I ride along the bike path on my way home from the farmers market, the San Jacinto mountains ranged before me. “Look where I live,” I whisper. I remember driving home from Santa Rosa on Guerneville Road, fields spread out beside me, the green rolling hills ahead. “Look where I live,” I’d say. I’d wiggle my butt on the seat, both hands on the wheel, dancing a little jig inside. I can go all the way back to Oakland, to that freeway junction I loved, from 580 to 24, I think. It ran in a wide climbing arc, the glory of the East Bay spread out below me. In Hopland I would sit on our wide stone porch and watch the rock outcropping change colors with the day, and I’d feel like I was living in a vacation rental. Then walking on the beach in Todos Santos, alone amidst scoops of brown pelicans, no one else in sight. Or riding the bus to San Juan Cosolá, ranchera music pouring out the open windows, my cheeks wet with grateful tears. I have been so lucky. But there is something about the San Jacintos that stirs me. And they are such a contrast to the lush farmland and oak woodland green of Sonoma County that evoked that first deep sense of wonder over where I lived. Now it is this stark, enormous nearby presence that makes my heart beat, breathes my lungs, these craggy rock mountains so alive I wonder if I can ever choose to live without them.
I’ve always been a little claustrophobic. I want a window cracked when I drive. I remember fighting with Kay when I drove her to work. She wanted the window closed. I never had a good enough reason for insisting it stay open, only the vague sense of not being able to breathe. During the mountain fire last summer, I was driven inside for a week, windows closed against the choking smoke. My claustrophobia mounted as the week progressed, ash like thick gray snow coating the trailer, the courtyard, my sense of not being able to breathe pulsing through my days and nights. Then it came to me, the source of my claustrophobia. When I began sitting zazen in the early 1990s, I dreamed a past life. It’s the only time it was ever more than snatches, this one whole cloth. I was a priestess, or maybe royalty. I was expected to sacrifice myself for the good of my people. They were preparing to bury me alive. I had long brown hair, maybe seven feet of it or more. I lay down in the open grave, the dark, moist earth warm breath beside me. There were helpers who handled my hair. They gathered and folded it with care, laid it with gentle hands in a long narrow box above my head. Then they began to cover me with dirt. I remember being afraid, not of dying but of shaming myself by resisting, of struggling against them at the last moment. The earth got heavier and heavier, and somehow I was able to hold still. I remember my relief when I realized I was going to just lose consciousness from my lack of air, just drift off, not humiliate myself or my family. In my stifling hot tin can this summer when I felt like I was suffocating, I remembered my dream. “Of course I’m claustrophobic,” I mutter. No wonder. I laugh at myself for not putting it together earlier. “Duh,” I say. I roll my eyes. Being buried alive just might do that to you.
I glance up and see a new yellow blossom on our palo verde, Serena. It reminds me of April 29th, the first full day in our new home. I was sitting outside in the morning, and a little yellow bird came to perch in the tip of our tree. She was smaller then. I remember talking to the bird, thinking her visit was a good omen. Today I am surprised by this first bloom. But glad, too. It feels like she’s telling me she’s okay. I’ve worried about her all along, my first tree planted in the ground. Maybe this new burst of fragile yellow really is a message for me. Maybe she’s saying, “Don’t worry.” Maybe she’s saying, “I’m happy. You be happy, too.”
Tuesday before the little wooden bridge I glanced back over my shoulder as I walked and saw a big bird flying in my direction from the southwest. I stopped to gawk, and the dark, animated silhouette became an egret. She was flying too high for me to hear the sound of her passing, but I stood and watched the long, silent strokes of her wings until she disappeared. She was still in my head moments later when I rounded a curve and came upon the moon, almost full, peering through the lacy winter branches of the old palo verde beside the path. And so, in the way of things, the two images were linked inside me: the slender, graceful bird, the large, round moon near the horizon, their white shapes both luminous in the late dusk. Words can’t do them justice, I know. But maybe that doesn’t matter. Because the overlapping moments live in me now, their wonder, my awe, clay feet planted on the earth, all of a piece in our fragile, fleeting world. If I might be so blessed, may they live in me all the rest of my days.
This is something that needs saying. I’ve thought so again and again during the intervening months. It happened to me over and over through the long, grueling months of summer. Even though I was kind of a mess from our move. Even though my first foray into home ownership was riddled with distress. Even though in the bigger picture during that time I couldn’t have told you how glad I was we’d moved, couldn’t have said in any unequivocal way how much I loved our new home. Even though I’d crumbled in it all, I would still sit outside at night, and it would come to me in these small moments. I’d glance up at the kitchen window of our new old trailer home and see the light spilling out from it, and it spoke to me of welcome and all things good, all things inviting. “Look,” I’d say in the warm dark. “Just look at what we have.”
Yesterday afternoon I tackled cleaning the storage shed for the first time. I pulled everything out, made piles in the courtyard of anything that couldn’t get wet–my art supplies, my photographs, my Christmas stuff–put everything else on the pavers between our tree, Serena, and the shed. I hosed off shovels and rakes, empty crates, cat carriers. I swept the shelves, the floor, then turned the hose on the inside of the shed, ceiling and all. I felt a flicker of panic for one moment while I stood there, hose in hand, water dripping on my head. All that water everywhere, all that wet, unfinished wood. Did I just ruin something? An impulse from childhood, maybe, that favorite stuffed dog I left out in the rain. It freaked me out, too, seeing all my boxes filling the courtyard. It was too evocative, I think, of all those weeks after we moved here when almost everything I owned sat outside. But today I can trust I’ll put everything away again. And in the early dusk yesterday when I’d finished hosing everything off, I felt that deep satisfaction that’s been so rare in these long months of summer, of having done a thorough cleaning, a careful, complete job. I chained my bike to Serena, just in case. I slid the window open in the shed, left the door propped wide so it could dry out. And all through the warm summer evening the smell of wet wood drifted in the open windows of our trailer, making me feel good over and over each time the scent reached me, reminding me I’d done this–this satisfying, tangible thing.
What was different about today? It was the first in weeks, maybe, where I didn’t have school work waiting. And the day seemed to open up. I did my yoga. I did my qi gong. Not because I made myself do them. I had set no goals. But there was enough time and enough shade, so I unrolled my mats and lay down in our courtyard. Later, I moved my chair from under the umbrella so I could do my qi gong standing in the last bit of shade. And while I breathed, while I moved my arms, my legs, back and forth, again and again, through it all I heard a voice whispering in my ear. “I am here. I am here. I am here.”
[Editor’s note: Below this in my notebook it says, “It is, I think, a return to my peace. But I’m not sure how I got back here.” ;-) ]