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 love the daytime moon, the moon in all her guises. You already know that about me if you’ve been reading my blog for a little while. (Oh, dear, another voice says. Do I talk too much about the moon?!) My first morning at home after being gone, after a difficult visit, I reach up, place a handful of mixed seed in the tray feeder for my mourning doves. My head is at a funny angle, and I catch the moon through a gap between the bougainvillea branches, thick waning crescent. The sighting touches me, this unexpected old friend. The fondness I feel for her softens me, and I am surprised by tears, so glad to see her familiar form, and sparked into the release I need to shed the tension I am carrying. In the early evening I walk home from Ralph’s with cilantro and jalapeños and more bird seed, and I see she is still in the sky, hovering just above the San Jacinto mountains. I am moved again. It feels like she’s waited for me, bracketing my day. Five days later, long, busy days, I make my way through airport security, and somehow I manage to not get icky when they pull both my bags off to be searched by hand. The man doing it is careful and slow. Nothing is jumbled. I end up thanking him. I buy iced green tea, make my way to a spot beside the grass to do my qi gong. I take time to find my own true east for my liver, point my feet there, my best guess. When I sweep my arms up, my head follows, and I see the thin sickle moon, last day, shining through the palm leaves in the pre-dawn not-quite dark. I can’t believe it. Do I make a sound? It feels like she is living proof I have made my way to the right place in this moment. I practice my qi gong, savor the sight of the moon, shake my head in marvel. Later, I wonder if she might be my reward, my gift, for staying calm through the security search, my own “atta girl” from the universe (who knows how hard composure is for me).
I keep thinking I need to go to a big demonstration—for immigrants, for human rights—but when I hear recordings on NPR a part of me recoils. The chants feel too intense, too assaultive, beating against “them.” It isn’t what I want to be. It doesn’t feel nonviolent. People say Mother Teresa refused to go to anti-war demonstrations, but if we ever held a rally for peace, she said, she’d be there. I want that, a sea of humankind, all swaying and singing “Give Peace a Chance” (hippie osmosis from my childhood). What happened to Gandhi, to King? What happened to peaceful resistance? Can’t we make up songs to sing instead of screaming angry chants? Songs that connect us, singing together in the streets, on freeways or tarmacs, our voices carrying across cities, drifting across the sea. I read that in the wake of the havoc and vitriol President Trump scattered across Europe earlier this month there was a music festival in London. Paul Simon and James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt were all there. Each one of them spoke up. None of them named the president, but every one of them voiced messages of encouragement, messages of love. I’m comforted to know these musicians who I’ve loved all my life were over there, counterpoint to our president’s chaos and hatred, letting people know there are other voices in the United States. Voices that want the world to know we aren’t all ugly and mean. We aren’t all afraid of women, of Muslims, of all the dark-skinned peoples of the world, or foreign tongues, or English spoken with a Mexican accent. We aren’t all afraid of gay marriage or body ink or people in wheelchairs. We aren’t afraid of learning to include all genders, all sexual preferences, to stand up for the rights of children and for a woman’s right to choose. What we are afraid of is losing our humanity inch by inch, of letting what binds us all together be whittled away little by little until it’s too late. What we are afraid of is allowing another holocaust. I wish I’d been in those quiet crowds at that music festival, singing along, soothed. I wonder if James Taylor sang “Shed a Little Light“?
[Editor’s note: Looking at my title now in the light of day—”We Aren’t All Afraid”—I think I might need to change it. Because maybe we ARE all afraid. We’re just afraid of very different things. And some of the same ordinary things, too.]
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.
Every day in June I worry the summer will rush past me. I am afraid I won’t do the writing work I want to do, that I will blink and stand at the end of the summer with nothing to show for it. But today I discover a cucumber in my garden. I pause in the courtyard, the cucumber heavy in my palm, my other hand on the door, one foot on the step, about to abandon the hot outside world for the day. I take in the sprawling cucumber vines, the sturdy volunteer sunflowers, the tamarisk that insists on living in one of my pots. I love every blossom and every leaf in this garden. Every cricket, every lizard, every bird. Inside, I peel my cucumber, eat fat slices with pink salt. I relish every juicy bite. After, I sit on the couch and dissolve all my fears about the summer. Instead, I picture myself writing like mad, immersing myself like never before. I close my eyes and feel the next eight weeks, a long expanse stretched out before me, like summer vacations used to feel on the last day of school. I dream each day stretching, too, the time from morning to summer night endless like when I was a kid, moving from one imaginary world to another, never rushing. I dream the days ahead in flashes. Writing in my notebook in the courtyard in the early morning. Laughing on the phone, napping in the worst heat of the day, dreaming, loving every minute. Typing on the couch in the early evening, laptop on my thighs, delicious sips of cold oatstraw tea, mockingbird song through the open windows late at night. I dream a big pile of work at the end of the 59 days, and me—happy.
I try to be quiet when I leave my courtyard, but the gate screeches, wood against wood. I walk toward the creek path in the early morning. There’s a mockingbird every half block marking my passage. Today I see three cottontails in the creek bed, no coyotes. A squirrel races across my path. I stop to watch a mockingbird displaying from the top of an old, wide fan palm near the footbridge. On the bridge, I watch the swifts. There are more of them than I have ever seen, flying in a big circling cloud, then pausing on a stretch of nearby wires, as if they, too, are taking in the show. Or maybe I am their show, the lone human so strangely fascinated by their ordinary acts. I don’t know if they’re really swifts. I’m making that up because until today I never saw them sit still, and they are always quick in flight. Today, when they sit on the wires, I see their tails are forked. I stand there for a long time looking up, my mouth open, watching them swoop and circle, their small noises a communal sound, as if this ever-changing shape of small bodies is one beast, all those wings and hearts beating together. Then the extraordinary happens, flashes of yellow gold on their bellies, beneath their wings. At first I’m confused, but then I understand. The sun has risen, and it’s lighting up their undersides because it’s so low in the sky. I watch until the light changes, until the cloud shrinks to just four handfuls of birds. This reminds me of when I lived in Sebastopol and discovered that three-week window when you meet dark furry caterpillars everywhere on country roads. I remember dodging each one, so surprised I’d never noticed them before. And now at sixty this first glimpse of small birds lit from below, dazzling, the waning half moon behind them, suspended and silent in the blue sky.