I think about shielding. I ask five healers for ideas about ways shield, ways to keep myself more cushioned if I can from this world that sometimes seems too much for me. No one offers an idea that sticks. After I discover a hard thing during sitting practice, this dagger wedge of quan iron in the center of my chest, the shield that comes to me is a curtain of quan iron, long strand after long strand of it strung side by side across a wide span of bone, or tusk, maybe, thicker than my forearm, irregular small flat squares of the protective metal hung all in a row. [Quan iron is the magic blue-green metal from Andre Norton’s Witch World.] Behind the curtain shield I see a rough hewn window or doorway arch, sunlight coming through. It catches on the hammer’s bite marks, shiny overlapping crescent moons from the pounding of the metal squares. There is no screen across the opening behind the curtain so I feel unimpeded air brush against my face. I take in a slow, deep breath. The horoscope in today’s newspaper says, “The warrior learns to fight but also to defend, starting with defending the self.” I think about shielding. And I remember a dream I had two weeks ago but didn’t recognize. I stand in the center of a room, and I run this fine set of chain mail through my hands, lifting and holding it, folding it back in against itself. I set it on a soft blue shirt beside more colorful piles of clothes on the bed, as if I am packing for a trip. I note the quan iron again, but not like I am really paying attention, just that familiar color and the smudge of magic to it as if in confirmation only, as if part of me has already decided it is too much. Who am I to be given protection like this? The quan iron here is crafted into fine chains, a web of them to cradle the rib cage, then 1/4-inch slabs of green stone, maybe aventurine, maybe a light jade, woven into the chains. I glide my fingers across the smooth stones as I re-stack the fine armor, and I can see how they will fall on core spots: kidneys, liver, inner thighs. I hold one slab of green stone and rub my thumbs across it. They bump again and again in the center of the stone. Without trying it on, I know it will fit me like a second skin, but it will not bind me. I marvel such supple, beautiful chain mail exists, that it has been gifted to me. And magic, to boot. I see the advantage, too, over a shield that protects me from only one direction. When I wake up, I wonder if I shouldn’t wear a helmet.
I’ve taken to counting us in the courtyard. The other day there were nine mourning doves and one goldfinch. I made eleven. I think this counting thing’s because the white crowned sparrows left. I don’t want to believe they’re really gone. And I still miss my own small furred ones. But I’ve had so many encounters with the feathered of late, too. There is my hummingbird mama and her two little ones in the guayaba tree who are a surprising, tender thread woven through my days. At the park I have a long conversation with a grackle in a nearby tree and watch a volunteer from the animal shelter walk a big dog that stirs my longing. I hear a hawk call. I look up to see him land in the tree behind me. I don’t know what kind of hawk he is, but I have an uncanny feeling when I hear his voice and watch him settle in the branches of the tree. Oh, yes, I know you. I’ve known you for a long time. Later I wonder if this hawk has been nearby for years, or if he is someone I have known before in this life or another. Oma comes to mind. Oh, and in the courtyard I look up to scores of egrets flying northwest across the late dusk sky. Such a gift, this glancing up, the chance to watch their silent progress. And this long flurry of birds reminds me of the dream where I stand with a handful of people in a big clearing surrounded by trees. All kinds of birds circle the clearing, a steady, patient flapping of wings. A blur of movement, rush of air and feathers. Someone calls out. It feels like they’re waiting for us to do something. Or maybe we’re all waiting together. I’m wearing old hiking boots and holding my wooden walking stick loosely in both hands. I turn to look over my shoulder at the birds. I spot the belly of a red shouldered hawk as he passes, just out of reach if I stretched my fingertips up to him. I spy white crowned sparrows bobbing in and out, and house finch, too. I see a Eurasian collared dove, big and gangly by comparison, the slower moving bear to their darting squirrels. John says he has roadrunners who live in the tree in his back yard. They are great darters, too. In the dream, we are an odd host, but we are gathered and steady. Hawks, crows, northern flickers, hikers, songbirds, people’s dogs and kids weaving in and out, noses on other things. We are an unusual line of defense.
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.