Pooping on Mount Whitney

At 14,505 feet, Mount Whitney watches, serene and deceptively inaccessible, over the Owens Valley. The tallest peak in the lower 48 states, it is a desirable destination for so many hikers and climbers that a permit quota system had to be enacted. Not only is the mountain big enough to feel unique and simple enough to be “peak-bagged” by the layman, but you can climb it in as little as a day. Compare that to Denali (two to three weeks) or Everest (nearly six weeks), and you can see the allure.

Hiking up the trail on Wednesday, June 6th, I knew we were most likely too early in the season to make it to the summit. Still, the day was lovely. The sun shone brightly on blue sky, grey rock, and white snowy patches, and after having hiked for four hours in the dark, we were enjoying the sharp sun-to-shade contrast and, even more, the tiny alpine flowers which, I was delighted to discover, had began to bloom.

As I bent to take a photo of one intricate violet bloom which was growing, like a miracle, on a shelf in the rock face, I noticed something which did not seem nature-made had been stashed right next to it. A bulky black plastic bag, tied into a knot and weighed down by a big rock, was almost perfectly hidden beside the flower.

The little flower next to the secreted WAG bag

Once upon a time, when only a few people climbed Mount Whitney, there was little need for regulations and rules. Today, however, the land surrounding the trail is heavily impacted by human traffic, including the waste that said human traffic leaves. In 2004, the Forest Service removed two composting toilets and one pit toilet from the trail camps and the summit of Mount Whitney. The toilets required maintenance, which in turn required helicopters to fly in and out of the area — a big deal when the area is a federally protected Wilderness. A new solution had to be found.

Enter the WAG bag.

On Monday, June 4th, Karen, Ross, and I went to claim our permit at the visitor center in Lone Pine. We each received from the smiling ranger a rectangular tag with the date of our climb and a plastic-wrapped WAG bag. The ranger then asked if we had ever used a WAG bag.

“No,” we replied, shifting in place.

The ranger turned around and, in one swift motion, collected a demonstration kit. “You spread this out,” he said, “and poop here, and pee a little which activates the sawdust, and then you put it here, and tie it up like this, and,” he added triumphantly, “they are reusable!”

WAG stands for Waste, Alleviation, and Gelling, an unappetizing name. Once open, the bag is bulky and not exactly scent-proof, making it uninviting to hang from your pack or, worse, place inside. Perhaps this is why we saw several of these bags deserted on the trail. Whether behind or under rocks or unashamedly out in the open, hikers on the Mount Whitney Trail make no fuss about leaving their poop — nicely bagged — behind.

I see similar bags frequently on the trails by my house, sometimes even on the street. Owners collect poop, this time their dog’s, and leave the bag behind, adding — it seems to me — littering to negligence.

Sadly, pooping all over the place is not the only way we pollute our world. A headline from the New York Times reads, “The Chemical Industry Scores a Big Win at the E.P.A.” Turns out, as of a few days ago, when evaluating new chemicals, the industry need worry only about chemicals in direct contact with humans, for example, in the workplace. The impact of potentially-toxic chemicals on the environment, our water, air, and land, need not necessarily be examined.

Water is everywhere on the Mount Whitney Trail.

Perhaps I am in a minority, but to me these are all examples of a nearsightedness almost unbearable to behold. Human poop as well as dog poop contaminates water and soil, sending, moreover, (in the case of Whitney) an unpleasant odor into the pure, rarified air of higher elevations. The plastic bags, whether compostable, recyclable, or not, are not meant to be left out on the trail and end up contaminating the environment, a hazard to water, air, soil, and wildlife. Need I mention they are unsightly as well? Seven billion of us poop and pee every day and flush the toilet to make it disappear. Except, of course, that it does not. Neither do the compound chemicals which we release into the world.

Perhaps if we cared enough about the impact of all this poop, if we educated ourselves about how this poop affects our environment — our water, our air, our soil — we would not be so callous about allowing toxic chemicals to enter into the air, soil and water either. Perhaps if we took the trouble and accepted the inconvenience of carrying our poop out the eleven steep and difficult miles of the Mount Whitney Trail, we’d be willing to do a lot more to make sure our children do not end up drinking lead in their water, eating toxins in their food, or breathing yet other poisons in their air.

It all starts at home, in the privacy of our thoughts. We have all made these mistakes. We have all — I am ready to bet — pooped where we shouldn’t, peed too close to a stream, thrown away plastic we could have recycled. Perhaps it is time not to beat our chests with guilt but to stand up and say: I can do better.

I can reduce, reuse, and recycle.

I can be more conscious with my shopping choices.

I can pick up after my dog and dispose of the poop responsibly.

And I can do the same for my own, when out hiking and backpacking.

While looking for the acronym WAG online, I found out its name is being changed (and trademarked) to “Go Anywhere Toilet Kit.” I wonder if, perhaps, the organization producing these kits should not reconsider the name. Toilet Kit sounds too much to me like something stationary. Perhaps “Carry with you human doodoo bag” would be better. Or, “Dispose responsibly take-along pooper bag?”

What do you think? Can you come up with a better name?

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Sunny Tracking Hike at Coyote Valley

Rachel Carson once wrote, “It is possible to compile extensive lists of creatures seen and identified without once having caught a breath-taking glimpse of the wonder of life.” The Loma Prieta Family Explorers’s mission is to cultivate and embrace our innate sense of wonder, our appreciation of the miracle of life. We love knowing the names of things, but even more, we love to experience them and learn the stories behind them.

Elegant clarkia is endemic to California and grows in oak woodlands. Though it looks so unlike other clarkias, it is still in the same family!

On Sunday, May 27th, the Family Explorers set out in quest of wildlife scat and tracks in sunny Coyote Valley. Undeterred by the warm weather, our group of young story-tellers, bug-and-snake enthusiasts and avid adventurers identified deer tracks and learned which direction the tracks point and whether they were of a hind or front hoof (do you know how to tell?). As proof, we caught sight of two deer crossing the trail, and immediately rushed to check if we can find the tracks they made. We were excited to watch a woodpecker flying overhead, darting here and there, perhaps catching and eating flies in the air, and watched where she went in case her cavity nest was nearby. We examined multiple beetles, spiders and ants, poking through holes and shining a flashlight in to see if we can see inside. We even got to discuss the likelihood of particular scat being dog, coyote or bobcat.

Hopping and skipping downhill, we made our way back, all the while telling stories. The young explorers came up with a tale of three hikers who encounter high adventure at the park climbing trees with poison oak, falling in raging creeks, getting attacked by a mutant shark, and nearly drowning in a whirlpool. A future visitor to the park need not worry, however. We are almost certain mutant sharks are not to be found at Coyote Valley. At least, we found no tracks of them. Other wildlife, however, is abundant, even if often all we see are signs.

Mariposa lilies are one of my favorite flowers to find. I look forward to May, barely concealing my impatience for these glorious flowers to bloom. This one also features lovely bugs inside who are probably enjoying its pollen.

The rolling hills  of Coyote Valley Preserve may seem similar to many others in the Bay Area. The park is so teeming with wildlife, however, because it is uniquely situated not only at the narrow “neck” of the valley but also next to the only undeveloped section of valley floor remaining in the Bay Area. Mountain lions, bobcat, turkey, deer and other wildlife routinely cross through this narrow “neck” between the Santa Cruz mountains and the Diablo Range, helping diversify their genetic pool and connecting habitats. Even the seething traffic of 101 does not stop them — they often cross in culverts under the freeway.

We love visiting Coyote Valley, and this visit was no different, with its promise of wildlife and mariposa lilies, harvest brodiaea, and sticky monkeyflower dotting the hills, the air drenched with the spell-binding scent of buckeyes. Thank you to Justyna for leading us!

Join us on a future hike to experience the miraculous forests and meadows of the Bay Area and reconnect with your own wonder of life. The Loma Prieta Family Explorers offer monthly hikes to nearby parks as well as a Toddler Explorers program. For more information, please visit our calendar.

See you on the trails!

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Early Spring Walk to Frog Lake at Henry Coe State Park

Climbing Monument Trail at the beginning of our hike

Getting to Henry Coe State Park is not for the faint — or lazy — of heart. Seven miles of windy road carry us deep into the Diablo Range, into mountains whose ruggedness baffled and challenged even experienced explorers like the 1776 Anza Expedition. While the land had been impacted by the homesteaders and ranchers who followed Anza, Henry Coe is wilder and more remote than anything you might expect so near the Bay Area. I rarely drive into the park without catching a glimpse of wildlife: deer grazing in a meadow, turkey courting, quail flying away at the sight of the car, or the occasional tarantula crossing the road. As the valley below disappears behind the curves in the road, I release a sigh and step forward on a footpath from which you can see only nature; no cars, no roads, no homes.

Shooting stars

The Loma Prieta Family Explorers began offering hikes for families with children ages six to twelve in November. Our first trip led us to Huddart Park where we learned about the redwoods and counted banana slugs. We loved the redwoods so much that we decided to go back and explore Sam MacDonald Park, where we beat our banana slug record, hugged first-growth redwoods, and had lunch in view of the ocean. Since wildflower season is beginning, our next hike led us to Russian Ridge, where we admired three-hundred-year-old Canyon Live Oaks, a golden coyote, and 360-degree views from the ocean in the west to the bay in the east, with Mount Tam and Mount Diablo dominating the skyline. Now here we are, tackling what can only be described as our toughest hike yet, at Henry Coe.

The young crowd led the way, climbing giddily up the hill on Monument Trail. I am always amazed by the details which children see long before us adults. Called back by hollers, I am shown a patch of snow framed by the roots of a bay tree and different types of delicate mosses and lichen. I inform the kids that though we begin with an uphill, they will be tired of the downhill before we are done, but I am utterly wrong. The children gallop down the sloping trail with the same enthusiasm and geniality with which they tackled the steep hill. The parents and I jog after them, enjoying Indian warriors and shooting stars along the way and stopping to appreciate the curious trunks of big-leaf manzanita.

The climbing tree

Just before arriving at our picnic spot, we pause for the climbing tree. This tree had grown strange bumpy burls around its trunk, tempting us with its climbability. The kids attempt it and only make it a few bumps up, but our solitary dad, unwilling to give up, climbs with agility, using the burls as a step-ladder. He peers at us from the top, calling, “Now how do I get down?” His success encourages the kids to try again, and only the promise of a picnic at the campground drags them away.

Frog Lake

Frog lake proves a wonderful attraction, but we’ve sat too long at lunch and we’re cold. After searching for frogs and discovering one toad, we turn to follow the trail back. We hop over Coyote Creek. Small blue butterflies flutter over yet-to-flower blue-eyed grass. Buttercups and shooting stars sprinkled with dew dot the hillside. We see one cold ladybug and tiny waterfalls, swollen into existence by the rain. Manzanitas and gooseberries grow slowly ripening berries, too few and young to weigh down their branches. We’re full of good cheer, telling tales and jokes, discovering giant mushrooms growing on tall trees. A view opens before us, and we realize our hike is almost over. Just a little bit more uphill, another tale or two, some complaints from the youngest member of our crew, and a last glimpse of the trail which carried us high up into the hills many hours ago.

It is hard to say goodbye. We walk to the barn to take a peek at the stable and the blacksmith shop. We imagine how hot it would have been in there when the blacksmith worked. We answer a riddle: how much money did the state pay for the park in 1958? Guessing anywhere between a dollar and a thousand, the answer, ten dollars, only takes us slightly by surprise. Finally, we all disperse to our homes, driving down the same windy road, this time watching as the road leads us, switchback by switchback, back to the human hub below.

The Loma Prieta Family Explorers offers monthly hikes for children ages six to twelve. Please check our calendar for more information. Short Toddler Explorers discovery walks are offered on Fridays and include a walk, story time, and an art project. Please join us for hikes and contact us if you would like to become a leader with the Family Explorers.

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The Center of the Universe

On Monday, I visited the dentist’s office. Mundane, I know, but bear with me. My dentist’s assistant, Marilyn, is a kind and compassionate woman who greets me with soft and welcoming words. I sat in the big dentist chair and waited for the dentist to come, and it suddenly occurred to me that Marilyn plays a small role in the drama of my life. I come into her office in the midst of my hectic rushing-about life, blowing in through the door like some wind of confusion. The intense energy of me pauses for these few moments on her chair, then moves out through door, corridor, waiting room, main door, and parking lot to continue its rushing about in the world, attempting to do no harm. And to me, that is all Marilyn is: these few moments of respite from rushing about while waiting for the dentist to come, her few kind words, the gentle touch of her hand.

Now this may come as a surprise, but Marilyn too lives a full and whole life. She does not exist in the dentist’s office solely to greet me once or twice a year and assist briefly in my care. To her, patients come and go, playing small roles in the drama of her life, which encompasses her relationships, thoughts, feelings, emotions, confusions, moments of happiness and moments of sadness, her own probable attempt to move through the world while doing no harm. In her life, I play a minor and probably somewhat inconsequential part, a tiny burst of wind and energy, now here, now gone, making room for another patient to come through the door.

Shocking, right?

As a teen, I often imagined us humans as bubbles floating through life. Some bubbles never touch, but some get to stop together for a while and interact so that for at least a few moments the bubbles nearly overlap. I still love walking after dark in the street and imagining how people live behind their curtained (or sometimes open) windows, living their bubble-life.

So yes, I am not the center of the universe. And most likely neither are you, even if you believe you are. It’s our minds that play this trick on us, pretending to be important and one-of-a-kind, filled with illusions about how everyone else is thinking about us, and how they act on purpose to affect us. How everything moves forward in the world to either accommodate us or hinder us.

Some years ago, a friend recommended I read a parenting book which, translated from the Hebrew, was titled Fly Little Bird. One of the points which struck me in the book was the idea that as a child becomes an adolescent, we parents find our place shifts away from being center-stage in our children’s lives. Instead, they are now the main actor, the ones in the limelight, and we are relegated to a smaller role. This, the author implied, was how it should be, the normal and healthy way for our children to grow up. I remember reading this all those years ago and thinking how true this was. When a baby is born, mom and dad are the most important figures in her life. She is totally dependent on them for nearly every need, her safety, health, nourishment, entertainment, warmth, even movement. But as she grows into a toddler, she becomes gradually more independent. She can now eat on her own, move herself from an unpleasant situation on her own, remove a layer of clothing if she’s too hot, or put one on, start using the bathroom independently, and more.

Then, seemingly overnight, the baby turns into a teenager, surprising the heck out of most parents I’ve met. Whatever role we had in their life is turned on its head. Some of the changes I’m finding in my teens are: they don’t want to eat my food, they don’t want to go places with me, they’re not interested in talking to me, they get mad if I don’t do what they ask, they decide what they’re going to wear or what they’re doing, and more: friends, how much water they’re drinking or not, whether to get boba tea 4 or 7 times a week, which movies or series to watch, what music to listen to, whether a full stop at a stop sign is necessary and with what speed to merge on the freeway. Crazy decisions, normal decisions, important decisions, everyday decisions, critical-to-the-continuation-of-life decisions. And I am (mostly) out of the picture, or just peeking in through the window, wondering about the bubble of their life and whether I’ll get to interact with them again after they turn 25.

It’s not necessarily easy or simple to accept that I am not center stage in Marilyn’s life, but it’s ridiculously hard to consider that from now on, while I’ll always play some role in my kids’ life, it is actually my job to set them free and allow them to fly.

Time to move out of the limelight, Sigal.

Curiously, I think some people would not agree with me. Many of us parents identify so deeply with being a parent that we really believe our children belong to us, are a part of us, and that all they do reflects directly on us. Some of us might believe that it is our responsibility and our duty to make sure that our children end up productive members of society, good and upright people, honest, successful and happy. Sounds seductive, doesn’t it? But do we really have this much control over another person’s life?

What I think is the truth sounds a lot less lovely than this, for it affirms the fact that we no longer have control over how our teenagers will turn out (and that perhaps the control we thought we exerted before was also an illusion). These newly-minted human beings are walking their own path, with a lot of minor actors in the drama of their lives of which we are only one or two. We can be present to them and as available as possible if they need us. We can be supportive and loving. We can hope and pray that we have given them a good foundation, that the schools we chose gave a good foundation, and that the choices they make now moving forward will be good ones. But no matter how much we try, we cannot make those choices for them, and definitely not for long. Not in a way that will, in fact, promote their happiness.

And so we let go and trust.

We set them free to be their own center stage and allow them to figure out on their own the fact that they too are not the center of the universe. (A humbling and wonderful insight which I wish on us all).

And we pray that they survive this crazy teenaged time.

So fly little birds. Mamma’s in the nest in case you need to find a safe place to land. But from now on you’re responsible for your own worms and direction in life.

Man, admitting that is hard.

May the Force of love, compassion, patience, and inner fortitude be with us all.

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The Avocado Sushi Dilemma

Some time ago, Dar and I tried a new sushi restaurant in town. Our sushi requirements vary considerably: Dar prefers rolls made out of strange sea life: clams, sea snails, and octopus, while I gravitate to faceless land life, such as cucumber, carrots, and avocado. In this case, while we were adventurous in trying a new restaurant, we stuck to our usual ordering routine. Dar ordered a tako sunomono salad, while I ordered an avocado sushi roll. What we got, however, was far from the safe choices we thought we made. Dar’s tako sunomono had disappointingly-little tako and a whole giant pile of sliced cucumber. My avocado sushi had so much avocado dripping from it, that it could more accurately be described as sliced avocado than a sushi roll.

Sushi takes finesse, balance, delicacy. Even the simplest roll could become inedible by a heavy-handed, inexperienced, or overzealous chef. No wonder becoming a chef is such an arduous process of schooling and on-the-job training. Whether it’s too much avocado, too little avocado, a rotten, stinky avocado, or whatever quality of rice, a sushi chef must tread a fine line in making his or her creations.

In contrast to sushi chefs (who at least get paid for their efforts and who will, in fact, receive compliments when they make an especially yummy roll), parents must walk the fine line of how much avocado to put in a roll without job-specific training or schooling and certainly without ever receiving any positive feedback (except, perhaps, after the children turn the ripe age of forty-five). I am referring, of course, not to making sushi for our kids, but to our efforts to bring them up in the way least damaging to their self-esteem, capabilities, potential, well-being and more. We cook for them, drive them around, help them with their homework, encourage them, pick them up when they fall, and stay up late at night if they have the stomach flu and are throwing up all over the floor. And yet somehow, no matter how much we try, the fine line of how much avocado to put in the sushi roll eludes us. Making the perfect son-or-daughter roll seem as far away as one of Pluto’s moons. Or more.

Raising children, we could argue, is much more complicated than making sushi. For one thing, those darn kids keep changing on us in ways that avocado does not. Things that worked well when they were three are useless by the time they’re seventeen, or arguably, even by the time they turn five. Learning the skills needed to deal with the issues they bring home, whether it be limit-setting, bedtime, homework, interest in boys, getting the first period, drinking alcohol, or learning how to drive, is a constant race against the clock. Before we’re experts in one thing, the kids have already “been there, done that,” and are on to something completely new which we couldn’t have imagined if we tried. We never become experts, instead constantly finding ourselves face-to-face with the limitations of our own knowledge and experience.

Being parents is the hardest job in the world. Sure, there’s moments of gratitude, joy, and satisfaction, but if anyone tells you they never experience the humbling sensation of truly not knowing what to do, well, they’re probably just not paying enough attention… or else, they’re using the well-known and oft-used tool of bluffing their way through it all. We have to bluff once in a while as parents, you know, because just imagine if the kids knew how little we know.

I’ve been thinking about this avocado-sushi dilemma lately, noticing my see-sawing attempts between too much, too little, overripe, and raw to parent my teenagers who are growing (and surprising me constantly) by leaps and bounds. This morning, for example, a grumpy teen rejected the waffle breakfast which she requested specifically last night. Dar has been telling me for weeks now to stop making them breakfast, and yet my desire to please the kids is nearly impossible to overcome. Waffle breakfast turned out to be too much avocado. In contrast, my son who just turned seventeen, told me he did not want to celebrate his birthday this year. I therefore did not put up decorations in the house. No decorations turned out to be too little avocado. But without hardly ever receiving compliments when I do a good job, and always heaps of complaining, how do I even know when I’ve made the perfect roll?

Are we back where we started, with an inedible roll, with an imbalanced, guilt-or-resentment-induced parenting style, or just worried that we’re messing up our kids so badly that we need to start saving for that psychiatrist fund?

I hope not. And in fact, I would like to suggest a different perspective, one that is possibly less concerned with results and feedback and more with faith, trust, and kindness: the mindfulness approach. In the mindfulness approach, how much avocado we put on the roll is not the main issue. Instead, we focus on what it feels like to have put too much or too little avocado (or the wrong kind of avocado altogether) on. Whenever we don’t know what to do, or feel we’re doing it all wrong, we pause and focus on what thoughts and emotions come up, and rather than push the avocado (or situation) away, yell at the waiter and the chef, and stomp back home to write an angry review, we stay with the frustration, anger, sorrow, fear or whatever comes up. The mindfulness approach is not about doing or fixing, but about being. Being with all these difficult feelings and thoughts, our wishes to be better, to do better, our love for our kids, and our desire to be good parents (or at least better than our own). The mindfulness approach isn’t mistake-centered, but kindness-centered. It acknowledges how hard it is to get it right, it stresses the intention, the effort, and what is present in, well… the Present. And it always allows you to start back again from scratch.

Every day is a new day, in the mindfulness approach.

So try this next time you’re frustrated by the kids, or yelled at them, or behaved in any of the multitude of ways that you promised yourself you would never do again:

Stop (that’s already a big step).

Take a few breaths (at least three or five).

Observe what’s happening in your body — are you contracted? overwhelmed with shame? is your belly tight? Is your mind sizzling with thoughts? Is the inner critic in the forefront? What sensations do you feel in your jaw, your eyes, your hands? And though this is really hard, try to stay with these sensations. It is difficult to be with all this, with the contraction, the shame, regret, sadness, anger. Really hard. But stay with the feelings for as long as you can, and remind yourself that you are not to blame. Parenting is objectively hard, and it is normal and natural for these feelings and thoughts to come up. You are doing your best, and you are not alone. We’re all of us doing as best as we can. All us parents are struggling to stay afloat in this parenting pool of thick mud.

When you’ve noticed your heart is back to normal, or when you’re ready to continue, proceed with your life. Make the next son-or-daughter roll again, and again, and again, a million times, even if you’ll never get it just right. And continue to be kind to yourself. This parenting stuff sure is tough.

This practice, perhaps you noticed, has the acronym STOP: Stop, Take a few breaths, Observe your body sensations, feelings and thoughts, and Proceed. And it is, in fact, a practice. We do it again and again, and not in order to get the roll perfect. That is not the point. We do this until it is easier to notice how we feel, what we sense, and what we’re thinking, and then we continue to do it. We do this practice to develop kindness for ourselves, for our children, and for other parents who are suffering like us. We do this to gain some inner (rather than outer) peace, a little bit more perspective, and perhaps, one day when we’re really really old, a wisdom to be kind to our own kids when they too struggle with this parenting stuff.

***Many thanks to Sheri, from whom I learned this practice, and to Julie, who reminded me that breathing just once before observing is not enough.

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Lil’ Corner of Joy

In one of my favorite Frog and Toad stories, Frog tells Toad how, as a young frog (or pollywog), he had gone to search for Spring. His father had told him: “Son, this is a cold, gray day, but Spring is just around the corner.” And so Frog had gone to search for that corner and for Spring. He turned several corners in his search: in the woods, a meadow, and along a stream, but he couldn’t find Spring. Finally, he got tired, and it started to rain. As he arrived back home, he saw another corner, the corner to his house, and when he went around that corner, there was Spring: the sun coming out, birds singing, his parents working in the garden, and flowers blooming. “You found it!” Toad calls, “You found Spring.” Turns out Spring was just around the corner, right there, where Frog had started, around a corner of his own house.

When I teach a meditation class, I often speak about the obstacles to mindfulness: dislike, desire, sleepiness, restlessness, and doubt; all of which have a common attribute: a wish for things to be different than they are. How often do we, in fact, wish for Spring when Winter reins (or rains, as my pun-loving boyfriend would point out) outside? Or perhaps we wish for more energy when we’re too tired to deal with the kids? How often do you doubt your choice of a route and wish you had taken another? Or that you were on the beach running instead of stuck at work? We think that if only our house was bigger (or smaller), our job better, our family more compliant, the government this way, and the world that way, then we would be happier, more satisfied, more at peace somehow. And yet most people agree that getting what we want is not the path to happiness. Research, in fact, points to other causes: developing gratitude, kindness, compassion, love and acceptance. And those, so I hear, are not around any corner outside in the world, but right here, inside us, living in a corner of our own soul.

Dharma teacher Ethan Nichtern writes: “Lacking the tools to get comfortable in our own skin and safe in our own mind, we get lost again and again in the existential transitions of life, blindly hoping that a true and permanent home lies around the corner, after just a bit more struggle to prove ourselves, a bit more time figuring out how to belong in our lives.” (The Road Home, 5). Searching for Spring around external corners may seem an innocent enough pursuit, perhaps even adventurous and exciting; but searching for ourselves, our true home, far outside of who we are, in other people’s opinions and reflections of us, needing to prove ourselves legitimate from the outside-in by someone else’s approval, and having our happiness depending on these external causes — is that how we want to live our life?

I admit it, though: I love corners. While hiking, I long to turn the next corner, go up the next hill or round the next tree or rock to see what’s there. I know, of course, that behind most hills are more hills, behind the next tree are more trees, and behind the rocky corner more trees and hills and flowers and lovely views, most likely not too different from those I already saw on the trail. And yet the attraction persists. I gaze soulfully at each trail that branches off the main trail and dream of following it. I plan to come back and visit yet another lake or climb another mountain, perhaps find more beautiful mariposa lilies which I can photograph in quest of the perfect lily photo. My desire to go on and on knows no bounds.

And yet, you might ask, in our latest hike on the Tahoe Rim Trail, what were my favorite parts?

A snack break by Fontanelles Lake, sitting on the rocks, watching the limpid color of the water, admiring the rivers of icy snow that still flow down the northern side of the hill, melting slowly into the lake.

Heart-stopping hues of orange, yellow and red in the meadow. Trees waving their branches in the breeze, some bare, some green. The sky a light blue that stretches on forever.

Sunset, colors deepening as the sun makes its way down through the clouds and below the mountains-behind-mountains-as-far-as-the-eye-can-see. The ground cold and hard, my breath catching as my mind conjures the image of a bear coming to attack me. Staying with it, sitting with it, trusting I am safe.

A rough-hewn picnic area by the river. Baby firs poking their heads up through the ground. The creek singing as it makes it way down little rapids that a woodrat could float on a woodratty raft. Tired. Hungry. Making our last breakfast on the trail and filtering pure water that will nourish my body’s cells. It is warm in the sun, cool in the shade, and I feel grateful for whoever made this beautiful camping and picnic spot, for whoever built this gift of a trail.

I love turning corners, but it’s this moment, the little moment, that counts. Sitting here, making room for myself within my own body, accepting that I belong here, now, in this chair, in front of this computer, with the sound of the boyfriend on the phone talking football to my son, a neighbor’s gardener blowing leaves outside, kids screaming in the pool down the road, the click of my fingers on the keyboard, and the alternating light and shade pattern of oaks shadows on yellow grass on the hillside outside. This is it: my legs falling asleep under the weight of the dog, my back warm, tiredness behind my eyes, ears pulsating with all this noise. This is what happiness is, inhabiting this moment, this little corner of joy.

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Spare the Air

A friend told me yesterday that our smoke-drift polluted skies are a normal daily experience in much of China. I cannot imagine. Or rather, I am too horrified to imagine. Even for these few days that we’ve been experiencing the smoke drift from the Napa and Sonoma fires, and even with my Buddhist-learned knowledge that everything is impermanent, including fires, I am struggling with accepting the fact that this is how the air is right now. How people can live in this kind of air day after day is beyond me. The very thought feels unbearable and sad.

Two days ago, as the fires raged through Napa and Sonoma and our air down here thickened with smoke (all of this is still happening), Scott Pruitt, our president’s appointee to the EPA, signed a measure to repeal the Clean Power Act. This is the end to the “war on coal,” he announced.

Among others, the war on coal is waged by the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. According to their website, since 2010, over 260 coal plants have been retired, with about 260 left to go. Coal is considered the dirtiest energy source our country uses, raising the smog (ozone) levels which lead to unhealthy air and filling both sky and earth with toxic mercury and soot particles. The so-designated “war on coal” is really a battle to keep our air clean and our world — our habitat — safe for life.

We live in a world which, for all intents and purposes, is a closed system. We have only so much water, so much air, so much soil. Polluting our air and our water and the earth itself means we are forever damaging our habitat, forever damaging the resources we require for human life to continue — I am not talking about resources required for the newest cell phone or for yet another yacht or plane or even for a pair of underwear. I am talking about that which we depend on for survival. The human body can survive 4 weeks without food, about 4 days without water, 4 hours without shelter, and no more than 4 minutes without air.

The smoke from the fires in Napa and Sonoma Counties is released into our air and will now be circulating our earth. Sure, it will diffuse somewhat and not cause quite as much pollution per unit of air as it does right now, trapped inside our valley. But in general, it will stay in our air, the closed air system of our planet, at least until someone invents a big space vacuum cleaner that can collect pollution particles, bag them and carry them out of the earth’s gravitational pull. Until this happens, the good news is that there’s some things we’ve discovered that clean the air. Yes, you’ve read that right. There is something we can do — to a point — even after all this pollution is released into the air.

Research has shown that trees trap gases and pollutant particles in their leaves and bark. They absorb CO2 and release oxygen into the air. Trees can even cool the world with their shade and by releasing water vapors into the air. Great news for global warming! Wetlands, too, act as important filters to pollutants, trapping them in sediments and preventing them from entering our drinking water. The world, it turns out, is not entirely defenseless against us humans. But still, we need to give the Earth a break. We need to stop polluting and destroying and offer it a helping hand.

I have signed up recently for San Mateo County’s new Peninsula Green Energy to be my electricity provider. This group ensures that my electricity comes from 100% renewable and sustainable sources, guaranteeing 100% carbon-free emissions. I am also pursuing putting solar on my roof. Yes, I know I don’t really need it now, with this Peninsula Green Energy program, but with the new administration looming over my air and my water I want to make sure I can be independent and know from where my electricity comes with even more certainty.

You too can become a supporter of clean air, clean water, clean earth. Check out the Sierra Club’s website for more information on how to do this. http://content.sierraclub.org/coal/.

You can plant a tree in your home or even as far as Asia and Africa https://onetreeplanted.org/ or in Israel http://www.kkl-jnf.org/tourism-and-recreation/plant-a-tree-israel/.

You can commit to saving water, using less pesticide and fertilizers in your yard and choosing to buy organic, pesticide-free fruits and vegetables from local farmers. You can even buy more environmental cleaning agents for your home and your toiletries!

There are so many ways to support the earth — and ourselves by extension — that it would be impossible to list them all on one page!

Please consider doing something pro-Earth today and every day, as part of your regular life.

The light at sunset, on the Tahoe Rim Trail, at Twin Peaks.

Consider choosing clean water, soil and air.

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Thou Shalt Not Lie

Dar and I recently returned from a visit to Alaska, where I was struck by two curious qualities: the wide expanse, breath-taking vastness of the landscape, and the Alaskan maxim of working only so that you don’t need to work.

Wait, what?

Apparently, according to some people we spoke to, Alaskans work only so they have enough money to live on, rather than to collect it in the bank in case of something which may or may not happen in the future. This seems a strange maxim, you might say, to someone spending her days in the Silicon Valley, where people work for a variety of motives, none of which has anything to do with mere subsistence.

I like this idea of working only so life can be sustained. Those of you who know me, know that I have never shown interest in inventing new technologies, increasing the depth and breadth of human power over the universe, or collecting more money in my bank account through any of various means. In a way, I could say that I have struggled against my family’s (and my culture’s) tendency for ambition all my life. This has earned me the unacknowledged title of Black Sheep in my family. My father, in fact, once introduced me to a friend as “My daughter who is not a doctor.”

Perhaps I should move to Alaska and live for the moment, as it seems many people do over there. The thought is tempting. I love the Alaskan open spaces, the tundra, the mountains, and the wildlife. I love the relaxed atmosphere, the fewer cars, the few people. I love the idea of living so close to nature. I love the idea of twenty-four-hours-a-day sun, even if I have a hard time imagining twenty-four-hours-a-day darkness or 30-degrees-below cold. I doubt, though, that I would fit in Alaska society. It seems many people there tend to be more conservative about some things, like environmentalism or LGBTQ rights. And they sure do seem to be enthusiastic (almost righteous, I thought) about hunting and guns.

This is an Alaska female moose who identifies as salmon.

There’s many things I can complain about here in the Bay Area, but not those, for sure. People here seem to be mostly liberal. Take, as a case in point, my recent attempt to manage (behind the scenes) my son’s first foray into the world of college life. The young man, soon to be seventeen, is taking a class at a community college this year. In an attempt to make some money, the college charges for parking fees, not unlike many other universities and colleges around the country. So a few days before school started, I logged into the website and purchased the young man (who is also a young driver) a parking pass. After paying I received notification that the shipping will take ten days and that I will receive a temporary parking pass, which, however, never arrived.

What to do? Like the good, considerate, over-zealous parent I am, I called the school to ask about this. But I didn’t want them to know that it’s me, the parent, calling. After all, this is college, and it would be embarrassing if they knew the parent called for the student. So, with this logic in mind, I told the cashier who answered the phone that I was my son. “And you’re a high school student?” She marveled. “Your voice sounds so much older.”

Ah, the suffering of telling a lie.

Only after hanging up did it occur to me that in order to see the status of the parking pass, the cashier had looked at my son’s information and could probably see that he identified himself as male, while my voice (old though it may sound) was distinctly female. For a moment, I felt discomfited. She must have known I was lying (ah, the suffering of telling a lie). But then the relieving thought came up in my mind. This is California. The cashier probably assumed I was a female identifying as male! And the next thought knocked me off my feet:

In my Californian, crazily-liberal mind, it is much less embarrassing if the college people think my son is a female identifying as male, than if they think his mother called to inquire about his parking pass.

So this is why I plan to stay and continue to struggle against our Bay-Area tendency to rush and be busy and successful and ambitious. I live in a place where it’s (relatively) ok to be gay or transgender, or anything you wish. I live in a place where, when my kids go to visit someone’s house, I don’t really need to worry about guns. I live in a place where there’s fresh fruits and vegetables year round, and sunshine, and where being an environmentalist is only a mildly bad word. We’re not perfect (in fact, we’re pretty ridiculous when you come down to it, with our nail-polish-painted toes and our clothes which we believe say something about us, and all our other foibles which I won’t get into because it’s a whole other series of blog posts). And we still have a lot of way to go before this place is more equal, before we accept all races and all peoples and our responsibility for past and present racism and prejudice. And we have a long, long way to go before we stop using so many of the earth’s resources and live more rationally and with thoughtfulness. But all in all I think we’re trying and a lot of us really care.

So I’m staying here for now, even though Alaska really is such a tempting, lovely place. And, though my parents might be disappointed, I think for now I’ll continue to baaa like the black sheep I am, posting here on the blog instead of submitting to the New York Times, sticking my nose in the kids’ business, meditating, and preaching to everyone who would listen about recycling, using less plastic, and saving water and gas.

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Meditation on Eagle’s Wings

Tuesday, in a forward-hurtling metal hunk of a car, I glance through my open window at the sky. Raptors soar overhead, circling in currents of rising air. I fully expect them to be turkey vultures or red-shouldered hawks, but still I scan for my favorite bird. Then, I see it: long straight wings, head so white it reflects the sun, white tail a stark contrast to the dark body. Huge, huge and monarchical and impressive against the blue sky. A bald eagle. Here! In our sky! My heart pounds in my chest as I try to tell Dar that he must stop, that I must get out. My whole body aches with the wish to pump my fist and yell hurray, to jump up and down, to spread my own wings, to fly, to join that eagle, that miracle survivor of humanity’s impact on nature, in the sky. My head and hand out of the window, I stammer and babble until finally I manage to call out, “A bald eagle!” Too late. The forward-hurtling car is so far, I can’t see the eagle anymore, but I know it was there. A bald eagle! In our Bay Area sky!

Red-tailed hawk above Coyote Valley

One of my favorite Buddhist teaching is the idea that enlightenment, or true freedom, comes through the cultivation of two wings: the wing of compassion and the wing of wisdom. Wisdom on its own is not enough, nor is compassion, one too cold, the other too warm. Like the wings of a bird, compassion and wisdom must balance each other for true freedom, true flight, to occur. Perhaps I love this teaching because of my longing for more wisdom and kindness, but perhaps, too, my love for the wings of enlightenment comes from a much simpler dream: the wish to fly.

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I remember moments in my life, feeling like I could fly.

Eighteen years old, at the completion ceremony for the primary army training, waiting to receive the Hebrew Bible with all the other young women, a gift which symbolizes our national heritage and beliefs: strong Jews, capable of protecting ourselves and our country. I feel as though the whole wide world is open before me, vistas innumerable, opportunities galore. I realize I’m becoming, have become in a sense, an independent adult.

Thirty something, at Asilomar during a writers’ conference, I stand by the railing on the beach, waves breaking below me on a rocky shore, water and sky merging in a splash of blue and grey, the wind under my arms whispering: “Let go, let go, and you can fly.”

Emigrant Wilderness, above Buck Lake, my shadow lingering long over the cliffs, above the water. Feeling the solitude, loneliness, the utter desolate, magnificent distance from other human beings. Enjoying the tantalizing fear of death that comes with the knowledge that a leap is possible.

Point Reyes, surrounded by aspiring California Naturalists, watching a juvenile peregrine falcon perched on a jutting rock, its young feathers as fluffy as a bunny’s fur, the ocean invisible below a thick fog. I’m cold but longing for my own peregrine-falcon wings, strong and powerful and fast. I sense the freedom that comes from being in the body, beating those wings, frolicking in the air between ocean and fog and sky.

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I meditate because I wish to be wiser and kinder, because I wish to live from the heart and to act with intention and love. But I live for the connection with nature, for the chance of coming closer to merging with the sky, the ocean and its waves, the birds, animals and bugs. Every day I move closer not just to who I am but to who we all are, creatures of the earth, like spiders, deer, falcon and eagle, hummingbird and giraffe. Our body is made up of the water, soil, gases, and nutrients of which this world is made, of which gorillas are made, or ants. Living in houses, sleeping in beds, covering ourselves with clothes — we forget that. We call them wildlife and ourselves human, we pretend that we don’t belong to this sweating, pooping, burping, slurping, chomping, dirty, messy congregation. But we are. I am. You are.

Today I read that the president has moved forward with his plans to open the Arctic Refuge to drilling. There is something ridiculous about this, the thought of going so far to seek for oil, of how much work and money will have to go into just getting there and then getting the oil out. And there is something horrifying about it, the thought of spoiling this place which so far has remained pristine and wild, the invasive outreach of the human hand, how nothing is sacred, how the greed for more money, more resources is so all-consuming, how we think we have a right to every place, no matter how unique, no matter how lovely, no matter how important to other people and species, to the balance of the fragile ecosystems of our world.

The thought which really shakes me to the core, though, is how far removed we are from our own wild nature, from our belonging to this wild earth. We too, like all other animals, depend on a habitat, no matter how varied or diverse that habitat may be. Instead of appreciating and taking care of our habitat, this living earth, we are slowly destroying it, sucking it dry of water and food and air. We do this because we don’t really believe we need it. We do this because we believe we’re somehow superior to our habitat. After all, surely there are other planets with life, and if we find them (and we’re looking), we could go there. We delude ourselves with thoughts of how smart, inventive, creative, innovative, and technologically advanced we are.

My heart breaks as I think of what we do to this earth. Drilling in the arctic and the oceans, opening up public lands for coal, how we build more and more housing and manufacturing plants and pave more streets. We’re surprised when a sandstorm comes, or the ocean rises in a tsunami to flood our streets. We install another air conditioner if the weather gets too hot. The oceans will rise? We’ll desalinate them and have more water. The soil or ocean will be polluted? We’ll spray it with chemicals to make it right again. The dodo’s extinct? Let’s see if we can genetically recreate it. We think we can do anything, all powerful, masters of the universe. We don’t need nature, because this is humanity’s planet, god-given, provided for our enjoyment and use.

On Tuesday, Dar and I are flying to Alaska, to the Arctic Refuge. I want to see it with my own eyes, feel it under my feet and in my lungs and blood. There is something humbling about this trip, about the amount of gear that we need to prepare in order to survive there, about how many flights we need to take in order to get there, about the fact that we would not have been able to go without a guide. I go to the Arctic Refuge to cultivate my two wings. Compassion and wisdom to me are part of one wing, the wing of our Humanness. The second wing I wish to cultivate is the wing of Wildness, of being Nature. It’s a tough wing to develop, especially with all that human gear that we are carrying. Despite that, I aspire to strengthen my body-and-heart connection to nature in the most intimate of ways, to become not more of myself but more of It, the planet, the universe, the cosmic and microcosmic sharing of breath and cells and waste, a part of all wild things.

Golden eagles fly over the Arctic Refuge. I hope, in a few days, to be sitting in my pack-raft, floating on the Aichilik through the last untamed landscape on earth, meditating on the eagles’ flight.

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Bearing Witness

I always thought that El Capitan and Half Dome will long survive me. I took comfort in thinking that, even if us humans die off, the redwoods, most likely, will survive and continue to thrive, their trunks thickening and their canopy reaching high to a sky that will look more or less the way it does now. I believed some life will go on, even if it is different from what we know today, and some things, some features of this world we love so much, will linger on: perhaps the San Francisco Bay, or the Pacific Ocean, or Mount Rainier. The world will live on, in some shape or form. Life will go on.

Joanna Macy said to walk the razor-edge line between hope and despair. I try, but it is tough advice to follow, sometimes, when so much of what I hold dear is being threatened, and so few people around me seem to care. I care about people, but if it’s us or the world, it’s clear to me who is the one who needs to make way. As long as the world continues, I repeat as a mantra. As long as there’s El Capitan, or Mount Starr King, or Shasta, Mount Olympus, Rainier. In my attempt to hang onto any little bush on top of that razor-edge line, I forget that rocks and mountains, oceans and trees (no matter how long-lived they can be) are also subject to the rules of impermanence. Nothing stays the same. Not even the razor-edge line underfoot.

An Israeli professor, I read in the newspaper, predicts that the earth will turn into Mars or Venus in 200 years (unless we follow the Paris agreement, he says). Edward O. Wilson, the famous myrmecologist, predicts that by 2050 50% of all the species in the world will be gone. I have read accounts that claim that 8 years from now the Central Valley in California will be so hot humans would no longer be able to live there. There’s other, similarly dire theories, but why repeat them all? Joanna Macy said not to believe any of these prophecies. She said to continue to do our work. To walk that razor-edge line. It’s not that we fight for as long as there’s hope, We fight for as long as there’s a cause for which to fight. As long as there are pandas, hummingbirds, ants. As long as there’s Bears Ears. As long as the Colorado River still runs.

A year ago, a young friend was diagnosed with cancer. He began treatment, encountering set-backs one after another, but not losing hope. At least not for long, at least not for a while. A few weeks ago, his mother let us know that he was now in hospice care. To me, heart sinking, heaviness in the chest, contraction all over the body, brain shouting no, it meant that life is almost gone. But it turns out my understanding was inaccurate. Hospice care means living as well as possible and with compassionate care the life we have left. Instead of planning for a faraway future, it means living this moment fully. It doesn’t mean we stop treatment or lose hope. It means opening up to the love — and the life — that’s here.

Joanna Macy said to walk the razor-edge line, but I can’t. I teeter-totter between hope and despair, between sadness and joy, between anger and acceptance. Only one constant stays: I love this world. I love the hummingbirds which come buzzing around my flowering abutilon plant. I love the deer and the rabbits who eat the plants which I plant for them in my garden. I love the flowers cascading down a madrone and the spritz of perfume that accompanies the flowery bouquets of the buckeye. I love this beautiful light blue sky and all the weather that comes with it. I love the sticky sand on the beach, the breaking waves, and the gorgeous pod of dolphins which rode them today to the horizon. My heart, little, fluttering, fearful, opens up to touch these miracles, to hug them, to bear witness that they are here. And I think to myself: we all live with impermanence. We all, the world included (and whether we realize it or not), have the life-limiting condition which is life itself.

A mother, diagnosed with lung cancer, wrote about the irony if she died of a car accident instead of her cancer. I think to myself: our young friend may be sick. He may not live to be 80. But neither might I. We none of us know the day of our death, and neither does the earth. In some ways, we all ought to live with the compassion and love of hospice care, bearing witness to our time here in this life and to the life all around us — to the beauty which surrounds us, the miracle of life which is here. Opening up to the fragility of this world.

My partner said last night: I am sure life exists on other planets. It might, I wanted to say, and it might not. Instead of turning our thoughts once again outwards, why not focus on what is here right under our noses, under our feet, beneath our hands, and to this earthy air breathing in and our of our lungs. This touch, this smell, this sound. This beautiful earth whose day of death may be near or far. We don’t know. We walk the razor-edge line. We fall into despair, and we desperately hope. We sign petitions. We go to vote. We write a blog. And maybe one of these treatments will work, and the earth and its creatures and all the life on it will live on for another day. Maybe the cancer that we have inflicted upon the earth will heal, and maybe it won’t. For now, there is life. That’s all I know for sure. There is this flower and this bit of ground, this humid air, this birdsong, this crush of a wave on the beach, and the laugh of a human child as she runs from the wave along the shore.

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Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109