Yours in the Dharma:  Essays from a Buddhist perspective by Sandy Garson

This blog, Yours in the Dharma by Sandy Garson, is an effort to navigate life between the fast track and the breakdown lane, on the Buddhist path. It tries to use a heritage of precious, ancient teachings to steer clear of today's pain and confusion to clear the path to what's truly happening.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Surfing the maverick waves of Samsara

At the start of this year of the Fire Monkey, a Dharma brother of mine confided our beloved Rinpoche had been pushing him for three years with greater and greater ferocity to start a simple, free meditation group, perhaps in the afternoon to be available to seniors. Rinpoche intuited we are going through normal physical and mental changes while buffeted by the stressful swirl of cultural shifts. "He told me we were heading into rough times and he wanted to make the umbrella of the lineage available for everyone during the storm. He wanted those of us having a rough time in a rough life to find shelter and peace with the greatest masters." 

Mark claims he finally gave up procrastinating and got a group going because of me: because I spontaneously reached out and contacted him to have coffee when I was in his neighborhood, because I agreed to help him with this group in any way, because our omniscient Rinpoche specifically wanted me to know he heard me praying and was responding with this embrace. 

 It has been a rough time in an often rough life so I write beyond awed that Rinpoche chose this moment of enormous changes at the last minute to reveal himself as a magician. Apparently my coffee call to Mark was not spontaneous after all. Rinpoche rode to the rescue at the most auspicious of all calendar times: the start of a Guru Rinpoche year when actions and merit are exponentially magnified. This realization has been discovering Tinkerbell really can twinkle again if you will only believe.

Rinpoche's move also came simultaneously with the start of the Fire Monkey year, and every day since early February has lived up to that billing. Life has been a tornado of breathless energy and sweeping change, action and opportunity, innovation and enervation, whirlwind shake-ups and quantum leaps. In current lingo, mass disruption. Headlines tell us every day in every way, the whole culture, the whole country, and half the world is topsy-turvy. Institutions, ideologies, inventions, identities are falling apart, torn asunder by cyclones of human fury. It's all very Yeats: "The center cannot hold, the worst are filled with passionate intensity." We are slouching toward... who knows.   

I've felt the changes keenly. Endless physical and circumstantial punches are sculpting me into somebody I don't know. It's almost impossible now to see without glasses. My hearing has been diagnosed as sub par. I didn't get a job I was perfect for or any job I applied for. My latest cooking project collapsed. My flat won't sublet no matter how many outlets I advertise it. And my closest loved one is taking a spouse who doesn't want to know me. On the other hand, me who will never be accused of exercise now goes faithfully to a water aerobics class. And I who have always been a night owl am now asleep by 10, awake before 6.

Yesterday news reports confirmed what everybody who lives in what used to be the shining city on the hill, San Francisco, knows too well: the city has become the property crime center of the country. This has nothing to do with the well documented crime of landlords evicting low income tenants to get high Airbnb rates or put up luxury properties for the narcissistic techies. It's about auto burglaries being up 300% in two years, the dissolution of rapid mass transit, and the increase in derelict homeless shitting on the streets because they have "rights" here while committing crimes for drugs. The gloriously vaunted, fabled venture capital utopia by the bay is actually dirty, dangerous and dysfunctional. I know all about it.

It's not just that I can't get to the grocery store without navigating a narrow path through pit bulls, punks, pushers and panhandlers. Five weeks ago today, my car was stolen from a legal parking spot on a very busy street at the busiest time in the very busy civic and cultural center of town. Vanished without a trace. I went from flabbergasted to infuriated when I discovered how hard it was to reach any official city number because of low staffing, then how uninterested the police were when I finally got through. They didn't even care there was a video camera on the portico of the closest building because, I later learned, the DA doesn't care to prosecute or deal with crimes like this. San Francisco supports crime without consequence. Just another incident, what's new, shrug, sigh.

But this crime was my incident. And as life would have it, it happened on the very day I started working for the San Francisco Police. Having waited three weeks for the precinct Captain to have time for a meeting, I was in his office that very morning starting my volunteer position as Communication Liaison, being introduced to precinct personnel and warmly welcomed.  In 21 years, I had never been in a San Francisco police station, and by some bizarre turn of events I was back that same evening as a crime victim.

How did I come to be volunteering as a reporter for the Police? Because hordes of homeless were overwhelming my front steps. Every morning there were human feces and urine in front of the garage, used needles and bottles on the steps. Often rags were strewn across the sidewalk. What broke me was the individual who refused to abandon her camp on the front steps to let the five-year-old upstairs get down for preschool, then threw all her rags, needles and dirty cups at the kid before running away. I went right to this computer and wrote the most politely scathing letter to the district supervisor--someone who has to be elected--asking where our tax money was going since we paid the same as the uppity folks in super clean Pacific Heights, why nobody did anything about this danger we faced day after day after day, and what exactly did she plan to make the city do to stop my street from being a toilet? Didn't we have rights?

The Supervisor responded within an hour, admitting I'd made her aware of huge gaps in a system she thought she had coordinated with three outreach organizations. Evidently clearing the homeless from one area merely pushed them to another that was ignored. An hour later I got an email from the precinct police captain, saying he was going to beef up patrols so our street was no longer ignored because he takes complaints seriously. And speaking of complaints, I wrote the best letter he'd ever seen and he happened to be looking for a good writer to help the station communicate better with the community. Would I like to help him do that? 

In conversation with neuroscientists and psychologists, the Dalai Lama has often insisted you never find what you are not looking for. He was speaking about consciousness, about the Dharmakaya, the world wide web of invisible but powerfully tight connections. Everything is happening as part of a process, for a reason. We just have to understand the process. We are not alone; the universe wants us to stay afloat.

 I have detected a pattern in the seemingly random set up of my life in this year of the Fire Monkey. In its very first week, I was able to do a bit of good by getting our street cleared of the daily download of human shit and urine and used needles. I got a physical mess cleaned up.  I was now a friendly face and helping hand in the police precinct where the Captain said I had "a good heart." He couldn't see it had been badly broken by recent turns of events. His welcome was healing; it started to clean up a mess. Then Rinpoche stepped in to swab it all up by finally getting Mark's special meditation class started, located perfectly on an uncrowded bus line. For an hour we meditated on being swaddled by our guru's love, supported by his wisdom, protected by his omniscience. Everything was going to turn out fine.

Sometimes amid the chaos we don't get to know that until much later. That nerve-wracking night, while I was standing in front of the plexiglass windows of "my" police station filling out the requisite theft form, my Tibetan goddaughter phoned. I told her I couldn't talk because my car had just been stolen and I was at the police precinct.  "Well good," she said cheerfully.  "A big obstacle has been removed from your life."  In the tension of that moment, I wanted to kill her and her unrelenting Tibetanness with my bare hands so I clicked the red hang up button. I walked home, newly terrified of the darkness, and spent the whole night awake, fuming about the brazen theft of my car, the callous police response, how dangerous San Francisco had become and Tashi saying my loss was good news.

Police officers I now worked with kept trying to assure me 90% of stolen cars in this city get recovered. The Captain took my welfare so personally, he sent a police escort to bring me home from returning my temporary insurance funded rental car. The precinct's chief investigator fed my information into all his databases. Ten days went by and the car did not surface. Stuck with San Francisco's dismal public transit and unable to do the things I loved like senior swimming, I cursed the statues on my shrine for not helping me. I put the entry fob in front of the Karmapa and sometimes Mahakala, remover of obstacles, to no avail. I dissed them both.

Well, friends began to say jovially, at least now you won't have to drive again across the country, which you didn't really want to do anyway. Yes. How about that! I didn't have to drive that damned car back to the East Coast, 10 excruciating days of white lines, bad food and ugly motels. Been there, done that, hated it. And now I didn't have to make the dreaded journey again. Tashi was correct: an obstacle had been removed. What a relief. I found a free miles cross country air ticket at a decent time, not a red eye. Because that had been so easy and promised an equally easily transfer from sea to shining sea, I found myself praying the police did not recover my car and spoil this good luck. I apologized to Mahakala and Karmapa and Rinpoche.

As my life moved on, I began to see the theft as a message to stop going back and forth between two coasts, especially when life has gotten noticeably brighter on one of them but not the other.  A dual life is not sustainable because you are always leaving people who want to see you or not participating because of events after your time. I didn't want to hear that I had to give my beloved home up. The Buddha warned us amply about the suffering of impermanence and I am nowhere exempt from hanging on to what I love just because I love it. Rinpoche was pushing courage on me, forcing me to wind down and clear up.

I managed to find a new car. It's going to cost money I no longer have but a good friend long ago organized a loan I can still draw on. I have other financial problems that won't self-solve no matter how hard I try. But the police have chauffeured me around in moments of great need to thank me for my work on their behalf. I have met new people through that work. I have play dates with children and concert tickets, free food talks and Dharma events to attend so I get out of the little space I have. 

I don't get around as much as I could with a car but I've survived. I get through the day with enough food, phone conversations, and activities to make me tired and I celebrate that fact. Day by day, bird by bird, I'm doing just fine. Looking ahead, out there two years, brings real stress but now is the time and there is food, friends, fun. So there isn't any stress if I stay focused on what I have at hand and what I have to do that minute. No ruing the past: can't change it now to make it better. No peeking at the future. Rinpoche's fast forwarded the action. Real Dharma practice has suddenly happened, ready or not.

When I started study 28 years ago, I was told the end game was to not get knocked over by killer waves in the ocean of Samsara. We start by letting little ones lap at our ankles and try to stand firm. We wade in up to our calves and use our dharma training to stay upright. Waves cut us off at the knees but we learn to stay afloat.  Last week Mark asked us what we felt about our meeting and Rinpoche's words. I quickly volunteered that to my own amazement, while everything had been going wrong and I felt the me I know was drowning, I was totally all right. My life has become a scary mess but at the end of the day I feel fine. I just know what really matters is my mind and that Rinpoche is guiding me.  "That's it!" Mark said. "That's what Rinpoche wants us to feel, safe under the umbrella. That's his blessing."

Oh yes, one last bizarre bit: the only image of the remover of obstacles, Mahakala, I could find for my altar has been this plastic amulet on the right. As you can see, I keep it supported
by the cup of my tea offering, which I place anew every morning. Normally when I take it away to change the tea, the plastic amulet falls over as does that tiny heart I put next to it. When I bring new tea in the morning, I have to re-position them both against the cup. I do not know how to account for the astonishing fact that about a week after my car was stolen and I began to realize it might be for the best, when I removed the tea cup, Mahakala and the heart remained standing unsupported and unmoved. This happened for several days. I have not been able to make it happen again. There really is magic in this universe.

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Sunday, April 10, 2016

sorry for the silence

 I've been through a tumultuous time that I am sorting out so I can post something meaningful. Please stay tuned and forgive me.

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Friday, March 18, 2016

Ordinary Day

My yesterday started with the usual cup of cappuccino in the ordinary one size fits all morning. I sipped. I sat at my computer trying to get it all together because I don't wake ready to roll. I wake up slowly. I opened my email and was immediately drawn to a message from an old college friend who had been spectacularly generous to me. She wrote to say her husband of 48 years, from whom she'd been inseparable--business partners, best friends, yacht crew--for the last 25 died two days earlier. "I'm already at the point where I realize I need to be around friends," she said. "This is hard... ." 

I could only imagine. But what to do? I immediately wrote back offering to come right over and I invited her to join a mutual friend and I for dinner next week. With a heavy heart, I read the rest of my mail, three newspapers and my Facebook feed, always thinking about my friend suffering. Then I washed out my coffee mug and did something hard. I went to the public pool for morning swim. I have such a long tradition of being lazy, I always say rather cheerfully: "Nobody will ever accuse me of exercise." Lately though, I find exercise imperative because as my late aunt warned me: "If you don't move, you won't move."  

Thinking about the loss of a life motivated me to make the effort to extend my life. I killed myself for 25 minutes in that pool, doing jumping jacks with Styrofoam barbells and laps with a kickboard, stretches with a noodle and breast strokes galore. I was grateful I could do this, glad I did and dedicated the merit of my good fortune to have access to this pool and time to use it.

 I was in the locker room elatedly exhausted when I heard a cell phone sound. Certain it couldn't be mine, which is normally quiet, I kept toweling myself. The phone kept ringing. How come nobody was answering? Just in time I realized, it was coming from my locker, my purse. I almost missed an even longer term friend, one from childhood. She's been the athletic one among us, queen of exercise. She's been encouraging me in my less and less feeble attempts. "So," I began brightly, "you got me in the locker room. I did all the things you told me to do in the pool. I hope you're proud."

"Not right now," she said just above a whisper. "I'm calling at this odd hour because i needed to tell someone my dear friend Joyce's daughter was just killed while riding her bike. I've known her since she was a baby and she became this terrific person. She's the one I was going to visit on the way to visit you. Now I won't be coming. This is just so so...horrible."

I told my shaken friend I'd call her later to see how she was doing. I dressed, drove home, sat in front of the computer and tried to continue an ordinary day. But I got other hints it wasn't the usual. In the midst of a brutal El Nino winter, spring was sending a save the date message: the sky was cloudless, the wind still and the air temperature a very balmy 74º. The next day was forecast as cold and cloudy, more rain on the way. 

I made another coffee and went back to the computer and tried to keep on keeping on. But two deaths with signs of Spring gnawed at me, gnawed...pawed... . Finally, I got out of my cushy chair, grabbed my keys, put on my sunglasses and went outside. I needed to see the trees bursting into bloom, hear the birds chirping as they made their nests. I watched all the human beings in their various get-ups and brightly colored hair scampering along the sidewalks happily oblivious of their final destination. I walked on the brightest side of each street, stuck my face into the sun and eventually even threw my arms out wide. That I could courageously do this like jumping jacks in the pool made me smile. The sunshine took my thoughts to all the Dharma gurus and the message they're trying to deliver and the way every single one of them who gets the message so easily laughs at everything, and I said to no one in particular: "Yes!"  Out here exulting in the sunshine, the fragrant blossoms, the melodious birds and gurgling babies being rollered by,  I am alive!

Then I went back home.

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Sunday, March 13, 2016

The mental transit system

About ten years ago at a group teaching, Rinpoche urged us to give up negative thoughts. Mind has a direct route to the tongue, he said, so whatever we think in private will inevitably exit and become public. Many thoughts shipped on this bullet train can be dangerous explosives and the hurt they inflict on someone else could easily boomerang back to harm us. So, he concluded, it's better not to have negative thoughts. 

I didn't need Donald Trump's campaign to know just how deadly negative thoughts the mouth fires off like darts can be.  "What's on her lung is on her tongue," is how kinder people described my grandmother whose mouth was an assault rifle aimed at anybody in hearing distance. Since family was in closest range, we were her constant target and her words permanently maimed all of us one way or another. I don't think she even noticed. Asked in her mid 90s by a group of ladies who lunch how she managed to stay so sharp and strong, she shot back: "i don't keep anything in. I just let it all out." Those women thought my grandmother being a pistol was funny.

The one thing in life I did not want to be was a mental firing squad. Then, ironically, shortly after she died, I participated in a blizzardy winter 30 day group retreat where we were asked to note every time during one single day we got peeved, annoyed, or irritated. I spent that day noticing nonstop silent bitching: about having to eat tedious Oryoki style, and why didn't anybody shovel the front path because it was icy dangerous to walk? How dare someone move my shoes outside the meditation hall! Why did she push her cushion back like that and crowd me? Why didn't someone put the outside lights on since it was dark and perilous to walk out there? Nothing was right. What was wrong with these people? Didn't they know what they were supposed to do? How it should be? By evening, I was exhausted piling up evidence of my discontent and shaken to the core discovering what a full time fault finder I was. Dissatisfied with everything and everyone, I was my grandmother.

You better believe I wanted to fix that right away, but I didn't know how to not have negative thoughts. That still feels like a very advanced practice for yogis isolated in caves instead of someone struggling along the crowded sidewalks of Samsara. Maybe this is because I seem to have come into this world equipped with an acute sense of right and wrong that is always demanding to be outted.  One astrologer says: "According to Capricorns, there is only a right way and a wrong way to do things and ...their way is usually right."  Evidently, it's my nature to know what's best and get everybody to shape up. I must say it did make me a good investigative reporter and opinion writer, maybe even why I started this blog.

It is also unimpeachable psychological truth-- and a dead giveaway--that those perpetually disappointed by their own imperfection will be relentlessly hard on themselves, and by extension thanks to habit mercilessly critical of others. 

The jolt of that retreat made me try my eyes out to stay mindful of constant irritations so I could swallow them lest somebody discover my inner Bitch. Then Rinpoche came along and gave his teaching on the mind-to-mouth information highway, the mental transit system guaranteed to deliver news of negativity. Now alerted, I began to see even if I did manage to keep my critical opinions from spilling out, they leaked into my behavior. I was impatient or grouchy, snide, stand offish or rejecting. "No thanks, I don't want to go there...or don't want to see them." As I got more adept at noticing my rejection of what was sent my way, I remembered the late Trungpa Rinpoche said boredom was simply resistance to accepting what's happening. It's a firewall that lets us refuse to participate because we don't like the scenario. What it really is, I find now, is petulance because we want something "better." We set up a huge pile of "might have beens", what we missed. O how we hurt ourselves.

Negative thoughts have so many on-ramps to the information highway, it's impossible to patrol all the snits all the time. Rinpoche was right: it's best to stop negative thinking all together.

Since I don't know how to do that, I've been trying to stop as much as possible, just to get the feelFor instance, I share a two-unit house with the nicest young family anybody could want for neighbors. Except for laundry. They don't do it and then suddenly three or four humongous containers of dirty clothes show up in front of the machines. The washer gets so stuffed to the gills, its controls blink Error. Often for days. Or the dryer is equally jam packed and nobody empties it or notices what's in there is still damp. For days. They have to start all over again.  I try to do my laundry in the lulls, but I never know when the tsunami is coming. So there are times I go down with a small basket of dirty underwear and towels and want to scream: Just pay attention to your laundry and give me a chance! But I don't say a word.

In my former two-unit house, the young family downstairs monopolized the machines in the same selfish way, and while I struggled not to voice my frustration, the roommate I had to take in went ballistic. She lived by an absolutely inflexible routine that for some mysterious reason mandated laundry on Thursday from 3 to 4. While I quickly figured that out and stayed out of her way, the folks downstairs definitely didn't know, so if they had stuff in the machines at her must moment, the whole house exploded from her rage. I spent a lot of time apologizing for how absurd she was, which brought that family and me to wink and nod intimacy-- and forever stopped me from venting my own frustration with them.

What I started to do then, I do now: I take their stuff out of the machines, put my stuff in, do my wash, dry it and put their stuff back. Usually they never know.  Or I bite my tongue and wait one day, leaving my basket of dirty clothes in front of the machines as a message. This resourcefulness keeps me on happy terms with my neighbors and causes at most a day's delay. Annoying but no real harm: I still have clean underwear in the drawer and towels in the closet. Just yesterday, the young woman upstairs texted me a long apologetic message whose drift was: "I know I've been doing laundry for 10 days but I am trying to create spaces for you so please tell me if it's working."

I like to think quietly adjusting my expectation and irritation is what Sylvia Boorstein calls "managing gracefully."  Of course I now know those two--expectation and irritation--are joined at the hip. Give up the first and you automatically never get the second. You get nothing to grouse about. You can be sunnier. 

Expectation is "should be." It's our very own handmade opinion of what's right, how things are supposed to go--essentially happily ever after. Expectations are makeup and manicure, all the past conditioning we apply to the present moment to make us happy with it, to let us own it. We travel with overweight carry-on baggage so we can style every moment. What a waste when the moment is really just sailing off into the sunset and look! here's another.

Wonder of wonders! Buddha said, when he discovered deep in our heart of hearts, every last one of us has our very own perspective on how things should be. We each have bespoke expectations. And we each expect them to be met or we go all negative. That's the art of the deal or maybe there's the rub: my "should" is not yours, neither is my must-do list. So who's right? What's wrong? Which opinions do you trust on Yelp! And what's so great about yours that it beats mine? Why do you have these opinions in the first place?

More to the Buddha's point: trying to make those once upon a time "shoulds" come true is what causes  our irritation and suffering. There's the harm boomeranging back. Remember the laundry on Thursday woman? Do you wonder why she had no friends? Expectations and opinions cut possibility off at the pass. They shoot us in the foot.

We all know the sad jokes about the Jewish mother or the insufferably opinionated in-laws who have to be banished, or at least kept at bay. There's an easy way to see negativity boomeranging back to harm. When my peers got married, meddling parents were always a worry. Now we are the parents, the in-laws. Our eyesight is dimming but experience lets us see very clearly what's going on and what the outcome is likely to be. Sadly we have all discovered nobody wants their life lacquered with our opinion. Everybody prefers their own. As my cousin says: "I use the excuse of hearing. I pretend I don't hear what's being said and that way I can't jump in or even comment negatively to my son. You just have to be deaf if you want to stay included."

Nobody likes a busybody because shoulds and musts are not necessarily shared. (See Culture Wars: zealous people busily interfering with other people's lives instead of the harder work of tending the hardship of their own.) Nobody wants to be bombed by a barrage of negative opinions. I can't be my grandmother any more because now that I am fully focused, I find steering my own life hard enough to not have the energy, time or inclination to interrupt anybody else's. I can't know everything they are dealing with and factoring in. Besides, the world has radically changed. What do I know?

When I don't expect, I find I can be pleasantly surprised. Discretion is a gift that keeps giving back, even laundry time. I'm getting better at keeping my mouth shut. Of course, as Rinpoche says, negative thoughts eventually find a way out. On the phone or at lunch, we old folks tell each other all the things we don't dare tell the young, and we agree that all we can do is silently hope for the best. Our version of course.

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Monday, March 07, 2016

International Women's Day: March 8, 2016

 Owed To Women
(I have published this before in slightly different form)




~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Thursday, March 03, 2016

Cooking as Dharma practice

This is not what I intended to post this week, But after reading the answers I just spent two hours writing to a newspaper reporter's questions about me and my new alter ego Nana Chef in relation to her new program and Kickstarter campaign, I realized talking about Nana and cooking was talking about Dharma in my life. And I couldn't do it any better as just a post. So here's the Q and A:

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself, your background in cooking, etc? 

I really started cooking big time when I moved to Maine in 1973 because there were no restaurants or quality food stores. I'd traveled widely and learned in many kitchens. My kitchen became a kind of salon. From there I was asked to cook for other people having parties and that led to the catering business first in Georgetown as Captains Cook and then in Brunswick as the very popular Tastewrights. Part of Tastewrights was the first upscale bakery in Brunswick. That came after a season selling my baked goods at the Brunswick Farmers' Market where I introduced baguettes. 

Sadly, a massive orthopedic crisis forced me to immediately halt the physical effort of cooking, so I went down to Radcliffe and into the first ever Food History seminar. To help promote the farmers' market, with four area farmers, in 1990 I wrote the first ever farmers' market guide based on all the questions I heard people asking over and over while I worked in one.  How to Fix a Leek...and Other Food from Your Maine Farmers' Market turned out to be popular and so beloved I did an updated edition in 2011 aimed at farmers' markets everywhere. I believe you can still buy it on Kindle and at the Brunswick Farmers' Market from Keogh Family Farm. Last summer (2015) I worked with Bath Housing Authority to hands on help residents  cook and preserve the harvest from their organic gardens.

Even though after 1988, I became too handicapped to keep cooking, people would call and ask me to do a small event or just please bake them a batch of the special cookie I had developed at Tastewrights. Well, baking those batches led to an explosion of demand and suddenly I was back in the baking business as Cakesphere. Orders were flying in especially from California where I was a huge hit but it was only me and my orthopedic system broke down again and I was in so much pain, I had to stop instantly. My Dr. said: "If you do this again, I won't help you." Sadly I did go to the state's so called Business Development Center to see if I could get support to hire people and grow without my having to do all the physical labor and the response was pathetic--like it was for Roxanne Quimby at Burts' Bees. The guy said: "Yes I know your cookies. I see them all the time at Bow Street Market but I wouldn't spend $1 for one so as far as I'm concerned, your business won't get our support."  

By then I was deeply committed to Buddhism and became the go to cook for gurus visiting Maine and Boston and Baltimore. Then it became Vancouver and San Francisco. I was in Nepal a lot and after I spent a whole day cooking 3 meals for 300 kids in a kitchen with no water, no floor, no electricity and a stove that was a burning tree shoved into some bricks, I started a cooking and better nutrition program for impoverished kids at my teacher's boarding school: it's still going after 15 years! Then monks and nuns asked for my help so I started a small charity, Veggiyana, registered in Maine, to provide food, cooking lessons and food gardens to Buddhist practitioners.  From all this Wisdom Publications in Somerville MA asked me to write a cookbook so in 2011 they published Veggiyana, the Dharma of Cooking: essays on food history with 108 deliciously simple vegetarian recipes I'd gathered from my travels and cooking all over the world. In 2012 I was invited to Ulan Baator, Mongolia to teach cooking and revitalize a Buddhist owned vegetarian cafe, which I apparently did in my six nonstop weeks there because I was told it became a huge success that year. The income funded free Dharma classes.

In 2014 I was invited by the Bath Freightshed Alliance to cook their June Farm-to-Table fundraising dinner using all local ingredients i helped to scavenge and I believe that dinner raised the most money of any in the three-year series. By then I was also starting to make jam and cookies with my friends' granddaughters who came to visit. In 2014 and 15 I volunteered as a chef for San Francisco Cooking Matters elementary school classes so I could test out this idea of being Nana and it was the kids at the worst low income school in the system who named me Nana Chef. That's when I decided to help all kids get skills, confidence and something to bring to the table. I volunteered for Brunswick but nobody even bothered to answer me. 

2. Can you tell me more about the Nana Chef program? 
First I want people to know RSU5 (Freeport, Durham, Pownal) is offering a Nana Chef summer camp to all cookees for a week at the end of June and I think it's going to be great fun to give these cookees joyous memories to nourish a lifetime by making strawberry jam and peach tarts, fancy tuna fish baguette sandwiches and pesto sauce with Nana.

Nana offers her cookees basic training: safety, skill, sensing. Kids smell spices and decide which ones they want to add or not. They learn the magical medicinal properties of herbs and the differences in salt. They learn simple baking, artful display, fast foods like smoothies and peanut butter and pesto sauces. The essence of the program is to bring back the universal tradition of elders passing wisdom down to the young by gently letting kids get familiar with kitchen art and craft and its importance to their own survival.

Right now on her website,, cookees can learn to make applesauce, dilly beans, and banana bread. They can watch a video to learn kitchen words like mince and cream. They can learn a little about herbs and spices and above all get some safety tips for being in the kitchen.

3. What was the drive behind it?  
Nana is coming back into the kitchen to nourish kids with a lifetime of the joyful memories of smells, tastes and delicious love many of us elders have when we remember growing up with an older woman spoiling us in the kitchen. Now too many mothers and grandmothers have to work and too much food is industrially processed to be nothing but fast, so kids won't have those sublime memories to magnetize them into the kitchen as adults. That could totally destroy cooking--humanity's greatest accomplishment, and we can't let our lives be decimated like that. We're already suffering massive health and environmental crises because that's underway.

Nana wants to show today's Harry Potter struck kids how magical cooking is: the poof! of a popover, the smoosh of heated berries into jam, the mystery of milk turning into yogurt, the cucumber into a pickle. Cooking should not be cutthroat competition it has become or some AP pursuit for a resume. It should wonder-full fun. Cooking is really all about survival, sharing and love. Nana wants cookees to know preparing food is not a dumb dull chore. It's where science meets art and sharing is everything.  It's giving life and showing love. Nana is real because there is no app for that!

4. What do you hope students will learn?
First, that they really can do something very very important for themselves and the people they love. This means they are important. Secondly they learn actual skills, survival skills, that give them confidence they can take care of themselves and survive. And thirdly, that everybody brings something to the table; everybody in the world cooks and eats so they are not alone in the kitchen but part of something huge and important that binds them to every other human on Earth as an equal.

5. Tell me more about your YouTube channel and why you are starting that up.
It's very hard for one person to break through all the noise, clutter and firewalls to reach the world. The easiest way nowadays seems to be via video and indeed some young mothers familiar with Nana Chef suggested I introduce her on a You Tube channel. The idea is similar to the old Mr. Rogers' shows: Nana talks directly and gently while imparting wisdom and love. She can't do that in print, only in life and the only way to bring it to life for kids so scattered is via a video. So to get this idea of Nana into public consciousness, I'm trying to put together a video channel.

6. What has the community response been like to your efforts? 
Whenever even the most sophisticated or most technological people hear the phrase Nana in the kitchen they instantly fill with rapture, glow and smile as they remember some smell or taste and show of pure, non judgmental love. Nana turns out to be a powerful concept I am trying to restore, at least to cooking. 

7. Why is cooking your passion? 
I started as a political scientist in international relations and when I got out into the world, the first thing that hit me was how politics divided people and killed people but food, food always brought people together and nobody got hurt. I can go anywhere in the world and immediately relate by asking someone what they eat or how they cook a particular ingredient. It never fails. Everybody on this planet brings something to the table; we are all equals in the kitchen. So cooking became my politics. 

Equally important, when I started to cook a lot I discovered cooking is the cross of science with art, nature and nurture. It's endlessly fascinating. And magical. And it's traditional every which way, so it binds you to the whole of humanity past and present. But most of all it's about love--love of life itself and love for others, and about sharing that love. It's a very spiritually satisfying activity.

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Tuesday, February 23, 2016


 A friend just wrote to say among the life shifting events of her hectic weekend, she got word a good friend dropped dead while on a Caribbean cruise. That loss overshadowed better news she wanted to share: the purchase of a fixer upper summerhouse for recent grand kids.  "So crazy," she wrote, "down...up...down. First death of a close friend."

I have been there, done that. Given how unscripted and un-guaranteed real life is, that my friend made it into her 70s without losing a friend feels miraculous and worth cheering, an up in the down. I lost my first friend when I was 28. He was 29 and married to my best childhood friend, who was 27. When he was committed to the hospital with terminal brain cancer, I was the one she called to come, the one who had to stand by when she broke down, who had to make the plans and drive the car and keep things going on both ends. Five months of down... down...down the rabbit hole never knowing what to expect or improvise made the funeral a relief. 

Six years later I lost my best friend, also to a fatal cancer. I was the one her husband called to come when the diagnosis was certain. He did not know how to deal with loss and didn't want to learn. "I only win. I've never lost a game or a job or person. I can't do this," he said. "I'm going back home. You come and be here for her."  For a year I was, faithfully shuttling back and forth between my life and Boston's Dana Farber Cancer Hospital, then the local upstate NY hospital where she finally died. It was a relief.

I lost my friends the long way. On short or no notice at all, death is much harder to wrap your spirit around.  The news is: you've just been robbed of closure. You'll never get the chance to tell them about that new restaurant or make amends or find out about their latest triumph. Whatever you wanted to say next time will torment your mind. I understand what my friend is trying to say.

The long way round has similar agony. On short or no notice at all, you're told the relationship is over. In too many ways, the person you related to is not that person any more. Something has come between you. Right there mourning begins. You've lost what you had. It's never going to back up and be the way it was. Everyday you have to face that. Everyday you improvise a new relationship while mourning the old one. You play the inevitable waiting game. The clock ticks, ticks, ticks. You do and do not want it to. Death is a relief for both of you.

Most people think funerals are to pay respect to the dead. In truth, funerals are to wake up the living. They exist to provide closure, especially when there's been short or no notice. Not just a chance to get out that goodbye or praise (eulogy), but more vitally a chance to have thrown in your face the indisputable fact your relationship is definitely over. Usually, right before your very eyes, it's buried or burnt to ashes. The late great master Dilgo Khyentse pointedly observed that when we cry over death, we're just crying like spoiled children who've lost something we wanted to keep. The dead has been released from all suffering; that should be good news we cheer.

As I wrote back to my friend, impermanence happens. Down...up...down...that's life unfolding. Actors come and go from our stage as the play changes acts. Sometimes the players change roles, sometimes they disappear completely from the visible story line. But we are still in it. We are still writing it. And they are still part of our makeup. Somewhere they've left a mark on us. There's up in the down.

We say goodbye and we say hello. Life flows like a river. It moves on. I did. You can. Hug your husband, call your kids and fix that new house for the grandbabies. Now or maybe never. A long time ago, I learned you can't know if there will be later. Death is the only reminder of that. So maybe it's a good thing.

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.
Click here to request Sandy Garson for reprint permission.
Yours In The Dharma 2001-2010, Sandy Garson Copyright 2001-2010 Sandy Garson All rights Reserved