I am filling the tube feeder with nyger seed at my mother’s house in the early morning. I’m in the side yard off the kitchen. I’ve just made 22 little zipper snack bags of shaved beef to freeze for her cat. My pot of tea is steeping, and brown rice for my breakfast is simmering on the stove. I close the lid on the feeder and return it to its big green hook. When I look up, I see the two of them on the other side of the pool in the back yard. I hold still, watching them. They walk about on the cement, and then they step off the edge and slip into the pool. It feels surreal. It’s so completely out of the realm of the expected or the ordinary. There are two mallards swimming about in my mother’s pool as if it isn’t anything unusual, as if they do this kind of thing all the time. I get it in my head I’d like to be able to offer them a bite to eat along with their dip in the pool. I know bread is not good for them, so I go inside to Google what they eat. I find out they’re omnivores. Fruit is on the list. I head back out, thinking of peeling an orange for them, breaking it into sections, but they are gone. I feel like I blew it, like I should have stayed to watch them. I would have loved to see them fly away, or watch them swim some more, their silent skimming across the water so full of grace, touched with magic. But I hear a voice telling me I didn’t blow it. I wanted to do a kind thing. Wanting to feed them was an impulse for good. Later, I wonder what their visit might mean, certain it is an omen of some sort. I try to look it up, but there are no mallards in my book, no ducks at all. Days later, my mind keeps returning to them, the way they kept each other company, their quiet circles across the still surface of the pool.
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.
I need to find a way to touch my refuge when I am in the midst of disturbance. The sweet part is knowing that, given enough time and space, finding my refuge has always been easy for me. That connection, that peace, arises organically. (Or maybe when I am not disturbed I settle into it.) But how do I learn to find it when I’m startled? Or when I’m resisting what is??!!? Lately I watch myself unable to stop, my mind in a flurry. I think I tend to live in that flurry when I have too much work or stress. I don’t know how to stay connected to myself without the luxury of time alone, large swathes of it to land again. Without that, I manage to touch down for moments, in sitting practice, writing, doing yoga, when I hear a raven caw or a coyote bark. And in a stressful time, a time of disturbance, I believe these are moment of genuine connection both with myself and my world. I am able to feel that solace. But then something happens outside me, or my mind returns to a source of agitation, and I am disturbed again. It’s tempting for me to feel disheartened. But I’m going to keep reaching for kindness instead. I’m going to grab for that “sweetheart approach” whenever I remember, even when I’m already roiled, even when using it doesn’t seem to make a dent in things. I’m going to believe turning toward myself with that sweet reassurance, reaching for a connection with myself and the world around me—I’m going to believe that’s my way forward, my way in. I’m going to believe in my effort. I’m going to let it be enough.
I read Sylvia Boorstein’s Happiness Is an Inside Job more than once. Toward the beginning, she describes how she talks to herself when she gets startled. Sweetheart,” she says, “you are in pain. Relax. Take a deep breath. Let’s pay attention to what is happening. Then we’ll figure out what to do.” I have read this before, but one day it clicks in. I become startled so easily and so often. I begin practicing with this. I try it out right away when I get a disturbing email from my work. It keeps me from spinning out into stories about what I’m being asked to do, mostly how it’s “not fair.” (They still arise, but I don’t dwell in them.) It makes so much sense to me. There is a bit of the, “Duh!” about it for me. I have been trying to learn how to not be reactive to people, to reach for kindness. But of course I need to re-establish my connection to myself first before that becomes possible. I practice the sweetheart approach again and again. I am so excited, certain I have found a way to interrupt my autopilot after all these decades. Later I discover I am still not very good at this in the heat of the moment when other people are involved. Maybe I need to learn to catch it still in the startle, in the fear. Maybe when I get to the anger it’s too late. I am deflated. But my optimism ekes back in. I know I’m not giving up.
Today starts out well and ends well but goes south a bit in between. I feel myself being judgmental and critical of the woman who cuts my hair—who I like. When Ralph’s is out of bird seed, I go grumbling to CVS and pay twice as much. I listen to my mind when I walk between the stores, some crazy, twisted descent, like everything in the world is now crummy. Back at Ralph’s again, I finally ask why I haven’t seen Mark, and I find out he’s been promoted. He’s no longer here. I had already made my gloomy descent, but this is beyond awful. For me, Mark was the heart of this store, the one who fostered kindness and generosity in everyone who works here. I walk to the checkout. “Everything changes,” I say. But I have been so in love with my grocery store. I can feel all my hope for it oozing away. And for the first time, all the lines are long. I walk up and down twice, dejected and blue. A Latino American man holding one Corona gets my attention, waves me in front of him in line. I try to argue, I have a handful of things to his one lone beer. But he insists. I tell him he’s going to make me cry. “Voy a llorar.” It feels like such a blessing, this kindness. We wish each other well before I go. I ride my bike home, my good cheer restored. What a long, funny day.
I hear a house finch singing in the courtyard. I turn off the kitchen faucet, dry my hands, move to the window. He is perched on one of the looping vines that arc up from the bougainvillea. He hops toward a second bird who moves away. At first I think, oh, no. I’m afraid he’s pestering a sparrow. He does it a second time, and again the bird scoots off a bit. And then I know. He’s wooing her! The female moves off again, settles on the top metal bar above the tray feeders. The male follows and continues his serenade. I can feel the female listening. I watch the male’s red head, his chest puffing, beak angled up, all this love in his song. I’ve never seen this before, all these years. The two birds stay together there for a long time before they fly away. Such a gift. Thank you, I think. Thank you.