Archives for posts with tag: Natalie Goldberg

On June 12, 2013 I leave California for a meditation retreat in France with my zen teacher, Natalie Goldberg and a number of students I know. And, on June 16, 2013 Johnny crawls out of his house and shows up to play at the memorial for Les Blank.

What we do on retreats with Natalie is spend a week in noble silence, speaking only during question and answer periods, or to give or receive instructions during work periods, or in dokusan, brief group interviews with Natalie late in the week. We sit zazen, write in our notebooks, eat in silence. We study assigned books (memoirs, novels) and read aloud from those books and from our own notebooks.

We study our minds: sitting on chairs or makeshift cushions in the converted barn at Villefavard we focus on our breath, following it all the way in or all the way out, or focus on sound: church bells ringing, rain falling on stone, birds calling, cows lowing, the low hum of cars on the road. We also study our minds as our thoughts, emotions and memories spool out through our hands and arms, inked on the blank pages of our notebooks.

Natalie gives us topics. Or her assistants give us topics. We start out with “What is your material?” We quickly move to “What is your ‘Fuck-It’ List?” My anger spews out quickly: “What kind of a hell of a choice is this? Resign myself to a life as a drinking man’s wife, a drinking man’s girlfriend, grateful for the crumbs of the days when he is only drinking moderately, highly functioning, sweet and funny — and doing what during the other times? Going home to mother? Going to meditation retreats and Al-Anon meetings. Blech. And what is the alternative — excuse me, the fucking alternative — giving up the man I love entirely because he will not give up drinking, who will not even see the slightest possibility that he might have a drinking problem… Give up my love or suffer the consequences of his drinking. Fuck it, fuck it, fuck it — what kind of a choice is that?…Fuck it all — it does not need to be fucked — it’s already about as fucked up as a situation can get.”

Natalie sometimes calls herself good Natalie and stinky Natalie. Using that polarity leads to this pair of portraits:

Good Johnny follows instructions in the kitchen. Tells me he loves me. Looks at me with soft eyes. Snuggles up to me in bed. Says he’s lucky to have found me. Dresses in clean clothes, shaves and showers before he comes to see me. Looks forward to seeing me and spending time together. Laughs. Listens well. Tells stories. Is sensitive to my feelings, aware of how I’m feeling, reassures me. Good Johnny talks about telling the truth.

Stinky Johnny passes out, calls me from a bar. Doesn’t call or email for eight days. Doesn’t shower, shave or change his clothes. Flips bottle caps on the floor. Leaves bottles all over the house. Is argumentative. Challenges me. Cooks up dramas (example: soul music debacle). Evades (calls two D.U.I.s “traffic tickets”). Doesn’t show any awareness of my feelings or needs. Stinky Johnny says “What are you doing here?” when I come over for a date.

And then there is “How we find ourselves”:

“We find ourselves in a jam. We said we loved each other. We said we were committed to each other. Being committed to Johnny is like being committed to an insane asylum, being committed to rows and rows of unwashed bottles, being committed to a lover who does not answer the door when I come to see him, being committed to a week of silence, hard variety, silently worrying about him while he doesn’t answer emails and his phone gets full, when his brother confides that he has been suicidal in the past (Big deal, so have I, but it’s just another thing to worry about). Being committed to an actively-drinking alcoholic is marrying the drinking bouts, the holing up, the isolating, the disorder, the accusations, the undermining of perceptions. I find myself facing all of this in a sweet man that I really like when he is only drinking his daily maintenance dose, whatever that is (I have no idea).”

Later, we take on “What I brought with me”:

“I brought with me the weight of Johnny and his drinking, all of those beer bottles in the living room, stirring up my retreat, the open jar of peanut butter and the butter melting on the kitchen stool in the heat, the sound of a bottle cap hitting a hardwood floor, the moldy dishes in the sink, the bloodshot-ness of his eyes, the greasiness of his hair and him trying to be jovial and jocular as he sank into an alcohol-induced depression and called out from it that I was cold and unfeeling.

I brought with me the weight of my childhood in an alcoholic house in an alcoholic family — it’s a wonder that they let me get on the plane with all that. I brought my not knowing what to do about any of this.”

On and on we go. I keep wanting an answer: what should I do about Johnny and my relationship with him? I am angry and sad and frustrated by our situation, sarcastic by turns, then a little compassionate toward him. And then in the first sitting period of the day on the third day of the retreat, what to say to Johnny appears in my head:

“You can have what you want — the happy marriage, the fantastic record. You can have all that, but you cannot have it if you are drinking. The flourishing student trade, all of it. You can have what you want, but you can’t drink and have it…I’m going to ask him to make a choice between alcohol and me because I can’t live with Johnny’s drinking.”

Decision made, I settle down. I write about meditation retreats. I write about a Jungian doll class I took. I write about childhood punishments. I write a description of the zendo and its furnishings.

When the retreat ends I travel back to Paris with another retreatant. Paris hotels are full. I have not made a reservation; she has. We talk the desk clerk into letting me stay in her room. He agrees as long as I am gone before the 6:00 AM shift change.

I clear out early in the morning, find my way back to the Gare du Nord, have a six Euro breakfast at a cafe, go to the Metro where I buy a bottle of water to get change for a ticket machine. I get on the RER train to Charles DeGaulle, where the flight is delayed. I use my last few Euros to buy a muffin, hoping they will give us real food on the plane: fruit, vegetables, some kind of protein. It is 2 AM California time. I want nothing more than to buckle myself into my airplane seat and sleep.

I arrive back in California late in the evening, too late to take the bus home. I take BART instead to an El Cerrito station. I am dead tired. When I get home I do not open my email or check my phone messages, but, when I do, there is nothing from Johnny.

Over the next few days I call, leaving messages like “I’m back from France. I’m wondering how you are doing. I hope you are feeling better. I love you.”

Johnny does not respond, even when I call to ask if he can just leave me a message to say he is alive. Welcome home. Apparently not much has changed since I left.


Formerly green tomato.

Formerly green tomato.

I began writing this month’s Kale Chronicles on an October afternoon, following a morning of rain showers. The rain is a major blessing in drought-stricken California. My thirsty vegetable and mint plants drink in the rain, as they have drunk in the abundant sunshine of October. The two-tone green tomatoes have unexpectedly turned orange and are on their way to red. The poblano peppers on one plant continue to grow, while the other plant is forming fruit as its blossoms die. A few tomatoes that fell before they were fully ripe are ripening on a windowsill in the breakfast room. I will have a small harvest from my seed-grown vegetables.

With the return of damp weather to punctuate a bright autumn, my thoughts turn to butternut squash soup. I originally published this recipe for kabocha squash soup in 2011, an adaptation of the soup I usually make from butternut squash, my absolute favorite of the winter squashes. I start making this soup each year when the weather gets cool and continue to make it until spring warmth returns. Butternut squash keep a long time on the counter or in a cool garage or cellar and one large or two small ones will make a lot of soup. All you need else is water, onions, fresh ginger, tamari, a bit of thyme and dairy or non-dairy milk to suit.

Poblano and flower.

Poblano and flower.

My personal lesson for the summer and fall parallels the experience my friend Saundra wrote about in her Wonder Woman blog post: that in times of trouble I must make self-care a priority, whatever form it takes. In my case, I must meditate, seek conversations with friends, practice music, attend 12-step meetings, do spiritual reading, attempt to get reasonable amounts of exercise and sleep. A surprising outcome of taking better care of myself is that I draw all kinds of gifts into my orbit: a friend offers to make a performance video that I can put up on YouTube (Stay tuned! I’ll tell you when it is done). Another friend sends me a music CD that I want in exchange for feedback on the CD. Even the passers-by at my busking gigs buy more CDs and increase their tips to me. And I hatch an idea for a new short-term music project: next month I will go into the studio to make a three-song E.P. (short CD), recording the songs I wrote in 2012. It will be called “Clueless” and I hope to have it for sale by the end of next month. I am only manufacturing three hundred copies to start so be sure to let me know in the comments field if you would like one for yourself or for a Christmas or Chanukah gift (Manufacturing a small run makes it possible for me to make new music available without incurring the large costs of a full-length project). I continue to busk and offer full-length “Paris” CDs for sale at CDBaby, Down Home Music and via email.

My daily experience continues to be that people are kind to me and supportive of my projects and of my efforts to improve my life and relationships. Oh, sometimes there is push-back, but there is often a way to step out of the conflict by focusing on what I need and not what the other person is doing.

I am continuing to seek what Buddhists call “right livelihood,” ways to earn money that are consistent with my gifts and ethical stance. For inspiration I am currently taking an expanded version of Maia Duerr’s course, Fall in Love with Your Work. In the spirit of generosity, I have created a new page on The Kale Chronicles called “Writing Prompts.” Look for the page link up in the left-hand corner at the top of the blog post. Each month I will feature some of the prompts or writing topics I learned to use in fifteen years of work with Natalie, plus prompts inspired by the current season (sort of like your serving of writing fruits and vegetables for basic nutrition). I will be glad to answer questions about writing practice and grateful to have referrals to students in the East Bay who desire to learn Natalie’s deep teachings.

 

Spring crops are in! Fresh Batavia lettuce rosettes at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market. Last Saturday I stood in line for a three-pack of strawberries and a couple of large artichokes, food that hardly needs preparing: I sliced the strawberries over homemade waffles made with spelt flour and sour half and half and steamed the artichokes to eat with lemon butter. This easy cooking joins the long-cooked stews on the cooler days and keeps me from heating up the kitchen on the warmer days. We have had some of each in March, eighty-degree afternoons, fifty-one degree sunrises. Sheeting rain yesterday morning kept me from singing at the Berkeley market but allowed me to walk through the Bay Fair market with Johnny instead. I bought more artichokes, some sugar snap peas, cilantro, new potatoes. Johnny bought onions, scallions, red peppers (where did they come from?). The other day a man walked down our street with strawberries from Salinas and I bought half a flat for two dollars a basket. Johnny says they aren’t as good as the farmers’ market strawberries, but it was an impulsive buy to cheer up my sweetie who has been working hard on his first album.

I have been working hard, too. I played a private St. Patrick’s Day party on Saturday March 15, in addition to my usual busking. For that I had to practice up several Turlough O’Carolan tunes on the Celtic harp and refresh my memory of some “Irish” standards of the type that one only sings on St. Patrick’s Day (I was heard to grumble through the house, “I never will play ‘The Wild Rover’ no more”).

Photo of seed packets

Heirloom seed packets.

The day after the gig I whisked myself off to Santa Rosa to visit my friends Suzanne and Scott. Suzanne and I had a date with the Seed Bank in Petaluma, a haven for heirloom seeds. Suzanne staked me to a portion of them as a late birthday present and I quickly doubled the stake to get an English trowel and more seeds. It’s hard to describe the bounty of seed packets at the Seed Bank, over 1200 possibilities. I carefully chose varieties of basil and tarragon, snapped up some black garbanzo beans from Afghanistan, bought Blue Lake green bean seeds and Scarlet Runner beans. I deliberated over kinds of sunflowers and bought a blue and white sweet pea mix. I chose a French variety of lettuce and an Amish paste tomato. I could not get sugar snap peas or Genovese basil — apparently everyone in Northern California is planting those at the moment. But the peppers were nearly my undoing: an entire rack of peppers stood before me and I wanted them all, habaneros and jalapenos, cherry peppers, Thai peppers. I limited myself to poblano seeds and a packet with a beautiful illustration of a red bell pepper.

Much of this bounty is still sitting in packets in the breakfast nook because every time I have had time to plant things outdoors I have needed stakes or there has been rain. I lie awake nights thinking where to put things. I did manage to plant a couple of half rows of black-eyed peas and pinto beans and put together a small A-frame of scavenged pine boughs and bamboo for the scarlet runner beans. I planted some runner beans today, plus Blue Lake green beans, butternut squash and two varieties of basil (Thai and Ararat).

Tomato and tarragon seedlings

First seedlings

Last week I started seeds of two kinds of tomatoes and Russian tarragon in cardboard egg cartons. I started a second set when anything failed to germinate after six days and was jubilant an hour later when the sun came out and the first green bits poked up out my potting soil in tray number one. I have never started seeds indoors before and this small victory feels like magic. This morning I squeezed three new egg cups into my tray, each containing a poblano pepper seed.

The in-ground crops look good. We cut a few leaves of chard one night to go with a dinner of sweet potatoes and sour milk cornbread. The kale and two of the red cabbages are growing large. The Sun Gold tomato is a leggy green monster now with four sets of yellow blossoms already — perhaps we will have home-grown tomatoes by May. I am anxious to have tomatoes, tarragon and pepper plants to add to the garden, to plant lettuce and herbs and flowers, but I have to wait for drier weather. Not that we don’t need the rain in California. We do.  I wait impatiently for the intersection of a free day and a dry day and I hack a three-foot high sheaf of flowering weeds out of the side yard so that they do not invade my vegetable patch.

It excites me to grow some of our food. I prepared the ground of my mind for this by subscribing to a farm box and converting myself to seasonal eating several years ago. Then I managed a small organic garden in an after school recreation program where we successfully grew beans, peas and tomatoes. We planted cleome and borage and lemon verbena, a true geranium, pumpkins: I watched a visiting child snap the one small pumpkin off its vine during a Hallowe’en party and I was let go before everything bloomed.

Hills and trees from Bay Fair platform.

Bay Fair Landscape #1. 5″ x 7″ ink and watercolor. Sharyn Dimmick.

I started some garden sketches for this post but the rain has interrupted my garden sketching as well. Instead I sketch strangers on BART trains and the view of hills and trees from the bench on the platform. The sketching exercises come from the new edition of Natalie Goldberg’s Living Color, a beautiful book with a gallery of paintings as well as lots of fun things to do. I feel happy with my life when the days contain music and sketching and cooking and gardening and writing. Sketching calms me and engages me, a meditation of the moving hand and eye, tethering my restless mind to the paper and the scene in front of me, just as busking tethers my mind to chords and lyrics, my hands to the fingerboard, my feet to the floor, while my voice rides the breath. In kitchen work, the anchor is my chopping knife, my whisk, the spoon in my hand, in gardening it is the trowel or fingers twisting weed stems as I thank them for breaking up the soil.

Villefavard Roses, 5"x7" watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

Villefavard Roses, 5″x7″ watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

If I do not know it from my zen and Vipassana meditation, I should know it from my habit of seasonal eating: things change all the time and not always in ways that we expect — too much rain or sun disrupts crop production, or bees mysteriously die off and the crops are lightly pollinated. I had hoped to announce a big change today, one that would affect my life every single day, but the timetable for that has been changed. I am not trying to be mysterious or withholding, promising to tell you something and then not telling you, but since the planned change involved other people I am not at liberty to speak about what was going to happen, but has not. Plans are not going according to schedule and the schedule is not going according to plan.

Yesterday I sang at the Farmers’ Market in Berkeley. It was a bright, hot day and some new crops were in. I saw fresh apples! Pink Ladies and Pink Pearls. Blueberries and blackberries and strawberries are still abundant. Suncrest peaches and apricots and now Santa Rosa plums fill the bins at Frog Hollow Farm’s stand. I drank tomato juice and two bottles of water as I stood and sang. When I was done I ate a cup of caramel ice cream,  and a raw Thai salad cone from the vegan stand. I wanted to buy peaches or maybe blackberries, but I needed to hurry to catch a bus and contented myself with picking up a basket of Sun gold cherry tomatoes and a pound and a half of fresh green beans: perhaps I will make a pasta of them or a pasta salad for the Fourth of July potluck and barbecue that I always go to.

Justine's Kitchen. 5" x 7" Ink and Watercolor Pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

Justine’s Kitchen. 5″ x 7″ Ink and Watercolor Pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

In other news, I have been asked to assist Natalie Goldberg at her December retreat in Taos, New Mexico. This is a great honor, and the first time I have served at a long retreat. Many of my old writing pals are slated to be there. So, having just returned from France, I need to start saving air fare for New Mexico. I went back to “the day job” on Friday, singing in the BART station for tips.

France. This year it rained a lot, so I didn’t have as much chance to paint, sketch or swim as I did last year. Nevertheless, I have chosen images from my French sketchbook to illustrate this post. I hope you enjoy them.

Not so much has changed since I wrote my March blog: I am still busking in the Berkeley BART stations twice a day five days a week, plus singing at the Farmers’ Market some Saturdays. I get up and eat breakfast, often flavored oatmeal cooked in milk, but sometimes leftover pie or scrambled eggs with cheese or vegetables, fresh cinnamon rolls, Shredded Wheat with sliced strawberries now that spring has come.

I am almost always home for lunch, which I generally eat with a pot a black tea, served with milk, English-style. Today I had tacos from some leftover poached chicken, simmered in green salsa, with sour cream, shredded cheese, romaine lettuce and cilantro. Yesterday I ate leftover rolls and Cotswold cheese, a blood orange and a sliver of leftover coconut custard pie (It was a pie-for-breakfast day).

Painting of ingredients for improvised gumbo -- Davis pepper spray incident in background.

Mumbo Jumbo Gumbo. 12″ x 12″ gouache and watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick

Ever since my younger brother moved home my mother has taken over most of the cooking — she seems to think that Bryan will starve without her intervention. I sometimes cook for Johnny: Friday I cooked him an impromptu gumbo, featuring andouille sausage, leftover shrimp, chicken and fennel, not unlike the Mumbo-Jumbo Gumbo I’ve written about before. Tonight I helped prepare a simple supper of spaghetti, grated cheese, Italian sausage-flavored Prego from the jar. I ate my pasta mixed with leftover sauteed bok choy. Mom fixed a bowl of fresh blackberries with sugar and, voila, c’est tout.

I am still buying bags of “cosmetically-challenged” Moro blood oranges from the Farmers’ Market and eating them out of hand as snacks. I still buy Farmers’ Market carrots, which are sweeter than supermarket ones. I still buy fresh walnuts in the shell — not much has changed, although last week I bought a few fresh sugar snap peas to snack on.

Original ink and watercolor painting shows people around breakfast table.

Second Breakfast at Vicki’s. 12″ x 12″ ink and watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

Tomorrow I am taking a morning off my busking day job to attend a pre-dawn Morris Dance event in Tilden Park. I will assist my friend Vicki at the grand May Day breakfast after the sun has been danced into the sky (You last heard of Vicki when I mentioned attending the Hobbits’ Second Breakfast at her house). Perhaps I will bring back some food stories or recipes for May. You never know. Anything can happen.

What I completely forgot to mention in my March post because I was running around going to Natalie Goldberg‘s readings for her new book, The True Secret of Writing, is that I am featured in the book: the chapter on Practice contains a story about me, a snippet of my writing and the words to my song “The Wallflower Waltz.” Those of you who are interested in writing or meditation practice (which is the true secret of writing) will want to read this book. Natalie, of course, is best-known for her book Writing Down the Bones.