Turning Back The Clock

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Last night most of the Western world gained an hour’s sleep. I woke to chatter of birds rather than the subtle sound of early morning darkness. I woke rested, which I needed, and spent most of the morning working on a new drawing. I haven’t made time for art in the last couple weeks and the simple fact of curling into my corner chair and spreading colored pencils across the teeny expanse of my desk (a scrap of chip board nailed to the wall of my caravan) felt nourishing in ways I can’t explain.

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This is a strange phenomenon I often undergo. An inability to devote time to things that support clarity of mind when I don’t understand what their purpose is other than that and when I don’t understand what it is about them that centers me. Like meandering walks in the woods and through the micro-villages speckled across our nearby hillsides. Until last Wednesday, I hadn’t taken a walk just to walk in months. Rambling amongst the old stone houses and mossy rocks, I let go of tensions and expectations I hadn’t even realized I was holding onto.

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Often in the Buddhist world, we talk about how the goal of meditation practice is not “peace.” It is the ability to rest with the nature of mind–be it calm, be it tempestuous, or be it otherwise. Because I’m not totally sure whether certain things fall into the “peace” category or the “nature of mind” category, I often hesitate to devote time to them, fearing I could be using my hours more wisely.

In one of my classes this week, we talked about the simple (but generally ignored in the daily unfolding of life) fact that death can arrive at any moment. It was a bit like the Buddhist version of the first time I heard the statistic about how many people die in car crashes every day, and all of a sudden I realized, “That could be me. Now.” It is easy to forget, it almost seems necessary to forget, in the moment-to-moment activity of being a person.

IMG_2385 And yet, when I forget this fact, I wind up trying to hold on to everything. All the information I might need in a day. All the tasks I could accomplish. All the wisdom I could develop. To forget that I can die, that I will die, that I might die today, is to believe that, instead of dying, I might be able to hang on to all of my interests, all of my dreams, and all of my desires with no end in sight. Which is heavy, that.

Which leads me to a place where–even when I am engaged in an activity that clearly counts as “productive,” like studying or working on planning for the kitchen–in my head I’m all over the place, trying to keep track of a million things at once, and often devoting half of my energy to agonizing over the fact that I might be failing to do so accurately.

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Sometimes, rationalizing what is good and why is not helpful. Sometimes, it’s just a trap, a way to keep running in circles, feeling like we are getting somewhere because we can’t see that the course only loops back on itself. Sometimes, our belief in the future becomes a reliance on the future, which then becomes a habit of putting aside activities that ground us in the present because we don’t know what value they purport for said imagined future.

It bothers me that I don’t know what art is for. It bother me that I can die, that I will die, that I might die today. And it also bothers me that I don’t really know how to integrate that information into the business of living. But since I can’t turn back the clock more than one hour a year, it seems the best approach is just to keep working on it for the time that I’ve got.

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Spelt Bread, For the Love of You

IMG_1821I took a picture of you laughing. It’s grainy because the light is low in the kitchen. You laugh at me often: when I squeak at unexpected occurrences, when I dance while I’m cooking, when I try to convince you to do what I want when it’s not what you want. Your laughter. It’s how I knew that you remembered me when I came back from six weeks in California. You chuckled and said, “She always tells me, ‘Don’t eat that. Don’t eat that. Don’t eat that, Lama!'” In your particular mix of Tibetan, French, and Old Age, it sounded like “Pomo, Lama no mangiez; no mangiez; no mangiez!” I laughed too, and I was glad that you remembered me.

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There are a lot of things you don’t remember these days. Then again, maybe it is more precise to say you remember certain things, and only those things now. You remember practice. You remind me every hour, “Mahakala. Mahakala,” until five o’clock rolls around and it is, indeed, time for that ceremony. You remember that the rest of us would do well to practice also. You interrupted me in the middle of this paragraph, closing my computer, pointing toward the temple, and saying, “Go. Go.” I nodded acquiescence and snuck off to the office to keep writing.

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You remember where the spelt flakes are in the cupboard, so that when you are hungry–which is all the time–you can find a snack. I know if you’ve been by because I’ll find a trail of errant flakes, sprinkled newly on the counter since the last time I wiped it clean. You remember that you are not allowed to eat sugar, but that you love it above all else. The first week we met, you tried to stick your fingers straight into my birthday cake and grab a mouthful before I whisked it to safety. We have these confrontations often and mostly I win, because I don’t want you to drop dead on my watch and also because I’m, um, a little vain of my baked goods. Don’t go putting holes in my cake, Lama.

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Every now and then I sneak you a cookie. A small one. I’m not supposed to. None of us are, but you’ll find them on your own if we don’t give them to you, and fortunately your diabetes hasn’t come back, and the amount of joy these little treats bring…I guess it’s a question we each ask ourselves. How much longer might you live without a biscuit or a peach or a bite of cake? How much more joyful will life be for the time you have with a biscuit or a peach or a bite of cake?

This is a gift you give us, along with your laughter and your dedication to the path: the cognizance that life is fleeting. You live on the border now. I see it when I’m with you. You drift between languages, between times and countries. Some days in your mind it is years ago in Tibet. You talk to me about the masters that you know, the ceremonies held. I only catch a word or two, a name sometimes, but your devotion envelops me. Sometimes you forget that I am here, struck as you are by the color of the sky or the sound of a bird. When you catch me by your side, you say, “Pomo, look,” and point at the thing of beauty with awe.

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You remind me that the world is awesome. That I am blessed to be in it. To be granted a life to devote to understanding. You remind me to use it well, for it will leave me–this birth, this body, this place and time and context. In all likelihood, you will leave me first.

I carry the knowledge heavy, but with gratitude. For that, I remember to laugh instead of despair when you open the pot of rice before it’s done cooking. For that, I stop whatever I’m doing to help you find your prayer beads when their location has slipped into the mists of your memory. For that, I make loaf after loaf of bread until I hit upon the one that’s good enough to make you happy as well as healthy. For the love of you, I do my best to make my own life count.

Recipe follows…

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We Are Simple and Fragile

image_2I went to the beach today. Unknown dewdrop blobs marked the tideline in glistening polka dots. They looked like some kind of jellyfish relative: translucent, but lacking tentacles, lacking lightness. It seems they met their end strewn along the sand. Some accident of the tides led them astray, to parts unknown and untenable.

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Today I had my first physical in five years. I learned that I may have a magnesium deficiency, that depressive tendencies often worsen with age, and that rubbing leaves between your fingers helps. Sartre would beg to differ, but I’ve done okay so far. (I’m reading Nausea, in which the main character steadily loses his sense of reality. Early on, he describes a fascination with picking up frozen leaves in the park. Little fragments of tree, “pilonnés, broyés, maculés.” Bombarded, crushed, stained. The words taste like harmonies in minor chords.)

I met this shrimp in the sand. Iridescent, unbothered, no longer than a section of a finger. I talked with my sister about the wedding she will one day have, and realized that at some point I gave up planning my own. I told my grandmother, each of the six times she asked, that it was better not to lock the garage door because Mom comes home that way. The seventh time she forgot, she said, “I locked the garage door. I hope that’s okay.”

simage_1I found out that my visa application was accepted. My passport came in the mail with a shiny, stamped sticker and a picture of me staring expressionless ahead. I’m tempted to say that that’s me, staring into the open future. But no. I’m staring down all my dreams and suppositions, the lives I have invented, the unknown truth that will unfold before me.

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I don’t know what’s coming. I know what I want, a bit. I know what I am afraid of, a bit. I know to fold my knees beneath me, drink a coconut water for magnesium, rub a leaf between my fingers for sadness, and pray for all beings who pouf in and out of this world, making marks in the sand erased by the waves.

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.