On the walk back to the train station, I stop beneath a liquid amber and listen to a raven make his luscious, rounded talking sounds. I stand there for a long time listening, watching him in the fork of the tree, all shiny black, proud, strong beak. When he flies away, I listen to his wings beat against the air until I can’t hear them anymore. Waiting by the train tracks, after, I remember the lucky penny I found on my trip here twenty days ago. I left it behind this morning with a note, transferring the luck. Because of the penny, I scan the ground. I see a dead hawk lying beside the track. She is on her back, one wing splayed open, a richness of underfeathers open to the sky, striped ones, tufts of pure white ones that flutter in the breeze. A Cooper’s hawk, I’m almost certain. I kneel beside her. Every cell in me wants to cradle her still form in my arms, hold her against me, carry her somewhere softer, safer, prettier. Tuck flowers around her. But my train is due any moment. I hear the train even now, kneeling beside her. I can’t stop crying. I ask blessings for her, shoulder my backpack, turn toward the train. I am still crying when I find my seat upstairs, leaving the hawk, leaving everything behind, it seems. I look out the window, and everything blurs. Her mountains are behind me now, too, I think. But even now, I marvel. How did she and I manage to go from where we were to where we are now in such short a time? How did we soften, still so near the nightmare of those first weeks? How did we so swiftly come full circle, all the way back to sweetness, back to love?
Early Sunday morning I am on my way home. I am early for my train, so I wander down the semi-residential street, hoping for a latte. I stand for a long time beneath one of my favorite trees, pink and rose blossoms like starfish. It is full of tight buds, amazing autumn bloom. There are ravens everywhere in the quiet street, the only ones out here with me at this hour. I follow them, drink a decaf soymilk latte on a bench, savor every hot, creamy sip. I see her mountains in the distance, feel an ache to be leaving. Yesterday when we said goodnight there was sweetness between us, and again this morning when I woke her to say goodbye. The night before I had a tantrum in self-hatred, couldn’t decide when to leave, wanted flat, pan-fried noodles but couldn’t bring myself to go get them, settled on making brown rice pasta in green salad for the two of us, settled on leaving Sunday. Then we settled in together with dinner, our closest thing to peace in weeks. I look away from the mountains now, feel again the ache of separation. I glance at my coffee cup, see my name on the label. It is spelled right, even though she didn’t ask me how to spell it. It is such a small thing, but it feels like a gift. Seeing my name reaches into me, softens me somehow, makes me cry. It brings me back to myself. I’ve seen myself in the bathroom mirror a handful of times in the past two days, really seen myself, the first in all this time. I rub my thumb over the label on my cup, and I think, as hard as I tried to take care of myself, maybe I mostly disappeared.
Day 11 I feel like living proof we are only given what we can bear. I am not pointing to biblical references, only the proverbial sayings, and I don’t even know if I believe this is true. I think sometimes we break, and then if we are lucky we mend. But today she wakes better, more like herself. The angry attacks come less often. And the change feels calibrated to just before my tipping point. I could not have endured it much longer, but I only know this because it has lessened. I sense the full strain of it only now when there is some relief. Today in chavasana I fill with gratitude and leave two small puddles of tears on my green yoga mat when I am done. I marvel at the timing, this pushing me to the edge but not over. I’ve never been so aware of it, this intricate tuning. I bet it has happened before, many times. But today I am awake to it. I feel how big the gift.
I fall in love with people at the hostel. Three who work there and a handful who are visiting like me. There are two young women in particular, one from Senegal and one from Argentina, who steal my heart. They are both so vibrant, so strong and confident, so warm. (I cry when we have to say goodbye.) I spend mornings in my green wooden chair overlooking the meadow. I greet people as they walk by. One morning I am brimming with goodwill, and I notice little ways I’ve come to be different. I am saddened by one woman at the front desk who decides I am annoying. (I can be, I know, don’t think I’ve been unduly so with her.) It hurts my heart, but I don’t let it swallow me. I turn away from it, instead, allow it to be her problem, let my heart lift again. I am irked by the woman in my dorm who gets up early, goes in and out, lets the door slam every time. But I don’t get myself all worked up over it, don’t stir self-righteous anger. (I do show her later how to close the door more softly.) In the late afternoon, I sneak a yoga mat from the big basket in the basement and an extra blanket from my bed upstairs and walk down to the basketball court beside the meadow. Birds sit on the chain-link fence and watch me meditate, keep me company when I do my sun salutes. Once, the covey of quail come, and I take quick peeks at them, shy and sweet in the coastal grasses. I take the ferry back to San Francisco, and a second one to Oakland and my train, loving the sunlight and the open water. I eat sourdough olive rolls from Acme bakery and fresh, purple figs on the long trip home. I drink black tea to stay awake, write two blog posts, read a novel on my mini iPad. The late-night air is hot in Palm Springs when I arrive. Exhaustion claims me. I feel a little lost now in this other world.
I choose the path on the left. It cuts through dense growth as tall as I am, berries, poison oak. There are pink flowers that scent the air with their wild rose fragrance, violet thistles, bright yellow fennel blossoms three feet above my head. If you look below, you can see pockets of open space, a honeycomb of dens and pathways for larger animals. I peek into them, hoping to spy someone. I’ve decided the animal I saw on the hillside trail was not a coyote but a red fox. That explains the way he felt so different to me, more shy, sweeter somehow, non-threatening. I would like to see him again. The sun is surprising, warm on my shoulders, but the bramble caves are empty. Once in a while the brush dips below my head, and I get to see the lagoon. I stop again and again to just stand there and take it all in. I already love this lagoon, first glimpse, how the water is always moving, talking to the sea, but in a way that speaks to stillness, to safe harbor. The pelicans enchant me, wake up in me the time I fell in love with them in Todos Santos. I watch them glide in to land on the water or take to the air in groups. The sound of them batting the surface of the lagoon with their wings follows me as I walk. I am the only human here. Halfway to the beach I am overcome by how deep the need in me was for this solitude after three full days without being alone except for that first short walk up the hill. It reminds me of living in Ajijic and wandering onto a dirt road that ran west of the town, finding myself beside a big field with horses near the lake, no one else in sight, the peace of the countryside easing a part of me I didn’t even know had been disturbed by all the concrete and bricks, my neighbors packed in tight around me. Funny, I think, to have Mexico conjured twice for me on such a short walk in this northern land. I stand alone on the path for a long time watching the pelicans, breathing in the scent of the wild roses and the darker smell of the wetlands. When I feel something loosen in my chest, I keep walking to the sea.
I’m collecting ways to reach myself in tumult. It started when I fell in love with Sylvia’s “sweetheart approach.” Of course, I think, I need to be kind to myself before I can be kind to anyone else. I’ve been skipping so many steps, thinking I just needed to be able to get clear of my reactivity—go straight to a measured response. But when I can’t use the sweetheart approach in the heat of things, I lose heart. In our class, we learn the “self-compassion break.” It feels like what I’ve been doing, combining the sweetheart approach with metta, but it reminds us we aren’t alone, which I sometimes forget, so I add it to my toolbox. There’s the “soles of the feet.” Check. Affectionate breathing. Check. When I have my “cathedral” experience, I include it, too, and this unkind voice says, big whoop. You already have all these other ideas you can’t seem to use. But I hush the mean voice. Instead, I decide I’m not going to worry about being able to use any of my methods when I’m in the thick of it with others. Instead, I’m just going to keep collecting more and more. I’ll be a collector of kindness. I’m going to believe one day in the midst of conflict I’ll root around in my toolbox, pull out an approach and put it into practice. After I do it once, I’m going to do it a second time, and a seventh and a twenty-ninth. And one day I’m going to have to laugh at myself for not once thinking maybe I needed to just let myself practice using these tools when I’m alone with difficult things before I expected myself to put them into place in the heart of hard times with someone else. But for now I’ll just smile and shake my head, bemused. Then I’ll wrap my palm around my shoulder, kiss the back of my hand. And remind myself to add “soothing touch” to my collection.
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.