My Hair And Other Topics: Change Through Appearance

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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.

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(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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

I Am Still A Person Who Makes Things

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So I had that chat with Jigme Rinpoche. And you know what he told me? He said it’s good for me to be an artist.

I was talking about other things, new plans, ideas, and understandings in relation to things I had let go of or was ready to. I started a sentence, “Before I came to Dhagpo, I wanted to be a professional artist–” And he cut me off right in the middle to say, “This is not bad. Not bad. This is quite good I think.”

I didn’t ask any further questions. Usually, I ask why and for what purpose and in what manner and other useful contextualizing questions. But context is for things that are growing and need to grow in the right direction. I spent all this past year working with how I identify with the idea of being an artist. I think it’s no coincidence that when I finally reached the point where I had enough space to consider giving it up, a message came down the pipeline telling me not to abandon ship completely.

But I also realize. Whatever title or career I may pursue or wind up with, in this life, I will always be a person who makes things. Making stuff helps me understand; it helps me find courage; it helps me show love. And this is different from being an artist. A professional one, anyway. Being an artist means creating a portfolio, applying to shows, networking with galleries, connecting in the industry, learning the history, following the news, and a lot of other time-consuming, goal-specific things. Things that I am not doing right now and not planning to being doing in the immediate future.

But it’s good to know not to let the door slide shut as times passes. For now, I just plan on staying a person who makes things, and if the time comes when it is particularly useful to make more things and do the accessory work that helps those things to reach people, well, that’s cool with me too, I guess.

anofferingIn case, ahem, anybody might be wondering, Rinpoche said a few other things too. It was quite a nice chat, honestly. And perhaps it’s selfish, but I’m glad he’s back where I can make his tea and get to see his round form bobbing across the esplanade in front of the Institute.

He said to focus on study. He said, in my case anyway, that Tibetan can be better learned through studying the traditional teachings than by going away for a long time to study the language itself. Though maybe going away for a bit here and there could be useful. He said to train to teach. He even gave me some pointers as to where and how I could do that within the context of my life at Dhagpo. He affirmed what I have believed from the beginning: that this place is perfect. Okay, so he didn’t say it like that. He said that it is the combination of study, formal practice, and activity in the center that helps us to understand both the meaning of the teachings and how to take care of people. This is, after all, the goal: understand the teachings and, in so doing, take care of people.

In the end, I am left with the feeling that instead of some grand adventure, I find myself, as ever, on the long slow road. But it is a good road and it is the road to where I want to go. The company is first-class and the guys giving directions are top-notch.

I think of that fable from when I was a kid. Slow and steady wins the race. And then comes back for the speedy and distracted, though they left that part out.

Please, let me be a good tortoise.

Honey Rosemary Cakeletes and A Happy Head Trip

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I got new glasses. So I’m a hipster. So shoot me. But first, let’s have a chat about personality. Then you can see how you feel.

A friend of mine told me yesterday that he was surprised by the amount of sadness I express here in my writing, as opposed to how joyful he finds me in life. I thought two things, mainly.

1) Sadness is important to me. It animates a great deal of my creative work. I often observe sadness as the stigmatized stepchild of emotions: portrayed as being for the weak, the sensitive, the mentally ill, even. Thanks world. And yet, whenever we turn this stigma on others, we turn it ever more fiercely upon ourselves. This is not a good system.

Despite this, for my part, I have also discovered that sadness can be a form of wisdom. My own wistfulness reminds me that life is impermanent, that loss is inevitable, and that we are all living within this truth. The ache of being human pushes me to continue striving towards greater kindness and understanding, because this is a hard truth and these are the best tools I have found to soften the hardship therein. Thus the frequent appearance of said sadness in these pages, if we can stretch that ancient lexicon to this new media.

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2) My own perception of myself is enormously limited. I think of myself as winsome, moody, occasionally charismatic, witty in the right company, and (more than) a little bizarre. Yesterday I got called “effervescent.” Wait, what, me?

I suppose this is not new news, but I’m tripping out over here, guys. Personality, man, it’s just…kind of made up. But it also works. I bought these glasses because I like feeling like a retro nerd. I’ve been wanting to write more, and these glasses make me feel like the awkward but charming protagonist of an eighties movie. You know, the girl with the crew neck sweatshirt and full-waisted skirt who spends way too much time in the library. I want to be that girl, except that instead of discovering that Jake Ryan loves me too I want to discover my literary voice.

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And the glasses actually help. But at the same time, though I have my own ideas about who I am, and what my glasses add to that, it’s totally based on my own personal narrative, as is all of my personality. My personality, according to me, is how I think of myself. I know that sounds annoyingly cyclical, but think about it. Every person I interact with has their own experience and opinion of me (do you really think I’m a hipster, still? …Oh well.).  Each opinion is not more or less valid than my own; I just encounter it less frequently.

In a way, my experience of myself is like that of any stranger’s on the street: an opinion formed based on a given number of interactions and a preexisting history. Sure, it’s my history, but that’s a technicality. I think this is kind of the greatest thing. Me suddenly seems so fluid. And exciting. I can rediscover myself in new ways with every person with whom I interact. Suddenly this me I’ve been lugging around all these years feels dynamic.

How bout that?

Do I sound sad today, huh? I’m all zippy and giddy! Let’s make cake. That’s still my response to pretty much everything. Some things don’t change. But hey, you never know.

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This cake teeters between proper cake and decadent muffin territory. It’s more elegant than your average muffin, so I’m calling it cake, despite its frosting-less nature. You can decide for yourself. All you really need to know is that it is spongey and moist and perfumed with honey and rosemary. This is a tactile cake: in your hands as you peel back the paper wrapper; in your mouth as you sink teeth into chewy goodness; against your tongue as you savor herbal, tangy sweetness. Also, it’s absurdly easy to make. Being an oil and buttermilk cake, it requires no softening or creaming of butter. Just measuring and mixing. You can make it even if you don’t have buttermilk, by mixing half a cup of regular milk with half a teaspoon of your favorite vinegar. Caaaake! Do it.

Recipe follows…

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The Right Place

What a day to be me. It is Saturday in India; breakfast was brown bread with salted butter and homemade jam, not to mention fresh papaya and sweet milk tea. The air is cold and misty, and I have been in my room interneting away over my tea and toast until the sun comes out.

I failed to take a picture of actual breakfast, but isn't the dishware picturesque?

I failed to take a picture of actual breakfast, but isn’t the dishware picturesque?

I have discovered an infinitude of beautiful people writing, making, and sharing beautiful things (see *note below) on the internet to keep me company between practice, study, and a tad bit of homesickness. Yeah, that’s right, you got me. I’m homesick. I’ve been here one month and it’s not vacation, but it wasn’t meant to be and it is good shit. I am learning deep parts of the Buddhist tradition that I come from, reevaluating my own views and habits, and ironing them out on the cushion and in life.

But this is no easy thing. I get hit over the head with my own shortcomings and ignorance every day. My lack of patience, my expectations, my deep resentment of uncertainty and impermanence, which are both, erm, totally unavoidable truths of life. Like I said, I’ve been seeking solace a bit, in the in-between times. Which I don’t think is a bad thing. I haven’t neglected practice or study, and we all have to figure out the balance between work and play that keeps us inspired and moving forward, right?

So I’ve been reading lots of food blogs and writing recipes in my head, and missing having an oven. I draw once a week and have been making loads of origami paper and cranes, but I do periodically wonder if I am going to wake up one day and be totally slaughtered by the absence of canvas in my life.

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Slaughtered is maybe an exaggeration, but anyway, here’s what happened: Today I got a lovely comment on this here blog, encouraging the work I do as an artist and reminding me to keep faith in the process and have fun. Then I got an e-mail from some one I had a nice conversation with at a holiday party in December saying he wants to buy one of my paintings, or maybe three. Then I got an e-mail from one of the members of my art critique group back home telling me about new developments in their work that I am not around to see. It’s like my life is missing me too!

And so, now it comes. The missing of canvas. Not that the missing of California mountains and the emulsification of butter and flour has given up the ghost. They just have company now.

Life and space and time are a strange business though. I wouldn’t leave KIBI for anything right now, with the small exception of dengue fever, which would be out of my control and which I make daily prayers will not enter my life in any way, shape, or form other than the absence of our Tibetan language teacher, who is himself recovering in Germany. Anyway, my point is that, despite this pulsating missing of things in distant places, and despite the fact that the city of Delhi holds very little romance for me, I am good here.

Studying Buddhism means sitting cross-legged even when you're not meditating. Chairs are not a thing.

Studying Buddhism means sitting cross-legged even when you’re not meditating. Chairs are not a thing.

I don’t always like that fact. There are times I wish I hadn’t happened upon this journey. I was happy at home with my baking, my painting, my big outdoors, my yoga and friend-and-family life. But I wanted to study dharma. Needed to, really, because as much as I love all the other parts of my life, none of them make sense without the teachings to put them in context.

This is your mind; this is how you find joy; this is how you create suffering. And this–this is how you learn to be happy.

That’s what Buddhism means to me. So even though I never had a yen to visit India, and now that I’m here I would rather spend my Saturday reading food blogs and saying mantras on the temple steps than sightseeing, I know that this is the right place to be. I am doing my best to let it be, until the time is once more ripe for canvas and cooking and all the rest, and maybe, just maybe, for all of these things to come together (my teachers say, “abandon hope; embrace this moment,” but I am still learning).

*Note: I have (finally) started a blogroll to share the beautiful places where I spend time and find inspiration. You’ll find it as a tab on the menu bar.

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.