Sangha in Berlin

O.K., one more, though I should be asleep. (I’m lying in bed in the dark, my laptop on my stomach. It’s not even five in the afternoon back home, but I am dead tired.)

Sangha is the Buddhist word for the community of practitioners, but, really, sangha is family. No, not family: family implies blood, and sangha—specifically the vajra sangha—is the group of people who, if you’re lucky, you share endless lifetimes with. You have already shared endless lifetimes with them. So it’s not the same DNA coursing through your veins and theirs, like family—it’s the sky and stars, the sun and the moon. It’s the tides and the wind. It is the mustard seed. Sangha is meant to support each other along the path; sangha has made a vow not to give up on each other, ever.

Today we had lunch. Noa is American but is working in Bhutan. Alex is English but lives in Vancouver. Anya is from Hamburg, and so is Hanno, her three-month-old son. Claire lives in London and Valentin in Madrid. We made a pact: No devices on the table. Valentin, whose English is excellent, requested that we speak slowly—in groups, he said, people tend to talk fast and in partial sentences. They cut in. He did not say this, but I felt he meant that people get glib in groups. They speed up; sometimes they lose their hearts.

We did not lose our hearts. This is how it goes: We meet each other once or twice a year in some part of the world where mostly no one of us lives. It is like “Brigadoon”—each time, only a day has gone by, though sometimes we have never yet met in this lifetime.

Some of us took a cab together from West Berlin to East Berlin afterward, and ended up in another cafe, now close to dinnertime, drinking espresso and tall glasses of cold water cut with hot. Though I had never met Claire before today, I’ll be sharing a house with her and Alex and some other people in France in eight weeks time. Claire asked me if I wanted to leave my little pad in Prenzlauer Berg and move in with her and Debbie (the mother of Valentin’s daughter) in their palatial rental in Mitte, after Valentin goes home on Tuesday. We can practice together. We can do yoga (Claire teaches yoga). Yes, I do. I want to wake up in the morning with all the ladies and have tea. This is how it goes. No introductions are needed. The truth is, even if we’ve only known each for a minute, we’ve known each other for all of time.

Number Nein

Noa requested a post about today, and the truth is I already wrote one, but something’s happening and I suddenly lost my confidence. I’ll show you the post, but first I want to say that, exactly a minue after I wrote it, I developed the kind of migraine that makes you want to puke. I’m not kidding. And it just goes to show you 1) how completely full of shit I am sometimes, and 2) how the universe has got my back or is on my ass or some combination of the two. I thank you, universe. And I thank you, Noa.

After I post this, I’ll post another, because, it’s true—today was magic. O.K., here’s Number Nein:

Today, in a small, white cafe in Mitte, a photographer from Madrid who I’d just met, told me that Europe and America were like an alcoholic family—the crooks on Wall Street and in Bush’s government were the drunken father, and Europe the abused wife, beaten and raped every day. (Unemployment is now at twenty-five per cent in Spain, where he’s from.) He wasn’t complaining. He wasn’t attacking me, either, or anyone, really. He was sipping his espresso on a beautiful summer day, talking to a friend of friends (who were at the table too, an American and a Londoner, talking about alternative healing).

Having grown up in Spain and having lived all over Europe in the seventies, eighties and nineties (I imagine), he’s seen a lot of very harsh shit—harsher than I have: His friends in Spain believed in a revolution and then were betrayed. Some of them ended up dead from from heroin and AIDs. Dead, that is, I’m guessing, from disappointment.

He smiled and I smiled. This is life, nein? The way the wheel goes round and round. We are lucky; we are sitting in a white cafe in Mitte, drinking espresso and fighting over the bill. Europeans know how to be poor, he said. And I inferred that he meant they would be O.K. I believe that Americans know how to be poor as well. He said, “Nothing is going to happen.”

Reggie tells a story about a time that Trungpa Rinpoche was in love a young woman who was not in love with him. One day he was sitting on some stairs somewhere, crying and crying, and finally one of his closer students asked him why. (I’m not sure what the “why” was: why he was crying, why he was so in love with this woman, something.) Rinpoche’s response was something like this: “It’s so hard to find the opportunity to feel anything, one way or the other.” He was taking the opportunity.

I feel glad to not be swallowed up by pain, my own or someone else’s. And I also feel, writing this, a little worried about being untouched by the pain that I know is all around me. And yet I think that this may be the practice: to see it, to know where it’s coming from and how it feels, but to not get attached to it.

But I don’t really know. This is all new. This is all just now.

Berlin Breakfast

It’s been a long time since I sat down at a table where there was an ashtray. This is what I saw from this spot right here, where I ate a breakfast that means I can’t eat lunch, and maybe not even dinner. I won’t tell you what it was, except to say it was a Berlin specialty. Anyway:

1. Two healthy dogs crossing the street unaccompanied by humans (not together).

2. A bride.

3. A man walking a bike with one hand, and holding a bouquet of five unopened pink peonies in the other. (Not related to the bride.)

4. A young man suddenly bend in and kiss the temple of the young woman he was walking with.

5. More than ten pairs of Converse sneakers. More than ten jean jackets. More than five young men wearing T-shirts with numbers on them, as if they were soccer players (it’s day #2 of the World Cup).

6. A dog in a pair of pants, which seemed to be what was attaching him to his leash.

My landlady told me that there are more pregnant women in this neighborhood—Prenzlauer Berg—than any other neighborhood in the world. Can that be possible? I’m going to add the word “Western” before “world,” and it would seem more plausible. I have seen a few hugely pregnant ladies (and was kept up for much of the night by a crying infant, and then his crying older sibling), and I haven’t been here long. I have to say, though, that I am almost shocked by how much sweet affection between men and women I’m seeing in this neighborhood. Not just couples holding hands—couples on, like, quaaludes: they’re so relaxed and happy their joints look like you could bend them in more than one direction. Lots of bodhicitta.

Another thing I’m noticing is that a lot of folks in this neighborhood look like they could be movie stars. Johnny Depp-types, Ellen Page-types, and then the older women—oo-la-la. They look like sixties movie stars. Like Julie Christie, or like Frances McDormand in “Laurel Canyon.” It sounds stupid but now I get it: It’s not only that European movie stars are beautiful—they’re also European. Sigh.

The birds sing the same, though.

Berlin Watching

For the first day of the World Cup, restaurants and bars in Berlin had old television sets hooked up on the sidewalks, side by side, or makeshift movie screens (sheets haphazardly hung), or the occasional widescreen, and people sat quietly in chairs watching. Noa and I walked from Mitte to Prenzlauer Berg at nine (it was still fully light out), and then I walked around Prenzlauer alone as the lights of the cafes got brighter in the warm, darkening air, and there was not one marauding band of twenty-something boys with giant plastic cups of beer, not a single drunken middle-aged man pissing on the street. Unlike New York City (which I love, don’t get me wrong), this is not a hell realm, though maybe that’s because it was one not long ago.

The quiet public watching of television reminded me of the one day we did something like that en masse in Manhattan—on the morning of September 11, 2001, when there was a car or workman’s van stopped every few yards, doors and windows open, radios blaring, and people standing around it in small groups, silently listening, with the towers smoking and then just smoke in the background, people emerging with briefcases in silence, cops all over the city with white circles around the hems of their pant legs.

These two occasions, of course, are nothing alike—one is happy, one is very, very sad. They are similar, though, in that they involve a city of people led to congregating in public, their hearts open.

Berlin Perspective

My Berlin Pad
So I was waiting outside the apartment building where I’m renting a little studio for two weeks from Dee-Dee, an Australian expat in Berlin. The sky is blue, the sun is shining, it’s snowing tree fur and Dee-Dee rides up the cobblestones on her bike with her little orange dog running, unleashed, behind her. Welcome to Berlin, the Fire Island of Germany.

Dee-Dee suggests I rent a bike for my stay—why hassle with a metro ticket (apparently Berliners buy yearly passes, so no one’s down there—is it down?—fumbling with the ticket machines; instead they’re riding down the strasses and platzs with their shirts off).

It took me three airlines flights to get here, three countries and nineteen hours (I’m saving my pennies for another European trip this summer—get ready), so I’m a little tired, but I want to go out and explore. I’ll just say that 1) it’s nice to be in foreign city that doesn’t hate Americans, and, more important, 2) it’s nice to be in a culture that’s not American. I didn’t know how claustrophobic I was feeling: everybody doing the same thing, thinking the same thing, wearing the same thing, wanting the same thing, struggling the same way, etc.

While I was in the Frankfurt airport, which is sterile—and by that I don’t mean clean—and eerily quiet, I started thinking about this collective karma we countrymen have—Americans have theirs, Europeans have theirs. I was thinking about how you can see it when you leave your culture and enter another. But imagine if all of us humans could leave the collective human culture, and see it from the outside, fresh. For one thing, we’d see how narrowly we’re living, and how many weird rules we all came up with together. (Uch, can I just mention the very elegantly dressed old man eating a salad and chocolate croissant in the Frankfurt airport—he was so hungry he was shaking. How do we bear it, life?)

That’s it. Off to find the health food store and the bike place. Off to see how much Haushka costs here. Off to maybe have the opportunity to experience my life as brand new again.

Love you.

Sie Lasst Nichts Anbrennen

So we’re going to Berlin in two days, you and me. I’m getting on the plane, that is, and I’m putting you in my pocket. I’ve got pretty much everything I need now: phrasebook (“Kann ich einen Rechtsnanwalt haben, der Englisch spricht?“—”Can I have a lawyer who speaks English?”), Q-Tips, toothbrush holder, new Mead notebook (purple), pedicure (wicked). I’ve got new pens. And I’ve go wifi in my little pad in Prenzlauer Berg.

My ex-husband used to set up a table about two weeks before we travelled, and would start laying out the things that he was considering bringing way in advance. I thought at the time that it was kind of eccentric, but now I think, Why not? (Hang on….flip, flip, flip—Warum nicht? Crap, this phrasebook sucks! I can say Ich bin high (“I’m high”), but I can’t say “Why not”? Sigh.) Anyway, these days I figure, if it adds to your comfort level and lowers your stress, do it. (I’m referring to the packing in advance, not the getting high.)

Anyway, get ready—it’s almost time to go.

Sexy Dreams with Famous People: Me and Richard

When I don’t write to you, you can bet that I’m lost—speeding down some road I shouldn’t be on with a Quarter-Pounder in one hand and a shotgun in the other, empty cans of wine in the backseat.* You know how it is when, instead of doing things that make you happy, you do things that don’t make you happy for money or status or security?

This is actually quite a serious subject, but right now I want to apologize for not coming around, and also start this new category, Sexy Dreams with Famous People. Julia actually came up with it, though she says she’s more sympathetic to its sub-category: Sexy Dreams with Famous People Who Aren’t Sexy. I dream about Richard Gere, you see, and she dreams about Steve Buscemi.** She, however, does not find herself driving down a dark road with a Whopper and a shotgun, so maybe we’re even. I’d take a sexy dream with Steve Buscemi over the waking sell-out anytime.

About the dream: I will spare you the details, except to say that we were in a fabulous Japanese restaurant—all sleek and low-wooden—where the proprietors were falling all over each other to get Richard Gere comfortably situated. I was sitting across from him, and he was playing with the tag of the expensive, black Donna Karan bra I’d bought that day [in real life]. I don’t know how he got the tag, because, in the dream, I was sitting across from him naked from the waist up.

The great thing about this dream, though, was that the tag was on a black string, and Richard was, for my amusement, untying the knot on that string with one hand. That was the sexy part—it was a slow and sure experience of untying. I said, “Where’d you learn to do that?” And he said, smiling his coy and sultry Richard Gere smile, “Superman taught me.”

P.S. I interviewed Richard once, for a Shambhala Sun story, but, before that, I had a strange and literally fantastic chance encounter with him. I wrote about this encounter in my Sun story, and I’ve pasted that excerpt onto the jump page, in case you feel like checking it out.

*This is symbolic.
**This is symbolic, too.

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