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!
I’ve been going through a rough patch. I notice I want myself to be “better” before I am. Now I’m wanting to trust myself more. I do always turn the corner, always come back to being whole and well again. It’s happening already. But I tend to try to make it happen before its time. I try to rush myself. Maybe now I’m learning to let myself be, to have more faith. I remind myself it will pass. I’ll “return” when I am ready. For three weeks I dream busy dreams where I’m working with a repetitive task throughout the night. I don’t remember them in the morning, only the feeling of them. At first I think they are stress dreams, the kind I get when I work too hard. Years ago when I worked in catering in Los Angeles, there would be long stretches of prep for big parties. When I slept I’d dream about 12-gallon stainless steel stock pots at the foot of my bed. All night I would stir them with big wooden spoons. But then I remember two of my current dreams, and I know I’ve been doing healing work. In one dream there’s a kind of mind map I am building. I have a memory of rows of dark shapes and small bits of text with straight lines leading from one to the other. On the top layer are drawings of envelopes. They’re lit up like neon signs, green envelopes with pink hearts at their centers like seals. I check on them during the night. Sometimes there are two envelopes waiting, sometimes three. Their lights wink off and on. I think I am sending myself love letters. In the second dream, the moon is hanging in the western sky above the mountains. I wake up to it sometimes like this in the night, a beacon shining through the sliding glass door. On this night I drift in and out of sleep, the moon waning but still almost full. In the dream it’s almost dawn, and I’m taking sips of this luminous disc, again and again at regular intervals, like medicine.
For the first time in ages, I’m enjoying the luxury of easing into the new year. I took the week off, and I’ve been attending special daily sessions at our meditation center. At first, I was going to plan a demanding daily schedule of writing and sitting practice to accompany these evenings of sitting and teaching. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to stick to my schedule,” I said. Marylou and Richard and I were sitting together on their patio. Richard suggested in the kindest of ways I might be more easy with myself. At the time, I felt defensive and not understood. “Retreats are supposed to be challenging,” I grumbled. But later, I let his gentle words sink through me, and I ease off of expecting so much of myself. Instead of pushing, I let myself sleep in, dawdle over tea, do my morning writing and sitting practices propped up in bed with the San Jacintos stretched out before me. I make soup, nap, read, eat popcorn. Each evening I step outside, close the door behind me. The solar Christmas lights in the bougainvillea greet me in the dark courtyard. One night the crescent moon is cupping Venus. The next night Mars and the waxing moon and Venus are all in a row. They accompany me on my half-hour walk to the meditation center, the air brisk on my face, my scarves soft and warm against my ears. After, the stars walk me home. One morning midway through, I cry without knowing why. But I trust in the rightness of it. One afternoon I fight on the phone with a loved one. I make her cry. When I hang up, I remember to hold my self-hatred with kindness, identify the swirl of other feelings, five in all. I picture them nested in my open palms, the tenderness immense. One day during the teaching I am overcome. To think, we are all here wanting to heal, working toward becoming the peace we want to see in the world. What a gift to be able to do this together. On day seven, a morning session, I look back as I leave my courtyard and see scores of goldfinch in the bare branches of my neighbor’s tree, like ornaments, like lemons. I walk to the center, happy I am me, so glad for these eight days of practice, for the connection with this sangha, this community. The air is cold on my face, but I am warm in my layers. I feel the way I used to feel on a winter night flanked by Sofia and Sable, their small weights warm against my calves, my belly. I would lie there in the quiet dark and cry because I knew I must be the luckiest woman in the world.
It rains off and on, steady and quiet in the night. When I prop myself up on my elbows to peer over the windowsill in the early morning, I see a swathe of pale orange across the southern sky. Half awake and planning to go back to sleep again, I look west and see a rainbow. I grab my lime green umbrella and my mini iPad and juggle them in the rain to take a picture, goofy and awkward, but it’s no use. The image doesn’t begin to capture the light in it, the magic. I make oatstraw and alfalfa tea and climb back under the covers, my feet cold from my foray. I sip my hot tea and watch the mountains, shrouded in mist. I listen to my birds. My thoughts drift to a colleague. My belly clenches, a messy swirl inside me at the memory, feeling not heard, dismissed, angry, hurt. I wake up to the moment and remember. “May I hold you with kindness,” I say out loud to the feelings. I missed this part of the vipassana practice until two weeks ago when I was listening to a recording of Sylvia Boorstein, and it just came into me. I wonder how I missed it. I see it, after, in my beginner’s book I am rereading, right there in the first pages. It is Boorstein’s phrase, too, that Ian invokes each time we begin sitting practice. “May I meet this moment fully. May I meet it as a friend.” I’ve always loved it, but I didn’t make the connection until now. It has holding our feelings with kindness at the heart of it. Just like Thich Nhat Hanh’s, “Hello anger, my old friend.” But I didn’t get it until now, that direct turning toward our feelings each time they arise, welcoming them. I wonder if maybe I needed to foster enough self-kindness in more general terms before this practice of receiving uncomfortable feelings like old friends was even practical for me. I knew we needed to accept what comes, knew we needed to be kind to ourselves, but it didn’t click. What comes to me this morning is my colleague’s behavior is not a reflection of her regard for me. It’s only what she does, and I take it personally. I cry quick, sweet tears. I return to my big cup of golden tea resting on the covers in my lap, warm my hands against its sides. My toes are warm now, too. And my heart.
Ah, yes. Yeah. Let it roll. Let it flip flop you around, slap the ears, soft like fur. Let it. Let it, ah, yeah. Let it make you move, only a little, mostly inside. Your heart, yeah, tap tap tapping. Your belly, yeah, keeping to the beat, the dance, the yes you can, the look at me look at us grooving. Yes, you can you can we can together we can let it roll under our tongues in our thumbs around and between us and inside us moving back and forth joining us while it passes through passes between passes along. Ah, yes. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Let it roll. Let it dance and sing. Let it ring and zing zing zing. Let it bounce between us hearts beating to the rhythm no separate selves only this room full of warm souls wrapped up together in the music.
[Editor’s note: This is an unedited piece (except for three words in the last sentence) in response to yesterday’s poetry prompt from the Two Sylvias Press advent calendar. Here is the prompt: “Write a poem about a style of music (jazz, hip-hop, blues, country, reggae, opera, heavy metal, etc.) while imitating the music style in the wording and phrases of your poem.” I feel shy posting it. Maybe it is too silly. But I felt the music right from the first line, and it was good fun letting the poem come through me. I hope it might be a little bit fun to read, especially out loud.]
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.