I’m walking home from a big day, sticking to the shade where I can. I passed out my first flyers for my retreat at the writers guild meeting, then went to Cost Plus to redeem my birthday coupon for my favorite tea lights and small hand painted Easter egg ornaments I couldn’t resist. I stop near a walkway for a condominium complex, startled by an immense Great Dane. His owner comes into view, and I’m relieved to see he’s attached to the leash. “Oh my,” I say with a laugh. “He surprised me.” The dog’s head comes almost to my shoulders. “He’s beautiful,” I say. I tell his leash wielder I’ve seen them before, and he remembers me from our old neighborhood. Maybe I should tell him about my writing retreat, I think. But I don’t say anything. We part and I continue up the street. I hear the sound of wings. I think, raven, and I look up but don’t see the bird. The wingbeats are long and loud, and then I see three ravens just ahead of me, flying low, clustered, talking now. I stop on the sidewalk. It feels like they’re telling me I shouldn’t leave, telling me I should’ve told Tim about my retreat. I look back to where he and the Great Dane disappeared, and he comes walking out again without the dog. I call out to him. “Are you a writer by any chance?” I ask. (It makes me grin as I write. What a line.) I retrace my steps, talk about the ravens. “So, I decided maybe I should tell you about my retreat after all.” We stand together in the shade of a tree I don’t recognize. He says he’s not a writer, but then it turns out he writes morning pages every day (a la Julia Cameron) and just finished teaching an artist’s way class. “Oh,” I say with a wave of my hand, undoing his earlier disclaimer, “you are a writer.” I give him a flyer, talk about the deeper meaning of the work for me. He seems taken by the whole thing. I like him. “I’ll call you either way,” he says. I walk home cheered. The day has given me a quiet hope about my retreat. The bags I’m carrying seem lighter. I keep grinning and shaking my head in wonder. I’m awed by the clear second chance the universe gave me. And I’m flabbergasted by those ravens. I can still hear the sound of their wings.
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.
“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.
It’s just after six in the morning. I steer my rental car down Ocean View. I’m going back to Palm Springs for the day. The eastern sky is a soft, rich orange. I stop the car in the middle of the road because the waning moon is hanging just above the layer of clouds, the thinnest sliver luminous against that green-blue we glimpse here in twilight hours. I sit, breathing, taking it in, the air cold on my face, the light growing around me. I feel greeted by the universe, the promise of a good journey, well wishes for the long day ahead. I leave my car at the airport, and when I walk out the main doors of the terminal, I’m stunned by the glory of our mountains and their snow. I feel oddly proud of our airport, proud to know people who’ve never been here before walk outside to this spectacular view. I walk home, past the fountain, relishing it all. As I go I spin in a circle now and then, scanning our ring of mountains, snow, sky. Off and on, I want to whine or pout to have missed the first day of this new snow. But mostly I feel lucky again and again. I go to the library, buy four used books for four dollars. I don’t want to worry about due dates right now, but also I love these soft trade paperbacks. And lately I’ve been reading my way through my pile from the last big library sale, the books that appeal to me when I’m filling my bag but so often go unread. I’m enjoying all the different voices, and I want to keep going. I buy vegan wraps at the health food store, and then I am home. The birds all still have a little seed left in their feeders. The mouse in the house has eaten the small succulent on the kitchen table that Mami gave me and a few of the buds on the Christmas cactus, but she’s stayed out of my bed and not caused havoc, so I’m grateful. I clean up the bits of dirt from the table, sweep the floor, ride my bike to get my hair cut, eat two wraps, drink kombucha, make small piles on the bed for repacking. In the evening I call Ian for a ride to class, get to hear about his metta retreat. After he drops me off again at home, I pause outside my door. All the feeders are filled, ready for the morning birds. I look up at the stars, take a deep breath, soaking up my dark courtyard, my sky. I close my eyes, and when I open them I see a falling star above my home. I make a wish. I open the door, step inside, deep, quiet awe welling up in me for the framing of this day: the moon at sunrise, the falling star, brackets of welcome, of reassurance, of solace. Thank you.
For the first time in ages, I’m enjoying the luxury of easing into the new year. I took the week off, and I’ve been attending special daily sessions at our meditation center. At first, I was going to plan a demanding daily schedule of writing and sitting practice to accompany these evenings of sitting and teaching. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to stick to my schedule,” I said. Marylou and Richard and I were sitting together on their patio. Richard suggested in the kindest of ways I might be more easy with myself. At the time, I felt defensive and not understood. “Retreats are supposed to be challenging,” I grumbled. But later, I let his gentle words sink through me, and I ease off of expecting so much of myself. Instead of pushing, I let myself sleep in, dawdle over tea, do my morning writing and sitting practices propped up in bed with the San Jacintos stretched out before me. I make soup, nap, read, eat popcorn. Each evening I step outside, close the door behind me. The solar Christmas lights in the bougainvillea greet me in the dark courtyard. One night the crescent moon is cupping Venus. The next night Mars and the waxing moon and Venus are all in a row. They accompany me on my half-hour walk to the meditation center, the air brisk on my face, my scarves soft and warm against my ears. After, the stars walk me home. One morning midway through, I cry without knowing why. But I trust in the rightness of it. One afternoon I fight on the phone with a loved one. I make her cry. When I hang up, I remember to hold my self-hatred with kindness, identify the swirl of other feelings, five in all. I picture them nested in my open palms, the tenderness immense. One day during the teaching I am overcome. To think, we are all here wanting to heal, working toward becoming the peace we want to see in the world. What a gift to be able to do this together. On day seven, a morning session, I look back as I leave my courtyard and see scores of goldfinch in the bare branches of my neighbor’s tree, like ornaments, like lemons. I walk to the center, happy I am me, so glad for these eight days of practice, for the connection with this sangha, this community. The air is cold on my face, but I am warm in my layers. I feel the way I used to feel on a winter night flanked by Sofia and Sable, their small weights warm against my calves, my belly. I would lie there in the quiet dark and cry because I knew I must be the luckiest woman in the world.
It rains off and on, steady and quiet in the night. When I prop myself up on my elbows to peer over the windowsill in the early morning, I see a swathe of pale orange across the southern sky. Half awake and planning to go back to sleep again, I look west and see a rainbow. I grab my lime green umbrella and my mini iPad and juggle them in the rain to take a picture, goofy and awkward, but it’s no use. The image doesn’t begin to capture the light in it, the magic. I make oatstraw and alfalfa tea and climb back under the covers, my feet cold from my foray. I sip my hot tea and watch the mountains, shrouded in mist. I listen to my birds. My thoughts drift to a colleague. My belly clenches, a messy swirl inside me at the memory, feeling not heard, dismissed, angry, hurt. I wake up to the moment and remember. “May I hold you with kindness,” I say out loud to the feelings. I missed this part of the vipassana practice until two weeks ago when I was listening to a recording of Sylvia Boorstein, and it just came into me. I wonder how I missed it. I see it, after, in my beginner’s book I am rereading, right there in the first pages. It is Boorstein’s phrase, too, that Ian invokes each time we begin sitting practice. “May I meet this moment fully. May I meet it as a friend.” I’ve always loved it, but I didn’t make the connection until now. It has holding our feelings with kindness at the heart of it. Just like Thich Nhat Hanh’s, “Hello anger, my old friend.” But I didn’t get it until now, that direct turning toward our feelings each time they arise, welcoming them. I wonder if maybe I needed to foster enough self-kindness in more general terms before this practice of receiving uncomfortable feelings like old friends was even practical for me. I knew we needed to accept what comes, knew we needed to be kind to ourselves, but it didn’t click. What comes to me this morning is my colleague’s behavior is not a reflection of her regard for me. It’s only what she does, and I take it personally. I cry quick, sweet tears. I return to my big cup of golden tea resting on the covers in my lap, warm my hands against its sides. My toes are warm now, too. And my heart.
Ah, yes. Yeah. Let it roll. Let it flip flop you around, slap the ears, soft like fur. Let it. Let it, ah, yeah. Let it make you move, only a little, mostly inside. Your heart, yeah, tap tap tapping. Your belly, yeah, keeping to the beat, the dance, the yes you can, the look at me look at us grooving. Yes, you can you can we can together we can let it roll under our tongues in our thumbs around and between us and inside us moving back and forth joining us while it passes through passes between passes along. Ah, yes. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Let it roll. Let it dance and sing. Let it ring and zing zing zing. Let it bounce between us hearts beating to the rhythm no separate selves only this room full of warm souls wrapped up together in the music.
[Editor’s note: This is an unedited piece (except for three words in the last sentence) in response to yesterday’s poetry prompt from the Two Sylvias Press advent calendar. Here is the prompt: “Write a poem about a style of music (jazz, hip-hop, blues, country, reggae, opera, heavy metal, etc.) while imitating the music style in the wording and phrases of your poem.” I feel shy posting it. Maybe it is too silly. But I felt the music right from the first line, and it was good fun letting the poem come through me. I hope it might be a little bit fun to read, especially out loud.]