A Call to One

Stretched

in every

conceivable

direction

silence

both carries

and dissolves me.

I am a way

of hearing

and am lost.

I don’t travel

but am everywhere.

In this vastness,

love, I recognize

you. You were

the beautiful

teardrop

falling from

our mother’s

other eye.

You were

the song

across the mountain

curing

my loneliness.

You were the

sea captain

always, always

returning

to my shore.

From all outer reaches

love

spirals us in

to nestle

still

in oneness

before we begin

again

to dance.

 

for Z

To Be the Sun

It’s true, what moms warn their kids: “Don’t make that face. It’ll freeze that way.” Flesh isn’t stone but it holds the shape that is most familiar, most practiced. There’s a woman who lives in the nursing home I visit – let’s call her Myrna – with a face like a big, loud NO. Myrna’s face is sculpted into deeply creased, frowning unrest. Surely, it’s a picture of how she has felt for most of her life. It’s hard to look at her face without feeling sad for her.

But the funny thing is how quickly Myrna’s face changes when someone smiles or speaks to her kindly. There’s a startling, wonderful transformation. She completely lights up. She grins wide, like a little kid. It’s as if she’s just waiting for a good word or soft touch. Like she’s a tight-petaled flower that instantly relaxes at the kiss of the sun. So, I love smiling at her. I feel an immediate reward: her happiness lights up my own.

Maybe that’s what it feels like to be the sun – never picking and choosing, just shining, even into the darkest places, grinning to everything, everyone, amplifying one’s own radiant joy by setting it alight everywhere.

I wrote this poem for Myrna:

 

Smile

Obstacles

appear to be

everywhere.

Your son

turns away

visitors

at the door.

Your mother

refuses

medicine.

The company

cuts you off

for following

your heart.

And then

you notice even

your own face

over the decades

has dried into

a twisted

buckled

shield of fear.

Seeing it

in the mirror

deflates you.

But this morning

something

out of the blue––

a memory of

Buster the dog,

belly up, wagging

and grinning––

sparks a sudden

little smile

then a big one

shining out

from the mirror.

The frightened squint

melts into

wonder.

You grin

into your own eyes

with the

warm, prideful love

only your grandmother

ever gave you.

Your eyes become

her eyes

in the mirror

and she transforms

the shield

into a flower

opening

and opening.

Your eyes are

beautiful after all,

you think,

surprised at first,

then admitting you

knew that all along.

Here, with

nobody watching,

beyond all

obstacles, you are

childishly happy

to find yourself

an invincible

smile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

epiphany

epiphany

the hummingbird

arrived –

glossy green

needle-beaked

wingblur

wonder.

shimmering like

epiphany

she hovered

then zipped

beyond sight.

all around me

again, again, again

life rises high

flares open

blinds me with

rage-orange wings.

in the center

i remain

a widow of change.

tears evaporate.

new water

washes their

salt away.

Limitless Presence: 1,000 Bodies in One Inner Quiet

In October I attended a five-day retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh at Deer Park Monastery. My intention was to remain connected, as much as I could, with inner quiet.

Meditation practice has helped me to find an awake, calm, imperturbable presence. I feel it as an inner quiet. But in daily life, I rarely remember to rest in it. I hoped the retreat would allow time and space for returning to, relaxing into, the peace of that quiet.

One thousand people attended the retreat. A massive crowd! In the packed meditation hall, we sat inches apart. The dining hall and outdoor tables were packed at every meal. But with the shared practice of noble silence during meals and at nighttime, and with a collective focus on mindful breathing and slow mindful walking, there was peace and calm, even in the throng.

When we weren’t in silence, I chatted with friends from prior retreats and the far-flung network of Sanghas. I staffed the Mindfulness Bell magazine table and had lots of warm conversations there. The talking was heartful, joyful, as we were all happy to be on retreat with our beloved teacher and like-minded friends.

Still, talking is talking and there was a lot of it. Somehow, despite the hubbub, I was able to remember my intention and return to inner quiet. Even during a conversation, when I let myself become the quiet, it hushed the voice in my mind and let me listen attentively. And beyond amplifying my listening, the quiet was a place where I let go of agendas (like to get a good spot in the lunch line or to sit at the front of the meditation hall). The quiet was spacious and unattached. Inside it, I unhooked from musts and itches and urges. I was just there. Noticing. Being. At rest.

Sometimes the inner quiet merged with outer quiet. Our Sangha has a practice of stopping, every time we hear a bell, to be still and focus on our breathing for three breaths. When the bell sounded at breakfast one day, I felt the sigh of our collective movement and noise calming down to stillness. It was remarkable to feel this in a room of several hundred humans – like watching a turbulent lake grow calm, its peaks melting back to smoothness. Eventually the water becomes so still that it perfectly reflects the clouds

The inner and outer quiet weren’t based only on physical silence. One morning, when the Sangha followed Thay up a mountain in walking meditation, slowly climbing with awareness of each step, I looked at the crowd of hundreds walking ahead of me. I saw many heads bobbing like little waves and felt the momentum of our bodies moving forward as a river. There was sound, there was motion, but in our gathered awareness was a stillness, a presence below and within our rustling and swaying.

I felt it again at the top of the mountain, when Thay sat on a small mat and cushion and all of us gathered in a large circle, facing him. A couple hundred people sat. Others stood in an outer circle. Thay sat and looked at us. We looked at him. Nothing happened, but I felt our collective quietness, our palpable awareness, and it made my body feel like a smile. It was a respite – not lazy, but charged with simple thereness. There was nothing to do but to be there utterly.

Back home after the retreat, I am still able to melt into the quietness. But I miss being with 1,000 people. Their presence, their stillness, so sweetly amplified mine. It helped me to realize that the outer and inner quietness are one and the same. To be with all those people, to feel my awake inner presence as one with theirs, is a feeling of home and contentedness beyond all loneliness. My drop of water was fortified by merging with the ocean.

Now, when I touch into the inner quiet, I miss the Sangha physically, but I feel the limitlessness of that presence. We can go home to our quiet, our abiding presence, at any time. It is always waiting for us.

The Love Bus

On August 24, I will participate in “Hike-Bike for Hospice,” a fundraiser for Hospice of Santa Cruz County, where I volunteer as a caregiver. I’ll be walking in honor of the people I love who have passed away. Because of the fundraiser I was inspired to write this blog post about them.

Sometimes, when I’m driving on a long country road, I start thinking of all the people I love who have passed away. I see them standing at the side of the road, one by one, like hitchhikers. I pull over to pick them up. Pretty soon my car becomes a school bus to hold them all.

Every stop is an elated reunion – bear hugs, exclamations, grins, tears. After the flush of emotion they climb onto the bus and take a seat. I revel in their presence. It’s been so long since I’ve heard their voices, seen their exquisite eyes, their one-of-a-kind hands.

Oma is first to board the bus, looking sharp in a yellow dress and carrying her violin. She plays a lively song and then tells me this is a fine instrument because it blends tenderness and passion. We talk about her habit of buying dishes just to break them when someone pisses her off – supremely satisfying, she says. Her personality is like a gusty wind: emphatic verve, quick mind, sudden laugh. Yet she softens when she looks at me with the loving pride only a grandmother can know.

Tina, a beautiful wild colt of a young woman, is cradling a puppy as she steps on the bus. She tells me what she loves about this puppy, and dogs in general, and all kinds of other animals. Her eyes sparkle playfully as she reveals that riding a horse makes her feel immortal. She and Oma laugh together loudly, totally without restraint, and I join in, infected by their rambunctious spirit.

Ingmar joins us, skateboard tucked under one arm, looking up sideways under long lopsided bangs. He’s shy at first, but he lights up when we get to talking about photography and his favorite bands (Pearl Jam especially) and what it feels like to kick his board into a mid-air flip.

We’re all happy to see Mimi’s short, plump figure as we pull over for her. “You’re a sight for sore eyes, dah-lin,” she says, enclosing me in the warmest hug that ever was. She has enough M&M cookies and crocheted slippers for everyone. We help her up the steps and soon she regales us with stories of raising four daughters, three of whom were triplets, on a shoestring budget. (Not to be outdone, Oma chimes in with hair-raising accounts of single-mothering three kids – including devilish twin boys – in post-war Germany.)

Uncle Harold, our next passenger, greets us with a cheeky, affable grin. He tells how he loved tending the plum and cherry orchards and driving the triplets around on his tractor. He recalls, with a sense of deep respect, working with Native American “code talkers” in the army. Then he shows us the photo albums in which he pasted magazine photos of flowers around his wife’s smiling face.

Norman’s sizable body is dwarfed by the immensity of his presence, commanding voice, and generous laugh. Soon all our mouths are watering – even the vegetarians – at his description of juicy barbecued ribs. Then he recalls his favorite fly-fishing spot and we all feel the river rushing against our legs.

And then a man whose spirit is big as a legend: Louie, sporting his black leather Harley vest and chaps. His scarred face is rugged, but an affectionate smile comes easy. His camera bag is organized with exacting tidiness. He pontificates on all manner of subjects and somehow captivates us with the history of granite formations in the Colorado Rockies.

Everyone is glad to see our next passenger – Papa. He shakes hands with the gents and then pretends to kiss the ladies’ hands but kisses his own instead, making us giggle. He sits beside Mimi, saying, “Hello, Feetheart,” and giving her a soft peck on the cheek as he closes his strong hand around hers. His prosthetic leg extends into the aisle but nobody minds; we’re too busy listening to him describe his latest invention and then explain, in elaborate detail, how to bowl a strike.

Venus steps onto the bus, smile beaming, eyes round and innocent as a little girl’s. With gut honesty, she tells about the spiritual path that saved her from drugs, alcohol, and inner demons. She refers to her daughter Mary, who is developmentally disabled, as an angel. Her woodpecker laugh bounces around the bus and makes us all smile.

Our next hitchhiker could be mistaken for a king if it weren’t for his flannel plaid shirt and baseball cap. There’s something regal about Whitney. But his boyish grin and mischievous green eyes are disarming – even when he tells tales of his world travels, quotes Shakespeare and Goethe, and casually drops phrases in half a dozen languages. In a rich melodic voice, he treats us to a few lines of an aria from La Traviata.

“Faza!” John exclaims when he sees me. His cackle grows into a laugh that makes everybody crack up, and his presence warms the whole bus. He holds Mimi’s hand on one side and Whitney’s on the other as he tells about his father, chief of their tribe in Tanzania. His story unfolds into an enthralling history lesson.

The last passenger is dear Bobby. He’s holding two pies that he baked: banana cream and pumpkin. He gives out plates, forks, and flowered napkins, and serves each person a generous slice. A blissful hush falls over the group as we take the first bite. In his sweet, self-effacing way, he explains how he improvised a recipe for the crust, which nobody can believe is so melt-on-your-tongue divine.

The bus buzzes with stories and easy laughter and a love so vast I feel like I’m swimming in it. I’m bowled over by the knockout potency of my love for each person who has died. I wonder: What would my life be like if I let myself feel this boundless, cherishing love for the ones who are still alive?

What would my life be like if I loved each living person as if they would be gone tomorrow?

If you would like to donate to my walk for Hospice, please go to:

http://hikebike.hospicesantacruz.org/hikebike/participantpage.asp?uid=3268&fundid=1822#.Ug0co1Pk-oI

Forgiveness Is a Type of Dying

Because I could die any day, I’d like to be willing and ready to die every day. To remember that each day might be the last one in this body. And to practice this awareness over and over, as a preparation for the last day when it comes.

How does one practice dying?

I recently attended a writing workshop whose theme was forgiveness. It occurred to me that forgiveness is a type of dying, a way to practice dying on a regular basis. I also noticed that following my outbreath felt like a perfect way to practice forgiveness. Attending every exhale to its end. Feeling the fall of my chest and the soft warm rush of air exiting just below the nostrils.

Something about it – the peace and quiet I must embody in order to attend an exhale, the release of what I no longer need, the gift of my waste to the trees – something about it feels like a training in forgiveness. Maybe because each outbreath is a physical letting go. And maybe because if my attention is riveted here on the breath, it’s much less likely I’ll get caught up in things that are none of my business. Hence, much less to fret about and much less to forgive.

So I come back to my outbreath. It’s smooth, fast, light. It empties me and gives something away. It doesn’t mind if I write stories or not, if I finish what I start, if I call the people on my list to call. It is doing its job, cleaning me out, preparing me for a fresh draught of oxygen, tying me intimately with that spectacular old oak tree along the road.

Porous for the now

I have a naked feeling of wonder about birds that sing at dusk, and new spring clover that’s folded and quiet under a fading sky, and the distant constant song of water. I feel like a sieve for splendor. And writing makes me a funnel between this – the closing-in dark with stars poking through – and you, whoever you are, reading. I want to give you the crisp air and porchlight yellow on the page and affection for grass creeping lazily onto the sidewalk. Sharing this feeling, this awake quiet wow, is the best of what we can give each other. We can write about our fears, and I’ve overdone that, but now as the earth sings into my body, all I want to write is the goodness that swarms in me, fills me to overspilling, lives richly in and around my skin. I want to share this watchful awe so you feel the wrap of cool sky, hear crickets pulse, understand the sensation of being mesh: riddled with openings, porous for the now to melt through. So you can lie down in the creek song and cricket song and fresh big blue-dark universe. Make yourself into a cup to be satisfied by this night. Darkening, humming, punctured with star-glitter, utterly unconcerned with tomorrow.