May 31, 2009

The Brightness of the Night

The lightning came without the thunder. It slipped across the sleeping city. And there stood a woman, still slender as a girl, in a red kimono. She stood high in the air and leaned against the metal rail of the stairs, facing north. It was quiet, but for the rush of a car and the call of a lonely train passing through the yard. Even the trees stood silent and only the lightest breeze stirred, a warm south wind, comforting and soft, caressing the tips of her hair and the long sleeves of silk.

She leaned her elbows on the rail and watched the clouds dance and the light sing. Lightning makes no sound unless it kisses the earth. A jagged bolt flashed low beneath the belly of the cloud, like a good strip tease showing the first sign of skin, and she smiled a great wide smile and hummed a little laugh unto herself. Over her shoulder she checked the watchful moon, golden and half full, waxing on its way to the first full moon of summer. She turned back to the north and pressed her fist against her lips and leaned into the metal rail, as if she might become closer with the sky. A lone cat crossed beneath, alert but unafraid, unhurried.

And the sky sang, and she hummed to the tune only she could hear. No hint of rain rode the air. No thunder rolled, but she could feel it in her bones, like the unheard chants of elephants or the songs of whales far out at sea. The great soft clouds were dark, too dark even to blush at the gold and pink city lights reflected on their bellies, and the dark night was blue behind them, pulsing white faster than a dove’s heartbeat. She held her breath and did not blink as the specters danced. And still she smiled a secret smile.

A single great bolt speared down, straight down at last. The rumble came, a blessing from earth to heaven. She glanced again over her left shoulder, seeking the absent moon in the southwest sky. The trees began to whisper and the warm south wind departed with a soft benediction across her cheek. The cool north breeze skirted in beneath the hem of the red kimono, a silk hand upon warm skin. The sound of a storm came on the breath of the wind, and still the lightning sang and the clouds danced, and here and there the thunder spoke.

And the woman, not quite a girl, turned slowly and retraced her steps. She smiled one last time at the laughing sky and kissed the mischievous wind and then joined the ranks of her kindred behind stout masonry walls. But now and then her face turned towards the darkened, light-fractured panes, and her she hummed the tune of wind, water, and light and wondered at the brightness of the night.

May 30, 2009


Sometimes I don't know where I'm going. Okay, most of the time I don't know where I'm going. Sometimes I'm just standing in the doorway to my kitchen after an evening shower, watching the wrinkles on my fingers fade, and waiting for the water to boil so I can make myself an Irish coffee before bed. And I think, "I like my soft hands," and while I'm waiting for the coffee to brew I sit down and I type that out. The string unspools and weaves itself into patterns and a collection of other strings that I had spun out behind me in hours and days past come together and suddenly I notice the pattern, what it is I've really been thinking about. That little thought, about my hands, becomes contemplation of death and the nature of consciousness.

Sometimes I react. I hear something on the news or read something in the paper and I think "It has everything to do with empathy," and I just have to share that. Sometimes it's just because I want to be right. More often I just don't want people making the mistake of believing the other guy is right. It's this fear that if only one side does the talking, everyone will agree. I have this kind of arrogance that leads me to conclude, without even really thinking about it, that if I don't point it out, no one else will. Which is bizarre, because I don't exactly expect my voice to make all that much of a difference. I always find that initial moment of indignation fascinating, but over time I've tried not to let it get away from me.

Sometimes there is a memory, a scene, and experience I want to share. I'll be daydreaming and recall the cathedral with the waterfall choir. And I congratulate myself for waxing all poetic or form building a world out of black and white letters on (virtual) paper. Poems are special things that only discover themselves when no other form of expression will do, when complete sentences and rules of gramar are just to restrictive. They can't be contrived. I can't sit down with the intention of writing a poem.

I wonder about what finds its way into this blog. What are the motivations, the triggers, the odd desires I hope to fulfill by posting things here? Keeping a blog is great practice. It has helped me to become a better writer, the same way that doing yoga might keep me flexible and strong. And writing itself helps me figure things out, find answers, find questions, uncover things that were hiding, run away from things I don't want to think about. Writing is an odd form of honesty, for no matter what words I put on the paper (again, virtual) I always know which ones are true, even if the reader might not. It's thinking out loud. It's the way I watch my thoughts. It's not the same as meditation, but it's not the antonym either.

My cushion is my keyboard.

May 29, 2009

So What? (or Meat Thinking)

I have soft hands. I've never been interested in manicures or pedicures. I don't even own any nail polish. I don't use any fancy creams, just simple unscented lotion and soap. My nails are healthy and strong and grow quickly. My fingers are long and elegant, my wrists tiny and delicate. I can trace the faint blue veins. I've never had my palms read or my fortune told. I have always enjoyed my hands. They are tactile and sensitive.

I do crack my knuckles and I have been told that is a vice. I crack my thumbs, wrists, and elbows, too. I can roll my shoulders and feel them stretch and pop. I used to be able to lay my upper arm flat across my shoulders behind my neck and I have taken a certain amount of glee in seeing people shudder when I dislocate my hip.

Some years ago I went to visit a physical therapist about my back problems. He sat on his stool behind me, holding an instrument to measure the movement of my vertebrae when he asked me to lean backward. I leaned back and looked at the carpet behind me. He had to take the measurements again because he dropped his tool. He called me a freak. I remember he had the brightest blue eyes I had ever seen. I rather liked him.

I don't have a nudity taboo. I generally don't wander around looking to shock people. I don't own a miniskirt or a pair of Daisy Dukes. I like to sleep in a T-shirt. But otherwise, I tend to think coeducational nudity is a strange thing to get worked up about. And something about wearing a swimsuit in a hot tub is just downright offensive.

I'm twenty-eight and ten years ago I weighed twenty pounds less. And yes, sometime I don't really like that my stomach isn't quite as flat as it used to be. And I have a weak chin, but otherwise I'm quite satisfied with my body. Not because of whether or not society at large finds me acceptable and not because I like what I see when I look in the mirror.

It's because of my hands. It's because I can feel. I can feel the air flowing in and out of my lungs. I can feel my hair through my fingers and the sharp rasp of my fingernails. I can feel the rough texture of warm concrete on my bare feet and the cool, fluidity of water on my ankles. I can feel the warm sun on the back of my neck, the stretch of the muscles in my calves, and the beat of my heart behind my sternum.

And someday it will all stop. Not to be morbid or even sentimental, but it will. And there is no need to glorify this body of mine in the meantime. I know what it feels like to vomit, to be so sick I can barely move, to cringe in pain. I've been very lucky. I've never broken a bone or needed stitches. I've been in the hospital once, but they pumped me so full of drugs that it didn't bother me at all when the doctors discussed the possibility of my throat swelling closed. I once jumped off a moving car, and I remember being scraped and bruised and hurt, but I also remember it didn't slow me down. I've worked so hard everything has quivered and I could barely walk the next day. I've been hit by a car and fallen down the stairs. And someday I'll grow old (buses willing) and die. And I don't know what will happen to me then.

I've heard lots of theories. Heaven, hell, the bardo, the next life, realms of hungry ghosts, worm bait, nothingness. Ten years ago, when I was twenty pounds lighter, that used to worry me. I couldn't stand not knowing, or so it felt. I could think of nothing more frightening than ceasing to exist. Honestly, Buddhism has not offered me an reassurances in that regard, just a competing set of myths that sound a little more palatable to my mind. Still, not to be morbid, or suicidal, or to glorify death, but it isn't that scary anymore. Sure when the axe murder comes I'm going to run like hell, possibly screaming, flooded with adrenalin and probably panicking. Axe murderers are scary. But death...I don't know.

I've been reading about science. Today I found some quotes by a physicist named Richard Feynman. I read a science fiction book which had a character based on him, an artificial intelligence as real as any person I ever knew. (Any fictional person anyway.) A few days ago on NPR they were talking about the "Biology of Belief" and the physiological basis for consciousness. This idea pops up that we are all just meat - walking, talking, thinking, feeling meat wandering around on the surface of a living, seething world that only we are fully conscious of and even then we know how much we are missing. So we're meat and when we die whatever we like to think deep down is us, the miraculous soul, the eternal consciousness, whatever we call it, just stops. And I've been thinking 'So what?'

This isn't nihilism. I honestly want to know. So what? Some people ask 'why' or 'what if' or 'how did,' but I think all I want to know is 'so what?' The physicist said "Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, "But how can it be like that?" because you will get 'down the drain,' into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that." I think there is wisdom in that, but it still leaves me with 'so what?' Is that a "down the drain" question, too? He also wondered that "some people say, 'How can you live without knowing?' I do not know what they mean. I always live without knowing. That is easy. How you get to know is what I want to know." He was just as "down the drain" as the rest of us.

I'm not sure I know any more or less. I look down at my lovely hands and think someday they'll be gnarled and old and probably arthritic if what everyone tells me about cracking my knuckles is true. If I live that long. I reflect on the feeling of the keys tapping under my fingers, a feeling I have composed soliloquies to. Maybe my body is just a body, walking around with the biologic seeds of consciousness, a byproduct of evolution the only thing which allows me to think and feel and question. Perhaps it is that same evolution that made me fear death, that drive to live, survival instinct. It's somewhat ironic. For if that is so, it is that same evolution that has brought me to the point where I don't fear it quite so much anymore, despite the fact that I have more questions now and fewer answers.

I think twenty pounds is more than fair trade.

May 28, 2009

Constitutional Compassion

The news is abuzz with President Obama's first Supreme Court nominee. Obama was one a professor of constitutional law. Everyone assumes he had a short list of nominees since before the election. He had publicly announced that his criteria included someone with "real world experience and empathy." A lot of people have taken offense at this, saying the law and constitution are no place for feelings like empathy.

It strikes me that the constitution is a direct act of compassion. It is predicated on empathy, the direct and full comprehension of another person's situation. Had we not had a care for the suffering of fellow human beings, we would have had very little motivation to leave feudalism behind. Sure, people wanted a good life for themselves, but they could have gone about it by each fighting to be on top. It could be, our ancestors were just smart enough to realize how counterproductive that was in an interdependent society.

To some extent we continue to operate under that reasoning, but in the last two-hundred and thirty-three years in this country has slowly, but consistently, come to recognize the unnecessary suffering of various marginalized groups and extended to them constitutional protections. It is only through empathy, the understanding of another's suffering, and compassion, the desire to alleviate that suffering, that this has been accomplished.

I hope President Obama understands this and I wish more people did.

May 24, 2009

The Wheel That Didn't Turn

I put the car in reverse and then wondered if my brakes were rusted again. But I hadn't set the parking brake when I had parked on the end of the block under the big oak tree a week ago. I was into the habit of not setting the brake when I was leaving the car for more than a couple of days. Of course, I had forgotten the last time, which had prompted a man out walking his spaniel to look at me oddly as I took a hammer to my back wheels to knock the rusted breaks loose. That wasn't the case this time, as I added a little gas to the reverse and finally moved, but in a clunking, jolting motion. I took the key out of the ignition and go out. The front, passenger wheel was on the ground.

An hour later I was carefully bouncing up and down on the lug nut wrench, hand balanced on the hood, both feet and all of my weight balanced on the foot long piece of steel. I was getting exactly nowhere. I had gotten two nuts off using this method. Of course, after the first one, the jack had slipped, the car had fallen, and I'd had to jack the entire thing back up, with much cursing and grunting. "Where the hell is a goddamnned cop when you need one? They patrol this block like clockwork, but today, nooooo....Maybe I ought to get me one of those guy-type people, boyfriend or something. But dammit, I'm a strong, ahh, independent, rahh, woman, mahh. SOB, F'ing, no good POS, bleep, bleep, bleep...."

But I had jacked it up twice, and it was a damned good thing I understood the principles of leverage and the proper placement of a fulcrum, otherwise I would have gotten exactly no where. As it was, I had managed to turn the jack handle by applying all my weight, balanced forward on my toes, and (minuscule) upper body stretch, and pressing down against the edge of the concrete curb. And now I was at an impasse with the last two nuts and since all I had was one-hundred and twenty-five pounds and gravity working for me my prospects were slim.

I was still working at it when a couple walked by on Sixteenth Street. The guys was nice enough to come over and apply his considerably greater upper body strength to loosen the last two nuts. As her significant other stood waiting, I said thank you and told him I could take it from there. As I was fitting the donut, a nice guy in a beat up old pickup (I have a soft spot for beat up old pickups) stopped. He had tattoos up both arms and he wasn't interested in my protestations. He simply grabbed the jack handle and then took the nuts and tightened down the donut while I slung the flat into my trunk and cleaned up the tools.

"Thank you," I said for probably the sixth time, holding out my hand. "I'm Monica."

"I'm George," he said in a light Spanish accent. "I just moved to Lincoln." He seemed shy and spoke quietly.

"Well, welcome. I hope you like it here."

He just knodded and climbed into his truck.

A few hours later, I was in Omaha. I had dropped my car off at Graham Tire and Auto a few blocks up and my folks had come to get me. No hurry, I had told Graham, I didn't usually need my car during the week. Brandon and April were at my parents house when we got back. My sister-in-law and I decided to run an errand to Hobby Lobby before the movie. I inspected the rising bruise on my right forearm. It was swelling but I didn't even remember doing it.

"It probably won't even turn purple." I complained. "It's not fair. It's gonna hurt so I should at least get a descent battle scar out of it."

"Yeah, Brandon doesn't bruise either. It's damned annoying," April agreed.

Later we were walking through the jewelry supply aisles of the giant hobby store. April and I are both aspiring writers and we were swapping stories and ideas. I told her that I had started writing about the fencing club and the description of the costume she had worn to that Halloween party was going to be in there. That was the party I had dragged Brandon to where they had met.

"I smacked him on the ass and liked the sound it made," April told me. We both laughed.

"You're the one I needed this morning. You would have had that tire changed in fifteen minutes flat," I told her.

"Yep. Brandon's pretty useless for that stuff. I end up doing all of it," she confirmed, then smiled dryly. April could easily snap my skinny, geeky brother in half like a twig. "But he's good for other things."

Being a strong woman has nothing to do with physical strength. It doesn't even have to do with being independent. I think it has to do with not being afraid, not being afraid that asking for or accepting help will make you anything less. The really cool thing about our relationships with other people is the balance that we find. It's not even that we fill in each other's holes or missing pieces, it's just this beautiful willingness to help each other by using what skills we have in the ways we can. Whether that person is your family, husband, or a complete stranger, doesn't even matter all that much. I have a feeling a dozen people would have stopped to help me with that wheel had I not been hidden behind my car, where the traffic going down Sixteenth couldn't see me.

That's what keeps the wheel turning, that willingness to help each other even when we don't quite know why.

May 21, 2009

Dharma Cowgirl - Ch. 3 No Reason - Excerpt

Chapter 3 No Reason: How and why I became Buddhist.

I was nineteen when I finally fell in with bad company. I thought I needed a little exercise. I needed to get out and meet people. Aerobics and spinning were out of the question. If I was going to sweat, I was going to at least learn something useful while I did it. The choice was between Tae Kwon Do and Beginning Fencing. Fencing was cheaper. So I signed up for the non-credit class offered through Metropolitan Community College held in a run down storefront in Benson, an older neighborhood of Omaha, taught by a strangely charming man we would all affectionately come to call the Evil Little Gnome.

Ian, aka E. L. Gnome, was born in the wrong century. He was wine, women, fencing, and motorcycles, more or less in that order. He reminded me of Porthos in the 1993 Disney version of The Three Musketeers. Gold rings flashed in both ears, he wore his hair long on his neck, and he made the most of his brilliant white smile despite being five foot three inches tall. He was also the nominal leader of The Musketeers Fencing Club, a loose conglomeration of random people who all enjoyed the art of fencing. (The ‘art’ being distinct from the ‘sport’ of fencing, though we did a little of that, too.)

Now, this may seem a strange place to begin the story of how I became Buddhist, especially considering it was not anyone in the fencing club who influenced me towards Buddhism in particular. Rather, the fencing club, and certain key individuals specifically, might best serve as an illustration of anti-Buddhist principles (if there are such things). In other words, I first had to learn what not to do, how not to live my life. I cannot say that this adventure drove me towards Buddhism, for it didn’t, but it did prime the pump. By the time I finally picked up a Buddhist book, experience had already led me to many similar conclusions, and when I also found them in the Buddhist teachings it encouraged me to look deeper.

But back to our story.

So I fell in with bad company. Ian taught fencing classes because he wanted to have someone to fence with. He wasn’t a coach or a team captain. He was flamboyant and a good showman and, as already mentioned, charming. He had also been a corporate trainer, before I knew him, and had a knack for explaining things well. He taught two eight-week classes a quarter, the one on Friday nights (my class) geared specifically towards women. Ostensibly, this was to encourage women to enter a male-dominated sport, start them out on even ground, and make them feel comfortable. In actuality, it was so that he could meet women.

While he taught class in one half of the room, members of the club would set up a single fencing strip on the other half. Class was three hours and afterward people would go out, the students mingling with the members at the biker bar down the street. It was often said we were “a drinking club, with a fencing problem,” though there was myself and others who never really drank much, but we were there as much for the social aspect as everyone else.

I was always chronically early to everything, and fencing class was no different. It was just Ian and I gearing up before the third class when he looked at me.

“So why didn’t you come out with us last week?” he asked as he laid out masks and jackets for the rest of the class.

“A little thing like legality,” I answered as I fastened my plastron, the double layer of nylon that covers our chest and upper arm on the fencing side (right if right-handed) as the last line of defense against a broken blade. Plastrons are made from the same dense weave nylon used in bullet proof vests, made not to cushion but to prevent penetration. Blades, though blunted, create a sharp, ragged edge when they break, and Ian was serious about no one being stabbed to death in his classes. Ironic, considering we were all diligently learning how to do just that.

He stopped what he was doing to look at me, really look for probably the first time. “How old are you?” he asked.


He looked me up and down one more time. “Well, we’ll pick somewhere you can go tonight.”

Thus began my education, and it had very little to do with fencing.

Discovering for Ourselves

A favorite movie of mine is Last of the Dogmen. (Not Last of the Dog Soldiers. That will get you a werewolf B-movie from the UK.) It is a very underrated movie. I've never met anyone who has ever heard of it before, but it always spoke to me. It was made in 1995 and stars Barbara Hersey and Tom Berenger. Brad and Angelina they are not. Tom and Barbara, aka Lewis and Lillian, are about as normal as two people can get. The kind of people you expect to have bad joints and back problems and tax returns. And they don't get along, but somehow they travel into the Montana wilderness (of which there is a lot) to find a lost Cheyenne tribe.

Something that has always stuck with me are these little snippets of narration quietly inserted. They never say precisely who the narrator is, but he has the gravelly old voice of a hard living man, simple and matter of fact. "Every story," he tells us in the opening credits, "begins and ends in the same place - and that's in the heart of a man. Or a woman. Now, we'll get to that in a little bit, but this here is a Western story, so it begins the way Western stories ought to - with outlaws."

Through the narrator we discover the back story between Lewis Gates, who's hired to track the outlaws and bring them out of the Montana mountains alive, Sheriff Deegan. We get a glimpse at Lewis' feelings for Lilian, because he's the kind of gruff man who won't just come out and say it, or show it. But more than that, through the narrator, we learn a thing or two about the way that stories are told and what makes them special.

"I'd say most of what I'm telling you is true. And the rest... well, the rest is the West."

That gruff old voice has stuck with me as I've contemplated my own story. Specifically, I've wondered what makes it unique, what's the theme, what's the point? And how do I tell it. It comes upon me that it is indeed a story. It seems like so many dharma books out there are telling us what-is and how-to. They aren't about the person writing them, not as the subject matter in any sense, and that person is usually some teacher who is already expected to have some level of wisdom to share. They don't always tell us how they came to their conclusions, the mistakes they made, the full process of their journey, though they may share anecdotes from time to time. They leave us guessing about the whole of it. No, they're writing to tell us what it is they have concluded. Well, I'm not that person. I haven't concluded. This isn't a what-is or how-to. This is an in-progress. This is a nitty-gritty, down in the dirt snapshot of awakening unfinished. No guessing, I'll tell you all of it straight up because, apparently, that's what I'm good at.

I've also wondered, time and again, why "Dharma Cowgirl?" Why not "Dharma Hippie" or "Dharma Yuppie," "Plains Dharma" or "Sandhills Dharma," or some other reference like "Common Sense Wisdom" or "Life In Progress." But something about the idea of cowgirl, of cowboy, has always spoken to me and I have been trying to understand this so that I can articulate it. It is not merely the mythology, not simply the rugged individualism, or place, or history. Nor can it be fully tied, made synonymous to, Trungpa's tradition of warriorship. It is something different, something more than that.

It is not independence in the classic sense of the word. It is not the "I don't need anything or anybody," kind of self-imposed isolation. It is an intrinsic understanding that no matter how many people you surround yourself with, how much help and support you have, teachers, sanghas, friends, in the end it's still up to you, on only your shoulders. It is the understanding that, irregardless of the interdependence of phenomena, we are all essential alone. Further, it is the willing acceptance of this fact. The will to move forward (or backward or sideways or stand still) with this knowledge and responsibility.

Essentially, we're on this path alone and we don't know what we'll discover as we travel it. But we are willing to travel it, we are willing to discover whatever it is we find. And that's the thing about Western stories, they are about that discovery. The characters are people who are willing to go looking, both in the great, wide spaces of the West and within their own hearts. They are people who won't settle for someone else's word on the matter. They understand they need to know for themselves.

In the movie, Lillian tells Lewis: "Look, Elvis is dead, the government is not hiding UFOs, and there are no Indians in the Oxbow." But Lewis doesn't believe her. He knows what he saw, even if it isn't quite sure what it was, and he goes about gathering facts, seeking to discover, and in the end, drags her along with him. But Lillian is the same. She wouldn't accept what Lewis believed until she saw it for herself and then she turns the tables, and drags him into a whole new life.

In the end, this is what I'm looking to say, but not just say. As the literary adage goes "Show, don't tell."

After all, if you're half the cowgirl I am, you wouldn't believe me if I just told you anyway.

May 20, 2009

In the Garden

Summer is creeping up on the Midwest. It's a good time to be outside. I picked up some lunch on my way out of macroeconomics and headed for the Lincoln Foundation Garden where I knew the summer concert series had begun this week. A jazz ensemble called Pangea was playing in the gazebo, all percussion and strings. I found an out of the way spot in the shade, near the creek, slightly away from the gathered crowds, and sat to enjoy my lunch, leaning up against the planter ledge/seat. Being a very introverted person, I have been on a multi-decade project to integrate with society and going to events like this was just one more stone in the path.

I noticed something today I had not noticed before. I noticed what I was noticing. I was listening to the music with half an ear, seeing the ebb and flow of the crowd in the corner of my eye, glancing now and then at the birds flitting around, but what I was really doing was a detailed analysis and critique of the design of the garden. Sure, I was being present, noting my surroundings, but in a way that also allowed me to be safely in my own head space (and isolated from everyone else in the garden) carrying out an intellectual exercise. And I realized - I've done this before. I do this a lot. All the time, in fact, and particularly when I'm in a crowded environment.

Some of it I come by naturally. My entire family makes a project out of avoiding crowds. We go to the noon matinee at the movies, eat dinner a little earlier so we never have to wait at restaurants, visit state parks during the off season. We think the perfect time to go to the zoo is nine o'clock in the morning on a Tuesday in November, and better if it's drizzling. To some extent, I've gotten over this, but I've realized I've invented an odd coping mechanism to compensate.

In a crowded restaurant I'll notice the dispersal pattern of fire sprinklers, look for radiators and return air ducts, analyze the wear marks on the floor to understand foot traffic patterns. On a bus or plane or train, I'll trace the lines of the overhead bins and cabinets until I understand how the light fixtures were designed and where all the screws are. Only part of this is an occupational hazard.

I suppose I noticed it today because I've been in this garden two dozen times before. I've analyzed its design down to the most minute detail. My third year studio professor brought us here because it is a particularly lovely urban pocket garden. I had been living in Lincoln a year and didn't even know it existed. It was January but it was sixty degrees out (no global warming my ass!) so he bought us all cones at the little ice cream stand by the entrance gate. It's only a couple of blocks from home, and usually very quiet, almost forgotten, so I've visited it often. Since the first few times, I've rarely given it's beauty much thought and yet today I was studying it down to every leaf and stone.

I had come there as part of my ongoing social experiment, come to people watch and listen to the music. Then I noticed I wasn't really doing either. I glanced across the well behaved crowd and soon enough I was back to contemplating the success the ivy-covered, undulating, concrete wall which separated the garden from the drive-through of the bank next door. I realized that this size of a crowd was usually something I avoided by reflex action. Even though I was here in the garden, though sitting a bit away, I was still avoiding them by reflex action, except this time I was doing it with my mind. Go figure.

The mind is an endless garden and the more branches I peel away, the more things I seem to find.

I'm a Proud Bitch

I'm a proud bitch. This is not a guilt-laden confession, but a simple statement of fact. I crouch in the back of the classroom like a vulture looking for weakness. After five wrong answers, I toss out the correct one with nonchalance and then pat myself on the back not simply for being smart, but for being smarter, and being able to prove it so deftly. And all the while another part of me is standing there observing it with curious dispassion.

A friend recently told me that ego not only builds us up, but tears us down as well. My ego pats me on the back for my intelligence, wit, and ability to turn a phrase. Simultaneously, it bites me on the ankle with the belief that I lack any form of genuine wisdom or anything worthwhile to say.

I have this habit (we have this habit) of divorcing myself from my ego. "The devil made me do it." It's not that simple. One thing my mother taught me is to take responsibility. So while a piece of me may be able to stand in the back of my mind and observe while another piece of me pushes me around like a bully in the schoolyard, that doesn't mean I'm off the hook.

The question is not whether or not I am a proud bitch. That is a given. It isn't even a value judgment of whether that is good or bad. The question is, what should I do about it? In order to answer this, I need to understand why I am a proud bitch, who does this benefit, who does this harm, what are the alternatives and their benefits and harms, and how to I change things? That's what the observer is for. She's not there to offer congratulations or recriminations.

This all sounds very mechanical, very logical, as Spock would say, but that's also beside the point. What drives this entire conversation going on inside my head is compassion - the desire to be free from suffering and to free others from suffering. At the very least, to try. Compassion is not dispassionate. Compassion is "suffering together with another; the feeling or emotion, when a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it." Dispassion, or freedom from passion, apathy, can never bring one to this end, no matter how astute the observation or understanding.

So, the fact that I am a proud bitch means I am capable of compassion, for pride itself is a strong emotion and causes much suffering. I, by no means, have am exclusive patent on its use. This thing that I have come to see in myself, otherwise known as a flaw in my character, is not without its own subtle purpose. As long as I have the ability to discern and correct, I never need to get too down on myself and all the ways I'm a horrible person. And I never need to spend to much time building myself up and making myself perfect and impenetrable either, since in the end, they are much the same thing.

I can be a proud bitch and that's okay because it's a fundamentally workable person to be.

May 19, 2009

Trans-Continental Ride

For several years I have had this strange ambition to ride across North America. Specifically, I want to horse-pack, that is ride and camp, over 3,000 miles. I figure I can do it in six months, though it could take up to a year. (I might be able to squeeze it out in four months, but I’m too lazy for that.) I can’t really explain it, except that it is an experience I genuinely desire to have. Some people want to climb Everest or run a hundred marathons or win the World Series. I just want to spend the better part of a year putting permanent calluses on my ass and generally travelling through isolated places no sane person would find themselves in.

I have contemplated starting as far east as Newfoundland, though Maine might be closer, debated whether to take the north route or south route around the Great Lakes, whether or not to dip far enough south to pick up the Cowboy Trail across Nebraska, and where to cross the Rocky Mountains. I could start backwards, in Vancouver or Seattle. Would I want GPS, or try it with paper maps? I’d need several months of preparation and trying time before setting out. I don’t particularly want to travel alone, for safety reasons, though I wouldn’t completely discount the possibility, but three people almost seems like a crowd. And whoever comes on this journey needs to be comfortable with long silences. I figure one hardy riding horse (each), someone with good endurance and sure-feet, and a sturdy pack pony, maybe a mule, would suit. And, of course, a dog.

This journey, if it is ever undertaken, may be years in the future. Today as I waited for my computer to run an intersect algorithm on a pair of shape files, I idly browsed for trail maps on the internet. (I’d love to “off-road” it, but I figured I’d just end up pissing off private property owners from sea to shining sea.) I found the Trans Canadian Trail, 21,500 kilometers of middle-of-nowhere goodness, of which 14,500 kilometers is already developed and ride ready. It’s still a dream, but an achievable one.

Maybe for my fourth book: Sitting in the Saddle?

May 16, 2009

Well, Alrighty Then

I’m getting ready to start my summer project: Dharma Cowgirl. I’ve posted bits and pieces of it already, but so far that’s all it is – bits and pieces. So I thought to myself, no point in reinventing the wheel. I’ve already written so much. But I need to go through it and sort out what could be useful where and how it can be expanded or reworked. Of course, to do that, it would be helpful if I had it all in one place and printed out so I could make notes.

Unfortunately, I don’t keep what I post. It exists only in cyberspace. It has been an exercise in non-attachment to my own work. Of course, it now seems that’s both somewhat vain and in vain. However, to rectify it means I had to go back through and copy and paste my entire blog into a word document, one post at a time. Which is exactly what I just did. It’s 346 pages or 210,845 words.

Including this post.

May 15, 2009

I Died and Lived Again

I dreamed that I died and lived again. It was not an abstract dream, but as solid as the headstone with my name carved into it. I am certain I told my parents I did not want a grave, but there it was for them to cry over. A brain aneurysm, swiftly diagnosed and just as swiftly acting. Then I was gone, quietly, in the middle of the bright day. I dreamed of my funeral.

I woke, back in my bed in my home, whole and sound. Not a ghost, or apparition, but a complete me as I had always known. Everything was as I left it. I dressed and walked down the streets of my city. I bought coffee and the paper, and there is was in the printed pages, my death. There would be a memorial at my college and counseling. There were photos of grief-faced friends and kind words I didn’t read.

Should I go? Should I tell them I am still alive? It would probably scare them and drive them mad. I knew I was not a figment. People saw me. People served me coffee and said hello on the street. There would be questions, endless questions I knew no answers to. Perhaps I should just disappear. This could be my opportunity for a completely new life. I could start from scratch. My family had closure. They had put me in the ground.

But I could not do that to my mother so I went to see her. And she cried and I cried and in the end she was convinced of my reality. She is, after all, a pragmatic woman. A miracle, she called it. I just called it damned bizarre as we sat on her red sofa and tried to decide what to do next.

I woke up and thought “How bizarre.”

May 14, 2009

You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Firefly Swarm

In an odd corner of the second floor of the south gallery of the Phoenix Art Museum I noted a white arrow stenciled on the beige wall. It pointed towards a dark gap in the otherwise bright gallery. There, tucked into the black cavern, was another stencil, this on white on black, beckoning one in. Cautiously I stepped into the darkness, inching forward slowly around the corner. My eye caught movement and I paused. I made out the dark on dark backlit form of myself in the unlit mirrored wall. I turned again and noticed a small green light hanging from a thin black wire at eye level before my face. It slowly changed from green to blue then faded away. I noticed another. And another. And a hundred-thousand more. I inched forward another cautious step. I slowly realized what I was seeing. A great grin cracked my face and I smiled, oh, how I smiled, there in the dark for no one to see. I smiled until my face hurt and would have laughed but I was too delighted to even think of it.

I walked forward amid the slowly breathing lights. I found the mirrored walls more by instinct than anything else. I stood and slowly turned, trying to grasp the tiny size of the vast space within which I stood, the hushed footfalls of the lofty galleries behind me far, far away. It was utterly dark, like space, yes, but a warm and welcoming space filled with tiny pulsing lights which illuminate nothing. Behind me, one or two swung where I had brushed them in passing, before coming to rest again. The colors would shift, a mix of blue, green, and yellow, and some lights would go out or come on, moving through an intense range of colors to only a very few sparse red sparks.

I found the exit and came out, still silently laughing into the bright gallery, only to follow my own footsteps back to the entrance. This time, I strolled in with less hesitation but no less delighted wonder. I found a spot that felt to be in the middle, and sat cross legged. I rested my wrists on my knees and simply was. I took my glasses off and let the tiny lights fuzz like an impressionist painting. It was far beyond a transcendental experience, because this was not something manufactured by my mind, but my her mind, Yayoi Kusama, the artist, and told to us in a whisper of light, bestowed like a gift of water to one who didn’t even know they were dying of thirst. It is the greatest work of art I have ever encountered.

We should all be so obliterated.

Stubborn Is

It has been suggested by some that being stubborn is merely a manifestation of the desire to be right. I, of course, immediately disagreed with this. Stubborn has nothing to do with being right, I claimed, and anyone who understands their own stubborn nature will tell you that. True, it was agreed, but it still has everything to do with wanting to be right, they claimed. Naturally, I held my ground. The combination of a trained skeptic with a stubborn nature leads me to argue as surely as if I had a ring in my nose.

Stubborn is a much more subtle thing than that, I insisted. Like an addiction in one’s nature that is difficult to overcome. When stubborn rises up, I feel very little desire to be right, but simply a desire to be stubborn, to hold fast, to push and be pushed. I view it in the same way a sportsman may view a worthy opponent or a connoisseur a very good bottle of wine.

This is, perhaps, a mistake - more than a mistake, a perverse irony of my nature, for I have often also written of the suffering of obstinacy. That I sometimes feel that I am being stubborn not out of spite, but rather in spite of myself and my own higher reasoning. Yet I make a virtue out of what is sometimes a flaw in character. Why? Because I’m damned good at it. This, then, is also pride, and pride is ego. In order to believe that “I” am “good” at something, there must first be an “I” to be good, or bad, or any other adjective.

The First Noble Truth: all life is suffering. I push because it gives me pleasure, but in too short a time, that pleasure turns to suffering, is underlain by suffering, is built upon its foundations as surely as the walls of a fortress. If the suffering were absent, I would feel no need to push at all, no need to seek pleasure as a temporary distraction. But if stubbornness is born of suffering, that leads us back to ego, for “who” is it that suffers? I do. Right?

It seems right at first blush. It seems right because it is what we have stubbornly clung to for the entirety of our existence. Then something changes, something comes along and tells us “Nope, sorry kids, ya got it all wrong.” We have found the dharma. Being the skeptic that I am, I naturally think “Ah-ha! Here is something that questions the most fundamental assumptions of my nature! I like this!” Suddenly I find myself stubbornly clinging to two competing ideas, but they are both born of the desire to end suffering. One seeks to destroy the suffering, to quench it with an ocean of pleasure, and one seeks to destroy that which suffers, or rather, to see that it was never there to begin with.

And the funny thing about it is, like two knights in battle, the same blacksmith made their swords. I stubbornly refuse to give up my ideas about the person that I am and that person is a skeptic and because I am a skeptic I stubbornly refuse to believe I am the person that I am. I won’t give up samsara but I won’t give in to it at the same time. I’m chock full of clinging, raging with attachment. And I just can’t get over it. Not that there is anything to get over and not that there is anyone to do the getting over, but all the same, I just can’t get over it.

And this idea that “I can’t get over it,” I know to be completely and utterly false. I have no desire for it to be right, no desire to be vindicated in this mockery of a belief. In the end, what I desire and what I cling to are completely separate from and often in contradiction of one another. It’s the great irony of suffering. It’s wanting the person you are arguing with to be right, but more, to be able to prove they are right in a way that somehow pries open our minds and cuts the strings of our attachment. We are all seeking that “Eureka!” moment, on the cushion or anywhere else. Some of us are waiting for the bell to ring, while others of us are demanding it like a slap in the face. I’ll settle for nothing less - nothing less than being completely and utterly wrong.

That is what stubborn is.

May 12, 2009

Waiting for a Whim

I am waiting for something to come along and entertain me. That something could be a person returning home, a new television show debuting on cable, a breaking news story, a cat to rub against my calf, or merely my own facile mind.

Boredom is inevitable. Boredom is eternal. Or so it seems at the time. It is an overwhelmingly sick feeling of chronic dissatisfaction. A silent cry of “Someone please shoot me now!” to the uncaring universe. Yet it’s also totally made up. Or, my favorite new word, illusory.

Sometimes I think sitting with boredom can be a good thing. Of course, it can also be a masochistic thing. And a pride thing. “Look at me, I’m such a good little girl, I don’t need to glut on bland pop culture to keep my ego addiction fed.”

But you know, besides all that, it’s not so bad. It’s a good feeling to explore, especially since its avoidance is one of my greatest skills and lastumbling blocks.

Let’s face it folks, meditation is boring. Sure it can be calming and relaxing, but that usually lasts a minute or two and then it’s just downright, numbed out of my skull, waiting for my foot to fall asleep because then at least I’ll have some semi-interesting stimulus boring. B-O-R-I-N-G.

Here’s the kicker, though – meditation isn’t boring. Meditation no more has the quality of boring than tofu has the quality of spicy.

I could say “it is what we make it,” but that’s just positivistic salve to make it sound like we have control of our lives. I know that the next time I meditate, it’s going to be boring. I know I’m going to run through my inner routine of adjusting my posture, watching my breath, feeling my shoulders relax, noticing thoughts, getting caught in thoughts, letting go of thoughts, noticing my body begin to ache, and after a while just wishing and hoping and praying to any god that will listen for someone to ring that damn bell already so I can get the hell out of here. That isn’t going to change just because I tell myself it ought to.

Hell, think if that actually worked! We’d all be cheerfully enlightened, multi-millionaires, living in cute little beach huts, eating bananas and fish we caught because (after all) we can be happy on anything and that leaves more money to give to orphans in Africa. And when not fishing or writing obscenely large checks, we’d be meditating with a cat-in-the-sunbeam look. That’s how we all “ought” to be, right?

But we don’t work that way. In fact, I sometimes wonder how we manage to “work” at all, but somehow we do. We’re here, after all, and we, each and every one, have the potential for buddhahood. All our problems are basically workable.

So what’s my problem? Barry told me that I have no motivation and I couldn’t agree more. Some people, most, I think, come to Buddhism and meditation because they feel that their lives have become fundamentally un-workable. “I was heading for prison or death,” Barry told me, “when I walked into the Zen center.”

I can’t say the same, or anything remotely like some of the other stories I’ve heard.

It was a whim. Buddhism was a whim. Since that whim it has shaped my life in strong ways, but mostly through its ethics, philosophy, and intellectualism – in other words, the interesting parts. Whereas meditation, the real life-changing meat of the practice, if you will, is firmly on the shelf labeled “boring parts.” And no matter how I study and talk myself in circles, I just can’t seem to talk meditation down off that shelf.

Intellectual knowledge is a bitch.

And as much as I tell myself that someday I’ll come around to it (as I’ve come around to so many, many other things), that sometime my mind will fundamentally change, my resolve will shift, and I will begin a meditation practice in earnest, I wonder if that too isn’t positivistic salve. Barry believes me when I say this will happen, but I have lately begun to wonder. Is that just a cop out so that I don’t feel too badly about my current failure? Or so that I can more easily let myself off the hook and not meditate?

There is every possibility that meditation will always be boring, every likelihood, in fact. There is every chance I will always hate it and that I will never “come around.” It will stay firmly up on that shelf.

So then the question becomes, go on stumbling like I have been, give it up, or power through? I can image what many people would say. I have been told often enough that I “must” meditate, that it is “necessary.” Other than the fact that I don’t respond well to words like "must, "I would generally agree, but again, it is an intellectual agreement. Such is not a useful motivating factor.

While everyone I can think of would council me to power through ,I know myself well enough to know I’m more likely to keep on stumbling, making incremental improvements as I have been, and waiting for that pivotal moment. Such moments tend to come quietly, with no great tipping point or fanfare.

The moment I decided to stop, once and for all, biting my nails. The moment I decided to go back to the University. The moment I decided to take my first lover. Nothing about these moments stood out. They were each as unremarkable as a moment could be until the thought entered my mind and I decided – on a whim, it may have seemed.

So maybe someday I’ll have a whim to just sit anyway, bored, not bored, or not even marking the difference.

May 11, 2009

Questing Through the Valley of the Sun

Today is a lovely day simply to be by myself for a while. I have been suffering from time lag and lack of sleep over the last two days and nights. The difference here in Phoenix is only two hours, but with the night owl habits of the friends I have been visiting, this makes the shift from manageable to being out really late. I spent the night listening half way through my play list on my mini-computer rather than to my host's snoring (carried to me thanks to the otherwise quite lovely two-level, open air loft they call home). When I woke this morning, groggy, I believed it when my computer told me it was 9:30. Thus I was confused, after a leisurely stroll and equally leisurely breakfast of coffee, yogurt, granola, and fruit, why the art museum was not open. I returned to my temporary home, Tracy & Jan off at work, believing it to be well past noon to find it only 10:30 in the morning. So I did the only thing one can do. I took a nap on the couch. I roused at 1:00 o'clock local time to wander down to the fancy wine and cheese restaurant in the retail level of this five story condo building, then wandered back up to write, finish reading the Sunday Times, and otherwise putter away the afternoon.

I am deeply contemplating a second visit to the pool. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit there yesterday, where I began to deeply appreciate the hedonistic glory of a private pool. None of the other residents were as foolish as I to venture out into the hundred-plus degree afternoon, but after slowly splashing my way back and forth across the crystal clear, eighty-two degree waters a few times, I found the Arizona heat to be quite perfect. As I sat in the poolside lounges and read a magazine, the southerly breeze made my wet suite into a chiller as the water evaporated. I was finally driven in when the sun became too low for the tall, sea-green umbrella to do it's job.

As I contemplate that, I am also aware that I am not too far from an art district. I have lately outgrown several of the prints I bought while still a teenager and have been thinking of replacing them. My budget, however, remains limited. This is a quest which may take some time.

I have enjoyed loud bars (a rare occasion for me), bad beer (I don't like beer, so there really is no other kind), wonderfully eccentric poets, good conversation, frustrating meditation (nothing new there), much laughter, new friends (some of the feline variety), good wine, good food, and irreverent philosophy (the best kind). Several of the people I have met here in Phoenix are artists of one kind or another, and quite good ones too. I have a feeling they would not steer me wrong, and may see who is up for such a quest.

Perhaps after the pool...

SunSpace - The Itch of Existence

Each week on SunSpace we’ll feature a piece submitted by a reader—so please be in touch. Here, ‘Buddhist in Nebraska’ blogger Monica Sanford has the “nagging sense we don’t fit in…an itch just beneath the skin”—until she realizes that there is nothing to fit into.

The itch of existence: Where do I fit? A stream of consciousness by yours truly.


May 09, 2009

On the Dirt in Phoenix

For the first time I can recall, I took two showers in under twelve hours. It's only May. Honestly, it's not too bad. Hundred-degree heat yes. Oppressive, yes. Bright, yes. But dry, blessedly dry. So with a bottle of water stolen from my as-yet-unseen hosts' stainless steel refrigerator, I set out into Phoenix on foot.

There is a method to the madness that is the Phoenix Public Library, and should you fail to ascend the flights to the fifth floor, you will never know what it is. The roof is suspended from columns which never touch it. The building turns a blank face to the street, and opens in curtain walls of glass to the north and south. The interior will never see direct sunlight thanks to fins and louvers and the concrete cradles simple metal shelves. I liked it, even though it was not an aesthetic that appeals to me. It has a rare design integrity and a promising type of functionality.

I found a fair trade coffee shop in a trendy up-and-coming development. This area seems dotted with these, between the vacant lots, aging light industrial cum art studio, and graffiti splattered shells. They made a wonderful smoothie and frittata to give me fuel for a seven block quest down Roosevelt Street in search of disposable cameras. I got propositioned as a hooker on the corner of 7th St. I don't know what about blue jeans, a straw cowboy hat, and the New York Times spells h-o-o-k-e-r, but apparently they thought better of the question fairly quickly.

I like photographing with disposable cameras. There is no safety net. No fancy zooms or exposure corrections or auto-focus. A disposable camera can only take a picture of exactly what it is you see. It is a good challenge and I've had luck with them before, so rather than pack my nice Canon and fight with batteries which never stay charged and a bag whose strap drags at my shoulder, I just slip a little plastic camera in my pocket and away I go. I do feel guilty a bit about indulging in disposable culture, but hey, this is art! Right?

My first impressions of Phoenix: brown, mountains, heat, sun, concrete, flowers, contradictions.

May 06, 2009

Ball of String

I am a ball of string.

Unraveling, unraveling

Each bit of string

Tied to the one before

Wound over the others

Crossed and crisscrossed

Building bigger and bigger

Until I can’t see what’s underneath.

So I unravel and unravel

Examining each inch as it slips

Through unfeeling fingers

Looking at color, strength

Little knots and frayed spots

Is this me? Is that me?

Where did it start, this string?

Searching for the center.

There is no center

And all that is left

Is a mess on the floor

That is no longer a ball

Of string or anything

Is that mess still me?

Or was I the ball?

Nope, neither, and nothing

May 05, 2009

Dharma Cowgirl Ch.2 - Familiar Strangers

“So, my cousin is getting married in Longmont in a few weeks. My family is driving out from Omaha. You want to come and keep me from being bored to tears?”

“Sure. I’d like to meet your family.”

I blinked from my spot sprawled across the bed that took up nine-tenths of the tiny room in the long-condemned trailer. “Uh…okay. You sure? I mean, I’d love it if you’d come with me, but they’re all a bunch of conservative ranchers.”

“They’re not gonna shoot me or anything, right?”

“Well, no. They leave their guns in the trucks when they go to church.” I worried that I was only half joking. “Besides, they’ll be delighted to see me bring a guy. I think some of them are seriously starting to worry that I’m gay. Plus, they’re Nebraskans, so they’re polite to everyone.”

“Cool. Just let me know when it is, so I can ask for time off.”

I spent a lot of time that summer hanging out in that trailer between the bath house and the recycling dumpsters, anytime I could escape from Boulder for the weekend, which was about twice a month. The trailer was part of Shambhala Mountain Center, where I had worked the summer before. It had been the first time I had ever escaped Nebraska for any real length of time. That’s where I met Stephen and we had clumsily managed something that the charitable might have called a relationship. Things had mellowed between us in the nine months I had been back at school, but we were both excited when I got the internship in Boulder the following summer. That summer, we were comfortable with each other.

He knew about my family, of course, and about Nebraska because I had spoken about them. He spoke significantly less about his own family and growing up in North Dakota, which he self-professed to hate. He never liked to speak of anything unpleasant in his life. I knew the feeling of not quite fitting in the place you are supposed to call home, but I never really understood why he disliked North Dakota so intensely. After all, it sounded very much like Nebraska, which I continued to love even while I was off having an affair with Colorado. In the end, I figured his reasons must have been personal and left him to his privacy.

It still surprised me that he seemed so eager to meet my family. My cousin Jeff is a few years younger than I. He was marrying a school-teacher, Melinda, in the Lutheran church in Longmont on the first Saturday of June, the same day my parents had married thirty-five years before. It was all very by the book. Melinda had been one of Katie’s bridesmaids at her wedding to Jim, Jeff’s older brother, a few years before. A year later, Jeff had brought her to a family reunion in Hay Springs, to meet Great-grandma P. and the rest of the family. We figured the deal was mostly sealed and no one was surprised when the engagement was announced a few months later.

Jeff is a stranger in a familiar pattern, dressed up like someone I should know but don’t. Jeff, like my other three cousins on my mother’s side, had a degree in agriculture from a public university and a respectable job as a buyer for a sheep slaughtering plant. He wore tight jeans with shiny belt-buckles he had won himself, boots, and a cowboy hats. He drove a big, rumbling truck, and helped to teach his three-year-old nephew, Cole, how to toss a lasso. He got along just fine with my other cousins, but I always had the impression he never knew quite what to make of me, and not because I was the only girl. Still, we coexisted after a fashion, even if we would never be close or truly comfortable with each other. It took five-hudred miles of interstate for me to find people I felt comfortable with, people who didn't feel like strangers even on the day we met.

My family is full of familiar strangers.

Hug A Cop Today

Possibly the coolest thing I've ever seen. Brought to us by Shambhala SunSpace.


May 02, 2009

Peace, Eggs, & Apple Butter

Lincoln is coming alive again. This morning I was woken by an announcer’s amplified voice invading my dreams and the clapping and cheering of a crowd. When I finally woke and peered out into the beautiful morning light, it was to see the Capitol block ringed with onlookers as hundreds of kids and teens in white tee’s pounded down Sixteenth Street. I don’t know what the run was about or who it was to benefit, but the crowd teeming on the Capitol lawn indicated it was a great success.

After coffee and a few chapters of a good book, I headed northwest, towards Downtown and the Haymarket. By that time, the crowds had vanished with on the last few stragglers packing up strollers and kids into their shiny SUVs. The streets were quite, the weather perfect, as I rolled on down towards what had once been the wholesalers’ warehouse district by the tracks. The fire engine was in its usual spot, blocking off the lower half of P Street, and the stalls and booths and tents were up and bustling. The bicycle racks were full so I chained mine alongside another to a No Parking sign. I had warmed and so I left my jacket and scarf in the basket. Trusting, I know, but it is an attitude I prefer.

The farmers market had no produce to offer this early in the season. The butchers and bakers were out in full force and every other stall had plants and seedlings for sale. The crafters and jewelry makers were doing a brisk trade. I heard the thumping music and the rhythmic chimes as I approached the old depot, where a crowd had gathered to watch the gypsy dancers in the square.

These are beautiful women, young and old, in colorful layered skirts and scanty tops, chains jingling, fingers chiming, with bright head scarves and henna tattoos beneath plenty of shimmering jewelry. Real women these, with hips and breasts and bellies that actually move to the undulation of their bodies. They danced in a circle, with smooth graceful steps, and one or two would break out into the center, dancing her own dance and challenging the others, who would laugh and reply with swinging hips and rippling stomachs and sinuous arms.

I paused to say hello here and there to people I know. These little talks about summer plans, when and where and why for. I chatted with the farmers who sold me eggs. They have been coming up from Bellevue, Kansas, for the last eleven years. Farm fresh eggs are good for three to four weeks, I learned, but I shouldn’t try to hard boil them for at least ten days. I didn’t know that fresh eggs won’t hard boil.

I got the last baguette from one of the bakers and a jar of apple butter and one of grape jelly from the stand where I usually buy fruit, since it is still too early in the season for anything but last year’s preserves. I picked up two sage plants to add to my little window garden. From another baker I got a peach pie to take with me to Omaha tomorrow. We are celebrating mother’s day a little early. I stopped in to one of the boutique shops for a bottle of the local red wine I like and a bag of bakers chocolates. On the way back to my bicycle I passed by The Mill, a semi-famous coffee shop. The loading dock was full of talking, smiling people, and they had set up a second barista’s station outdoors. Crossing the street in the opposite direction we the poet laureate of the United States, in simple jeans, a tweed blazer, and wisps of grey hair. Ted Kooser is one of those rare people who in person looks just like his photograph, like everyone’s wise and gentle uncle. My jacket and scarf were right where I’d left them. I chatted with a young man who liked my bicycle.

I looked for a mother's day gift at the local fair trade store, but nothing inspired me, nothing called out "Mom," so I left it for later. On the way home, I stopped at a local resale shop and found the perfect light jacket, just what I had been looking for. It is light enough for spring and summer, short enough not to tangle in my bicycle, elegant enough for nights on the town, and professional enough for interviews. Why anyone would ever had sold it is beyond me, but I’m grateful nonetheless. I used to dislike shopping, because it only reminded me of the things I wanted and couldn't have. I don't want as much anymore. I even managed not to crack any of my eggs on the way home.

Now, it’s time for lunch – two fried eggs and toasted baguette with apple butter and grape jelly. Then I can look forward to an afternoon interspersed with cleaning and reading. Tonight, my Focus the Nation crew is meeting for dinner to celebrate, then we are coming back to my place for drinks.

The thing I find interesting, is not that I am enjoying this day, this wonderful day, but that it is not the highlight. It is not the epitome of my week or month or semester, but not because there is something else I am looking forward to more and not because there is something unseen dragging me down. I’ve been of fairly even keel lately, enjoying both the “good” days and the “bad” days. That means, amongst other things, that I can find a kind of calm contentment, without the anxious urge to savor these times “while they last.”

It’s a bit of peace in which I can just be, rain or shine, work or play, good or bad or any other artificial distinction.