Cave-dwellers

Played hooky from group practice yesterday to have a day off. The Bodum store has been on my mind recently (their things are perfect yet understated functional forms) so I decided to go to Chelsea, meet a friend there for coffee and then we would go look at some galleries. The friend then got a migraine, so ahead with my plans despite the dubious weather. I haven’t been down 14th street in a while, or at least not on foot where I would notice this: the store, along with a few others familiar to that block, have all been replaced with fashion designers. The Bodum store was sleek and shiny too, but airy, light, and had an airy light coffee bar; the whole place took advantage of the wider-than-average street and low building height by constructing a floor to ceiling glass front and white and light wood interior to reflect the tremendous light of their southern exposure.

Now occupied by (I think) Stella McCartney, whose clothing designs I actually like, but the store, AND EVERY OTHER STORE ON THAT BLOCK, was a cave of black walls and narrowly focused spotlights. And the region of activity within and without was of a highly-fashionably-dressed species that one normally associates with 5th Ave. And it reminded me of why I avoid the Chelsea galleries – the entire region has this taint of materialistic commerce, hype, competitive transactions in a vaccuum – either an all-white or an all-black cave within which people lust after things rather than simply appreciate and enjoy. Of course one can simply appreciate what’s there but the atmosphere seems geared towards a totally different attitude: without adornment, you’re nothing.

South of this I wandered, the weather now turning to whipping winds and rain, in search of the elusive place to relax with a coffee and light and space. I looked for Chocolate Bar, which was tiny, but bright and minimally noisy – ALSO GONE. The vegetarian coffee&lunch cafe across the street was still there, but it was crowded, dark, and noisy with music and espresso making. Corner Bistro, the coffee house next door, everyplace I encountered seemed to have this claustrophobic, damp, cave-like quality, separate little cocoon-pods strung on the tree of the West Village. I was seeking the wrong thing in the wrong place. I walked across town to Joe, found a setting for my mental state, and slurped away depressing thoughts of impermanence.

Aspirations

I have been reflecting on what I should really be planning…it seemed clear earlier this year – I had an epiphany while on my umpteenth visit to Karme Choling (a residential dharma center in Vermont) that I should move there for a couple of years. But since then, I’ve been practicing a lot and newer practices as well, and been engaged in my life, and engaging with dharma practice in the real world, and feeling torn between the potential rich thoroughness of dharma center life and the existing rich thoroughness all around me here in New York.

I’m craving the opportunity to go back to school and study art – to have a studio and the chance to explore. It’s been my dream to be in a situation where I am actually expected to be creating things, but where my eating and having a bed to sleep in are not dependent on it. Because of various aspects of my karma, it has eluded me. My insight into spending 2 years or so becoming very grounded in meditation practice and with a small community was that I would also have more time to practice art-making, and creating a portfolio that could be submitted to MFA programs. Then once a degree was completed, there would be the option of teaching art for a living, or finding work as a commercial artist.

But I started questioning these premises recently, and asked a friend who knows me well and has some perspective on the dharma/career thing what he thought about my plan. It created a lot of open space in my thought process which is good. My main takeaway is the practicality and seeing a bigger picture. I’m 40. I have $60,000 in student loan debt from my BA in Art History 8 years ago. I don’t own a place to live, and have little saved for old age. I’m unmarried, live alone, and have non-existent family support. His view is that I should have a home, some land, some basics and extend out from there – go back to school, take time off for a dharma year or two. It’s such an appealing idea – all my life besides wanting to make art I’ve just wanted a home, a place that I can extend out from. But that has eluded me as well. Everything is so much more complex and interdependent – certainly in the New York area, where no one can afford to buy anything. Where my student loan debt is itself a mortgage.

My attachment to my dream seems like an obstacle I need to dispell. My friend said he could see me with a Public Health degree, applying my creativity in a related field. On another occasion when we were talking about the election campaigns, he saw my analytical brain working in politics. Neither has much appeal but maybe it’s my own stubbornness that keeps me from letting go of art and trying to be curious about these alternatives. Certainly, being a secretary in an Investment Bank is limited in making use of my abilities.

I have no idea where these contemplations are headed, but I’m going to ask a few more people the basic question: what do you think about my plan?

Fixation

I went to pick up a large frame today that was being scrapped by a friend P’s architecture office, which would have been a good basis for the suiban element of this ikebana installation I’m planning for Synthetic Zero. It was a last minute adventure, materializing late on a Saturday morning. Wasn’t sure if I could get a car – but A from next door was willing to embark on this escapade. After a longish bout with Union Square traffic (it was a gourgeous fall day, the market was bursting) we double parked & I ran upstairs. The building houses Beyer Blinder Belle, it’s an old marbled-stair-and-iron railing pre-war commercial building in the NYU area, with tall tropical plants nearly ceiling height on the lobby and mezzanie levels. P had sent pictures and dimensions, which didn’t seem to reconcile with each other but it was FREE and close to what I was planning to use so optimism prevailed. Indeed it was a full foot wider than we thought – at 3′ x 6′ instead of 2′ x 6′, having it hang out the side window would be out of the question. We carried it downstairs to A waiting in the car and proceeded to attempt any number of seat adjustments & trunk-accessing manuevers to no avail. I was kind of amused by the whole thing but the others were wearing varying shades of disappointment. FYI: 1995 Beamer sedans’ back seats DO NOT fold down. Brilliant idea abandoned. A is not sorry, but intrigued.

Browsing the shelves…Ferlinghetti

Let’s go
Come on
Let’s go
Empty out our pockets
and disappear.
Missing all our appointments
and turning up unshaven
years later
old cigarette papers
stuck to our pants
leaves in our hair.
Let us not
worry about the payments
anymore.
Let them come
and take it away
whatever it was
we were paying for.
And us with it.

–from “Junkman’s Obbligato” (1st stanza)
by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Published in “A Coney Island of the Mind”

Meditation

This was a free weekend after weeks of un-free ones. I spent it indoors plowing through stuff – mental and physical. I was extremely lazy, or letting go – not sure which – did not do ages old laundry, did not even change out of my pajamas today. Did not practice at all either yesterday or today. Stayed up way late and slept in way late. Generally fell apart – that is, fell away from the regimen I have developed that I think is what keeps me feeling sane and useful. I’m not good with unscheduled time, I always say. It feels uncomfortable, endless, unaccomplished.

I experimented with creating a screen using a cutout technique that I intend to apply to some shiny plastic in this installation I have in mind. I updated my photography portfolio. Did not study as planned, although I did begin to outline what I’m studying for this upcoming course. I listened to my favorite radio shows for the first time in weeks. I don’t have a television, for some time now, because it’s too addictive. I can’t handle television. Lately, though, I’ve been curious about some of the programs I see advertised so I delved into the Showtime web site tonight and watched the first episode of Californication. And then proceeded to watch all the iTunes previews for this and Weeds.

There is no doubt after watching these that I have shielded myself a lot from what stands in for modern life in this cosmos. These shows have central characters who over the course of the seasons are up, down, up again, down again, basically in an endless cycle of misery that only partly seems of their own making, partly the influence of writers toying with them. It was all kind of depressing and yet it was hard to stop watching, another twist of fate just around the corner. How the characters relate with each other in these bumpy lives seems at once completely insincere and captivating at the same time. Going out into the world and facing real people is so much harder. But then this is entertainment, not real life drama.

I dived into meditation practice after leaving a really hard year of work documenting the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Whatever I had been doing to function in my life was no longer working. There were more and more things “going wrong” – illness, ill parents, tax problems, etc., and I did not seem to have any resilience to work with these situations. I had connections with buddhist wisdom in place after years of reading Thich Nat Hanh and Chogyam Trungpa’s books.

Five years later, I’ve experienced enough resonance between practice and life to sense its value to me, and have seen meditation become much more widely known in our culture. I began instructing beginning students in basic meditation technique last year at the center where I practice. One change I attribute to it is I am much less likely to be pulled around by my emotions, like anger, resentment, lust, or elation. When you start practicing, avoiding things or actions that create more chaos in your life and other’s lives is part of the view of how to begin working with your mind. But eventually, practice gets to a point where all phenomena – television, cheese, death – are seen with clarity and appreciated, even embraced for what they are. One of the downfalls of us lesser Buddhist practitioners is that there is just as much a tendency to engage practice as a shield from things that, like television, I feel I can’t handle. Most of the time I’m not aware of things I’m avoiding. (Isn’t that true for most of us?) So having a lazy weekend, where I don’t get basic things done which keep the engine running, spending hours following one thought after another, one program after another, always feels really uncomfortable, because the shield is down. And the chaos behind all that, it’s dramatic. Its overwhelming. And time consuming. Easier to just reject it, but then I’m just as caught by it, all the same.

Nothing ventured

Late for me again to be up…I am rebelling. Since July I have been practicing a Vajranaya Buddhist liturgy that requires me to get up at 5:00 and do this particular practice, and it takes almost 2 hours. I’ve been diligent but for the last two nights in going to bed around 9:30. The rebellion is more painful than the rigorous schedule. Writing here is some sort of justification.

Descending into October is quite chilly this year. I’m excited at the prospect of real snow this winter. So far it’s still green outside, but will change soon.

In a month I hope to have an Ikebana installation at a regular salon in the loft building where I used to live. It will involve some new elements I haven’t tried before – creating a kind of installation for the ikebana to inhabit. I bought some materials and started working with them this weekend – very much an experiment.

I’m studying as well for a teacher training program that is coming in November in Vermont. I do some meditation instruction now, but would like to extend my ability to work with people.

Dowlin Forge House

I spent 2 or 3 years photographing this mid-18th century house on a branch of the Brandywine River where my Aunt lived and raised her family. I had visited on holidays and other family gatherings over the past 40 years. My Uncle died a couple of years ago. This past winter (2008), the house, which sits on property that has been in and out of our family’s ownership for hundreds of years, was sold by my Aunt as she could no longer keep up with the stewardship needs.

As far back as I can remember, this place provided me a strong sense of home and heritage. More than that, it is a piece of old Pennsylvania that has held out against Toll Brothers McMansions and the rapid conversion in the last 20 years of farmland into housing developments. I don’t think either of these things are inherently bad, but driving around the area now, the dominant feeling is one of imbalance and occasionally jarring contrasts. Much of what lies in the surrounding valleys seems ridiculously ephemeral and unsatisfying. Reconciling the two worlds doesn’t really happen.The old one hasn’t disappeared but seems like a thinner, slowly vanishing layer of reality that continues, mostly obscured, beneath the dominant culture.