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.
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’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.
Remembering criticism is easy for me, but I’ve never been able to remember a compliment. I wonder if learning to acknowledge my victories will begin to change that dynamic. Maybe as I practice, I’ll build a kind of scaffolding, a structure that lets me store good things about myself. Arinna Weisman encourages us to appreciate our goodness. It goes beyond counting our victories, counting our efforts, our successes. She mentions things like holding the door open for someone, the small wholesome acts we do every day, maybe without thinking. Ian tells me Arinna made a joke about it, too, how if we need to we can even lower the bar (like I did with my incremental progress). She talks about how we probably didn’t steal anything, didn’t kill anyone today. Arinna urges us to feel into those kind or generous impulses of ours. She’s asking us, I think, to seek that fine line between wholesome and unwholesome pride. My unwholesome pride tends to be more knee-jerk, cocky, too quick to puff myself up in an offhand way, even for something I deserve to feel good about. I can feel that wisp of arrogance, that taint. (Sometimes, after, the universe gives me a small smack on the side of my head.) The wholesome pride for me comes in quiet. It eases in slow, this tender pleasure in a thing I’ve done that’s good, like a small papier mache animal or a piece of writing that makes me cry or the small black ant I rescue from the splash of water on the edge of my kitchen sink. Gratitude tends to wash in next, like a gentle swell in a quiet sea, or the treasured feel of warm cement on the first barefoot day in late spring. And a kind marvel, too, that I am allowed each small grace.
Monday morning I say prayers for the spirits of Syrians killed by poisonous gas and for the people who love them. I pick dead blossoms from the three big pots of pansies and pull soft, fuzzy, pale green weeds nestled among them. (I’ve decided to do one task each morning toward a clean courtyard.) I break off a pansy bud by mistake. I set it in water, place the small glass beside my bed. The deep purple against the white wood and the soft curve of the tiny stem makes me cry. I cook brown rice, pack pears and peanuts for my snack between writing group and sangha. I still want to do my sitting practice and a tiny bit of yoga before I have to leave, so I keep my writing short. I cry more often these days, small things like the bread and butter or the pansy life stopped short. Big things like dead bodies in Syria, like being afraid about my health or feeling like a failure. But they are brief, quick moments only, and I tend to be kind to myself when they arise. I count to 29 to blend my garlic lemon drink for my liver, and I remember seeing Amma in the grocery store last night, how much better she looked. The memory makes me glad for her, grateful for her Tibetan doctor. And in the same breath, still counting seconds while the blender fills the room with its loud machine noise, I recognize again the part of me who still believes nothing I do will ever be enough. The tears come, but so does a deep certainty that I am healing (louder than that other voice? louder than the blender?) and a wash of dearness for myself and my good efforts.
I’ve lost my knack for fitting things into my day. I don’t know if I need to worry. I find myself tallying up the things I’ve done, as if I now need to be productive even on a Sunday. I wonder when I’ll be living again in an organized, tidy home with clean windows. Today I feed the birds and sweep the courtyard. I cook black-eyed peas because they’re on the list of legumes I am allowed to eat. I don’t want to push myself. I’ve pushed myself for decades. Surely that’s enough. I pick off all the deadish leaf twigs from the Mexican birds of paradise, and the happy bush remaining lifts me up. Such a small thing. In between my little chores I read the free book I found at the library, Queen of Dreams. I leaf through the Sunday paper. In the “Travel” section there’s a photograph from the country of Malta that makes me want to walk to the edge of the old city, stand with my hands on my hips, eyes across the sea. In the tiny laundry room at my trailer park I start the water in the washing machine, pour in the soap. I walk outside to let it fill before I add my clothes. My sandals crunch across the gravel until I am shaded by a fat, short fan palm in a neighboring yard. When I am out of the sun, I turn south. And there is the waning half moon to greet me and a hawk making slow circles in the sky beside it. I watch until he disappears. I think, maybe everything really is okay. Maybe I am doing enough, being enough, just as I am.