I Used To Wish I Could Live In A Castle

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Light the hall with braziers, wear only dancing shoes, and parade a thousand dresses with patterns to outdo the wallpaper.

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I used to wish for banquets and balls. Sunken gardens and painting studios aglow with northern light. Woods to get lost in on horseback, libraries with shelves so tall that ladders glide along their lengths. I used to wish for long set tables and the sound of horse-drawn carriages on cobblestones. Long rows of cabbages and carrots, the gentle cluck of hens. Simmering pots over open fires and the click of silverware near smiling faces. Four poster beds and feather pillows.

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Castles were color; prosperity; joy.

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This was, I guess, before I knew that in their day, castles’ abundance came at the expense of starving peasants. That their inhabitants bathed but once a year. That many died of lead poisoning for the vanity of their powdered faces. That artists lived in hovels uncared for by their patrons and the northern light of upstairs rooms was reserved for the embroidery to which women were restricted.

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Not so awesome, actually.

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The life of castles was one of luxury and abandon, for the most part. A fire that burns bright and then goes out. What became of all the knights and ladies? Probably not much I’d care to follow.

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And yet, there’s still something about those windows over the river. All that golden light, so much imagined laughter.

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I guess I would still take one, if you offered. Is the heating bill included?

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We could make something of castle, put its sturdy old beauty to good use.

We could fill a castle with little round cushions and people seated cross-legged. Maybe put Nagarjuna next to Maupassant along the library walls. Switch out the Sun King for Buddha Shakyamuni. It could be fun.

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Not that we really need castles for the good work of the path. We can do it anywhere. It’s just a memory I have, even if a bit misplaced. Castles were togetherness and safety. Now they’re just museums, but the imagery remains. And I can’t help asking…

Is a banquet or a ball entirely frivolous, or can we still don dancing shoes from time to time, on the road out of samsara?

Self, Painting, and Pastry

Evening comes, and I can feel my tiredness. Sunday is rest day, but I haven’t yet learned how to budget my energy well enough that I don’t still end it sleepy.

Silent Sunday, Ink and Acrylic on Paper, 8 1/2" x 12"

Silent Sunday, Ink and Acrylic on Paper, 8 1/2″ x 12″

When I am sleepy, I tend to be grumpy, too. And let me tell you, it’s funny to be sleepy and moderately grumpy and surrounded by Buddhists. Everyone just wants to offer something. And sometimes, I just want to say, “Erm…know what? I’m actually okay with being grumpy right now.” Admittedly, one must remember not to dwell and mire oneself more in whatever frustrations arise, but really, some days, frustrations just arise. Little things; big things; whatever–depends on the day.

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Buddhism teaches that the self, which most of us cling to as our identity, has no essence. When we act from this understanding, we become more generous and less reactive because we aren’t so busy trying to protect our own views and often to prove others wrong. At the same time, I’ve seen in myself that this can backfire on occasion. I’m not enlightened (big news, hehe) and that means that, inevitably, I do a lot of self-clinging, like worrying about what others think of me or being annoyed when the world doesn’t meet my expectations and I have to adjust. In these moments, I often find myself castigating myself instead of realizing that it’s okay to make mistakes and that if there really is no fundamental me then there’s also no one to be mad at, just an ebb and flow of ideas and feelings held together in a body that hasn’t quite figured out what’s what in this world.

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And even if the confusion about self is a pretty basic source of suffering, while we are still mired in this view of the world, we can use our sense of self to help us develop wonder and appreciation, which lead to care for others and our (non) selves. Even thousands of miles from the places that feel familiar, even while dedicated to the study of equanimity, I do a double take when I pass a pastry shop and I return to blank pages and pigment when I want to understand what I am feeling. I still feel giddy and grateful to discover a new culture’s approach to food and the delight to be found in the flavor and artistry of dessert. I still can’t help just a small shopping spree when I stumble across art supplies in one of the labyrinthine markets of Delhi. Doing so helps me appreciate all the other beings who relate to the world in these ways, even in a country so different from the one I come from. It helps me notice that joy can transcend identity, that I feel most like myself when I am sharing something with others, in life and in spirit. It helps me see, in one experiential way, what the Buddha may have meant, when he taught that self is non-dual, but exists in relation to all other things.