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Aprés Retreat

Cream cheese thumbprint cookies with apricot jam, ready for the oven Friday night; grateful to Amy for the recipe.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to spend two days in silent retreat, grateful for the teachers and the teachings that guided me through this unusual adventure, and, grateful to be done with it! And, I still want to do it again once or twice a month, though maybe for only 36 hours the next time. I stocked up on necessities in the days ahead of the retreat, preparing snacks, sweets, and meals, to minimize distractions. Everything went according to schedule on Saturday, spent in frequent meditation and constant deep reflection. Sunday got a little off kilter by mid-afternoon, and by dinnertime I was exhausted. It was as if I had glimpsed myself in the near future, close to the shore of another sea change, and I chose not to go there yet. I cut short the introspection, uncomfortable somehow with the intensity of it.

The Ancient One

Saturday was so mild that we walked all the way to the rim, knowing there was a storm coming that might keep us home for a few days. Indeed, Sunday morning saw the biggest snow yet this winter (if I remember correctly!). Stellar did great on the first morning walk around the Breakfast Loop.

Stellar’s Last Days: Valentine’s ~ he’s unlikely to see another one. Not that Valentine’s Day matters anymore to me, really, but it’s hard to shake a lifetime of association. There was a wistful edge to it this year I hadn’t expected, but a few well-timed gestures from friends softened that.

As snow kept falling, we walked again later, up the driveway. He was full of spunk, trotting ahead, eating snow, coming back to get me. The snow brought utter peace into my silence, first, for its primal beauty and its own pervasive silence; second, for the comfort of moisture to this parched land. Grateful, as always in the desert, for precipitation. Grateful for the dog’s good energy and mobility.

This was shortly before his back feet turned under, and he couldn’t get them to work at all. He walked halfway home on the tops of his back feet, hips dropped low, practically dragging his back legs. I kept pulling his hips up and setting his feet right but another step or two and they flipped over again. After a few tries I realized it was futile and we had a long way to go yet, so I slung my scarf in front of his thighs and limped him the rest of the way home, essentially carrying his back end. It was good I was in silence: kept me from talking myself into a state. I figured if I could get him home and rested he’d be fine, as long as we stayed out of the deep snow. This proved to be the case. He’s walked up and down the plowed driveway several times since without incident. I think his feet turned under and seized up, or just got too cold to function, from being ankle deep in very cold snow for too long. I’m grateful this wasn’t a ‘new normal,’ not yet.

I’m grateful for the little Topaz cat, usually in and out multiple times a day, for contributing serenity on Sunday. She took one look outside in the morning, used her litter box, and never even approached the door all day. With no rodents to hunt, she unearthed an old toy to toss around for her midday romp, and spent the rest of the day in one of her several cozy beds.

I’m grateful to Philip for going out of his way Friday to deliver the coconut milk I required for this exquisite dish, which I indulged in making Sunday night, baked tofu with coconut lime rice. Unexpectedly one of the most delicious meals of the year; I’m grateful for the good sense to clip and try the recipe. I’m grateful that my days of silent solitude were flanked by gifts of friendship, grateful for loving Valentine messages from friends who didn’t know I was on retreat, and for silence from friends who did. I’m grateful for this web of life that supports me on an unconventional path, and grateful for each step no matter how challenging or painful.

Honey Badger of the North stopped by to deliver a Valentine’s treat this evening.

Retreat

Today, I’m grateful for waking up, and being able to spend the day making preparations to spend the weekend in silent retreat. I finished all the work that had to be finished this week, and feel at liberty to devote the next two days to meditation, contemplation, introspection. Working from home, setting my own hours, lets me make choices that stress me out. “We’ve forgotten the concept of weekend!” If I would work with discipline and focus every week, I could have a retreat every weekend. Instead I procrastinate, so there’s always some nagging sense of obligation, no real peace of mind, and always distraction.

This is part of our cultural delusion, exacerbated by technology that makes constant demands on our attention. I turn it all off at bedtime tonight, and live without it until Monday morning. I’m grateful that I get to relax into practice for a good two days, pondering the question Who am I? and The Four Immeasurables. Gratitude practice will continue unabated, and I’ll catch up here on Monday. I’m grateful for people who care.

The Joy of Each Breath

I’m grateful for being able to breathe fresh, clean mountain air.

I’m grateful for every single breath, whether or not I’m aware of it, and I try to be aware of my breath many times during the day. Sometimes just a single breath, sometimes a few, sometimes for five minutes, or twenty-five, I focus on the sensation of the breath.

My friend Kim and I try to meditate spontaneously together once a day. One of us will text an invitation, and usually within a few minutes we’ve both settled somewhere quiet with a guided meditation, or just a silent timer set for five or ten minutes. “The joy of each breath” comes from a meditation we did this evening, led by Peter Harper, The Drunken Monk, on Insight Timer. The joy of each breath. It really is a joy when you can breathe fully, and take a moment to pause, notice, and really feel a single inhalation-exhalation cycle. Or give yourself ten minutes to truly allow yourself to relax, release, let go. Relaxation is a skill not well known nor practiced in this predominant culture. It’s so much more than kicking back on the couch with a beer watching TV, or sitting on the deck with a martini savoring sunset, or having a great time pursuing any kind of sensory stimulation. It’s letting go of all that, resting in the stillness of nowhere to go, nothing to do. Each breath really is a miracle.

I’m grateful I had shells and homemade sauce in the pantry, ricotta and kale in the fridge. It was a good day to make stuffed shells, sprinkled with a little mozzarella because everything is better with cheese. The recipe came from a Level 4 Vegan cookbook, Skinny Bitch in the Kitch. I fried the onions in bacon grease and used real cheese, but technically a vegan could make this delicious meal, which proportionizes readily for freezing.
Three for lunch (these are gigantic shells), and two fives for later.

Because several people asked for the Cheesos recipe, here are the sources of inspiration for both Cheesos and the Shells. I’m not entirely digital – I still love actual cookbooks, and have a few reliable go-tos besides my own 3×5 card file, a folder of printed recipes, my mother’s lifetime recipe notebook, and two staples that forged my appetite: mom relied on The Joy of Cooking, and the Colonel swore by Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School bible. I’m also grateful for cookbooks!

Cheesos recipe from the 21-Day Ketogenic Weight Loss Challenge book.
The “NEW” Fannie Farmer, ©1951 — it’s older than I am!

Sometimes during the day, after I notice something like these cookbooks, and pay attention, and take stock of the luxuries in my life, I take a deep breath – a big sigh – and am suddenly aware of this breath – and then this breath – and I recognize the astonishing chain of events that led to my being here, in this moment, holding this cookbook that is older than I am. Each breath is a miracle. Oxygen is the real drug; breathing, the ultimate high.

HATs

Lots of hats in my mudroom: old, new, ancestral, picked up along the way from various other people… all kept in order for easy access on a wonderful iron hatrack crafted by Ira Houseweart.

Yes, I’m grateful for hats: warm hats, sun hats, fancy hats, ball caps, and berets – but HATs in this case stands for Habits, Attitudes, Tendencies. I’m grateful for the easy acronym to remind me about these constant companions, and grateful for learning the importance of recognizing one’s own HATs, acquired through a lifetime of coping with the diverse experiences of being human. We all have some good hats, and we all have some unhealthy hats. By cultivating mindfulness, one aspect of which is the ability to choose where to focus my attention, I’ve been learning how to observe and modify my tendencies, enhance and increase my healthy habits, and let go of unhealthy attitudes and habits. Or at least, if I can’t let go yet, observe and acknowledge which habits do not further my flourishing, and which do, and move in the right direction.

Judgment, for example, has been an unhealthy HAT for me. I was raised in a family that wore their judgments like Kentucky Derby hats, flamboyant and unapologetic. I have certainly lost some opportunities and friendships through the years because of my judgments, as well as caused myself immense unnecessary suffering. Letting go of judgments, however gradually, is one of the healthiest things I’ve ever done. The HATs I’ve been examining for months now are old, new, ancestral, picked up along the way from various other people… and some that I’ve knitted all by myself. Some still fit, some have become too tight, uncomfortable; some are comforting, some flattering, and some are quite unattractive. I’m grateful that on the hatrack of my mind there’s always room for another good hat, as I strive to get rid of old, unhelpful hats.

My HAT teachers – all three of them are!

I learned about HATs in the mindfulness teacher training course I’m halfway through. I’m grateful that conditions aligned so that I could spend this first year of Covid in deep introspection, pursuing a new calling. I’m grateful for the teachers in this course, and especially grateful today for a flyby visit from two of them as they passed through town on their travels. Stellar vociferously and highly approved of Laura and John, who joined us for a walk to the rim, and some crispy, cheesy pan pizza outside in the garden afterward. I’m grateful for my new winter hat: it’s perfectly fine to picnic outside when it’s freezing, as light snow starts to fall.

Letting Go

Letting Go. This is who I am. This is what I do. I let go. I’ve spent a lifetime resisting, yet learning to let go, and it is time now to put to the test the letting go lessons. I’m grateful for letting go of so many things, tangible and intangible, in the past year; my letting go accelerates this year. 

I let go of any expectation or even hope for perfection in material things a long time ago, while I was building this house. With an emotional punch as from a sudden death, I let go of perfect walls one morning after I worked in Grand Junction overnight, and returned to find that an unexpected rainstorm had washed away parts of several walls under a fresh bond beam. I’ll fix it later, I told myself, some day. Imperfections piled on after that, and I had to let go: Nothing in this house is plum, level, or square.

Letting go of noticing mismatched caulk proved to be a lot easier than letting go of “No Trust.”

A professional finish? Forget it. The caulk around the window frames, among other things, reflects my letting go of that ideal. This was the best fix for the conditions at the time, when we discovered that blowing perlite insulation into the 4” space between the double walls was a bad idea. Before we got close to filling it up, perlite aspirated out of every minute gap between blocks and window bucks, into the house. We bought the closest caulk to adobe color; but I had to let go of noticing the difference, and call it close enough.

I’m grateful for letting go on days like this, when the internet I pay too much for is down most of the day, the new computer I paid too much for is in the shop for repair after only three weeks, four years of photo libraries are lost from a backup disc that the new computer fried, along with who knows what else. I’m grateful for letting go on other days, too; letting go of little things all along helps cultivate equanimity for when I have to let go of big things.

Thirteen Years of Companionship

Stellar on his second birthday walk this morning.

Today, I’m grateful for thirteen years with the best dog and best companion ever. I posted a pictorial timeline when he was six, including lots of puppy pictures, and concluded it with “May we celebrate at least as many more together.” My wish came true, my concerns for his health over the past few years notwithstanding. Truly, my whole day will be spent in joyful reflection on his long and happy life. It was fun to do a search here, and look back on pictures and stories about him over the past eight years.

I wrote that last paragraph after midnight, when I truly intended to devote the entire day to celebrating Stellar’s birthday, and also to gathering a timeline of more recent photos. The morning went as planned… and on our third walk of the day I filmed some clips, came home, and made a little movie of it. It was beautiful! I even had a professional soundtrack consultation lined up with KGMR, for whom I’ve been grateful for 22 years.

Then, and I’m grateful that this was the worst thing to happen in my little world today, iMovie threw a fit. “Stellar’s Third Birthday Walk” essentially vanished. After two hours building the movie, an hour troubleshooting on my own, and two hours on Apple support (for which I’m grateful), it was determined that the permanent fix will be to reset this new computer to factory settings after backing up all data, and start from scratch: recapitulating the past three weeks of laborious steps to get the old-to-new computer transfer to the point it was this morning, only this time, without the wrenches in the works. Sigh. I am so grateful for the equanimity that mindfulness practice has given me.

I didn’t let any of this ruin my day, or Stellar’s birthday. Through the whole of it, he continued to get his walks and treats and lovies, and he never knew the difference. He didn’t care in the first place. It was my trip to make his day special and make a movie and bake him a cake — to make his day special for me. The cake did get baked, late, and he enjoyed it. He’ll be nibbling on it for a couple of days.

His cake recipe this year came from Napa’s website. I modified the one cup carrots with half leftover riced cauliflower…
… and made frosting of half ricotta – half plain yogurt.

Now, after dinner, and cake, and a good rub all over, he rests sweetly snoring on his bed between me and the couch. Fire mellows in the woodstove. Breath pours in, shoulders release, body reevaluates its position, relaxes, settles. Meditation. The big day comes to a close with both of us replete, despite its turn toward “unexpected product behavior.”

That’s what Caleb called it: He sees it “a lot, but that’s because troubleshooting is my job. But the user rarely sees this, it’s very, very uncommon for this problem to arise.” I’m grateful I’m now able to ask, Why not me? with a shrug, a breath, a smile, a flexible shift in course and perspective. I’ll remake the movie tomorrow. I’m grateful that I discovered this rare computer malady three weeks into its life rather than months and many intricacies, passwords, and gigabytes later. It could have been worse.

Baby Stellar. For more puppy pictures, scroll to the bottom of this post.
Stellar at six.
Stellar at thirteen.

I’m grateful that Stellar woke up on his thirteenth birthday in good health and spirits, that I relaxed and patience allowed me to let the day unfold as it did instead of as I’d planned, and that aside from accomplishing little else, I paid my companion the attention he was due on his biggest birthday ever.

Access

I am grateful for discovering the marvel of a rock squirrel burrow along a path less traveled.

Today I’m grateful again for technology, for the access it gives me to teachers around the world. From the Mindful Life Program just across the mountains in Carbondale, which during the Time of the Virus might as well be in Australia, to Catherine Ingram who actually is in Australia, to Stephan Pende Wormland in Copenhagen, Denmark, and a host of other interviews and lessons from meditation teachers to top chefs to health experts.

As anyone knows who explores the world online, you can find out everything about anything whether it’s true or not, so I’m also grateful for education and discernment, which allow me to make healthy choices about what I turn my attention to. After a weekend in retreat, I spent the day catching up on housework while listening to these teachers, including Catherine’s latest In the Deep podcast titled “People Can Be Disappointing.” Each episode includes a short talk, followed by questions from participants, and Catherine’s responses to them. This one felt particularly relevant to me today.

From relationship disappointments to global disappointments, each question resonated with my own experience at some point in recent months. At one point, she discussed the conspiracy theories rampant in the US these days as coping strategies. “There’s some kind of psychological twisting going on in their being… they’re not stupid people necessarily but they believe things that are absolutely bonkers, and huge numbers of them are believing these things…” She speculates on some possible reasons.

And it struck me then that everyday wonders have ceased to engage these people; they’ve cut their milk teeth on high-tension drama in entertainments that celebrate killing and perversions: just look at the content of TV’s top dramas in recent decades; look at the goals of most video games; look at the stimulus-driven ambitions of advertisers. Is it any wonder that people believe they live in these conspiracy theories? By believing, they no longer need to envy contestants on Reality TV, for they have entered their own Reality Show. Like The Truman Show, but backwards. Instead of living in a ‘perfect world,’ the people who believe QAnon and the like are choosing to believe the sickest, most depraved, terrifying fantasies about Others, specifically about people like me, and other good neighbors and decent legislators and even now our current President.

It’s dumbfounding. Why choose to spend your fleeting time on this planet, your one precious life, thinking unthinkable thoughts, when you can find much more engaging entertainment in the miracles of this infinitely wondrous planet with your own senses by opening them to the beauty of nature? Catherine is right: there is too much of something or not enough in the broken souls who let themselves be deluded by outrageous, grotesque imaginings; but it’s not entirely their fault. A materialist culture which has lost its connection to the wild world, Nature, the wisdom in impermanence, and filled that void by streaming the darkest make-believe of human imaginings into our eyes, ears, and minds with traumatizing entertainments, has conditioned many people, Americans in particular, to need ever more shocking stimulation to feel alive.

So the very technology for which I’m grateful today, for giving me access to living humans with great insight and wisdom, is the same technology that allows malevolent delusions to collect enough followers to assume a false alternative reality, because “so many people are living within the shared lie,” as Catherine says. Are there antidotes to these poisonous effluents on a societal level?

We’ll know more later. Give me the silent wonder of a gentle snowfall any day. Give me the miracles in my own back yard, the surprise of an underground burrow, the vast perspective of a starry night, the impossible fragility of a bee’s neck. These are the true realities I choose to pay attention to, to believe in. I am the hoof of the doe, stepping into the stream; moments ripple round me. In the time of long light, I see god in green shadows, and the wheatgrass whispers ‘yes.’

Mindfulness Practice

I’m grateful today for mindfulness practice. The simplest definition of mindfulness that I can share after six months of in-depth study on the subject is: mind training. So that ‘mindfulness practice’ becomes ‘mind training practice.’ It’s still and always practice. You never get there, because of impermanence: ‘there’ is no fixed point, ever. It’s always changing, along with everything else including your means of locomotion to get there, the companions you meet along the way, your own fitness for the journey. 

Most of us invest five minutes to an hour or more each day in our physical fitness, whether simply brushing our teeth and running hot water over our faces, or more: a weight training workout or a run, or a swim, or a yoga class three times a week, or or or… and a hot shower afterward. How many of us devote ten minutes a day to mental hygiene? I’ve always spent more time each day on introspection than I ever have on dental hygiene. The difference is, now I’m actually training my mind, instead of simply riding it. (Like a horse, right, cowgirls?) I also floss more often.

A key component of mindfulness practice is breath. Of course, breath is a key component of everything. We’re spending a lot of time practicing awareness of breath this weekend in our class retreat, but more about breath another time. Immersed in a weekend intensive, each exploring our own way of being across the four domains of body, mind, emotions, and spirit, the domain of spirit especially resonates with me today. This domain is comprised of one’s sense of purpose, one’s sense of worth, and one’s sense of connection, or belonging. Today, I’ve been examining these three aspects of my way of being whilst teetering on the brink of a yawning pit of existential angst. It’s fascinating. I’m so grateful for mindfulness practice!

I’m grateful, too, for deer butts, their shining signal in the woods that lets me know they’re there well before I get close enough to spook them, so I can walk softly and pass close by, ‘bearing in mind (another component of mindfulness) their proximity, their spooky prey nature.

Discipline

Crispy cheesy pan pizza, with mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, onions, brie, smoked salmon, and fresh basil.

I’m grateful that I’ve made it one-twelfth of the way through my commitment to this daily gratitude practice, grateful for the discipline this requires. I’m grateful it’s helping me see the simplest things more expansively.

I’m grateful I had the discipline to eat only one small pan pizza the other day, and saved the larger one for two more meals. I’m grateful for eating a similar pizza in the past at PJs Pub, or I may never have conceived the delicious combination of smoked salmon and brie on pizza. I’m grateful smoked salmon is available in our local grocery store, grateful I can afford luxuries from time to time, grateful Philip shops for me, and I’m grateful I’ve kept a basil plant growing in the sunroom since fall.

I’m grateful that this pizza recipe splashed all over the internet during the pandemic, and I braved yeasted dough to try it. It couldn’t be easier to make the crust, and it’s so light and delicious. The recipe yields enough dough that it’s too thick a crust in my large skillet, so I split it and make one in the large skillet and one in the medium skillet. With a little prep, I’ve got three delicious meals. It freezes well, and reheats better than any store-bought pizza. You can put whatever you want on top, of course, leftovers like on the one above, or more typical toppings like the pepperoni, onions, and tomato sauce I put on the big pizza.