I stand at the kitchen sink washing and cutting vegetables for soup. It is late dusk. I work in a small circle of light from the stove. I smell garlic, dandelion greens, leeks, green onions, olive oil. “You can close your eyes,” James Taylor sings. “It’s all right.” A white crowned sparrow’s melodic call comes through the open window, pure, piercing. A fullness wells up in me, that blend of sweetness and sadness, this fleeting life. I slice mushrooms with slow, even strokes of the knife, tears in my eyes.
I am away from home for a week over Christmas. I send good wishes from afar. May the birds have plenty of seeds. May their water bowls be refilled each day. May all the crickets and daddy long legs and lizards and birds and the trees and plants be safe in my absence. I come back to Palm Springs on Amtrak, take the city bus, walk three blocks with the big rolling suitcase I took with me when I left to carry my presents to my mother’s. I see my bougainvillea, my wooden fence. Doves scatter as I approach. I glimpse a hawk gliding after them across the courtyard. I stop in the middle of the road. The hawk comes, settles on the gate before me. I don’t breathe. Maybe I can’t. The timing is too precise not to feel greeted, welcomed, awed, grateful. I stand still long moments while he watches me. When he flies off, I open the gate. I breathe again. I’m home.
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 around 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.
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.
No unsolicited feedback. No cross talk. Patience. Listening. “Respect,” I say. Then I realize it is inherent in most of the items already on our list. What kind of culture do we want to create for our class? By the time everything is written on the white board my spirits have sunk. I think I am just tired. The first night of this self-compassion class there is a lot of material to cover. When we take a short break, I go outside into the warm wind. I lean over from my hips, stretch my spine. I stand and swing my arms, turn from side to side, loosen my neck, my shoulders. I understand I am not just tired. I am discouraged by the list of guidelines for our behavior because I am afraid I won’t be able to honor them. I am afraid I will blurt things out, hurt people’s feelings, break the rules. I am afraid my bad behavior will make the space unsafe. I am ashamed in advance. The teacher said we’ll make mistakes, I tell myself. But her voice was casual, and I know for me it is not casual. It is a big deal. I move near the edge of the balcony and face northwest. I stand still and take in the long stretch of desert before me, the mountains in the distance, the smog. I feel the warm wind on my face, my arms. I let the fear and the shame seep out of me, be swept away in a warm gust of air. Later, I walk home in the dark. I stop on the sidewalk beside a small square block of undeveloped desert. I look up at the moon and Venus in the sky. I hear traffic in the distance. The half moon shows the contrast between the sand and dark lumps of brush. I scan for coyotes. I stand for a long time looking out at the quiet, moonlit field. I feel safe, satiated, washed clean.