Day 8, Rather Late: Homecoming

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We got into Paris at 8 p.m. This is the sky from the parking lot at Charles de Gaulle. We (meaning several people who are not me) drove home in the darkness and we stumbled into our beds around 4 a.m.

And then. And then life as we know it restarted. Just like that. I woke up at seven to practice and eat breakfast to be at the Lama House by ten to change the laundry and clean the bathrooms. I promised myself to clean my own home and I did, for the first time since I moved in practically, at least in any way involving a mop and the mattress cover. Suddenly I look up and it’s three days later.

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In French we say, “Bienvenue à la maison.” Welcome to the house. It’s a way to invite some one into a space, but also the culture of a place. I feel like this right now. Welcome back to Dhagpo. Welcome home. Only my home isn’t the way I left it because I’m not the way I left it.

The humidity of the Dordogne feels light compared to Kathmandu. I can still feel the colors of the drapery in the temples and smell the grease of the butter lamps. The sleepy quiet of the hotel lobby and the hum of mosquitoes stay in my memory. And more than that.

I see Wendelin’s face and all the questions I didn’t get to ask come rushing in. I see the charred mouth of the stupa and all the questions I didn’t get to ask come rushing in.

In the airport in Doha, there is a food court, probably designed by some hired Americans to simulate the best and most convincing of the West. Standing in line at the coffee shop, I said, “We could be anywhere. We could be where I come from in the States. This looks just like Century City.” And later, sitting around cardboard cups of frozen yogurt, I closed my eyes and remembered all the frozen yogurts that have ever come before. All the lonely, peaceful afternoons sitting on wrought iron benches in the sun or walking down the main street of Santa Barbara, wondering what life is for and allowing myself a moment to experience something sweet, by myself, just because. Because the world is too vast, the questions too profound, and the road too long not to pause and just let yourself be every once in a while.

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Except, since I’ve been at Dhagpo, or recently anyway, I’ve forgotten how. There’s no froyo in the Dordogne, or anyway not close to me. And there’s always an impromptu meeting, an e-mail to write, an Excel spreadsheet to fill. I spent ten hours in the kitchen today.

And it’s not that it’s not right, and it’s not that it’s not the activity of the bodhisattvas, and it’s not that it’s not the choice that I made. It’s just…something’s missing. Or, rather, perhaps, I am missing something. Coming here, meeting you all, meeting myself–there’s something there. Something important. It’s another kind of activity, at once more gentle and more violent because it is not a task or a responsibility, but rather an act of faith.

Writing, drawing–any form of interpretive creation–is an act of trust. Making a thing that reflects one’s life is daring to reflect on what we have lived and striving to reformulate it to express both what we have seen and what we have learned. And putting that into the world is trusting others with our own attempts to make sense of our experience.

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Shamar Rinpoche gave a lot of specific instructions before he left. The instruction he gave me was to train to teach. I didn’t get the chance to check with him what means and methods he intended, but I’m trying to understand through the writing he left behind and the instructions he gave others. And from what I can gather, the traditional tools of language, texts, philosophy, transmission, and meditation are as important as we all tend to think they are. But I’ve also seen an enormous emphasis on respecting our individual gifts and tendencies as a means to progress, and on not limiting ourselves to the expected in order to move forward. Shamarpa always advocated an authentic Dharma over a culturally accepted or a precedented one. He was a proponent of what works and consistently reminded us that we had to verify the teachings through our own examination.

At the same time, there’s an equally strong warning not to confuse a personal concept with the true nature of the Dharma. When we move in a direction based on our own perception, ignoring  the moderation of our teachers and community, we risk making a mistake and wasting a whole lot of time.

So I find myself here. Looking at the pre-fab aspect of my activity and the handmade one (the nuts and bolts of life at Dhagpo that I know are beneficial and the creative, connective work that I have experienced allows me to test my understanding of the teachings and move forward), plus the traditional aspects of the path, i.e. formal study and practice. And what I can see is that I don’t know how to nourish each of these meaningfully and consistently and still find time to sleep and love and be healthy.

Bienvenue à la maison. I guess this is the work we have to do. When Shamar Rinpoche died, the first thought I had was, “It’s time to grow up now.” Maybe this is what that means. I don’t know how this can all work out, but it has to and I trust him. All I can do is give it time and give it space and keep watching until the right answers bob their heads or tip their hats.

In the meantime, I can’t thank you all enough for being with me on this journey, the specific trip to Nepal, and the vaster path of this life and the work that it concerns. I would never dare or bother to do this if I were only doing it for me and on my own. Having you guys around shows me that I have something to give and teaches me the embracing sweetness of accepting what others have to give. I think this might be love.

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The Gap

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Tonight we had a teaching about the meditation practice related to Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light. Shamarpa is considered an expression of this fundamental wisdom and compassion, and this is the practice we’re doing daily for the forty-nine days between his death and his cremation.

The practice is vibrant: the alter full of offerings, the text full of music, the meditation full of imagery. Sitting in the Institute, listening to all the merits of this practice, the qualities that can be developed, the good that can be accomplished, I felt a sudden rush of loneliness. I checked myself to find its source. A little tired, a little achy, but not really stressed, and surrounded by people I love. What’s the deal, self?

I glanced up at the photo of Shamarpa, nestled in his place on the throne that he fills/filled when he is/was here. I got hit by a wave of missing-feeling mixed with the memory of his confidence and gentleness. The loneliness subsided some, and I had this thought:

Maybe all this loss I feel, for some one who isn’t really gone, but just present in a way I can’t see with my eyes or touch with my hands…maybe when I feel his absence, what I am actually feeling is the gap between me–here and now–and everything I wish I were capable of.

I don’t have an infinite light. I’m just a little, sometimes light. Often I’m hazy and muggy with confusion. Honestly, sometimes it’s kinda dark in here. And all of this loneliness for some one wiser and stronger and surer than me; it’s a little misplaced. Technically, the wise and the strong and the sure are never apart from us. Wisdom and strength and certainty are with us whenever we open our minds to them. I’m not lonely for the masters or the Buddhas or even the relative reminders of other people’s love. Those things are here for me. No.

I’m lonely for the part of me that remembers how to be infinite.

**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.

To Unite The Family (Choco-Vanilla Cupcakes Are Not A Bad Start)

**Quick note. So I had this whole plan to publish everything related to To Dare To Offer on the project page to funnel people over there with the idea that this makes it more likely that folks will donate, but I’ve realized a few things.

At its base, this project is about sharing. My goal is to tell stories and connect people. Yes, at this moment, I’m seeking support to be able to tell a particular story in a particular time and place, but I also don’t want to make people click on four different things to get to a story, just in the hopes that they’ll donate. Donation is meant to be a positive experience of involvement and camaraderie, not some kind of sneaky gimmick. So. The donation link is at the bottom; the story is here.

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Today is about connection, about Shamar Rinpoche’s vision of community, and taking action to make it real.

Today a group of Dhagpo folks piled into cars and went to visit a sister center called Marfond. Unlike Dhagpo, which is a public center, Marfond is a retreat center, where the volunteers spend eight months in closed practice. Their retreat ended in May, and they came to help us prepare before Shamarpa’s big teaching. They’ve been here often since his death to take part in group practice.

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Shamarpa set up and supported many different microcosms within the Kagyu lineage, different approaches for different kinds of people. At the same time, he wanted us to work together, and now we finally are. Since he died, students from different centers with different styles and in many ways different cultures, have been coming together to mourn and to celebrate our teacher, but also to exchange, to discover, and to develop a shared vision of the future. We’re realizing that the community, the mandala, as it’s called, isn’t just the people we know and work with every day, but tons of other people practicing and growing in the same tradition.

And beyond that, as support pours in from individuals, groups, cities even that don’t have anything to do with the lineage or Buddhism at all, I for one, am seeing ever more clearly that community is everyone, so long as we are willing to connect. I know the folks at Marfond will be grateful to follow what’s happening in Kathmandu, and for this alone it’s worth sharing, but who knows who else might connect with this moment and this story. Sometimes you just have to throw things out into the universe, make wishes, and let things happen.

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And well, if you’re me, you also bring cupcakes everywhere you go to show that you care and you come in peace.

Wish for the day: “D’unir la famille.” To unite the family. To help bring to life Shamarpa’s wish for all of us.

If you’re feelin’ it, you can donate here.

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As far as cupcakes go, they’re a handy way to build community. This is the easiest yellow cake recipe I know with melted chocolate on top. It’s not about laziness; it’s about simplicity. It’s about things that are so good and so classic that there’s no need to embellish them. It’s also perfect for the blazing heat of summer, which keeps the chocolate deliciously partway melty.

Cupcake recipe follows…

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Double Anniversary And Peanut Butter Oatmeal Cookies

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Tomorrow is my birthday, which marks twenty-five years that I’ve been on this earth. And Monday was my Dhagpo anniversary, which marks one year since I arrived in this magical corner of the Dordogne.

Birthdays are good for a lot of things—taking oneself to the symphony, eating midnight cake with best friends, exploring ancient caves in distant lands. I guess I’ve had some pretty stellar birthdays. Tomorrow I get to make lunch for my favorite wily old Tibetan, meditate with the Buddha’s relics, and eat cake with my Dhagpo family. The goodness of my life takes my breath away.

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Which reminds me of another thing birthdays are good for: taking stock and giving thanks. What have I done in this year of my life? Moved a few thousand miles around the world; fallen in love; accepted responsibility; faced heartache; realized dreams. I’ve become a part of something bigger than myself, for which I am ready to give my all and teach my heart to open.

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Which is no easy thing. I told a friend yesterday that when I really look and let myself feel, beneath the quotidian flotsam, I always have the sense that my heart is broken. He said, “A broken heart is an open heart.” I chided him for inexcusable cliché. He laughed me off and said, “Fine, but it’s true.” And damn it all, but it is true.

I’d like to heal my heart, to sew up all the cracks and feel better once and for all. But a heart with no cracks lets nothing in. And feeling fine is a fixed affair, while the world is not a fixed place.  So, okay world, thank you for breaking my heart. With change, and beauty, with terrifying uncertainty, and ear-ringing possibility, with everything that I cannot determine, and to which I can only open.

I’m in for another year. Let’s do this thing.

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I mentioned cake, but that’s for tomorrow and so there are no pictures yet. For now I give you cookies, because who doesn’t like cookies and plus these had people raving. If you think it is both distastefully wholesome and rather uninventive to add oatmeal to peanut butter cookies, I understand. I thought so too. I only did it because I wanted to use up some oats on the same day I needed to stave off a possible too-much-peanut-butter-and-jelly-by-the-spoonful catastrophe.  Fortunately, it turns out the result is much greater than the sum of its parts. Two familiar flavors with two awesome textures meet up for homey, toothy, utter satisfaction.

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Recipe…

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Wacky Mexican Cake, Maximum Study Time, And A New Drawing Series

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Today is a day of pause. The morning rose grey blue and fog-covered. I call it “brumineux,” a mix of the French words for luminous and foggy. I am listening to The Oh Hellos and trying to think what I could tell of this week, this world, and what things of use have come my way.

The center closes to the public for five weeks starting tomorrow, so that we, the folks that run this place, can get edjumucated. So that when you come here we can tell you not just what times meals are and where to park your car, but also maybe some useful things about um, you know, the Dharma or something. And also so that we have the opportunity to benefit from the teachings and development we generally devote our time to make available to others.

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We started classes this past week. It is both elevating and, erm, hardcore. The topic of last week was suffering. How it happens, why it happens, that’s it is all around us even when we aren’t paying attention to us. Chew on that. Also how to get out of it, fortunately (Yay!). Which is to understand that the self is an illusion and permanence is an illusion. Which I am barely just beginning to have a useful conception of, but if you have questions, go ask a Lama because I am just not there yet. Maybe one day.

In the meantime, I am busy between class sessions cooking for Khenpo Rinpoche, our adorable and unimaginable wise teacher, and also squeezing in moments to make cake and chicken soup for my leetle Dharma family, the members of which have been both having birthdays and getting sick a lot lately. (The Buddha said something about aging and sickness didn’t he? Maybe he was onto something there…).

IMG_0799So right, cake and pictures.

Cake: this is wacky cake, a one-bowl, no eggs, no dairy chocolate deliciousness. It is Mexican because there is cinnamon, chili, and coconut frosting involved. I made it for the birthday of a wacky Mexican, so it basically couldn’t be more perfect. It’s simple to make, complex in flavor and surprising without tasting weird.

Pictures: I’ve begun doing one a day, roughly, just to keep me drawing. Because I think I’m funny, I call the series “Valeurs Journalières Recommandées,” which is French for Recommended Daily Values. Each image is a drawing and caption of a thing I’m wishing for each day. Not all are things that would be nourishing them, but expressing them is. Here you see, “to calm down a bit,” (still suffering from that old hag insomnia, but better days/nights seem to be slowly arriving), and “to have care for all beings like that of Khenpo Rinpoche” because his care for beings is boundless and gentle and full of humor, and that, my friends, does a being good. I can testify.

Recipe follows…

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To Reunite (And Not Without Cranberry Chocolate Chunk Oatmeal Cookies)

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This weekend marks the pause between two weeks of giant planning meetings at Dhagpo. The “Réunions d’automnes,” or autumn meetings, as it were. I’ve never enjoyed PowerPoint presentations so much as this last week. But when you fill a room with diverse, yet likeminded people devoted to a shared cause, and then spend three days straight, six hours a day, talking about how to further that cause…even PowerPoint takes on some vigor and joy. It also makes me giggle to see a room full of professional, well-educated people discussing infrastructure and finances, all the while sitting on the floor. With cushions, of course, but still. There’s a certain inherent humility there.IMG_2252

Is it dopey that I gush about management and organization? It blows my mind that I want to. To be so enamored of a place, of a vision, of a community, that I’m interested in PowerPoint and excited about Excel. Math makes me cringe, and yet I’m looking forward to reviewing the budget. I want to know everything about how this place works. I want to help it work. What are the blood and bones of building inspiration?

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That is what this community means to me. To be grounded and lifted at the same time. To talk about how the bills get paid, how the flowers get arranged, whether we’re really going to have lentils twice a week for the rest of our lives. If we’re doing our best, if we can do better, if we’re happy, if we need help. To be honest, to be supportive, to be critical when needed and with kindness.

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And then to exhale and let it all go for a moment. To sit under the stars and share a glass of something warming, toast a marshmallow over a candle, eat oatmeal cookies, and revel in the wonder of good people, good times, and good work.

These are my favorite twist on oatmeal raisins cookies. I typically make them at Christmas time, but we had a little regional dinner party, where everyone brought something from their neck of the woods, and it felt like the right time to break out the bag of cranberries I toted back from the States. This cookie dough is fairly simple and versatile. Bake them right after mixing for lacier cookies, or refrigerate for a couple hours to have thicker, chewier cookies. Bake for a few minutes more or less to have soft cookies or crispy edges or crispy cookies. Either way, you will have the perfect balance of toasty cinnamon, tangy cranberries, rich chocolate, with all the oat-y, caramel-y goodness of the traditional American “koo-kie” (as the French say).

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Full Summer

IMG_1728Made it. The journey took me twenty-six hours, two planes, two trains, two cars, and a bus (let’s not count the elevators and staircases and pounds of baggage I was carrying), but I’m here. And I’m thrilled.

There’s not much in life that stands up to a warm welcome. And when you live in a community of forty or more people who all exclaim and say, “Ah, mais c’est bon de te revoir!“–“Oh, but it’s good to see you again!”–well, let’s just say I have a solid case of the warm-fuzzies.

IMG_1731I’m getting settled back into the kitchen here. I was lucky enough to return in time for the last day of a course with the venerable Beru Khyentse Rinpoche, a Tibetan master who teaches often in the West. I made this tart Sunday night for two of his attendants who stayed with us. Sorry, no recipe, as I just kind of threw it together. You can too if you’re in an off-the-cuff tart mood. It’s just sautéed bell peppers and onions layered with tomatoes and potatoes, all inside of a crumbly pâte brisée.

IMG_1735We are, as the French say, en plein été here. In full summer. It’s an apt term. There is a richness in the air that fills you up. Deep yellow sunshine, a Pantone array of flowers, and the whistle and whizz of things on wings living out their warm-season lives.

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A Place for All, Built by All

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This is the Institute. I’ve mentioned it before. “New Tibetan-Occidental Library and Research Center.” This is the phrase I’ve coined. But what does it mean? What is the significance of this place?

The Institute is the physical manifestation of 16th Karmapa’s wish to create a place of learning, practice and exchange in the West. Now that it’s here, the 17th Karmapa, his successor and the current head of Karma Kagyu lineage, describes the Institute’s purpose like this:

“The Institute aims to give access to knowledge–sciences of the mind, of the body, of the world.”

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I suppose that seems as vague and inspirational as any tagline, but it’s also quite accurate. The Institute currently comprises a teaching hall, a temple, a library, a translation center, a publishing house, and the administrative base of Dhagpo’s functioning.

IMG_1393I’m currently in the office dedicated to the Lama House, IT, the Temple, and Infrastructure, and at this moment, there are two hundred people above my head studying the practice of Chenrezig, the deity of compassion. The Institute is all about getting serious and getting interdisciplinary. During the inauguration, lectures and roundtables covered topics from Tibetology to mindfulness education to “Comparative Research in Modern Sciences and Tibetan Buddhism,” and included people from reincarnate masters to medical doctors.

IMG_1401The Buddha statue in the temple of the Institute holds his hands in the mudra, or gesture, of teaching. The direction that teaching will take is unfolding now that the Institute is established and beginning to develop. There is a genuine interest in discourse between contemporary scientific thought and the teachings of the Buddha, which have been preserved into the modern day. The form of this discourse is a continuing question; current possibilites include short-term forums and conferences, joint research conducted by experts in Western and Tibetan academia, and the establishment of an intensive curriculum combining inquiry into Western and Tibetan philosophy and thought.

Be forewarned; you are hearing a mix of rumors, dinner table chat, and my own personal musings. But in a way, this is appropriate. From all I can gather, the Institute was designed to respond to the needs of its students. We must ask ourselves what knowledge we are seeking, and in this way, we can develop a place to guide us and connect us in our queries. As cheesy as the slogan is, it’s true: The Institute is a place for all, built by all.

IMG_1408If you would like to make a donation toward the funding of the Institute, please visit Dhagpo’s contribution page.

To Run and Then To Breathe

IMG_1377Normally you breathe while you run. Unfortunately, I haven’t quite got that one figured out. My life lately feels more like  I ran for days and days and then all at once remembered to take a deep inhale, whereupon I promptly fell over from exhaustion. I’m in recovery now. From my repose, here’s what all happened.

IMG_1370For four days, two thousand people streamed into Dhagpo: ate on the lawns, meditated in the temples, danced on the parquet, and did Tai Chi in front of the stupa. For four days, I cooked from eight in the morning until ten at night with an hour break to talk to people about art. In addition to the usual stupa, there was also a stupa of vegetables, to inspire people over their lunch buffet.

IMG_1360Sleep-deprived wittiness aside, inspiration was the focus of this event. Even though I’ve been here less than three months, and I’m leaving in a week (only to get my papers in order for a longer visa!), this place is my home. It’s home to many people, from the fifteen people who live here all the time to the twenty more who work here five days a week, to the couple hundred who live nearby and visit regularly to volunteer their time and take part in study and practice. The power of this place is that it lets us feel at home, not just here, but in ourselves. The goal of the Inauguration was to bring people together to share that sense of power and possibility.

IMG_1376On a practical level, the goal was to raise money to continue financing the Institute. Over four days, we succeeded in gathering over 200,000 euros toward the 1.6 million that remain to pay off the construction of the building. In case you were wondering, I designed the lovely donor-meter that you see above…again with the boxes with wings, again with the explanation still to come. In addition to economic exchange, a major part of the event focused on creating connections with people to the center and the history and spiritual life that happen here.

IMG_1372Throughout the four days of Inauguration, there were regularly scheduled teachings, and the event culminated in a two day initiation and blessing of the wisdom deity Gyalwa Gamtso. For practicing Buddhists, this is a link to a long tradition and a step toward deepening one’s practice down the road. For visiting guests, it is an opportunity to experience a traditional ceremony and take part in a vibrant community.

IMG_1355For me, it was a chance to share a profound experience with a ginormous room full of strangers and friends alike, and to pause amidst the rush and realize how truly fortunate I am to have the support that I do in this life: spiritual, emotional, financial, et al.

In between the kitchen and the ceremony, that installation I’ve been talking about got finished and seen and (piece by piece) sold. Overall, it garnered around a thousand euros toward the financing of the Institute. Because so very many things have gone down recently, and because I am so very exhausted, I’m splitting this story into multiple parts. Still to come: the installation and the Institute…what do they look like; what are they for?

Much love for now.

A Home for the Heart

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Whenever I leave the country, my mother says to me, “Don’t fall in love with a Frenchman,” or an Indian or a New Zealander – or wherever I am going – and move far away permanently. So far, so good.

But what does it mean, anyway, to fall in love? I’ve been seriously in love twice in my life and temporarily in love a few more times than that. Every time I fall there is the sense that I’ve found something that I’ve never found before, and yet which I’ve been looking for. Of course there’s all the usual suspects: joy, curiosity, the desire to be near. I’ve come to think of love as finding a home for the heart.

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The world is a rough place. Dreams are slow in the making. Disappointment frequently crashes in. Fear wheedles all along the way. Falling in love has the sense of finding a safe place, some one you can depend on. That when you feel weak, there is some one to remind you of your power. That when you are bereft, there is some one who remains by your side. That when you are overcome with doubt, there is some one whose faith in you does not waiver.

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And yet, the older I get – the more love I experience, and the more love I give – this notion begins to falter. What seems like a valid idea in theory doesn’t stand up in practice. What sadness I have is all my own, and no one else can ease it. My fear is fierce enough to take even the most well intended words of comfort and turn them into condescension. Who could cut through that but me?

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Lately, though, something is changing. I am falling in love, in a new way. This time, I have fallen not for a person, but for a place. Maybe it is France; maybe it is the Dordogne; maybe it is the few hundreds of square meters that make up Dhagpo Kagyu Ling. Whatever it is, the effect is this: I wake up in the morning feeling wonder, and I pass through the day feeling gratitude. The trees standing on the hillside remind me to be strong. The chickadees amidst the juniper remind me to be joyful. The quiet corridors of every building remind me to be patient, to be restful, and to take care with what I carry, my own bundle of desires and uncertainty.

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The difference, I think, between falling in love with a place and falling in love with a person is that, with a place, I have a better sense of what comes from outside and what comes from within. Home is not a place you inhabit; it’s a feeling you create. There is no home for my heart other than the one I build myself. From outside I can draw inspiration, but from inside must come strength and faith and the determination to rest with what is whilst working towards ever-greater understanding of what that means. Being in love with a place, I can see that my lover is a mirror in which to see myself and, through that reflection, grow, rather than thinking of it as a separate source of understanding or happiness, and then becoming dependent on it, which I am wont to do when the lover in question is a person.

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But, as with any love, there are pitfalls here too. I’ve become attached. My mother should have warned me against green woods, stone buildings, and places rife with curiosity and care, as well as their inhabitants. I’ve fallen hard for this place, and I want to stay. Sorry Mums. But, as with everything in life, impermanence is a factor. As a US citizen, I get three months in France until I need a lot of paperwork and, either a lot of money, or a fairly particular reason for being here, or I have no choice but to head home. I suppose this is the trouble with falling in love with a place rather than a person.

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