Looking For The Low Light

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This mist of busyness plus the-rest-of-life-ness has been continuing. The kitchen project is racing forward all of a sudden it seems. Suffice to say that the kitchen I’ve known for the last two years is no more, just an empty space with shockingly dirty walls…I guess twenty-six years of life and action will do that to a place. In the meantime, we’re cooking in the new outdoor space, which is smaller but has all the joy of newness and a place created with care.

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All of this means lots of spontaneous rearranging of affairs and minor kitchen panic from trying to prepare a meal without knowing where the hell anything is. This week feels like trying to stop sand from pouring down into the bottom of the hourglass. I feel like things may be slipping through the cracks and yet the sand pours down so smooth and soft that I stop paying attention to details and simply focus on the feeling.

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There’s no way I’ll be able to write all the e-mails I want to write in a week, or have all the conversations that need to be had, accomplish all the tasks. And as each week gets closer to Karmapa’s visit I know that somehow in the time he is here, every thing I have not done before will land squarely on my head in those five days.

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And I just think, okay. Things will slip through the cracks. Time is limited. And it keeps spilling out below me. So what to do but relax? Go to the lake and have a drink with friends when your brain can’t crunch any more numbers or formulate any more e-mails and the basics of your to-do list have been crossed off even if the non-basics are literally unending. Let it be a little. Play with your new prime lens and try to understand in life and in photography that place where everything glows a little before the sun disappears and it all goes dim. Every moment is a tiny flash of impermanence, in all its continuous glory. Every second a death from one moment to another, each grain of sand sliding down below us.

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I can capture it in an image, but even the image I think have captured and can hold is a fiction. All things pass. So what is there to do but live them and let them go, and dedicate them when they are good?

Throw up one’s hands and laugh a little, perhaps.

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Quotable Tuesdays

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In an attempt to make more stuff with my hands (art…might we be talking about art? Maybe not just yet…anyway iPhoto also played a crucial role in today’s creation), here’s a new look for Quotable Tuesdays. Enjoy!

Cameras And Death

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Do I start by saying…I bought a camera? Ahem, with a lot of help from my mother, I bought a camera. A real one—an awesome but not too scary my-first-DSLR kind of camera—a Nikon D3300. If all goes well you will be more consistently overwhelmed with pictorial support for these ramblings. I’m just starting out, thinking about things like aperture and shutter speed in practice for the first time, instead of just wondering how much more precisely I might be able to capture the world around me if I had some power over such things.

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I guess I’ve effectively started with the camera, so now I just have to figure out how to segue into the rest. It’s strange, looking at these pictures. I like them. I’m still working out the whole lighting and composition thing and will be for a while I imagine, but on the whole they’re okay. Pretty snapshots that remind me of my childhood, details from the house I grew up in, flora and scenery that strike me as particularly Californian, plus a couple pensive travel shots from the road home (back to France, I don’t know where the hell home is anymore. I suppose I have more than one and that’s a blessing more than anything).

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The pictures are a little nostalgic, maybe even a tad brooding, but largely comforting. I hope there’s a hint of unease sifting through it all…the sneaky whiff of impermanence permeating all the pretty things. But it’s a far cry from the distinctly unsubtle reminder of impermanence that’s in the foreground today.

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A 7.8 earthquake hit Nepal yesterday morning. The Bodhanath Stupa cracked right through its eyes, from top to toe. The minaret next to Swayambhu Stupa exists only in the form of a pile of rocks. Nearly two thousand deaths have been counted in Kathmandu and surrounding villages have not yet been accounted for. Most of the monasteries are okay, but not all, and the master teachers are calling for prayers and joining in their support for the deceased, wounded, and disenfranchised.

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How strange that this place where I walked less than a year ago should now be so dramatically redesigned by a shudder of the earth. How strange that catastrophes like this happen so frequently and we can do so little beyond join our hands and send a few bucks or even fly halfway around the world to collect the rubble and try to find and feed those that remain. How strange that death is present like a drop of rain hovering over us ready to fall at any moment and we so rarely feel its impending arrival. How strange that devastation washes over this earth regularly and suffering permeates the planet in both visible and invisible ways at every moment and we are so adept at sidestepping its implications.

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How easy it is to be lost in the urgency of what needs to be done without remembering why. How easy it is to adopt a rhetoric of care for others while nurturing frustration and malcontent. How easy it is to speak of focus and deliberation while engaging in distraction and agitation. How busy I manage to keep myself to avoid facing death. Death.

Death.

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It’s coming for me. Every moment is an ending. One that I ignore, clinging to the next moment’s beginning. Every moment could be the ending of the life and self I know. And I’m not ready. I’m trying to be ready, to get ready, to learn to face impermanence and give up the illusion that all I see and know has truth and existence to its nature. To appreciate that what I perceive is as weightless as a dream and as ever changing. And that this is neither good nor bad, but simply freeing.

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But um, I don’t. Not yet. And if I had to bet, I’d bet a lot of the people that lost their lives or their homes in Kathmandu hadn’t quite got that one down yet either. So pray them for them.

And pray for us all, that we learn how to live with our dying, with the ending in every moment. And if you don’t pray, write a poem; sing a song; hug a friend; climb a mountain; do a thing that reminds you how fleeting we are and that the business of learning how to live with impermanence is a shared one.

Love and good luck.

At Ten-Thirty

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This is my human heart. It is essenceless, and me too, but that doesn’t keep it from beating inside me. This is me, at ten-thirty at night–bedtime if I were smarter and less attached to my attachments–listening to Shakey Graves and thinking about desire.

My friend Claire told me Tuesday, “It’s crazy, desire. I don’t even know what for.” And me neither. I get that. I mean, I could name a thousand things and the list would be unfinished to the nth degree.

A good night’s sleep-to be held close and tight-warm ocean water enveloping me-candle light in an empty room-dancing by myself for hours without having to wonder about whatever comes next… I want eternity, actually. I want the opposite of impermanence. I want the game of life and death and ignorance to stop for a minute here. I want to press pause and boogie in my underwear without there being any consequences.

But life ain’t like that. It’s all a big in-between. Or uncountable, indivisible little in-betweens. Every moment leads to another damn moment and whatever comes, I get to live, however I’m predisposed to live it. Most of the time, it ain’t like boogying in my underoos, that’s for sure. It’s not bad, either. Rich you know. Teaches me stuff, too. Which is the point of course. But it smacks of impermanence. That comes too fast for the good things and comes at a pace that only questionably qualifies as movement for the hard things.

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I had a conversation tonight that literally sent me reeling to the ground. It was surprising to see how much the body takes in. Facing some one talking at me loudly, not permitting me to respond, totally caught up in a fixed vision. The anger wasn’t directed at me, fortunately, but it still felt painful to absorb it all. I didn’t want to push back, but I didn’t know how to disengage the anger in front me, and probably I couldn’t have if I tried, and I didn’t know to finish the conversation and just walk away either (hard when some one won’t let you talk). I almost fainted, could feel my heartbeat slowing, and my vision getting dark.

What do you do, when you just don’t know how to be with reality? I can’t help but wonder if most of my activity is devoted to avoiding this knowledge. And yet, the whole purpose of a life in the dharma is to face that and learn to master it. I really hope it’s working. Otherwise, this life is major bogus. So that’s me, offering–and supplicating–the best I can, despite all my distraction and desire.

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And this is hibiscus fennel buns and a bowl of hummus, for girl’s brunch tomorrow. Which signifies, if you’re wondering, trying to keep connected with what is, in all its impermanent glory. Good things, hard things, mundane things, things I dunno how to handle. We gotst to keep on keepin’ on. Ain’t got no choice; might as well make this run count for something.

Oh, and hey, apologies for last week’s absence. Still adjusting to the new schedule of life with communications biz plus Bodhi Path study group, and occasional peeps who come to visit, and whatever else life can throw at me (let’s not talk about trying to pass my French driver’s license exam…these people are nuts for regulating minutiae. Effin’ socialists…). Anyhow, I’m trying to figure out this thing called discipline, but it’s um, a work in progress, if you know what I mean.

Giving Up MoMA

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Having a record of my thoughts is a strange phenomenon, and knowing I’ve let those thoughts out into the world to be seen by others makes it even more so. I clicked through some posts of the recent past to check out what I’ve been living, according to myself, and also to see what shape the blog and this narrative take over time. And I had the funny feeling of talking to two different people. One who’s tentative and questioning and willing to breathe deep and sigh out, blink at the flowers in the field and not understand things. And another who’s energetic and brimming with anticipation and trying to tie answers onto questions in the hopes of being able to put them in a drawer and slide it shut with a reassuring thunk.

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This art thing. It’s not an answered question.

I still want everything I’ve ever wanted from my art practice. Wealth, recognition, community, affirmation. I still cradle daydreams of Chelsea gallery openings and the Metropolitan Costume Gala. But looking up show submissions and reading contemporary art news isn’t really what I spend my time doing. Occasionally, once in a while, I browse the call-for-entries website and think about the opportunities I’m missing, and muse about the totally viable professional art career I could have if I just spent, I dunno… maybe ten hours a week would be enough. It’d be slow, but I could update my website, and start a real series, keep up with the industry, get in contact with other artists, improve my exhibition history. Okay, it would take more than ten hours a week. More like fifteen or twenty or nearly full time.

There’s this irony that kills me. I feel like I finally have the skills to succeed in the art world—the diligence, perseverance, the understanding that success is not about talent and it’s not about me on any level but actually about hard work and being in the right place at the right time. I’ve developed the resilience to not be crushed by critique or rejection (some of the time) and the perspective to bounce back in the moments when I am. I finally have the toolkit for this goal I’ve been cradling all of my life, and what do I with it? I just…let it go, I guess.

Maybe this is me grieving, again, publicly.

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The other day in a philosophy class, we were talking about how to carry out projects while dealing with impermanence. And just like that, I said this: “For me, creating a plan or carrying out a project in the face of impermanence is about having a long-term objective and being able to check in and see if my actions line up with my objective. For a long time I wanted to be a professional artist, and I had to ask myself what I needed to do for that. Show work, connect with people related to that, etc. Recently, that’s changed. Now what I want is to put art to work as a tool for reaching enlightenment. And I realize that the reason I’ve been so stressed for a while is because the pressure I’ve been putting on myself no longer lines up with the goal I have.”

And it was so simple. It slid out just like that in the past tense. And when I said it, I thought, “Yeah, that’s so it.”

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But there’s still some part of me that’s not ready to give up. That’s like, “Yeah, but I can have enlightenment and a show at the MoMA too, right?” And maybe I can, if we ignore the fact that enlightenment is really far away and what I’ll actually have, if I ever find myself in this position, is a step along the path and a show at the MoMA too. Thing is, even if I can have it, even if one day I might have it, clinging to the dream isn’t helping me.

Tomorrow we’re starting a two-week study retreat, picking up Mipham Rinpoche’s Gateway to Knowledge where we left off. I’m pretty sure we’re still somewhere in the middle of suffering, ahem, the first Noble Truth. And on the weekend we’ll be having this year’s round of Autumn Meetings. And the week after that my plan is to hunker down and pass driver’s ed, so I can get my French license in one more step of committing for real to this place and this path. Then there’ll be meditation retreat and budgets for next year and translation projects and so, so many good things that I’ve decided to do instead of spending thirty hours a week becoming an artist.

And all of this aching is just that: aching. Maybe I can’t change it yet, but I don’t want to hold on to it either. I want to give up the things I don’t need, so I can do the work that will change something. Me, others, my ignorance, our suffering at the hands of impermanence and our confusion about what that means.

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Maybe this is renunciation: cradling a tender spot until I finally give up wishing for things I am not willing to create. I’m going to die, you know, one of these days. And I can’t take the MoMA with me. There’s so much love in that dream—all I wish I could give through creation. Maybe I can give it, and the dream just needs a new direction.

The dharma is more durable and the lighting’s just as good.

(I’m not sure this pun is comprehensible. It’s partly a Buddhist joke and partly an in-my-head joke. In Buddhism, the wisdom of the Buddhas and the teachings are often compared to sunlight, which clears the obscurity of ignorance. And in my daydream, the lighting is that of the MoMA, which is perfect because, well…it’s the MoMA.)

Rainstorms, Rhubarb Crumble Tart, And The Busted Past Conditional

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Yesterday at lunchtime someone told me it was good to see me smiling again, and it made me want to shout or cry or run away. Instead I just shook my head and said, still smiling, “Oh come on, there are already so few places where it’s okay to feel things…” and left it at that. And he just affirmed that he was glad that I was doing better, and I spent the rest of the day working out why that’s not okay with me. Let me try and explain.

If you saw me crying in the temple in the evening, soggily saying my prayers. If you saw me climbing the hill to the Institute with a closed face and a cloud knit into my brow. If you passed me midmorning at a picnic table with pens and paper when I could have been, maybe should have been, in some one else’s natural order of things, already tapping away at a computer in the cold darkness of the office. If you heard me singing hymns at the top of my voice while hanging out laundry to dry. If you worried that I was not okay. If you wondered what was wrong.

Let me assure you. I’m okay. But lots of things are wrong.

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My socks have holes in them. The milk I drank with breakfast makes my stomach hurt. I can never seem to conjugate the conditional past tense correctly in French, and it worries me that I seem to use it so often—all the things I would have done, or should have done. I hung my laundry on the line but it keeps raining just enough that the afternoon sun isn’t enough to dry my clothes and they’ve been out there four days now.

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It’s been a year since my parents decided to get divorced and even though we’re all mostly adapted now, I still have to work hard not to choke when some one kindly says, “It must be hard for you being so far from home. You must miss your family,” and I say, “There’s not much sense in missing my family. The family I grew up with doesn’t exist anymore.”

It’s been three-and-a-half months since my teacher died and I try not to talk about it too much because I wonder how much you can grieve publicly before people tire of you or tune you out. Or maybe I just don’t know how to talk about my grief because I’m no longer willing to treat it as something to get over.

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Things are always wrong. Sometimes it’s big things and it’s definitely always little things. I have spent my life trying to forget this, to look on the bright side and wait for things to get better. And they always do. And then they un-get better later. And every time I experience loss anew, it feels like the first time. I’m as shocked and disoriented as I ever was. Doubt rises, confidence ebbs, and the ability to move forward temporarily suspends. With time, and softness, and grieving, I find my way back. I relearn how to live with a family that’s pieces instead of a unit, without the physical presence of the teacher who’s guidance I seek daily, with holes in my socks, with a stomach ache, wet laundry, and a busted conditional past tense.

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I get so used to it that I start to forget. From one day to the next, comfort sneaks back. I feel better not because I’ve learned how to live with loss but because I haven’t lost anything new lately and I’ve returned to ignoring the old losses. But loss is not a jar that you can shake, that you can take things out of and put things into. Loss is an ephemeral thing. A stinging pain brought to life by the meeting of a wish for something and the reality of the absence of that thing. Loss is wishing for things to be some other way than they are. Loss is a refusal of the fact that this world is dynamic down to its very atoms, that we don’t even understand what makes matter be there, and yet we relate to all things as though they should be there when we want them, miss them, need them.

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And I’ll tell you what. Loss hurts less when I remember that it’s normal. That for all my scientific and philosophical training, the table looks like a table to me, a thing I can rely on. I’m expecting it to be there tomorrow and the day after and five seconds from now. And if one day my table burns or breaks or yields to thieving hands, in its absence I will still refer to it as a wholesome thing.

My table will still exist for me in the memory of my table, even though it never was more than a collection of whirring atoms in a certain arrangement in a certain time and place, and maybe not even that. And my family as an integral thing exists in my memory, which is what allows me to think of it as a broken thing today. And because my teacher was once with me, now I feel he’s gone. My life is a series of labels that I do not want to change. But the world we experience is nothing other than the expression of change.

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And I haven’t learned how to smile about that yet. I’ve learned how to sing about it, write about it, dance, paint, think, and cry about it. But I have not yet learned how to feel joy without forgetting sadness. I can do contentment, gratitude, even love mixed with sadness. But joy’s too shiny and seductive for me to live it and leave space for loss. I’m working on it, but at least for now, I have a favor to ask.

Please, don’t wish me to feel better. I will, one day or another. But also, what goes up must come down. And for the time being, the fall hits hard. So please, let me be shadowy—rainstormed—if need be. Let me be quiet and dark, tear-stained and tired-faced, when the time calls for it. It’s for a good cause. I’m trying to understand impermanence.

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À propos of nothing…rhubarb tart. I could stretch it and make a connection. Rhubarb is a seasonal vegetable, an obvious sign of the changing times; summer into fall is the kind of impermanence I can wrap my head around, even if this Indian summer we’re living in the Dordogne is, in its own way, another kind of denial. But whatever the temperature, the leaves are falling off the trees and the acorns are hitting my roof with an insistent “thwack!” and change is, you know, happening to everything.

This tart is just right for an Indian summer that hangs on into October. Bright and fruity with late-season rhubarb and plums, but sidling into autumn with a warming crumble topping. Perfect for afternoon tea as reward for staying awake through long hours in meetings (that’s how we did it), or also just because, or also with ice cream for dessert or with coffee for breakfast. You decide.

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Recipe… Continue reading

Nutella Swirl Brioche And A Kitchen Hiatus

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Um, so. Let’s talk about bodies. Get your mind out of the gutter! This discussion is purely practical.

Bodies are pretty great. They anchor us in time and space, and give us the stability to keep track of our experiences and thus make some kind of sense of how things work. Our minds, our bodies themselves, and both of these in relation to the world around us. Plus, bodies have other added benefits too. They let us experience beauty. The beauty of human contact, of course, and many other kinds of beauty too. Food, music, sport, art, nature, you name it.

The case for bodies being awesome is pretty good. But bodies have downsides too. They’re pretty vulnerable and not very durable. They get tired; they get sick; they get old. Eventually they crap out and die. In that sense, bodies are kind of a raw deal, aren’t they. But, being as we don’t have much choice in the matter as to whether we want a body or not, the question is, as ever, what to do?

IMG_2247Through history, humans have tested a whole range of approaches, from the Hedonists to the Ascetics. Over here in my little corner, I’m just trying to make the best of things. Trying to use this body to learn as much as I can and give as much as I can. I try (trryyy…eet’s not so eeeasy) not to go running after beauty, but just to truly appreciate what comes my way and use it as a reminder that beings are, indeed, capable of understanding and communicating with one another. I sometimes have doubts about this point, so it’s good to have confirmation. Feeling moved by what some one else has created serves for this.

And when my body has a hard time and gets tired and sick, I try to be patient and not get too grumpy about it. I would like to be able to say, “I try to take care of my body and give it what it needs to get better.” But I don’t think that’s particularly true. I generally relate to my body as being vulnerable and temporary, and rather than having sympathy for its weaknesses, I treat them like unfortunate side effects of the whole mortality thing and, um, mostly just ignore them.

But, after the last few months, I have to consider that the combination of pressure, lack of sleep, and a lot of time spent in the kitchen around interesting food leads to complications for a body that has difficulty digesting and assimilating…who really knows but it feels like anything at this point. I hate to get into health issues because I start to feel like the cranky old Jewish-Chinese lady that, with any luck, I will someday live to be, and also because it’s not my goal to complain. Well, maybe it is a little bit.

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It’s hard to know what a body needs. It’s hard to know what to change that will actually help. It’s hard to know how much of this is sickness and how much of this is just having a body and not being nice enough to it. I’ve cut out a lot of things at one point or another, and one thing I know makes a difference is sugar. Hard to know whether it’s the magical, mythical substance itself or the excess that becomes suddenly unavailable when you take it off the table (pun intended). In any case, whether it’s sugar or just the wealth of instant gratification available in a busy kitchen, it’s time for a sabbatical.

I made this brioche for a friend from out of town. She came to help out at Dhagpo in July, and I promised I’d make her a cake if she’d come back for her birthday. The cake was a ploy; we’re hoping she’ll stay, but that’s another story. The story for today is this: This brioche is great. It’s visually elegant but otherwise homey. It’s dense and rich and filled with chemical, store-bought deliciousness. I call it cheater brioche because the removal of salt, the addition of extra yeast, and the adaptation to melted butter render it make-able in a quick morning, rather than the standard overnight agony of proper brioche. Basically, it’s a win. It’s also the last recipe I’ll be posting for the uncertain future because, well…bodies. Time to look after this one. I’m taking a break from the kitchen.

Recipe follows…

Continue reading

Day 4 Encore: A Peek At Swayambhu And Rinpoche’s Arrival

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Let’s be honest. Today was strange. We started the morning at the Swayambhu Stupa, well almost. We walked around the base of the hill, turning the thousands of pocket-sized to room-sized prayer wheels lining the perimeter. Halfway through the journey, we got a message calling us up to the monastery for duty. Guests to be greeted and information to be diffused.

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From mural filled walls and endless rounds of prayer beads, we found ourselves pouring tea, or just drinking tea, and waiting. It was a day of waiting. Waiting for guests, waiting for news, waiting for Rinpoche, waiting for the rain to stop. When I finally found a moment to meditate, all the practice spaces were under lockdown to be straightened before the arrival of the body. I sat in a plastic chair for ten minutes to do protector practice and then I sat in a plastic chair and slept and tried not to drool too much.

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If I’m being a little rough around the edges, I’ll blame it on the strangeness of these times. I whined a little about the absence of time for sitting practice today, and I got the response, “Helping is practice too.” And it is. And I’m grateful. And sometimes I get so caught up in the movement that I forget that I’m practicing, and I just do.

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And behind all the action there are memories that play on repeat, emotions that sing their familiar song, and questions that ratatat regularly but quietly behind all the activity. I haven’t given myself time to look at all that much lately. I don’t know if it’s because I don’t want to or because the times call for another approach, if when the wildness of these days has passed, I’ll stop to see what comes up and I’ll be totally bowled over or if it will just be…what comes up.

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I know that I can feel the distance between the action of the day and the action that burgeons ceaselessly inside. When Shamar Rinpoche’s body finally wound its way up the hill, preceded by flags, and drums, and bone trumpets in the early dark under a light rain, all I could feel was that I didn’t know what to feel. I saw the silk-shrouded coffin through my camera lens and I mostly felt the importance of this angle or that stray shaft of light. I lifted my eyes to look, really look, and with all the roiling that started to rise inside, I flipped my eyes back to the digital version of the world to stay safe behind duty and a story to tell.

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In the soft crush of the crowd snaking around the stairway angles to lay a prayer scarf at the foot of the coffin, I realized I hadn’t thought toward this moment at all. My guru is here, in mind and in body, not united but at least in the same place, for the last time for at least a little while and only now do I think of all I wish I could offer. I can mentally multiply this unusually short silk scarf that I fortunately found stuffed into my purse a thousand times, a thousand times a thousand times, and more, but it doesn’t make up for all the moments I have lost thinking about things other than devotion, other than what I wish to give, the qualities I aspire to develop, the being I aim to become, the image of wisdom I see in my teacher who is now before me.

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I see the chill glow of bare fluorescent bulbs. I feel the wet, pulpy masses of trampled flower petals under my feet. I hear my thoughts pinging hollowly against one another in the absence of time to unroll each unruly notion and lay it out to dry and see what it has to say. This is my life passing, and I’d rather not lose it while I’m still in the act of living, just by forgetting to pay attention.

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Of course, sitting in the empty restaurant of the hotel at precisely midnight, I can be a little honest. Looking is hard. Choosing to see is not so easy. I think I might be mostly finished grieving. Mourning the specific death of Shamar Rinpoche in this incarnation at this time. I know I’ll have moments of wistfulness all my life when I am faced with questions I know he could have answered perfectly that I will have to answer imperfectly myself. I also know that when I make the space to pause and listen, he is here: his wisdom, his teachings, the love without limit he taught me to feel and inspired me to develop. Still, understanding that in quiet moments has yet to change all the other moments that I spend fighting loss and letting go. My life is a battle against impermanence, and it is one I am going to lose. I would like to give up fighting.