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?)

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The Cold Season And A Black Sesame Caramel Tart

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The frost is on the leaves, the leaves are on the ground, and bare branches begin to pierce the clear, cold sky. I saw my first French chickadee this morning. They’re fatter than the chickadees I have known in Arizona mountains and New England woodlands. It must be all the cheese. 😉

Oh wait, it’s just me that dosing on delicious French dairy these days. If you live near a decent cheese shop, go ask for roquefort, morbier, and tomme catalan straightaway. Eat the roquefort with golden delicious apples, the morbier with grilled mushrooms, and the tomme catalan with quince jelly and toasted almonds.

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I’m a bit giddy and heady these days. Happy Thanksgiving and Chanukah, by the way, to all the other Americans and Jews out there. In lieu of celebrating proper Thanksgiving today, I’m commemorating my own favorite version of the holiday this weekend: Friendsgiving! It’s Thanksgiving with your friends, when you want, how you want, in whatever country you want, and one step further removed from the massacre of America’s indigenous people that Thanksgiving so handily sweeps under the rug. Hehe.

And then I am heading into a week of retreat at Kundreul Ling, the monastic sister center of the Buddhist center where I live. And then I’m heading to Bordeaux to get my visa properly validated. And then to Paris to visit my French family, the incredible people who put up with me when I was a headstrong, naive teenager (now I’m a headstrong, moderately-less naive young adult…it makes all the difference). And then to Cal-i-for-nigh-ay to visit my actual family.

For all my heartache and sadness and frustration, I am very, very happy to get to see my family. My faaaamily. My fambly. The folks who hold my heart close to their own, who have done so as long as I’ve been present in this world. The folks who know what I like to eat on Christmas morning, what the feel of sand under my toes does for me on blue days, what color shoes to get (and not to get) me for Christmas. Who know to look for good museum shows when I’m in town, to plan our schedules around the restaurants we want to try, and to not hesitate to invite me to this year’s super cheesy, hilarious kids Christmas movie (but only if it’s animated).

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When the weather gets cold and the air smells like ice, I start to think of things like hearth fires and the scent of cinnamon. These things are awesome, but they are also mostly cultural proxies drilled into me by American holiday culture. What all that actually stands for is the comfort of home, wherever that may be.

I am lucky to have and have known many loving homes in this life. Home is the invisible ties to the people who color my life. It is profound love expressed through the everyday. Cinnamon is cozy and I’m as much a sucker for that as every other American, but actually, the taste of black sesame renders me much more nostalgic. Not homesick but home-well, heart-happy, for memories of basement Chinese restaurants, my mom’s favorite brittle candy, sharing chocolate halvah with my dad, and not wanting to say the word “furikake” (my favorite condiment on earth; comprised of salt, sugar, seaweed, and sesame) at four years old because it sounded too much like “kaka.” Oh yes, I was refined as a toddler.

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Enough years in the woods has worn down my modesty for bodily-functions, but I try to keep my culinary tastes at least a little refined. Though I can’t deny having a serious weakness for snack food; in France we have these peanut flavored corn puffs that are basically like peanut-butter flavored Cheetos, which sounds weird, but is actually delicious and addictive. Ahem, anyway, all that to say that, unlike my strange ramblings today, the recipe that follows is reliable, sophisticated, and complex. It’s a bit of East-meets-West, which I guess I am too, with Oriental flavors of black sesame and orange flower meeting classic French caramel and flaky pastry crust. While the feeling of home this tart brings about may be particular to me, its deliciousness expresses love under any roof.

Recipe follows…

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

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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.

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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…

Amazing Grace

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Sometimes, it’s Saturday, and you go into the kitchen thinking you’ll bake pumpkin scones, but there is someone there who asks you how your days have been and when you say, a few things have been difficult, he says, “But you know, you can take that as an instruction, a way to grow,” and you say, “I do know” and then you walk out the door before he or you can say anything else, because sometimes it’s better that way.

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Sometimes you stay up late, go to a chateau, drink mulled wine, and try to dance your sadness away. But it doesn’t go, and the wine doesn’t help, nor the truffles, nor the pumpkin flan, nor the smiles of the boys who are in fact men, who are your friends, your family now, who would help if they could but they can’t. So you take yourself away and sing Amazing Grace on your knees in the tiny old chapel next door where the sound of your voice resounds like a bell, a plea, a supplication, but there is no one to hear you but yourself.

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Sometimes you are an adult and your parents decide to divorce and you feel like a child even though you have told yourself it will be a relief after all of these years of unspoken indecision. Sometimes you want a thing to hold you solid and secure, and you want that thing to be your family, the one you knew when you were a child, the one that made you, body and bones and tears and sweat and sadness. And even though you know that nothing lasts, and that this is the most amazing grace of life, as much as its biggest burden, you want this thing to last.

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But it is no thing, and it never was. A collection of pieces cobbled together and held in place for a certain time by a certain stickiness of needs and wants and loves and histories and hopes. But the glue comes undone and the cobwebs fall down and all of the spiders have new homes or are dead and dry in the corners of the house where no one now lives. And your family is still your family, but you are not together; you are pieces, and in pieces, because each of you has pieces of the others, but you have taken them with you, and they have taken theirs with them, and now they are scattered the world over and snagged on broken phone lines of miscommunication and disappointed expectations, and you do not expect to get them back, but you do not know, either, what to do with the spaces left behind.

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So you take pictures of the living room in a house that you don’t live but you do run. And you make jokes with a new family, a different kind, about the mulled wine and the broken couch, and the bag of flour spilled on the floor. And you don’t forsake your old family, but you don’t know what to call it anymore either. So you call them on the phone, and sometimes you let your sadness show and sometimes you don’t, and you tell yourself you will make pumpkin scones tomorrow, and maybe that will help. And maybe it will, and maybe it won’t, but nothing lasts after all and this is the most amazing grace of life as much as its biggest burden and you will live with it and let yourself learn to grow, because this is what there is to do.

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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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What You Cannot Do

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I don’t know if I’ve ever been so scared in my life as when I first took the Metro in Paris, by myself. The day before, my host mom, Rosine, had taken me to the station to make sure I got the right card for all the places I needed to go, had found me a map, pocket-sized to keep me from looking like a tourist, and had double checked that I understood how the lines were marked and which way they went. She even took the trip with me to the language school and walked me right up to the door, despite the fact that it was Sunday and the place wasn’t even open. When Monday came, I arrived without incident. All my fears that I would take the wrong metro – get horribly lost, be stranded interminably in an unknown quarter of the city, find myself with insufficient language skills to clarify my plight – were for naught. However, I suspect that, if not for Rosine’s caretaking and instruction, I might well have done just that.

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Through all of the three months that I was in France that first time, Rosine was my rock. For the duration, I was shaky on my feet. I was just a kid, learning to play the part of an adult, figuring out what it means to take care of myself, and starting to ask what it means to be responsible to and for others. I felt like an anomaly, an untamed California child, bursting with passion, ambition, and uncertainty. I wanted to be a real artist; I wanted to be worldly; I wanted to be feminine and adult and intelligent. I read Kerouac and Calvino, passed my days in museums and parks, gazing at masterpieces, eating macarons, and wondering when it would all start to make sense.

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When I faltered, when I needed comfort, or just whenever, Rosine was there. She made giant pots of Lapsang Souchong and sat with me over cup after cup, talking through my teenage angst and the confusion of being an American in Paris with no real purpose to my stay. Despite language school, despite a little doodling at a local atelier, everywhere I went felt like a check mark on a travel brochure, and everyone I met seemed to be another transient foreigner.

It was Rosine who told me about les Café Philos, where people meet to talk philosophy. She told me about the neighborhood where I would find all the commercial art galleries. She convinced me to make the trek to FIAC, the contemporary arts fair held in some distant corner of the city. She kept the freezer stocked with ice cream and the fridge stocked with cornichons and rillettes, on the premise that everyone could profit from their presence, but really because she knew I loved them and that they helped cheer me up on days when I couldn’t make sense of who I was or who I might become.

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In the years since I left Paris, I’ve kept in touch with Rosine through holiday letters and occasional e-mails. I still feel the twangs of teenage insecurity when I look back on those days, and I give thanks to goodness for the support I had to get through it. But, also, life rolls on, and I don’t think much about that time anymore. I pause often to remind myself to get in touch again soon, yet I only manage to do so once in a blue moon. I’ve been in France three weeks already, and I haven’t managed to actually send the e-mail that says, “Hey, I’m close by, how’s things? I miss you.”

And then yesterday I got an e-mail from my Dad. He had lunch with old family friends, the ones who had first introduced me to Rosine and her family when I was finishing high school early and planning what adventures to embark upon. They kept in touch more regularly and had new news of things.

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The cancer Rosine had been in remission from has come back in full force. At this moment, she hasn’t even the strength to walk. In all probability, the disease will kill her, and maybe soon.

It’s a funny thing that’s not funny at all. I wish I could send all the letters I never sent, write all of the emails I didn’t make time to write, explain ten or twelve or fifty-thousand more times how grateful I am for the love I received. I wish I could go back to that time and be less angsty, less chaotic, less troubled and turbulent. I wish all of these things for myself because I don’t know how or what to wish for her. What can you do when some one you love is in pain? What can you do when anyone at all is passing out of this world and into unknown quarters?

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I’ll tell you what. You can do your damnedest to let go of your guilt and regret, to move past your fear and sorrow, and to ask, what, what can I possibly offer? I am trying to do this right now. It’s not so easy. What I can do is call and express my love and support, and ask if it is helpful if I come for a short while to say hello and also possibly goodbye. I can make wishes for her pain to be less than it might otherwise be and for her journey to be beneficial, whatever it may be. What I cannot do is change what faults I may have committed. What I can do is let go of my preoccupation with my own actions and focus on some one else’s needs.

Another thing I cannot do is change the reality that, once born, we all must die. Here I think of Dharma, where it is taught that death is a doorway. Maybe what I can do, then, is my very best to see some one I love safely through, with as much grace and care as I can muster in the face of mortality and the unknown.

Arch **Note: All the photos in this post were taken in Paris in 2005, during the time I stayed with Rosine and her family.

After the Holidays

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Happy third night of Chanukah and Merry (T – 15 days to) Christmas.

My family is not particularly religious, but we do celebrate both Chanukah and Christmas, as an ode to our roots, and as a way to bring us all together. My mom was raised loosely Catholic, and professes to believe in a higher power, but has never glommed on to organized religion much. My Dad is a reform Jew from a big Jewish family on the East Coast who took my sister and I to synagogue every year for the High Holy Days, and still does if we’re in town. When I was little, we read about the parting of the Red Sea and the miracle of oil that became Chanukah.

I love the singing of songs, the eating of fried food, and the sense of history that my Jewish heritage gives me, but I never much formed a bond with the God of the Israelites. My sister is a devout atheist; I guess she never did either. In our respective years of life, we have each stumbled upon various forms of value and guidance for this life. Taylor is discovering her own goodness and the power of human communication. I have developed meditation practice and am walking the Buddhist path of discovering the nature of mind. We share the practice of creativity and faith in the power of art to connect and elucidate the workings of the human engine.

This holiday will see all of us, on our various paths, come together to light candles, top trees, wrap presents, and share meals made with love. It’s the big family hurrah! And when the holidays are over, my own path will take me far afield. Come January, I am heading to India to study some of those texts that have been handed down through generations to tell those of us alive today what the Buddha taught over 2,000 years ago. The opportunity came up quickly, and, for now, I mostly feel a sense of giddiness combined with all the uncertainty of what lies ahead. I don’t know what will happen to this little blog in that time, but, as it unfolds, I’ll keep you posted. Happy Holidays!

From Under a Rock

Proof that I went somewhere; I've been hiding under some pretty good rocks. Bianca (left) and me in the mountains above Durango. Photo by Iza Bruen.

Proof that I went somewhere – I’ve been hiding under some pretty nice rocks. Bianca (left) and me in the mountains above Durango. Photo by Iza Bruen.

I’ve been hiding, a little bit, over here. You may have noticed I’ve been gone almost a whole month. Minor yikes, though I’m not planning on making a habit of it. I could easily attribute the absence to travel or an abundance of epic meals to be made. But truthfully, neither is to blame. I suppose the best explanation is to say that, lately, I’m a little dumbfounded by life.

The Buddha taught that all things are impermanent; the only things we can rely on are change, impermanence, creativity, and uncertainty. The cells of my body are dying and being made new every day, as are plants and animals, stars and planets. Impermanence is sensible, but it also comes as a surprise when change applies to the things we thought, or hoped, we might be able to rely on for a little while.

From the series Midday Crisis Aphorisms, Mixed Media on Paper, 4 3/8" x 4 3/8"

From the series Midday Crisis Aphorisms, Mixed Media on Paper, 4 3/8″ x 4 3/8″

In my silence, I have been digesting some impermanence. The strange thing about ever-changing life, though, is that you don’t get settled with it. Even new changes shift and change as I am watching them, living them. My friends are changing, dispersed over country and continents. Many of the cares that held us together have faded or been left behind; some have been remade and others not. My family is changing, less a tightly-woven unit and more a fragile web of individuals. My future is changing, places and paths I thought I might see someday becoming ones I might see very soon, while others disappear completely. Inside this sense of loss I wonder: even the best of plans are only imagination until they come to pass and even the best of people are only with us when they’re with us and gone when they are gone. It may seem a heavy thing, and yet everything about it blows away with the wind.

A temporary friend.

A temporary friend.

As Burns said and Steinbeck reminded us, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” I have nothing else pithy to say; I just really wanted to include this adorable picture of a critter I had the pleasure to meet before sending him on his way. I know most people don’t like rodents, but isn’t he cute? I think he’s grateful to be alive. Me too.

That to Which We Defer

A fuzzy sketch of Gemmy watching TV.

My grandmother’s visiting. Her presence leaves a trail of TIME magazines, pistachio shells, and the sound of game shows. In the evening, though, when the game shows have mostly gone off to bed, she finds other entertainment. She used to watch A & E Biography, but I think now, as her memory weakens, she looks for shows with shorter plot arcs and punchier narration.

Tonight she was watching The Church Channel. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen it. In this house we mostly watch HBO, sports, and crime dramas. But tonight when I came in to bring her pills, I sat on the edge of the bed and listened. And I heard this,

“Who’re you?”

“A child of the most-high God.”

And you know what? I get that. Religion, history, politics; those are other stories. This story is in me.

Neuron Norms, 22″ x 16″, ink, chalk pastel, and acrylic on unprimed canvas and loose-weave cotton, 2010

Whatever we trust most in this world, this universe, this frame of reference…we are that. That which we defer to, that within which we place our own faith. We are nothing less than the progeny of our own inspiration.

Even when I’m grumpy, even when I’m frustrated and failing, I am what I take comfort in.

Krumholz Lodgepole, Spooning Boulder by Carla Roybal, 2012

Lodgepole pines twisting in the krumholz of the High Sierra. The smell of sage in my own mountainsides. The slow seeping of ink into unprimed canvas. The memory of every artist that ever came before me, those concurrent to me, and those who will follow after. The feeling of my family and the ones I have found along the way to add to that collection. My butt on the cushion in meditation while each little neuron explodes in madness and wisdom.

I am a child of the most-high God.