Still Keeping Ground

mm_0783It’s been such a long time since I’ve posted anything. A lot has happened in the past year and a half but at the same time, there wasn’t really much to talk about, or much I wanted to talk about. There have been plane flights, back and forth between the US and the UK for visits, 2 weddings, lots of work, and waiting. Waiting, waiting……….. and more of the same.

After we left the retreat center, we decided to travel to the US. Megan had never been, I was eager for her to meet friends, and see where I lived. After visiting our friend Suzanne from the Abbey in L’Anse St. Jean, QuebecIMG_3852, we went to New York City, took a little road trip through the midwest and landed in Chicago. I was fortunate to get my facilities manager job back at the Hyde Park Art Center (HPAC) and my cooking job back at the newly re-opened Kaufman’s Deli, so I was very quickly back to work while Megan fearlessly explored the city. Within a month and a half, I knew I didn’t want to be apart from her. We were staying in the visiting artist apartment through HPAC, making dinner together, going out with friends, talking about things that happened in our day, and it felt like home.

We consulted with a lawyer to see what our options were, how could Megan get a visa, how often could she visit, what was the timeline for all these options etc. etc. Full disclosure, Megan had never wanted to emigrate to the US. She never had any desire to visit really, much less live here, and she certainly wasn’t prepared to stay. As a US citizen, you can apply to bring your fiance to the US and once you are married, apply for permanent residency for your spouse. That’s one option but I thought, ‘Why bring you as my fiance? I know I want to marry you and be with you now. Let’s get married and you can come back as my spouse.’ IMG_3981With hindsight, this decision might have caused a longer separation than the fiance choice but I was (still am) in love and wanted to be with her. That’s it. So we got married in Iowa, which was our best option as Illinois had passed marriage equality but was pushing off actually doing it for 6 months. That’s us in the hotel room before heading over to the lawyer’s office to get married.

Long story short, what we thought was going to be a 6-9 month separation has stretched to 14 months and counting. I shouldn’t complain. Had we met 2 years ago the wait time would have been never and I’d have sold my house at a huge loss and be living in the UK right now. I’ve managed to fill my time, still working maintenance. There is the usual unclogging toilets and urinals and pulling paintbrushes and glitter out of the sinks. It was the 75th anniversary of HPAC this past year so there was a lot of sprucing up to do as well as getting rid of some of the accumulated, no longer useful, furniture. They have a wonderful teen program IMG_0270and they must have been inspired by the Magritte show that was on at the Art Institute of Chicago because I came in one day to find this in the parking lot. It’s too clever to even be mad about.

I have been back at my printing practice too. This time, I made some posters and larger images specifically to bring positive energy to where I live. I even started another blog to solely address that project. It’s called The Intention Generator. Feel free to visit that site if you are interested in knowing more about my artwork. There was a wonderful artist IMG_0283visiting from Mexico, Nuria Montiel, who does community based and inspired printing work. She came to Chicago and worked with different groups, creating spontaneous letterpress prints. We went wheatpasting together, even got caught. She talked our way out it and her prints are still gracing our abandoned buildings.

That about brings us up to date. Megan and I had a big wedding ceremony at her Father’s home in Somerset in August. I was able to meet almost everyone who is important to her and spend some good time getting to know them. We just got the letter from the National Visa Center (like, 12 hours ago) notifying us of her interview date. It’s March 31st. Fingers crossed everyone. It seems that process is coming to a close and the process of building a life together will begin. If we are fortunate, because none of us is guaranteed tomorrow. Although we’ve been waiting, we haven’t been static.

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Two worlds

IMG_3677The city of Chicago puts a lot of effort and planning into their skyline. You’d think I’d put a picture of that up instead of this grainy shot of a smoke stack and old radio tower in Pilsen that I took while driving through downtown. I also love this skyline. I was reminded of this fact as I was driving home a couple weeks ago through Cleveland. Back in the early 90’s I used to drive between Chicago and Rochester NY often while I was in college at RIT (yet another reason why you should expect a better photograph, I have a degree in Photography from there) and I loved going right through Cleveland because on the north side of Interstate 90 are all the stadiums and downtown buildings and aquarium but to the south are a line of steel mills, still smoking then, beautiful in their own industrial way. There are polished and clean parts and the dirty, practical working parts and all parts in between.

IMG_3673As I was driving the 3 days home, I wondered how it would be to go from a very beautiful and equally remote and isolated environment to a rather large city with all it’s traffic and noise and people. The second night of my journey was spent in the Jamestown NY/Warren PA area watching a fireworks display with my cousin, her friends and a few thousand other people. I split my time between watching fireworks and the crowd. There were so many different types of people I feared that I would anger someone with my staring. How do I take the discipline I’ve developed and continue a practice when it’s not built into my daily schedule? How do I reconcile an eclectic and busy city life and practical, Catholic, Mid-western upbringing with this past year of Tibetan Buddhist Monastic boot camp?

The radio was great this trip. I’m guessing that either David Lee Roth is rejoining Van Halen or that they are putting out a box set of the old stuff and that Eddie Money has somehow stumbled back into the media because I heard a lot about both of them. But overall, I was able to listen to fresh and local radio and only heard that new Robyn Thicke song once      ( Look how fast I caught up on pop culture!!). The awesome radio luck ran out in western Ohio, which is no big surprise. A good 40% of the radio is Christian talk. The other 60% is IMG_3702Christian music, Country or classic rock. I usually steer way, way clear of Christian talk radio but for some reason I listened to this one station. It was a talk about Revelation, the ‘prophetic’ book of the Bible, a topic I know very little about. I don’t remember the name of the preacher but he started reading from the book of Revelation and it immediately reminded me of the Sadhanas and visualizations we would do bi-weekly at the Abbey. And then he started talking about ‘not making friends with your sin’ which reminded me of the advice that you can’t achieve enlightenment if you are still in love with Samsara. Next came talk of devotion and awareness. It was like I was listening to a teaching, with Jesus playing the role of a Buddhist patriarch.

It has been so great to come back to Chicago, to come back home. IMG_3695To see the friends and family who are not only unfailingly supportive but who have raised me and taught me and put me along this path. There is a temptation to label some experiences as good and bad or helpful and not-helpful. I am sure that if I hadn’t driven out of range, that the preacher on the radio would have said something that was reprehensible to me. I would have written him off completely. There was nothing he said that I could disagree with but one word on gay folk being the scourge of society and I would have forgotten every bit of it, written it all off. But there aren’t just the shiny parts of the city, there’s the dirty parts where a lot of the work is done too.

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IMG_3629So I will take lessons from wherever they come, especially from the new friends who have come along.

Love Gampo Abbey Style

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Two of the three people in this photo met as volunteers and are now a couple!

A few months back, I dropped an intentionally vague comment about getting called out by Ani Pema Chodron about a supposed transgression. It was really nothing, but not being able to talk directly about what it was proved to be very hard and very big. Truth is, I fell in love at the Abbey. Well, everyone falls in love at the Abbey, with something or someone or themselves, whatever. For me though, it is exactly what you think by that statement. I fell in love with another person, another resident who took robes temporarily and was a nun for 8 or so months. So, what is it like to form a non-relationship with another person that you see everyday but aren’t ‘with’? Much like I imagine courtship in Jane Austin’s time without the schoolgirl style fretting about looks and intentions. She wrote me a note before leaving for two weeks to train for her new job at Dorje Denma Ling in March. ‘…Nine months with only one night spent apart, but none spent together. Will our lives always read like a riddle?…’

We weren’t subtle, and couldn’t hide our growing attraction so we made the decision to be very upfront about it and tell the director and our meditation instructors. This perhaps caused us more trouble than it was worth. It is absolutely not allowed to form an exclusive relationship at the abbey, whether you are breaking the ‘No Sex’ precept or not. The community is small and imagine 2 people breaking off and hanging out together, making it uncomfortable for others to sit at the table or be in the library. And although people fall in love

newly ordained and watching the sunset

newly ordained and watching the sunset

ALL THE TIME at the abbey, there was a big flap over our behaviour before Ani Pema showed up for the winter retreat; silence and bodily distance and a chaperone necessary at all times. To be fair, there is always a big flap before Ani Pema comes, it wasn’t just about the two of us.

It didn’t matter. Both of her attendants were lesbians, one of whom figured it out straight away (I told the other during a meditation meeting). It’s hard not being able to talk to the person who is also your closest friend at an intense place so we flat out snuck off for a walk through the snow one day to chat only to run right into Pema Chodron herself. Then the next day, Megan went to my cabin to drop off a note and was spotted again, by the big famous. D’oh! An uncomfortable meeting with the director later, and everything was smoothed over but it was a perfect opportunity for me to relate to a rather well known figure in an ordinary way. Pema Chodron became my nosy neighbor or the aunt who is in your business.

on a group trip to the beach (in Spring)

on a group trip to the beach (in Spring)

It feels like vaguely shameful business to be the person who falls in love with a nun. Add to that the fact that I was staff and not in robes and there is a twinge of feeling like a predator, or worse, typical. It is a joke about it being a lesbians dream to go and work in a convent. So crass, so obvious. Yet here I am, ridiculously happy to finally spend time with an amazing person without restriction. A person who is open and understanding about the difficulties that arise when you commit to really looking at yourself. A person who is lovely in every way and also willing to jump into a shaky and unknown life as an experiment with me. A person who knows the impermanent nature of life and love and the risk of a broken heart and chooses to walk along this path with me anyway. There is no other reasonable decision to make but to join her. Besides, we are part of a long list of people who met at Gampo Abbey and fell in love.

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The End

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I don’t know who said it first or if it’s just a common analogy that you hear when you start meditating and going to groups or retreats but it came to my mind when I was making new signs to keep people from approaching the retreat cabins during the summer. The journey toward enlightenment is a road without exits. There are definitely stop offs, like those big truck stops where you can take a shower, and there are 3 different restaurants  and a tchotchke shop, maybe an arcade. The ones you stop off at when it’s 3am and you need more coffee and food to make you sick enough to stay awake but not too sick so that you can’t drive.  You peek behind the buildings and see the trailers where the people who run it live and you think ‘huh, I wonder what it would be like to live here?’ and you fantasize about meeting the person of your dreams and living in the trailer behind some outrageous tourist trap with billboards announcing it for a hundred miles in every direction.

Dan (Senge) with car packed and ready to go

Dan (Senge) with car packed and ready to go

And you can completely envision how it would be a wholly satisfying life, how in your old age you would sit on the porch of that trailer in a plastic chair, wearing a house coat, with a scroungy looking dog and a blind cat. My! What love you have for this imaginary life you do not lead! No amount of bright artificial light or generic music will change the fact that you must get back in your car and get back on the road.

I have less than one hundred hours left as a resident of Gampo Abbey. Just typing those words fills me with a mix of joy and sadness, excitement and weariness, guilt and self loathing. I had originally signed up to stay for 2 years and although I quickly realized that I would be leaving much sooner, there is no one yet to take over my work. It was a hard year of growing pains and learning through mistakes and internet searches and pleading phone calls to professionals and it feels like that experience, while helpful for me, will not be of benefit to anyone else. Gampo Abbey work-wise that is, the nitty gritty everyday ‘this is what broke, what will break, what may break, and what you need to watch for’ transmission will be written down and get less and less relevant as the days go by.

IMG_3515This is how it goes. A lot of people who were here when I got here or arrived shortly after me are no longer here. My buddies Yanchen, Megan, Marcel, Stacey and Dan have all left recently.  Along with me goes Tsultrim, the kitchen manager and nun who has been here for almost 7 years. In the fall, there will be a new director and next spring, two wonderful, young, life monastics will move to Halifax to explore ways that monastics can play a more integrated role within Shambhala. More have come and will stay after I leave and one day, someone will show up, look around and say ‘Wow, there’s a lot of things to fix. What did the previous facilities manager DO all day?’.

Summer is back, finally. The bird songs

lupins!

lupins! 

I remember from my arrival have all returned. The garden is turned over and already producing radishes and the lupins are crazy with blooming. This endless sky and sea, with it’s amazing sunrises, sunsets, cloudy days and wind. I’m not sad to leave as much as I know that I will miss this crazy place when I’m gone. For all the complaints and negativity that have come out my mouth here, I know it will be like how mothers describe childbirth. Painful but miraculously they don’t remember how much. 

Soon, so soon, Tsultrim (Edith) and I will be getting in the Pontiac Vibe and driving to Halifax. Shortly thereafter, I will be leaving to visit Chicago for July before I come back to work at Dorje Denma Ling near Tatamagouche NS. I cannot wait to go home. I hope it is muggy and sticky and hot or unseasonably cold or a tornado or snowpocalypse. Whatever, as long as it’s Chicago and it has my friends, family and Kitten.

I took a nice long walk the other day with a group of new residents (new-ish, 4 will be temporarily ordained soon) down to Cathedral rock hoping to see some seals. No seals but it was a beautiful night with great company. They will have this whole wonderful summer season to fall in love with the place and months of their own struggles and joys. It will soon be like a different abbey and fewer and fewer people will remember I was even here. But the No Exit signs, those are gonna last because I painted them with thick coats of boat paint. A good reminder to get back in the car and get on with it.

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More of the actual work.

IMG_3501There are benefits to pitching in and doing big jobs yourself. It’s cheaper. Everyone feels really good about themselves and being part of building a community that will benefit many more. There are more people to share the workload. And its never a guarantee that by paying someone, the work will get done correctly. One thing for sure is that when you run the drain pipe for the kitchen and laundry room uphill away from the house, it will eventually back up to epic proportions, forming a greasy, self-sealing, solid compound that is impossible to snake clear. Thus the backhoe.IMG_3509

Thank you Chiasson Brothers LTD in Cheticamp for coming out so quickly and finding the drainpipe. Especially since once it was unearthed, it was right next to the sewage pipe, which looked EXACTLY the same. After guessing wrong and busting up the sewage pipe, they cut two sections out of the blocked drain pipe and the facilities crew set to running snakes through both ends to bust up and clear out the muck. There is nothing like spending a day in a light drizzle by the sea, in a 6 foot deep pit, over ankle deep in greasy, stinky drain water. Getting chunks out was really, really satisfying. Knowing that it will be at least 25 years before this happens again, and if we use the new clean out, it may never happen again, is also very satisfying. We also got to do some light electrical repair after busting through the cord to the sewage pump. Unfortunately, the pump needs re-wiring, which for me means getting a new pump. Pictures of one of us in the sewage pit changing out the pump to follow.IMG_3511

There are major fun parts. We made ‘No Hunting’ signs, have fires to clean up brush regularly, chainsawing up downed trees is always a good time. There’s also some fun leeway to maintenance projects, like refinishing the wheel barrows in monastic colors and using fancy, leftover brass doorknobs for the compost bin.

Soon I will be leaving here. I’m going to take a job at the retreat center a few hours here named Dorje Denma Ling, having the same job title but doing much different things, I’m sure. So if all this wonderful experience sounds like something you would love to do, get on over to the Gampo Abbey website and put in an application. The view is wonderful and everyone is very kind when you screw up.

 

 

Complete Silliness

IMG_3487There is a calligraphy over the area where the daily schedule is posted that reads ‘Enjoy Life’.  It’s a welcome reminder in conjunction with the piece of paper that tells you where to be from 6am – 7pm most days. I struggle a lot here, all of my own making. For all it’s beauty and kindness and wonderful people, I still get wound up and anxious and grumpy. This past week, the anxiety and grumpiness arose around the refinishing of the dining room floor. We did it ourselves and as you could imagine, even though it was not my first time, there was still a big learning curve. The hardware store is an hour away so when you’ve forgotten the get the right sanding belt, and you’ve only got a limited amount of time before the sander has to go back (3 hours away), you go with what you’ve got. Well, that’s the decision I made anyway. So for the first 3 days, I was extremely unhappy with the job I had done. The floor was wavy, not smooth enough to slide in your socks, failure! Thankfully, everyone here is very appreciative of the floor looking better than it had in years  and didn’t mind me taking up extra time to sand down the finish and re-coat. IMG_3486Here’s the result. It was open day and people kept popping their head in to admire. I finally took the ‘Do Not Enter’ signs down, replaced with a ‘Socks Only’ admonition. Immediately, there were nuns racing end to end and sliding in their socks. IMG_3489They created a special mudra, the cross fingered, supplication to not break a hip hand gesture, and twirled around. Changchup even went up and got Ani Migme and brought her down to participate. I know this picture looks like she is being dragged against her will, but they are actually pulling her around the floor soIMG_3495 she could slide in her socks safely. There was ballroom dancing and pretending like we were ice skating. Although they don’t appear on camera, some monks got in on the action too. Senge, my work buddy, and I tested it out first thing and Chodzin had come in earlier and was doing full turns at the end of his runs. So much fun, so much silliness. Perfect snowball throwing snow, eating fresh baked bread, sliding on newly finished floors. These are opportunities that you just shouldn’t ever let pass you by. IMG_3498

 

 

Springtime at the Abbey

IMG_3442What a beautiful picture of the lawn and sea taken on the Spring Equinox!

I get it, I’m from Chicago, the arrival of Spring is a gamble but despite being from Chicago, I hate the cold. I also do not enjoy the wind. It has snowed pretty consistently since the Equinox too. Like today for example. I was walking down the driveway with Changchup and Ani Pema and had the following exchange;

A. Pema – “Isn’t it beautiful?” IMG_3450 Me – “I’m having a problem seeing it that way due to my knowledge that it is April”  A. Pema – “What does it matter that its April?”

Yes, I know that my constant grasping to how things should be causes my own suffering. I also know that that knowledge is cold comfort and doesn’t make me any happier with the weather. Aside from that, there are some noticeable signs to Spring. Some trees are starting to have buds! It doesn’t get dark until after evening chants so you can talk a walk in the evening. And the Moose and Squirrels! Well, the Moose must have either eaten everything there is already higher up the mountain or the grass near the buildings is sweeter because they have been around a lot. IMG_3481This picture was taken from the porch of a retreat cabin I was staying in. 3 moose, a momma moose and two ‘little’ ones lazily munching on the spruce trees. I spent the better part of a week feeding squirrels fried egg yolks (I really only like the whites…..) and apples with peanut butter and following moose tracks through the woods on snow shoes. It was during solitary retreat. I wandered around and ate sandwiches for dinner. Quite the exciting life.

 

So, this is Spring. The creek is unfrozen, as are the water pipes to the most desired retreat cabin and my little car will almost make it up the mountain. Soon little car, soon….moose