I think about shielding. I ask five healers for ideas about ways shield, ways to keep myself more cushioned if I can from this world that sometimes seems too much for me. No one offers an idea that sticks. After I discover a hard thing during sitting practice, this dagger wedge of quan iron in the center of my chest, the shield that comes to me is a curtain of quan iron, long strand after long strand of it strung side by side across a wide span of bone, or tusk, maybe, thicker than my forearm, irregular small flat squares of the protective metal hung all in a row. [Quan iron is the magic blue-green metal from Andre Norton’s Witch World.] Behind the curtain shield I see a rough hewn window or doorway arch, sunlight coming through. It catches on the hammer’s bite marks, shiny overlapping crescent moons from the pounding of the metal squares. There is no screen across the opening behind the curtain so I feel unimpeded air brush against my face. I take in a slow, deep breath. The horoscope in today’s newspaper says, “The warrior learns to fight but also to defend, starting with defending the self.” I think about shielding. And I remember a dream I had two weeks ago but didn’t recognize. I stand in the center of a room, and I run this fine set of chain mail through my hands, lifting and holding it, folding it back in against itself. I set it on a soft blue shirt beside more colorful piles of clothes on the bed, as if I am packing for a trip. I note the quan iron again, but not like I am really paying attention, just that familiar color and the smudge of magic to it as if in confirmation only, as if part of me has already decided it is too much. Who am I to be given protection like this? The quan iron here is crafted into fine chains, a web of them to cradle the rib cage, then 1/4-inch slabs of green stone, maybe aventurine, maybe a light jade, woven into the chains. I glide my fingers across the smooth stones as I re-stack the fine armor, and I can see how they will fall on core spots: kidneys, liver, inner thighs. I hold one slab of green stone and rub my thumbs across it. They bump again and again in the center of the stone. Without trying it on, I know it will fit me like a second skin, but it will not bind me. I marvel such supple, beautiful chain mail exists, that it has been gifted to me. And magic, to boot. I see the advantage, too, over a shield that protects me from only one direction. When I wake up, I wonder if I shouldn’t wear a helmet.
I dream I am on the phone talking to Mami. “Thank you for going underwater with me,” she says. I have a dim memory of holding hands at the edge of a lake, bending our knees, submerging ourselves in the cool, shallow water. It makes me want to do it now as I write, remembering the dream. To come up together sputtering, scattering drops of water across the quiet laketop, our laughter loud across that stillness. Her voice on the phone comes out choppy and odd, like the words are hard to grasp, then hard to push out. “I’m going to miss you,” she says later in a small voice. I am incredulous. What, when you go? When you die? I can’t believe I am scoffing her even in the dream. Because I am shielding myself? Because I am not being present? In my mind I am thinking, I will miss you. I wish I had dropped down, met her where she was. I wish I’d told her how much I would miss her, how terribly so. I wish I’d told her I won’t know how to be in this world without her.
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 was ten in 1968, an only child. None of my parents were activists. I was imbued with the spirit of the time but not a part of it. I am a child of the seventies. I grew up with duck and cover drills, crawling under our desks at school and covering our heads (as if this might actually help us in the quake of an atomic bomb). We grew up knowing Social Security may not be there when we reached 65, knowing the world could be destroyed anytime at the press of a button. Maybe it was in the face of this I became an eternal optimist, or maybe it was simply in my nature. But optimist or not, I have lived my whole life afraid that one day I would need to put myself in front of people with machine guns to stand up for what is right. And I didn’t want to have to die like that. In recent years, I’ve shaped a softer possibility for myself. Maybe I don’t have to die. Maybe I can speak up, do the right thing, without risking my life. But our current climate in the United States has awakened all my earlier fears. On the way home from my mother’s last week I met a woman named Liz. She and Zoë and I met at the Fullerton Amtrak station and shared the three seats at the back of the bus on the last leg of my journey. We talked nonstop for hours. Liz told me they threw grenades at the protesters in North Dakota. She said one woman had her arm blown off. She said another had one of her eyes put out by a rubber bullet. She said they used water hoses on the protesters in the heart of a northern winter. I have not researched this, but I’m inclined to believe her. Today between work needing to be done I Googled “Sacred Stone” and signed letters for my U.S. senators and my congressman to stop the pipeline. I called Palm Springs City Hall and left a message in hopes of finding out what I might be able to do to make sure we declare ourselves a sanctuary city. On the way home from Ralph’s before dark I start singing, “Give Peace a Chance.” I want to be able to stand up for what is right, but I don’t want to have to die for it. I’ve heard people are being “planted” to stir up trouble where the intention is to practice nonviolent resistance. The only thing I can think of in my head if I am there when this happens is to just start singing. So today I sing all the way home from the grocery store. It’s a warm evening. People look at me through the open windows of their cars. No one waves or gives me any indication of being with me, but it is my hope a happy sense of that comes to them moments later, after I pass by. When I walk through the trailer park, I imagine my song touching people through the open sliding glass doors. I know some people might think I’m crazy or even wrong. But I don’t stop. In between, I laugh. I am all welled up with the love of it. The waxing moon is rising in the east. It will be full here on Friday afternoon. I sing to the moon as I walk. And I get good chills along my arms, my legs. I am embarrassed and joyful, both. I wonder what my neighbors think as I get close to home. I hope some of the people who hear me, whether they know me or not, are touched by my heartfelt song. “All we are saying,” I sing, “is give peace a chance.”
This year was laced with the absence of my cats, sometimes glaring, sometimes subtle, more muted as the year progressed. I lit a candle yesterday for Boo, one year to the day. I only cried a little. I’ve quieted most of my if onlys, I think, most of my what ifs. I’ve returned to winter quarters again this year after Boo taught me its wonders when he was sick, and I abandoned our courtyard to stay with him inside. From the blankets in the mornings I watch the San Jacintos, warm tea cradled in my hands. Now in the early dusk, I have the sliding glass door open. The white crowned sparrows flit about near the bougainvillea. I can hear them peeping, hear the rattle of the dried blossoms while they hunt for seeds. Now and then exquisite bursts of song erupt. One lone mourning dove comes to the big tray feeder. The solar Christmas lights looped in the bougainvillea will come on any minute now. The waxing moon is not yet far enough west for me to see her, but when I glance up, I surprise Venus in the clerestory window. The two have been bright companions in the evening sky, heralds of the season. The more the light leaves the day, the happier my timid sparrows are, playing in the corner of the courtyard. I can hear the traffic one street over, the clink of dinner dishes next door. I linger until the sparrows seek their beds, until only the ridge of the mountains is visible against the darkening sky. The solar lights wink on like magic, a bright, wild tangle. May we each be blessed with quiet, glowing, untamed peace like this through all our days and nights.
Today’s my father’s birthday. He’d be 83. (Funny, isn’t it, how we do that with our dead?) When I was young, I always spent Thanksgiving with him. Maybe he somehow got that in the divorce. I remember his wife Jeannie and I laughing in the kitchen of their Sylmar home, black olives on the tips of all my fingers. Later, I brought my braided garlic French bread and tomato pesto soup to a Thanksgiving celebration at Colleen’s house in Sunland when we were young adults, and once in Sacramento, just the two of us that day, giddy on our pretend wine. And even later, Thanksgivings with Meri and her first husband, six or eight of us at the kitchen table playing Pictionary and rolling in the aisles. But decades ago it became a day I looked forward to spending alone. I like to let the day unfold, knowing there are three more days that follow, all without work, without plans. For years this was often my first day off in the fall semester, and even now these four days stand like a beacon, the blessing of a real break. I love knowing I can do what I feel like in each moment, the hours stretching like magic, like summer days in childhood, knowing I have no deadlines, no need to be ready to leave the house at a particular time. People often don’t understand my choice, and even now there’s a small voice in me who asks, “Is there something wrong with me?” For seeking solitude on a day when most people want to gather? So I’m making peace with this now, trying to trust it’s okay for me to make this choice. I turned down a chance to be with people I love today, nearby at Chimney Ranch. When I think of them together, part of me longs to be in their midst. Maybe it’s because I’m an only child, but today being alone calls me. It’s how I am able to have a sustained connection with myself, with this earth. I want to keep moving through the quiet of my day, the happy bird sounds in the courtyard, the soft sweater against my skin, the persimmons ripening on the blue plate my mother made, the changing slant of the sunlight as it moves with the day. I want to relish the bougainvillea blossoms, expand at the sight of the San Jacintos before me. And later in the afternoon I want to walk for hours in the stillness of this day, returning again and again to my glad and grateful heart. May those same moments of remembering to return come to you, too, to each of us over and again, today and always.
I am taking my first MOOC (massive open online course). It is presented by the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. The first week before I wrote my own assignment, I read an incredible piece by one of the other participants. In a thousand words she’d built a whole compelling and creepy dystopian world, and made me care about the mother and daughter who lived there. It made it hard for me to write my own assignment. I couldn’t stop comparing my own writing to hers. It troubled me. I loved her piece for itself and for her sake, for the evidence that she’d so clearly entered in, had experienced the magic of fiction unfolding. It thrilled me for her. But I let it make my own writing feel pale and weak. It couldn’t stand up to hers. I am rusty at writing fiction, and in the first two assignments that magic hasn’t happened for me yet. But I haven’t given up, so that is something to feel grateful for, and maybe a little proud, too. I am being a writer. And it reminds me, too, that being a writer does not often match up with the easy, romantic image we have built. It means writing and even submitting work that is only the best we can do in the time allowed. It means envying a classmate for writing “so much better” than we can. It means slogging through a writing task when our critic keeps yelling at us to stop, to give up, to throw it all away. To take up house painting instead. But it also means getting to study craft, to listen to other writers talk about how they write. It means having a chance to practice even if it doesn’t always feel good, knowing it is all part of the writer’s journey. And it means always having the pleasure of reading the work of other writers, of being moved by their words, waking up. I read another piece by a classmate in this MOOC that will stay with me always. Her story doesn’t just lead me into the reality she builds or give me a glimpse into her characters. It changes my way of looking at the world. Hers is a conversation between two sisters in the spirit world visiting their family’s Day of the Dead altar. I’ve always thought about all these people making the offerings themselves, the favorite foods, the photographs. I’ve built my own altars, talked to my own dead. But until I read her piece, I never pictured these gatherings in the spirit world, how they might look forward to this event all year. Now I can see them whispering in anticipation, gathering to watch the altars being built here in our world. It brings things together for me, makes this a complete whole in a way it never was for me before. So, thank you, fellow writer. Y feliz día de los muertos a todos.