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.
Three weeks ago the mockingbirds began to sing. When I’m lucky I hear one singing nearby in the middle of the night. I’m hoping he comes closer. Last Wednesday when I walked out of my class at the Annenberg Center the air smelled like heaven. I stopped, eyes closed, taking in deep breaths of it. The scent was so familiar, but I couldn’t recognize it. I opened my eyes to the lemon blossoms in the tree above me. Every year I forget how strong the fragrance is, how it finds you everywhere, even when you can’t spot a tree. The sun’s been moving north at a steady pace, all stealth until now when you see it’s almost halfway through its journey. It sinks behind the mountains as I write, facing me straight on now. I’m sitting inside with the swamp cooler on and the sliding glass door wide open to the courtyard. My neighbor’s tree, the one who hosted goldfinches like ornaments all winter, has budded into leaf. I think: don’t tell me we don’t have seasons here. I think: don’t let it bend you out of shape, Riba, annoyed now at all those imaginary people who like to claim we don’t. I’m doing my sitting practice facing the mountains, and my mind is crazy busy. Yesterday, too. I wonder what’s going on. I’ve been looking into rooms, wanting to begin to teach a writing class, give a workshop, lead a writing circle. I’m even fantasizing about offering a retreat, too, maybe in Joshua Tree. This is where my mind zooms today again and again while I’m supposed to be meditating. Could we get a cluster of their studio cabins all together? Could people bring their own food, plan for a pot luck or two? Can I keep it affordable? Do I charge a fee for my efforts or let people offer dana? Do I teach craft or just guide us in entering in? I am gone so long during the meditation that when I wake up and come back I feel the urge to be angry at myself. My laugh surprises me instead. But I do wonder what’s going on, wonder if I should be worried. I sit for the last minutes with my eyes open, taking in the laden bougainvillea branches arching across the wooden fence and the mountains behind them. I hear a mourning dove calling from the roof of my trailer, the first call of the year. I cherish the longing and the full, rich sweetness of his voice. Maybe, I think, I don’t need to worry about my busy mind. Maybe I’m just ready to spring forth with the season. Maybe now I get to burst into bloom.
Yesterday’s blog post seems sour to me. I feel like I want to apologize for it. I want to be able to be frank, to tell my own truths even when they’re dark. But I don’t want to practice that ugliness itself in my posts. Even as I write I realize there is no real way to avoid this (not being a saint). I’m not always going to know when ugliness decides to sneak in without my consent. I don’t blame myself for bristling at what the teachers say or for feeling left out. That’s just human, and I want to be able to be human even when it makes me look petty or ungracious. But I should have said I know the teachers don’t mean any harm. They’re not trying to put themselves above the rest of us, even though that’s how it strikes me when it happens. I know this is true because of how they feel to me as people. Because they wouldn’t do that. This was just their lead-in to talk about their truths, to tell us what they have come to know over time through their regular meditation practice. One of our teachers reminds us often not to take her word for things. The Buddha tells us to experiment for ourselves, to not take anything he claims on faith. But for me, neglecting to acknowledge the teachers’ intentions are not to set themselves above us, are not to exclude anyone—this is not to me the worst part of my last blog post. The worst part is the way I put myself above them at the end. How hopefully I would do better. I would be more inclusive. What crazy hubris was this, and right in the wake of accusing them of the very same thing? I knew I wasn’t comfortable with the post at the time, but I was tired, and I was determined to make my Friday deadline. I didn’t look close, didn’t recognize why it made me squirm. Now I am embarrassed, but I think, too, I’ll just be glad for the humbling in all this. I don’t want to put ugly things out in the world if I can help it, to have them sour the overall flavor of my posts. Even if I end up having to return the next day, belated recognition of what I did without knowing. Please accept my apologies.
The other day I pulled a tarot card that said I may think I know more than I do right now. I flashed on how I bristle whenever one of the teachers at the meditation center begins a sentence with, “Those of us who have been sitting for a long time know . . .” I feel dismissed, as though all my years of paying attention mean nothing. And I feel excluded. I am not part of the secret club of seasoned meditators. But I know I am only beginning to wrestle with what may be possible through regular sitting practice. And even though I balk at things I am not ready to give up, even though doubt whispers in my ear, even though it seems almost impossible to imagine getting from where I am to where it seems people have gone, there is this underground current, this subtle sense that maybe sitting practice really does lead where people are saying it goes. Maybe I really do think I know more than I do right now. Maybe I need to stop thinking that, find a way to accept I am a beginner here. Maybe that’s the only way to move forward on this long, mysterious path. And maybe one day years from now I will be saying the same thing that so irks me today, like fingernails against the chalk board. “Those of us who have been sitting for a long time know . . .” But still, if I last all those years practicing, I hope I’ll find a kinder way to word it. Or maybe I won’t say it at all. Maybe I’ll remember we’re still the same regardless of where we are on the path, each part of this odd collection of human beings with all our messy imperfections who are willing, again and again, to just show up.
[Editor’s note: the post that follows this one is my apology for the tone of this one. ;-) ]
I love being in bed like this, all the windows and the sliding glass door open, my birds busy at their morning feeding, the mountains close and comforting, my tea warm beside me, sunlight on the blankets, knowing my writing time and my sitting practice lie before me. It makes me think maybe I could use this as a lure, as a reward, a way to become more productive in my day. If you get the essays graded, you can have a second set of writing and sitting practice today. A bribe, really. I moved these two to the very beginning of my day to mark their priority and to be certain they didn’t go undone in the course of endless busy weeks. It began as a commitment, an effort, and now it is a pleasure, a gift, even. It makes me wonder what other things might transform themselves. Dishes, sweeping, making the bed, taking out the trash, cooking–when I don’t feel the need to rush through them I don’t mind them at all, can even enjoy them. In fact, that may be the secret to this morning time, too. It is not that I didn’t already like writing, like sitting practice, but they didn’t have the pull of pure pleasure, like the appeal of reading a novel. So even though I enjoyed them, I didn’t long for them, didn’t reach for them in a busy busy day, didn’t always manage to carve out an hour or so for them like I would for a meal and a good book. But now that I’ve provided this time at the beginning of each day, there is all this room in them. Sometimes I have to be somewhere early in the morning, so I set my alarm. I might have less than an hour, their time curtailed. But most days, like not rushing through sweeping the courtyard or feeding the birds, I can take an hour, even a little longer, before I need to move on to my paid work. So I can let the writing come as it will, allow the sitting practice to unfold. And there is luxury in that. So these two things I know I want to do, these two things that are good for me, that might otherwise be “shoulds” smooshed into a too busy day, instead each morning before the busy-ness they beckon, lull, invite me to open my selves to them, filled with ease and promise.
One-day retreat at the meditation center. First two surprises: a silent retreat and “custody of the eyes.” I keep my eyes down except for three accidental glances, feel like a mouse scurrying by in the long grass. It amuses me. In the parking lot, looking at the southern mountains and eating my soup, it comes to me that I could break into wild winged dancing and waving of clothing, unseen (like the mouse). Our teacher breaks the silence now and then. She is calm, open, funny. Once she speaks of our soft animal bodies, and I think of the poem. She is like that to me, a soft animal, a big, peaceful bird, maybe, a brown pelican, part big cat, too, sleeping in the sun. While we sit I feel again the hard weight in my chest. I am reading Andre Norton now, and I think of quan iron, blue-green, touched by magic. A blade of quan iron inside my ribcage. I am fascinated by it, cultivating curiosity. I want to know it, sidestep the urge to be rid of it. I am certain it has worked long and hard on my behalf. I want to honor it. The fourth time we sit I feel so strong it surprises me, and when I check on the quan iron it’s as though my chest is in a different place than it was in the morning. When I come home I can tell there is much more room inside me. The next day, it is gone, but I remember how I felt larger. And I remember how strong I felt in that one sitting, like I was a big oak, or that tree whose name I don’t yet know with the gnarled bark who makes those big blossoms in the fall that litter the ground like starfish.
I’ve always been a little claustrophobic. I want a window cracked when I drive. I remember fighting with Kay when I drove her to work. She wanted the window closed. I never had a good enough reason for insisting it stay open, only the vague sense of not being able to breathe. During the mountain fire last summer, I was driven inside for a week, windows closed against the choking smoke. My claustrophobia mounted as the week progressed, ash like thick gray snow coating the trailer, the courtyard, my sense of not being able to breathe pulsing through my days and nights. Then it came to me, the source of my claustrophobia. When I began sitting zazen in the early 1990s, I dreamed a past life. It’s the only time it was ever more than snatches, this one whole cloth. I was a priestess, or maybe royalty. I was expected to sacrifice myself for the good of my people. They were preparing to bury me alive. I had long brown hair, maybe seven feet of it or more. I lay down in the open grave, the dark, moist earth warm breath beside me. There were helpers who handled my hair. They gathered and folded it with care, laid it with gentle hands in a long narrow box above my head. Then they began to cover me with dirt. I remember being afraid, not of dying but of shaming myself by resisting, of struggling against them at the last moment. The earth got heavier and heavier, and somehow I was able to hold still. I remember my relief when I realized I was going to just lose consciousness from my lack of air, just drift off, not humiliate myself or my family. In my stifling hot tin can this summer when I felt like I was suffocating, I remembered my dream. “Of course I’m claustrophobic,” I mutter. No wonder. I laugh at myself for not putting it together earlier. “Duh,” I say. I roll my eyes. Being buried alive just might do that to you.