In the weeks after I return home from my time in the eastern Sierras, I dream again and again of water. I steer a wooden boat with a long pole on a small river. I stand in the prow, high above the water. It’s the same boat I imagined the heroine of my fantasy novel navigating on the Petaluma River. I don’t know if the boat exists in this world or not, but it feels real. I don’t know what river I’m on, but I move along its quiet edges between the sandy shore and small islands, clumps of sand and boulders, a small tree. I have a sense these clusters of things, this water, this earth, are practicing a ritual, like candles or clay or trees or moving water, that I am joining them somehow, that I am partaking in these river rituals, too. Each time I wake up, I am left with only the feeling of the dream. But I know these dreams are somehow healing me.
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.
I remember sitting in the courtyard, during that same conference call with Sylvia Boorstein, looking at the magenta blossoms on my sprawling succulent in the orange pot. The blooms sprang to life the morning after our terrible windstorm, the greater part of a day and a night, gusts from 70 to 80 miles per hour, the worst I’ve lived through. Through it all I was working on a deadline to develop a website for my July writing retreat. It was impossible for me to give it my undivided attention. No matter what I did I couldn’t separate myself from my fear. The walls of my trailer shook and rattled in the wind. I said metta. I prayed all of us would be safe and unharmed–all the birds and small wild things, me and my neighbors inside our tin cans. But the next morning, when I saw how my succulent had burst into wild magenta bloom in spite of that terrible onslaught, that unbelievable battering, I thought, we need to be like this succulent. We need to respond to what is playing out now on our national stage with our own bright blossoming. Indeed, in the pink pussycat hats, the women’s marches, the way our judicial system is responding, the immigration protests, the country is doing just that. I have been especially bolstered by the fact that our “founding fathers” created our democracy with safeguards. I hadn’t counted on that. And again, I am proud to be a Californian in the midst of it all. I see our legislators and our governor trying to stand up, trying to do the right thing. I read an article the other day about a man in Los Angeles who is offering trainings to local activist organizations, teaching the self-care skills people will have to master in order to not be completely overwhelmed by the needs they are trying to meet now, particularly for those who serve the undocumented immigrant community. He sits them in a circle, places items for an altar at its center, let’s them talk about the toll these times are taking. And I want to honor each of them, every one of them, of you, for standing up. For being in the front lines. For giving response. For being our own fierce spring.
I’m taking Sylvia Boorstein’s online class that spans the year, “Mindfulness in Everyday Life.“ On a conference call in April, a woman asked her for advice on how to navigate the disturbing reality of life now in the United States with our sitting president. It comes up again and again in the meditation communities I’m a part of. I’m luckier than many in this, I think, in that I only read the newspaper. I imagine it’s easier than watching TV news. I can glance at headlines, skim stories, put the paper down when the clenching in my belly tells me to. I can look at still photographs of him, appalled by the ugly twist of his lips. It’s not as unsettling as listening to him “live.” When the question comes up in the conference call, I want to say what I believe is true. I can’t remember now if there was just not enough time left to raise my hand and speak, or if I hesitated, held myself back. Was I just self-conscious? Or did I convince myself what I wanted to say was too obvious? What I wanted to say is we have to have faith. Buddhists don’t work with that concept much. I think it’s because Buddhism is not something we need to take on faith. The Buddha didn’t expect that. He told us to try things out, to see for ourselves. So it makes sense to me that Buddhists may have more trouble in a time like this, a time when we are “forced” to watch an overweight, racist, misogynistic, xenophobic white man try to dismantle all the good that’s been put into place in recent years. Faith may not be an ordinary part of the equation, but we need it now. We need to believe the times we’re living in are a reaction to all the good progress we’ve made around the world. We need to believe this is the “getting worse” part before things get better. We need to believe this is not the beginning of the end, only the last-ditch effort to roll things back before we move together even more fully into the kind of world we want to live in always.
I climb the black metal table for the second time. The first time, weeks ago, I peered over the edge of the nest at two tiny perfect hummingbird eggs nestled side by side. Today, I see a black gangly shape lolling against the inside of the nest, beak to the sky. I am afraid he is dying. The wild bird rescue woman is so reassuring on the phone I almost cry. I see mama hummingbird zoom in and out. I blink twice and the two younglings are jostling each other beside the nest. Then they are gone, though this morning I think I spy one at the feeder. How does that work? Do they need to fan out very far from home? Are there rules about this? But oh. For one more day I catch glimpses of them perched in the guayaba tree, nowhere near the nest. Now I still check. I talk to the empty guayaba just in case they are nearby. (They are hard to spot.) The empty nest makes me ache even as I am so glad they made it. How many times did I worry? Now that they are gone, my fingers itch to dismantle the nest. I want to feel the way it resists or the way it tears or gives way against me. I want to smell it and to know if it is as soft as it looks or strangely rough because it is so strong. Of course I don’t do it. What if they can use it again? And how could I destroy the nest, so beautiful and alluring, poop and all?
It would be sacrilege, I think, to harm the nest. I remember the dream I have where hummingbirds are coming in through the windows and making nests inside my home. I worry about them being trapped inside during the night. But the nests they begin to build against the white walls or nearer the ceiling are more like hives than hummingbird nests, mud-wasp-like, a little creepy except the birds themselves are flitting about dispelling all possibility of anything sinister, so these are just an oddity, it seems. One set of my louvered windows in real life don’t have a screen, and sometimes a hummingbird does fly into the living room with me. They are usually quick and curious, and I’m thankful they tend to leave quickly, too, before I have time to worry for their sake. Since my dream, though, when they come and they poke their curious beaks toward the southwest corner of the ceiling, or they investigate the crevice beside the facing window, sometimes I wonder what it would be like if they did live here. The imagined mess makes me cringe. I would truly abandon any meager tie to civilized living. But think of the potential joy, too, all those incandescent little ones buzzing in and out or asleep nearby in the night. What if the approaching dusk meant I needed to be sure they were all accounted for, so I could close the window before full dark, so I could help to keep them safe here through the night?
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’ve decided to offer a writing retreat this summer.
Thursday July 6th (late afternoon) through midday Sunday, July 9th
at Joshua Tree Retreat Center
Joshua Tree, California
(about 45 minutes from the Palm Springs airport)
What we’ll do
Our focus will be on spontaneous writing a la Natalie Goldberg (or Peter Elbow) with several different writing prompts for short timed writings. We’ll write together and read our work out loud, letting the alchemy happen. We’ll do some sitting practice, too. Afternoons will be in silence. And I’ll bring in a few tidbits about the craft of writing, as well. People will be encouraged to take care of themselves and bow out of any activity they may not feel comfortable with. But we’ll create a supportive and expansive space for each of us to try our wings as desired.
Costs for early registration
I will post registration details ASAP, but I’m eager and excited (and a little afraid!) and wanted to tell you all right away. Tentative cost for early registration is $400 for the retreat program, three nights shared lodging and three vegan meals per day (possibly with some eggs and dairy available on the side—not sure yet).
More details and to register
I’ll post a copy of the flyer as soon as it’s available. In the meantime, if you’d like more details or would like to register at this early registration price, please call me at home weekdays (Pacific Daylight Time): 760-327-9759.
Thank you for reading this! And if you know anyone else who may be interested I would so love for you to pass this on (and perhaps the flyer when it’s ready, too). Oh, and if you happen to know of any writing sites or retreat sites or someplace you think I might advertise this (for free or at low cost), that would be really helpful, too. Thanks again.
Holding the dream of magic here!