February 25, 2007


Yesterday, I met my dog while walking home. It was rainy and cold. I had been out of town for work on Friday. On Saturday I took the university vehicle back up to Transportation Services, which is just north of campus. I walked back over the new viaduct, south down 16th Street, and across city campus, a good mile or more. I still had a ways to go, but my nose was running, so I stopped in at the little drive through coffee shop on the corner of 16th and O Streets. They make the best mochas in town. There a fluffy white creature greeted me at the door.

She was a friendly labradoodle belonging to the girl working behind the counter. She was three months old and named Bernadette, or Bernie. She looked so like my Jordan, with the same build and the same soft coat and expressive face. More than that, she had the temperament. She was calm, especially for a puppy, but alert, friendly, and inquisitive. She didn’t jump or bark, just watched everyone with wise eyes and smiled her mustached smile.

My Jordan, a schnoodle, died on April 27, 2006. He was a funny grey old man, ever since the day he was born. Never excitable, but always watching, he saw me grow from a gangly eleven year old to the person I am today. He had the body of his standard poodle parent, but the size of a standard schnauzer, the intelligence of the poodle and the stoicism of the schnauzer. I cannot overestimate the impact he had on my life nor the love I still have for him. His last years were not as glad as I would have wanted for him, plagued by arthritis and a creeping alzheimers before his death.

I saw him in Bernadette. She looked at me as if to tell me it was all right, to say she is young and healthy and happy with her new people. It may be wishful thinking brought on by nostalgia, but it made me feel infinitely better on that cold rainy day. Bernadette is just a puppy, and will soon grow to twice the size of my Jordan, into a beautify fluffy white monster. I wish her all the best. I hardly noticed the rain on the remainder of my walk.

Nothing can ever make me feel better than a grinning dog.

February 22, 2007

Mindfulness by Underwear

Now I know why guys wear heart monitors. The kind you see on an elastic strap around the chests of joggers, cyclists, and roller-bladers. What I don’t understand is why they don’t just settle for the elastic strap? That makes one immediately mindful of the pounding heart trying to burst out without any fancy electronic devices.

Today we are having interviews for summer internships. A dozen professionals from half a dozen firms have set up shop in the gallery. So today is a dress up day and part of dressing up is pulling my one and only real bra out from the back of my dresser drawer. The tight elastic binding around the chest, the sharp little straps that drag at the shoulders (and if you loosen them to the point where they don’t hurt, they constantly slide down your arms) and that horrible metal arcs which constantly threaten to fracture a rib if you breath too hard.

I am seriously convinced that the bra was a device by which to suppress women. I cannot carry through a coherent thought without being interrupted by the lack of oxygen to my brain. The implications of postmodernism in architecture – the role of ego in self regulation – the similarity of the expressions of spirituality in a Chinese pagoda and Gothic cathedral – forget about it! I am painfully aware of every breath I take, and not much else.

And isn’t that the point? On the plus side it keeps me from over-thinking myself into an anxious panic when I have to be calm and collected for my interviews today. Today I rode my bicycle up 14th Street, my heartbeat sending reverberations through the metal underwires, and was acutely aware of that present moment. I wasn’t wrapped up in planning what I was going to say in my interviews to the point of dangerous distraction.

Who knew underwear could be a meditation tool?

February 15, 2007


Written: February 13, 2007

Last night I dreamed an apocalypse. I dreamed I walked along a sandy edge. The path fell away to the west, but not far, only into a small ditch or culvert like that which runs along a highway. The path gently curved, hiding the small cottage I knew I had come from behind a dark rising cliff. Beyond the collage I knew, in that way of knowing found only in dreams, began the fringes of a great city whose glow lit the southern sky. Before me was also a light, small and intensely bright, as if from a rest stop with cars parked beyond.

My feet were bare upon the sandy ground, on a path not marked by anything more than its flat nature or sparse vegetation. It held a narrow place between the drop and a rolling hill country beyond and the sheer sand cliffs rising to my left. It was a landscape reminiscent of other places, but like nothing I have ever seen. It was dusk, with the last pink light of the sun just vanishing beyond the hills, the glow of the city behind me and the true darkness of night before me shielded only by the lights of the rest stop.

From that direction came two women. They were older than I and friendly, with bleached blond hair and business suites with short skirts. They were lost, being guest of the Philip Johnson Hotel. I knew the hotel was just beyond my own cottage and offered to show them the way, picking up their two tote bags. They walked along the path before me, happily chatting away.

We had only gone a few paces when our eyes were drawn to the sky and we exclaimed as a thousand white wisps fill the sky – falling stars traveling a path from the cliffs over the rolling countryside. In the distance to the west there was a faint boom, almost like a pop, though deep and resonant but without the lingering roll of thunder. We stood and watched a light grow, as if from a great fire just beyond the horizon. It lasted just a moment and then a great cloud arose, not black with dust or smoke, but white like steam or like a fire just quenched with water.

Then we noticed a hazy yellow form coming over the land, like a creeping fog, but traveling the miles in seconds. It came to the edge and I realized it was water and yelled at the other two women to run, dropping the bags. First we ran along the path, for the safety of the buildings I knew to be just beyond the curving cliff. As the water covered our ankles, I knew we would not reach it and veered towards the cliffs. Seeing the soft sand face no one could climb I turned back, the water now to my knees and saw that first spit of sand crumble as the water washed into its base. Looking back I saw the wall approaching, tinged the yellow color of the sand. It was quiet, merely the whisper of a swift flowing river. I was uncertain, but not afraid. I counted the seconds, timing my breath, and as it swallowed me I exhaled.

I did not swim; I waited in the murky water, but realized only that I was still breathing deeply and evenly, that I could feel my chest rise and fall and that I was awake.

Suffering and Freedom From

Written: February 11, 2007

All things that live suffer. This is the First Noble Truth of the Buddha. It is an odd thought to have first thing in the morning, yet oddly appropriate for one who relishes her bed so and the thought of leaving it so little. Sometimes this truth is translated as ‘all life is suffering,’ but that has always seemed a bit too dark for my taste. Though perhaps it is the more truthful of the two statements.

To my mind, there is joy also in life, things worth living for. This is why I am not ready for renunciation. As long as I am willing to suffer in order to find that joy, those things worth living for, I will never be free. Happiness cannot be bought with suffering.

Suffering is caused by change, like the change of leaving my warm bed for the cold gloomy world of an overcast day. This is what the Buddha teaches. If a person were born in pain, and lived with this constant pain which never waxed or waned, never changed for the whole of their life, would they suffer from it? I wonder. Pema Chodron once said suffering and pain are not the same. One can be in pain without suffering.

Deeper than change, which is just an external condition, suffering is caused by ignorance. We do not understand and we do not accept the inescapable nature of change. We do not know that it is not the change itself which is painful, but our clinging to past conditions, or future conditions we wish to bring about. “Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future,” Yoda said. Even the future changes before our eyes, rolling unexpected things into the present and causing suffering because we cannot roll with it.

Wisdom helps us to see suffering for what it is and compassion helps us accept it. These are the two main points of Tsongkapa’s teaching which follow renunciation. First we must determine we want to be free, then we must use wisdom and compassion to achieve it. It think I am better at the wisdom and compassion than the renunciation, which is not saying a lot because I can’t even get that part. I’m not worried though.

It seems I have a strange destiny to become that which people name me, despite any inborn nature to the contrary. My mother and father named me Monica, not after anyone in the family or anyone they knew. I was unique in that. It turns out that there is a Saint Monica, which they did not know at the time, and she is the Saint of Patience. I was never particularly known for patience as a child in a hurry to do everything, but the older I have become the more is has become one of my strongest virtues. My mother finds it ironic.

I am very intellectual, which is really just a big word which means I think too much. I analyze myself, I analyze everything around me, I want to know why things are the way they are. So I feel drawn to the study of wisdom, to knowledge, and understanding. I think it is not destined to be. Khen Rinpoche, from whom I took Refuge, gave me the Tibetan name of Tsetan Dolkar, “Long-living White Tara”. Tara is the bodhisattva or deity of compassion. I always felt a wise person, a smart person, should be compassionate, polite, and kind. A wise person should be able to see the benefit of this, even in a purely selfish fashion. To me, it seems an undeniable logic. We can never see all the connections which bind people together across this globe, so even if the benefit to oneself is not easily known, there is a very good chance that it will be one day.

The more we cultivate kind behavior, from even a selfish standpoint, the more it becomes natural. Until one day to act in any manner other than kind and compassionate becomes unnatural, regardless of self interest. Then true altruism can be cultivated. As we focus more of our attention and energy on others the more our ego dwindles. Finally we can let go of the ignorant notion of self. Then we can be free as we realize there is no self to protect, no self which suffers. This is the wisdom of compassion.

So perhaps I am to dedicate myself more to the study of compassion, at least for the time being. Perhaps that can help me to step backwards and reach renunciation. Then forward to wisdom. Not that the Buddhist teachings ever travel in a linear fashion. I think I know now how to seek my teacher. I think I should go see Pema Chodron when she is in Colorado in August. I do not know that she is my teacher, but I have a funny feeling she may know who is.

Is it odd to speak as though I already have a teacher, I just haven’t found him or her yet? It sounds like fate, Ume, that Japanese word for ‘destiny’ always said with such reverent emphasis in Japanese movies. I don’t know that I believe in fate, but I do believe in fortuitous circumstance and in karma. Is that the same thing? I see sometimes that things do not happen by accident nor pure coincidence, but seem to be set up like a good joke, with me as the punch line usually. Am I seeing what I want to see? Perhaps. So yes, I suppose I believe my teacher is out there. I just have to find him or her. But unlike Luke Skywalker I have to keep my eyes and mind open, because Jedi masters come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. This one is sure to be what I did not expect.

Expectation only works when the future is unchanging, Ume, and when we are not ignorant of what it is to be; otherwise we have suffering, which is a given.

February 08, 2007

The Wake

Dear Marilyn,

Your memorial service went off without a hitch. You came close to filling the sanctuary of your church, which is rather large. Your pastor did a good job. He has a good voice and obviously knew you well. He read scripture and a young woman played a haunting Irish hymn on the flute. It was one of those we should all know the words to from a collective cultural memory, but can’t quite hear. Another man sang beautifully and played the guitar. I had wanted there to be something white at your funeral and there was - it snowed, sending a bright white light through all the windows.

Your pastor talked about your nature and your loves. Family came first, of course, then your work and your love of learning. He talked about your cooking, the practical jokes (how do you get a locker that full of packing peanuts?), your tattoos (at least the ones on your ankles, he didn’t mention the lovely twining dragon on your backside), fencing and showing off bruises, and your beautiful little car. It all hit the mark. Then he read more scripture and I must say we were all surprised when the back row didn’t go up in a puff of smoke as he called on God to guard us from “perfidious ways.” Obviously he didn’t know that much about the fencing club.

We were there, as many of us as are left. Paul snuck in just as the service was starting. He even turned off his pager. Melissa came from work. Anne, too. Shelley came with Paula, her new girlfriend. I think you’ve met her. Ken brought Noreen; she still is not driving because of her eye, but that’s probably better for her blood pressure anyway. John was there, trying to take care of everyone. I think he was trying to play the tough guy, which is sweet, but doesn’t work so well when surrounded by tough women. Vernita came and Don and Sue flew in from Atlanta. Sue was making jokes as always. “Better we sit in back so we have less distance to travel when they have to throw us out.” Lisa came with Liz, Warren’s fiancĂ©. Warren and Lisa’s girlfriend, Pam, were out of town but sent their love.

Of course, the church served food. The fencers sat in a group, rearranging tables as usual. John was bit by a chair. Only Jared was brave enough to come over and say hello. Everyone remarked on how much he has grown and changed. We teased Paul about his lack of beard and Jared for the one he was trying to grow. I said hello to your Mom and Dad, your brothers and sister, and to Erin and Brad, and Wally. I think you will be glad to know your children were doing well. I saw each of them smile at least once, Erin when I gave her the little green crane, the last I will make for you, Brad when he hugged some young people, friends or relatives I don’t know, and Jared when he teased Sue about her laugh. “I heard that sound and knew who was here,” he told her, which only made her laugh more. Only Max was missing.

Afterward, we all went to The Upstream, those who had to calling in sick to work. We ordered Glenlivet and Guinness in your honor and raised a toast. This was the wake, our true wake, which we held for you. I’m sure, we all are, that you would have loved to have been there. We ordered appetizers and desserts and drinks. The table conversation ranged from flaming vibrators to iambic pentameter. We finally got Don to admit to having given up “Don-World” and becoming a corporate whore. He and Sue run a software company called “Spring Widgets,” but they are owned by a conglomerate. Don’s title is “Lord of the Springs” and Sue is “Herder of Cats.” It says so on their business cards. Anne came to the table late. She had begun toasting you early, sharing a nip from your very own flask with some of your coworkers in the parking lot of the church.

After dessert we all moved upstairs and spend the afternoon playing darts and billiards and discussing the meaning of the very strange painting on the wall of the lounge we took over. The afternoon wore on. We all spoke of when we’d seen you last. I came to see you on Friday at four o’clock. I had heard earlier that week from Melissa and John and left studio early on Friday to come. I don’t know that you knew I was there, but I was glad to see you, still wearing your Celtic bracelets. Jared was there with Helen, and Brad and Erin were on there way. Other people were there as well, so I didn’t stay. Melissa and John saw you later, and Anne came too late.

Paul asked me if you were ready. He was worried that you sometimes seemed ambivalent about it. I told him I thought you were ready to go, but that you just weren’t ready for your children to loose their mother. I don’t know that anyone ever is, but that in the end, you were ready. I think this reassured him, though even I can’t say for sure that I was right.

I left the wake just before five, trying to get back to Lincoln before dark. I imagine the others might have stayed for hours more, they seemed in no hurry to be anywhere. Even reclusive Ken seemed happy to let Noreen stay as long as she wanted to. He even played pool with John and seemed to be having a good time.

Oh, how I wish you had been there! This was what you loved so much. Friends talking and eating and drinking and having a good time, being loud and obnoxious and teasing the wait staff to join in. It was a determined happiness, but not grim or forced, overlying a long settled grief. We were happy because this is what you would have wanted, the kind of gathering you would have wanted to be part of. And we were, in a way, happy for you. That your pain is over. That you are free.

Know this then, that we are happy for you, Marilyn, and that we love you. Goodbye.

With love,


February 03, 2007


Marilyn Downs died at around seven o’clock last night, February 2nd, 2007. I saw her at four o’clock. Her children were with her. We had been friends for seven years, almost exactly, since I was nineteen years old and she had just turned forty.

I don’t want to think about it. Of course, I don’t want the sadness and the grief, no one does, but I accept them. They are there whether I think about Marilyn or not. I don’t want to think about it, because I do not believe it will do any good.

Of course, I think about her anyway. I remember I didn’t like her right away. I didn’t understand her. She wasn’t as warm and outgoing like our other friends, but in that way, she was very much like me. I didn’t see it for a long time. I thought we were so different. We weren’t. She was strong and smart and insecure. She was passionate and felt things deeply. She was professional and loved her job and a perfectionist at whatever she did.

I will grieve for Marilyn, as I have for this past year. I have rarely written about her. I felt this was not my story to tell. I told her I would write about her after she was dead and couldn’t get mad at me. Marilyn was deeply private about so much, different from me in that respect. I told her I would tell the world what a good woman she was, a good friend, and a good mother.

She had cancer, peritoneal miesothelioma, which is caused by asbestos. She was working with lawyers to get some compensation from the many companies, solvent and insolvent, which manufactured and used asbestos. It was for her children. She knew she would not use it. We all knew, from the day we went to see her in the hospital in September of 2005, when she showed us her “zipper” of surgical staples running from her pelvis to her sternum. She tried chemo, to buy time, and then worked with her doctors to balance her drugs to keep herself pain free. I’m sure it was a novel experience for the oncologists to have a pharmacist as a patient who knew more about her drugs than they did. She went into the hospice house last fall, when juggling her meds became to complicated.

Now here house sits empty, a few miles from my parents house. She made sure it was in good shape to be sold. She gives me credit for the bamboo floors throughout, because I first mentioned them to her. Her little BMW convertible will be sold. It is forest green. At first I worried about her love of that car, compensation for her failed marriage. Perhaps it was, but she enjoyed it so much, it the end I could not begrudge her this attachment.

I worry now about her dog, Max, a loving coon hound with sad eyes. He has seizures every now and then. He has gone with Erin, her seventeen year old daughter, who moved in with her father before Marilyn went into hospice. They used to bring him to visit Marilyn. He will not understand.

I do not entirely understand. So I won’t think about it, any more than I need to. I’ll go on breathing in an out, and let time heal this pain. I’ll work and go to class and say hello to her children when I see them on campus. Her sons go to school here now. And I’ll remember her, today, and tomorrow, and every February 2nd and September 26th, her birthday.

Marilyn was a good friend.

February 01, 2007


Things in my life seem to coincide in such a way as to bring certain moments of clarity. These points of co-incidence (as opposed to coincidence: accidental) are themselves a lesson in emptiness, in cause and condition.

In sangha last Thursday, Kent described emptiness in a new way, as it relates to change. Things are empty of inherent existence. All things exist because of cause and condition. If something were to inherently exist it would be independent of cause and condition, therefore it would be incapable of change. (Unless change can inherently exist? Hmmmm.) Except for the most subtle level of consciousness, that which moves from life to life in reincarnation, all things are lacking in inherent existence. Apparently, we’ll get into why consciousness does exist inherently later, and I look forward to that.

On Friday, my class gathered in the conference room to review our work of the last few weeks. Part of this work was the identification of a significant ‘attribute’ as a method of ‘Discovering Cranbrook’ (the title of the exercise), which is our site. A classmate, Codah, chose ‘Significant Emptiness’ as his attribute. He noted that the most prominent feature of the existing Museum & Library is the propyleum, an open space below a roof held by four massive columns on either side (ala Greek Temple). What is this thing which is so important? Essentially, it is nothing, it is empty, it is void, but somehow it is still the most significant element of the entire complex.

This brought together a greater understanding of emptiness. That nothingness of the propyleum would not be significant at all without the something of the columns and the roof. Even that nothing is empty because by placing the columns and roof it has been changed. It is subject to cause and condition to create meaning.

Turns out even emptiness is empty.

Buddhism in Architecture

I have been working on a project in my design studio to build an addition to the Museum & Library at the Cranbrook Academy of Art near Detroit. I am taking a significant portion of inspiration from Japanese architecture. (Though how I settled here is another long and winding thought process.) From an entry on Japanese Aesthetics in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy I can pull two principles which show up repeatedly: change or impermanence and self-cultivation. Change is related directly to Buddhist philosophy while self-cultivation has strong roots in Confucianism. These can be seen through many forms of Japanese art in their expressions of beauty (self-cultivation through the mastery of difficult art forms), and especially in what they value. The writer of the article used the example of the cherry blossom. It is no more beautiful than the apple or pear blossom, but it is valued more for its very transience. The cherry blossom blooms and falls so quickly.

How does one embody the quality of change or impermanence in architecture? Architecture, by its nature, is designed to last, to hold up, to be stable and strong, and unchanging at least for a significant period of its life. Some architects have allowed natural processes to impact their buildings, such as by cladding them with a surface with weathers over time, like steel which rusts, copper which greens, or wood which grays. I want a building that can be understood in an instant, in what it speaks of, and if not an instant, than perhaps an hour. This is a museum; visitors may not have the opportunity to return often enough to see change taking place over months, years, or decades. How can they experience change in a single visit?

The natural world embodies change in its very existence, daily through light, wind, and water, and through the change of seasons. But these things are anathema to curators. Light levels must be kept low and controlled, unchanging, so as not to speed the deterioration of the art. Natural ventilation does not allow for proper temperature and humidity control. Water is the worst of all, causing mold and even damaging art directly.

There is one other avenue I feel worth pursuing and that is motion and placement. Not actually motion of an object changing position, but implied motion through the use of line, color, and weight. A diagonal line implies a sense of motion or action while a horizontal line may imply continuation or rest. Yet how to I reconcile that with traditional Japanese construction. True the rooflines are often diagonal and active, but the post and beam structure below is very orthographic. I think the Japanese have already given me the answer. Their buildings are always dominated by the roof, the first and most visible element, which is supported on thin columns. The walls are hung from the roof, they do not support it, and are layered, often literally paper thin. If I want motion, I must have a roof in motion and it must dominate both the interior and exterior of the building. The idea of placement comes from the dry rock garden, such as at Ryoanji. The great boulders sit on beds of moss and seem to float in a sea of white gravel. They give the impression that if you looked away, they might have drifted, or if you return tomorrow they would be different. These two things combined with a very judicious and controlled use of natural light, another thing at which the Japanese excel through their use of overhangs and screens, could possibly convey a feeling of constant change.

Impermanence in motion.