My Hair And Other Topics: Change Through Appearance

photo 5

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.

hair

(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.

photo 4

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.

photo 3

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.

photo 2

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.

photo 1

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.

Rainstorms, Rhubarb Crumble Tart, And The Busted Past Conditional

IMG_2422

Yesterday at lunchtime someone told me it was good to see me smiling again, and it made me want to shout or cry or run away. Instead I just shook my head and said, still smiling, “Oh come on, there are already so few places where it’s okay to feel things…” and left it at that. And he just affirmed that he was glad that I was doing better, and I spent the rest of the day working out why that’s not okay with me. Let me try and explain.

If you saw me crying in the temple in the evening, soggily saying my prayers. If you saw me climbing the hill to the Institute with a closed face and a cloud knit into my brow. If you passed me midmorning at a picnic table with pens and paper when I could have been, maybe should have been, in some one else’s natural order of things, already tapping away at a computer in the cold darkness of the office. If you heard me singing hymns at the top of my voice while hanging out laundry to dry. If you worried that I was not okay. If you wondered what was wrong.

Let me assure you. I’m okay. But lots of things are wrong.

IMG_2419

My socks have holes in them. The milk I drank with breakfast makes my stomach hurt. I can never seem to conjugate the conditional past tense correctly in French, and it worries me that I seem to use it so often—all the things I would have done, or should have done. I hung my laundry on the line but it keeps raining just enough that the afternoon sun isn’t enough to dry my clothes and they’ve been out there four days now.

IMG_2426

It’s been a year since my parents decided to get divorced and even though we’re all mostly adapted now, I still have to work hard not to choke when some one kindly says, “It must be hard for you being so far from home. You must miss your family,” and I say, “There’s not much sense in missing my family. The family I grew up with doesn’t exist anymore.”

It’s been three-and-a-half months since my teacher died and I try not to talk about it too much because I wonder how much you can grieve publicly before people tire of you or tune you out. Or maybe I just don’t know how to talk about my grief because I’m no longer willing to treat it as something to get over.

IMG_2436

Things are always wrong. Sometimes it’s big things and it’s definitely always little things. I have spent my life trying to forget this, to look on the bright side and wait for things to get better. And they always do. And then they un-get better later. And every time I experience loss anew, it feels like the first time. I’m as shocked and disoriented as I ever was. Doubt rises, confidence ebbs, and the ability to move forward temporarily suspends. With time, and softness, and grieving, I find my way back. I relearn how to live with a family that’s pieces instead of a unit, without the physical presence of the teacher who’s guidance I seek daily, with holes in my socks, with a stomach ache, wet laundry, and a busted conditional past tense.

IMG_2446

I get so used to it that I start to forget. From one day to the next, comfort sneaks back. I feel better not because I’ve learned how to live with loss but because I haven’t lost anything new lately and I’ve returned to ignoring the old losses. But loss is not a jar that you can shake, that you can take things out of and put things into. Loss is an ephemeral thing. A stinging pain brought to life by the meeting of a wish for something and the reality of the absence of that thing. Loss is wishing for things to be some other way than they are. Loss is a refusal of the fact that this world is dynamic down to its very atoms, that we don’t even understand what makes matter be there, and yet we relate to all things as though they should be there when we want them, miss them, need them.

IMG_2437

And I’ll tell you what. Loss hurts less when I remember that it’s normal. That for all my scientific and philosophical training, the table looks like a table to me, a thing I can rely on. I’m expecting it to be there tomorrow and the day after and five seconds from now. And if one day my table burns or breaks or yields to thieving hands, in its absence I will still refer to it as a wholesome thing.

My table will still exist for me in the memory of my table, even though it never was more than a collection of whirring atoms in a certain arrangement in a certain time and place, and maybe not even that. And my family as an integral thing exists in my memory, which is what allows me to think of it as a broken thing today. And because my teacher was once with me, now I feel he’s gone. My life is a series of labels that I do not want to change. But the world we experience is nothing other than the expression of change.

IMG_2417

And I haven’t learned how to smile about that yet. I’ve learned how to sing about it, write about it, dance, paint, think, and cry about it. But I have not yet learned how to feel joy without forgetting sadness. I can do contentment, gratitude, even love mixed with sadness. But joy’s too shiny and seductive for me to live it and leave space for loss. I’m working on it, but at least for now, I have a favor to ask.

Please, don’t wish me to feel better. I will, one day or another. But also, what goes up must come down. And for the time being, the fall hits hard. So please, let me be shadowy—rainstormed—if need be. Let me be quiet and dark, tear-stained and tired-faced, when the time calls for it. It’s for a good cause. I’m trying to understand impermanence.

IMG_2415

À propos of nothing…rhubarb tart. I could stretch it and make a connection. Rhubarb is a seasonal vegetable, an obvious sign of the changing times; summer into fall is the kind of impermanence I can wrap my head around, even if this Indian summer we’re living in the Dordogne is, in its own way, another kind of denial. But whatever the temperature, the leaves are falling off the trees and the acorns are hitting my roof with an insistent “thwack!” and change is, you know, happening to everything.

This tart is just right for an Indian summer that hangs on into October. Bright and fruity with late-season rhubarb and plums, but sidling into autumn with a warming crumble topping. Perfect for afternoon tea as reward for staying awake through long hours in meetings (that’s how we did it), or also just because, or also with ice cream for dessert or with coffee for breakfast. You decide.

IMG_2412

Recipe… Continue reading

And Then This

14-flag

 

So, apparently this is going on right now. Is it terribly unequanimous to go straight to, “Wtf Nepal?”

But of course the possibility that Shamarpa’s cremation won’t take place in Nepal, won’t take place at his monastery, won’t take place in a location that most students can fit and get a visa to…that goes way further than wtf Nepal. That gets into wtf politics, and wtf expectations, and wtf change, impermanence, and uncertainty.

So far I’m finding just one answer to all of this What THE F*CK. Devotion.

I’m not talking about blind faith or ostrich-style head-covering techniques. I’m talking about trust and confidence. That this could happen is…seriously inconvenient. Worse than upsetting. I’m being clevery snarky and cynical to lessen the latent panic that’s rising inside. Because panic has no place here. This is the true test of confidence.

Do I need the physical form of a teacher–even just a corpse to say goodbye to–to be present to his instructions, to consolidate my commitment? I wanna be all like, “Hell NO,” but really it’s more like, “Oh fine, no, I guess not,” in my most petulant, trembly-lip voice. But either way, no. I don’t.

Will I go to Nepal if the cremation isn’t there, if Rinpoche isn’t there? Could I even get a visa to India in ten days? Is it even worth trying? What do I do with the donations for the trip if I don’t go? What will my readers think? What story will I write?

I don’t know. But nothing’s final until it’s final, and this isn’t yet. So for now I’m sticking with confidence in whatever happens while waiting to see which way the cookie crumbles.

**This post is part of a larger project culminating in a week of creative journalism in Kathmandu Valley, Nepal chronicling the cremation of the Tibetan spiritual master Shamar Rinpoche. To find out more or make a donation to this project, go here.

I Could Cry

IMG_0958

It is spring, and I could cry with joy. Not that winter was so bad. It was mild in fact, with just a bit of frost and nary a snowflake in sight. But three days hence, all decked out in sunshine, I am nothing if not grateful.

IMG_0961

Lately I’ve developed a habit of collapsing unexpectedly into a puddle of tears, and usually not for joy. I generally flee human company at such times, marvel at the unpredictability of my experience of the world, and try not to judge too much. Emotion–it’s a thing sometimes.

It’s a thing a lot these days. I find myself overcome with paralyzing sadness or desperate hope, none of which lasts but all of which shakes me around like an acorn on an oak branch in the midst of a winter storm. It’s all I can do to hang on.

So that’s what I try to do. Hold it together when I can, let it go when I can’t. Ask for help; accept that help. And also just generally try not to leak overwhelmption all over the place. Because that’s heavy, overwhelmption is, and most people have enough of their own to carry without me dousing mine all over them unbidden. And, um, I think it’s generally working.

IMG_0954

But the thing about being an acorn in a storm is you can either watch the storm or close your little acorn eyes and just not. Erm, duly noted that acorns don’t have eyes and this analogy has overstayed its ability to be applicable, but you see what I’m getting at here…I’m trying to be an acorn with my eyes open.

And in the storm of my emotions, there’s a lot to see. I see how joy is based on believing in future happiness. I see how sadness comes from a vision of future loss. I see how pain grows from witnessing others’ hardship and my own, and feeling trapped in an inability to fix or often even lessen that hardship in the moment.

IMG_0945

As far as I can tell, looking and holding on is what there is to do. The ability to be helpful, to others and myself, increases with understanding. I’m not useless, even if I feel like it on occasion. I’m just a lot less useful than I’d like to be.

But this is the deal with keeping our eyes open. The more we pay attention to all the uses we could fill in this world, the more we experience the limits of our present usefulness. Which is hard, but it’s not bad. I am doing the best I can do. I’m pretty sure we all are. And if I keep paying attention, and somehow learn to balance sadness and vision and motivation, my best will continue to grow. And I think that’s all I can ask for. Storms are not that comfortable, but acorns need rain to grow into oaks (usefulness of analogy regained–ha!).

This Is To Say That I Am Surviving, And Also Thank You Times A Lot

IMG_2476

I made the pumpkin scones. And they were cute, though I’m not going to bother you with the recipe. I’m still on the hunt for perfect pumpkin scones…scones to bring me back to the Greenmarket on Union Square circa 2007, scones bursting with golden raisins, pecans, crystallized ginger and pure, unadulterated autumn. If you have any leads, I’m open. And um, also, I can only say that I must be doing better if I can soliloquize my thoughts on scones rather than torrenting anguish all over the place.

Better is a relative term. I am considerably less miserable this week than last. A lot of lucky stars are being thanked. Do I think it will last? Nothing lasts–who even came up with that question? But I have a learned a few useful things.

For instance, even though change (read: unwanted, highly undesired, horribly unwelcome change) is a major bitch, there are things that help. All you people coming out of the woodworks to tell me your stories, say that you hear me, and send so much love–that does wonders. Also, crawling out of my small hovel of personal anguish to actually talk to my family, to tell them I love them, to commiserate that things are weird and messed-up but also necessary–that does wonders too. Nobody’s doing marvelously. And we’re not together physically, or legally, or emotionally in ways we have been in the past. But we are in this together, and we are all surviving.

lune

Making space for new understanding in this cramped-up body and brain is no easy thing. But letting go is the lesson of the day, and that does nothing if not make space. I was hoping to say something profound about the moon and changing times, but mostly I’m just grateful to be getting by, grateful for your care, and making wishes to be as vast and open as the sky, that no amount of anguish can knock me down ‘cuz the impact blows right through. One of these days, yo’, one of these days…

When It All Converges

Butter Bowl and Brush, Ink on Paper, 7" x 7"

Butter Bowl and Brush, Ink on Paper, 7″ x 7″

I am trying to make baklava for a holiday party tomorrow night. But the phyllo dough is rancid and Trader Joe’s is closed and Fresh and Easy is lame and somehow I find myself eating cold pork and parsnip hash out of a tupperware with my bare fingers at 9:40 pm in lieu of making a decision, utterly unsure of what the next move is. Drive to the grocery store that’s close, run the risk they don’t have what I need, drive to a further one, and then stay up past midnight making baklava? Devise some other amazing recipe that uses a crap-ton of chopped nuts but doesn’t come off suspiciously like a poor kock-off of baklava? Throw the nuts in a plastic bag and into the fridge and make something that takes half and hour like shortbread?

All of these are perfectly reasonable options. My trouble is that every moment lately seems like a last moment. In my head it’s like this: in two weeks I’ll be in India, and in three months I’ll be in France, and I don’t really know when I’m ever coming back, so whatever I do right now, it has to be exactly the right thing because this is probably my LAST CHANCE. I mean, for a while. But still, people, it seems dire.

Our Fragile Hearts (May the Clouds Pass), Ink, Watercolor and Colored Pencil on Paper, 7 1/2" x 5"

Our Fragile Hearts (May the Clouds Pass), Ink, Watercolor and Colored Pencil on Paper, 7 1/2″ x 5″

And life seems dire period these days. I’ve been trying to come up with something to say since last Friday. I had planned to put up a post about caramel sauce for the holidays, and then I turned on the radio and heard about the shooting in Newtown. Since then, no words have seemed to cover what needs to be said. So I’ve stayed silent. But it doesn’t seem right to let heart ache and the seeming senselessness of tragedy put you in a corner. Isn’t the grace of life found in the ability to move through the shifting sands of change? It seems like a rough and losing game trying to deny impermanence and find solid ground to stand on. So here I am. I’ve nothing particular to say other than this: I can feel the sands shifting. Here’s a wry smile for all of us standing on uneven ground. This is life. Have a hug.

Not Darkness But Cognizance (detail)

Not Darkness But Cognizance (detail)