay convinced, day after day, that even if there was no real and permanent you, this current, temporal you had goodness and worth and something to offer. You remember suffering without respite.

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In spare moments, you slice eggplant and chop parsley and reflect on this conversation you had yesterday. You wondered if the person across the table from you thought maybe you were fudging a bit in describing life these days, your story was so slanted toward contentment. And you realize how goddamn lucky you are that it’s even possible for some one to disbelieve that you know suffering. And you realize you had better say grace, like every minute of the day, because in this life, nothing lasts. Neither sadness, nor joy, neither misery, nor bliss, and you have known them all and you will know them all again.

In spare moments, you whisper gratitude for what is, you nod at fear for what may come, and you say a prayer for those on the other side of the spinning wheel of life.

Recipe after the jump…

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Let’s Talk About Fun and Apple Wacky Cupcakes

It’s nine-thirty in the morning. The kitchen smells like molasses and vanilla. I am chopping apples as fast as I can without running the risk of cutting myself. This, I think, is fun.

Fun. What a concept. I’ve been grasping at it recently, like a drunk person feeling for the rail as they stumble up their stairs in the dark. Fun comes in brief moments of pleasure caught unawares amidst a storm of serious intentions and fierce expectations. It is the instants when I find myself…just admiring the flowers…just sitting on the couch and snuggling …just painting…just baking a cake. But as soon as I notice it, it’s gone, lost amidst a bulletin of harsh inquiries about, “What am I doing? Is this productive? How can I turn this into a productive activity?”

I’m giving myself tachycardia (when your heart starts beating too fast) just thinking about it. Recently I’ve felt a bit like a fat hamster, panting on a wheel, wondering when I’m going to reach my destination, and doing my damnedest to get there now. As hamsters far and wide can attest, it doesn’t work very well. I’m tired and stressed out and grumpy. It sucks for me and it sucks for the poor souls who have to encounter me (i.e. my parents, Ethan, my friends, unfortunate baristas and Trader Joe’s checkout people).

An Apple, graphite on paper, 24" X 30"

I know you can’t just sign off of putting pressure on yourself. I still want to be successful as an artist. I still want to create beautiful things that are meaningful to other people. I still want to have an income that allows my parents not to worry about me, though I know they’ll do that anyway. But I have noticed that a lot of what I stress about is whether or not I am successfully becoming something. When I was in college, I put all my effort into becoming an agriculturalist. But I ended up not wanting to be an environmental scientist, despite my love of the outdoors. Then I tried becoming a pastry chef, and I actually succeeded and had a lot of fun, but I missed painting. So I crossed pastry chef off my list and set to work becoming a professional artist. I’m also not doing terribly on that front, but like I said…fat hamster. And it’s not like I’ve given up inquiring about nature or making desserts, despite having made some serious decision that I’m not the “something” associated with those activities.

When did I decide that I had to be one thing? I suppose it’s an attempt to get comfortable; I’ve been trying to settle on a career path so I can say, “I’m a this,” and have done with it. But identity is not like that. No matter how hard I try to figure myself out and call it a day, a self, a life well-lived before it’s done or even barely begun really, I’ll never get out of the task of working out how I feel and what I need, from moment-to-moment. Being human– it’s like this.

In every second there is all of this shifting around: what I love and what makes me happy; what I’m good at and what makes an income; what I find fascinating and what I want no part of, what I can contribute and what I’m willing to strive to be better at. Somewhere in there is a life lived, between now and when the gravestone hits the ground.

I’d like to stop trying to make myself “a something.” Perhaps instead I should make some one else a something. Like an apple wacky cupcake.

Recipe after the jump… Continue reading