I’ve lost my knack for fitting things into my day. I don’t know if I need to worry. I find myself tallying up the things I’ve done, as if I now need to be productive even on a Sunday. I wonder when I’ll be living again in an organized, tidy home with clean windows. Today I feed the birds and sweep the courtyard. I cook black-eyed peas because they’re on the list of legumes I am allowed to eat. I don’t want to push myself. I’ve pushed myself for decades. Surely that’s enough. I pick off all the deadish leaf twigs from the Mexican birds of paradise, and the happy bush remaining lifts me up. Such a small thing. In between my little chores I read the free book I found at the library, Queen of Dreams. I leaf through the Sunday paper. In the “Travel” section there’s a photograph from the country of Malta that makes me want to walk to the edge of the old city, stand with my hands on my hips, eyes across the sea. In the tiny laundry room at my trailer park I start the water in the washing machine, pour in the soap. I walk outside to let it fill before I add my clothes. My sandals crunch across the gravel until I am shaded by a fat, short fan palm in a neighboring yard. When I am out of the sun, I turn south. And there is the waning half moon to greet me and a hawk making slow circles in the sky beside it. I watch until he disappears. I think, maybe everything really is okay. Maybe I am doing enough, being enough, just as I am.
I need to find a way to touch my refuge when I am in the midst of disturbance. The sweet part is knowing that, given enough time and space, finding my refuge has always been easy for me. That connection, that peace, arises organically. (Or maybe when I am not disturbed I settle into it.) But how do I learn to find it when I’m startled? Or when I’m resisting what is??!!? Lately I watch myself unable to stop, my mind in a flurry. I think I tend to live in that flurry when I have too much work or stress. I don’t know how to stay connected to myself without the luxury of time alone, large swathes of it to land again. Without that, I manage to touch down for moments, in sitting practice, writing, doing yoga, when I hear a raven caw or a coyote bark. And in a stressful time, a time of disturbance, I believe these are moment of genuine connection both with myself and my world. I am able to feel that solace. But then something happens outside me, or my mind returns to a source of agitation, and I am disturbed again. It’s tempting for me to feel disheartened. But I’m going to keep reaching for kindness instead. I’m going to grab for that “sweetheart approach” whenever I remember, even when I’m already roiled, even when using it doesn’t seem to make a dent in things. I’m going to believe turning toward myself with that sweet reassurance, reaching for a connection with myself and the world around me—I’m going to believe that’s my way forward, my way in. I’m going to believe in my effort. I’m going to let it be enough.
I read Sylvia Boorstein’s Happiness Is an Inside Job more than once. Toward the beginning, she describes how she talks to herself when she gets startled. Sweetheart,” she says, “you are in pain. Relax. Take a deep breath. Let’s pay attention to what is happening. Then we’ll figure out what to do.” I have read this before, but one day it clicks in. I become startled so easily and so often. I begin practicing with this. I try it out right away when I get a disturbing email from my work. It keeps me from spinning out into stories about what I’m being asked to do, mostly how it’s “not fair.” (They still arise, but I don’t dwell in them.) It makes so much sense to me. There is a bit of the, “Duh!” about it for me. I have been trying to learn how to not be reactive to people, to reach for kindness. But of course I need to re-establish my connection to myself first before that becomes possible. I practice the sweetheart approach again and again. I am so excited, certain I have found a way to interrupt my autopilot after all these decades. Later I discover I am still not very good at this in the heat of the moment when other people are involved. Maybe I need to learn to catch it still in the startle, in the fear. Maybe when I get to the anger it’s too late. I am deflated. But my optimism ekes back in. I know I’m not giving up.
I am standing in front of the automatic doors when the train arrives at the station. My mother is sitting on a cement bench beside the track watching the train pull in. She is six feet away. When the doors don’t open, I pound on the window. She looks up. I have some crazy unformed idea she might call out to a conductor outside the train, tell them her daughter is stuck in the last car. Instead I run upstairs. “No! No!” I yell. And, “Wait!” When I find the conductor in the next car, the train is just beginning to pull away. He won’t do anything to stop it. “This isn’t an emergency,” he says. I scream at him and apologize in the same breath. I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t reach my mother on her cell phone, and I can’t calm down. An hour and a half later I am at her house in the foothills, but my heart is still pounding. That night I play those moments over in my head, the shock of watching her outside while I’m trapped on the train. Why did this happen? Maybe because this was not about me. It wasn’t personal. I got to watch my body dump crazed amounts of adrenaline into my system. I remember when I was 24 and my stepfather had a seizure in the middle of the night. I was incoherent when I dialed 911. And even though this is not me yelling at the bus driver, even though this is not me yelling at the notary public, there is something reassuring about the idea of all that adrenaline messing with my mind, as if, just maybe, it’s not completely my fault. Something cracks open in me, a small fissure, a glint—the beginning, I hope, of acceptance.
I get overwhelmed. It isn’t just all the failing but all the learning that goes with it. I’ve always had a kind of keen reflective eye, am often swift to see what I’m doing “wrong,” how I might do it better. My first year of teaching was a nightmare. I would walk out of each class with a mental list of 18 things I could have done differently. Today, too, I keep watching myself fail, dizzy with discernment. I guess, really, I am shining lots of little lights everywhere I look. After talking about this with my friend Richard and realizing I need to be able to accept what I’m doing in order for my awareness to effect change, I understand how this is in play for me always. Not only is my acceptance not deep enough, not broad enough, but each time I see a truth about my actions, about my reality, I expect myself to be able to change it. So in that first year of teaching, in every patch of my life when learning is accelerated, I put crazy pressure on myself to be able to fix things as soon as I recognize them. No wonder it’s overwhelming. Exhausting, stressful, even discouraging. This is where I need to develop that kind and curious mind we’re always talking about in mindfulness work, yes? This is where I want to be able to say to myself, “Ah. Look at that.” This is where I want to be able to pay attention without putting pressure on myself to change. Just, “Hmmm, how interesting.” Open palmed, my dear. Open palmed.
In one week in October I cause seven scenes. I rant in a public email in my new job, take an exasperated stand against a colleague I never liked in a public email at my old job. The first turns out to be a mistake—I jumped the gun. The second makes me feel mean, even though I think she had it coming, even though people are glad I said what I said. I end up having to send another public email to apologize. I should have sent a private note, I say. In the real world, I storm out of a mail center after trying to get a form notarized. “I’ve never had a good experience here,” I say in a loud voice as I push my way out the door. The city bus I’m on pulls up at the bus stop directly behind my transfer bus, and I hurry toward it. The driver pulls away as I approach. “No!” I yell. And then, “Fuck! Fuck!” I can’t believe this is happening. No one says a word, and I hate that I am spewing this ugliness out into the world. I now have six blocks to walk with my heavy bags to catch my Amtrak bus downtown. At Mami’s, the universe gives me lots of practice, endless chances to respond with composure and grace. I fail again and again and again. As the weeks unfold this pairing of opportunity and shocking failure presents itself so often there is no time to dwell on my shortcomings. I can only exclaim, only keep trying. A friend at sangha tells me his zen teacher says we do this until we wear ourselves out, until we are exhausted. I wonder when that will happen to me. And what might happen next?
I dream another of those dreams that weave through the whole of my night. It’s elusive, even as I wake from it, even though I return to it again and again. There is a clear glass sphere, fog-filled, suspended in the air. The message, too, is ephemeral but clear. We are to take risks, make ourselves vulnerable. No wonder I am afraid so much of the time, I think. I woke up anxious again five mornings ago. It’s as though I reach a tipping point where it all becomes too much for me. My peace vanishes. Not the deeper peace at my bedrock but the one that lives as ease in my body. In a second dream there are large, looming pieces that need to be moved, like office machines, huge pieces of furniture, a big dark pile. There is a sense of urgency. They need to be moved right away, and it is hard, heavy work. When I lift up the last piece, I find the silver lining. Copper, actually. Uncovered now is a shiny, new-minted penny, as if it has been waiting for me. If I were to lean close, I’d be able to read the year it was made, but I don’t try. It doesn’t seem to matter. What matters is the penny lies heads up for good luck.