After The Summer

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À la rentrée. This, this is the hopeful refrain of the moment. When the new year starts. Dhagpo’s program functions like the school year, with an autumn through spring schedule, then pretty epic summer school. For volunteers, summer is the busiest time of year, and vacation is a week in June to recharge and a week in September to fall on your face. Then we come back and the resident curriculum restarts and housekeeping things like annual budgets and structural meetings happen. In theory, it’s a little bit calmer.

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In short, summer is over. Aside from one bigger-than-usual course at the end of September, we can all let out the breath we’ve been holding the last three months. Now that this moment has arrived, I don’t so much know what to do with it.

I mean, show up here and say hi for the first time in a while. I miss you guys. I miss the process that goes into making this place alive. I have a few excuses about why I haven’t been around, some better than others and one pretty good one. I lent my camera to the photo/video department for official reporting, and that sort of cramped my style. I cooked a lot and made a ton of cake, but it pretty much all went straight to the table and when it didn’t by the time I had a moment to consider writing about it I had a hard time mustering up the motivation to type out a whole damn recipe and on top of that say anything other than, “It tasted really good.” So there’s that.

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And as for life, as for all those juicy reflections of practice and activity and what it is I’m trying to do here as and those certain things I think we’re all trying to do here as human people…well, between Karmapa’s visit and, um, another thing, my whole sense of perspective has been so thoroughly knocked out of its usual, comfortable orbit that I haven’t really want to put words on it all just yet.

But okay, I feel like I owe you guys an explanation, and also life is life and sometimes you just have to tell it like it is even when it makes you feel a bit queasy and cheesy and worried about the future. What happened is…I fell in love.

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Now, I know that this is normal and happens to pretty much everybody and thus requires pretty much no explanation, but, but, I’m still so surprised about the whole thing and feeling around for the right words that I have the sense that I am supposed to say something. But what can a person say about such a phenomenon? It is only in the experience that we remember what this strange mystery is. That goes for me anyway.

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For my part, I was all set. I hadn’t been single for that long, but you know, long enough to get used to it. Three years alone for a relatively solitary person in a community with a strong tradition of monasticism can yield a certain stoicism about the matter. My official approach was that sharing my life with some one sounded nice, but I was a) not totally convinced I’d be willing to give up my autonomy if such a some one should appear and b) rather skeptical that said some one actually would arrive or was even to be found.

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I know it’s incredible, the self-absorption one can develop in solitude, but on the other hand, I was just trying to be pragmatic about the matter. The pool of applicants was relatively small. An attractive, single, straight male who is intelligent, knows how to laugh and how to be serious and get shit done, who likes art and food and nature—who has dedicated his life to the Dharma, to the lineage, and to the activity of our guides and teachers. Who is not put off by the fact that I’m planning to go into retreat for at least three years of our life together and that this point is not up for debate, only causes and conditions. And also who I can live with. And who can manage to live with me.

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You can understand why I was skeptical, I think. I mean, I was pretty sure I had met all the possible options. It’s not a super huge community, after all, and though I was far from seeking a mate, a girl can’t help but notice when the rare single-man-below-retirement-age crosses her path. And considering the specificity of my criteria, some ravishing person walking in off the street would never qualify for the post. Not only do I want some one who knows what his life is about, but it’s got to be the same thing as mine. In a world with a population of over seven billion, Dharma practitioners to begin with and Karma Kagyü Buddhists to boot aren’t that abundant at the end of the day. And it’s not just about the lineage, but the commitment and understanding in regards to the teachings. We can grapple with it and live it and express it in different ways, but when push comes to shove, there has to be some agreement on the sense. So, all that considered…hopes not so high.

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Well, sometimes life surprises you. And you get tasked with renovating a kitchen with some one you’d met briefly in the past, who you first knew as some one’s partner, but who isn’t any more, as the father of a tiny person you’d become friends with over the years, who still is that, who has a reputation for his temper, but who is softer and more thoughtful than you’d imagined in actuality. Who always asks if he can make tea before filling the electric kettle, who always offers you a mug, who always washes and dries and puts away his own before leaving the kitchen.

Who tells you in the beginning he doesn’t want to pull you away from a direction in which you are meant to go. Who tells you later on that he’ll wait the three years for you whenever they come. Who reminds you at the right moments that one of his deepest wishes for you is that of the transmission he himself had the merit to receive earlier on in this life. Who has a picture of your heart teacher hanging above his hearth.

Who takes you to the Sunday market with the same joy and stillness that he sings the evening prayer with you. Who makes space in the closet and tells you to take your time. Who knows how to cook and clean and garden, to do handiwork and do paperwork. Who quotes Shantideva to you when you’re anxious and who makes very loving fun of you when you’re all fired up. Who’s that mix of all the normal life things some part of you has always wanted and also the understanding that none of it matters if we don’t put it to use to benefit others and develop towards enlightenment.

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It’s scary you know? Being in love. I’d forgotten that feeling of heart-stopping when you realize everything you have to lose. But maybe there’s a kind of restfulness in knowing that in any case, I’m going to lose it all, and what matters is to make it count, to put all of this joy and blessing to work to carry us up the rungs of understanding to something, someday, that goes beyond ourselves. It’s hard work too—this business of being in love. Coming back to patience and listening and continuously choosing to let go of that autonomy you willingly put aside for the benefit sharing your life with some one (or some ones, for sometimes your some one comes with a smaller some one and a canine as bonuses).

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I guess that’s about what I can say on the matter. It’s a day-to-day affair. It’s practice, on the path, just like everything else and somehow unlike anything else. It’s kind of entwined with everything right now, so I’ve been mostly just focusing on figuring it out…well, and enjoying the hell out of it. I make no promises on regularity of posting here for the moment, but know that I’m around, thinking of you guys, working on a new rhythm and figuring out how to put all the pieces together with love and joy and the wish that it all goes for the good.

The Fêtes, With Aah-mazing Chewy Gingerbread

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So Christmas happened. Happy Christmas, y’all! (And late Chanukah and Solstice and other meaningful winter happenings).

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I did the road to Bordeaux with friends and a lunch stop at their family home. So many creches from so many countries! Guatemala or possibly Peru above. There was an old-fashioned American pinball machine too…we may have played a couple rounds, and I may have done not horribly. All those years of pizzeria pinball and early computer game versions apparently paid off.

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I did Bordeaux with the sis. We stayed at one of Dhagpo’s sister centers, Dhagpo Bordeaux and got the best welcome ever. Warm beds, homemade bread, and sole meunière with good humor. All of these families that aren’t actually my family somehow made me feel like it’s family Christmas after all. It doesn’t made me any less nostalgic for my actual family, but it makes me appreciate them even more for how they have taught me to love and to share.

There’s a sweet old cemetery by the center and we went to visit the departed. Could seem creepy, but it was more peaceful than anything. The wrought iron alone merited the visit.

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Things got pretty real too, as far as actual family goes. I realized it’s been a year since I’ve seen my sister, the longest we’ve ever gone. We know each other less well than we used to and we have less things in common than we’re used to. But we still know each other better than any one else in the world (except maybe our parents) and there’s a commitment in that. To promise to keep track of someone, to follow their story, to face their disappointment, to own up to what we could do better and what we simply cannot yet do for the love of them.

My sister makes me appreciate how often the best relationships are the ones where you don’t agree on everything, but you care enough to figure out why and understand what the other believes.

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We visited some gardens. Saw some lollipop trees and spiral hedges, the odd castle in the mist.

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History, people. I think it matters. To understand where we come from, how we came to where we are now.

Tomorrow, the year end course at Dhagpo begins. Jigme Rinpoche will talk to us about meditation, and we’ll try to listen and get wiser. Another year is passing, has passed. Time is precious. This is good to remember. To cherish and to share it.

This is obvious perhaps, but it strikes now as the time comes for resolutions and reflection: I want my heart open. I want to love with all I have and embrace the whole of the world. Forget the smallness of my self and remember the vastness of connectedness. We are causes and conditions, and we depend upon each other. All we can do is look after one another.

Happy New Year people; I’m thinking of you.

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And um, cake, because apparently I’m on a cake roll again. This picture is terrible and usually I try not to post recipes with truly deplorable photos, but I’m doing it mostly for myself. Because this cake is so good that I need to have the recipe recorded somewhere easily accessible. You don’t have to make it or be convinced; this is a simple, humble cake. But if you’re curious, I’ll tell you: it’s like a hug from some one you have been missing a long time. You feel their arms around you and it’s like plugging in a light; the current runs down the line and the connection is direct. You know you’re in the right place and you are grounded.

This cake is all molasses and spices. It’s chewy like a brownie with a deep, enveloping flavor. For me, it’s comfort and it’s definitely the taste that goes with the hearth at wintertime. Also happens to be friendly for gluten and dairy sensitive people because I’m on that kick too.

Recipe…

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A Home for the Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Big Rearrange

This happened about three weeks ago.

Let me explain. My studio of late was actually my mother’s studio, which had been mostly vacated because she’d been cooking more than arting in her professional life. I’d basically taken over. But notice how I’m using the past perfect tense here? All this no more. Mom got a convection oven and is using what was the studio as a kitchen…it’s the only place with an electrical outlet gnarly enough to accomodate the new oven (it was intended for a glass-firing kiln).

To be fair, she didn’t mean to oust me – and it’s her space anyway, so if she’d wanted to, she certainly could have with no apologies. But she was full willing to move around all the cooling racks and flour bins to make space for me to actually sit in front of my easel and potentially also have some table domain for drawing.

After avoiding the room for two weeks on account of feeling skittish about the chaos, I started to internally panic. I couldn’t work. I didn’t even want to go in there. I felt like I had lost something dreadfully important to me, like it had been stolen, even though it wasn’t mine to have and it also wasn’t technically gone. Then I realized something.

I need a space to work that belongs to me. Making work is a focused, tender process of caring for an image and an idea as it comes into the world. You have to be completely open to negotiating with what the work wants, and, in my experience, you have to feel really safe to do that. Making is very intimate – an interesting connection to the solution to my studio dilemma.

I turned my bedroom – the safest place I’ve got – into my studio. I gave up my me-and-someone-else sized bed for a just-me sized bed and tucked it into the corner to make space for my easel and drawing table. There’s a little defiant sadness in that choice, as though part of me is trying to convince the rest of me that, “My art is my love and that’s all I need!” But I’m not that naive and I’m not that righteous. And we all fit our someone-else’s into twin-sized beds in college, right? Should I happen upon a someone else in the time that my life and space are arranged as such, at least he’ll know what he’s getting into. When you love this woman, you share her with her work and her working. There is no separation between living and making. It is not always tidy, and it is not always comfortable, but it is honest and it is carried out with care.

And now, to work.