Cameras And Death

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Do I start by saying…I bought a camera? Ahem, with a lot of help from my mother, I bought a camera. A real one—an awesome but not too scary my-first-DSLR kind of camera—a Nikon D3300. If all goes well you will be more consistently overwhelmed with pictorial support for these ramblings. I’m just starting out, thinking about things like aperture and shutter speed in practice for the first time, instead of just wondering how much more precisely I might be able to capture the world around me if I had some power over such things.

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I guess I’ve effectively started with the camera, so now I just have to figure out how to segue into the rest. It’s strange, looking at these pictures. I like them. I’m still working out the whole lighting and composition thing and will be for a while I imagine, but on the whole they’re okay. Pretty snapshots that remind me of my childhood, details from the house I grew up in, flora and scenery that strike me as particularly Californian, plus a couple pensive travel shots from the road home (back to France, I don’t know where the hell home is anymore. I suppose I have more than one and that’s a blessing more than anything).

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The pictures are a little nostalgic, maybe even a tad brooding, but largely comforting. I hope there’s a hint of unease sifting through it all…the sneaky whiff of impermanence permeating all the pretty things. But it’s a far cry from the distinctly unsubtle reminder of impermanence that’s in the foreground today.

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A 7.8 earthquake hit Nepal yesterday morning. The Bodhanath Stupa cracked right through its eyes, from top to toe. The minaret next to Swayambhu Stupa exists only in the form of a pile of rocks. Nearly two thousand deaths have been counted in Kathmandu and surrounding villages have not yet been accounted for. Most of the monasteries are okay, but not all, and the master teachers are calling for prayers and joining in their support for the deceased, wounded, and disenfranchised.

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How strange that this place where I walked less than a year ago should now be so dramatically redesigned by a shudder of the earth. How strange that catastrophes like this happen so frequently and we can do so little beyond join our hands and send a few bucks or even fly halfway around the world to collect the rubble and try to find and feed those that remain. How strange that death is present like a drop of rain hovering over us ready to fall at any moment and we so rarely feel its impending arrival. How strange that devastation washes over this earth regularly and suffering permeates the planet in both visible and invisible ways at every moment and we are so adept at sidestepping its implications.

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How easy it is to be lost in the urgency of what needs to be done without remembering why. How easy it is to adopt a rhetoric of care for others while nurturing frustration and malcontent. How easy it is to speak of focus and deliberation while engaging in distraction and agitation. How busy I manage to keep myself to avoid facing death. Death.

Death.

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It’s coming for me. Every moment is an ending. One that I ignore, clinging to the next moment’s beginning. Every moment could be the ending of the life and self I know. And I’m not ready. I’m trying to be ready, to get ready, to learn to face impermanence and give up the illusion that all I see and know has truth and existence to its nature. To appreciate that what I perceive is as weightless as a dream and as ever changing. And that this is neither good nor bad, but simply freeing.

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But um, I don’t. Not yet. And if I had to bet, I’d bet a lot of the people that lost their lives or their homes in Kathmandu hadn’t quite got that one down yet either. So pray them for them.

And pray for us all, that we learn how to live with our dying, with the ending in every moment. And if you don’t pray, write a poem; sing a song; hug a friend; climb a mountain; do a thing that reminds you how fleeting we are and that the business of learning how to live with impermanence is a shared one.

Love and good luck.

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Old Stomping Grounds

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Well, first off…cake because I promised y’all cake.

My birthday cake: hummingbird cake improvised with walnut goat cheese frosting, plus a cake for the other April gals at Dhagpo, dense almond cake layered with pastry cream and fig jam, enrobed in marzipan medallions, and of course a cake for the April gents as well, classic tiramisu composed in layer cake form. Sorry, not on top of my recipe recording at the moment…all of these things exist somewhere between the collection of butter-stained paper scraps on my windowsill and my brain, but they don’t yet exist in any shareable form. Eeps, pardon!

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And then, welcome to California. Land of my youth, land of my creation and my formation. This is the Pacific Coast Highway, from behind the windshield, for ours is a land of automobiles and palm trees, winding coastal roads, and shifting coastal mists.

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The dinosaur fountains at 3rd Street Promenade, which seem so much smaller now that I am bigger. Actually, everything seems smaller. I visited the house where I grew up, where my dad has retaken up residence. The garage that I recall as fathomless and dark and daunting, maybe the biggest room ever, is now…basically a normal two-car garage with some stuff in it.

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The palm trees have retained their height, however. Their goofiness and nonchalance. The importance of everything, the color and life and cool self-obsession of this place shocks at first and then insidiously infiltrates my being so naturally that I almost don’t notice.

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That everything should be beautiful seems like a given. That the temperature should always be pleasing, the light always golden, the ambiance always choreographed. Appearance in this place strikes me as ever so carefully manicured. We glamor ourselves into believing that all is well.

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That we are evolving, advancing, improving. The food is all organic, natural, farm-fresh, gluten-free and yes, also delicious. The people are tan and smiling. The storefronts pierce your eyes and call you to with adoration: prosperity! allure! confidence! We’ll give you everything! We buy our clothes, our gadgets, our food, our films, our cars, to decide who we want to be.

It’s startling and exceedingly simple. I can’t get over how pleasant everything is. I feel I could lose myself in this place without a second glance back the way I came. Pick up where I left off, working on being another toned yogi with a health food mission, a creative purpose, and a really inspiring backstory. These are generally good things, but from where I stand today, they also seem like all-too-simple ways to fall back into the habit of trying to simply render everything in this life awesome, rather than also facing its capricious nature and committing to going beyond even the best of the appearances that we are capable of creating. After all, both the most inherent and the most cultivated beauty fade with time, each one like the other.

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Fortunately, amidst all the glamour and temptation, there’s a few things to pull me back to earth. Little unexpected reminders. Amidst the crowd of laughing Buddhas on my grandmother’s bureau, a single, seated, Tibetan-style Buddha. And next to it, a grinning photo of me, circa 1996. Maybe even in her drifting state where past and present blend and future fades altogether, she still hangs on to the essential. She asked me about my life and said, “You like the people? Are you happy there?  You’re so so lucky Jourdie.” Or maybe it’s a just a coincidence, the right coincidence for me today. Either way, she’s right.

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And after all the rest, the people and excess and what we’ve made of this place, there is the place itself. California’s quirkiness is in its nature, as much as its inhabitants. Something about palm tree, prickly pears, and pale, pokey agave totally confirm that it’s hip to be weird.

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Nature always reminds me of my own strangeness and smallness. And the nature here comforts me in that. I’m in it with the willets, and the goopy knots of kelp, and the sandcrabs scurrying under the effervescent bubbles of tide foam. It feels pretty okay to be odd in such good company.

So I wander through the iridescent sunset and wonder what I’ll take back with me to the humid, blessed woods of the Dordogne. How much essence and acceptance can I find? How much may I be lost in the glamor and temptation?

Joni said it best.

“California I’m coming home. Will you take me as I am?”

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Sometimes Life Is A Lot

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When you go back to the country that made you, and you walk on a beach but not the one that you meant to see. And the sand feels the same and the salt smells sweet, but the place feels like a memory more than a piece of who you are.

But who are you anyway? You consider the wisdom of your thirteen-year-old self who had written that you “[are, were] and will be only one ongoing entity.” You conclude that she had either more wisdom or more naïveté or maybe both than you currently do because all you can wonder is what on earth constitutes an entity.

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You speak to your first love and he asks you, “Are you your body? Your mind? Your emotions?” And you say nonono. “I am a composite. Not individual, autonomous, or permanent.” He says, “you cheated,” and yes, indeed, you did. It was a long dead Indian sage who said that first and you yourself, composite though you may be, are grasping at flickering sparks to even begin to see what that may mean and, further yet, how it may be lived.

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So you take pictures of the past with your father, bake pies for the future with your mother, talk about the present with your sister, and read about a long-dead Japanese sage who said that a single finger snap comprises 65 individual moments, each an opportunity to practice free will. And you don’t know whose exactly, but you snap your fingers and wish to live well as each of the moments slides by.

(P.S. Shout out to the Pops for the bird pic. Are we little more than our reflections, glistening in the water strewn over the sand and shifting in the tides and time of day?)