I move the curtain from the open window by the bed just enough to greet Venus in the eastern sky. I’m glad to see her there, glad to catch the scattering of sunrise-colored clouds, but I don’t want to be awake yet. I let the curtain fall and snuggle back beneath the blankets. Blankets, I think. I grin, so pleased it’s autumn now, and I return to blankets. I have a nine a.m. videoconference call this morning. And I want to remember to mention the aloe vera gel to my mom for these last stages of the wound that’s finally healing on her leg. I’m going to focus on building next week’s online classes today. I want to write a blog post, too, I think. I can’t believe it’s been so long. Is this the longest gap in over seven years of my commitment to posting? I must be a zillion weeks behind by now. I don’t even want to know. I can feel the tension mounting in me with each thought. For a little while I even replay all the well-worn reasons I believe I was wronged by someone years ago. I take a deep breath, smoosh the pillow beneath my head, settle down on my left side, close my eyes. I hear bird calls in the distance. I think of my two cats, dead now these two years. I whisper to them, send their spirits love. And then I let myself imagine them going back to sleep with me in this cool early morning air. They used to flank me, Sofia wrapping herself in the curve of my legs and Sable curling up against my belly. I know it’s unlikely I’ll fall asleep again, but I let myself drift, using my imagination now, reaching for memory. I remember waking in the middle of the night, their soft little bodies pressed against me, the comforting weight of them. It always made me feel like the luckiest woman in the world. Drifting, I wonder what that makes me today. But even in that dreamy place shaded by a longing for them, I know the answer. It makes me the luckiest woman in the world because I had that, their dear companionship, night after night for years. And because I get to love them forever.
I dream of a pilgrimage of horses. I stand at a crossroads of dirt trails where I can see them walking en masse. It is night, but I see them crossing through intermittent moonlight. Their movement is steady, quiet. I’m surprised to see some of them are saddled and bridled. There are no humans with them, only the horses walking, four or five or six deep on the two converging trails. I feel their sense of purpose, of clear intention, though I am not certain I understand it. I stand where I can watch them, among other people. I think I am in a foreign land or in “enemy” territory because I am aware I may be shot and killed. I am afraid, but I know this is important. I want to stand with my palms together, like namaste, like the Buddhist bow. Instead, I link my fingers. I hold them against my solar plexus, like in prayer, and bear witness, homage, to their quiet passage.
Being a writer can be kind of weird. And writing a blog or a newspaper column can be even weirder. I once had an email exchange with one of my favorite columnists for the L.A. Times who pointed out to me we are dependent on what happens. It sounds crazy obvious now, but I’d never put it together before. There’s always the interior world, too, of course. But when we can “hang” that inner world on a scaffolding of outer events, when there’s enough happening both within and without to make connections between them, the possibilities seem endless. This is my eighth year for writing a blog, and I seem to either have endless “Blog?” markings on the pages of my notebook, or I have a dearth of ideas. It feels like a long time since the floodgates were open. Yesterday, I was so glad to have something happen I could write about. But then the weirdness peeked around the corner. I meant to show my ugly bias arising even in the midst of it all. But a sneaky voice hisses at me after I post. “It sounds like you’re trying to pump yourself up, like you’re trying to make yourself look good.” Does it? Really? I only wanted to tell the story the way it happened, so glad there was a story to tell. Maybe, I think, I should’ve explained more about the connection I was making to the day I found out my father was dead, how this time I got to be the stranger who wanted to help. That day all those years ago I let the policemen inside my father’s apartment and wait outside on the concrete landing. One of the women from the place next door comes out and asks me if there’s anything they can do, anything I need. “Do you have any beer?” I ask. (I remember feeling foolish asking.) I’d already found out he was dead. I’d already asked the policemen if there was any beer in his fridge. (That would remain a lingering regret, that he died without any beer in the fridge, without any cigarettes. What was I thinking?) Instead of bringing me a beer on the porch, the woman brings me inside, sits me at their dining room table, hands me an icy bottle of St. Pauli Girl. She and her two roommates gather round. They tend to me through that long afternoon, the lazy Memorial Day holiday, 1985. And then in the fall of that year I dream about my father. “What are you doing here?” I say. “You’re supposed to be dead.” I remember the shock of that first dream. I must not have learned yet how the dead can return to us, living again and again in our sleeping dreams.
I cross the street behind my home on my way to the dumpster with my little bird seed bag of trash (stapled shut) and to get yesterday’s mail. I pass a woman in the street crying. “I just found my dog online,” she says.
“Oh good,” I say. I think he was lost and now she’s found him. I think she is crying from relief, from gladness after the long and terrible scare.
“No,” she says. “He’s dead.”
“Oh, no,” I say. Without thinking I open my arms to her and she walks into them. How can you not be held at a time like this? The world is dropping out from underneath her. This is a dog who snuggled up to her every night, head on the pillow beside her.
“She didn’t move all night,” she tells me. How do you recover from the gaping loss of that kind of daily intimacy? Not quickly, I think. I urge her to be extra kind to herself. I warn her not everyone will understand how devastating this is. I think of Pilar when her horse died. It’s only a horse, people said. How could they? And then, more gently, a reminder for compassion: they must have never known the kind of love that comes to us like this.
She has tatoos. I don’t recognize her. Unfairly or not, I can’t help but wonder if she’s connected to the drug dealer’s home, an endless source of dismay in our little trailer park. But none of this matters in the moment. There is only this devastating, fresh grief and a desire to meet it somehow. There are only warm arms and eyes and one heart going out to the other. I remember how blessed I was the day I found out my father was dead and his next-door neighbors took me in while I waited for the coroner and then for the people from the cremation place. This doesn’t come close to what those women gave me through that long afternoon, to how tenderly I felt held by the universe in them that day 32 years ago. But I am glad I walked across her path. I hope she felt met, and maybe in those few minutes together just the tiniest bit less alone with the crashing of her new, terrible grief.
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.