Hunger is the worst of diseases ~ the Buddha

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

All Is Well in the Cosmos: Pulling Weeds & Planting Seeds with Julian of Norwich

The cosmos has always been (not a huge surprise to myself, as a dark matter-of-fact Carl Sagan fan) 
my favorite flower.

It's now become my Official State-of-Being Flower.

I've just adopted it for myself, but since this land is your land, too, you're welcome to it.

In the kitchen garden of my grown-up mind, it was the first flower I planted from seed in my first house, in the light of a tiny 24"-square kitchen window with a claw hasp (which was the whole reason I bought that house, if I had to sum up).

That was years ago (13), and houses ago (2), but now cosmos come up wherever I am because I make sure I plant those seeds. What can I say?--they bloom well for me.

And they are facts!--my new favorite friends in living a life committed to seeing things just as they are, to reality--long, slender beautiful facts to surround oneself with: that there is a payoff to pulling weeds and planting good seeds.
No matter how scattered or random or chaotic the field may appear. The constellations are clear, as well as the relationship between effort and good fruits (or flowers).
And since I'm always stalking the wordplay, there is that too: there is the relationship between tending and cultivating tenderness in oneself.

I was drawn to cosmos then for reasons that only make sense to me now: this was before I considered myself a scientist in my own mind and in my own kitchen, before I started meditating or reading about consciousness, before I had a daughter who practically sprung from seed with the a sureness that she will be an astronaut. 
Before I realized that no matter where I am, I am and can be contemplative cooking.

14th C. Christian mystic Julian of Norwich (still mostly a mystery, and still uncanonized, for some equally mysterious reason) said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

You may have heard this quote. T.S. Eliot, whom I love, copped it for his poem "Little Gidding," (which is one I teach and is a medicinal masterpiece, even if you're not a college writing student).

I have a little group of friends and we tend to use it when things seem insulatedly insurmountable: "All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well." 
Maybe just an email. Just a text. But a message like that can be like a flash-rain of goodness, can buoy your drooping stem (and is a very good use of technology).

My favorite thing about this quote is that she starts with "And."
Imagine, if we all started everything we said with that word. And.

These words are said to have been directly imparted to Julian from God. 

Since God is in the details, I make a note to myself to start using this with my children, especially my daughter. I wonder what it would be like if all parents answered more of children's real questions, always some form of: will it be okay?

Will all be well?

I can't promise them or anyone it won't change because all life (Buddhist, Christian, atheist, or flora) is impermanence, but for the first time in my life, I know I can promise it will be okay.
Not just okay, well.

The great thing about wisdom (and beauty and goodness) is that you don't have to know where it comes from for it to help you.

You don't have to research it to death or find the source--to source it in yourself.

And that line is "all manner of thing"--not things, incidentally. 
That's not a typo.
All and thing.
The everything and the One.

Because really, everything is all the same. All one.

And well, well, Now.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Yeast: On the Nature of Reality, Arising & Pigs in Blankets

Munching blackberries from the back field and homemade pigs in blankets, for which we used this clearly expiration date-defying yeast in the dough, 7 year-old Otto begs the innocent question: "Mom, what's reality?" 

Less than crisp with the L's due to the dough, which is understandable--to me, but not to his sister.

Ava, 9, has an eerie grasp of the cosmos but a persistent need to draw attention to other people's limitations in order to explain it:
"It's real life, Aw-TO."  

Loooong arc of an eyeroll, whilst studiously considering a single blackberry.

Oh my. In this kitchen, overly crisp enunciation like that, paired with an accent stress reconfiguration?--generally means the conversation's going to bake up flat for the other person. 
Herein lies the entwined breadstick reality of DNA combined with several hundred thousand runs through the dough conditioner over the years. 
You see, in this exchange I see clearly my own rigid need for linguistic precision in others, usually vigorously kneaded into the faulty belief that if I just say the exact same thing over again more slooooowly--and the other person sees me doing this for his benefit (that "his" could be a pronoun, could be a husband)--he will somehow be more inclined to truly understand me.
And I won't have to alter any of my ideas, viewpoints, or tactics.

The reality is that excellent articulation still isn't clarity, and may never give rise to true understanding. 

"Reality," she goes on, "as evidenced by atoms, protons, hair strands, viruses, and dust motes--even the ones you can't see."

I brace against the dust motes-in-a-sunny-kitchen-observation, and yet I soften as I also understand--no particular enunciation necessary.

"Yes, she's right," I concede. "That's true about the unseen dust motes." Are you kidding? I shudder. Especially those little unseen things. 

Sometimes, I feel like I'm trapped inside a discarded scene from Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, one the beloved science fiction writer snatched out of her typewriter, bunched up into a paper popcorn ball, and flung from her hands, thinking, "Oh, I can't write them like that. No one will believe two young children actually talk like that. Centaurs, yes. But 7 and 9 year olds?" 
I have my own eerily attuned Charles Wallace and thorny, brilliant Meg, which I guess makes me Mrs. Wallace--whom I always wanted to be when I grew up anyway--with her own lab right off the kitchen.

"Oh, yeast is part of the kingdom Fungi," Ava says, in one of those mercilessly knowledgeable asides. "That was in my chemistry class."

"I'm eating fungi?!?!?," he flails. "AAAAAHHHHHHCKKK!" 

And then a pause and a glance at the blanketed piggy headed towards his mouth--but only a pause because fresh bread you make yourself (in any form) is good, and so there is a swallow.
"Wait--what's 'the Kingdom Fungi' again, Ava?"

Basically this fungi, this living thing, yeast, converts sugar (or carbs, more specifically) into carbon dioxide and, in fermentation, alcohols. The same mechanism that works (or in my case, as a former drinker, doesn't work) in beer and wine also works in the rest of life--especially in my daily quest to bake & take in the good.

Because I'm interested in the taproots of things, especially words, I can tell you that the Indo-European root of yeast is yes-, meaning "boil", "foam", or "bubble."
And yes is good.

This also means that yeast contributes to positive space, not negative. In art or aesthetics this refers to what's there, as opposed to the space around it.

I think I've got it a working definition for them: 
Me: "Reality is the usable space. Reality is what we can actually see."

Otto: "What about things that are too small to see?"

Me: "It's whatever and however that is for each person-however it hits your eyes." 

Ava: "Actually, your eyes turn things upside-down, but your brain corrects for this." 

I feel a sudden sweet pang of relief, and tears actually spring to my eyes for what I hadn't even had the good sense to worry about: how objects translate to images in anyone's right mind.
Yes, I feel gratitude for my brain, for going ahead and reducing complexity, doing something kind for me and not ever needing to tell me about it to get credit.
Like when you've just had a baby, and haven't considered there will be an after labor or that you'll be starving once you get there, and some kind soul (probably another mother), uses your extra key and fills your fridge before you get home.

Indeed, reality is a lot of stuff you can't see--especially kindness.

And the reality is that people love my pigs in blankets because they love all pigs in blankets--it's a universal concept: little, portable, hand-held bites of love wrapped in warm dough. There's no I, Me, Mine with a concept like that, with love.

A few years ago, pigs in blankets were all the rage with very chi-chi caterers in NYC and LA--all the big cities were serving them up even at very lavish events: a snortacious cyclone of hunger, which left vast, empty platters at every event. 
Every time.

And then it went away again. I was a child of the 70s and a teen in the late, decadent 80s--I smelled a lot of cocktail parties through the walls. 

People like these old-style "pick-ups," like cocktail meatballs and rumaki and angels on horseback and pigs in blankets because they're retro, but also because they're starving for the past--perhaps even nostalgic for foods they never had, but feel they should have had, and let's face it, little retro foods gather people over conversation.
They would feel this way about meatloaf and mashed potatoes, if they were portable.

I've made a vegetarian approximation of pigs in blankets, and they were just fine, since the key component of cocktail weiners, hot dogs sausages, etc. isn't a meaty issue at all, just a salty one. You could place a pair of Vibrams in a strong brine, and I'm reasonably certain you could replicate the effect.
Now, if I could make a vegan, gluten free cocktail weiner with minimal, earth-friendly packaging (read: NOT in the annoying plastic airtight thingie which you have to cut open and get the juice all over yourself), then I suppose I'd be in the business of business, not just observation.

I'd also be compelled to figure out, definitively, why the word weiner is so impossibly funny--for all ages. I don't know. But it is. Say it out loud.
A piece of blanket went flying out of someone's mouth.

Isn't it possible that the draw here is possibility itself? Yeast is that possibility incarnate: this could happen, given the right conditions. 
Buddhism teaches us that what comes out of our grist mills is the knowledge that something will happen and it will cause something else to happen. This is the nature of reality.

In this way, the pig in a blanket--no matter whether it's gluten-free, vegan, or chock full of nitrates and sodium--is another possible gyroscope to the now (I'm huge fan of of the gyroscope as an object of attention--especially during "washing dishes meditation"--if they can help navigate space craft, why not my life?)

I'll be honest: I shimmed this one with an almond to demonstrate the effect, but if you were here at this kitchen table and not in a photograph (and I wish you were), you'd have seen it, too.

No matter what we can ever make with with our human hands: be it for love or for hate, be it blanketed or scoped--we can only spiral back to the same old center, and central understanding:

Something will happen. And we'll just have to see.

It's what's here now that matters. 
The God of very small things, like yeast. And you can't see possibility working until you see it working--until you test it out.

And that's a wrap.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

With a Little Potluck: Gathering What Paul McCartney & Sharon Salzberg Know About Interdependence

A potluck wedding in our back field, two years ago today. 
I was looking for secret recipes, for someone with experience to tuck a cookie into my hand for the unknown.

I realize now I was trying to source wisdom, which is what I'm always doing: trying to source love for love to make more, which is the only way it really goes.

"Join Us": this is what I wrote on the evites.

I thought this was clever wedding wordplay. It's also what happened.
"No gifts, just bring something nourishing to share, something only you could make," I wrote. 

Maybe it takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a farm full of hands to raise a barn--or a second marriage, one with 5 kids and two former lives combined. All these hearts joined together--you know, the big red kind, with the slings and arrows of life drawn on them in inedible ink.

We themed the day with the Wings' song With a Little Luck, which seemed like planting more guidance, from one of our most trusted sources, Paul (and Linda) McCartney:

The willow turns his back on inclement weather;
And if he can do it, we can do it, just me and you

Since we live in Maryland (better known as the Armpit of the East Coast), this also seemed like a good fit, since perfectly dry, 81-degree back field wedding days in July simply can't be bought or made. And I can make pretty much anything.

We also planted a scraggly little willow tree for the ceremony because, let's face it, I needed the metaphor: the tenacious tree that can source water from anyplace, its limbs endlessly pliant, never breaking. 
I need the metaphor, but my husband actually is the metaphor--he never breaks.

The willow counters breakage with sway; something powerless--done to it, with something it can do, by embodiment: sway.
The only tree to my knowledge that, like the Buddha, keeps straightening and expanding upwards, while simultaneously touching the ground with one limb (or many limbs), eliminating doubt with that perfect circuit.
There's a lot of doubt with a second marriage--you feel it in your trunk.
And I loved the scientific backstory: The genus salix contains an element that was well-known to ancients to reduce inflammation, cool fever, save lives. Salicin is, in stable form, salicylic acid--common aspirin.
With all sorts of mixed-family blessings and unknown fevers running high prior to the wedding, on many nights it seemed wise to plant two and call back in the morning. 
My meditation was walking off frustration in the back field, chanting my steps. Looking up at the sky's vast blue balm by day, trying to locate the north star by night. Giving up my questions to some bigger back field of awareness: Will this work out? Can I take this risk? What do I do? A July wedding in such heat?--all variations of my favorite storyline: Am I crazy?

Well, you dig yourself holes, and you plant new things. And you sweat, and you plan, and you brace against the worst--and no matter what you do, it never turns out like you think anyway. With happiness, headaches, and heat, you can't plan or predict the degrees with any accuracy.

One moment you're afraid and alone and the next, your friends are all there in your back field, bearing the subtlest gifts. Feeding and reading you morsels of Rumi and Rilke, Wendell Berry and Kahlil Gibran (yes, people still read The Prophet at weddings), in regular, soft speaking voices, barefoot under a cloudless blue sky that is capable of both holding and amplifying every word. 

With a little luck, we can help it out.
We can make this whole damn thing work out.

Each person, just being there and saying whatever arises in a Quaker-Buddhist inspired-sometimes-silence where you marry yourselves by agreeing, pretty basically, to keep being there no matter what comes up.
No matter what arises.

By the way, we didn't know too many fancy Buddhist terms back then: like "dependent arising." I didn't think of silence or of my cooking-to-get-free methods as contemplative, in those exact terms, though that's just what it is--and you don't have to either. You don't have to take on any special terms including mine to be happy and get a little bit freer. 

What you need is the paradox of a little luck, which is not luck at all: it's interdependence--the state of being where you potluck-out. 

I don't think anyone understands the concept of interdependence better than Paul McCartney. That everything--and everyone--rests in relationship to all else. 

A little luck, however,  turns out to rest on a lot of skill: cultivating love so that you can extract love from yourself, so that you can feed yourself and others: 

With a little love, we can lay it down.
Cant you feel the town exploding?
There is no end to what we can do together.
There is no end, there is no end.

I couldn't have written the story that is my actual life, which is better, juicier, thornier, and plumper than any mythical berry I've ever spied in those bushes--and I sure as heck can't quibble with Sir Paul and think I could write The End.

But I can tell you a bit about the middle parts and the Middle Way of it:

You might stop in the middle part of the joining and just observe, survey, look around and see people, perched on the rounds of an ancient cherry tree that went down by natural causes in your old life when the truth came out (I cannot tell a lie: this happened), upcycled into perfectly wide, flat stump-seating. You might see very clearly that these people are happy. 

I've started thinking about happiness as a communal meal and process, which transcends any particular ingredient.

That it's not just you and your happiness on some mythical day. Not just you happy, and you didn't do it, but you helped, and so did they--create the environment of happiness.

The palpable, interdependently delicious state of happiness.

Nobody brought that potluck ingredient, by the way, "happiness": they brought salty-sweet mouth-aching molasses cookies,
and life-is-a-bowl of beautiful Ranier cherries, and homemade, soft German pretzels,
35 pounds of hand-pulled barbecue (thanks, Mom), and simple syrups of clementine and rhubarb for Italian sodas.

Nope, no happiness--and yet, it was very clearly on the table. 

Happiness also has to transcend outcomes, for which there are always conditions (most of which are out of our control).

The figures (original 1960s Beatles Wilton toppers) may go sliding off the cake but they probably won't break--it may even be only Ringo, who was pretty stable, being seated, and in two parts (drum set separate).
There are causes for every outcome. If, say, you're really smitten with and dedicated to spice cake and cream cheese icing in July, then the consistency of your icing may change--but consistently, according to the laws of the universe. (Instead of the "The Haters Always Hate," I'm going to make a dharmabumper sticker with lovingkindness that says, "The Causes Always Cause.")

Stuff breaks and slides, straps slip--usually five minutes to showtime; it's an endless loop. Real Happiness must transcend the constant slippage of the moment. If you can remember that there's nothing all that special or showy about any moment in time, then you can relax into it (I wasn't nervous at all on our wedding day), and access the skills you already have inside.
If you can keep your cool and get some space to thread the eye of this uber-useful fisherman's needle you keep on hand with some dental floss (cinnamon-scented is nice, for calming), you can actually stop, breathe, gather your attention together, sew it up, and keep heading down the back field--go forward and marry the moment.
Thank you, Sharon Salzberg, for the simple phrase "gather your attention" and for just that particular soft way you say it in guided meditation--for inspiring me to remember that gathering attention just like fabric in a potential crisis is a very useful life-skill. A push off the shore. 

With a little push, we could set it off.
We can send it rocketing skywards.
With a little love, we could shake it up.
Don't you feel the comet exploding?

Just me and you: me-allofus and you-allofus, and the moment that really really wants to marry us.

It's not luck, friends, it's fortune. The path of the willow: a good fortune.
Watch the video-especially the interdependent interplay of every person in it. 
It's such good fun and such a good song. I wonder what would happen if people made it a practice to listen every day?

PS: Deepest love and thanks to my dear husband, for joining me--joining Us.

PPS: Speaking of interdependence, we got the chance to see Marianne Elliott and Sharon Salzberg speak together at Buddhafest--a trifecta/sweet confecta experience! Human story is more than the sum of its speakers--or its ingredients. Each of these three are beautiful resources for inner resourcing.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Blueberreasoning: Poisonous Fruit in the Kitchen Sink of the Mind--& the Triple Gem Rinse

"Blueberreasoning" is the sort of thinking and overthinking--basically trying to figure it all out--that's addictive and slippery as dark little pearls, falling right through your hands into the kitchen sink of your mind.

It's just a seasonal variety of basically poisonous fruit--not accepting things right now, wanting it to be different than it is, not seeing clearly--even if  that's seeing blue and not red. There will never be another berry in July-type thinking. 

It's true I have this nifty across-the-kitchen-sink colander, and that helps with this problem to some degree. It spans the gap perfectly and holds the contents of my mind suspended, where I can rinse them to my head's content, picking them for the stones, stems & other inedible elements I've decided are unworkable.

Notice that a tool designed to help us--e.g., a sieve--can still effectively hold the fruit of the original problem--no matter how sweet it is. 

However, most tools do (at least) double duty, and this one is no exception: it's also convenient for keeping all the blueberreasoning from heading straight down into that ultimate disposal: the mashup where tongue meets head, and, bypassing the heart, creates an entirely new, unintended product which is still only more thinking.

Though my "Why have one when you can have three?" days have some years-since passed, it doesn't seem to work that way with thoughts consistently. I'm not always thoughtfully consistent with my thoughts. Not yet. 
Sometimes thinking is helpful. Say, if there's a bear in the blueberry bushes, the thought "RUN" may (quickly) occur to you--but that's a whole-body sensation, a beak to tail embodiment that tells the wings (succinctly, with no big words) to unfurl and flap fierce and far from that bush.
The thoughts I'm talking about are just in the bramble of your head, arising like gnatty, stickery, endless bushes to be plucked. 

Instead of just eating these blueberries, I'll find I'm thinking about them as individual entities, as I'm rinsing them and overrinsing them. I'm caught up in their beauty and isolated little perfections and imperfections, instead of taking them as a blue-black, mosaic whole.
And when I do this--pensive-pluck--I only feel more isolated. 
I'm wondering what to make with them, I'm stopping to dry my hands so I can photograph them, even thinking about how fast they'll go bad once they get wet and that I should freeze them so I can use them in winter, instead of just keeping my hands in it, feeling their blueberriness rinsing through me.

I don't know anyone who can eat three blueberries. The same is true with any addiction: whether it's blueberreasoning, or drinking, or thinking. 
If you love the taste, that's too little; If you loathe it, why bother?

Blueberreasoning won't get you there--no matter how sweet it feels at the time (and how utterly necessary it feels--I know, friends). It won't get you to some mythical there, but it will rob you of every purple-juicy bit of here, which is all there is.

Because I like threes of things--I always have--I make it a practice to stop and notice that number in what I'm doing, and to juice that understanding for the comfort I find in it. 
And I noticed that my son (who rarely leaves any but the most flat, odd musty berry) left these three blueberries sitting on a teeny yellow espresso saucer.

One may be the loneliest number, but three may be the one most often associated with sacred matters--Dostoevesky was fond of the number, and most people, religious or not, are familiar with The Holy Trinity. We've discussed Yoda-toed terra firma in the past, and of course the sturdy reliability of the triangle, and nothing is more stable than a three-legged kitchen stool. Buddhists are also fond of three: taking refuge in the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.
I'm no Pali scholar, I'm just your source for dishtowel dharma, but I do find this practice very, very useful, and you might, too.
Tara Brach gives a much sweeter overview of this practice than I can--but here's how it works for me, in this kitchen: 

Each day, I stop, dry my hands, and recommit to giving up sweetly treacherous blueberreasoning, and I root myself in these three things:

1. the Buddha--It's possible to wake up out of the berry-blunted mind. It's actually possible to get free.
2. the Dharma--There's an ancient, wise, and well-traveled path to and from the berry bushes. There are laws to sticker-scratch suffering, and to untangling ourselves which always hold. Always. (The sky always holds--it's a promise).
3. the Sangha--there's a whole patch of people in this world dedicated to becoming thorn-free, who are not ascetics at all, but actually adore blueberries. They will help you, and actually sit at your table and trade recipes with you, and you will feel full. 

And that's all I've got for today. 
If by all, you mean that I know I can't stop at one (of anything), but I also understand that I can, in this practice, stop at three, and start again.  
Every day.

Try it--let me know if you find yourself threaping some of the same rewards.

May you be happy. May you be peaceful. May you be full.