Change Comes

IMG_1618This is me learning Tibetan. Slowly, but learning. They say that Tibetan grammar developed to carry the teachings. This phrase, it’s poetry and philosophy together. That second character, the horizontal one with the squiggle underneath…it does this: “shows that an object and action are of the same nature.” Water, of the same nature, being whirled.

Movement and matter are no different. There is no subject in this phrase, but if there were, it would be transformed by this unimposing little preposition. They call it a ladeun, and it’s grammar for impermanence.

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Butter, fire, of the same nature, being burned. There is no difference between the action of burning and the nature of fire. The nature of this fire is that it is burning. Combusting, incinerating, transforming, changing. Butter is not burning into some other object that is static and fixed. Butter is burning into fire and fire itself is burning–again: combusting, incinerating, transforming, changing. There’s no god damn thing to hold on to.

I think of the Buddha of Infinite Light. The qualities of discriminating awareness and understanding of phenomena. The Shamarpas are the physical manifestation of all this. And though all physical things are ladeuned into other things, the qualities of mind remain. Change comes and forms go and wisdom abides. It’s a kind of wisdom that you can’t hold on to, but it’s there all the same.

**This post is part of a larger project culminating in a week of creative journalism in Kathmandu Valley, Nepal chronicling the cremation of the Tibetan spiritual master Shamar Rinpoche. To find out more or make a donation to this project, go here.

 

I Could Cry

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It is spring, and I could cry with joy. Not that winter was so bad. It was mild in fact, with just a bit of frost and nary a snowflake in sight. But three days hence, all decked out in sunshine, I am nothing if not grateful.

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Lately I’ve developed a habit of collapsing unexpectedly into a puddle of tears, and usually not for joy. I generally flee human company at such times, marvel at the unpredictability of my experience of the world, and try not to judge too much. Emotion–it’s a thing sometimes.

It’s a thing a lot these days. I find myself overcome with paralyzing sadness or desperate hope, none of which lasts but all of which shakes me around like an acorn on an oak branch in the midst of a winter storm. It’s all I can do to hang on.

So that’s what I try to do. Hold it together when I can, let it go when I can’t. Ask for help; accept that help. And also just generally try not to leak overwhelmption all over the place. Because that’s heavy, overwhelmption is, and most people have enough of their own to carry without me dousing mine all over them unbidden. And, um, I think it’s generally working.

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But the thing about being an acorn in a storm is you can either watch the storm or close your little acorn eyes and just not. Erm, duly noted that acorns don’t have eyes and this analogy has overstayed its ability to be applicable, but you see what I’m getting at here…I’m trying to be an acorn with my eyes open.

And in the storm of my emotions, there’s a lot to see. I see how joy is based on believing in future happiness. I see how sadness comes from a vision of future loss. I see how pain grows from witnessing others’ hardship and my own, and feeling trapped in an inability to fix or often even lessen that hardship in the moment.

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As far as I can tell, looking and holding on is what there is to do. The ability to be helpful, to others and myself, increases with understanding. I’m not useless, even if I feel like it on occasion. I’m just a lot less useful than I’d like to be.

But this is the deal with keeping our eyes open. The more we pay attention to all the uses we could fill in this world, the more we experience the limits of our present usefulness. Which is hard, but it’s not bad. I am doing the best I can do. I’m pretty sure we all are. And if I keep paying attention, and somehow learn to balance sadness and vision and motivation, my best will continue to grow. And I think that’s all I can ask for. Storms are not that comfortable, but acorns need rain to grow into oaks (usefulness of analogy regained–ha!).

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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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 Beautiful Things (Hearty Cornbread Among Them)

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This is the city at night, a strip of fireflies in the darkness. The blackness of the ocean beyond, and the blackness of mountains before. I’ve been getting my mountain time in lately, soaking up the chaparral and smell of sandstone mingled with oak leaves.

IMG_0700My mom and I had dinner with an old friend on Friday. He took us to the El Encanto, a fancy old hotel recently reopened after years of renovation. The waitresses sported gray, tailored cocktail dresses and the menu erred toward molecular gastronomy. We ate on the terrace, looking into the hillside. Mountain time. The silhouette of eucalyptus trees always makes me gasp, even if they are damned invasive.

Wally is an old-school business man who sold the family business into what he thought were good hands and watched it dwindle to nothing. He is eighty-seven; he calls himself a bachelor and then says, “a widower, I suppose, but I don’t like the sound of that.” When I ask him how he is spending his days, he tells me, “I don’t get out much. There isn’t a cure for the sort of malaise I’ve got.”

rosecandleSomewhere between the valet parking, the swirls of French butter, and the sound of the word malaise, I got the sense that I’d fallen into The Great Gatsby. My friend is perhaps the gentleman Jay Gatsby would have lived to be if he had learned to love less recklessly.

Wally says, “I only ever got really loaded once in my life: the night I got out of the army.” He asks me, “Do you know what they call a quantity of champagne?” I ponder, “…a Magnum!” He chuckles, “That’s just a little one. They go up and up. There’s a Methuselah and a Salma, Salma-something, and a Balthazar, and anyway, it was the biggest one.” A Nebuchadnezzar. Fifteen liters. I looked it up. He says, “There were twelve of us. We drank the whole thing between us. I remember coming home with that giant bottle of champagne. Well, it was empty by then. I don’t remember how I got home, but I remember arriving at home with that bottle.”

So perhaps not Gatsby in his drinking habits, but at least a bit in his lavishness and loneliness. He gives me a hundred dollar bill in a tiny envelope and a vintage Instamatic camera for my journey. I give him a kiss on the cheek and a promise to write him about where the hundred dollars goes.

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As I pass through my days lately, the moments kaleidoscope together. Books I have read, people I have loved, trails I have walked, meals I have shared, cities I have known. My life has been rife with beauty. Positively teeming with it. And yet, wending throughout, there is the reedy melody of sadness. The purple whisper of a violin always in the back of my mind.

I don’t call mine malaise–wistfulness usually, or nostalgia–but the word feels familiar. I look at my friend, his tall back tilted over, his hands shaking despite his strength. I may have the camera now, and the places to take pictures of, but we are no different. We hearken to the places that feel like home, whether it’s a foreign country or a favorite restaurant. We mourn the loss of all the humans and hours that have passed in all such places, which we will see no more again. Then we take our sadness, and set it to one side, and carry on living. Carry on making more beautiful things for which we will surely mourn when they are past, but which, for now, hold our hearts in place.

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Bread is a beautiful thing. It is simple and humble and can be shared. It brings a lot of joy, but the loss when it is finished is not so great; it’s easy to make more. This one is homey and earthy, made with a mix of grains and just a skosh of molasses for depth. I whip up a mini batch for days when I’m in the mood for multi-grain bread but don’t want a whole giant loaf. Being a quickbread, this is more fragile than yeasted dough, but I find it’s still a great sub for sandwich bread, especially toasted, open face.

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Recipe follows…

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In Spare Moments (you think about sadness and make tarte aubergine).

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In spare moments, you find yourself running up the hill to Lama House, down the hill to the community room, up the hill to the Institute, down the hill to the main kitchen, up the hill to the library, down the hill to your caravan, giddy through it all. In spare moments, you find yourself occupied by recipes to test, drawings to begin, people to take tea with. In spare moments, you find stillness amidst all the action.

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And in the stillness, you remember. You remember, times were, you weren’t so happy as this. You remember disbelieving in impermanence, your sadness had lasted so long. You remember the struggle to stay convinced, day after day, that even if there was no real and permanent you, this current, temporal you had goodness and worth and something to offer. You remember suffering without respite.

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In spare moments, you slice eggplant and chop parsley and reflect on this conversation you had yesterday. You wondered if the person across the table from you thought maybe you were fudging a bit in describing life these days, your story was so slanted toward contentment. And you realize how goddamn lucky you are that it’s even possible for some one to disbelieve that you know suffering. And you realize you had better say grace, like every minute of the day, because in this life, nothing lasts. Neither sadness, nor joy, neither misery, nor bliss, and you have known them all and you will know them all again.

In spare moments, you whisper gratitude for what is, you nod at fear for what may come, and you say a prayer for those on the other side of the spinning wheel of life.

Recipe after the jump…

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Soda Bread and Sadness like a Pond

This bread, though humble, is symbolically laden. It’s both an ode to the past and an offering to the present. It’s inspired by my memory of a bread I used to bake with my ex-boyfriend, yet distinctly divergent in that it’s laden with dairy, to which he is allergic.

The seventh is his birthday, which I am, for obvious reasons, not celebrating with him, as I was once sure I would. But that awareness brings his memory, and other parts of the past, close by. There was more to my sadness than leaving Ethan, spread out over more time than our break-up and made up of the myriad ways in which one can doubt and hurt oneself, but losing some one I never meant to lose sticks out as a low point in the whole affair. Today I am thinking about how we let go…of people, of certainties, of pain and self-defeat.

From Hyperbole and a Half, Allie Brosh © 2011

The last five months of my life have been my own rendition of (the incredible) Allie’s Adventures in Depression. Instead of doing nothing and mocking myself for doing nothing, I make myself busy and then mock myself for producing nothing that seems worthwhile. It feels about the same, though, I’d wager. Our stories end a bit differently, too. For me, their was no homeless Eskimo aha! moment, no junk food and horror movie defiance. It was more like the surface of a pond’s transition from winter to spring.

Slowly, slowly, the ice thins. Until one day it cracks. And then it fragments. Time passes, and each fragment melts. Until, without a certainty from one moment to the next that it had happened, the barrier has gone. The pond is fluid once more.

I guess the fish are feeling sunshine again over here. I don’t know where sadness goes when it leaves, or heartache either. They never disappear completely, and I anticipate that they’ll come back at some future time, unexpected and unwanted. But at the moment, I’m just grateful that the places I hoped I’d never reach again don’t last forever, and that the edges of the past become less jagged in their own time.

Recipe and further food thoughts after the jump…

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