Bread Love

"This is crazy!" I thought, as I rounded yet another sharp turn on the Shoreline Highway at 15mph. Fog clung to the windshield as I inched my way toward Green Gulch Farm Zen Center. When I arrived, I turned the car off, dropped my shoulders and exhaled. Finally, I could let go of the fear of getting lost (again) and relax into the bread baking workshop that was starting in five minutes.

Five minutes. Whoops.

I grabbed my camera and a scarf and walked quickly toward where I thought the kitchen might be.

Upon entering the baking room, just off the kitchen, I was greeted by Mick Sopko and his assistant, Yuki. Mick and Yuki bake bread for the entire Green Gulch community and a few other places in the Bay Area. Fortunately, Mick offers workshops on the fundamentals of bread baking to the general public four to five times a year to those who are curious, like myself.

There are few things in life as comforting as bread. And while I have experimented with different pastries, muffins and cakes, I have never made real bread.

Mick explained that when you are making bread you are, in a way, "playing god." You activate the yeast, bring it to life, nurture it and allow it to mature and blossom. And then you kill it about five minutes after it goes into the oven. I looked across the room at the rows of freshly baked bread and felt a bit bad for all that yeast.

Throughout the morning and afternoon, Mick patiently demonstrated each step of the process and even gave us the opportunity to get our hands in some flour and water and knead the dough. My team was in charge of forming sandwich loaves while others formed rolls, baguettes, round loaves and oval loaves. When we were all done, we watched in fascination as Mick effortlessly (and with a lot of love) prepared our bread for the oven.

After 7 minutes or so, the bread miraculously came out warm and golden brown. Once it had cooled, Mick sliced open a baguette and invited us all to taste. I dipped a piece in a small bowl of olive oil and smiled, totally relaxed and comforted.

At the end of the workshop I thanked Mick and bowed to Yuki. With a fresh loaf of bread in my arms, I made my way back out to the parking lot, content and happy. I gently tightened my scarf and prepared for the trip home, less concerned (for now) about being lost.

(If you're in or planning to be in the Bay Area, you can take this workshop too. Check out the website for more information: Fundamentals of Bread Baking and read more about Mick.)

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Confessions of a teeth grinder

Confession: I have been meditating for almost five years now and I still grind my teeth. My dentist was adamant - stop it (she lamented, how many people are not grinding their teeth these days?). I have resisted getting a mouth guard, because, holy shit, that sounds incredibly unsexy. But the truth is, I may need to swallow my pride and just get one. Receding gums, due to teeth grinding, are also incredibly unsexy (not to mention, painful).

In order to protect my teeth and my overall health - because I don't think I'd be grinding my teeth simply for the hell of it - I've started scaling back how much I commit to. It's been hard. I like being busy. I like helping people. And I have a really hard time saying no. I also hate disappointing people, especially those I care about. But I am realizing more than ever that my wish to not disappoint others is costing me a great deal. I am at an age where I can no longer simply push on through. My body is telling me to stop and pay attention.

Finally, I am listening.

At the beginning of the year, I took three days off to completely clean out my closet. Something I had been avoiding for a very long time (understandably). I found receipts from ten years ago, letters, birthday cards, old photographs from high school, magazines I'd kept from my time in the Czech Republic and papers I wrote in grad school. It was unexpectedly emotional. When I was done and I only had a few small boxes left, I felt a huge wave of relief. I felt lighter.

There is something about creating space, both physically and mentally, that is highly motivating and refreshing. Since then, instead of committing to more projects, more tasks, more self-improvement fiascoes (going sugar-free and gluten-free, while healthy, is just not realistic for me), more this and more that, I have decided to commit to saying no, setting boundaries, scaling back, simplifying, giving stuff away and making room for space.

It hasn't been easy, but something surprising has been happening. I'm starting to relax. Slowly but surely. Little by little. Why is it so hard?

We'll see what my dentist has to say...

(What I'm listening to right now: House of Cards by Radiohead)

A Year of Unravelling

This time last year, I found myself on the edge of a panic attack, wondering what the hell I was doing. I stared out the window at Lower Manhattan in February feeling overwhelmed, intimidated, and worried. Could I do this? Would they like me? Will I totally make a fool of myself? Who do I think I am exactly? And yet, despite all my fear and trepidation, I fell in love with every single person in the training program at The Interdependence Project, including myself (hello, surprise). And I fell in love with New York City.

At home, I decided to start the year by seeing a therapist. Something I haven't really talked about here, but now...why not? It was one of the best decisions I made this year and I would recommend it to anyone and everyone.

I also finally (finally) got out of credit card debt. Woohoo! And it was in part due to this fabulous book, Money: A Love Story by Kate Northrup. Get it. Go get it right now.

In May, I lost my Mema. In June, my Grandmother. I read The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion and squeezed myself inside out with grief. I questioned death and contemplated my own.

I had my first Photography show at the Austin Zen Center.

I stood up to my father lovingly and honestly. Something I've been trying to do my entire life.

I Bollywood danced.

I nibbled on cereal cookies at Momofuku Milk Bar and wrapped myself in the smell of fresh chocolate at the Mast Brothers Chocolate Factory.

I curled up on a warm couch in Brooklyn and watched the snow fall outside (thank you Airbnb).

Just after Christmas I discovered I have hypothyroidism, a condition I will need to treat for the rest of my life.

To say this year has been full would be an understatement. When I sat down to focus on Susannah Conway's Unravelling the Year Ahead and reviewed 2013, I was surprised by how much I've done and how much this year has changed me.

What will 2014 bring? Am I ready?

A few of my favorite things from 2013:

Favorite music: James Blake
Favorite photographer: Rob Lutter
Favorite nonprofit: The Fistula Foundation
Favorite book: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

(What I'm listening to right now: Strong by London Grammar)

You can't stop New York City

Bookshelf, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, June 2013

Standing on the L train heading into Brooklyn, I became concerned. The train sped up and appeared to accelerate faster than usual. I looked around, but no one else seemed to notice. The train barreled through the tunnel faster and faster. I almost laughed out loud, it was so startling to me. I thought to myself, yes, this is what New York City feels like. An immense amount of speed, an overwhelming amount of metal and concrete and a whole lot of people who have no idea why you might be freaked out by all this.

Not that I was freaked out. Not exactly. To be honest, I loved it. But I didn't always. It took me a while, and a few trips, to warm up to New York City. I had no idea why people bought I <3 NY t-shirts and why so many professed their love for a city that, to me, appeared overcrowded and unforgiving.

And just to be clear, it is overcrowded and unforgiving (or, it can be).

But, that's just it. What I've come to love about New York is that, it doesn't pretend not to be overcrowded and unforgiving. New York is what it is. Take it or leave it.

And the people. The people! So many people. I love them all. The barista at Think Coffee who smiled back at me and asked if I was having a good day, the guy in line behind me who barked an order at the barista without even blinking an eye (and the barista didn't blink either), the waiters at Le Pain Quotidien on Bleeker Street who kindly took my order of green tea and a soft-boiled egg every morning, the countless people who helped me find my way when I got lost (which was a lot), the woman who yelled, "Don't you fuck with me young lady!" at her daughter in the middle of a busy sidewalk, the tourists who asked me for directions (ha!), the young men in Bed-Stuy who gently teased me and asked me if I'd date a black man, my sweet friend, Emily, who taught me how to correctly pronounce Bed-Stuy (thank you, Emily), the deranged guy on the subway platform who reached out and tried to touch my face, the old lady who slowly and carefully lead her young granddaughter by the hand down Bowery, my instructor at The Interdependence Project, Ethan, who encouraged me to find my voice and my lion's roar, and my friends in the Immersion program, Mona, Emily, Alexandra, Ambika, Anna, Anya, Paul, Jacoby, Robert, Monica, Patrick, Ash and Kim Brown, who all welcomed me as if I were coming home, rather than just visiting (I will never be able to express in words how much this meant to me).

The people, I've found, are the very best part of the city. My favorite part. Tough on the outside and nothing but heart on the inside. Treat a New Yorker with love and respect and they'll give it back to you tenfold. Not all New Yorkers, of course (and you better be ready for that). But most of the New Yorkers I met, despite the chaos all around them, revealed bountiful warmth and squishiness underneath their cool and driven exteriors.

Waiting for my plane to take off at La Guardia and to take me home for the last time this year, I stopped in one of the shops to kill some time and grab some snacks. There on the shelf was an I <3 NY coffee mug. Naturally, I grabbed it. The lady behind the counter smiled at me, wrapped my new mug in paper and threw in a few samples of free candy, just for good measure.

I <3 NY.

(A little New York State of Mind)

Modern Buddhist Women: An Interview with Kimberly Brown

At the edge of a tall cliff, Bhadda was confronted by the man she had just saved from execution. A man she thought she had been in love with. A man she thought was in love with her. But no. All he was interested in were her jewels. He called her a fool and ordered her to remove her outer robe and wrap her jewels inside.

Without hesitation, Bhadda requested one wish before she died: that she be allowed to embrace him. He agreed. Bhadda first embraced him from the front. And then, after embracing him from behind, pushed him off the cliff.

This was just one story I discovered in First Buddhist Women: Poems and Stories of Awakening by Susan Murcott. Breathtaking, no?

The stories in this book made such an impression on me that I was inspired to uncover the stories of modern Buddhist women. Unfortunately, I haven't found that many. I mean, they're out there, don't get me wrong, but I was disappointed to find that the number of men telling their stories far outweighs the number of women telling theirs.

So. I created a project: Interview modern Buddhist women and share their stories.

For my first interview I wanted to speak with the Executive Director of The Interdependence Project (IDP), Kimberly Brown. Kim has been practicing for about 6-7 years and moved into the role of Executive Director of IDP, a nonprofit organization offering a multi-lineage and secular approach to Buddhism, a little less than a year ago. She sat down with me recently in New York City and allowed me to ask her all kinds of questions about her experience on the path and her work at the IDP.

People of New York

Most people like to capture the architecture, the skyline or the iconic images of New York when they travel to this beautiful crazy city. I have certainly captured a lot of these myself.

But what really inspires me?

The people.

Say whatever you want to about the people of New York. Most of my experiences have been nothing short of awesome (aside from that creepy guy who tried to grab my face on the subway platform, but, that's another story…). Okay, yes, this town has a kind of edgy cynicism and people curse A LOT. But there is just something about New Yorkers. As John Skyler pointed out in his HuffPost piece recently, New Yorkers Aren't Rude. You Are, New York's reputation as a rude city is based on some fundamental misunderstandings. Let me just add here that you haven't truly seen rude until you've experienced "customer service" in Central Europe. Just sayin'.

Anyway.

I'd like to introduce you to a few of those New Yorkers. These are some of the most inspiring and supportive people I've ever met. And I've been fortunate to get to know them over the past year in the Immersion Program at The Interdependence Project.

Luckily, they've also gotten used to me sneakily (or not so sneakily) pointing my camera in their direction. How could I not?

Mona

Anna and Mona

Ambika

Robert

Anya

Jacoby

Paul and Ambika

(Currently listening to and loving Save Me by Gotye)

A ripe heart

The day after my paternal grandmother died, I started cooking. A lot. After losing both of my grandmothers in the span of a few months this summer, it was the only thing I could think to do. It was the only thing that comforted me. Apparently, when I grieve, I cook.

Since then, I've made dishes like, Lemony White Beans with Grilled Onions, Raw Green Veggie Soup with Avocado and Cilantro, Avocado and Tomatillo Salsa, Three Ingredient Chocolate Bars and Homemade Oat Milk. It is not beyond me to spend hours on the internet scanning for recipes. While on a week long retreat at the Austin Zen Center in August, I spent an entire morning reading through a cookbook by Ed Brown. When I got to the end, I hugged it.

Finding my own way in the kitchen has been incredibly healing. While I would love to recreate the incredible fried apple pies my Mema used to make, I've found myself leaning towards green leafy vegetables, fruit, fish and alternative grains. I haven't really spoken much of my health journey this year, but it's involved radically changing my diet. I mean, I gave up coffee - coffee! I've also cut back and eliminated a lot of other things, in my quest to heal my body from the inside out (chocolate is not one of them, just so you know).

It hasn't been easy. It takes time to cook. It takes time to prepare and shop. It takes forethought to remember to soak your beans overnight and it requires looking up terms like "chiffonade" and "Chinese rolling cut" (I highly recommend looking up these terms - they're quite fun!). But it has been worth every minute. When I cook, I feel like I am offering something, even if it's only to myself.

The other day, in the middle of a random mundane task, I had the overwhelming feeling that my grandmother was speaking straight to my heart. And she told me that she was okay. I don't know if it was really her or if it was just me, but as I listened, the tears came. That was all I wanted to hear.

(A little something extra: China, TX and below, a poem)

Plump apple, smooth banana, melon, peach,
gooseberry ... How all this affluence
speaks death and life into the mouth ... I sense...
Observe it from a child's transparent features

while he tastes. This comes from far away.
What miracle is happening in your mouth?
Instead of words, discoveries flow out
from the ripe fruit, astonished to be free.

Dare to say what "apple" truly is.
This sweetness that feels thick, dark, dense at first;
then, exquisitely lifted in your taste

grows clarified, awake and luminous,
double-meaninged, sunny, earthy, real -
Oh knowledge, pleasure - inexhaustible.

- Rainer Maria Rilke, from The Sonnets to Orpheus (XIII) (trans. Stephen Mitchell)

Love at 20

What do you wish you had known about love when you were 20 years old?

This was the question that popped up in my inbox a few days ago, thanks to the Radical Self Love Letters from Gala Darling (I LOVE this woman!).

Yikes. I mean, I didn't know anything about love when I was 20. Or 30 for that matter. But it got me thinking and I really asked myself, Self, what would you tell your twenty year old self about love?

Ay.

Be gentle. Radically gentle. Be gentle with yourself. Be gentle with other people. And not in a sappy kind of way. I mean genuinely, from the heart gentle. I don't think any other advice would have gotten through to me. If someone had said this to me, instead of what I actually heard ("Don't be so sensitive," "You think too much," or "What did you expect?") I think I might have treated myself and other people with a lot more kindness.

If there's one thing I've learned from my meditation practice it's how incredibly aggressive I've been. On the most subtlest of levels. The majority of my thoughts and feelings have been rooted in self-aggression (which I still struggle with). And our culture really doesn't help much in this regard either. Typically, we're told that being gentle is considered weak. Or, at the very least, this is what is implied.

But to be gentle is to acknowledge our humanness and our vulnerability. It is to recognize our connection. It is to treat ourselves and all beings with the utmost respect and requires great courage. To be gentle is to be intimate.

I cannot imagine anything stronger or more loving than that.

What would you tell your twenty year old self about love?

(Recently came across this Lovingkindness meditation from Sylvia Boorstein, one of my favorite meditation teachers. Also, this feels like a really good time to tell you about a class my teacher in New York, Ethan Nichtern, is leading - The Journey of Relationships. Starts next week and you can listen online! I'll be there!)

August Break

Cold honeydew melon with mint and crystallized ginger served with cool water and a lemon custard with raspberry puree. This is the lovely meal my friend Bertha prepared for a few of us at her Going Away Garden Party. Soon, I will be driving her to the airport and will hug her goodbye before she boards the plane back to Mexico.

Soon, I too will be on a plane. But I will be heading back to New York for more training at The Interdependence Project. I'm VERY excited and looking forward to being in New York again. Yay!

So, as you may have guessed from the title, I am taking a little break. I've already been a bit absent from here, I know. This will be an "official" break for the month of August. However, I will be posting photos (exciting, non?). My goal is to post a new photo every couple of days, maybe with a caption or two, maybe not. We'll see. But I want to get back into posting more often, without the pressure of publishing a full on blog post (Granted, this pressure comes only from myself...but you know how it is.).

I got this wonderful idea for an August break from the always fabulous, Susannah Conway. If you'd like to join the August Break or if you'd just like to see what other people are doing, check it out. Should be fun.

Have a wonderful August! Stay cool out there...

(Currently listening to and loving this...Pyrakantha by Balmorhea.)

A morning on the High Line

I was surprised by the flowers. I hadn't expected so many. I was dazzled and kneeled down numerous times to take photos and lean into them. The stark contrast between the old buildings and the bright colors fascinated me. At one point, I stood in front of a wall of green ivy, mesmerized by the leaves gently bopping up and down.

From the moment I learned about the High Line, an elevated park that extends along the west side of Manhattan (check out this fabulous video with Robert Hammond to learn the history behind it) I wanted to see it. So, on this particular warm and sticky Monday morning, I made my way through Chelsea and ascended some stairs to begin my stroll.

But in the midst of all the flowers and tourists, I unexpectedly thought of my grandmother. I lowered my camera and tried to imagine what it was like for her to grow up in New York (Brooklyn, to be exact). She had had a hard life here. She had had a hard life period. I wondered what she would think of this place. She had always had a knack for keeping plants alive and flourishing. Unlike me. Though I love plants, flowers and trees immensely, I can barely keep a cactus alive.

New York City can be rough, overwhelming and exhausting. It can also be incredibly beautiful - the people, the food, the noises, the smells, the city blocks, the flowers (the daffodils!), the parks… So much contrast. I think my grandmother would have liked this place.

(This post is dedicated to both of my grandmothers - Ola Mae Rains and Gene Clift, who passed away this year).