Under Construction

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So I mentioned that we’re redoing the Lama House kitchen…

Rinpoche told us the time was right, showed up with some gigantic windows to turn the terrace into an enclosed working space, the labor to install them, and a boatload of ideas for how to improve both interior and exterior. We went on a fieldtrip to the kitchen store and picked out cabinets and countertops. Rinpoche drove, vetoed my choice of kitchen sink, but validated the cupboard color. With the project manager, we sat down to figure out dates. When the sales lady told us delivery and installation occurs eight weeks after the order is placed, the project manager and I looked at each other and mouthed the words, “forget it.” After all, that puts us roughly ten days before Karmapa arrives. Ten days that will be very useful for cleaning up everything after installation, setting up all the event material, and you know, not having any margin for late delivery.

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Rinpoche looked up from his own calculation and said, “I think it’s okay, then,” without the tiniest hint of irony. And so, here we go. While the inside kitchen is being fabricated over at the factory, the outside kitchen is being built right in place. We’ve got a skill saw in the garden, caution tape closing off the kitchen door, and sawdust everywhere.

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The guys spend their days laying tile, fitting windows, and preparing for the installation of the counters. I come by occasionally to make aesthetic comments or organizational decisions, or, you know, to find out that nobody will be able to access the basement for two days and then to scramble to inform all the people who use the basement and to help them move whatever they might need in the next two days. No big though.

In return, I insisted that the countertops be eighty-eight centimeters high and definitely not ninety-one. We’re short around here! And I don’t want to have sore shoulders every summer for the next ten plus years from cutting vegetables above my means… As a result, they um, had to shave three centimeters off every single piece of wood for the counter supports, which they would not have had to do if I had accepted ninety-one centimeters. All’s fair in love and war and home renovation, right?

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It’s a lesson in teamwork, in developing relationships through the process of creating something together, all the while figuring out how to communicate to get things done and be kind and joyful at the same time. These are pretty rad people to begin with, but the meaning makes a difference. Whatever we might be stressed about, annoyed about, or take personally, we let go, because we’re invested in a goal—get this kitchen in place, and properly, for Karmapa and before Karmapa arrives—and that goal trumps whatever a priori or emotions we might have at one moment or another.

Hopefully tomorrow we’ll be able to walk on the tile again, and we’ll just see what comes next after that!

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Super Fluffy Sugar Cookies And How To Give Love

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The French don’t really do Valentine’s Day. For them it’s half “Feast of Saint Valentine,” some mostly-forgotten Christian tradition and half some imported, commercial American thing. Personally, I’ve had my share of lamentable coupledom V-days that don’t bear revisiting. Despite this, the kitsch and sweetness of the idea of Valentine’s Day never gets old. Every year when February rolls around, I have a deep urge to make all things pink and heart-shaped and tell everyone I know just how much I love them. The French, in my experience, are also not huge on open displays of affection, but a Californian’s gotta do what she can in terms of cultural exchange.

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Lately, I’ve been noticing a thing, about culture and personality. I grew up in a culture that I will massively generalize as open and bright–effusive, if you will. It’s flip-flop culture, invite-you-for-a-beer-and-barbecue culture, bear hugs and back slaps and complicated high five culture. It’s open collar, short shorts, Technicolor t-shirt or just no shirt culture. Bikinis, bicycles, sun tans, and long tangled hair. It’s all those simple stereotypes you see in movies, plus all the layers of nuance that reality and one person’s individual experience of the world add.

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It’s a culture I was never comfortable in growing up. I was quiet and dark, physically self-conscious, naturally introverted and preoccupied with being deeply intellectual, imperatively creative, and also just a nerd. Over the course of my teenage years and early adulthood, I learned my own culture. I practiced having a sense of humor and starting friendly conversations with strangers. I trained in the art of high-fives, fist bumps, and bracing hugs. I developed a style of dress that lets me feel expressed and that connects to the society that I come from.

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But I’m not in that society any more. All of the modes of communication and habits and needs that I developed to live and love in a certain kind of American culture suddenly don’t apply. Here, my colorful clothes say extrovert instead of artist. A certain kind of friendliness can be misinterpreted for allure, and all of the tricks and tools I learned to get over my shyness no longer work because, um, they’re in English, and my life is now in French.

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I want to connect with the people around me, but I don’t always know how. I bake a lot of cake, and that’s not a joke. It’s a way to offer a part of myself to show that I care. Fortunately, food love transcends culture, even if the French aren’t as fond of peanut butter in their baked goods as we are in the States. At the same time, it’s just one way. It’s a way that connects and a way that comes naturally to me. But I admit, I feel a little stuck.

I feel like I’m back to being fifteen years old, finally lifting my head from the pages of my book and realizing that there’s a whole world around me, a whole universe of brilliant, genuine, tender human beings to share with and love if I can just learn to speak their language and understand their ways. I asked a friend yesterday if it shows that I feel a bit out of sorts. He laughed and said, “We can tell that when you say something, you’ve been thinking about it for three hours…or three days.”

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It’s funny to be seen. For so many years, I deliberately hid in the pages of my books and colors of my paints, and when I finally chose to be brave and go into the wide world and share and trust and be a person with other people, I tried to learn fast and not mess up too obviously. I’ve always been afraid I’d get kicked out. From where, to where, by whom…it’s not so clear, but the fear is present all the same. On my own, I’ve always felt like an alien, a small woodland creature, or a wildling spirit mistakenly left in the world of humans. I think we are many to feel this way. We try to keep our strangeness inside, and we think of others as being united and not strange.

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The gift of Dhagpo, of community in general, and this one in specific, is both the inevitability and the ability to be seen. We are all together all the time. We work and eat and live and study and love and suffer and grow together. It’s impossible to be here without eventually both discovering and revealing all the bizarreness we generally do our best to hide.  And I’m beginning to see, it’s not so bizarre as that. It’s just the way we are in this life, the things we have yet to understand, the trust we have yet to develop, but that grows, day by day, in others and ourselves.

I don’t really understand how the French show love as a culture. And I don’t yet understand very well the particular kinds of love that speak to each brilliant and bizarre individual with whom I live and love and grow. But to realize that this is what I am seeking—how to love, and also how to be loved—this is a good beginning. And for now, there is cake, and cookies too.

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Rolling Rocks And Sympathy

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I am sitting on a bench trying to find words. I’ve made a lot of mistakes lately. Said the wrong thing; not said a thing; not known the right thing to say or just not wanted to say it. And then seen the ill created around me for all the times I do not know or cannot do what is right.

I feel like an ill wind, and a bit untrustworthy. But if I cannot trust myself, then where is stable ground? I have heard people say that Dharma pulls the rug out from under your feet, and from what I’ve seen that’s true. But this isn’t a cute philosophical crisis; this is the business of everyday life. I can deal with losing the cushioning but I’m not ready to be groundless; I need at least a hard wood floor.

In case it is not clear what I’m talking about–and I imagine that it’s not–I’m talking about limits. I’m talking about the places where kindness and patience run out, but where they run out so fast that you don’t even notice that they’re gone, and you just reactreactreact.

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In a concrete sense, I am talking about things like grocery lists gone wrong and unplanned menu changes and finding some one to do the dishes when you thought you had clarified the issue the day before and before and before, but still, no. I am talking about money spent and time wasted, or perhaps not, and all of the hard edges that come from feeling like you are pushing a rock up a hill that will just roll down when you are finished, but oh also, you will never be finished. And that sentiment without even the peace of a stable task on which to rest your mind. Like rolling ten rocks up a landslide at the same while it hales and marmots bite your ankles and some one wants to know where the scissors are and something smells like it’s burning and meanwhile you are supposed to be graceful because you are doing this for all sentient beings and also your esteemed teacher is having tea in the next room.

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Will you do me a favor, friends? Don’t give me sympathy. Lately sympathy just turns to self-pity, to the idea that it is that hard, and it will get better, and this situation is the struggle. But you know what? From what I understand, the situation is a bitch. People are independent and think differently and put ourselves first even when we try not to because half the time we don’t even realize we’re doing it. This is the bitch we call Samsara.

Maybe things could be easier for me than they are at the Maison des Lamas, but I am so tired of thinking I’ll someday not be tired and becoming hard and wishing for things to be different that I don’t want to keep wanting easier circumstances. I want the capacity to no longer see hardship as difficulty. I know I’m not there yet, and I know I’m going to need a hell of a lot more sympathy before I get there, but for today, I need that kindness to come from inside. Because right now I just turn everything else to righteousness, and I want no more of that.

Groups, Things That Grow, and Hazelnut Quince Financiers

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Phase two of massive planning meetings. This week has been spent in daily “ateliers,” sessions of group brainstorm and systematic formulation of ideas related to themes of importance for the center, so far: axes of development, organizational infrastructure, and human resources.

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These are good things. Things that are massively important to reflect on as Dhagpo enters a new stage of development ushered in by the completion of the Institute. And it’s absolutely incredibly to take part and to find myself in a community where all voices have space to be heard.

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Also, it’s really exhausting. Focusing intensely on issues of importance at the same time as navigating group communication, listening to others, and then distilling frequently dissident—respectful but irreversibly opposite—voices into an organized and comprehensible vision of said issue…erm, need I say more? I’m in starfish-on-a-rock mode, if you know what I mean. Relatively dried-out, flailing one arm in a weak attempt to work my way back to water.

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I don’t think it’s a stretch to say we all are. And I can only imagine how the members of the planning committee feel; they’ve been doing this for weeks and are spending twice as many hours a day doing it as the rest of us. And yet, no one’s really complaining. This is what it takes to move forward, to let things grow. Hard work, patience, and a commitment to staying reasonable, focused, and confident of the goal in the face of whatever obstacles may arise.

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I don’t know how others are handling it, but for my part, I’m taking time to cultivate softness around all of the agitation and exhaustion that can come up in this process. I spent yesterday evening by myself in the kitchen, chopping quinces and cracking hazelnuts, focusing on the resistance of batter against wooden spoon as I stirred, feeling grateful that even in moments when I don’t want to talk to anyone anymore, there are still ways to connect with those around me. To share sweetness and offer comfort, to lighten the mood and acknowledge togetherness, to raise an eyebrow to being mutually grateful and a little over it, all without saying a word.

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I am too tired to explain in detail what makes these little cakes so amazing. Basically they are great. Really, really. I almost never make a recipe twice, but ever so occasionally I find something so good that’s its crave-worthy and becomes a staple of my repertoire. This is that. The depth of the hazelnuts plus the tanginess of the quince. The moist, but slightly hefty crumb. Not too sweet, but enough that you’re satisfied that you’ve eaten dessert. Basically, I’m sold. Now I just have to stay at Dhagpo for the rest of my life so I can always have fresh hazelnuts and quinces right off the tree.

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To Start Gardens: On Mothers and Stuffed Zucchini Blossoms

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The world is strange sometimes. My mother started a garden. Stranger things have happened to be sure; countries have gone bankrupt, periodically it has rained frogs in Costa Rica or some such tropical place, and we are all walking around with our heads in space and our feet stuck to a magnetic ball. But, you know, it is the small and personal things that seem the most confounding.

But why is it strange? It is strange because when I remembered the eggplants of my childhood, tucked amidst the flowers in our front yard, and asked my mother why we didn’t grow things anymore, she said, “It takes too much time. I’m not interested.” Strange because when I lived here for one-and-a-half years in the recent past, not a single thing changed in the landscaping. The backyard stayed dirt, the front yard stayed bark, and the old library card catalogue stayed pushed up against the exterior staircase, creaking and warping in the wind and rain.

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It is strange because now that there are citrus trees in the front yard, vegetables in the back yard, and the old library card catalogue has been hacked to parts and is ready for the dump, it becomes easy to believe that “everything is changing.” Everything is changing. Exchange of energy and matter–like ya do; that’s physics, kids. But change occurs at variable rates, and in some ways, everything is not changing.

The refrigerator remains a cross between the Leaning Tower of Pisa and an expertly played game of Tetris, or maybe it’s more like Jenga, because the whole thing is prone to collapse when you reach for the green beans, or anything for that matter. Our black lab still lives one one side of the house, and me on the other. We still nod hello while I try to avoid her welcome licks, and I still wind up sneezing like an old man with a moustache and losing thirty percent of my respiratory function as a result of her presence. I still don’t understand my mother. I still have no idea what it means; to “live” “with” another person. How not to interpret what she expresses as sadness. How not to embellish my own experience in relation to what I see in her. How to share dreams and hopes and fears without judgment or preconception. How to be honest without being hurtful.

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But this is what mothers are for. To surprise us. To show us where to work with ourselves. To support us. To scare us. To care for us. To start gardens. To put ourselves side-by-side, over a meal grown by one and cooked by the other. To bring all of our love and miscommunications and aspirations to the table and be real–when it is blissful; when it is dreadful; when it is strange and personal. This is the work of mothers and daughters.

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Recipe after the jump…

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