This morning I wake up on my back and see the half moon framed in the southwest clerestory window. I feel greeted by magic. I remember Mami’s trouble breathing in the night, our fears on the phone, and I say metta for us all. May all beings everywhere be safe and free from harm. I go out to feed the birds. The hummingbird feeder is full of ants. I dump it in the weeds and use the hose with care to rinse it out, hoping some ants might survive. I think, oh, is this the way the day is going to go, filled with annoyance? After, I am standing in the kitchen and see a black-headed grosbeak join the mourning doves in the small tray feeder. He is startling beside them in his vivid orange, black and white. I’ve seen him in my garden three times in as many days. This grosbeak was one of the first birds I identified over a decade ago from my big stone porch in Hopland, so I have a fondness for them. Today I stand there watching him through the kitchen window and another strange bird emerges on a nearby sunflower, having made her way up from below to nibble on the broad leaves. It takes me a moment to make sense of her. She seems so big, so foreign. It’s only the little goldfinch who I see eating the sunflowers. But she’s a black-headed grosbeak, too. They are a pair. I am dancing inside. I’ve only ever seen one at a time before. Then three more males arrive. I have five grosbeaks, four boys and a girl, in my garden. I can’t stop grinning. It comes to me then my morning echoes life as a whole: lingering night fears, the daylight waning moon, messy, inconvenient ants, five beautiful grosbeaks—all unexpected visitors, the lot of them. Here’s to surprise guests everywhere.
Guess where I am? It is Sunday, and I am sitting in my courtyard drinking my morning tea for the first time in five months. I am so grateful I was able to trust myself, to be gentle, to not push myself back out here before I was ready. I have been afraid of this day, of being here without my cats. I was afraid I would feel too small, unmoored, alone. I was afraid their ghosts would be too glaring, to have them not lying nearby on their pillows, or Sable underneath the honeysuckle, Sofia stretched out on the cement beside the gate, rolling on her back in cat abandon. I was afraid it would hurt too much to even reach for my own pleasure here in my garden. And I think if I had tried it any day before today it might have been true. But I have spent hours and hours moving everything into summer places, putting in an odd and goofy watering system. There are pots of dirt beside the sliding glass door waiting for carrot and beet seeds. I pulled out one “field” of sunflowers, their gorgeous disks drying now in a yellow bucket. I moved both umbrellas, bought new chairs and put them on the other side of the table. I rigged new spots for some of the bird feeders. I have touched every part of the courtyard in the last three days, and it changed me in the process. Not only that, but now there is almost nothing that’s the same except the birds are here, and the mountains, and me. My furred ones are not, and never will be again, but it’s a deep and quiet ache, not a wrenching agony. And it’s laced with wonder at the newness of everything around me, eased by the comfort of the mourning dove cooing from the fence and the soft pecking sounds of everyone eating breakfast. I count fourteen house finch again and again while I sip my tea and marvel.
Yesterday’s blog post seems sour to me. I feel like I want to apologize for it. I want to be able to be frank, to tell my own truths even when they’re dark. But I don’t want to practice that ugliness itself in my posts. Even as I write I realize there is no real way to avoid this (not being a saint). I’m not always going to know when ugliness decides to sneak in without my consent. I don’t blame myself for bristling at what the teachers say or for feeling left out. That’s just human, and I want to be able to be human even when it makes me look petty or ungracious. But I should have said I know the teachers don’t mean any harm. They’re not trying to put themselves above the rest of us, even though that’s how it strikes me when it happens. I know this is true because of how they feel to me as people. Because they wouldn’t do that. This was just their lead-in to talk about their truths, to tell us what they have come to know over time through their regular meditation practice. One of our teachers reminds us often not to take her word for things. The Buddha tells us to experiment for ourselves, to not take anything he claims on faith. But for me, neglecting to acknowledge the teachers’ intentions are not to set themselves above us, are not to exclude anyone—this is not to me the worst part of my last blog post. The worst part is the way I put myself above them at the end. How hopefully I would do better. I would be more inclusive. What crazy hubris was this, and right in the wake of accusing them of the very same thing? I knew I wasn’t comfortable with the post at the time, but I was tired, and I was determined to make my Friday deadline. I didn’t look close, didn’t recognize why it made me squirm. Now I am embarrassed, but I think, too, I’ll just be glad for the humbling in all this. I don’t want to put ugly things out in the world if I can help it, to have them sour the overall flavor of my posts. Even if I end up having to return the next day, belated recognition of what I did without knowing. Please accept my apologies.
The other day I pulled a tarot card that said I may think I know more than I do right now. I flashed on how I bristle whenever one of the teachers at the meditation center begins a sentence with, “Those of us who have been sitting for a long time know . . .” I feel dismissed, as though all my years of paying attention mean nothing. And I feel excluded. I am not part of the secret club of seasoned meditators. But I know I am only beginning to wrestle with what may be possible through regular sitting practice. And even though I balk at things I am not ready to give up, even though doubt whispers in my ear, even though it seems almost impossible to imagine getting from where I am to where it seems people have gone, there is this underground current, this subtle sense that maybe sitting practice really does lead where people are saying it goes. Maybe I really do think I know more than I do right now. Maybe I need to stop thinking that, find a way to accept I am a beginner here. Maybe that’s the only way to move forward on this long, mysterious path. And maybe one day years from now I will be saying the same thing that so irks me today, like fingernails against the chalk board. “Those of us who have been sitting for a long time know . . .” But still, if I last all those years practicing, I hope I’ll find a kinder way to word it. Or maybe I won’t say it at all. Maybe I’ll remember we’re still the same regardless of where we are on the path, each part of this odd collection of human beings with all our messy imperfections who are willing, again and again, to just show up.
[Editor’s note: the post that follows this one is my apology for the tone of this one. ;-) ]
If we are paying attention, we know we cause trouble for ourselves, spending so much time in the future or the past, planning (scheming?), regretting, having arguments with other people in our heads. I am sitting in bed sipping my morning lemon drink when I hear the rustling of a plastic bag outside my window. I consider getting up to see who is out there, but then I decide hearing a plastic bag can only be good. It means someone is picking up after their dog. I think about how upset people get about the dog poop, how they decide no one picks up after their dogs, how clearly wrong that thinking is. If that were true in our neighborhood we’d be awash, piles of poop everywhere, no open ground. I grimace because as usual it is the one rotten apple messing things up for everyone, making me think of the recent poop appearing along our road and my grumbling suspicion of the people who let their dogs run loose. I remember one of them, a little yipping thing, chasing me on my bike the other day. Before I know it, I am having a long imaginary conversation with the creepy owner. I even bring my aunt from Palm Desert into it, how she is deathly afraid of dogs, how we can’t even walk down the street. (We wouldn’t anyway, but I thought this was good “ammunition” for my argument.) Then I am back in my home, the warm, round cup in my hands, the scent of lemons and garlic. I can see the tops of the sunflowers and the bougainvillea blossoms in the courtyard. The house finch are chirping, quiet breakfast chatter. I hear the high-pitched twittery sound of mourning dove wings, and someone else who I don’t recognize is cheeping from the top of the power pole on the other side of the trailer. My body is tense from my imaginary worked up anger, my manufactured argument. I am annoyed with myself for adding to my own stress in such a ridiculous way. I know I do it all the time, but today I have no sense of humor about it. Today it just pisses me off. And that makes me sad. How do I cultivate a lighter touch? Where is that kinder, “Oh, oops” when I need it? How do I come to celebrate instead with a glad heart each time I return? Where is that gentler voice? I’m glad you’re back, Riba. And, look. There is a white-crowned sparrow sitting on the fence.
I know now where my mockingbird sings. Last year they cut down this old behemoth of a tree that used to block the last hour of the sun for me in high summer. They left the trunk with all it’s sawed-off limbs, still tree-high, taller than the trailers. Right now my mockingbird is perched upon it singing to us all. Now and then he sallies forth, small leaps into the air, glorious in his dark grey and white display. Then he settles back down again upon the brown trunk. His song has smoothed out over the past weeks. He sounds like a pro now, all fluidity and grace. The only reason I know he is mine is from the way the sound comes to me. I have imagined him in the night, wondering where he was. I knew he wasn’t in my neighbor’s tree. But I thought he sounded too close to be in one of the palm trees. It wasn’t until the other day I realized where he was. His sally caught my eye from my own perch in bed. It was too tempting. I had to go get my binoculars to watch him up close. The screen on the kitchen window made him a little blurry, but I sat there grinning at myself: birdwatching from bed.
I have a mockingbird this spring who comes nearby and sings to us during the night. He seems to be a bit awkward about it. I think he might be young, just learning how to mimic, still growing into his song. His repertoire seems limited, his delivery stilted. It doesn’t flow from one sound to the next. I picture him out there practicing, trying hard to get each sound right. Maybe in the longer pauses he tries to remember a new sound to do next. It makes me smile, imagining. I hope it is a good effort for him, the kind of concentrating on something we love that requires all of our attention but can feel almost effortless. I hope he feels like that, all intense focus and deep joy and nothing of angst, of worrying he may not be as good as his cousin or as quick to learn. I hope he is pleased with his efforts. I’ve never noticed a mockingbird learning his song, though maybe even the adults practice to master new sounds. It make me feel a little vulnerable, my heart softened for him in his youngness, his big fresh desire, his newness in this world of ours. May he be well loved along the way, and may his songs unfold over time, seamless and soulful in the dark, quiet night.