I dream of a pilgrimage of horses. I stand at a crossroads of dirt trails where I can see them walking en masse. It is night, but I see them crossing through intermittent moonlight. Their movement is steady, quiet. I’m surprised to see some of them are saddled and bridled. There are no humans with them, only the horses walking, four or five or six deep on the two converging trails. I feel their sense of purpose, of clear intention, though I am not certain I understand it. I stand where I can watch them, among other people. I think I am in a foreign land or in “enemy” territory because I am aware I may be shot and killed. I am afraid, but I know this is important. I want to stand with my palms together, like namaste, like the Buddhist bow. Instead, I link my fingers. I hold them against my solar plexus, like in prayer, and bear witness, homage, to their quiet passage.
I remember sitting in the courtyard, during that same conference call with Sylvia Boorstein, looking at the magenta blossoms on my sprawling succulent in the orange pot. The blooms sprang to life the morning after our terrible windstorm, the greater part of a day and a night, gusts from 70 to 80 miles per hour, the worst I’ve lived through. Through it all I was working on a deadline to develop a website for my July writing retreat. It was impossible for me to give it my undivided attention. No matter what I did I couldn’t separate myself from my fear. The walls of my trailer shook and rattled in the wind. I said metta. I prayed all of us would be safe and unharmed–all the birds and small wild things, me and my neighbors inside our tin cans. But the next morning, when I saw how my succulent had burst into wild magenta bloom in spite of that terrible onslaught, that unbelievable battering, I thought, we need to be like this succulent. We need to respond to what is playing out now on our national stage with our own bright blossoming. Indeed, in the pink pussycat hats, the women’s marches, the way our judicial system is responding, the immigration protests, the country is doing just that. I have been especially bolstered by the fact that our “founding fathers” created our democracy with safeguards. I hadn’t counted on that. And again, I am proud to be a Californian in the midst of it all. I see our legislators and our governor trying to stand up, trying to do the right thing. I read an article the other day about a man in Los Angeles who is offering trainings to local activist organizations, teaching the self-care skills people will have to master in order to not be completely overwhelmed by the needs they are trying to meet now, particularly for those who serve the undocumented immigrant community. He sits them in a circle, places items for an altar at its center, let’s them talk about the toll these times are taking. And I want to honor each of them, every one of them, of you, for standing up. For being in the front lines. For giving response. For being our own fierce spring.
I’m taking Sylvia Boorstein’s online class that spans the year, “Mindfulness in Everyday Life.“ On a conference call in April, a woman asked her for advice on how to navigate the disturbing reality of life now in the United States with our sitting president. It comes up again and again in the meditation communities I’m a part of. I’m luckier than many in this, I think, in that I only read the newspaper. I imagine it’s easier than watching TV news. I can glance at headlines, skim stories, put the paper down when the clenching in my belly tells me to. I can look at still photographs of him, appalled by the ugly twist of his lips. It’s not as unsettling as listening to him “live.” When the question comes up in the conference call, I want to say what I believe is true. I can’t remember now if there was just not enough time left to raise my hand and speak, or if I hesitated, held myself back. Was I just self-conscious? Or did I convince myself what I wanted to say was too obvious? What I wanted to say is we have to have faith. Buddhists don’t work with that concept much. I think it’s because Buddhism is not something we need to take on faith. The Buddha didn’t expect that. He told us to try things out, to see for ourselves. So it makes sense to me that Buddhists may have more trouble in a time like this, a time when we are “forced” to watch an overweight, racist, misogynistic, xenophobic white man try to dismantle all the good that’s been put into place in recent years. Faith may not be an ordinary part of the equation, but we need it now. We need to believe the times we’re living in are a reaction to all the good progress we’ve made around the world. We need to believe this is the “getting worse” part before things get better. We need to believe this is not the beginning of the end, only the last-ditch effort to roll things back before we move together even more fully into the kind of world we want to live in always.
I was ten in 1968, an only child. None of my parents were activists. I was imbued with the spirit of the time but not a part of it. I am a child of the seventies. I grew up with duck and cover drills, crawling under our desks at school and covering our heads (as if this might actually help us in the quake of an atomic bomb). We grew up knowing Social Security may not be there when we reached 65, knowing the world could be destroyed anytime at the press of a button. Maybe it was in the face of this I became an eternal optimist, or maybe it was simply in my nature. But optimist or not, I have lived my whole life afraid that one day I would need to put myself in front of people with machine guns to stand up for what is right. And I didn’t want to have to die like that. In recent years, I’ve shaped a softer possibility for myself. Maybe I don’t have to die. Maybe I can speak up, do the right thing, without risking my life. But our current climate in the United States has awakened all my earlier fears. On the way home from my mother’s last week I met a woman named Liz. She and Zoë and I met at the Fullerton Amtrak station and shared the three seats at the back of the bus on the last leg of my journey. We talked nonstop for hours. Liz told me they threw grenades at the protesters in North Dakota. She said one woman had her arm blown off. She said another had one of her eyes put out by a rubber bullet. She said they used water hoses on the protesters in the heart of a northern winter. I have not researched this, but I’m inclined to believe her. Today between work needing to be done I Googled “Sacred Stone” and signed letters for my U.S. senators and my congressman to stop the pipeline. I called Palm Springs City Hall and left a message in hopes of finding out what I might be able to do to make sure we declare ourselves a sanctuary city. On the way home from Ralph’s before dark I start singing, “Give Peace a Chance.” I want to be able to stand up for what is right, but I don’t want to have to die for it. I’ve heard people are being “planted” to stir up trouble where the intention is to practice nonviolent resistance. The only thing I can think of in my head if I am there when this happens is to just start singing. So today I sing all the way home from the grocery store. It’s a warm evening. People look at me through the open windows of their cars. No one waves or gives me any indication of being with me, but it is my hope a happy sense of that comes to them moments later, after I pass by. When I walk through the trailer park, I imagine my song touching people through the open sliding glass doors. I know some people might think I’m crazy or even wrong. But I don’t stop. In between, I laugh. I am all welled up with the love of it. The waxing moon is rising in the east. It will be full here on Friday afternoon. I sing to the moon as I walk. And I get good chills along my arms, my legs. I am embarrassed and joyful, both. I wonder what my neighbors think as I get close to home. I hope some of the people who hear me, whether they know me or not, are touched by my heartfelt song. “All we are saying,” I sing, “is give peace a chance.”
My mother’s going to walk Auntie Gardi out to her car. It’s late, late afternoon when the air begins to chill. She’s standing on the walkway waiting for Auntie Gardi and I to say goodbye. She’s wearing her brown fuzzy coat. It’s the coat that speaks to me without my knowing. It tells me she’s better now, this clear evidence of her taking care of herself. And so when she comes back inside the house I rant at her, that kind of angry outpouring that comes to some of us after danger has passed, when we are no longer holding fear at bay, after we know our loved one is going to be okay. I’m rinsing out the kitchen sink, and even before I’m done venting I am overcome by self hatred. I feel like I can’t contain it. I don’t know what to do, so I go for a walk. I can’t breathe for the welling up of venom against me. I walk downhill. “May I hold this feeling with kindness,” I say. I can’t imagine being able to, but I ask anyway, over and over. When I get to Ocean View, I sit on the curb and cry. Then there is enough room to breathe again even though the self hatred is still pushing up against the inside of my skin, red angry waves of it. I climb back up the hill, look over my shoulder. And there through the branches of the pine trees below me are Venus and the waxing crescent moon. Something softens inside me when I see them together in the late dusk sky. Another voice wonders: how do I deserve these greetings again and again, these tender signposts? Later, I think: I can’t remember the last time I felt that volume of hatred toward myself. Am I going backward? And then I realize what was different here. Yes, I was overcome. I didn’t know how to hold it. It was so big. But it was only feeling. It didn’t have a voice, no words. I wasn’t telling myself what a horrible person I was for yelling at my mother. I felt like I didn’t know how to hold the feeling, but I wasn’t aiming it at myself. I wasn’t attacking. I wasn’t being mean to me. So, no. Not going backward after all. This was something new.
This year was laced with the absence of my cats, sometimes glaring, sometimes subtle, more muted as the year progressed. I lit a candle yesterday for Boo, one year to the day. I only cried a little. I’ve quieted most of my if onlys, I think, most of my what ifs. I’ve returned to winter quarters again this year after Boo taught me its wonders when he was sick, and I abandoned our courtyard to stay with him inside. From the blankets in the mornings I watch the San Jacintos, warm tea cradled in my hands. Now in the early dusk, I have the sliding glass door open. The white crowned sparrows flit about near the bougainvillea. I can hear them peeping, hear the rattle of the dried blossoms while they hunt for seeds. Now and then exquisite bursts of song erupt. One lone mourning dove comes to the big tray feeder. The solar Christmas lights looped in the bougainvillea will come on any minute now. The waxing moon is not yet far enough west for me to see her, but when I glance up, I surprise Venus in the clerestory window. The two have been bright companions in the evening sky, heralds of the season. The more the light leaves the day, the happier my timid sparrows are, playing in the corner of the courtyard. I can hear the traffic one street over, the clink of dinner dishes next door. I linger until the sparrows seek their beds, until only the ridge of the mountains is visible against the darkening sky. The solar lights wink on like magic, a bright, wild tangle. May we each be blessed with quiet, glowing, untamed peace like this through all our days and nights.
I like to play with my titles here. Song titles, famous expressions. In blogging it feels like we have more license to amuse ourselves. Here I am stealing the title of Anne Lamott’s book about writing. I saw it on my shelf just the other day. It seems to fit what I want to try to write about tonight, the bit by bit approach. One day when I was in my third year of teaching English I knew I needed to begin writing for myself again. I was building an online class on the fly, in addition to my other classes, and every Sunday I stayed up all night to get the next week’s materials in place for my students by Monday morning. I had no time. But I knew I didn’t want to get to the end of my life saying I’d always wanted to be a writer. So I decided to write eleven minutes a day. I sat on my stone porch in Hopland every morning and filled a page in my composition book. I don’t remember how it happened, but characters emerged. I began writing a novel. I don’t know if it was beginner’s luck or some quirk of timing or state of mind, or maybe because the characters were so crisp and so alive for me then, but I would just sit down and “enter in” to the story every day for those eleven minutes. I thought that’s how it worked, thought I would always be able to immerse myself in that way. But today I feel light years away from that, my imagination rusty, my hand creaky, my mind less agile, less willing or able to stretch, take leaps. So, yesterday I began a commitment to address a new writing prompt from Two Sylvias Press every day in December. I’ve done two now, and like my assignments for my recent MOOC, they are nothing to write home about. But I’m hoping I can quiet my critic, just keep practicing this act of letting go that used to come to me unbidden. It’s a tightrope act, finding my balance between reaching for this hope, writing with this goal in mind, and not going rigid with it. I think to soften I may return to reading Natalie Goldberg. Or maybe I’ll read Anne Lamott’s book again. In her story, when she has a big report to write for school, her father tells her to just take it “bird by bird.” So, I’m going to take this prompt by prompt, and wish for but not insist on limbering up in the process, pray for magic but not try to hold it in my fist. And in the meantime, the birds keep showing up, too, signposts still along my way. But that is a story for another day.