faded images: where we go when we’re gone


Lessons from surviving 2017: Don’t take anything seriously. Simply because there is no end of surprises to upend expectations and desires.

IMG_2185I hope you’ve all had a restful holiday and a gentle transition into 2018. Well. Hardly gentle today if you are in the Northern hemisphere with its snow, rain, and now that bomb cyclone! Over here, north of the 49th, we’re enjoying a balmy -30°C with sunshine and the occasional welp from Dog1 tripping over Dog2 as they race around the house.

It’s a nice time of year. Not the least because I decided to end 2017 with a dedicated swing at the Room of Doom. Have I mentioned it before? Ah. The RoD is a 10′ x 10′ supposed bedroom that, over the last 14 years, has been the dumping ground – or as they say in current mindfulness-ese, holding the space – of four generations’household Stuff.

IMG_2958 I never thought of myself as a hoarder. I prefer the label of a judicious collector of objects with potential re-sale. This is based on the eternal truth that as soon as I send a box of my fake jewelry to some charity, I discover a need for it (GrandestKid loveslovesloves fake jewelry!) or that it’s the latest in Hipster crazes, like milk glass.

But no more. I have need of a spare bedroom – or two – so famdamily can visit in comfort. Because, after all, who are we without family – dammed or otherwise. So yes. As much as it terrified me to let go of the contents of these boxes, I informed The Kid that she needed to help me unpack these four generations’ boxes and discern stuff from junk.

I honestly thought she’d be more… well…objective. So. Who would have thought that metal camel chewing on a bell was a prized possession? Or the old decrepit Polaroid camera. Or the whiskey tumblers etched in gold with a ship’s water markings. All this time, I’d been hoarding the black velvet paintings of bucolic Burmese landscapes for her.

And then, as the memories were shared, the room filled with people from long ago. Ringing the bell hanging off the camel’s snout DSC_0050had been her duty when visiting her grandparents, my parents; I could see them setting the table. The etched whiskey tumblers, a gift from my parents’ best friend – a ship captain, a frequent visitor in Rangoon where he sailed past our house as he navigated into the harbour; I could hear his laugh. The milk glass is being stored for future dispersal but the cranberry glass decanter goes (horrors…this generation has no appreciation for sherry glasses or decanters!).

It was easier than I anticipated, this letting go of so many things that are now rendered meaningless as memories have been scraped of their emotional colours. And, the gift of having a room for The GrandestKid and The Kid with her PlusOne is a reasonable tradeoff.

As part of our holiday celebrations, we saw the movie Coco, a powerful parable of death as a fading away when there’s no one to remember us, the stories of us. A fitting companion to our time of remembering who we are to each other and revitalizing our histories. And most of all, keeping those memories alive through our living stories and dedication to each other.

the calligraphy of leashes

Leash1When I posted a picture of the puppies, a friend of mine commented that she liked the “calligraphy of the leashes.”  Earlier that day in sangha, we had entertained questions about the necessity of having a formal teacher.  I’m not sure I de-mystified any aspect of the questions yet somehow the elegance of my friend’s comment seems to be the perfect answer.

As the intense relationship of being a puppy parent unfolds, I’m learning that there is as deep a mystery about leashes as there is about calligraphy.  Similar to “bone” which connotes a strong connection in a calligraphic line, the leash has a dynamic power that expresses the relationship between two endpoints.  

The teacher-student relationship is no different.  In practice, all dharmas are our teacher however we risk using that to justify meandering from this person to that, this sangha to the other.  It’s easy to reject a flesh-and-blood teacher and claim that as an enlightened practice, not being caught in form or transcending the need for any Buddhas we meet on the road.  I don’t doubt that there are some practitioners who are blessed with the capacity to live such a life free of the teacher-form.  I do doubt that there are many who can.  (In fact, when we reject the value of a teacher-student relationship from this fear base, we become more vulnerable to the tricksters and charlatans who feed our neediness and desire to be elevated.)

The question of whether it’s necessary to commit to a teacher in some formal way is a trick.  It’s many tricks.  It’s a way of asking for approval to continue an illusion of freedom.  It’s a way of asking for validation to avoid a necessary mirror of practice.  It’s a way of expressing our fear that we would be found unworthy, unwanted and undeveloped.  While there are ways of being that are unworthy of our true nature and unwanted aspects of who we can be, it’s a good start into the koan of relationships to see that we are undeveloped.  But not undevelop-able.

Hence the leash – that inexpressible mirror of the relationship between a steady solid point and an irrepressible desire for everything that passes by.

The real question then is not about the necessity of a teacher but the need for a commitment to a relationship that might flow in a variety of calligraphic lines.  This is where our fears surge; entering relationship is in our ego-driven minds akin to being restricted, limited.  And yet.  What is there that is not relational?  When are we not one end of a line?  Sometimes those lines are taut and heavy, sometimes they flow with ease and elegance.  At all times the line is an expression of the quality of mind, of a connection that can grow in disciplined progression to liberation from that fear of being held back.

white-on-white 4

White doesn’t look like it fades but it does.  Things fade.  Interest fades too.  Adoration.  Devotion.  Titillation.  Lust.  Desire.  All those things we use to measure a relationship.  They break down and lose their luster. And, of course, we make decisions based on that curve of deterioration.

I wish I had a penny for every person who said to me “I love him/her.  I’m just not in love with him/her.” It’s a code and I’m not sure there’s a Romance Rosetta Stone to unlock what we really mean by it.  Sometimes it means “this has become hard work and drudgery.”  Sometimes it might mean “I made a mistake.”  Sometimes it could mean “I don’t know how to stay connected.”  Sometimes it means “I’m bored because s/he’s not keeping me entertained.”

The one that intrigues me the most is “this is getting too intimate and I’m scared.”  As long as we’re entranced by the excitement of it all, we can avoid the reality that we are two people with needs.  We’ve fallen into each others sphere of influence and now the translation codes of what I want and what you can give has to be tested.  And testing often means tolerating both failure and uncertainty.  So much easier just to focus on excitement.

Closing off from the relationship is compelling because it feels safe, at least initially.  The energy of self-righteous hurt powers a million ways to secure the perimeter against attack.  Re-direct the blame somewhere else.  Focus on all the ways I tried harder than you.  Point out your unwillingness to meet me at the appointed time and place of my need.

I was talking with a friend, itemizing the basis of my rationale that the relationship I was in was oh-too-hard.  And she asked, “When you’re in that room with him, mentally taking apart his every move, documenting his every negligence, listing all the reasons this is not going to work, who else is there?”

white-on-white 3

I was curious about this plant which was growing out of a clump of hosta.  Technically a weed – something I didn’t put there and which isn’t included in the scheme of things.  But I was curious and let it grow enough to produce delicate white flowers.  The texture of the petals is like a brushed cotton, the kind my favourite summer shirts are made of.

Landscapes are comforting when they have that same soft, nubby texture.  Rolling fields punctuated by hills and carved into high relief by gullies.  In early Spring the edges are fuzzy with new growth and by Summer the haze of greens add to the sensations of an oft-wrapped shawl or a worn quilt.

These days, I do best in relationships that have this lazy,  undulating flow, textured with comfort and soothing encounters.  There are few expectations other than an agreement to be gentle with each other.  We say things like “thank you for understanding” and “that’s such a relief to hear” or “let me see what I can do.”  Life’s too long for anything else.

Frank was cleaning out the last two boxes of our vegetable garden while I worked on being fixated by the weeds coming up from the “weed-killer” landscape covers.  In a moment of rest, I saw him sitting in the earth of the 4 x 4 box looking for all intent like a child in a sandbox.  “You make a beautiful child,” I said – knowing full well his life had not included the luxury of sandboxes.  We laughed.

It’s never too late to change the landscape of our lives.

white-on-white 2

It’s a brave man who walks his wife into Tiffany’s in NYC and walks out without buying her anything.

Well, he didn’t actually get all the way out.  He got as far as the elevator and asked the deadly words, “So, what would you like to do now?”

I am a long time practitioner of Buddhism yet short-lived on the practice of ahimsa.  Fortunately, he was saved by my never-ending optimism that he can be trained in limbic telepathy.  The limbic system is made up of organs in our brain that is sometimes referred to collectively as the “emotional brain.”  It’s actually not so much a “system” as a complex network of interconnections among structures that deal with threat assessment and responses, memory and learning, and keeping the rationally-driven frontal lobe off line.  It is also apparently sensitive to being shut down in Tiffany’s.  In NYC.  At the ring counter.  Not that I’m bitter or anything.

After I pushed the elevator call button into the elevator shaft, I think he caught on because I found myself ushered back to the ring counter.  It’s cute ring.  Thin, unassuming.  Squarish yet round.  I’m not much of a diamond girl so these itty-bitty chips are quire acceptable.

We dance with this particular expectation in our relationship.  I suspect, all relationships do.  Why can’t s/he just know?  All the cues are there.  All the anticipation.  So when there is a huge disconnect between what I anticipate was going to happen and what does happen, it’s a shock.  I watched this happen a few times recently; observed it closely.  There is a subtle assumption that I’d missed in previous experiences: “You’d think someone who knows me so well would…”  There it was!  Just as no good deed goes unpunished, all good marital sensitivity gets held against you.  A wacky “if—>then” sequence that can get quite deadly in the trenches of neediness, craving, and insecurity about the relationship.

It is a cute ring.  The edges have just enough sharpness to remind me that my expectations can make things messy.  They also remind me to ask: what do you believe should be happening now?

white on white 1

White on white is fascinating – and likely one of the most difficult ways to depict shape and texture.  I took a little tour around the garden to see how an expert does it.  Nature after all has been painting white-on-white for eons and perhaps there was a hint or two in how I could achieve the effects of pure-on-pure without resorting to pigment props.

Apparently not.  There isn’t a real “white” – at least not when we talk about light.  But there is when we talk about pigments.  It’s complicated.  Like the purity of my relationships, one cannot say it is or it isn’t because it all depends on what it contains and where it comes from.

I’m working on this.  The good thing about white is that it is very accommodating to other colours.  It has to be because without a dash of grey either as pigment or shadow what it transmits is lost in fuzzy splotch.  It’s not a stretch to think that relationships are like that.  The shadow side certainly brings out the highlights.  Well it should anyway.

Someone asked me what it is like to be with the same person for 30 years.  “I wish!”  We’ve lasted 30 years because he’s not the same person I met.  And thankfully neither am I, so that helps too.  We’ve spent a number of those years on the stuff that defines the relationship.  The dark shadows, the grey murky pigments, setting boundaries, defining likes and dislikes.  Necessary virtues and vices when crafting a work of art.

But what we never figured on was the organic nature of growing older together.  That much of this was beyond our small self and even beyond our imaginings.  That something more powerful would shape that enso, would toss pigments into it giving it heft, depth, and topography.  We don’t know what that is, where it comes from, or how it will leave us irrevocably changed.  But it has been, is, and will be marked by a blending of white-into-white.