I’m walking home from a big day, sticking to the shade where I can. I passed out my first flyers for my retreat at the writers guild meeting, then went to Cost Plus to redeem my birthday coupon for my favorite tea lights and small hand painted Easter egg ornaments I couldn’t resist. I stop near a walkway for a condominium complex, startled by an immense Great Dane. His owner comes into view, and I’m relieved to see he’s attached to the leash. “Oh my,” I say with a laugh. “He surprised me.” The dog’s head comes almost to my shoulders. “He’s beautiful,” I say. I tell his leash wielder I’ve seen them before, and he remembers me from our old neighborhood. Maybe I should tell him about my writing retreat, I think. But I don’t say anything. We part and I continue up the street. I hear the sound of wings. I think, raven, and I look up but don’t see the bird. The wingbeats are long and loud, and then I see three ravens just ahead of me, flying low, clustered, talking now. I stop on the sidewalk. It feels like they’re telling me I shouldn’t leave, telling me I should’ve told Tim about my retreat. I look back to where he and the Great Dane disappeared, and he comes walking out again without the dog. I call out to him. “Are you a writer by any chance?” I ask. (It makes me grin as I write. What a line.) I retrace my steps, talk about the ravens. “So, I decided maybe I should tell you about my retreat after all.” We stand together in the shade of a tree I don’t recognize. He says he’s not a writer, but then it turns out he writes morning pages every day (a la Julia Cameron) and just finished teaching an artist’s way class. “Oh,” I say with a wave of my hand, undoing his earlier disclaimer, “you are a writer.” I give him a flyer, talk about the deeper meaning of the work for me. He seems taken by the whole thing. I like him. “I’ll call you either way,” he says. I walk home cheered. The day has given me a quiet hope about my retreat. The bags I’m carrying seem lighter. I keep grinning and shaking my head in wonder. I’m awed by the clear second chance the universe gave me. And I’m flabbergasted by those ravens. I can still hear the sound of their wings.
Buddhist teachings keep me guessing. Depending on the teacher and the topic, I am reassured or doubtful, suspicious or yielding, intrigued or cross-eyed. Often things just make sense, ring true to me, familiar, like the life I’ve been living for decades. Sometimes I wonder if I’m missing something. Do I only think I understand, have been observing these same things in my life and in the world around me all these years? I’m not sure what makes me doubt myself, but doubt arises. And I’m not sure what inclines me to always calibrate. Is this something I already know? Do I only think I know it? Maybe it’s an old fear, not being enough. Maybe it’s only hubris. Or maybe it’s tied to the way I bristle over sentences that begin with, “Those of us who’ve been practicing for years—” The speaker means a formal sitting practice. But what if we’ve been practicing “off the cushion” all this time? I love sitting practice. I suspect it accelerates things. And it feels like a luxury, all that stillness, all that not doing. Of late I tend to divide my time between the “long breathing in, long breathing out” I’ve been learning and my metta practice. Since I decided to offer the writers retreat this summer in Joshua Tree, I have to bring myself back more than usual, my mind and heart busy dreaming up ideas. I’ve begun sitting with my eyes open more and more. I think I may be giving myself more permission to do what feels right to me, become less concerned with following the rules. But there’s still a part of me who wants to “do it right,” a part of me who wants to know if I’m delusional about the things I think I know. The other day people were talking about feeling one with the mountain. That seems easy and natural to me. But on the surface, I don’t buy the “no self” spiel. Because there is a me. There is my portion of spirit housed in this body. Unique in place and time. Never again will the two be joined, this same form and spirit. But it doesn’t stop me from feeling one with the mountain or the moon or the desert rat dying in my courtyard on a summer afternoon. Or with the ant I stepped on yesterday because I must have hurt him when I was sweeping the courtyard. I put my sandal down on him, my chest aching, to end his tortured movements. I may not buy the “no self” deal, but I do know we’re all one, the mountain and the moon and the rat and the ant—and me.
I’m engrossed in preparing for one of my classes. I sit for hours with my laptop making choices again and again about how to bring my course over into this new online learning system. Each time I need to make a small decision, I have to try to figure out how it works, explore the possibilities of the software first, then choose what seems best. Nothing is simple. But I have given up lamenting being forced to switch over. Because I am inside it now, fully engaged, no longer frustrated by the limitations of the software, only fascinated by the process, the details, the decisions. All day while I work the rain comes, steady and sweet. The birds are loud outside the window. Now and then I remember to stop to listen, look up, savor their boisterousness. In the early afternoon, I hear a soft skrittery sound. A hummingbird is sitting on the open louvers. She is out of the rain. I talk to her, touched and honored. I hope the warm air from the heater wafts over her perch. At one point I realize how good it feels to be immersed in my work like this. But I want to go for a walk, see how full the creek bed is. In the not quite dusk, I get a glimpse of the mountains when the clouds part, and I know I’ll regret it if I don’t get out there. I tear myself away from my laptop, pull my wild fuzzy magenta scarf over my head. I take my lime green umbrella, lock the door behind me. I refuse to bring my flashlight because I want my pockets free. The umbrella feels like enough of an encumbrance. Later I realize I didn’t even bring my key, but I don’t care. I stand beside the creek, the clean air cold on my face, and watch the water move. I startle a cottontail. I walk to the foot bridge where the falling water gets loud, then away again, the frogs and the wide moving water always beside me. I dream of snow falling on our mountains as I walk. It’s dark when I get back, and the light in the living room makes my home look warm and inviting. I dig out the spare key, glance at the courtyard in the light from the three paper solar lanterns in a row along the shed. Everything is glistening in the wet dark. I feel lucky and grateful for my home, for knowing I get to be warm and dry, get to have a good dinner. Before I go inside, I pick two handfuls of mustard greens for my soup. I even have a good book waiting for my Friday night. It feels like the ending of an ordinary day in an extraordinary way. Thank you.
I begin to feel a shift in me. It seems new, like something I may have never known before. Or if I did, it was too long ago to remember. I am sure it’s connected to the healing work Elana has been doing with me. For a long time now, I’ve been waiting for my joy to come back, the way most mornings my heart would lift again and again over small pleasures. I don’t have that, those leaps of joy over a glimpse of the mountains or a visit from a hummingbird. But when I wake up I feel this subtle sense of well-being. Each morning I stay in bed to see if it’s still there and to savor it. I lie on my back and stretch out my arms to accept it even more, grateful to be healing, eager to flourish and prosper in all ways. I believe receiving in this way is tied, too, to my wish, my prayer, for reassurance. Ever since I understood being reassured is my path toward becoming self-assured, the universe keeps meeting me in this. I walk home from the bus through the trailer park, olive oil and popcorn kernels from Trader Joe’s weighing on my shoulders. I am content, unhurried. I look up and the big waxing moon hangs low in the southern sky before me, both beacon and greeting. The Cooper’s hawk comes when I sit in the courtyard and dream my writing dreams, her arrival, the great beating of her wings, both validation and promise. I cross the big empty parking lot during walking meditation. I am companioned by the growing moon rising in the east, the presence of the palo verdes. I stop walking and stare at a shape beside a tree in the distance. It looks like a giant rabbit. It must be a cactus, I think. And then the cactus turns and lopes across the desert. I feel like I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole. He is so huge. He stops and stands upright again. We watch each other in the silence. When the bell rings, I bow to him before I turn to go, certain he is magic, both unexpected gift and delicious awe.
Around me, everyone is awed by the splendor of the eastern Sierras, but I am in shock again and again. Everything is ailing: the air, the pine trees, the scrub brush. Even the deer feel different, thirsty, the yip of the coyotes desperate. The only place I don’t feel pain is when I soak naked in hot water in the center of the caldera, the wide plain and rocky mountains spread out in all directions. We go there for the Perseids, then lie on our backs in the middle of the night on picnic tables at Mono Lake fighting sleep. The heavens grow odd, the Milky Way a huge space station, a gigantic metal insect. We write each morning for hours at our campsite, in among the pines. A chipmunk appears beside my notebook on the picnic table, his deep brown eyes intent on my face, alight with curiosity and kindness. The peace is tangible, surprising. I am not used to living in a group, don’t quite know how to keep my center, yet the peace reaches me in still moments. An osprey perches on a bare tree at the top of our hill and calls again and again in a high voice I don’t recognize. We read our work out loud in the late afternoon or just after dinner. I may be the most present then, ready to mirror back the parts that speak to me, to swim inside and come back with something I can put in words about what I see happening in the writing. I like reading my own work, notice I am not afraid the way I used to be. I am grateful for the feedback, too, these faces in the fading light, these voices who have grown dear to me. I want to stay here always, writing pieces of my book, reading them aloud. Leaving comes in pieces, too. A wistfulness before our time is over, leaving the wilderness, the long hot stretch of the central valley, arriving back in Oakland, taking the train home the following day. Now our time together is a dream, and I am not yet quite awake again in my ordinary life. I miss these people, miss our campsite home. Being alone is lonelier, the way they are with me but not with me, ghosts now in my Palm Springs home.
My dog Sanji died 31 years ago today. She was born in 1976, part Great Dane and part German Shepherd, the runt of eleven. A woman I worked with then at the secret shopper spy job told me sanji means female bear in Tibetan. I don’t know if that’s true, but I liked the sound of it. I used to say she was part deer and part fish. She had a tender spirit, and she loved any kind of water, would leap with pure dog joy into the swimming pool. She loved going to the beach in Alameda when we lived in Oakland. After she died I wished I’d taken her there more often. She chased the seagulls along the wide sandbar, ears laid back in the wind, big grin on her beautiful face. It seems impossible she’s been dead so long. I can’t believe I’ve been dogless for three decades now. If a psychic had predicted this, that 27-year-old me wouldn’t have believed another word she said, convinced she was a fraud. And to think I’ve spent such a big chunk of my life without a dog seems unbelievably sad. But life unfolds as it will, and this was all about the timing.
Sanji and my cat Trair and I made this little family. When Sanji died Trair and I were left alone together. I knew she didn’t want another dog. When Trair died 12 years later, my landlord wouldn’t let me get a dog, so I got Sofia instead. Doglessness continued from there until now when both Sofia and Sable have so newly left me catless, too. I still cry now and then when I think of Sanji, but after all this time they are grateful tears more than anything, the memories dreamy and good. I remember our back-house cottage in Highland Park where she died of cancer and how she and Trair and I used to hang out together in our little backyard there. I would sit between the bougainvillea and the lemon tree on the small patch of grass I cut on rare occasions with an old rusty hand mower. Trair would land in my lap as soon as I settled in the chair, my joint resting unlit with a box of wooden matches in the clean blue enamel ashtray, my Marlboro Lights and my ice cold Corona beside them. When Sanji got tired of fetching, or more often when I got tired of throwing the slimy green tennis ball, she’d sprawl beside us on the grass. I marveled over our sweet little family of three. If you paid attention, you could hear traffic a block away on the old highway 11. But in our tiny yard tucked away from the world the three of us would rest together in a different kind of quiet, bask together in a deep and lucky peace.
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.