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 decided to offer a writing retreat this summer.
Thursday July 6th (late afternoon) through midday Sunday, July 9th
at Joshua Tree Retreat Center
Joshua Tree, California
(about 45 minutes from the Palm Springs airport)
What we’ll do
Our focus will be on spontaneous writing a la Natalie Goldberg (or Peter Elbow) with several different writing prompts for short timed writings. We’ll write together and read our work out loud, letting the alchemy happen. We’ll do some sitting practice, too. Afternoons will be in silence. And I’ll bring in a few tidbits about the craft of writing, as well. People will be encouraged to take care of themselves and bow out of any activity they may not feel comfortable with. But we’ll create a supportive and expansive space for each of us to try our wings as desired.
Costs for early registration
I will post registration details ASAP, but I’m eager and excited (and a little afraid!) and wanted to tell you all right away. Tentative cost for early registration is $400 for the retreat program, three nights shared lodging and three vegan meals per day (possibly with some eggs and dairy available on the side—not sure yet).
More details and to register
I’ll post a copy of the flyer as soon as it’s available. In the meantime, if you’d like more details or would like to register at this early registration price, please call me at home weekdays (Pacific Daylight Time): 760-327-9759.
Thank you for reading this! And if you know anyone else who may be interested I would so love for you to pass this on (and perhaps the flyer when it’s ready, too). Oh, and if you happen to know of any writing sites or retreat sites or someplace you think I might advertise this (for free or at low cost), that would be really helpful, too. Thanks again.
Holding the dream of magic here!
If I were told to create a scrapbook of our springtime in Palm Springs I would include a photograph of the full moon setting in the west this morning, its newly-waning glow poised above the mountains just as the light began to find the day. I’d bottle the air I woke up to last night, how it felt to sit in the center of my bed breathing in the scent of lemon blossoms. Wow, I thought. Inside my home! In the middle of the night! What a gift, I thought. I’d add an audio file to the scrapbook of the grackle who’s calling out this morning from the telephone pole. I’m in the courtyard filling the tray feeders, seeds sliding through my fingers as I listen. It’s his second morning here. I’ve never had a grackle near my home before. It feels like wishes coming true. It makes me want to drive down the western coast of mainland Mexico again, south from Topolobampo on a morning in early April, watching the world begin to show itself around me as I drive along the carretera in the last of the dark. I will park my car off the highway beside the tiendita after the toll booth. I will buy warm tortillas and beans and salsa for breakfast. Even before I get out of the car I can hear them, like nothing else I’ve ever heard before. I stand beside the road turning in a long, slow circle. I see big black birds in every tree, lines of trees that stretch along both sides of the carretera, no cars at this hour. I can see the sea off to the right. The air is wet with it, but the morning sun is warm. Sunlight glints off black feathers, making the birds shine between the leaves of the trees. It takes a little time for it to sink in as I stand there, even though I’ve been here before, even though I’ve sought this out. Every tree is filled with grackles, hundreds and hundreds of them as far as I can see along the road. The air is a cacophony of their calls, these wild, wacky, exotic, zany, happy bird noises. They fill me with their exuberance, their vibrant, lusty liveliness. I am in love with these great-tailed grackles. I am in love with Mexico on an April morning by the sea. I could stand here forever.
[Editor’s note: This piece was written in response to a writing prompt from Bryan Chohen’s book Four Seasons of Creative Writing.]
Around me, everyone is awed by the splendor of the eastern Sierras, but I am in shock again and again. Everything is ailing: the air, the pine trees, the scrub brush. Even the deer feel different, thirsty, the yip of the coyotes desperate. The only place I don’t feel pain is when I soak naked in hot water in the center of the caldera, the wide plain and rocky mountains spread out in all directions. We go there for the Perseids, then lie on our backs in the middle of the night on picnic tables at Mono Lake fighting sleep. The heavens grow odd, the Milky Way a huge space station, a gigantic metal insect. We write each morning for hours at our campsite, in among the pines. A chipmunk appears beside my notebook on the picnic table, his deep brown eyes intent on my face, alight with curiosity and kindness. The peace is tangible, surprising. I am not used to living in a group, don’t quite know how to keep my center, yet the peace reaches me in still moments. An osprey perches on a bare tree at the top of our hill and calls again and again in a high voice I don’t recognize. We read our work out loud in the late afternoon or just after dinner. I may be the most present then, ready to mirror back the parts that speak to me, to swim inside and come back with something I can put in words about what I see happening in the writing. I like reading my own work, notice I am not afraid the way I used to be. I am grateful for the feedback, too, these faces in the fading light, these voices who have grown dear to me. I want to stay here always, writing pieces of my book, reading them aloud. Leaving comes in pieces, too. A wistfulness before our time is over, leaving the wilderness, the long hot stretch of the central valley, arriving back in Oakland, taking the train home the following day. Now our time together is a dream, and I am not yet quite awake again in my ordinary life. I miss these people, miss our campsite home. Being alone is lonelier, the way they are with me but not with me, ghosts now in my Palm Springs home.
I make myself a little crazy when I travel. There are so many things I need to do before I go, and such a clear end point. I’m used to being able to move my undone tasks to tomorrow. In the time before my camping trip, my writing workshop, I keep tensing up. Then I notice. I relax my shoulders. I exhale. I send up little wishes and tell myself all will be well (and all will be well, and all manner of things shall be well). The prep I still need to do for my fall classes is only part of it. I bought an automatic bird feeder, and I fret about it arriving in time from Amazon. I have to cut my fingernails, my toenails, shave my legs. There is still some fiddling I need to do in my courtyard garden, adjusting timers, moving the pot of aloe vera that won’t get watered by my mister when I’m not here, adding an extra line to the honeysuckle. Should I tie the umbrellas down? I decide and un-decide eight times. I mentally pack and unpack my bag, juggling priorities. I’m taking the train, so I need to pare things down. In between, I think about seeing the Milky Way splashed across the night sky, of writing through a lazy mountain afternoon, of laughing at breakfast. Even the delight of burrowing into my checkered alpaca sweater I found at that garage sale in my old neighborhood and almost never get to wear, the thrill of cold air against my face, fresh from a Palm Springs summer. I hear my house finches chattering though the open kitchen window, and I know I am so lucky in both my little home and my upcoming trip. The green sarong flung across the window to block the afternoon sun is flapping in the breeze. I get a goofy grin on my face. I’m going on an adventure.
I didn’t plan it. It just turned out this way, a surprising convergence of energies as if in preparation for my Vipassana retreat. I leave tomorrow, seven days in the high desert, silence, insight dialog, lots of sitting practice. I finished the semester’s grading late last night. On Monday I met my vow this year to get my home together inside and out before the heat of summer when (I finally understand) you have to just hunker down, get through the brutal heat, expect yourself to do only what is required. I wiped down books and boxed them, stacked things in the bathroom in the in between time. It was a lot like moving only not being forced into the work of it. And for nine days now I’ve been only eating watermelon and salads of cucumber, radish and tomatoes. (I’d been eating badly and too much. I needed this, my own odd twist of a fruit and vegetable fast.) But I didn’t plan to do it as preparation for my retreat. Like I didn’t plan to become newly freed from the awful weight of my messy, filthy trailer just before I left, or to be able to wrap up my semester, say goodbye to my students, post the final grades. But here I am, poised to go on my first retreat longer than one day. And thanks to the kindness of the universe, my house is in order, both literally and figuratively. I feel freed up, ready, eager, a little afraid. And oh so grateful I am arriving clean. Here’s to what’s to come.
Yesterday was midwinter’s day. It’s a day in our year that holds magic. I remembered in the early morning hours, and then I forgot again until I was writing on the bus in Desert Hot Springs. The day was almost over, the clouds tinged pink, our longest night of the year about to begin. The fist time I remembered, I woke up in the dark and realized I had no one to tell. It was something I did, waking up sometime after midnight, the official beginning of a holiday or one of our birthdays, greeting the cats, maybe kissing them on the head before I rolled over and went back to sleep for the real dawning of the day. “Happy winter solstice, you guys,” I whispered to the dark. “I love you both so much.” And then a moment later, “So much.” When I woke up again I’d forgotten. But I did spend the day at the hot springs, feeling like I was in heaven, so maybe I soaked up some of that magic, felt that thinning of the veil between the worlds. I didn’t make an altar. But maybe that has more to do with not spending time in the courtyard. I realized yesterday evening I haven’t sat out there since Sable died. It will be something to take back with the ending of the year, I think, or the beginning of the new one. Annie called me from the vet in the afternoon to tell me Sable’s ashes were ready. I thought I’d leave them until I returned, but I decided to go pick them up last night. When I pictured leaving for Christmas, I knew I’d feel better if both sets of ashes were together at home. I know it doesn’t matter to them. But the thought of walking out the door knowing their two little wooden boxes will be sitting beside each other on the tiny kitchen altar makes something rest easier inside me, a more peaceful turning of our world.