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 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.
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.
The psychic reading was so disturbing I had to do a cleansing ritual the next day. She came highly recommended, so it took me by surprise. I’m not sure I’ve finished sifting through it in the three weeks since we spoke on the phone. She rubbed me the wrong way from the beginning, and part of me wonders if I should have ended it right from the start, if that would have been the best way to take care of myself. But I didn’t. Early in the call I told her I was feeling defensive, but nothing changed. She told me I was intuitive and intelligent. But the rest felt like what I wasn’t doing or what I was doing wrong. The morning after the reading I tried to sort it all out. I’ve always felt validated and encouraged by a psychic reading. This one just made me feel bad. Most of it seemed true, but much of it felt unimportant, or it didn’t resonate, didn’t fully lodge in me. The way it was delivered hurt me. I cried it out. Then I got my rattle and burned some sage and sang a little song. I danced about my trailer, shaking my rattle, waving the burning sage, singing my exorcism. May I be clear of this. May I know what to take forward and what to discard. May I be cleansed of what feels wrong in this. The best I can tell, she was mixing up her own opinions with the information she received. I think much of what she told me was accurate, but I question the depth of it, the value. She insisted my father had a mustache. How could that matter? She told me I was lost, and maybe I am. But I didn’t feel a connection, didn’t feel any compassion. I think somehow she shamed me, but I understand another person, a person wired differently, may not have felt this way. The best parts, I think, were not getting lost in blaming her, and in trusting myself enough to honor my feelings, to reach for healing. And I trusted my instincts enough to take care of myself. When the notes she took during the reading came in the mail, I started to put them on the fridge in case I needed the reminders in the future. But I reached for the wooden matches and burned them in the kitchen sink instead.
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.
In the midst of all my “bad behavior,” all my spewing of anger into the world, I begin to try to acknowledge my “victories,” even the small moments. It feels important to recognize and value the times when I am able to stop my “bad behavior” from escalating. And not just being able to stop myself from erupting but also from sitting stuck in my story about how I’m being wronged. (I can see progress especially on that front. I tend to notice more quickly and turn myself aside from my stories, not dwelling in them, not feeding them.) Last week at my mother’s, I realized I wasn’t as awful as I’ve been before. I had to laugh at myself for that—talk about setting the bar low!—but I figure it’s akin to Larry Yang’s descending intentions that end with, “If I’m not able to do no harm, may I do the least harm possible.” I did less harm this last time, and even though I know things like this aren’t linear, and I may do more harm again in the future, the fact that I did less harm on that one visit still counts. And I want to celebrate the still rare times when I get all the way clear, when I let go enough in the middle of a disagreement to really apologize, like the other day on the phone with my mother. “I’m sorry,” I say. And I sink into it and feel the true softening in me when I say the words, instead of just speaking them in a clean voice while I’m still holding on to it, still churning inside. When I was young, I knew letting go was the secret to everything. But learning how to let go is another story. I get embarrassed to be where I am with this after decades of trying. But I’m still trying. I’m not giving up. So that counts, too.