Twenty-nine years ago today, on April 18th, 1988, I quit smoking. The year before, I tried to quit eleven times, but this was the first one that stuck. It ran unbroken thirteen years and still holds sway over most of these past three decades. Because of this I notice April 18th out in the world. It’s a red number day for me. Isn’t April 18th the day Harprita had to have all the potions decocted and the twenty-seven soft blue bundles wrapped and ready for the ship in the novel I’m reading? And isn’t April 18th even a day in Angels in America? Is it the San Francisco earthquake, maybe?
I lean back in the sturdy metal chair in the courtyard, the big round cup of hot tea cradled in my hands. And then I remember. April 18th is the day you and I first laid eyes on each other on that southbound 80 bus. It’s the day I went home to hear that message on my machine from a possible sperm donor. That’s why I know the date, why I was able to trace it back later when I was halfway in love with you and the morning we first saw each other on the bus counted. When I think of you and I that first day at the back of the bus, I can feel the awkwardness between us. Because I think you scowl at me, I avoid looking in your direction and try instead to adjust to sitting in the stupid side-facing seat. I fuss and fidget some. I sigh in exasperation. I never stop being aware of you reading the paper nearby.
Didn’t our eyes meet again later on that first bus ride? Wasn’t it a less guarded look, over the tops of your glasses? Did we both look away? I think I may have watched you reading, too, that morning, chewing on your bottom lip, not looking at me. I know we talked about it years later. You wanted me that morning. I didn’t have a clue you felt that way then, me and my misinterpreted scowl. It still makes the corner of my lips curl to remember. You wanted me the first time you laid eyes on me. There’s a surprising satisfaction in knowing this. I am the cat licking cream from my paws.
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.
“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.
I did already post a bit about our day of love, with a heart from Flickr’s creative commons, too. But still, I felt like I wanted to post again today. In 2005 when I lived in Hopland I made potato prints, watercolor hearts, for Valentine’s Day. And ever since I’ve always had this feeling that instead of writing Christmas cards each year, I ought to make potato print hearts for sending out my “annual greetings” letter on this day of love. But I’ve never managed to do it. And I love Christmas, too. After all, that’s when other people send their cards. Still, I always come back to this Valentine’s dream. Maybe it’s because I’ve only once had a true romantic valentine on Valentine’s Day, when John brought me roses in 1989. But I’ve always believed this day of love is a time to honor all our loved ones, that it’s not just a day devoted to romantic love. Still, my heart gladdens to think of all the folks who are honoring their sweethearts today, whether it’s a bouquet of roses or a fancy dinner out. I have purple tulips on the table beside me as I write. And here, too, is my goofy Valentine’s Day heart, and my not-so-goofy wishes for each of you, for all of us. May our hearts be open. May we hold ourselves with kindness. May we love and be loved always. Feliz día de san valentín.
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.
Tuesday dread settles over me like a heavy coat, lead in the pockets. I fall asleep with a candle burning and a ceaseless prayer. Please don’t let him win. Wednesday I wake up and cry. I am surprised it hits me so hard. After, I do my sitting meditation. I practice metta. I don’t try to love Trump. I don’t try to love the people who voted for him. But I can hold them anonymously when I say metta for all beings everywhere. I can be inclusive of them in my practice because I believe we all deserve to be safe and free from harm. I believe we all deserve to live with ease and well being. We all deserve to know both deep joy and deep peace. But I don’t try to single them out for this, as you would in a traditional metta practice. I don’t want to try. Not yet, at least. Not now. Right now I am still too raw. Right now it is all I can do to keep my fear from grabbing me and sprinting off. Will he begin deporting people, pulling apart families? Will he try to take away our right to choose, strip away gay rights? I hear he doesn’t believe in global warming. Will he undo everything good people have fought so hard for for so long? I tell myself people who voted for him wanted to overthrow the government. It’s an understandable desire. But how could it not matter that he hates people of color? Women? Foreigners? How the hell could it not matter that he bragged about grabbing pussy, claimed Mexican immigrants are criminals and rapists? How can there be no lines drawn for the kind of person we even allow to run for president, much less elect? I cringe to think of all the white women who voted for him because their husbands told them to, women who have internalized the misogyny Trump embraces. (And there, perhaps, is my truer entry into compassion.) I know racism and misogyny and xenophobia never went away. But I never expected almost half the voters in this country to exalt them. I’d hoped just the fact that Trump was in the running was enough of a backlash. That it meant we were making progress in this world of ours. Now it looks like it will have to get worse before it gets better. So I’ll pray it doesn’t get too bad. I’ll pray it doesn’t last too long. I’ll pray this is how we expose and exorcise this kind of hate. And I’ll cling to being grateful and proud to be a Californian. On Wednesday morning when I look at the nice little west coast block of us, of Clinton states—California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington—I can’t help but wonder. Could we just secede? But maybe that’s the coward in me talking.
The third assignment I write for the MOOC doesn’t sing, but I feel better about it than the two that came before. The requirements are specific, a scene with three female characters with a fourth who comes along to “thwart their desires.” It’s the first time in this class I’ve had “real” characters come, and the fourth woman who arrives doesn’t behave at all as I’d imagined. It’s been a while since I’ve had characters acting on their own, and I love that part of writing fiction. My scene with these four women happens on a train, and the next assignment needs to take place after a catastrophe of some sort (either internal or external), so the train lends itself to that. I lie in bed this morning dreaming up bits and pieces of how I might continue with these women on the train. I see the two-story house in Oakland, watch Rachel working in the garden, hands in the dirt. And it comes to me that dreaming up fiction might be just as compelling as worrying about money or family, might take me away from being present with the same obsessive flair. But what a way to not be present. Dreaming up fiction beats focusing on my fears, no contest. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thrilled to have fiction floating through me like this. It makes me giddy and grateful: for this free class, for my lighter work load, for the cooler mornings that let me lie in bed getting to know these women in my head instead of having to be out early sweeping the patio, feeding the birds, before the brutal heat descends. The southern sun sends blocks of yellow light across the wall of my room. I love winter mornings in this trailer home, look forward to a long string of them with childlike glee. All in a rush I feel the longing for all the years I might have been churning out fiction. I glimpse how it could feel to be old and know I have characters in my head who I might never get down on paper. I tally up the years. Could I have 30 years still ahead of me to write? More? I want them, every one of them. So I will need to make good use of them. I will need to savor every character, relish every story like a good, rich stew. And bring as many of them as I can onto the page before I die.