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.
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.
I lie on my back, diagonal across the bed, fear tingling through my body. It reminds me I’ve had two scary dreams in the past few nights. In the most recent, I crouch in the courtyard in the dark and watch a faded blue hatchback park outside the fence. The rear window is covered with stickers like the ones Colleen and I collected when we drove around the country in my yellow Pinto just after high school. In the dream a man gets out and tries to open the gate. I think, having someone try to get inside at four o’clock in the morning isn’t a good sign. I try to speak, to say, “Can I help you?” in the sharp, condescending voice I use for phone solicitors and strangers like this who don’t identify themselves. But the words never form, and I wake up with a jolt, fear coursing through me. Nightmares are rare for me these days. But this morning I didn’t wake from a bad dream. This amorphous fear is just alive in me. There are plenty of possible fronts: loss of income, Mami, Trie, my writing, the future. At one point, I notice the refrigerator is silent, and I worry it has died in the night. Even for me, this is such a stretch I have to laugh. After, I lie still and do a little metta practice, a little tonglen. I breathe in the fear from my body, breathe out trust and ease and well being. It quiets, becomes more subtle. I lie there for a long time and let my mind roam. I wonder if this awakening of fear is tied to the healing work I’m doing with Elana. Could it be only a sharper awareness of the fear that always lives in me? And then for one moment I sense excitement in there, too. That changes it for me, points me toward something maybe I can accept. The thought of living with this kind of fear all lit up in me, maybe for years, seems unbearable, but fear tinged with excitement feels more livable, maybe poised on the brink of the next thing. It softens it, adds hope, promise. I breathe in, breathe out. The refrigerator turns on. I hear morning traffic, building already as our snowbirds trickle back in. The finch begin to chatter in the courtyard. They’re late, sleeping in on this gray, cloudy day. I stretch, yawn, grab clothes. I open the louvered window, reach my hand through to touch the morning air. I relish the sight of the bright orange Mexican birds of paradise, taller than I am now, the blooms showing their wear on this autumn morning. I slip into my worn-soft sandals, ready to greet the day.
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.
My bike is stolen, and life gets dreamlike. I walk outside and see the empty black metal bike rack, the cut lock lying on the grass beside it. The police dispatcher tells me it could take five or six hours before an officer would get there to take a report. I start walking to the police station. Halfway there the universe sends me a bus driver who stops for me, unasked, unheard of, in the middle of the block. When the officer at the front desk is gruff and makes me feel like I’m foolish to even bother filling out the form, I begin to cry. “What would have been nice,” I say, “is if someone had acknowledged this is a loss for me.” The woman behind the glass softens then, becomes kind, explains how the serial number will go into a database. I head back out into the hot afternoon, a bubble of hope in the palm of my hand. I loved that bicycle. I had her six years, my pearl green bike, my Celery Girl. She was pretty and sturdy and loyal and carried me all over town, to Trader Joe’s, to yoga, to Sunday meditations. I rode her beside the creek singing “I Could Have Danced All Night” at the top of my lungs. I miss her already. I walk to Jack in the Box, drink diet Coke and eat tacos, unheard of for me now, my ancient comfort food, refuge, too, from the Palm Springs summer still outside. I give money to a homeless man charging his cell phone beside the door. I walk across town shaking my cup of ice. I think: I am lucky. I have a small savings. I can buy a new bike. I think: how will I ever be able to leave it anywhere again? I think: I am lucky I didn’t have to be afraid. There wasn’t any threat of violence. It didn’t happen at home. I don’t get angry. I feel sad, vulnerable. I stop in the middle of the sidewalk, my cup in my hand, my face wet with tears. I think: I should have had a friend I could’ve called today when this happened. I walk home from the grocery story with a small bag of bird seed slung over each shoulder and a watermelon cradled in my arms, bikeless. The next day it seems like a dream. I forget three times I don’t have a bike anymore. In the late afternoon, I stand in front of the mirror for a long time and cry. “I love you so much,” I say, hands pressed flat against my chest. “So much.” I smile, look in my wet eyes. I laugh and watch my face grinning back at me. I know something is happening, some deep bedrock thing that got opened up in me when I saw that empty space where my Celery Girl was supposed to be, her mangled lock lying in a lonely coil there on the grass.
I’ve been chafing for a while now. I resent my old old habits of timidity, of insecurity, of reticence. (Though it comes to me today that I must find a way to love them. Truly.) I understand how they began, why they came, how they served me. I don’t want to dishonor them, diminish the value of their protection. But I want to be done with them now. I annoy people because of them. Or I watch their eyes glaze over, and they dismiss me because I am stuck inside these ways of being that need to be outgrown. I want to escape them. I want to find out how to just be who I am today, not living inside something that doesn’t serve me anymore, has held me back for years now. I have deep peace at the core of me, touch the earth, even trust a kind of wisdom. “I know things,” I say at the retreat. I know things. It is my beginning of becoming unchained. Five days later in a reading I find out the chakra at our solar plexus provides our self-assurance. The card says I may be able to take a “quantum leap.” Yesterday I physically felt the chakra for the first time, eager and excited like a little kid. I am willing, I think, to leap. I am not sure how to do it, though. So I’ll keep taking baby steps. “I know things,” I remember saying. That was one of them, one of the steps. Writing this blog post is another. On Monday I’ll try my hand at reading runes at a store downtown, see where that might lead. One step, then another. And if there is a cliff edge that presents itself, I’ll pray for the courage to leap. And for wings.