I read Sylvia Boorstein’s Happiness Is an Inside Job more than once. Toward the beginning, she describes how she talks to herself when she gets startled. Sweetheart,” she says, “you are in pain. Relax. Take a deep breath. Let’s pay attention to what is happening. Then we’ll figure out what to do.” I have read this before, but one day it clicks in. I become startled so easily and so often. I begin practicing with this. I try it out right away when I get a disturbing email from my work. It keeps me from spinning out into stories about what I’m being asked to do, mostly how it’s “not fair.” (They still arise, but I don’t dwell in them.) It makes so much sense to me. There is a bit of the, “Duh!” about it for me. I have been trying to learn how to not be reactive to people, to reach for kindness. But of course I need to re-establish my connection to myself first before that becomes possible. I practice the sweetheart approach again and again. I am so excited, certain I have found a way to interrupt my autopilot after all these decades. Later I discover I am still not very good at this in the heat of the moment when other people are involved. Maybe I need to learn to catch it still in the startle, in the fear. Maybe when I get to the anger it’s too late. I am deflated. But my optimism ekes back in. I know I’m not giving up.
This morning I walk from the preserve to Chimney Ranch. I’ve been invited for a hike. I stop along the way to take pictures with my mini iPad. I am almost sixty now, so I will need a new photograph for my blog. I hear a Bewick’s wren, a cactus wren, a kestrel and a house finch on my short walk. The only one I get to see is the cactus wren who rubs his beak on a fan palm frond and doesn’t seem bothered by me watching from below his tree. When I arrive, Corina is putting up green balloons with marvelous hand-drawn faces. Barney opens gold plastic eggs for his birthday. One of them has a tiny ceramic roadrunner inside. The universe is watching out for us, nice cloud cover for our hike, the temperature heading toward the high 90s. After, we get in the pool. I am cold and get out to sit in the sun, happy just to be. Everyone in the pool decides to make a whirlpool. I watch them circling for a long time, delighted, not quite dizzy. At one point I am overcome. I think about how lucky I am to be part of a group of people who want to spend their time making whirlpools. It’s so happy, so wholesome. It almost makes me cry. At home now, I am still all filled up with the glory of this. May I always be blessed with people who like making whirlpools. May each of you be blessed with people who like making whirlpools. May all beings everywhere be blessed with people who like making whirlpools. And to whirlpool-making people everywhere, my big thanks.
Today starts out well and ends well but goes south a bit in between. I feel myself being judgmental and critical of the woman who cuts my hair—who I like. When Ralph’s is out of bird seed, I go grumbling to CVS and pay twice as much. I listen to my mind when I walk between the stores, some crazy, twisted descent, like everything in the world is now crummy. Back at Ralph’s again, I finally ask why I haven’t seen Mark, and I find out he’s been promoted. He’s no longer here. I had already made my gloomy descent, but this is beyond awful. For me, Mark was the heart of this store, the one who fostered kindness and generosity in everyone who works here. I walk to the checkout. “Everything changes,” I say. But I have been so in love with my grocery store. I can feel all my hope for it oozing away. And for the first time, all the lines are long. I walk up and down twice, dejected and blue. A Latino American man holding one Corona gets my attention, waves me in front of him in line. I try to argue, I have a handful of things to his one lone beer. But he insists. I tell him he’s going to make me cry. “Voy a llorar.” It feels like such a blessing, this kindness. We wish each other well before I go. I ride my bike home, my good cheer restored. What a long, funny day.
I lie on my left side for four hours in excruciating pain. I think I may be passing a gallstone. In between I go to the bathroom and vomit. At one point, the pain drops lower in my belly, and I become afraid it might be my appendix. I debate going to the hospital. I am angry that money factors into the decision, that our healthcare system is so messed up in this country. Marylou and Richard come get me, take me to the emergency room, tend to me with sweetness even though I don’t seem to be able to be nice. At least seven people work with me there. One doctor who does the ultrasound is both present and kind. Another man who brings me back from my CT covers me with a heated blanket and tucks it around my feet. The gesture makes me want to cry. In the end, there is no diagnosis. I go home and sleep, restless. The pain eases by morning, all but disappears by the afternoon. I’m sorry now I went to the hospital, but I’m alert for the silver lining(s) to be revealed over time. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be a better advocate for myself, that I didn’t insist they do an ultrasound on my gallbladder. (Though I know I could be wrong about that.) But it was all I could do to handle the pain. I’m glad no one wanted to take out any organs, and that the experience wasn’t terrifying. I imagined it would be. But I’m more disappointed than ever in the way our system works. May my first trip to the hospital be my last. And thank you, Marylou and Richard, now and always. What would I do without you? Oh, and the orchids you brought me are exquisite.
I hear a house finch singing in the courtyard. I turn off the kitchen faucet, dry my hands, move to the window. He is perched on one of the looping vines that arc up from the bougainvillea. He hops toward a second bird who moves away. At first I think, oh, no. I’m afraid he’s pestering a sparrow. He does it a second time, and again the bird scoots off a bit. And then I know. He’s wooing her! The female moves off again, settles on the top metal bar above the tray feeders. The male follows and continues his serenade. I can feel the female listening. I watch the male’s red head, his chest puffing, beak angled up, all this love in his song. I’ve never seen this before, all these years. The two birds stay together there for a long time before they fly away. Such a gift. Thank you, I think. Thank you.
There’s some kind of enchantment going on in the courtyard. The white crowned sparrows are hopping all about. Yesterday I cleaned out the rest of the dandelion and mustard bushes. (I’ve been harvesting the dandelion for my split pea soup for months now, but it became huge and sprawling, and I let it go to seed.) The sparrows flit back and forth across the freshly revealed patch of dirt and nyger seed casings, crossing it again and again, all surprised delight, this new present unwrapped just for them. Their white crowns seem whiter today. Is it my imagination, or does that happen before they migrate? I’ve been treasuring them more than ever, knowing they’ll be leaving soon. (I remember how quiet it seemed last year after they left—I’d sit outside and count the few of us remaining. Seven mourning doves, three house finch, eleven with me.) Without deciding to, I find myself saying metta for them. May you have a fun, safe journey north. May you always have plenty of food and good water and good company. May you enjoy your summer home and find your way back here again before winter. I say these blessing wishes for a long time, until I am loving them so much I cry. “I’ll miss you,” I whisper. May you come back safe and happy.
I am standing in front of the automatic doors when the train arrives at the station. My mother is sitting on a cement bench beside the track watching the train pull in. She is six feet away. When the doors don’t open, I pound on the window. She looks up. I have some crazy unformed idea she might call out to a conductor outside the train, tell them her daughter is stuck in the last car. Instead I run upstairs. “No! No!” I yell. And, “Wait!” When I find the conductor in the next car, the train is just beginning to pull away. He won’t do anything to stop it. “This isn’t an emergency,” he says. I scream at him and apologize in the same breath. I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t reach my mother on her cell phone, and I can’t calm down. An hour and a half later I am at her house in the foothills, but my heart is still pounding. That night I play those moments over in my head, the shock of watching her outside while I’m trapped on the train. Why did this happen? Maybe because this was not about me. It wasn’t personal. I got to watch my body dump crazed amounts of adrenaline into my system. I remember when I was 24 and my stepfather had a seizure in the middle of the night. I was incoherent when I dialed 911. And even though this is not me yelling at the bus driver, even though this is not me yelling at the notary public, there is something reassuring about the idea of all that adrenaline messing with my mind, as if, just maybe, it’s not completely my fault. Something cracks open in me, a small fissure, a glint—the beginning, I hope, of acceptance.