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.
I breathe in what I need. I breathe out compassion. I am sitting on the floor. My eyes are closed, but I can feel the other women in the room with me. We breathe in and out together. They are buoys in my ocean. We ride the swells of our breath. The teacher’s voice guides us, goes quiet, guides us again. I concentrate. I drift. I feel overwhelmed. I remember the teacher telling us we can close when we need to. I lay my folded arms across my raised knees, touch my forehead to my forearm. My neck is stiff, tight. I curve but do not let go. Then I do, letting my arms cradle the weight of my head. I feel the release all along the length of my spine. I open my eyes. My face is in a cavern. I see the cluster of crystals against my chest, the white linen of my shirt. Light seeps in from the bright desert afternoon outside the windows, and the blue of my cotton pants tints the air. Now that I am here inside this soft-light cave, I no longer need to close. The teacher’s voice soothes me. I make no effort to understand the words, but I sense them sinking in. I rest in a way I may have never rested before in a group like this. I am inside my cavern, but I am part of all the women in the room. I am a buoy now, too. We ride the quiet sea together. I think, maybe I can take the memory of this place with me. Maybe I can resurrect it when I’m in the midst of disturbance, let it give me access to compassion for myself. Later, I remember the comfort of my cavern, the hushed softness, the quiet light like stained glass windows, like a cathedral.
No unsolicited feedback. No cross talk. Patience. Listening. “Respect,” I say. Then I realize it is inherent in most of the items already on our list. What kind of culture do we want to create for our class? By the time everything is written on the white board my spirits have sunk. I think I am just tired. The first night of this self-compassion class there is a lot of material to cover. When we take a short break, I go outside into the warm wind. I lean over from my hips, stretch my spine. I stand and swing my arms, turn from side to side, loosen my neck, my shoulders. I understand I am not just tired. I am discouraged by the list of guidelines for our behavior because I am afraid I won’t be able to honor them. I am afraid I will blurt things out, hurt people’s feelings, break the rules. I am afraid my bad behavior will make the space unsafe. I am ashamed in advance. The teacher said we’ll make mistakes, I tell myself. But her voice was casual, and I know for me it is not casual. It is a big deal. I move near the edge of the balcony and face northwest. I stand still and take in the long stretch of desert before me, the mountains in the distance, the smog. I feel the warm wind on my face, my arms. I let the fear and the shame seep out of me, be swept away in a warm gust of air. Later, I walk home in the dark. I stop on the sidewalk beside a small square block of undeveloped desert. I look up at the moon and Venus in the sky. I hear traffic in the distance. The half moon shows the contrast between the sand and dark lumps of brush. I scan for coyotes. I stand for a long time looking out at the quiet, moonlit field. I feel safe, satiated, washed clean.
I try to be quiet when I leave my courtyard, but the gate screeches, wood against wood. I walk toward the creek path in the early morning. There’s a mockingbird every half block marking my passage. Today I see three cottontails in the creek bed, no coyotes. A squirrel races across my path. I stop to watch a mockingbird displaying from the top of an old, wide fan palm near the footbridge. On the bridge, I watch the swifts. There are more of them than I have ever seen, flying in a big circling cloud, then pausing on a stretch of nearby wires, as if they, too, are taking in the show. Or maybe I am their show, the lone human so strangely fascinated by their ordinary acts. I don’t know if they’re really swifts. I’m making that up because until today I never saw them sit still, and they are always quick in flight. Today, when they sit on the wires, I see their tails are forked. I stand there for a long time looking up, my mouth open, watching them swoop and circle, their small noises a communal sound, as if this ever-changing shape of small bodies is one beast, all those wings and hearts beating together. Then the extraordinary happens, flashes of yellow gold on their bellies, beneath their wings. At first I’m confused, but then I understand. The sun has risen, and it’s lighting up their undersides because it’s so low in the sky. I watch until the light changes, until the cloud shrinks to just four handfuls of birds. This reminds me of when I lived in Sebastopol and discovered that three-week window when you meet dark furry caterpillars everywhere on country roads. I remember dodging each one, so surprised I’d never noticed them before. And now at sixty this first glimpse of small birds lit from below, dazzling, the waning half moon behind them, suspended and silent in the blue sky.
The psychic told me to listen to The Secret. I didn’t want to do anything she said, but I didn’t want to just dismiss it, either. What if this was a direction from the universe, the silver lining in her cloud? I looked the book up online. It was nothing I would ever gravitate toward on my own. I wrestled with myself, decided to buy it. I wanted to be open to what the universe might want to tell me. I listened to The Secret while I washed the dishes, when I rode the bus. I listened to it sitting on the train in Union Station. I tried to get past the way it felt like a big, long advertisement and just listen to the words. It’s all about the law of attraction. (So, it isn’t exactly a secret.) But it felt good to be reminded about how responsive the universe is and to hear ingenious ways people draw the things they want. I feel like I need to devote myself more fully to what I’m creating in my life and in the world. I’ve been paying attention for a long time, redirecting my thoughts, banishing my fears. But listening to The Secret made me feel like I’ve been slacking in comparison, and like I want to find a way to truly believe. And because it is so focused on drawing what we want to us without addressing the complex issues that arise, it made me wrestle with how to fit this into my world view, how to reconcile “the secret” with my ethics, with the other ways the universe works. I’m not ready yet to try to put it all in words, but I know this internal grappling has been good for me. And I’m proud of myself for being encouraged by the possibilities instead of making myself feel bad for not being further along in my life, further along in this process. That’s how I’ve reacted in the past. But when I listened to The Secret, I glimpsed a lightness, a way of being in relationship to the world that I’ve always imagined. I tend to be too serious. But this glimpse made me think maybe I can learn to play.
I’m not done talking about this practice of recognizing and appreciating our goodness. I’m pretty sure it can be a gateway to accepting myself, a door I’ve been seeking for ages. But I don’t have much experience with it yet. Do you make a point of doing this? Do you appreciate even the tiny human decency kinds of things you do every day like holding the door open for a stranger at the laundromat or letting someone with only a couple of items go ahead of you in the grocery store? I want to start. I do notice when things make me feel good. When I exchange a real smile with someone out in the world, like last week on the creek path when a woman passed me and really smiled at me and I smiled back. Or a month ago when the man holding only one bottle of beer saw me walking back and forth at Ralph’s dejected by the long lines and insisted I go before him in his line. But these are their good things, not mine. And do I really want to write about the good things I do? I know when I’m in a group it makes me uncomfortable when I’m thanked for something little I have done, some small voluntary act. It goes back to high school, I think, squirming in my desk when the teacher praised my work. I don’t like being singled out. I don’t want to be made separate from the other people in the room. I don’t want anyone to feel less than. (Sometimes at the meditation center when the volunteers are being praised, I feel a little bit like that, because I am not volunteering, almost as if I am being shamed by comparison.) I think part of me would rather keep my small acts of kindness to myself. But I am a writer, and I want to tell my stories, so maybe this will be a part of it. If I can capture the way it feels, like those unexpected moments of intimacy when we pass a stranger on the street, then I want to do that. And I want to cherish my own small moments, let those moments of recognition work their magic on me. I want to let them finish melting the last of my unkindness toward myself, again and again, as often as it takes.
Maybe akin to the sweetness of recognizing our wholesome acts are small moments when we stop, and gratitude seeps in. Each time an ant I think has drowned beside my sink comes to life when I dab him up with a little wad of tissue. Just past our last full moon when I wake to see her shining in the clerestory window, and the planet paired with her that night is framed in the next window over, small, solid, wish-worthy star. At the kitchen sink in my mother’s house I pour chamomile tea for my gallbladder into two Gerolsteiner bottles, and it fits just exactly right. Ian drops me off after sangha, and we wave to each other when he drives away. I sit on the edge of my bed between packing to savor my alfalfa and oatstraw tea while it’s still hot. The woman who calls to interview me for my unemployment claim takes the time to reassure me, her words strong and warm. I trip for the second time over the same uneven sidewalk on my way to Ralph’s, but this time I don’t fall. I am angled back to trim a small branch on my guayaba tree in the afternoon, and so I get to see the waning crescent moon between its leaves. I tell Amie after writing group how much difference her belief in me made in the beginning when things were so hard there. I hear a raven making that soft round sound I love so much and look around to see two of them sitting in a tall fan palm a short block away. I feel good talking to Barbara after sangha even though it’s only for a minute. I roll over in bed after I see the moon and the star and feel their light bathing my back. In the morning I see them again in the lightening sky before the star fades and the moon sinks behind the mountain. “Good journey,” I whisper just before she sets. “Good journey.” Good wishes. Good times.