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.
I ride my bike along the creek path, sitting tall in the seat. I lean to the left, stretching my right side. I’ve just come from yoga, and I can feel the tight muscle in my back. It’s loosened but begging to become longer. It’s the one that makes me injure my hip when it’s too tight. I suspect it has shortened over the decades since I fell in the Russian River and landed hard, a rock beneath my right sitz bone. But I have faith my yoga will grow the muscle again, let it lengthen and become supple. I’ve been easing back into yoga this month. I could feel the difference when I began going twice a week. I decided to spend part of my tax return to try out the “unlimited” yoga for June, July and August. I want to go four times a week, am trying it this week for the first time. Already I’m aware of my body more often. I straighten my spine again as I pedal my bike. I lean to the right, then to the left. There is more room inside me. I’m riding along in that lovely rush of air, looking at the mountains, feeling the sun on my arms. That little kid pleasure rushes in. I am riding my bike on a summer day. A voice comes, too. “Maybe doing yoga is enough right now,” it says. I’ve been a bit rudderless, eating too much, not taking good care of myself. I hear this voice, and I touch that vulnerable me, sense the rightness in this. Maybe I can just do yoga and let the healing come, let the stronger me emerge when she is ready. Even as I write this, other voices whisper. “What about all the prep you need to do for the fall semester?” And, “What about your novel?” But I nudge them away, trust instead that sweeter voice. The work and the writing will be there, too, but doing yoga will live at the heart of things for now. Maybe doing yoga is enough right now. Maybe yoga’s all I need to do to be okay.
My dog Sanji died 31 years ago today. She was born in 1976, part Great Dane and part German Shepherd, the runt of eleven. A woman I worked with then at the secret shopper spy job told me sanji means female bear in Tibetan. I don’t know if that’s true, but I liked the sound of it. I used to say she was part deer and part fish. She had a tender spirit, and she loved any kind of water, would leap with pure dog joy into the swimming pool. She loved going to the beach in Alameda when we lived in Oakland. After she died I wished I’d taken her there more often. She chased the seagulls along the wide sandbar, ears laid back in the wind, big grin on her beautiful face. It seems impossible she’s been dead so long. I can’t believe I’ve been dogless for three decades now. If a psychic had predicted this, that 27-year-old me wouldn’t have believed another word she said, convinced she was a fraud. And to think I’ve spent such a big chunk of my life without a dog seems unbelievably sad. But life unfolds as it will, and this was all about the timing.
Sanji and my cat Trair and I made this little family. When Sanji died Trair and I were left alone together. I knew she didn’t want another dog. When Trair died 12 years later, my landlord wouldn’t let me get a dog, so I got Sofia instead. Doglessness continued from there until now when both Sofia and Sable have so newly left me catless, too. I still cry now and then when I think of Sanji, but after all this time they are grateful tears more than anything, the memories dreamy and good. I remember our back-house cottage in Highland Park where she died of cancer and how she and Trair and I used to hang out together in our little backyard there. I would sit between the bougainvillea and the lemon tree on the small patch of grass I cut on rare occasions with an old rusty hand mower. Trair would land in my lap as soon as I settled in the chair, my joint resting unlit with a box of wooden matches in the clean blue enamel ashtray, my Marlboro Lights and my ice cold Corona beside them. When Sanji got tired of fetching, or more often when I got tired of throwing the slimy green tennis ball, she’d sprawl beside us on the grass. I marveled over our sweet little family of three. If you paid attention, you could hear traffic a block away on the old highway 11. But in our tiny yard tucked away from the world the three of us would rest together in a different kind of quiet, bask together in a deep and lucky peace.
I was thinking yesterday about Cinco de Mayo and how our country managed to use this relatively unimportant date in Mexican history to celebrate Mexican culture instead of choosing to honor a date that holds deeper meaning in Mexico, like el 16 de septiembre. It makes me sad, and it makes me embarrassed to be an estadounidense (someone from the United States). I have long been embarrassed by our reputation traveling abroad, for being demanding, arrogant, condescending, for expecting all our whims to be met and met instantly, for believing people in other countries should put aside their local traditions and customs in order to cater to and accommodate us. I was mortified when we elected Bush—twice!—and appalled when he refused to even pause when millions of people all over the world took to the streets to protest attacking Iraq. There may not be an adjective for what I feel now knowing Trump is the presumptive Republican candidate for president. When this started we were all so sure he’d be disregarded, dismissed. How could anyone take him seriously?
Now I am baffled and angry to see so many people voting for him. How can people ignore the malice and racism he’s so steeped in? I’m hideously ashamed of our country in the eyes the world, our dark, decaying underbelly exposed, maggots everywhere. I cling to one comfort that has come to me in recent times. I may be ashamed to be an estadounidense, but I am glad to be a Californian. I’m proud of the way our state has separated itself from the anti-immigrant stance. I’m not saying we don’t have more work to do, but at least we’re moving in the right direction, granting driver’s licenses, minimizing police cooperation with federal deportation officials, changing Medi-Cal laws to provide healthcare for the children of undocumented immigrants, raising the minimum wage. So, today I reach for solace in this gift, that I belong to a state who is trying to change things for the better. And I pray Trump will be defeated by an overwhelming and embarrassing margin. I pray come election day we’ll see evidence the true majority of people in this country understand what he espouses is wrong-hearted and vindictive, that at the end of this messy, ugly, humiliating spectacle the people of this country will do the right thing.
[Editor’s note: I don’t mean to imply here the United States doesn’t have much more egregious sins than these when it comes to our participation in the world or at home. This known catalog is endless and disturbing to say the least.]
This morning I wake up on my back and see the half moon framed in the southwest clerestory window. I feel greeted by magic. I remember Mami’s trouble breathing in the night, our fears on the phone, and I say metta for us all. May all beings everywhere be safe and free from harm. I go out to feed the birds. The hummingbird feeder is full of ants. I dump it in the weeds and use the hose with care to rinse it out, hoping some ants might survive. I think, oh, is this the way the day is going to go, filled with annoyance? After, I am standing in the kitchen and see a black-headed grosbeak join the mourning doves in the small tray feeder. He is startling beside them in his vivid orange, black and white. I’ve seen him in my garden three times in as many days. This grosbeak was one of the first birds I identified over a decade ago from my big stone porch in Hopland, so I have a fondness for them. Today I stand there watching him through the kitchen window and another strange bird emerges on a nearby sunflower, having made her way up from below to nibble on the broad leaves. It takes me a moment to make sense of her. She seems so big, so foreign. It’s only the little goldfinch who I see eating the sunflowers. But she’s a black-headed grosbeak, too. They are a pair. I am dancing inside. I’ve only ever seen one at a time before. Then three more males arrive. I have five grosbeaks, four boys and a girl, in my garden. I can’t stop grinning. It comes to me then my morning echoes life as a whole: lingering night fears, the daylight waning moon, messy, inconvenient ants, five beautiful grosbeaks—all unexpected visitors, the lot of them. Here’s to surprise guests everywhere.
Guess where I am? It is Sunday, and I am sitting in my courtyard drinking my morning tea for the first time in five months. I am so grateful I was able to trust myself, to be gentle, to not push myself back out here before I was ready. I have been afraid of this day, of being here without my cats. I was afraid I would feel too small, unmoored, alone. I was afraid their ghosts would be too glaring, to have them not lying nearby on their pillows, or Sable underneath the honeysuckle, Sofia stretched out on the cement beside the gate, rolling on her back in cat abandon. I was afraid it would hurt too much to even reach for my own pleasure here in my garden. And I think if I had tried it any day before today it might have been true. But I have spent hours and hours moving everything into summer places, putting in an odd and goofy watering system. There are pots of dirt beside the sliding glass door waiting for carrot and beet seeds. I pulled out one “field” of sunflowers, their gorgeous disks drying now in a yellow bucket. I moved both umbrellas, bought new chairs and put them on the other side of the table. I rigged new spots for some of the bird feeders. I have touched every part of the courtyard in the last three days, and it changed me in the process. Not only that, but now there is almost nothing that’s the same except the birds are here, and the mountains, and me. My furred ones are not, and never will be again, but it’s a deep and quiet ache, not a wrenching agony. And it’s laced with wonder at the newness of everything around me, eased by the comfort of the mourning dove cooing from the fence and the soft pecking sounds of everyone eating breakfast. I count fourteen house finch again and again while I sip my tea and marvel.
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.