Following the Heart of Dharma

This post is a small contemplation about gratitude and the paths that lead us to wonderful places.

I was lucky enough to stumble on the Heart of Dharma sangha through Meetup when I moved to Boise. I’m not much of a joiner generally but this meetup seemed undemanding and familiar, raised as I was in a non-monotheistic household.

And let’s face it: there’s no denying I need need all the meditation practice I can get. Not to mention practice in compassion. And letting things go.

You know what's cool about the roly poly Buddha? It all slides off.
You know what’s cool about the roly poly Buddha? It all slides off.

First meeting was great. Guided meditation followed by an illuminating talk. A teacher (Dana Marsh) who spoke with compassion, kindness, intelligence and humor. Kindly people who smiled a lot. Even being thanked for sharing my practice with the group; the loveliness and wisdom in that every practice gesture still strikes me with awe.

As with all great starts, I imagined myself attending the guided meditations at every opportunity, learning amazing things and attaining some of the wisdom my treasured sister Erica makes seem so effortless. The schedule was easy too: an evening meditation on Tuesdays and one on Sunday mornings. One hour, in and out, and even a bikeable distance!

Now, a few years in, I find my attendance is more inconsistent than I’d like or would be helpful to me. Yet, every time I go, I come away uplifted, optimistic and peaceful. And I feel so fortunate that the sangha exists, so accessible and so near to me. As my sister has pointed out, this wasn’t available to me where I lived in California and the nearness of a wonderful teacher . . . it’s a priceless gift.

This year I’m feeling especially lucky because in an unusual fit of resolve, I decided to attend the Eight Week Spiritual Jump Start, Sunday mornings at 9:30. In theory, it sounded like a good thing but in practice, I wasn’t too excited about it. I don’t like making commitments. Classes or anything that I feel I should do makes me want to flee. I’m the guy that, the minute I say I’ll do something marginally social, I want to do the opposite.

Classes started and I’m pleased to say, I haven’t skipped one yet. (This is slightly miraculous.) Still, last week was a bit pressured and over-scheduled. As I was contemplating another over-scheduled week ahead, I decided to reduce the pressure. No Sunday morning alarms. No rushing to get the beast to and away from the dog park in order to trundle into class on time. No inhalation of breakfast and coffee. I was not going to feel bad about missing class today. And, if we all slept in and I still wanted to do something for my battered, dark soul, I’d hit the 11 o’clock guided meditation session and call it good.

You get where this is going. With no pressure or expectation, I woke early, naturally, in time to catch a beautiful sunrise. Had quiet coffee and a clementine by the fire (I do love clementine season!). Made myself a mint tea to go. Actually showered and put on clean clothes. Max and I ambled off to the dog park where he staggered about leisurely and managed to secure the attentions of kindly dog hosts like Star. When it was time to go, no civil disobedience. We actually made it to class a few minutes early.

And of course, it was again wonderful. Today’s class helped me get some perspective on some issues, renewed my respect for my teacher, reminded me how much the person or creature sitting next to me has to teach me, and generally gave me an overwhelming feeling of gratitude and peace.  Also, I laughed out loud a few times. (Yeah, I know, that paragraph was all about me. In fairness, I’ve never claimed to be an evolved Buddhist.)

Anyway, before this day gets into busy and doing mode — or not busy and lollygagging mode, not sure which — I’m taking these few minutes to make a note of gratitude to the sangha for existing, to Dana Marsh for teaching, to all the volunteers and supporters of Heart of Dharma that make it so accessible. Thank you.

Note: If you’re not a Boise local but would like to benefit from this teacher (Dana Marsh), her book, Extraordinary Freedom, is available on the Heart of Dharma website and online. I found it accessible, engaging and helpful.

Sometimes the Buddha is just pretty. This one lives in a teak temple in Myanmar.
Sometimes the Buddha is just pretty. This one lives in a teak temple in Myanmar.

Blueberry Cornmeal Muffins

Dark winter mornings are a little sweeter when I can start them with a small muffin along with my coffee. The tang of lemony cake, a burst of blueberry, and a slight crunch of topping — it’s just a nice, cheery way to begin the day. I want a muffin in a manageable size, not those ginormous monster muffins you get in stores. And I want it to taste fresh, yet I definitely don’t want to haul out of bed early every morning to make myself a fresh batch.

These Blueberry Cornmeal Muffins work perfectly for all of the above. A little fruit, a little butter, a little crunch . . . it’s all there. And they freeze well so you can pull them out as needed. They’re tasty for a snack anytime. Cupcake-sized, they’re super portable and an easy food to gift because they don’t have to be eaten instantly.

This recipe is adapted from Deb Perelman’s great- and liberating – Smitten Kitchen cookbook, and there’s also a website to check out.  I make these in cupcake size baking cups and freeze them so as to have muffins handy. They keep fine covered on the counter for a couple days.

This recipe has two parts, batter and streusel. This is the total ingredient list for both:

  1. 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  2. 2/3 cup sour cream or plain greek yogurt (nonfat is fine)
  3. 1/2 to 3/4 tsp fine lemon zest (add more if you want batter more lemony. One lemon should give you enough)
  4. 1/2 tsp good vanilla
  5. 4 large eggs
  6. 3 cups of sugar, divided
  7. 1/2 generous tsp fine kosher salt
  8. 4 tsp baking powder
  9. 1 cup and 2 TBS cornmeal, divided
  10. 2 3/4 cup flour, divided
  11. 1 1/4 cup butter (2 and 1/2 sticks), divided
  12. 4 cups of blueberries, washed and dried or, if frozen, defrosted. Basic frozen blueberries work fine in this but the nicer they are, the better the muffin.

Assembly and Baking:

  1. Soften 1 cup/2 sticks of the butter for about an hour or more on the counter. Take the chilled 4 TBS of butter and cut it into small pieces while cold and set aside for the streusel
  2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Get out your muffin pans and cupcake liners and set those up. This recipe makes about 36 cupcake sized muffins or 24 bigger muffins
  3. Whisk dry ingredients together in two different bowls:
    • Set #1, main batter: 2 cups flour, 1 cup cornmeal, all the baking powder and salt
    • Set #2, streusel:  3/4 cup flour, 2 TBS cornmeal, all the cinnamon, pinch of table salt plus 1 cup of the sugar
  4. In a high sided bowl, beat 2 cups of sugar into the butter for at least two minutes, until fluffy and well combined
  5. Beat in eggs one at a time, then add vanilla and lemon zest
  6. Toss the blueberries with about 1/4 to 1/3 of the dry ingredient mixture (Set #1) You want those berries coated but not extra flour floating around
  7. Add half the remaining flour mixture to the batter bowl and stir until just combined
  8. Add all the sour cream/yogurt and stir until just combined
  9. Add the other half of the flour mixture and stir until just combined
  10. Taste batter. If you want it more lemony, add more zest
  11. Add coated blueberries and stir until just combined
  12. Add butter to streusel (Set #2) flour and combine using a pastry blender or fingers
  13. Put batter into muffin cups:
    • For cupcake sized muffins, about 1.5 heaping scoops using a large cookie scoop. Or fill the cup to 1/2 to 2/3 full, depending on how big you want your muffins
    • For big muffins, fill 1/2 to 2/3 full
    • For small, 3oz muffins, use small cookie scoop to fill cups 2/3 full. (Love those Simply Baked stand-alone baking cups when I’m in splurge mode. So, so pretty!)
    • Mini muffins: haven’t tried yet. Will update if I do
  14. Top each muffin with streusel:
    • For cupcake sized muffins, 1-2 teaspoons
    • For big muffins, about 1 TBS
    • For others, eyeball it. The streusel adds a yummy sweetness and crunch
  15. Bake on middle rack for about 35-40 minutes until cake tester comes out clean (note: streusel will cling to the tester so test a bit not covered in streusel)
  16. Allow muffins to cool in tin or turn out right away depending on your confidence level of doneness
  17. Plate and cover the quantity of muffins that will be eaten in the next two days and leave on the counter. Freeze the rest in a zip bag and take out as needed. These defrost quickly on the counter. Serve at room temperature or warm.

 

4th of July and a Boise Moment

I’m a patriot, and a fan of July 4th though our current environment of privacy abuse and the expanded powers of bullies worries me greatly.

Ahem, this is not just because I read “Little Brother” or watched Citizenfour or am addicted to Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. But okay, I admit, they raise my awareness without boring me to tears so THANK YOU!

This holiday, my sister W was visiting and we hit the July 4th parade downtown. Not much to write home about parade-wise, but it does give you that 4th feeling. In the 100 degree heat, my nephew and I were sprawled in front of the capitol on the sidewalk, in a bit of shade while W and niece were trolling for candy thrown from the floats (good swag, Idaho Atheists and Hare Krishnas!). Nephew was unabashedly ignoring parade in favor of an electronic device and I was just lolling, with our half drunk lemonade cups strewn about.

I look up to see an officer of the law looming. Instantly I flash back to when another sister got censured for dipping her feet in the reflecting pool in DC one hot August midnight (that’s you, Toad). I wonder if I’m going to get cited for littering (not guilty, we’re still drinking those! And then we’re recycling, officer!). Maybe no one is supposed to just sit at the capitol without a permit. Maybe every electronic device is a suspected bomb switch so my nephew is about to lose his most prized posession.  After all, we are on high security alert at the airports this weekend. Ack!

Officer leans down and says, “Ma’am, I don’t know if you know this already but . . .” I tense. He continues, “the Capitol building is open today until five.  It’s cool there and there are water fountains inside.” Then he walks away to terrify someone else with this information.

And here’s a Boise fun fact: the pretty Capitol building, which is modeled on the one in D.C., is the only geothermically (sp?) heated capitol in the U.S. Just call us the Pompeii of the continental U.S.!

North End Largesse

New to Boise, I picked this neighborhood because of park proximity, walkability, and the charm of older homes. Though pricey compared to other neighborhoods in Boise, these amenities outweighed any fantasies I had about a home with a master suite, gourmet kitchen, or swimming pool.

What I didn’t know then was how generous a neighborhood it would be. I was prepared for California-transplant hate (which I didn’t get, ever), but not the active welcome and practical help.

Today I am grateful for the gift of plants from my kindly North End neighbors. Thanks to them, seven tomato plants are now in the raised bed, ready to go to town in the coming heat. And the bald patch in the front yard is now planted with day lilies that one neighbor thinned from her bed. I’m so excited to have plants in a spot I thought would be bare all summer due to No Spend Spring!

Wheelbarrow full of lillies, free!
Wheelbarrow full of lilies, free!

The Mints are as grateful as psychopaths ever are, as well. Another neighbor lost her cat and showed up on my stoop with a bin full of dry cat food.

I don’t remember this happening in my old neighborhood, even though I lived there more than a decade, and had lovely, friendly neighbors. When neighbors dropped by, or hailed you outside, it could be to chat, comment on one’s landscape, complain about something, or demand support for some issue. Not to just give.

North Enders seem to be heavy NextDoor users, and they use it well. Sure, there are a fair number of lectures, issue related, and for sale posts. Yet there seem to be even more about found pets, creatures who need homes, and useful free things (lumber! plants!). Now and then there are calls for help, refreshingly creative ones. At the holiday one neighbor asked for help for some homeless friends, struggling to get into housing with a disabled child. Her plea wasn’t focused on cash but on the short term assist that was needed. This meant specific items to help this family with practical needs and a holiday celebration. OK, not rocket science but my California-jaded self is just so used to pleas only for cash.

I posted once, trying to find a home for a puppy a friend was fostering. This was met with practical offers for help for the little guy. Sure, there were a few unhelpful lectures as well, but scanning — and ignoring — those were a small price to pay to help the puppy. That puppy quickly found a home.

It’s not just online. I notice it out dog walking as well. There’s a genuine interest in my beast, the occasional invite to sit down by a front yard fire, collegial alerts about foxes in the area (the Mints seem impervious), and the like. Sometimes free stuff is just left out for the taking. Or the lost posted on telephone poles (and found again). The North End Neighborhood Association (NENA) is active too, and volunteers kindly deliver a quarterly newspaper.

I’m not sure what inspires all this kindliness. Is it a Boise thing? Is it smallish city  living? Not sure. Just lucky.

 

 

 

Be Careful What You Ask For

So easy to become obsessed whatever isn’t, instead of appreciating what is great about what is.

I’ve often wished for a more cuddly, affectionate dog. You know, the kind that doesn’t creep away from me. And that the cats would allow him to sleep next to them. Yup, another learning moment for me is coming up . . .

Cue an unexpected, extended lightning and thunder storm last night. It’s warm, so I’m blasting the AC and fans, trying to block the sound, even though there’s actual hail outside. Hail. In May. In T shirt weather.

Max terrified, making it impossible for me to sleep on my bed (he keeps trying to get under it, doesn’t want to get on it). Cats skeetering around, in either glee,  nervousness or random insanity. Hard to tell when you just want some sleep.

Not just hail. Fat hail.
Not just hail. Fat hail.

The only thing to do at this point is haul up, and move the bedding to the couch. This is the one time that M will allow himself to get on the couch (his natural good manners, nothing I’ve taught him). I hoist him up and lay down under the duvet, hiding from the fan air blast.

Instantly Max starts working his way up my side of the couch and ends up laying across me, giant head on my tummy. I can handle it, it’s only 90 lbs and a slightly awkward angle. He’s still panting away an hour later, looking around anxiously every time there’s a flash. I’m not really sure whether pinning me is his bossy way of keeping me safe or if it’s somehow comforting to him. I do know it’s my only hope of some sleep. Time ticks by and those heavy pants begin to quiet. I start to drift off.  Rrrrooop! There’s that soft feeling of cat on board. Pinned, I can’t do much. Five minutes later, Marmalade is laying in front of my face, eye-to-eye with Max, Gus is wedged between Max and the sofa back, on my arm. Jack is on my feet. So that’s another 45 lbs of pressure.

I felt a little like Maria von Trapp except no one was singing about favorite things. Or wearing curtains.

But I got what I wanted! Snuggly Max! Non-hostile cats! Yay me! Thanks storm! Although today might just be about appreciating my distant dog and stand-offish cats.

That dog was not smiling last night.
That dog was not smiling last night.