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Luminous Jewel, Blake Walton


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Posted By Luminous Jewel, Blake Walton

A Meaning from the Season


Sugar Shack

Steaming Sugar Shack, Westhampton, MA


Here it comes -- the moral of the story. Or maybe more aptly, the morale of the story, the story being life. I've had plenty of time to think about this, huddled under my electric blanket this winter/spring in a too-cold 1800's New England parsonage, "heated" with heating oil (gasp! might as well heat with gold). I read somewhere that we humans are hard-wired to try and make meaning where there may or may not be any, possibly just to cheer ouselves up so we can keep going in a world that doesn't seem to have sense or make sense much of the time.

So, here is what I've come up with:

1) As I mentioned before, we could all benefit from the advice to SLOW DOWN & PAY ATTENTION. Basic mindfulness goes a long way towards relieving dukka, that niggling sense of the basic unsatisfactoriness of life. We can't  totally avoid pain and suffering in our lives (the Buddha's first Noble Truth) but oh do we try! Speed, multi-tasking, endless distractions, sleep, TV, consuming, etc., etc. You can start to increase your mindfulness with pleasure (it's easier than staying with pain!) -- savor the sugar shack breakfast below.



Aaahh! Traditional New England sugar shack breakfast


2) You may notice through your salivation and deep sense of satisfaction, that there are "empty calories" , "bad" foods, and "excessive" carbs and calories on the plate, not to mention the non-ecological disposable plates and plastic utensils. You can chose to let your labels and judgements poison your experience. Of course, no one in their right mind could justify making a daily habit of such fare.  But if you think of it as a rite of spring in the manner of a tantric Buddhist ritual of the acceptance of all manifestations of life, it's true and deeper meaning can resonate. Life is made up of the "good", the "bad", the "ugly"-- it just is what it is. We suffer less mentally and emotionally when we realize and accept this fact. I say this blessing before meals to remind myself:

I receive this sustenance gratefully, appreciating all the forms of life that have offered themselves for my benefit.




Savoring the what is-- not full plate, not empty plate


3) to be continued . . .


Posted By Luminous Jewel, Blake Walton

Sugar Shacks: The Reason for the Season


When settlers arrived in North American, the Native Americans indigenous to the region had been “sugaring” for many generations. Using hollowed out twigs as spigots and pitch-sealed birch bark pots as containers, Native Americans gathered sap and boiled it into syrup or maple sugar by dropping hot rocks into vats (made from hollowed out tree trunks) of maple sap. Settlers in New England quickly adopted the practice of setting up seasonal camps in the sugarbush to collect and boil sap into a source of sweetener for cooking and for trading. During the Civil War, maple sugar was the politically correct sweetener used by abolitionists as an alternative to cane sugar produced primarily with slave labor.  And during WWII, people in New England were encouraged to stretch their sugar rations by sweetening foods with maple syrup, and recipe books were printed to help housewives employ this alternative source.

AbenakiMaking Maple

Today, maple sugaring is a time-honored family tradition in New England, more of a passion than a source of seasonal income (80% of the world’s maple syrup comes from Canada). Despite changes in collection and boiling of the sap, sugaring is still a labor-intensive process that unites families and neighbors outdoors at a time when most of us don’t want to venture out of our hibernation lairs.

But venture out we do when the sugar shacks come alive with sweet clouds of evaporative steam. Many sugar shacks have family-style dining areas added on to the actual space where wood-fueled evaporative boilers reduce the sap to syrup. Winter-weary New Englanders jostle happily in lines outside sugar shacks every weekend during the season, waiting their turn to sit elbow to elbow at long picnic tables inside eating waffles and blueberry pancakes off of paper plates. There is an endless supply of freshly boiled maple syrup, coffee and conviviality, as folks come alive again, sharing tales of making it through yet another winter (the skyrocketing cost of gas and heating oil was common ground for commiseration this year) and what is poking through in their hopeful gardens.

And talk about a reversal of political correctness, many of my pc (or at least health conscious) friends who assiduously avoid sugar and excessive carbs during the rest of the year, make headlong, joyous (almost self-righteous) and numerous pilgrimages to sugar shacks, carbo-loading with the best of them, pouring on the sweet gift of the maples with impunity.  Ah, sweet mystery of life!


Sugar Barn




Posted By Luminous Jewel, Blake Walton

Of Potholes and Sugarshacks: Spring in New England

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
--T.S. Elliot, The Wasteland



I don’t know if T.S. Elliot ever visited New England, but he certainly describes April in New England in The Wasteland.  Or December through March, for that matter.  Actually, MARCH is the cruelest month here for me. It is the culmination of New England’s SAD season, whose cold steel-gray days and interminable nights gave rise in me this year to an almost overwhelming urge to run screaming and barefoot into the night until I could collapse unconscious into a snow bank and be out of my misery. Honest to god, ask my old camp friend Kreepy Kris in California who endured my weekly tele-moan sessions and was under strict injunctions to not even mention the warm sunny California weather lest I never speak to her again.  I can’t help it—I was raised in Texas where March is the most glorious month. Ok, maybe the only glorious month in Texas! (See footnote below for a chuckle.)

Enough ranting—on to the self-professed theme of this blog, the Buddhist perspective!  Here in March/April, the very same freeze (night)/thaw (day) cycles that give hideous birth to the bone-jarring New England potholes also give rise (or flow) to some of the sweetest phenomena this side of nirvana— sugar shacks and maple syrup-- a study in contrasts quite worthy of the Buddhist teachings on aversion and desire being the root of all suffering (the third root being ignorance, ‘nuff said!).  We had a bumper crop of both potholes and maple syrup this season, providing plenty of opportunity for reflection/deflection/inspection and introspection (referencing Arlo Guthrie in Alice’s Restaurant) on my daily commute to work.  Mostly I had to SLOW DOWN and CONCENTRATE on the challenge at hand—avoiding the tricky minefield of potholes ranging from annoying to axle-breaking. This is good advice for many life circumstances but one that I quickly found myself trying to circumvent because of impatience (a classic form of avoidance quite common to North Americans). Instead of just accepting the vagaries of pothole season, I found myself trying to bend the reality of “what is” by attempting to avoid the potholes altogether, weaving crazily onto the shoulder and even into the opposite lane, risking head on collisions in my mad avoidance. Of course, every other New Englander was doing the same thing making the roadways positively treacherous, not because of the potholes but because of our collective avoidance techniques. Road rage was rampant, making it risky to employ the only sane driving solution (remember? SLOW DOWN and CONCENTRATE ) lest I become the target of invectives and New England road mudras.

But just in time, as is so often the case with the nature of impermanence being what it is, the flow returned—in this case the maple sap flow—and the heartening sight of rustic sugar shacks engulfed in billowing clouds of steam announced the sweet relief of sugar shack season. (To be continued. . . )

Footnote: An old saying oft repeated in Texas goes that God spent 6 days creating the world but wasn’t quite finished with Texas at the end of the 6th day. After resting on the seventh day, God decided rather than spend all the effort to fix Texas, he’d do the simpler thing and just create people to live there that didn’t know any different!