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.
I’m doing sitting practice on a Thursday morning in March. All the windows are open. I can hear the low hum of the swamp cooler in the back room, feel puffs of air against my skin. When I open my eyes the bougainvillea in the courtyard catches my heart. I close them again, take a long breath in, a long breath out. I feel a familiar tightness in my belly, like it might be messing with my breath. I stay with the feeling, sink deeper. All at once I know this part of me has been afraid for 59 years. The knowing floors me. I’m heartbroken for her. Her dedication humbles me, decades of being afraid on my behalf, wanting to keep me safe. I talk to her. I tell her how sorry I am she’s been afraid all these years and I didn’t know. I invite her to let go. I’ll be afraid again, I say, but you no longer need to hold it all the time. I am bowled over by her sheer strength, to have held this fear all my life. I cry, cradle my belly with my palms, my forearms, both sad and grateful for her sacrifice. I’ve known my fat was a way to protect myself, but this deepens my sense of this. Was my body trying to cocoon this ball of ancient fear, buffer her, maybe, so her efforts might be just a little easier? It’s okay now, I tell her. We’re safe here, I say. We’re safe here doing sitting practice beside the open sliding glass door, the house finch chattering in the courtyard. (Well, safe barring maybe an earthquake, I think.) I tell her she can come on duty now only as needed. You don’t need to do this all the time, I say. I don’t know if she can unfurl just like that, but I vow to remind her again and again. I am still made dumb by what she’s done, this gallantry, the immensity of this feat. It’s okay, I tell her again. It’s okay to rest now in between, I say. Rest, the way the deer’s body relaxes when the danger’s passed, the way she returns to ease, nibbles more grass. Rest, the way the white-crowned sparrows drop down one by one from the bougainvillea after I walk by, going back to eating seeds from the ground, talking music. Rest, I tell her. Sleep, even, if you can. I’ll be right here.
Three weeks ago the mockingbirds began to sing. When I’m lucky I hear one singing nearby in the middle of the night. I’m hoping he comes closer. Last Wednesday when I walked out of my class at the Annenberg Center the air smelled like heaven. I stopped, eyes closed, taking in deep breaths of it. The scent was so familiar, but I couldn’t recognize it. I opened my eyes to the lemon blossoms in the tree above me. Every year I forget how strong the fragrance is, how it finds you everywhere, even when you can’t spot a tree. The sun’s been moving north at a steady pace, all stealth until now when you see it’s almost halfway through its journey. It sinks behind the mountains as I write, facing me straight on now. I’m sitting inside with the swamp cooler on and the sliding glass door wide open to the courtyard. My neighbor’s tree, the one who hosted goldfinches like ornaments all winter, has budded into leaf. I think: don’t tell me we don’t have seasons here. I think: don’t let it bend you out of shape, Riba, annoyed now at all those imaginary people who like to claim we don’t. I’m doing my sitting practice facing the mountains, and my mind is crazy busy. Yesterday, too. I wonder what’s going on. I’ve been looking into rooms, wanting to begin to teach a writing class, give a workshop, lead a writing circle. I’m even fantasizing about offering a retreat, too, maybe in Joshua Tree. This is where my mind zooms today again and again while I’m supposed to be meditating. Could we get a cluster of their studio cabins all together? Could people bring their own food, plan for a pot luck or two? Can I keep it affordable? Do I charge a fee for my efforts or let people offer dana? Do I teach craft or just guide us in entering in? I am gone so long during the meditation that when I wake up and come back I feel the urge to be angry at myself. My laugh surprises me instead. But I do wonder what’s going on, wonder if I should be worried. I sit for the last minutes with my eyes open, taking in the laden bougainvillea branches arching across the wooden fence and the mountains behind them. I hear a mourning dove calling from the roof of my trailer, the first call of the year. I cherish the longing and the full, rich sweetness of his voice. Maybe, I think, I don’t need to worry about my busy mind. Maybe I’m just ready to spring forth with the season. Maybe now I get to burst into bloom.
“Mother#%!#%!” I say. Or maybe I only think it, my angry fingers jabbing at the screen of my mini iPad in my lap. But the word surprises me, slipping out over such a small annoyance, ugly in my mouth. I’m on the bus heading to a class in mindfulness, of all things. I was making my morning rounds for work, and on one login page, an ad that was slow to load kicked me out of the keyboard, twice. Each time my still-typing fingers triggered the ad and sent me to another page, watching my wireless icon spinning, waiting to get back to the login page to try again. It’s the eighth day of my juice cleanse, so maybe I can blame my obscenity, the disproportionate response, on that, on some edginess from expelling toxins, maybe, more quick to jump to annoyance. Over the years, I’ve tamed my tendency to swear, especially in company. But at home the words still tend to tumble out when I get mad. When this one slips out, it feels so automatic it makes me wonder if I’m doing this all the time without noticing. And then I get all excited. I read an article in the L.A. Times a couple of weeks ago about how Lent had moved into the secular world, how people were posting on Facebook about what they planned to give up this year for those 40 days, everything from Dr. Pepper to texting to wine to social media. One woman planned to give up being self-righteous about her political views. Another is giving up gossiping. I’ve always been intrigued by Lent, too, and by Fat Tuesday that precedes it. (As a matter of fact, I started my cleanse on February 22nd, but I remember thinking if I failed, I’d have Fat Tuesday as a fall-back for my last hurrah of hamburgers and Häagen-Dazs. And Stella.) So when I read the article, I wanted to join in. But I’m already working on so many fronts, I didn’t know what to choose. Still, I tucked it in the back of my mind. And now on the bus it comes to me. I can give up obscenities! For a moment I wonder if I’m too late, and then I realize today is the first day of Lent. The timing is perfect. I sit there grinning like I won the Lotto. And in that lovely way the universe has, two days ago a colleague used an expression I was quite taken with and decided to steal. I get a chance to try it out later in the day. First, on the phone I already forget my new vow and say the s-word. But then when I hang up, still upset, I remember. “Holy cats!” I say. And when that isn’t quite enough, charming though I find it, I fumble for another word, more with my mouth than my mind. “Butterfingers,” I say. It is all I can come up with. And then I can’t help it. I have to laugh. And all of a sudden this sacrifice looks like it may have buried treasures. Maybe it will make me nice.
Tuesday dread settles over me like a heavy coat, lead in the pockets. I fall asleep with a candle burning and a ceaseless prayer. Please don’t let him win. Wednesday I wake up and cry. I am surprised it hits me so hard. After, I do my sitting meditation. I practice metta. I don’t try to love Trump. I don’t try to love the people who voted for him. But I can hold them anonymously when I say metta for all beings everywhere. I can be inclusive of them in my practice because I believe we all deserve to be safe and free from harm. I believe we all deserve to live with ease and well being. We all deserve to know both deep joy and deep peace. But I don’t try to single them out for this, as you would in a traditional metta practice. I don’t want to try. Not yet, at least. Not now. Right now I am still too raw. Right now it is all I can do to keep my fear from grabbing me and sprinting off. Will he begin deporting people, pulling apart families? Will he try to take away our right to choose, strip away gay rights? I hear he doesn’t believe in global warming. Will he undo everything good people have fought so hard for for so long? I tell myself people who voted for him wanted to overthrow the government. It’s an understandable desire. But how could it not matter that he hates people of color? Women? Foreigners? How the hell could it not matter that he bragged about grabbing pussy, claimed Mexican immigrants are criminals and rapists? How can there be no lines drawn for the kind of person we even allow to run for president, much less elect? I cringe to think of all the white women who voted for him because their husbands told them to, women who have internalized the misogyny Trump embraces. (And there, perhaps, is my truer entry into compassion.) I know racism and misogyny and xenophobia never went away. But I never expected almost half the voters in this country to exalt them. I’d hoped just the fact that Trump was in the running was enough of a backlash. That it meant we were making progress in this world of ours. Now it looks like it will have to get worse before it gets better. So I’ll pray it doesn’t get too bad. I’ll pray it doesn’t last too long. I’ll pray this is how we expose and exorcise this kind of hate. And I’ll cling to being grateful and proud to be a Californian. On Wednesday morning when I look at the nice little west coast block of us, of Clinton states—California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington—I can’t help but wonder. Could we just secede? But maybe that’s the coward in me talking.
When I think about my summer, my time without students is bookmarked by my meditation retreat and my writing workshop camping trip. They were both intensive, designed for breaking through, and I did. But each time I do I slump back again, go dormant. I eat too much, read too much, do too little. And summer itself feels like too much, sapping me. Then I get caught up in the semester start, all that needing to step up, all the patience and kindness it takes to welcome all those people, help them all get settled. Amid the flurry of it I return to my daily yoga practice, moving my mat to follow the shade of the umbrella, misters wetting the cement. One day I lie on my back and see the deep impossible blue of the sky against the edge of the orange umbrella. It takes me by surprise. I can’t remember the last time we had that color in the sky here. The days shorten, and the nights drop into the sixties. I return to writing again first thing because I can afford to sweep the courtyard and feed the birds a little bit later in the morning now. I write propped up in bed, a jar of cold herb tea beside me, my house finch loud and cheerful in the corner of the courtyard. I can see them through the kitchen window. I do my sitting practice next, listen to my finch, to the pwitter of dove wings, to the sound of cars along the road, the hum of the fridge. I hear a big frenzy of flapping, likely a hawk circling. And in the sudden quiet after all the birds take flight, I hear the soft sound of the second hand moving on the small green clock beside my bed. I can feel the promise of fall, of winter here when we can all burst out into the world again, take a walk in the middle of the day. This easing now of life in the desert becomes certain. I wonder, too, if my slumps weren’t also part of the natural cycle of things, the moving forward and moving back. I wonder if I might even find a way to honor that dormancy, to trust in the need to lie fallow. Might I stop resisting it, allow it to be, not make it wrong? Because now I am somewhere in the middle, I think, like the season. I am not quite one place or another, trusting in the transition.
Today I wonder if my memoir is complete crap and needs to be abandoned. I decide to make a list of the things I want to write about again for this new manuscript, this third round. I make a list, but it isn’t very long. I like the first piece in the book, so I decide to keep it. I find a zillion pages I don’t like anymore. I delete them. I end up removing two thirds of the book. It reminds me of years ago, sitting on the bed at my place on Avenida Ortega when I began culling the original manuscript, making piles of yes, no, maybe. There was almost nothing in the yes pile. This feels the same way. Most of the writing seems dull, boring, lifeless. No one would want to read it. I’m not even interested anymore. How could anyone else be? How could this manuscript have been one of nine finalists for a national book award? Did they receive terrible submissions? Was mine never actually in the running, only chosen as a matter of formality, better than even worse writing? I don’t want to be mean to myself, but I don’t evade the questions. And I don’t know the answers. I wonder if this is natural and right, that after a period of time we become more objective, a sluice to separate the sand and gravel from the gold. I wonder if I am throwing away good work. I wonder if I need to leave this book behind. I know enough to know I am not the first writer to feel this way. I tell myself it is too soon to give up. I point out I have kept more of the manuscript than last time, but this argument is weak. I am only certain I want to keep a handful of the pages I’ve saved. The rest are maybes. I’ve written two new pieces, but they don’t sing. That doesn’t mean the fourth one won’t, I insist, or the seventh. I think again about turning this into a work of fiction. I decide to keep going, to trust myself to know what is true. I recognize fear, a clenching in my belly. But I’m pretty sure there is excitement rolled up in there, too. Maybe when I get inside the writing it will open up. Maybe it will fly. I think about what an odd and funny beast writing is, what quirky creatures writers are. I notice I can breathe again. I send up quick prayers for lift off, for flight.