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’m walking home from a big day, sticking to the shade where I can. I passed out my first flyers for my retreat at the writers guild meeting, then went to Cost Plus to redeem my birthday coupon for my favorite tea lights and small hand painted Easter egg ornaments I couldn’t resist. I stop near a walkway for a condominium complex, startled by an immense Great Dane. His owner comes into view, and I’m relieved to see he’s attached to the leash. “Oh my,” I say with a laugh. “He surprised me.” The dog’s head comes almost to my shoulders. “He’s beautiful,” I say. I tell his leash wielder I’ve seen them before, and he remembers me from our old neighborhood. Maybe I should tell him about my writing retreat, I think. But I don’t say anything. We part and I continue up the street. I hear the sound of wings. I think, raven, and I look up but don’t see the bird. The wingbeats are long and loud, and then I see three ravens just ahead of me, flying low, clustered, talking now. I stop on the sidewalk. It feels like they’re telling me I shouldn’t leave, telling me I should’ve told Tim about my retreat. I look back to where he and the Great Dane disappeared, and he comes walking out again without the dog. I call out to him. “Are you a writer by any chance?” I ask. (It makes me grin as I write. What a line.) I retrace my steps, talk about the ravens. “So, I decided maybe I should tell you about my retreat after all.” We stand together in the shade of a tree I don’t recognize. He says he’s not a writer, but then it turns out he writes morning pages every day (a la Julia Cameron) and just finished teaching an artist’s way class. “Oh,” I say with a wave of my hand, undoing his earlier disclaimer, “you are a writer.” I give him a flyer, talk about the deeper meaning of the work for me. He seems taken by the whole thing. I like him. “I’ll call you either way,” he says. I walk home cheered. The day has given me a quiet hope about my retreat. The bags I’m carrying seem lighter. I keep grinning and shaking my head in wonder. I’m awed by the clear second chance the universe gave me. And I’m flabbergasted by those ravens. I can still hear the sound of their wings.
I’m doing sitting practice on a Thursday morning in March. All the windows are open. I can hear the low hum of the swamp cooler in the back room, feel puffs of air against my skin. When I open my eyes the bougainvillea in the courtyard catches my heart. I close them again, take a long breath in, a long breath out. I feel a familiar tightness in my belly, like it might be messing with my breath. I stay with the feeling, sink deeper. All at once I know this part of me has been afraid for 59 years. The knowing floors me. I’m heartbroken for her. Her dedication humbles me, decades of being afraid on my behalf, wanting to keep me safe. I talk to her. I tell her how sorry I am she’s been afraid all these years and I didn’t know. I invite her to let go. I’ll be afraid again, I say, but you no longer need to hold it all the time. I am bowled over by her sheer strength, to have held this fear all my life. I cry, cradle my belly with my palms, my forearms, both sad and grateful for her sacrifice. I’ve known my fat was a way to protect myself, but this deepens my sense of this. Was my body trying to cocoon this ball of ancient fear, buffer her, maybe, so her efforts might be just a little easier? It’s okay now, I tell her. We’re safe here, I say. We’re safe here doing sitting practice beside the open sliding glass door, the house finch chattering in the courtyard. (Well, safe barring maybe an earthquake, I think.) I tell her she can come on duty now only as needed. You don’t need to do this all the time, I say. I don’t know if she can unfurl just like that, but I vow to remind her again and again. I am still made dumb by what she’s done, this gallantry, the immensity of this feat. It’s okay, I tell her again. It’s okay to rest now in between, I say. Rest, the way the deer’s body relaxes when the danger’s passed, the way she returns to ease, nibbles more grass. Rest, the way the white-crowned sparrows drop down one by one from the bougainvillea after I walk by, going back to eating seeds from the ground, talking music. Rest, I tell her. Sleep, even, if you can. I’ll be right here.
If I were told to create a scrapbook of our springtime in Palm Springs I would include a photograph of the full moon setting in the west this morning, its newly-waning glow poised above the mountains just as the light began to find the day. I’d bottle the air I woke up to last night, how it felt to sit in the center of my bed breathing in the scent of lemon blossoms. Wow, I thought. Inside my home! In the middle of the night! What a gift, I thought. I’d add an audio file to the scrapbook of the grackle who’s calling out this morning from the telephone pole. I’m in the courtyard filling the tray feeders, seeds sliding through my fingers as I listen. It’s his second morning here. I’ve never had a grackle near my home before. It feels like wishes coming true. It makes me want to drive down the western coast of mainland Mexico again, south from Topolobampo on a morning in early April, watching the world begin to show itself around me as I drive along the carretera in the last of the dark. I will park my car off the highway beside the tiendita after the toll booth. I will buy warm tortillas and beans and salsa for breakfast. Even before I get out of the car I can hear them, like nothing else I’ve ever heard before. I stand beside the road turning in a long, slow circle. I see big black birds in every tree, lines of trees that stretch along both sides of the carretera, no cars at this hour. I can see the sea off to the right. The air is wet with it, but the morning sun is warm. Sunlight glints off black feathers, making the birds shine between the leaves of the trees. It takes a little time for it to sink in as I stand there, even though I’ve been here before, even though I’ve sought this out. Every tree is filled with grackles, hundreds and hundreds of them as far as I can see along the road. The air is a cacophony of their calls, these wild, wacky, exotic, zany, happy bird noises. They fill me with their exuberance, their vibrant, lusty liveliness. I am in love with these great-tailed grackles. I am in love with Mexico on an April morning by the sea. I could stand here forever.
[Editor’s note: This piece was written in response to a writing prompt from Bryan Chohen’s book Four Seasons of Creative Writing.]
It’s just after six in the morning. I steer my rental car down Ocean View. I’m going back to Palm Springs for the day. The eastern sky is a soft, rich orange. I stop the car in the middle of the road because the waning moon is hanging just above the layer of clouds, the thinnest sliver luminous against that green-blue we glimpse here in twilight hours. I sit, breathing, taking it in, the air cold on my face, the light growing around me. I feel greeted by the universe, the promise of a good journey, well wishes for the long day ahead. I leave my car at the airport, and when I walk out the main doors of the terminal, I’m stunned by the glory of our mountains and their snow. I feel oddly proud of our airport, proud to know people who’ve never been here before walk outside to this spectacular view. I walk home, past the fountain, relishing it all. As I go I spin in a circle now and then, scanning our ring of mountains, snow, sky. Off and on, I want to whine or pout to have missed the first day of this new snow. But mostly I feel lucky again and again. I go to the library, buy four used books for four dollars. I don’t want to worry about due dates right now, but also I love these soft trade paperbacks. And lately I’ve been reading my way through my pile from the last big library sale, the books that appeal to me when I’m filling my bag but so often go unread. I’m enjoying all the different voices, and I want to keep going. I buy vegan wraps at the health food store, and then I am home. The birds all still have a little seed left in their feeders. The mouse in the house has eaten the small succulent on the kitchen table that Mami gave me and a few of the buds on the Christmas cactus, but she’s stayed out of my bed and not caused havoc, so I’m grateful. I clean up the bits of dirt from the table, sweep the floor, ride my bike to get my hair cut, eat two wraps, drink kombucha, make small piles on the bed for repacking. In the evening I call Ian for a ride to class, get to hear about his metta retreat. After he drops me off again at home, I pause outside my door. All the feeders are filled, ready for the morning birds. I look up at the stars, take a deep breath, soaking up my dark courtyard, my sky. I close my eyes, and when I open them I see a falling star above my home. I make a wish. I open the door, step inside, deep, quiet awe welling up in me for the framing of this day: the moon at sunrise, the falling star, brackets of welcome, of reassurance, of solace. Thank you.
I’m engrossed in preparing for one of my classes. I sit for hours with my laptop making choices again and again about how to bring my course over into this new online learning system. Each time I need to make a small decision, I have to try to figure out how it works, explore the possibilities of the software first, then choose what seems best. Nothing is simple. But I have given up lamenting being forced to switch over. Because I am inside it now, fully engaged, no longer frustrated by the limitations of the software, only fascinated by the process, the details, the decisions. All day while I work the rain comes, steady and sweet. The birds are loud outside the window. Now and then I remember to stop to listen, look up, savor their boisterousness. In the early afternoon, I hear a soft skrittery sound. A hummingbird is sitting on the open louvers. She is out of the rain. I talk to her, touched and honored. I hope the warm air from the heater wafts over her perch. At one point I realize how good it feels to be immersed in my work like this. But I want to go for a walk, see how full the creek bed is. In the not quite dusk, I get a glimpse of the mountains when the clouds part, and I know I’ll regret it if I don’t get out there. I tear myself away from my laptop, pull my wild fuzzy magenta scarf over my head. I take my lime green umbrella, lock the door behind me. I refuse to bring my flashlight because I want my pockets free. The umbrella feels like enough of an encumbrance. Later I realize I didn’t even bring my key, but I don’t care. I stand beside the creek, the clean air cold on my face, and watch the water move. I startle a cottontail. I walk to the foot bridge where the falling water gets loud, then away again, the frogs and the wide moving water always beside me. I dream of snow falling on our mountains as I walk. It’s dark when I get back, and the light in the living room makes my home look warm and inviting. I dig out the spare key, glance at the courtyard in the light from the three paper solar lanterns in a row along the shed. Everything is glistening in the wet dark. I feel lucky and grateful for my home, for knowing I get to be warm and dry, get to have a good dinner. Before I go inside, I pick two handfuls of mustard greens for my soup. I even have a good book waiting for my Friday night. It feels like the ending of an ordinary day in an extraordinary way. Thank you.
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.