The sun is unexpected the first day I walk to the beach. I plant myself on a huge driftwood tree, a big pine, I think, in its former life. A woman is painting behind me near the lagoon, easel set up on the sand. I hope I am not in her way. I eat fat green grapes and roasted pumpkin seeds, the shelled kind I bought at Trader Joe’s in San Francisco. I turn my alpaca sweater inside out and fold it into quarters to soften the hard curve of wood beneath my butt, the sweater made up of small colored squares that I found at that garage sale six doors up the street when I first moved to Palm Springs, the one the woman bought in South America. I bunch up wool socks I’ve discarded to cushion my ankles, and I do my sitting practice. After, I write in my notebook. All these things in sequence seem to ground me, and all at once I feel like I have finally arrived, my second full day here. When it happens, the soap bubble disappearing, popping me free, I cry quick, grateful tears. A boy ladybug skirts the back of my neck, skims the top of my head, settles at last on the edge of my mini iPad and seems to be cleaning his legs. He’s visited me several times since I’ve been perched on this tree trunk. I dream him to be the same ladybug, feel like he’s keeping me company. When I go to leave I find a place for him on the tree, a stubby knob, thank him for being my silent companion. On the walk back beside the lagoon I count 200 pelicans. I’ve never seen so many in the United States. Back on the paved road, I feel how much my body wants yoga, and I think about sneaking one of the mats outside. It sounds like just the thing to celebrate my return, to bring me all the way back. I keep walking toward the old cypress trees. I am sleepy and solid and so glad to be myself again.
I choose the path on the left. It cuts through dense growth as tall as I am, berries, poison oak. There are pink flowers that scent the air with their wild rose fragrance, violet thistles, bright yellow fennel blossoms three feet above my head. If you look below, you can see pockets of open space, a honeycomb of dens and pathways for larger animals. I peek into them, hoping to spy someone. I’ve decided the animal I saw on the hillside trail was not a coyote but a red fox. That explains the way he felt so different to me, more shy, sweeter somehow, non-threatening. I would like to see him again. The sun is surprising, warm on my shoulders, but the bramble caves are empty. Once in a while the brush dips below my head, and I get to see the lagoon. I stop again and again to just stand there and take it all in. I already love this lagoon, first glimpse, how the water is always moving, talking to the sea, but in a way that speaks to stillness, to safe harbor. The pelicans enchant me, wake up in me the time I fell in love with them in Todos Santos. I watch them glide in to land on the water or take to the air in groups. The sound of them batting the surface of the lagoon with their wings follows me as I walk. I am the only human here. Halfway to the beach I am overcome by how deep the need in me was for this solitude after three full days without being alone except for that first short walk up the hill. It reminds me of living in Ajijic and wandering onto a dirt road that ran west of the town, finding myself beside a big field with horses near the lake, no one else in sight, the peace of the countryside easing a part of me I didn’t even know had been disturbed by all the concrete and bricks, my neighbors packed in tight round me. Funny, I think, to have Mexico conjured twice for me on such a short walk in this northern land. I stand alone on the path for a long time watching the pelicans, breathing in the scent of the wild roses and the darker smell of the wetlands. When I feel something loosen in my chest, I keep walking to the sea.
I ask a woman at the hostel about a short walk to squeeze in after I unpack. She gives me directions for the paved road, a vast view, but a dirt trail on the way distracts me. I send a silent query. The path or the road? I hear loud bird calls off in the distance, the direction of the trail. The immediacy of my answer surprises me. I turn toward the path just as a coyote comes around the bend. I think he’s a coyote, a young one, but his thick fur, his bulk confuses me. I realize I’ve grown used to our desert coyotes, ribs bared. For a moment he seems confused, too, not sure if he should just keep coming, but then he turns around and disappears. I climb along the hillside path that cuts through wild berries and tangled brush. There is thistle, honeysuckle, nettles. There is a red flower like columbine but not, I think, and big patches of tall, white strawflowers. There is poison oak everywhere. Near the top of the hill I talk myself out of going farther. It is already evening, and I don’t want to be stupid. I sit on an old cement wall, drink my kombucha. I can see the ocean, the sun low in the sky. I hear a raven, then see him in the tip of a tall cypress down below. On the way back, I hear a woodpecker in a grove of eucalyptus. The place feels enchanted, ancient, sacred. I feel like I’m staying in a cathedral.
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’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.
Mammals need three things when we’re young: warmth, touch, soothing vocalizations. I think of lullabies I can’t remember. (Were there lullabies?) I think of the funny nonsense sounds I used to make to my cat Boo, lots of made-up words with muted m and u sounds, my way of loving him out loud. I make those same sounds without thinking to the hummingbird when she alights in the guayaba tree ten inches from my face. I think she decides I’m safe because after listening to my noises she moves to her soft little nest I didn’t even know was there, three branches over. I string fuchsia ribbons to keep her safe with notes attached that read “Temporary closure—hummingbird.” Later, back inside my trailer, I hear odd little sounds coming through the bathroom window. I step into the bathtub, creep close. A female goldfinch is perched high in the guayaba making quiet scrijjery sounds I’ve never heard before. I think of the mammalian need for vocalizations. Maybe birds need them, too. Maybe the goldfinch is making these soft noises for the hummingbird eggs. I remember the pretend German songs I used to sing to myself for hours while I crouched on the walkway in front of our Tujunga house dreaming up little make-believe worlds amid the succulents. I feel a dearness for my young self and a rush of grateful pride that at age four she knew just how to soothe herself. (When did she forget?) A whir of wings brings me back. The hummingbird settles on the branch beside the goldfinch, facing her. They sit together like old friends, and then the hummingbird flies back to her nest. I am tired and tender, all opened up. I stand in the bathtub for a long time listening to the goldfinch song. I feel like I belong, all of us woven together by this lullaby: the goldfinch, the hummingbird, the two beings in her tiny eggs, and me.
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.