Mammals need three things when we’re young: warmth, touch, soothing vocalizations. I think of lullabies I can’t remember. (Were there lullabies?) I think of the funny nonsense sounds I used to make to my cat Boo, lots of made-up words with muted m and u sounds, my way of loving him out loud. I make those same sounds without thinking to the hummingbird when she alights in the guayaba tree ten inches from my face. I think she decides I’m safe because after listening to my noises she moves to her soft little nest I didn’t even know was there, three branches over. I string fuchsia ribbons to keep her safe with notes attached that read “Temporary closure—hummingbird.” Later, back inside my trailer, I hear odd little sounds coming through the bathroom window. I step into the bathtub, creep close. A female goldfinch is perched high in the guayaba making quiet scrijjery sounds I’ve never heard before. I think of the mammalian need for vocalizations. Maybe birds need them, too. Maybe the goldfinch is making these soft noises for the hummingbird eggs. I remember the pretend German songs I used to sing to myself for hours while I crouched on the walkway in front of our Tujunga house dreaming up little make-believe worlds amid the succulents. I feel a dearness for my young self and a rush of grateful pride that at age four she knew just how to soothe herself. (When did she forget?) A whir of wings brings me back. The hummingbird settles on the branch beside the goldfinch, facing her. They sit together like old friends, and then the hummingbird flies back to her nest. I am tired and tender, all opened up. I stand in the bathtub for a long time listening to the goldfinch song. I feel like I belong, all of us woven together by this lullaby: the goldfinch, the hummingbird, the two beings in her tiny eggs, and me.
In the midst of all my “bad behavior,” all my spewing of anger into the world, I begin to try to acknowledge my “victories,” even the small moments. It feels important to recognize and value the times when I am able to stop my “bad behavior” from escalating. And not just being able to stop myself from erupting but also from sitting stuck in my story about how I’m being wronged. (I can see progress especially on that front. I tend to notice more quickly and turn myself aside from my stories, not dwelling in them, not feeding them.) Last week at my mother’s, I realized I wasn’t as awful as I’ve been before. I had to laugh at myself for that—talk about setting the bar low!—but I figure it’s akin to Larry Yang’s descending intentions that end with, “If I’m not able to do no harm, may I do the least harm possible.” I did less harm this last time, and even though I know things like this aren’t linear, and I may do more harm again in the future, the fact that I did less harm on that one visit still counts. And I want to celebrate the still rare times when I get all the way clear, when I let go enough in the middle of a disagreement to really apologize, like the other day on the phone with my mother. “I’m sorry,” I say. And I sink into it and feel the true softening in me when I say the words, instead of just speaking them in a clean voice while I’m still holding on to it, still churning inside. When I was young, I knew letting go was the secret to everything. But learning how to let go is another story. I get embarrassed to be where I am with this after decades of trying. But I’m still trying. I’m not giving up. So that counts, too.
This morning I walk from the preserve to Chimney Ranch. I’ve been invited for a hike. I stop along the way to take pictures with my mini iPad. I am almost sixty now, so I will need a new photograph for my blog. I hear a Bewick’s wren, a cactus wren, a kestrel and a house finch on my short walk. The only one I get to see is the cactus wren who rubs his beak on a fan palm frond and doesn’t seem bothered by me watching from below his tree. When I arrive, Corina is putting up green balloons with marvelous hand-drawn faces. Barney opens gold plastic eggs for his birthday. One of them has a tiny ceramic roadrunner inside. The universe is watching out for us, nice cloud cover for our hike, the temperature heading toward the high 90s. After, we get in the pool. I am cold and get out to sit in the sun, happy just to be. Everyone in the pool decides to make a whirlpool. I watch them circling for a long time, delighted, not quite dizzy. At one point I am overcome. I think about how lucky I am to be part of a group of people who want to spend their time making whirlpools. It’s so happy, so wholesome. It almost makes me cry. At home now, I am still all filled up with the glory of this. May I always be blessed with people who like making whirlpools. May each of you be blessed with people who like making whirlpools. May all beings everywhere be blessed with people who like making whirlpools. And to whirlpool-making people everywhere, my big thanks.
I am standing in front of the automatic doors when the train arrives at the station. My mother is sitting on a cement bench beside the track watching the train pull in. She is six feet away. When the doors don’t open, I pound on the window. She looks up. I have some crazy unformed idea she might call out to a conductor outside the train, tell them her daughter is stuck in the last car. Instead I run upstairs. “No! No!” I yell. And, “Wait!” When I find the conductor in the next car, the train is just beginning to pull away. He won’t do anything to stop it. “This isn’t an emergency,” he says. I scream at him and apologize in the same breath. I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t reach my mother on her cell phone, and I can’t calm down. An hour and a half later I am at her house in the foothills, but my heart is still pounding. That night I play those moments over in my head, the shock of watching her outside while I’m trapped on the train. Why did this happen? Maybe because this was not about me. It wasn’t personal. I got to watch my body dump crazed amounts of adrenaline into my system. I remember when I was 24 and my stepfather had a seizure in the middle of the night. I was incoherent when I dialed 911. And even though this is not me yelling at the bus driver, even though this is not me yelling at the notary public, there is something reassuring about the idea of all that adrenaline messing with my mind, as if, just maybe, it’s not completely my fault. Something cracks open in me, a small fissure, a glint—the beginning, I hope, of acceptance.
In one week in October I cause seven scenes. I rant in a public email in my new job, take an exasperated stand against a colleague I never liked in a public email at my old job. The first turns out to be a mistake—I jumped the gun. The second makes me feel mean, even though I think she had it coming, even though people are glad I said what I said. I end up having to send another public email to apologize. I should have sent a private note, I say. In the real world, I storm out of a mail center after trying to get a form notarized. “I’ve never had a good experience here,” I say in a loud voice as I push my way out the door. The city bus I’m on pulls up at the bus stop directly behind my transfer bus, and I hurry toward it. The driver pulls away as I approach. “No!” I yell. And then, “Fuck! Fuck!” I can’t believe this is happening. No one says a word, and I hate that I am spewing this ugliness out into the world. I now have six blocks to walk with my heavy bags to catch my Amtrak bus downtown. At Mami’s, the universe gives me lots of practice, endless chances to respond with composure and grace. I fail again and again and again. As the weeks unfold this pairing of opportunity and shocking failure presents itself so often there is no time to dwell on my shortcomings. I can only exclaim, only keep trying. A friend at sangha tells me his zen teacher says we do this until we wear ourselves out, until we are exhausted. I wonder when that will happen to me. And what might happen next?
I wake to a world washed clean in the night, dark patches of wet in the road, fleeting evidence. I sweep while water heats for my tea and for the hummingbird’s sugar water to replace the rain-diluted batch hanging in the courtyard. I squeeze grapefruits my friend Bob brings me from his tree, four halves with the yellow plastic hand juicer I bought when I lived in Ajijic. I phone Mami, and we talk about the rain. I tell her how my friend Richard wanted it to rain at night. (I am a fan of daytime rain though I think drifting in and out of sleep to the sounds of falling rain is one of the best things in the world.) “He got what he wanted,” I say. My words echo another’s earlier this month and make me wince. I shy away from that memory, but for one flicker I wonder if my comment holds that same resentment. I hope not. But now I am alert to the phrase, curious to know if it always evokes the other one who did not get what she wanted, if it is always stained in that way by a little bit of ugly.
Alfalfa shook her head as if she could shake out the demons with the raindrops in her hair. She’d been angry three times today already, and it wasn’t even afternoon. They were all stupid reasons, she thought, and now I can’t stop being grumpy. She was angry with herself. She thought she rooted out the worst of her self-hatred, decades of peeling that particular onion, layer after layer, until–she’d thought–there were only small pockets of it wedged in hidden places, sparked on rare occasions. Until now those remaining pockets felt like tiny eruptions, small squalls only, not the deadly storms that used to make her want to die. In recent days, though, these crazy short-fused bursts of anger were chased by strange backlashes of self-loathing, akin to what she weathered long ago and thought she’d left behind. Left behind like the cottage on the lake she and her father used to visit in the summers, her nose pressed up against the car window each time they had to leave, the cottage growing smaller and smaller as they drove away. She shook her head again, a softer gesture now, sadness deep inside her. She missed her father. Not his compulsive need for order, never that, but the kind of dance he did with life, the part of him that loved every inch of that lake and showed her why. He gave her her name one summer there all those years ago, and she let it stick, goofy as it was. She let people think it was some crazy hippie choice, some commune-loving naiveté. She didn’t say it was the magic whimsy of the man who showed her faces in weathered bits of wood, who made her fall in love with wet stones at the edge of the lake, the man who always let her feel like a person, who never treated her like a child.
[Editor’s note: timed writing, the prompt to include the words grumpy, dance, compulsive and raindrops.]