I climb the black metal table for the second time. The first time, weeks ago, I peered over the edge of the nest at two tiny perfect hummingbird eggs nestled side by side. Today, I see a black gangly shape lolling against the inside of the nest, beak to the sky. I am afraid he is dying. The wild bird rescue woman is so reassuring on the phone I almost cry. I see mama hummingbird zoom in and out. I blink twice and the two younglings are jostling each other beside the nest. Then they are gone, though this morning I think I spy one at the feeder. How does that work? Do they need to fan out very far from home? Are there rules about this? But oh. For one more day I catch glimpses of them perched in the guayaba tree, nowhere near the nest. Now I still check. I talk to the empty guayaba just in case they are nearby. (They are hard to spot.) The empty nest makes me ache even as I am so glad they made it. How many times did I worry? Now that they are gone, my fingers itch to dismantle the nest. I want to feel the way it resists or the way it tears or gives way against me. I want to smell it and to know if it is as soft as it looks or strangely rough because it is so strong. Of course I don’t do it. What if they can use it again? And how could I destroy the nest, so beautiful and alluring, poop and all?
It would be sacrilege, I think, to harm the nest. I remember the dream I have where hummingbirds are coming in through the windows and making nests inside my home. I worry about them being trapped inside during the night. But the nests they begin to build against the white walls or nearer the ceiling are more like hives than hummingbird nests, mud-wasp-like, a little creepy except the birds themselves are flitting about dispelling all possibility of anything sinister, so these are just an oddity, it seems. One set of my louvered windows in real life don’t have a screen, and sometimes a hummingbird does fly into the living room with me. They are usually quick and curious, and I’m thankful they tend to leave quickly, too, before I have time to worry for their sake. Since my dream, though, when they come and they poke their curious beaks toward the southwest corner of the ceiling, or they investigate the crevice beside the facing window, sometimes I wonder what it would be like if they did live here. The imagined mess makes me cringe. I would truly abandon any meager tie to civilized living. But think of the potential joy, too, all those incandescent little ones buzzing in and out or asleep nearby in the night. What if the approaching dusk meant I needed to be sure they were all accounted for, so I could close the window before full dark, so I could help to keep them safe here through the night?
Twenty-nine years ago today, on April 18th, 1988, I quit smoking. The year before, I tried to quit eleven times, but this was the first one that stuck. It ran unbroken thirteen years and still holds sway over most of these past three decades. Because of this I notice April 18th out in the world. It’s a red number day for me. Isn’t April 18th the day Harprita had to have all the potions decocted and the twenty-seven soft blue bundles wrapped and ready for the ship in the novel I’m reading? And isn’t April 18th even a day in Angels in America? Is it the San Francisco earthquake, maybe?
I lean back in the sturdy metal chair in the courtyard, the big round cup of hot tea cradled in my hands. And then I remember. April 18th is the day you and I first laid eyes on each other on that southbound 80 bus. It’s the day I went home to hear that message on my machine from a possible sperm donor. That’s why I know the date, why I was able to trace it back later when I was halfway in love with you and the morning we first saw each other on the bus counted. When I think of you and I that first day at the back of the bus, I can feel the awkwardness between us. Because I think you scowl at me, I avoid looking in your direction and try instead to adjust to sitting in the stupid side-facing seat. I fuss and fidget some. I sigh in exasperation. I never stop being aware of you reading the paper nearby.
Didn’t our eyes meet again later on that first bus ride? Wasn’t it a less guarded look, over the tops of your glasses? Did we both look away? I think I may have watched you reading, too, that morning, chewing on your bottom lip, not looking at me. I know we talked about it years later. You wanted me that morning. I didn’t have a clue you felt that way then, me and my misinterpreted scowl. It still makes the corner of my lips curl to remember. You wanted me the first time you laid eyes on me. There’s a surprising satisfaction in knowing this. I am the cat licking cream from my paws.
I think about shielding. I ask five healers for ideas about ways shield, ways to keep myself more cushioned if I can from this world that sometimes seems too much for me. No one offers an idea that sticks. After I discover a hard thing during sitting practice, this dagger wedge of quan iron in the center of my chest, the shield that comes to me is a curtain of quan iron, long strand after long strand of it strung side by side across a wide span of bone, or tusk, maybe, thicker than my forearm, irregular small flat squares of the protective metal hung all in a row. [Quan iron is the magic blue-green metal from Andre Norton’s Witch World.] Behind the curtain shield I see a rough hewn window or doorway arch, sunlight coming through. It catches on the hammer’s bite marks, shiny overlapping crescent moons from the pounding of the metal squares. There is no screen across the opening behind the curtain so I feel unimpeded air brush against my face. I take in a slow, deep breath. The horoscope in today’s newspaper says, “The warrior learns to fight but also to defend, starting with defending the self.” I think about shielding. And I remember a dream I had two weeks ago but didn’t recognize. I stand in the center of a room, and I run this fine set of chain mail through my hands, lifting and holding it, folding it back in against itself. I set it on a soft blue shirt beside more colorful piles of clothes on the bed, as if I am packing for a trip. I note the quan iron again, but not like I am really paying attention, just that familiar color and the smudge of magic to it as if in confirmation only, as if part of me has already decided it is too much. Who am I to be given protection like this? The quan iron here is crafted into fine chains, a web of them to cradle the rib cage, then 1/4-inch slabs of green stone, maybe aventurine, maybe a light jade, woven into the chains. I glide my fingers across the smooth stones as I re-stack the fine armor, and I can see how they will fall on core spots: kidneys, liver, inner thighs. I hold one slab of green stone and rub my thumbs across it. They bump again and again in the center of the stone. Without trying it on, I know it will fit me like a second skin, but it will not bind me. I marvel such supple, beautiful chain mail exists, that it has been gifted to me. And magic, to boot. I see the advantage, too, over a shield that protects me from only one direction. When I wake up, I wonder if I shouldn’t wear a helmet.
I’ve taken to counting us in the courtyard. The other day there were nine mourning doves and one goldfinch. I made eleven. I think this counting thing’s because the white crowned sparrows left. I don’t want to believe they’re really gone. And I still miss my own small furred ones. But I’ve had so many encounters with the feathered of late, too. There is my hummingbird mama and her two little ones in the guayaba tree who are a surprising, tender thread woven through my days. At the park I have a long conversation with a grackle in a nearby tree and watch a volunteer from the animal shelter walk a big dog that stirs my longing. I hear a hawk call. I look up to see him land in the tree behind me. I don’t know what kind of hawk he is, but I have an uncanny feeling when I hear his voice and watch him settle in the branches of the tree. Oh, yes, I know you. I’ve known you for a long time. Later I wonder if this hawk has been nearby for years, or if he is someone I have known before in this life or another. Oma comes to mind. Oh, and in the courtyard I look up to scores of egrets flying northwest across the late dusk sky. Such a gift, this glancing up, the chance to watch their silent progress. And this long flurry of birds reminds me of the dream where I stand with a handful of people in a big clearing surrounded by trees. All kinds of birds circle the clearing, a steady, patient flapping of wings. A blur of movement, rush of air and feathers. Someone calls out. It feels like they’re waiting for us to do something. Or maybe we’re all waiting together. I’m wearing old hiking boots and holding my wooden walking stick loosely in both hands. I turn to look over my shoulder at the birds. I spot the belly of a red shouldered hawk as he passes, just out of reach if I stretched my fingertips up to him. I spy white crowned sparrows bobbing in and out, and house finch, too. I see a Eurasian collared dove, big and gangly by comparison, the slower moving bear to their darting squirrels. John says he has roadrunners who live in the tree in his back yard. They are great darters, too. In the dream, we are an odd host, but we are gathered and steady. Hawks, crows, northern flickers, hikers, songbirds, people’s dogs and kids weaving in and out, noses on other things. We are an unusual line of defense.
I dream I am on the phone talking to Mami. “Thank you for going underwater with me,” she says. I have a dim memory of holding hands at the edge of a lake, bending our knees, submerging ourselves in the cool, shallow water. It makes me want to do it now as I write, remembering the dream. To come up together sputtering, scattering drops of water across the quiet laketop, our laughter loud across that stillness. Her voice on the phone comes out choppy and odd, like the words are hard to grasp, then hard to push out. “I’m going to miss you,” she says later in a small voice. I am incredulous. What, when you go? When you die? I can’t believe I am scoffing her even in the dream. Because I am shielding myself? Because I am not being present? In my mind I am thinking, I will miss you. I wish I had dropped down, met her where she was. I wish I’d told her how much I would miss her, how terribly so. I wish I’d told her I won’t know how to be in this world without her.
I’m walking home from a big day, sticking to the shade where I can. I passed out my first flyers for my retreat at the writers guild meeting, then went to Cost Plus to redeem my birthday coupon for my favorite tea lights and small hand painted Easter egg ornaments I couldn’t resist. I stop near a walkway for a condominium complex, startled by an immense Great Dane. His owner comes into view, and I’m relieved to see he’s attached to the leash. “Oh my,” I say with a laugh. “He surprised me.” The dog’s head comes almost to my shoulders. “He’s beautiful,” I say. I tell his leash wielder I’ve seen them before, and he remembers me from our old neighborhood. Maybe I should tell him about my writing retreat, I think. But I don’t say anything. We part and I continue up the street. I hear the sound of wings. I think, raven, and I look up but don’t see the bird. The wingbeats are long and loud, and then I see three ravens just ahead of me, flying low, clustered, talking now. I stop on the sidewalk. It feels like they’re telling me I shouldn’t leave, telling me I should’ve told Tim about my retreat. I look back to where he and the Great Dane disappeared, and he comes walking out again without the dog. I call out to him. “Are you a writer by any chance?” I ask. (It makes me grin as I write. What a line.) I retrace my steps, talk about the ravens. “So, I decided maybe I should tell you about my retreat after all.” We stand together in the shade of a tree I don’t recognize. He says he’s not a writer, but then it turns out he writes morning pages every day (a la Julia Cameron) and just finished teaching an artist’s way class. “Oh,” I say with a wave of my hand, undoing his earlier disclaimer, “you are a writer.” I give him a flyer, talk about the deeper meaning of the work for me. He seems taken by the whole thing. I like him. “I’ll call you either way,” he says. I walk home cheered. The day has given me a quiet hope about my retreat. The bags I’m carrying seem lighter. I keep grinning and shaking my head in wonder. I’m awed by the clear second chance the universe gave me. And I’m flabbergasted by those ravens. I can still hear the sound of their wings.
Buddhist teachings keep me guessing. Depending on the teacher and the topic, I am reassured or doubtful, suspicious or yielding, intrigued or cross-eyed. Often things just make sense, ring true to me, familiar, like the life I’ve been living for decades. Sometimes I wonder if I’m missing something. Do I only think I understand, have been observing these same things in my life and in the world around me all these years? I’m not sure what makes me doubt myself, but doubt arises. And I’m not sure what inclines me to always calibrate. Is this something I already know? Do I only think I know it? Maybe it’s an old fear, not being enough. Maybe it’s only hubris. Or maybe it’s tied to the way I bristle over sentences that begin with, “Those of us who’ve been practicing for years—” The speaker means a formal sitting practice. But what if we’ve been practicing “off the cushion” all this time? I love sitting practice. I suspect it accelerates things. And it feels like a luxury, all that stillness, all that not doing. Of late I tend to divide my time between the “long breathing in, long breathing out” I’ve been learning and my metta practice. Since I decided to offer the writers retreat this summer in Joshua Tree, I have to bring myself back more than usual, my mind and heart busy dreaming up ideas. I’ve begun sitting with my eyes open more and more. I think I may be giving myself more permission to do what feels right to me, become less concerned with following the rules. But there’s still a part of me who wants to “do it right,” a part of me who wants to know if I’m delusional about the things I think I know. The other day people were talking about feeling one with the mountain. That seems easy and natural to me. But on the surface, I don’t buy the “no self” spiel. Because there is a me. There is my portion of spirit housed in this body. Unique in place and time. Never again will the two be joined, this same form and spirit. But it doesn’t stop me from feeling one with the mountain or the moon or the desert rat dying in my courtyard on a summer afternoon. Or with the ant I stepped on yesterday because I must have hurt him when I was sweeping the courtyard. I put my sandal down on him, my chest aching, to end his tortured movements. I may not buy the “no self” deal, but I do know we’re all one, the mountain and the moon and the rat and the ant—and me.