Today starts out well and ends well but goes south a bit in between. I feel myself being judgmental and critical of the woman who cuts my hair—who I like. When Ralph’s is out of bird seed, I go grumbling to CVS and pay twice as much. I listen to my mind when I walk between the stores, some crazy, twisted descent, like everything in the world is now crummy. Back at Ralph’s again, I finally ask why I haven’t seen Mark, and I find out he’s been promoted. He’s no longer here. I had already made my gloomy descent, but this is beyond awful. For me, Mark was the heart of this store, the one who fostered kindness and generosity in everyone who works here. I walk to the checkout. “Everything changes,” I say. But I have been so in love with my grocery store. I can feel all my hope for it oozing away. And for the first time, all the lines are long. I walk up and down twice, dejected and blue. A Latino American man holding one Corona gets my attention, waves me in front of him in line. I try to argue, I have a handful of things to his one lone beer. But he insists. I tell him he’s going to make me cry. “Voy a llorar.” It feels like such a blessing, this kindness. We wish each other well before I go. I ride my bike home, my good cheer restored. What a long, funny day.
I lie on my left side for four hours in excruciating pain. I think I may be passing a gallstone. In between I go to the bathroom and vomit. At one point, the pain drops lower in my belly, and I become afraid it might be my appendix. I debate going to the hospital. I am angry that money factors into the decision, that our healthcare system is so messed up in this country. Marylou and Richard come get me, take me to the emergency room, tend to me with sweetness even though I don’t seem to be able to be nice. At least seven people work with me there. One doctor who does the ultrasound is both present and kind. Another man who brings me back from my CT covers me with a heated blanket and tucks it around my feet. The gesture makes me want to cry. In the end, there is no diagnosis. I go home and sleep, restless. The pain eases by morning, all but disappears by the afternoon. I’m sorry now I went to the hospital, but I’m alert for the silver lining(s) to be revealed over time. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be a better advocate for myself, that I didn’t insist they do an ultrasound on my gallbladder. (Though I know I could be wrong about that.) But it was all I could do to handle the pain. I’m glad no one wanted to take out any organs, and that the experience wasn’t terrifying. I imagined it would be. But I’m more disappointed than ever in the way our system works. May my first trip to the hospital be my last. And thank you, Marylou and Richard, now and always. What would I do without you? Oh, and the orchids you brought me are exquisite.
I hear a house finch singing in the courtyard. I turn off the kitchen faucet, dry my hands, move to the window. He is perched on one of the looping vines that arc up from the bougainvillea. He hops toward a second bird who moves away. At first I think, oh, no. I’m afraid he’s pestering a sparrow. He does it a second time, and again the bird scoots off a bit. And then I know. He’s wooing her! The female moves off again, settles on the top metal bar above the tray feeders. The male follows and continues his serenade. I can feel the female listening. I watch the male’s red head, his chest puffing, beak angled up, all this love in his song. I’ve never seen this before, all these years. The two birds stay together there for a long time before they fly away. Such a gift. Thank you, I think. Thank you.
There’s some kind of enchantment going on in the courtyard. The white crowned sparrows are hopping all about. Yesterday I cleaned out the rest of the dandelion and mustard bushes. (I’ve been harvesting the dandelion for my split pea soup for months now, but it became huge and sprawling, and I let it go to seed.) The sparrows flit back and forth across the freshly revealed patch of dirt and nyger seed casings, crossing it again and again, all surprised delight, this new present unwrapped just for them. Their white crowns seem whiter today. Is it my imagination, or does that happen before they migrate? I’ve been treasuring them more than ever, knowing they’ll be leaving soon. (I remember how quiet it seemed last year after they left—I’d sit outside and count the few of us remaining. Seven mourning doves, three house finch, eleven with me.) Without deciding to, I find myself saying metta for them. May you have a fun, safe journey north. May you always have plenty of food and good water and good company. May you enjoy your summer home and find your way back here again before winter. I say these blessing wishes for a long time, until I am loving them so much I cry. “I’ll miss you,” I whisper. May you come back safe and happy.
I am standing in front of the automatic doors when the train arrives at the station. My mother is sitting on a cement bench beside the track watching the train pull in. She is six feet away. When the doors don’t open, I pound on the window. She looks up. I have some crazy unformed idea she might call out to a conductor outside the train, tell them her daughter is stuck in the last car. Instead I run upstairs. “No! No!” I yell. And, “Wait!” When I find the conductor in the next car, the train is just beginning to pull away. He won’t do anything to stop it. “This isn’t an emergency,” he says. I scream at him and apologize in the same breath. I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t reach my mother on her cell phone, and I can’t calm down. An hour and a half later I am at her house in the foothills, but my heart is still pounding. That night I play those moments over in my head, the shock of watching her outside while I’m trapped on the train. Why did this happen? Maybe because this was not about me. It wasn’t personal. I got to watch my body dump crazed amounts of adrenaline into my system. I remember when I was 24 and my stepfather had a seizure in the middle of the night. I was incoherent when I dialed 911. And even though this is not me yelling at the bus driver, even though this is not me yelling at the notary public, there is something reassuring about the idea of all that adrenaline messing with my mind, as if, just maybe, it’s not completely my fault. Something cracks open in me, a small fissure, a glint—the beginning, I hope, of acceptance.
I get overwhelmed. It isn’t just all the failing but all the learning that goes with it. I’ve always had a kind of keen reflective eye, am often swift to see what I’m doing “wrong,” how I might do it better. My first year of teaching was a nightmare. I would walk out of each class with a mental list of 18 things I could have done differently. Today, too, I keep watching myself fail, dizzy with discernment. I guess, really, I am shining lots of little lights everywhere I look. After talking about this with my friend Richard and realizing I need to be able to accept what I’m doing in order for my awareness to effect change, I understand how this is in play for me always. Not only is my acceptance not deep enough, not broad enough, but each time I see a truth about my actions, about my reality, I expect myself to be able to change it. So in that first year of teaching, in every patch of my life when learning is accelerated, I put crazy pressure on myself to be able to fix things as soon as I recognize them. No wonder it’s overwhelming. Exhausting, stressful, even discouraging. This is where I need to develop that kind and curious mind we’re always talking about in mindfulness work, yes? This is where I want to be able to say to myself, “Ah. Look at that.” This is where I want to be able to pay attention without putting pressure on myself to change. Just, “Hmmm, how interesting.” Open palmed, my dear. Open palmed.
I am on the phone with my friend Richard. He is talking about rereading a mindfulness book, about the idea that all we need to do is shine a light on a problem. We don’t need to do anything, only shine the light. I am grumpy with him, get an icky tone in my voice. I’m annoyed—angry, really—because I have been shining a light for years on all kinds of problems, and it hasn’t done any good. (Well, not any good, of course, but the problems persist.) After we hang up, I think about this for days. I try to understand why it makes me angry, why I am so bent out of shape by this claim, so twisted up inside. Then it comes to me. This only works if you accept whatever it is you are shining the light on. This doesn’t work unless we accept ourselves or the situation. There is a letting go in it, an opened palm. I know I am not there yet. But maybe I am inching my way toward it?