Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Flower Power

Monday night there was a special event at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. "Art in Bloom" is a 34-year tradition at the museum that celebrates the spring season. It's an opportunity to present beautiful works of art inspired by beautiful works of art. Let me explain.

Throughout the museum (with the majority in the second floor galleries) were 50 flower arrangements made by local garden clubs and florists. What distinguished them from mere wedding bouquets was that each arrangement was inspired by a particular piece of art on the wall. I'm not sure how they made their selections, but I admired the artistry of the flowers and started looking at flower arranging in a new way.

I used to regard flower arranging as something bored housewives and retirees "studied" in Adult Ed class. Flowers are beautiful and smell pleasant but they are not art. Art you can hang on the wall or install in a gallery. Flowers last a few days if your lucky before they drop their petals everywhere. Perhaps artists like Christo are an exception; I was in New York City when he and Jeanne Claude did The Gates in Central Park. I'd say it was a waste of orange fabric.

There's a new book coming out this fall called Ikebana Style: 20 Portable Flower Arrangements Perfect for Gift Giving and I've seen some color spreads. Ikebana is the Japanese art of flower arranging. Here is an example from the book:

Photo Credit: Erich Schrempp

The author, Keiko Kubo, blends her Eastern style (simple, asymmetrical, designed to be viewed from the front and the side) with a Western aesthetic (a variety of types of flowers, potted to be transportable, can be viewed from all sides.) A student of the fine arts, Kubo considers her three-dimensional arrangements to be sculptures.

I understood this once I saw the flowers on display, each influenced by their muse--an art nouveau poster by Toulouse L'Autrec, a portrait of a 12 year-old girl that her parents would use to find her a proper suitor ("like for the 18th Century," my husband quipped.) Flowers bent gracefully at the stem like gentlemen, or stuck straight up in the air like stubborn cowlicks. Care was taken not only to capture color, but nuances of form and mood. One arrangement looked like a rooster that was emerging from the center, its fire-red crest flowing. Sure enough, next to the arrangement was a still life with fowl.

The names of the flowers were a novelty. Flame of the Forest, Kangaroo Paw, Pincushion, Angel Wing Begonia...the names were as evocative as the displays! Yes, I knew about gerbera daisies and roses. Once a week I buy a bouquet from my local Shaw's. But that's just because they're cheap--unique flowers with unusual names are harder to come by and therefore not available at any old regional grocery chain.

I admired the patience it must have taken to assemble these delicate beauties, employing floral foam as a sturdy base, with wired picks and tubes to keep the stems intact, the flowers hydrated. Knowing that I was witnessing something delicate and ephemeral, I attempted to capture each arrangement and it's accompanying art work with my cell phone camera. Many other people were doing the same thing and at times lines began to form for a chance to snap a close-up. Someone (usually me) found themselves standing impatiently behind some pair of older ladies in hats and loafers who had endless, encyclopedic knowledge of every arrangement.

I took so many pictures that for a time I didn't even stop to look at the flowers. Instead I went right up and viewed them through a viewfinder. It took me a while to realize what I was doing. I was at the exhibit, but I wasn't really paying attention. It was like the time Mike dressed up as a blind man for a Halloween party. He needed pictures afterward to see what people wore, ate, and drank. Though he had been standing there the whole time, he had missed the party. By trying to collect images to bring home with me, I was missing the real thing right in front of me.

Flowers are often used as a symbol of our impermanence. Think of the cherry blossoms in Washington, DC, the alpine flowers on the top of Mt. Washington, the annuals your neighbors plant in their front yard. Flower arranging is like building a sand castle or decorating a cake or drawing on the sidewalk with chalk. Why do we do it? Someone will invariably come along and kick the castle, cut the cake into gooey pieces, or train a hose on the sidewalk.

But oh how nice it was when it was finished, when it was admired by strangers, enjoyed by dinner guests, cherished by honeymooners carving a heart in the sand with a piece of driftwood, then watching the tide rake the sand clean.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

My path starts here

"Meditation practice provides the perfect context for observing our beliefs and recognizing the tug- of-war we have with our own experience. Just sit quietly for five minutes and watch what happens. Unless we have some accomplishment in meditation, we won't know what to do with all the activity. We become overwhelmed by the energetic play of the mind, pummeled by our own thoughts and emotions, bewildered by our inability to sit in peace. We will want to do something. And we really only have two means of escape from all this mayhem: we can either spin out into thought, which is an exaggeration of experience, or we can suppress or deny it.
"Exaggeration and denial describe the dilemma we have with mind, and not just in meditation. Exaggeration and denial operate in conjunction with all our fantasies, hopes, and fears. When we exaggerate experience, we see what isn't there. And when we deny it, we don't see what is. Both exaggeration and denial are extraneous to the true nature of things, the nature we experience when we just stay present."--Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel from her forthcoming book The Power of an Open Question: A Buddhist Approach to Abiding in Uncertainty

I finally went to the Shambhala Center of Boston after thinking about going for months. They have an open house for new people every Wednesday night, but it's across town and Wednesdays I'm usually cranky. I heard somewhere that people's least favorite day of the week is Wednesday. Me and Bob Geldof thought it was Monday. Something about it being a day in the middle of the week makes us enervated.

I was going to hear the author Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel give a talk. But I was also going to try the 1/2 hour sitting meditation beforehand. I was nervous--the most I had ever been able to sit in meditation on my own was five minutes. Possibly three minutes. I could blame the cats or my husband turning on the Celtics game. But the truth is I've never enjoyed it. It's uncomfortable sitting there, trying to focus on my breath. My thoughts competed for my attention like squabbling children. Was I supposed to clear my mind like you'd erase a chalkboard--wiping away all thoughts until all that is left is a blank? Or was I supposed to watch the thoughts like they were soap bubbles, popping each one as it floated around in my head? The stress of worrying about what to do made me want to give up. I'd rather read a book or eat rice pudding--much more gratifying.

But since I started writing this blog I knew I had to eventually try group meditation. It was the only way I could experience firsthand what many of the Buddhist books I've been reading lately were teaching. If I wanted to live in the present, here was the way to start.

I walked into the Shambhala Center and immediately began leafing through pamphlets at the welcome table. There were fliers of various talks happening, some by authors I help promote. There was a membership brochure which I pocketed like a promise. I'm already a member of the MFA and the MSPCA, but maybe my company would give me a discount. It seemed like a logical fringe benefit. I dropped a $5 bill in the wicker donation basket.

There was a greeter standing in front of a table with a sign-up sheet and another wicker basket. All I had left was a $20. I needed some time to warm up to the place, so instead of meeting eyes with the smiling young man with gold studs in his ears, I looked to the right at a circle of chairs and sofas like you might find at a support group. The only person sitting there was a heavyset man with wisps of hair covering a bald crown. I thought I should probably talk to him--after all, this wasn't like riding the "T" where eye contact is for Southern tourists and drunks. Buddhists were supposed to be open and friendly, right?

I once labored under the delusion that I was an "open" person. I considered myself to be kind-- outgoing even--if I was in the right mood or had had a few glasses of wine. That image of myself was shattered a few years ago.

I was new to Boston and determined to get to know some interesting women who might turn into good friends. When I left New York I also left a fun group of women friends I had known for most of my life. I wanted to find their doppelgangers in my new city.

One day at work I overheard this woman, N, mention a wine bar on Charles Street that she'd gone to the night before. It was the same wine bar I had read about on and wanted to try. It was something about the way she detailed the food she ate, with such stunning detail and clarity, that made me think, she's someone I'd like in my new friend pool.

It turned out that lots of other women felt the same because she always seemed to be going out after work, having cocktails, throwing parties to celebrate the Spring Equinox, arranging group lunches. She was not simply a social butterfly; she was a hummingbird.

N took classes in something called Nia. I had never heard of this before but I figured if N liked it, it must be fun. She had mentioned going on weeklong Nia retreats on beautiful islands with her girlfriends. It all sounded exotic. Was there a Nia uniform--maybe a grass skirt and beaded halter? Was it like bellydancing? I asked N if I could tag along with her to her next Nia class.

N, two of her friends, and I drove to the Nia studio one Saturday. It looked very much like a dance studio and I had flashbacks of sweaty dressing rooms and chalk. Our instructor was a young woman wearing cute, black swishy gym pants that stopped at mid calf like abbreviated bell-bottoms. Later I would search every TJ Maxx for a pair, without success.

The theme of the class that day was Madonna's Ray of Light album. It was one of the few Madonna albums I owned, the one she made after her daughter Lourdes was born and she had some sort of epiphany and became Indian. The class was full--about twenty women of all ages and body types were represented. The instructor put on the CD. As the first song began she started moving in place, telling us to let go, to feel the music in our bodies. OK. I had improvised dances in my bedroom before. Yes, I was twelve at the time, but I could still do it.

Then she wanted us to circle around the room, using any movement that felt right to us. Most of the women in the class knew what to expect, and launched into their own unchoreographed dance routine. It was one thing for me to do the Natalie Merchant twirl in the privacy of my own home, but it felt very uncomfortable doing it in front of nineteen strangers, even if most of them were smiling at each other as if to say hello friend, isn't this great? Don't you feel free? I was reminded of a tampon ad.

At one point we were told to roll around on the floor. I started to giggle, then caught myself and pretended I was just so full of joy and freedom that I was giddy with laughter. I looked over at N and saw how fully engaged she was in her dance. This came natural to her; if this was 1969 she'd be traveling cross-country in a van painted with flowers and the words "Make Love Not War." I slipped out of class and went into the women's restroom.

I was having a bad time, there was no denying it. I just wanted to get out of there. I was as reserved as a clam and I had to admit it. At 34, I felt the need to be self-protective. It mattered to me whether or not I looked foolish in front of strangers and suddenly opening up to people I just met felt threatening, false even, like being drunk at a party and spilling your secrets to someone you just met.

Yet when I returned to class and it came time to leave, I approached the instructor in the swishy black pants and told her how much I had enjoyed myself. I wanted to be put on her mailing list. I wrote down her email on the back of a postcard. You'll see me again! I said.

I don't know why I lied. Maybe I hadn't yet accepted that I was not the Nia type and that my new friend N would probably not be joining my fledgling Boston entourage, which had at least four available spots still open. She had other friends, other interests. Her circle of women was closed.

So when I found myself sitting in the Shambhala Center, waiting for meditation class, I worried that this would be just like Nia. I'd have trouble sitting cross-legged in my skirt, my back would ache, I'd start hyperventilating from all that concentrated breathing.

But when the meditation session started, I realized that, like yoga, this was an individual practice. I could sit however I felt comfortable, switch positions as necessary. No one was looking at me and saying hi friend with their eyes. We were all looking straight ahead (or in my case, at a potted plant in the corner of the room.) And yet I wasn't alone. I was among other people trying to find their way, searching for their happiness, their place in the world. It was communal in the best possible sense. We were all being still and silent together, like those times in the car with my husband when we share a comfortable lull in conversation and just enjoy being in each other's presence. Yes, my mind raced with thoughts as usual, spinning like a pinwheel in a hurricane. But I was able to keep returning to my breath. Again. Again. That 1/2 hour felt like 10 minutes.

Will I go back again? Probably, though not every week. Like I said, Wednesdays I'm cranky.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Be patient

Photo credit: Marion Peck

"Patience is not learned in safety. It is not learned when everything is harmonious and going well. When everything is smooth sailing, who needs patience? If you stay in your room with the door locked and the curtains drawn, everything may seem harmonious, but the minute anything doesn't go your way, you blow up. There is no cultivation of patience when your pattern is just to try to seek harmony and smooth everything out."--Pema Chodron, from
The Pocket Pema Chodron

I woke up early this morning, much too early for a Sunday. I think it was 4:30AM. I stumbled to the bathroom, and on my way down the hall, I felt something gritty under my feet. It felt like cat litter, so I assumed it was one of the cats kicking off some litter that had stuck to her paw. I went in the living room to read and inevitably fall asleep on the futon like I always do. More grit. The room was dark so I still thought I was stepping on scattered litter. But if this was litter, the cats must have staged an overnight revolt, dumping the entire content of their litter box upside down in protest. Had we failed to clean the box thoroughly?

I didn't want to turn on the light for fear of what I'd find. When I did, I was surprised to see tiny lentils scattered everywhere I looked. Then I spotted it. The torn plastic bag we had just bought yesterday at an Indian speciality food shop. It was gnawed open, the front of the bag a gaping maw. The bag itself was completely empty, save for one or two lentils clinging to the inside.

I know there are worse things that could happen. Parents all over the world are cleaning up after their sick children. Sanitation workers are collecting piles of garbage left over from raucous house parties on Fraternity Row. As I write this, many people are doing many dirty jobs.

But why did our kitten choose to maul a 2-pound bag of lentils while we were sleeping? And not just 2 pounds of ordinary lentils but baby lentils, lentils as small as benign moles? How did she even get the bag off the counter in the first place?
I couldn't yell at her or spray her with the water bottle we keep around for disciplinary purposes because I didn't actually catch her in the act. So I just breathed in, breathed out, and went looking for a broom. A vacuum would be more ideal for this job, but I didn't want to wake my husband. He adores Joey Thumbs and she adores him, but he would not be pleased to see the late-night havoc his beloved pet had wrought.

I could only find a small broom and dustpan. I got on my knees and started sweeping up the impossibly tiny pebbles. It was like trying to sweep a beach of its sand, a
Sisyphean task for sure, and not one I wanted to be doing.

As I swept the lentils into small piles, I thought about yesterday, and how Mike and I were having breakfast and amusing ourselves watching Joey climb onto the small white bookshelf where I keep my cookbooks, stretching her long, lean body to peer over at the bags of croutons and sliced almonds we keep on a small cart. She would select a bag, grab it between her teeth, then jump down and carry it into the living room and under the coffee table. Apparently that's her lair, where bags of croutons go to die.

Of course we always grabbed the bag out of her mouth before she could actually do anything. But what had been cute yesterday was now a colossal mess, not to mention a waste of good lentils. I felt the grit everywhere I walked. I had a feeling that, like pine needles in July, I'd be finding lentils in unexpected places for years to come.

But what could I do about it but go about the task of cleaning up, or waiting for Mike to wake up so I could move things along with his ancient but powerful vacuum? Getting upset about it would only make me feel worse. She was a cat, so therefore I wouldn't have the satisfaction of sitting her down and lecturing her about messes and waste. There was, however, a possible lesson in this for me, something about cultivating patience. My lesson was to not get mad and throw the kitten and her toys out onto the street. Beat it, kid. Scram.

Right now Joey is sitting on my lap, warming my legs like a furry heating pad. She's purring. It's like she's doing it on purpose--she's saying, I know I pee in inappropriate places, eat the leaves off Mike's peace lily plant, jump on your counters and snatch bags of legumes to toss around the apartment like confetti. But look how adorable I am when I wrap myself in a ball!

Only Joey Thumbs, toddlers, and really good-looking people have this power to make you forgive and forget.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Hitting a spiritual wall hurts

"Anything that appears in your life you regard as something to consume. If you see a beautiful autumn leaf falling, you regard it as prey. You take it home or photograph it or paint a picture of it or write in your memoirs how beautiful it was. You have finally managed to consume it--such an achievement. It was fantastic; you brought the dream into reality. But after a while you become restless again and look for something else to consume. You are constantly hungering for new entertainment--spiritual, intellectual, sensual, and so on."--Chogyam Trungpa, from The Myth of Freedom and the Way of Meditation

Yesterday I spent the day with my husband's family for Easter brunch. The pleasures of this day (and of many of the holidays I spend with my in-laws) are the ritual aspects; the fact that we always have the same meal--eggs, home fries, cabbage salad, fruit-filled muffins, strawberry soup, cousin Susan's delicious Easter bread--rendered more special by the fact that she's highly intolerant to gluten and so has to wear a mask every time she bakes it. My mother-in-law puts up the same kitschy Easter decorations--A paper bunny on the window of the front door that might have been hanging in all of the houses they ever lived in since the 1950's, the same egg-shaped box of jellybeans on the coffee table, a cartoon postcard on the refrigerator of two chocolate bunnies, one with his bum bitten off and the other with his ears missing, one bunny saying to the other "My butt hurts" and the other responding "What?" I love this repetition of food and trimming--it makes me feel like nothing will ever change.

Meanwhile, there is also the pursuit of the new, the desire for change, that excites me. I got an early birthday present of a MacBook Pro from my husband. I had been using one of his ex-company's castoff Dells, circa 1999, and so I was overdue for an upgrade. The new laptop is a thing of beauty--sharp, shiny, powerful, with lots of new features to explore. Once I started using the computer--even before I had learned how to install any software--I was thinking of what accessories would go nicely with it. There's been lots of talk at my office (yes, even a Buddhist publishing house embraces new technology) about the iPad, and even though I've lived without this device for all of my 36 years and been just fine, I find myself wanting it. I'm not even sure what it does--all I know is that it too is shiny and new and desired by many people whom I respect and admire. My ears also perked up when I heard they were developing an iPhone for Verizon. I feel outdated with my stale LG phone from three years ago with no "apps" or even a touch-screen, though it still works (except for the stuck "9" on the front keypad.) Yet I remember the lengths to which I went to acquire that phone back in the winter of 2007. Mike had been in a bike accident and shattered his pelvis. Despite the fact that he was barely mobile, I pushed his wheelchair over many city blocks of ice and snow, determined to get to the Verizon store so we could consult about the new LG NV (emphasis on the "NV," as in, I want this phone so I can be the "envy" of...)

The grasping of the old, the pursuit of the new--both attempts to maintain ego and obscure the fact that life is finite. At least that's how I understand it from the Buddhist teachings I've been reading for almost two years now. I suspect that even the fact that I've been reading various Buddhist books for 18 months could be conceived as spiritual and intellectual materialism. Mike and my in-laws often joke about my love of shopping, and even though I've started to become more aware of the things that truly bring us happiness--family, friends, feeling connected to our community--I still find myself dog-earing the latest Garnet Hill catalog, imagining myself in one of their admittedly overpriced sundresses.

I'm not sure how I can eliminate desire. Is it even possible? I know that clinging to the familiar while hungering for the new brings about suffering. But there's also pleasure in that pain, and even though it's illusory and short-lived, it's still pleasure. I would like to go on having Easter brunch with my in-laws indefinitely, while at the same time I'd like to redecorate our apartment--toss the old green chair and bring in the new sofa and queen-sized mattress. Tradition feels secure--like eating in your favorite diner--and change feels like an opportunity to extend happiness, repeat the novelty over and over with each new acquisition. Even as I'm reading and enjoying one book, I have fourteen more listed on Good Reads that I'm itching to start.

I don't have any answers. I just know that as Americans we believe in our right to the pursuit of happiness, in whatever form that may take. This seems in direct opposition to many of the ideas I'm reading about in my Buddhist books, making it hard to understand--much less to live up to--the Buddhist teachings of ego-lessness.

But, perhaps ironically, I keep on trying.