I remember sitting in the courtyard, during that same conference call with Sylvia Boorstein,looking at the magenta blossoms on my sprawling succulent in the orange pot. The blooms sprang to life the morning after our terrible windstorm, the greater part of a day and a night, gusts from 70 to 80 miles per hour, the worst I’ve lived through. Through it all I was working on a deadline to develop a website for my July writing retreat. It was impossible for me to give it my undivided attention. No matter what I did I couldn’t separate myself from my fear. The walls of my trailer shook and rattled in the wind. I said metta. I prayed all of us would be safe and unharmed–all the birds and small wild things, me and my neighbors inside our tin cans. But the next morning, when I saw how my succulent had burst into wild magenta bloom in spite of that terrible onslaught, that unbelievable battering, I thought, we need to be like this succulent. We need to respond to what is playing out now on our national stage with our own bright blossoming. Indeed, in the pink pussycat hats, the women’s marches, the way our judicial system is responding, the immigration protests, the country is doing just that. I have been especially bolstered by the fact that our “founding fathers” created our democracy with safeguards. I hadn’t counted on that. And again, I am proud to be a Californian in the midst of it all. I see our legislators and our governor trying to stand up, trying to do the right thing. I read an article the other day about a man in Los Angeles who is offering trainings to local activist organizations, teaching the self-care skills people will have to master in order to not be completely overwhelmed by the needs they are trying to meet now, particularly for those who serve the undocumented immigrant community. He sits them in a circle, places items for an altar at its center, let’s them talk about the toll these times are taking. And I want to honor each of them, every one of them, of you, for standing up. For being in the front lines. For giving response. For being our own fierce spring.
I’m taking Sylvia Boorstein’s online class that spans the year, “Mindfulness in Everyday Life.“ On a conference call in April, a woman asked her for advice on how to navigate the disturbing reality of life now in the United States with our sitting president. It comes up again and again in the meditation communities I’m a part of. I’m luckier than many in this, I think, in that I only read the newspaper. I imagine it’s easier than watching TV news. I can glance at headlines, skim stories, put the paper down when the clenching in my belly tells me to. I can look at still photographs of him, appalled by the ugly twist of his lips. It’s not as unsettling as listening to him “live.” When the question comes up in the conference call, I want to say what I believe is true. I can’t remember now if there was just not enough time left to raise my hand and speak, or if I hesitated, held myself back. Was I just self-conscious? Or did I convince myself what I wanted to say was too obvious? What I wanted to say is we have to have faith. Buddhists don’t work with that concept much. I think it’s because Buddhism is not something we need to take on faith. The Buddha didn’t expect that. He told us to try things out, to see for ourselves. So it makes sense to me that Buddhists may have more trouble in a time like this, a time when we are “forced” to watch an overweight, racist, misogynistic, xenophobic white man try to dismantle all the good that’s been put into place in recent years. Faith may not be an ordinary part of the equation, but we need it now. We need to believe the times we’re living in are a reaction to all the good progress we’ve made around the world. We need to believe this is the “getting worse” part before things get better. We need to believe this is not the beginning of the end, only the last-ditch effort to roll things back before we move together even more fully into the kind of world we want to live in always.
“Mother#%!#%!” I say. Or maybe I only think it, my angry fingers jabbing at the screen of my mini iPad in my lap. But the word surprises me, slipping out over such a small annoyance, ugly in my mouth. I’m on the bus heading to a class in mindfulness, of all things. I was making my morning rounds for work, and on one login page, an ad that was slow to load kicked me out of the keyboard, twice. Each time my still-typing fingers triggered the ad and sent me to another page, watching my wireless icon spinning, waiting to get back to the login page to try again. It’s the eighth day of my juice cleanse, so maybe I can blame my obscenity, the disproportionate response, on that, on some edginess from expelling toxins, maybe, more quick to jump to annoyance. Over the years, I’ve tamed my tendency to swear, especially in company. But at home the words still tend to tumble out when I get mad. When this one slips out, it feels so automatic it makes me wonder if I’m doing this all the time without noticing. And then I get all excited. I read an article in the L.A. Times a couple of weeks ago about how Lent had moved into the secular world, how people were posting on Facebook about what they planned to give up this year for those 40 days, everything from Dr. Pepper to texting to wine to social media. One woman planned to give up being self-righteous about her political views. Another is giving up gossiping. I’ve always been intrigued by Lent, too, and by Fat Tuesday that precedes it. (As a matter of fact, I started my cleanse on February 22nd, but I remember thinking if I failed, I’d have Fat Tuesday as a fall-back for my last hurrah of hamburgers and Häagen-Dazs. And Stella.) So when I read the article, I wanted to join in. But I’m already working on so many fronts, I didn’t know what to choose. Still, I tucked it in the back of my mind. And now on the bus it comes to me. I can give up obscenities! For a moment I wonder if I’m too late, and then I realize today is the first day of Lent. The timing is perfect. I sit there grinning like I won the Lotto. And in that lovely way the universe has, two days ago a colleague used an expression I was quite taken with and decided to steal. I get a chance to try it out later in the day. First, on the phone I already forget my new vow and say the s-word. But then when I hang up, still upset, I remember. “Holy cats!” I say. And when that isn’t quite enough, charming though I find it, I fumble for another word, more with my mouth than my mind. “Butterfingers,” I say. It is all I can come up with. And then I can’t help it. I have to laugh. And all of a sudden this sacrifice looks like it may have buried treasures. Maybe it will make me nice.
I’ve been going through a rough patch. I notice I want myself to be “better” before I am. Now I’m wanting to trust myself more. I do always turn the corner, always come back to being whole and well again. It’s happening already. But I tend to try to make it happen before its time. I try to rush myself. Maybe now I’m learning to let myself be, to have more faith. I remind myself it will pass. I’ll “return” when I am ready. For three weeks I dream busy dreams where I’m working with a repetitive task throughout the night. I don’t remember them in the morning, only the feeling of them. At first I think they are stress dreams, the kind I get when I work too hard. Years ago when I worked in catering in Los Angeles, there would be long stretches of prep for big parties. When I slept I’d dream about 12-gallon stainless steel stock pots at the foot of my bed. All night I would stir them with big wooden spoons. But then I remember two of my current dreams, and I know I’ve been doing healing work. In one dream there’s a kind of mind map I am building. I have a memory of rows of dark shapes and small bits of text with straight lines leading from one to the other. On the top layer are drawings of envelopes. They’re lit up like neon signs, green envelopes with pink hearts at their centers like seals. I check on them during the night. Sometimes there are two envelopes waiting, sometimes three. Their lights wink off and on. I think I am sending myself love letters. In the second dream, the moon is hanging in the western sky above the mountains. I wake up to it sometimes like this in the night, a beacon shining through the sliding glass door. On this night I drift in and out of sleep, the moon waning but still almost full. In the dream it’s almost dawn, and I’m taking sips of this luminous disc, again and again at regular intervals, like medicine.
My mother’s going to walk Auntie Gardi out to her car. It’s late, late afternoon when the air begins to chill. She’s standing on the walkway waiting for Auntie Gardi and I to say goodbye. She’s wearing her brown fuzzy coat. It’s the coat that speaks to me without my knowing. It tells me she’s better now, this clear evidence of her taking care of herself. And so when she comes back inside the house I rant at her, that kind of angry outpouring that comes to some of us after danger has passed, when we are no longer holding fear at bay, after we know our loved one is going to be okay. I’m rinsing out the kitchen sink, and even before I’m done venting I am overcome by self hatred. I feel like I can’t contain it. I don’t know what to do, so I go for a walk. I can’t breathe for the welling up of venom against me. I walk downhill. “May I hold this feeling with kindness,” I say. I can’t imagine being able to, but I ask anyway, over and over. When I get to Ocean View, I sit on the curb and cry. Then there is enough room to breathe again even though the self hatred is still pushing up against the inside of my skin, red angry waves of it. I climb back up the hill, look over my shoulder. And there through the branches of the pine trees below me are Venus and the waxing crescent moon. Something softens inside me when I see them together in the late dusk sky. Another voice wonders: how do I deserve these greetings again and again, these tender signposts? Later, I think: I can’t remember the last time I felt that volume of hatred toward myself. Am I going backward? And then I realize what was different here. Yes, I was overcome. I didn’t know how to hold it. It was so big. But it was only feeling. It didn’t have a voice, no words. I wasn’t telling myself what a horrible person I was for yelling at my mother. I felt like I didn’t know how to hold the feeling, but I wasn’t aiming it at myself. I wasn’t attacking. I wasn’t being mean to me. So, no. Not going backward after all. This was something new.
I lie on my back, diagonal across the bed, fear tingling through my body. It reminds me I’ve had two scary dreams in the past few nights. In the most recent, I crouch in the courtyard in the dark and watch a faded blue hatchback park outside the fence. The rear window is covered with stickers like the ones Colleen and I collected when we drove around the country in my yellow Pinto just after high school. In the dream a man gets out and tries to open the gate. I think, having someone try to get inside at four o’clock in the morning isn’t a good sign. I try to speak, to say, “Can I help you?” in the sharp, condescending voice I use for phone solicitors and strangers like this who don’t identify themselves. But the words never form, and I wake up with a jolt, fear coursing through me. Nightmares are rare for me these days. But this morning I didn’t wake from a bad dream. This amorphous fear is just alive in me. There are plenty of possible fronts: loss of income, Mami, Trie, my writing, the future. At one point, I notice the refrigerator is silent, and I worry it has died in the night. Even for me, this is such a stretch I have to laugh. After, I lie still and do a little metta practice, a little tonglen. I breathe in the fear from my body, breathe out trust and ease and well being. It quiets, becomes more subtle. I lie there for a long time and let my mind roam. I wonder if this awakening of fear is tied to the healing work I’m doing with Elana. Could it be only a sharper awareness of the fear that always lives in me? And then for one moment I sense excitement in there, too. That changes it for me, points me toward something maybe I can accept. The thought of living with this kind of fear all lit up in me, maybe for years, seems unbearable, but fear tinged with excitement feels more livable, maybe poised on the brink of the next thing. It softens it, adds hope, promise. I breathe in, breathe out. The refrigerator turns on. I hear morning traffic, building already as our snowbirds trickle back in. The finch begin to chatter in the courtyard. They’re late, sleeping in on this gray, cloudy day. I stretch, yawn, grab clothes. I open the louvered window, reach my hand through to touch the morning air. I relish the sight of the bright orange Mexican birds of paradise, taller than I am now, the blooms showing their wear on this autumn morning. I slip into my worn-soft sandals, ready to greet the day.
Little by little I ease back on how much I demand of myself. It isn’t new, this reaching for a place that’s different from always having to do more. Sometimes I worry about going too far in the other direction, the pendulum swing to not doing enough, this effort toward kindness turning into sloth. But this week it’s felt right, like maybe I’m finding a balance, cultivating that kindness and having it bear fruit. I entertain the possibility of actually running out of nyger seed for a day or two. (The mourning doves would still have the mixed seed, and there is still some nyger in the tube feeders for the goldfinch.) I let my bed go unmade and the floor unswept this week because I am focusing on my classes, on my writing, on the Canvas training, on fitting in daily yoga and sitting practice again, on eating well. Last weekend I let myself not follow through on changing the bed, mopping the floor, tasks I prepped for, clearing things away at the beginning of the long weekend and then running out of steam. Tuesday morning I have this lovely dream come to me where I am writing a poem in my head about something that happened in the dream, and then I’m at a writing workshop with a handful of women sitting on beach towels spread on the side of a hill. I wake up and grab my notebook to write down the poem I began in the dream. I marvel that this, this magic feeling of being connected to both worlds, arose from abandoning my dirty floors and watching too many episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. It came, I think, because little by little I am letting go of things I don’t need to carry anymore. I haven’t looked at the dream poem since I scribbled it down with one foot still in that other world. Maybe I’m a tiny bit afraid of what I might see, afraid some harsher part of me might find it lacking. Or maybe I am only savoring the wait before I read it, because in the meantime when I think of it sitting there—just pages before the one I write on now in my notebook, dove wings beating beside me in the courtyard—the thought of the poem is a small magic stone pulsing with life. It’s secret and glowing beneath a mound of feathers, cradled on warm, moist earth, just waiting to be uncovered.