Archive | dreams

For the Love of the Ocean

In my imagination, the ocean is a shadowy mosaic of colors and movement. Sharks dart around dark corners, hunting prey with single-minded ferocity. A red octopus slithers along the bottom, its tentacles sweeping the sand, its mind quiet, unwaveringly open to vibrations and sounds. Silvery fish hung motionless, perhaps swimming casually against a light stream. Dolphins frolic, and seal lions dive deep. The seaweed harbors secrets, and the coral swarms with life, while giant eels peer unhurriedly at the dark depths below the last touch of light. Deep in those canyons, blind sea creatures loiter near the bottomless-bottom of the ocean, while far above blue whales lumber light-weightedly from Mexico to Alaska, gulping at krill, spewing out salty water, confident in their huge, magnificent size.

The ocean is the last great mystery on earth, a mystery which covers 70% of our world. To this day, we have explored less than 5% of it. “A troubling nautical reality,” the National Geographic calls it in an article from 2005, referring to an accident in which a submarine crashed into an unknown underwater mountain. Several submariners were wounded in this accident and one killed. Even safety aside, we humans are fascinated by the ocean, by the yet-unknown but easily imagined uses we could make of it, the wealth of both money and progress we could gain. From mining, drilling, fishing, and shipping, to building floating solar farms, offshore wind turbines, and possibly floating cities, our collective human imagination is ready to expand into the ocean, uncover its secrets, and stop this wasteful and ignorant underutilization of its resources.

At Sunset Beach, I look out toward the uninterrupted horizon and imagine the pods of dolphins which I cannot see. The ocean seems simultaneously empty and full, incomprehensibly vast, compelling and dull all at once. I have no interest in taking a cruise or leaving on a year-long yacht voyage to the West Indies. My weak eyes prevent me from taking up diving, but the truth is that this hobby was never a yearning or a desire I had to have. I peek, that is all, into this tiny, limited corner of the ocean and enjoy far more the sight of sanderlings running in and out of the reach of waves, the rare snowy plover pecking in the wet sand, the gulls staring at me, unmoving, through one eye. I love watching pelicans nonchalantly skim the tips of waves as they glide in a line, like ocean liners with wings. And I laugh whenever I get a glimpse of a cormorant drying its wings. I am a land woman. I like feeling the ground beneath my feet. I like the stability of a non-earthquake-moving earth, the grounding of it, the safety. The ocean feels to me dangerous and foreign, uncontrollable and unexpected, predatory and forever wild. I am content to let is stay unexplored and unmapped.

The United States has over 95 thousand miles of shoreline. The number continually changes and shifts with the tides, with erosion, with landslides, hurricanes — the forces of human development and nature combined. As a nation, we exercise control over the water of the ocean that are by our coast, to the distance of 12 nautical miles from the shore. The first three miles are under state control, the rest under federal. But we also exercise economic control over more than that, up to 200 nautical miles from our shore, what is called the Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, “coastal nations have sovereign rights to explore, exploit, conserve, and manage marine resources and assert jurisdiction over: i. the establishment and use of artificial islands, installations and structures; ii. marine scientific research; and iii. the protection and preservation of the marine environment.” There are rules defining every aspect of the exploration, exploitation, conservation and management of the marine environment, but as always happens with human language, those are subject to interpretation, or, we could almost say, the rules themselves are subject to being explored, exploited, and managed, depending on the wishes and desires of whoever is in control.

It has been a few weeks now since I committed to writing an article on off-shore drilling off the California Coast for the Loma Prieta eNewsletter, and I’ve been progressing at the rate of an old and decrepit sea-slug. I’ve interviewed two people, discovering the depth and breath-taking breadth of this subject. I read articles and took notes. And yet the writing itself fumbles, grinds to a stop. Guilt bubbles in me for neglecting this assignment, for postponing writing about this important and time-sensitive issue. I yearn to write, and yet I can’t. I sit, and the words do not come. And then, like lava boiling deep in an ocean trench and hitting the coldness of water that has never seen the sun, fear and pain rush into me. Fear and pain for our ocean and the creatures who live in it and over the development already done and already contemplated. Fear and pain for the impact our actions on land, even far from the coastline, have on the corals, the water, and the aquatic magnificent life. And I realize I have counted on the ocean remaining apart, untouched. Ever mysterious and wild. I imagined, like the incorrect image of an ostrich hiding its head in the sand, the the ocean can stay safe from the long-reaching human hand.

Joanna Macy, environmentalist, activist, Buddhist scholar and teacher, says we must walk the razor-blade edge between hope and despair, that we must act to protect our world without needing hope and without heeding despair. Bringing gratitude in to strengthen us, she opens the door for the pain to come, allowing us, as a result, to see our place in the world and our duty to it with new eyes, inspiring us to the fourth step: action for the world. Having jumped directly into unexpected and unexplored pain, I am frozen from action. Sadness flows and ebbs in me like the tides. Fear rolls me over and around, crashing into me like a tsunami. Knowing the ocean is in danger, has been in danger since long before I was born, liquidates the stable ground beneath my feet, and my mind, as yet not well-trained, needs to be wrenched away and forced…

…to remember and be grateful for:

Hilton Head, sandy beach, standing in early dusk and watching a pod of dolphins in the water. “They are teaching a baby dolphin to hunt,” Dar speculates.

On a boat back from the Channel Islands, seeing a Blue Whale rising up from the ocean and diving in again. A single sighting. A miracle. My breath taken away.

Plovers in Florida. Looking formal and elegant in their white-tan-and-black-feathered suits.

Manatee tails creating a square of depressed water in a channel off the Melbourne, Florida Coast. The joy.

Otters blinking in the sun, lying on their backs in one of the twists and turns of Elkhorn Slough. Bobbing in the kayak, staring at them staring at us.

Myself and the kids, floating up and down gentle waves in the Mediterrenean Sea off the coast of Tel Aviv, little fish nibbling at our bare feet.

The sea lion following us through the surf as we trudge from Alamere Falls back to Wildcat Campground on a warm day in June.

Rainbows twinkling in the horse-galloping tops of waves crushing on Bodega Bay rocks.

The forests of kelp undulating beneath the kayak, my son capturing a red crab on his paddle.

Los Osos on an early morning, pelicans flying by.

The feeling of sand rushing off into the ocean from under my feet, the coldness of wave-water around my ankles.

Every sunset, every sunrise ever viewed.

Relaxing on a beach in Hawaii in Waipi’o Valley with my cousin, hoping to see some whales.

Open-mouthed, momentarily torn between the California zebra and the feeding humpbacked whales just below Hurst Castle. The whales win hands-down. It’s a much better show.

And as I write, my heart eases. Not yet able to handle the pain, but calmer, I take a deep breath. There is much to be loved, much to be appreciated, and yes, still much to be saved.

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I’d Rather Be Monkeywrenching

Lesley, Lesley’s boyfriend Tim, Dar and I are on a “wind and water caves” group hike in Point Reyes. We’ve only just began hiking down from Laguna Trailhead, trailing, as always, at the end of the pack, when Leslie says, “I want to buy you a gift.”

Eyebrows rise. I ask: “What kind of gift?”

“A car sticker,” Lesley says, as though it’s obvious.

“It’s an I’d rather be monkeywrenching sticker,” Lesley explains.

My breath hitches. “I want five,” I reply.

The term “monkeywrenching” originates from the book The Monkeywrench Gang by Edward Abbey, which I recently read. The book tells of a band of three men and a woman who set out to protest and prevent the destruction of the Utah-Arizona-Nevada desert. Their end goal: blow up the Glen Canyon Dam.

Monkeywrenching is a term not found in most dictionaries. The organization Earth First! defines monkeywrenching as “…a step beyond civil disobedience. It is nonviolent, aimed only at inanimate objects. It is one of the last steps in defense of the wild, a deliberate action taken by an Earth defender when almost all other measures have failed.”

You might wonder what I have to do with monkeywrenching? “Sigal,” you might say. “You’re a law-abiding citizen. Are you really posting about civil disobedience? Is this really something you think about?”

Well, yes, I guess.

The Monkeywrench Gang inspired the creation of the organization Earth First! which engages in activities as varied as barricading a train carrying fracking equipment (in order to prevent it going up to North Dakota, to give a current example), painting graffiti on dams, chaining oneself to trucks or other construction vehicles, and sitting in trees to protest and block logging. The group is fragmented in order to protect its members (in fact, the best monkeywrenchers work alone). From what I can find, despite having a special section in the website called “Security Measures” and a call on the defenders that basically says, “Don’t get caught,” there are quite a few Earth First! members who are serving lengthy sentences in jail.

Yes, monkeywrenching can send you to jail.

In the movie DamNation, we get a glimpse of Earth First! defender Mikal Jakubal as he sneaks to the top of the O’Shaughnessy Dam in Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley, rappels down, and paints a giant crack down the face of the dam with the words, “Free the Rivers — J Muir.”

Imagine it. imagine yourself packing the car with the equipment you need: rock climbing gear, rope, paint, brushes, dark clothing, and a balaclava. Maybe some snacks for the road? Imagine the rush of adrenaline when you arrive, park your car off the road in the shadows. Imagine sneaking onto the bridge in the dark, deciding where to set up anchor, working as silently and as fast as you can. Keeping watch. Imagine trying to keep all the equipment from jiggling and making noise, and then the concentration that falls once you’re standing on the lip, taking that first step backwards into the ominous darkness that is the face of the dam, rappelling down. And finally, imagine the exhilaration of painting the words by the flimsy light of your headlamp, of painting the crack, of making your escape, hiking up quickly from the bottom of the dam. Your headlamp, a single ray of idealism in the darkness of capitalistic blight.

Have you noticed that darkness cannot overcome even the tinniest candle, but even the most feeble light can overpower the dark?

This is what legends are made of. These are acts that make history and inspire countless people. Brashness, courage, disregard to personal safety. Standing up for what’s right.

When I was 18, I wanted desperately to serve in the Israeli army in a position that would make a difference. I was an idealist, yearning to defend the land where I had grown up. Now, at 44, I am still an idealist, seeking for a way to defend another land which is as, or perhaps more, important: our land, where the wild still exists, and the living beings that exist on it.

I stand in defense of water, soil, and air. I stand in defense of Emigrant Wilderness, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Boundary Waters. I stand in defense of the redwood trees and the mariposa lily, the ruby-throated hummingbird, manatees, and beluga whales. I stand in defense of our planet and its myriad of different species. In the light of recent events, I feel determined and resolved to do all in my power to protect those I love, from the smallest organism to the entire planet.

Now, ask yourself, where do you stand?

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California Naturalist Class, Part 3: Barf Car Vignettes

Rumbling down Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, cow ranches on either side, the sky is heavy with fog above us. In the car, some of us concentrate on surviving the nauseating drive, breathing in and out, staring ahead. David, both hands on the wheel at all times, foot perhaps too attached to the accelerator, recites J.R.R. Tolkien poetry:

“All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,

A light from the shadows shall spring;

Renewed shall be the blade that was broken,

The crownless again shall be king.”

We discuss which character of Lord of the Rings is closest to our hearts. I choose Sam, the hobbit, for his honesty, loyalty, bravery, and trustworthiness. He is not the hero, and yet the hero depends on him utterly for his success. Tonya interjects, pointing out that Sam is tempted not to return the ring to Frodo after he rescues him from the spider. I counter by saying that actually, though the ring tries to gain control over Sam, and arguably perhaps succeeds momentarily, Sam proves stronger and does, in fact, return the ring (unlike Gollum, if we want to compare, who kills his brother for the ring, Sam’s love belongs first and foremost to Frodo, and no ring can breach his loyal heart).

David, perhaps predictably, chooses the elf, Legolas. I poke fun at his choice, saying the elves don’t really and fully participate in the adventure. Higher beings, immortal, they seem somehow above any danger encountered by mere humans and hobbits. David’s reddish hair glitters and his eyes shine as he speaks of Legolas, his honor and courage. The elf from the book, he emphasizes, not the movie. David mentions Gandalf, too, as a possible choice, because of his humility. Gandalf’s hand is in every instance where help is needed, and yet he wanders the countryside humble and unobtrusive. You’d never know he had done anything to change history. I agree with that choice. I love Gandalf. I’d be Gandalf in a heartbeat if I could.

Tonya and Lesley, sitting in the back, choose no character for themselves. Perhaps they have not dreamed of living in Middle Earth the way I have, the way I sense David had. Perhaps their hearts are inextricably tied to some other book. Or perhaps David and I dominate the conversation too much with our Tolkien passion, our need to dive into the world of the book.

*********

I look out the window as cow ranches turn into marshy yellowing grass. Drakes Estero stretches to our right. I know somewhere there is water, fresh mixing with salt, but from where I’m sitting my view is mostly blocked by the bushes that frame the road. I search for wildlife, and suddenly, far in the distance, I see a tan shape of what looks to be a cat. I yelp intelligibly. David breaks the car at the side of the road, and we all run out, holding onto our binoculars (in my case, a monocular). I jog breathlessly after David and Lesley, both of whom, far ahead, seem much more used to running (or else, just younger). Tonya chooses to stay near the car. If it’s a mountain lion, perhaps she’s being wiser than us, but at the moment, it doesn’t matter that I may be running toward a carnivore that could kill me. My heart races with the joy of discovery, of something new, with the joy of being alive.

The estero lies before us, green and yellow and grey, punctuated by stretches of pristine, transparent water, and there, right in front of a little boulder mound, is the cat. I jerk the monocular to my eye and squint through. Tan indeed. Muscular. A cat for sure. But what kind of cat?

“I don’t think this is a bobcat,” David says.

“It’s a mountain lion,” I say with confidence, because I want it to be so. In the eye of the monocular, the cat walks regally up the boulders. Its muscles ripple. I have never seen any animal look quite this powerful, quite this strong. Nothing exists but its shape in my monocular. No estero, no birds, no grass. Just me and the cat. I wonder if it’s looking back. The monocular is not strong enough that I can see a face. Just a shape. Just the blatant power of a wild, living body.

The van with the rest of the class turns the corner. David runs to tell them to come see the cat, just as it walks around the boulders and disappears behind the grass. “It was small, but I think it was a mountain lion,” David says. I hear Chris say in reply that it was a bobcat. I gnash my teeth in frustration. It was a mountain lion. I know it was. I saw, as clear as day, the long tail, the tan, sleek body. This was no kitten. This was it, the king of the beasts, the top predator.

“A bobcat,” Chris says later in class.

“A mountain lion,” I insist quietly to myself, wondering why I feel so irritated. “I know what I saw.” But (fearing what?) I don’t speak up. The mountain lion, now a part of the estero and the park and the mythological journeys of the Barf Car, remains, for the time being, singularly mine.

*********

David likes raptors, and not just any raptors. I’d guess his favorite is the harrier,  He never says it in so many words, but I can tell. Every time we see a raptor in the sky, David pulls the car over. “It’s a harrier,” he says with bated breath, hands locked around his binoculars, eyes peering through with an intensity no plastic instrument can hide. “I can see the white band on the back.”

“I don’t know,” Lesley says. Her eyes, too, are glued to the binoculars. “The tail looks very red to me.”

A pause, followed by a slight sigh, “Oh, it’s a red-tailed hawk,” David admits. Then, “No, it’s a harrier. Look at the white band. Oh, no, it’s a red-tailed hawk.”

The hawk flies beside us over the golden hills of the coast, its wings spread out as it catches the wind. I watch it, entranced. Ah, to fly like a bird. To swoop down close to the waves. To dive through the air down the cliffs, wings tight at my side. To soar above dolphins as they slice through the waves. Ah, to fly like a bird. Like a harrier. Or a falcon. Or a red-tailed hawk. Even a sparrow would be fine.

“Now, that’s a harrier,” David says and pulls over the car again. “Look at the white band.”

*********

I must be feeling comfortable with David, Tonya and Lesley, because here I am singing to them a Hebrew song. David’s entranced. He’s a musician, but I can’t tell if he’s excited because he’s hearing a new song in a different language or because he actually likes it. The song is an Israeli rendition of a poem, “A Walk in Caesarea.” The poet, Hannah Szenes, was a young woman on the brink of volunteering to be the first woman paratrooper to Nazi-held Hungary. The poem can be translated like this:

“My God, My God,

May it never end,

The sand and the sea,

The rustle of water,

Lightning in the sky,

The prayer of Man.”

“Can you teach me how to sing it?” David asks.

In Israel, “A Walk in Caesarea” is often sung as part of Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies and has become, for many people, a song of sorrow about a lost life. Hannah Szenes was captured by the Nazis, tortured, and eventually executed. She was twenty three years old when she died. Despite that, to me her poem is a symbol of hope and love. It reminds me that humanity deserves to be prayed for. Sometimes, as I look at the trash which we humans carelessly throw out, at the toxins we thoughtlessly pour into our rivers, and at other damage which we believe our right to perpetrate upon the earth, it is hard for me to remember that everyone is worthy of prayer and love, even us humans. Hannah Szenes’ poem does not separate lightning, sea, sand and man. Standing on the beach in Caesarea and watching the Mediterrenean’s waves calmly wash upon the sand, she puts her faith in the power of regeneration, in life itself. She will parachute into Nazi-held Hungary to save other people precisely because she sees the interconnectedness of every grain of sand, every human soul, every drop of water.

I lean my head back against the Barf Car’s seat and think of Hannah Szenes as she stands, so many years ago, not in front of the firing squad but on the beach. I think of Hannah writing her poem in the tranquility of the sand and the sea, of the Roman archaeological ruins in the background. The Barf Car rumbles on back toward the Lifeboat Station. Harriers and red-tailed hawks fly by and owls hoot. Baby peregrine falcons balance on cliff tops as elephant seals and sea lions roar in the water below. Somewhere, a meteor rockets through the sky, and ahead, at our destination, our cook, Yaella, fills the Lifeboat Station with the good smells of food and love. For this moment in time, all falls into place as planned by the Great God in the Sky. Later all might be chaos again. For now, here is life and love.

Watch Ofra Haza, an Israeli singer, singing the song “A Walk in Caesarea.”

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California Naturalist Class, Part 2: From Back of the Pack to Front of the Van

Lesley, Bruce and I have fallen behind the rest of the pack. Chris, our teacher, strides behind us purposefully, spotting scope and tripod resting on his shoulder, herding us before him like a sheepdog guarding wayward sheep. Lesley peers into every crevasse looking for critters. I am frantically trying to draw a flower in my notebook while pretending to move forward. Bruce is also fascinated by the plants. We just need a little more time, but the rest of the group is already walking around the bend, and the pressure to move is greater than the wish to stay behind.

We’re hiking the Muddy Hollow Trail down to Limantour Spit, and it is gorgeous! Next to us, but mostly out of sight, is the creek. So many plants grow happily here with all the water. Hedge nettles bloom below overhanging willows and alder trees. Coffeeberry cradles red and black berries inside rounded green leaves, and a blackberry vine sprawls luxuriously nearby, its fruit having been already consumed, perhaps, by a passing deer. Ocean spray, past its bloom, still pours bouquets of dried flowers from every branch, and lilac hides its now forgotten flowers under a dark-green canopy of leaves. Birds are twittering from every direction, and the group stops to listen. Our guide, David, can tell the birds by their call as well as (so it seems to me at least) by their shadow. Tit wren, he says. Rough-wing swallows. Towhee. Gold finches. Song sparrow. Natalie, Chris and he set up scopes to allow everyone to take a close-up look at a great egret. A little bird darts by. A swallow, David says. I try to take note of some characteristic of the fast-moving bird so I’ll remember. Perhaps the shape of the wing? The fast flight? The V-split tail?

“When the group stops, this is your chance to get upfront,” Chris observes with some impatience as Lesley, Bruce and I find ourselves in the back of the pack again. He strides behind us in a way that makes it impossible to fall too far behind, bodily blocking the sandy trail. Lesley tells me in a soft tone that she would, if possible, do what he says, but she doesn’t want to push aside the other people. I agree with her, but I think that both of us don’t really want to be in the front. We want to be in the back: she to look for critters under the leaves and in the trees, and I to check out all the plants. I want to know all the plants’ names. I want to be able to recognize them by their leaves, stalks, general shape. I want to know what they are even when the flowers are gone.

We see Tule elk in the distance. Another egret, or perhaps the same one. A blue heron. We’re getting closer to the beach. The plants change, turning into a coastal community. Lower bushes and shrubs. Then, the dunes. Lesley and I eat lunch on the beach, staring into the bay. It is windy, and our food fills with sand. I can feel its grittiness against my teeth. Our geology instructor from the day before told us that Limantour Spit was a flowing river of sand, and I believe him. I can see the movement of it before my eyes. Seagulls watch our every bite. I remember another picnic on a beach, on Santa Cruz Island, being warned about the seagulls. “They will grab food from your mouth,” the kayaking guide had told us. “They will grab anything you drop or put on the table. The only thing they haven’t learned to do yet is unzip a cooler.” On Limantour Spit, we are not attacked by ravenous seagulls. We finish our food and rejoin the group, ready for a walk on the edge of Limantour Marsh.

Obedient, Lesley and I take the front, immediately behind David, turning after him onto a side trail leading closer to the marsh. Turns out European grass is not just invasive. It also cuts into unprotected legs like a knife. “Deal with it,” says David after he warns us against it. Lesley is looking for critters. I stare at little yellow flowers and wonder what their names are. We peer through the scopes at sand pipers flying in a cloud, spiraling an infinity near the marsh, their wings turning silvery as they dip in and out of the sun. We learn how to recognize pickleweed and eel grass, but my favorite is the tiny marsh lavender. I now notice it is everywhere, growing like a cute little tree out of the pickleweed-covered sand.

On the way back, Chris points out a rare plant: the Point Reyes rein orchid. It’s green and spiraling on a single stalk. I’m impressed. I would never have noticed it on my own, but now the other students recognize it in several spots along the walk. I find I am tired. All this walking and stopping in the sun had taken its toll. The names of plants swirl around my head, and I try not to remember any for fear of forgetting them all. When we arrive back at the Boathouse, I will transfer them to my journal and look them all up in my book.

In the parking lot, I push my way into the front seat of the van. The other David, our David who had been driving Lesley, Tanya and I in what he termed the Barf Car, had to go to the office, and there is no choice but to ride in the van with everyone else. I’m ashamed of pushing my way to the front, but there’s no choice. Sitting farther back a few days ago had ruined my entire afternoon with nausea and headache. I don’t want that to happen again. I stare forlornly out the front windshield, feeling like I’d done something wrong, forgetting all about the magical day in the wobbly, dizzying ride out of Limantour. Had it even happened — the walk, the plants and the birds, Chris herding us — or was it a dream? Perhaps, a dream. Or perhaps a week later, when I sit at my desk and write this blog, it is the opposite: the walk will be real, and the memory of the ride in the van all gone.

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A Year to Live — Day 352

The Last Birthday

Till the last few days, I had never before considered the possibility that every birthday could be my last. Like many people’s, my birthday is a sensitive subject. While I hadn’t really obsessed much about my age since my 19th birthday (when I felt hit by the realization that I was leaving my childhood behind), my birthdays have become for me a symbol of appreciation and love. Or, more often (and whiningly so), the lack thereof.

When the children were younger, and after my divorce, I made up my mind to treat my birthday as an opportunity to show kindness and love to others. I was disgusted by and impatient of what I considered my unhealthy habit of looking for love outside of myself. Instead, I reasoned, I would radiate love out. This brought about several years in which rather than expect gifts for myself, I shopped extensively for gifts that would bring pleasure and love for the kids. Rather than dream about waking up the morning of my birthday to my own surprise table full of gifts and treats, I decorated the house and created a surprise table for the kids.

My famous angel food cake with pink clouds and strawberries, our traditional cake during all birthdays.

My famous angel food cake with pink clouds and strawberries, our traditional cake during all birthdays.

In the last few years, however, a new factor was brought into my tenuous status-quo with this need to be loved. This factor was a new boyfriend, and one, moreover, who showed himself right from the start as considerate, thoughtful, and prone to giving gifts. On our second date (which was on a Christmas Eve), Dar showed up with a ribboned and wrapped box containing a Spot device (a device that helps locate lost hikers), the perfect gift for an avid hiker. For our third date, he showed up with chocolate-covered strawberries which he made himself (I had told him they were my favorites). For Valentine’s Day, he gave me two bouquets of flowers. One was a bouquet of pink tulips, I think. I loved that one. For my 39th birthday, Dar gave me several gifts. One, I remember, was the most elaborate box of chocolates I have ever seen. The chocolates came in a pink ruffled box that I still keep. Can you blame me if my expectations, after this beginning, reached an almost hysterical peak? Add to this my 40th birthday, the next year, which included two birthday cakes (one baked and hand-decorated by a friend’s talented daughter) and a cartoon artist who drew the guests.

I think you will not wonder, then, at hearing that I consider my next three birthdays a gigantic flop. The worst, perhaps, was the birthday we spent with the kids playing badminton (they fought so much, the two of them, that I had to remove myself before I started screaming) and then having lunch at the Cheesecake Factory (the waiter and manager claimed they had nothing either wheat-free or dairy-free they could bring me to eat, and I spent the meal food-less watching the others eat).

My 44th birthday is coming up in a few days, and even before I figured out that it was going to be my last, I’d been thinking what I could do to make this birthday different. I tried to see my patterns of behavior that lead me again and again to be afraid of asking for what I need, instead trying to please the rest of the family with my choices as to how to spend my birthday. If it was really and only up to me, after all, we’d spend my birthday camping out for a night somewhere in the wilderness. (Eden: “NOOOO!” Uri: “No way. Do it on your own time,” and, “Even Dar doesn’t want to go with you”). Every year I try to find something to do which, heaven help us, everyone might enjoy, and every year it looks like my best efforts do not pay off. Not to mention, in addition to this, the small voice in my head which says: “Why are they not planning my birthday? Why are they not trying to please ME for a change?”

I’m not sure this birthday is going to be all that different, except, perhaps, in my own mind. The gifts for my three important people are already piling up in a secret location in the bedroom. I’ve also decided to decorate the house — I deserve it, after all, just as much as they do. I’ve made a reservation for fondue at a restaurant which pretty much we all like. What is different, however, is my acute realization that this birthday might very well be my last.

Of course, any birthday might be our last. The not-knowing the day of our death is built-in, unquestionably present every moment we are alive. For all I know, my last birthday may have been my 43rd — after all, like all of us, I am not really assured of surviving till February 20th, 2017 — I am only committing to live till then as though that day is my last. But if this coming birthday is the last birthday I am going to celebrate, I would like to give myself the gift of at least some of the time celebrating it the way I’d like.

Inside of me, I can just barely touch the well of sadness and anger about the way I’ve let my other birthdays go, the way I never said what I needed, never expressed what I wished, never insisted, never taught the kids that my dreams too deserve to be a factor in our relationship. Instead, I’ve been teaching them quite dramatically that a parent needs to live for his or her children. A part of me, in fact, still believes it. Any deviation from this belief is a huge struggle that I overcome only rarely, and only in bits. But the rational part of me, the part that thinks that, actually, I deserve to exist as a separate human being with her own needs and wishes and dreams, that part keeps saying: “Sigal, this belief is not the truth.” And it says: “You have to teach the kids that. You have to teach them to be free.” And it remarks, ironically: “In the hurry to teach them that they matter, you may have taught them that they won’t matter when they’re adults.”

On Wednesday next week, in honor of my 44th birthday, I have taken the day off, and I am going to head up to my most beloved park to check out the wildflowers. I haven’t been up there in a long time, and I’m eager to revisit my favorite spots. In a five-hour hike, I will not be able to cover all thousands of acres of park, so many of which I know like the back of my hand, but I will be able to get a taste of wilderness. Later that day, we will go to fondue, and it will either be great, or it won’t. But in any case, the success of the dinner will not matter in the way it usually does, because I will have already celebrated my birthday for myself earlier that day in the park I love.

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A Year To Live — 364 Days

Yesterday, during a somewhat innocent meditation class, I received a prognosis for an untreatable condition called Life. I have only one year to live. Perhaps less. The prognosis did not surprise me too much. I had been preparing for the class (which is based on the book, A Year to Live, by Stephen Levine) and for the prognosis for a few weeks now. What struck me, though, was the realization of how fleeting my life really is.

Eight years ago, I signed up for a trip which fascinated me to no end. It was a backpacking-and-mountaineering trip into the depths of the Olympic Rainforest to climb Mount Olympus. Who among us did not long, at least for once in their life, to visit the abode of the gods? I never wondered at the Greeks for believing that their gods lived on top of a seemingly unreachable, snowy mountain. Had I been a god, I would have wanted to live on a pristine snowy peak, with the view of a thousand mountains, valleys and plains around me. Best of all, reaching Mount Olympus required passing through all these mountains and Valleys. I loved the idea of backpacking 15 miles in order to reach the mountain. The remoteness, the scenery, the adventure, all appealed to me.

A few days before I was due to leave, my son fell off a slide and broke his arm, a moving fracture that looked terrifying and required a reduction at the hospital. For a moment, I was not sure if I would be able to leave for my trip, but then it was the day of my flight, and I was going. My son was alright with the cast, not really requiring any extraordinary amount of care other than, perhaps, with showering. His dad was to take care of him, and I gave myself permission to go.

I still remember getting to my hotel (it was a Holiday Inn Express not too far from the Seattle Needle). I remember having breakfast the next morning, inquiring about leaving my huge, now mostly empty white bag with clean clothes and some toiletries with the front desk till I returned, dragging my blue pack, so full of stuff that my ice axe and boots and crampons were hanging off the back like I was some medieval peddler. I remember seeing Pat and Alan, the two guides, and thinking they might be a father and son. I remember the equipment check on the floor in the Mountain Madness office, and what I thought when I first saw Mel, Mel who turned out to be my best friend on the trip.

And then we were away and driving and crossing the sound and driving some more and in the parking lot, checking equipment again and splitting up the food and group equipment, and I remember shouldering the heaviest pack I had ever carried, quite possibly 45 or 50 pounds to my barely 115. And then we were off, hiking fast through some of the most beautiful scenery I had ever seen, swallowing up the miles.

Seemingly, I remember everything about this trip: the rainforest teeming with green life, the Hoh River flowing merrily and twinkling next to the trail for most of the way, how cold it was in the early morning when we began our climb, and how steep Snow Dome was. I remember getting to know the other seven men in the group (I was the only woman), crossing the avalanche zone, the beauty of the Blue Glacier. And of course, the top of Mount Olympus, and rock climbing up and down-climbing and rappelling down. But most of all, I remember our last night on the trail. We slept on an island in the middle of the Hoh, except, I couldn’t sleep. I lay on the sand in my sleeping bag, and the echoes of the trip pounded in my blood and the river flowed through my veins, both calling to me to stay forever. Stay, every leaf whispered, every grain of sand. There was only the river and the forest and the wonderful people on the climb. Home seemed far away and unreal. Only the Here was alive and true, and it seemed impossible to me that the night, stretching starry and bright around me, would ever end.

On Snow Dome with the tip Mount Olympus peeking in the background.

Mel and I on breaking our first camp, comparing the various sizes of our packs. His weighed more than I did.

Mel and I on breaking our first camp, comparing the various sizes of our packs. His weighed more than I did.

 

I climbed Mount Olympus in August of 2008. Back in the car, we drove with the windows slightly open — everyone stunk after five days with no showers. We had lunch together (I remember the waitress asking Alan for an ID — he was twenty-two at the time), and then we were dropped off at our hotels. I showered and soaped several times before I was clean, wandered around Seattle for a time, and had dinner by myself at a pizza parlor near the Needle. The next day I flew home. The adventure was over, then it was gone, and then, before I knew it, it lay buried under the dust of many days, weeks, months and years, a shiny memory with mothballs.

This year, my last to live, I would like to live as I have lived on Mount Olympus, enjoying every breath, every smell, the sight of every blade of grass, feeling raw and real. Because this year, the last year of my life, is going to go by the same way as my trip had. Here today, with 364 days to go, it seems like it would go on forever, but as I blink, only 60 days will remain, and then 3 and 2 and 1, and soon a marker will be the only thing reminding you where you put the last physical remnant that I’d been here. And then, while you blink and take your breaths, it will be 2025, and you would wonder, could it really have been seven years?

Isn’t life surreal? Isn’t life just so, so real?

The adventure, so soon to end, begins, and it was only appropriate, you know, that it would begin with a blog post.

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Walking My Dream

A few days ago I had an illuminating conversation with my daughter Eden. I had asked her, Would you like to hear about a dream I want to do?

She replied: “Does it include me?”

I said: No….

She said: “I don’t want to hear about it.” And then she added: “I think parents should only have dreams that include their kids.”

Not quite knowing how to react (were her words a cute thing to say or completely unfair?) I did not respond directly. At first I was blown away by the realization of just how much resistance I could expect from the kids when I tried to go for one of those dreams that do not include them. Then, after talking this over with my therapist, I was startled by another realization:

When my daughter has kids, if she still subscribes to this belief, she will think that she can only have dreams that include her kids, and if she has any dreams that do not include her kids, she will not follow them.

One of my dreams that does include my kids is that they will be free.

At least partly, I think, my kids watch me following my dreams. I’ve climbed mountains and gone on backpacking trips. Dar and I even ventured as far away as Prague and Israel without them. I try very hard, however, to fit the timing of fulfilling my dreams so that it does not disrupt the kids’ schedule. I go hiking and backpacking when they are with their dad. I went on a meditation retreat on dates that promised the least days away from them. I cancel anything if it interferes with their needs.

Me on top of Rainier

Me on top of Rainier

If I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2688-mile-long trail that traverses California, Oregon and Washington, I would not be able to fit it on the days that the kids are with their dad. I would not be able to be there if they had a cold. It would take me at least a day (or likely more) to get back if they needed me or if, heaven forbid, some emergency threatened them. I would be really, really far away.

But I would be walking my dream.

Some people have said to me: “Why don’t you wait till the kids are older? People hike the PCT even in their sixties.”

I don’t have an answer to the question, not a good one anyways. Except, of course, that I could say: When you look into your own heart, and touch your own dream, do you really want to wait for some imaginary better time to do it? Until the kids are older? Until you’ve retired? Until some made-up set of conditions are met? Or would you like to spread your wings today, now, this moment? Would you like, right now, to be free?

Next year, come May, I would like to spread my wings, pick up my backpack, and go hike the PCT. Uri will be almost 16. Eden will be 13. I will be 44. Dar will be kissing the other side of 50. I feel in my heart that it’s time, that I am ready for taking this freedom. In the last year I was beset by asthma, an inflammation in my foot, the flu, and back pain. I would like to follow my dreams now, while I still, maybe, can. While I’m still young enough and healthy enough and fit enough. While I still want those dreams. While they still mean something to me.

I hope that by walking my dream, my kids will see that dreams matter and that fulfilling them is as important as anything else we do in our brief, magical flash of life. I hope that my kids will learn and remember that they matter, and that while many things are important, so are those dreams that lie in their heart.

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The Silver-Lined Cage

My mother sent me yesterday a story by Israeli author Shlomit Cohen-Assif. The story tells of a yellow bird that had been caught by a hunter and was being kept in a cage near the window. Unable to fly, the bird soundlessly sings inside her heart her longing for the open, free sky. One day an old woman passing by asks the bird to sing for her. While the bird sings, the old woman weaves her silver hair inside the bars of the cage, making it lighter-than-air so that the bird, though still in the cage, can fly again.

The story saddened me. Sure, the bird can now see the world, but she is still trapped inside the cage. She cannot move her wings. The cage, though silver-lined, is still around her, and for as long as she is inside, she will always see the world through its bars and be forever limited by its size and shape. She will never be truly free.

I, too, like the bird, live in a silver-lined cage. Some of the bars of the cage are of my own making: my responsibilities as a parent and my responsibilities as a daughter, sister, cousin, and granddaughter, my social obligations to friends and acquaintances. Some of the bars I have accepted because I wish to fit in the society in which I’ve chosen to live: moral and ethical rules, social norms, and other societal expectations. My perceptions of these bars change. At some times the bars seem more rigid, less able to give way. The bars can be light as air, allowing me some illusion of freedom or they can be inflexible, appearing to trap me in a small and cramped cage.

Jack Kornfield tells the story of a tiger in a zoo who lived most of her life in a small pen. As the zoo began to shift its animals to larger, more natural living areas, this tiger too was moved to a much bigger yard. Despite having all this new space to explore, the tiger spent the rest of her life pacing a small area, the size of her former pen, never venturing away from it. Like the chickens who always return to their coop and the cows who return every night from the meadows to their barn, even when there’s a chance of freedom, we often choose to stay in, or return to, the place where we feel safe, even when we perceive it as a cage, even if we feel trapped inside.

That is the secret of the silver-lined cage and what makes it most difficult to escape: its door is unlocked. We can get out any time. The tiger, the yellow bird and I are the only ones with the key to our cages, and we are the only ones who get to choose when the door stays open and when it is shut. Despite its disadvantages, inside the cage we are safe and can pretend to be anything we want to be. We can fly over the moon (remember, the bars are light as air with the woven silver hairs), without ever needing to risk the strength of our own wings.

But this flight is not a true flight — it is a flight by the same standards as reading a book about climbing Everest would require heavy mountaineering boots or watching a movie about glass-blowing would produce a pumpkin or playing a football video game would make us sweat. If this kind of freedom was true then I would have made three touchdowns during Wednesday night’s game against the Browns when I played with my son on his playstation. In order to fly in truth, I must unlock the door, open it, and acknowledge that I am the one who has made this cage, and because of that, it is for me to decide that I can leave it. Perhaps I will never climb Everest or get a touchdown in an NFL football game (the last, especially, seems unlikely, because at 5’1” and 120 pounds I am possibly too small, even if I was the right sex and age), but there are many other adventures freedom allows. I did get to play a flag football game two years ago, and I ran the ball once. My flag was pulled almost before I started moving, but it doesn’t matter. People, I played in a football game! For a moment, I was a high-flying running back!

The buffet of life is extensive, limitless. All we need do is pick what it is we’d like to have. But perhaps its very boundlessness, its very infinity of choice, are what make this buffet so frightening, so unnerving. We humans like limits and rules. We like the safety that lack of freedom gives, because… imagine the chaos that would ensue if everyone was free, if everyone took from the buffet whatever they wanted without caring about any one else’s needs! We cannot fathom the true limitlessness, the true infinitude of the buffet. We cannot fathom that there is enough space for us all to be free.

For this new year, I wish you and me a chance at liberation. I wish us a chance to see the world outside the bars of our cages, even if they are silver-lined. Take a chance this year. Do something you love. Plunge into the unknown. There is a lot in the buffet of life for you and for me to enjoy. Perhaps this year will be the year to climb a mountain or to hike the longest trail, to start your own company or get your own apple orchard farm. Perhaps this year, 2015, is the year for our dreams to come to be.

It’s a beautiful world out there. Open your windows and doors and come with me outside. Come out, come out, wherever you are. Smell the air. Touch a flower. Fly like a bird. Live a little. Live a lot. It’s a good life.

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Simplifying the Complicated Life

It’s 7:30am, and I’m already tired. Partly it’s because I didn’t sleep well last night. You could say I was besieged by strange recurring dreams concerning gorillas and high schools. Since I’m in the process of registering my son to high school, that might explain the second part, but I’m still not sure about the gorillas. Partly, however, I’m so tired because I’ve contemplated my schedule this week, and I am dreading what I see.

Ever since I’ve come back from the meditation retreat in September, I’ve become more aware of how overwhelmed I feel inside my own life. So much happens every day. I feel responsible for so many things and people. The driving… don’t get me started on the driving. And all of it, I confess, is by choice. My choice. And the question begs, if this chaos is my choice, why am I not choosing otherwise?

My brother-in-law once told me a story about a teacher’s example for good time management. The teacher placed a large glass vase on the table and fit large rocks inside, up to the top of the vase. He then asked the students if the vase was full. Yes, they answered. The teacher took smaller rocks and let them tumble into the spaces between the large rocks. Is the vase full now, he asked the students. Yes, they said. The teacher poured pebbles into the vase. How about now? He asked. Yes. Then he poured in sand. Full? The students, now wise, wondered if maybe not? The teacher poured in water. Now the vase was truly full. The moral of the story was simple: we have to fill up our time with the biggest rocks first, what is most important, and only then down in size to the water. If we fill the vase with water first, then sand, then pebbles, we have no room for the big rocks.

So what are my big rocks? I always come back again and again to this question. The kids, of course, hiking and being outside, writing, spending time with Dar, my meditation and qigong. I also have smaller rocks that I do not wish to be without: reading, spending time with the dogs, cleaning for the chickens (I know this sounds strange, but it actually makes me feel more connected to the essential me, the earth-me), making music, spending time with friends, connecting with my family, exercising.

Then there are the things I do which are harder to classify: cooking, for example — is that a small rock or a pebble? It is important to me to eat healthy and organic. I would prefer not to eat at restaurants, but cooking takes up so much time, seemingly more than its share in the order of importance. And, to make everything more complicated, it is also closely related to the much bigger rock of spending time with and still taking care of the kids, in, once again, two opposing forces. I guess some of my rocks are just not so black and white in the size department.

Then there are other things, like doctors’ appointments, for example. If it was up to me, those would be sand, or maybe even water. But what if it’s a doctor’s appointment for the kids? And paying my bills, whether sand, water or pebble, is essential to living an orderly and responsible life with direct implication to my peace of mind and the well-being of the kids, myself, and Dar. Unlike my brother-in-law’s story, I have not been able to find a way to make all of my rocks come together snugly in the vase of my life. It’s always an either/or. Either I take the kids to the dentist, or we can go home and spend time together. Either I cook dinner, or I help them with homework. Either I write or I go for a hike. It is always choice.

I remember one of my first conversations with my therapist. I described to her all of these things which I would love to do and explained how if only I was more methodical, less lazy, more organized, more efficient, then I would be able to do all of them every day. Jeanne thought that it sounded exhausting. Sadly, she turns out to be right.

Here is a schedule of my dream day:
5am wake up
5:20-6:30am meditation and qigong
6:30am breakfast while reading
7:00am-9:45am hike
9:45-10:00 clean for chickens, water plants in yard
10:00am-11:30am write
11:30-12:30 play the ukulele and sing
12:30-1:00pm lunch
1:00pm-2:45pm prepare dinner
2:45-4 pick up kids from school
4-6:30 spend time with the kids, walk dogs
6:30-7 dinner
7:00-7:30 read french
7:30-8:30 showers, spend time with kids
8:30 go to sleep

Here’s what I didn’t put in there:
My Reiki stuff: sessions, planning classes, promoting my business, connecting with people
Hanging out with friends
Resting or even just pausing
Talking with my grandmother in Israel, connecting with my family
Writing this blog
Laundry
Loading and unloading the dishwasher
Registering Uri to high school
Exercising
Doctors appointments
Date night with Dar
Massage
Answering emails
Volunteering at school
Grocery shopping
And so much more.

As I am writing this, I am wondering if perhaps I could look a week in advance and schedule in some things which are important to me. I would love to write every day, but do I really need to hike every day? Perhaps three times a week is enough, and perhaps I could assure myself of having that time by physically penciling it into my calendar? Perhaps I could play the ukulele in the evening instead of the morning, freeing up an hour and sharing that activity with the kids? That hour could be used to put in-between activities, for much needed pausing or, perhaps, for the laundry.

Jack Kornfield often reads a poem by the poet Ryokan:

BEGGING
Today’s begging is finished; at the crossroads
I wander by the side of Hachiman Shrine
Talking with some children.
Last year, a foolish monk;
This year, no change.

I tend to agree about that for myself. Last year, a foolish Sigal. This year, no change. The more I live and the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. I realize how some things which seemed so ultra-important to me in the past are not necessarily that important at all. I find myself getting back to the essential, that which truly is important to me: to love, to share that love with people around me, to be at peace and share that peace with people around me.

Perhaps that, in truth, is my one big rock, living with the intention to love. Everything else, whether I hike or write, whether I play or talk on the phone, whether I answer email or water the plants — do these things ever truly matter if they are not done from the heart? And is not even folding the laundry the most important thing, the biggest of all big rocks, if done with love?

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NaNo Update

Today is day 8 of NaNoWriMo, and so far, so good, I’ve been able to write 17,245 words. That’s an average of over 2,000 words a day! I am making an effort to write first thing in the morning, when I’m at my best and when I am less likely to be interrupted. Usually that means I am sitting here at my computer between 6-8am.

I’ve been writing and only writing, not reading over what I previously wrote, and I think this method is working well for me. If I start reading back at what I wrote before, my inner critic becomes engaged, and all of a sudden it is not about being creative but about excellence and perfection or, worse, embarrassment and shame. I find that I really work much better if the critic is off to the side, minding his own business. Every once in a while he rears up his head and comments on my progress, and I politely ask him to back off. I don’t need him right now. I want to allow the words, unhindered, to flow.

I hope that when I am done with the first draft (as I feel fairly confident I am going to do) I can engage the services of my inner critic not as a critic but as a “feedbacker.” I think there’s a lot he can help me with, as long as he remembers that his job is to support and build and not to crush and shame. My cousin told me a good quote in Russian for this (and I’m using her translation): The first pancake always comes out in a ball. Similarly, I expect that this first draft is not going to be the end of the process. There’s going to be a second, and a third, and maybe a number twenty-third draft as well. There’s going to be revision. But the only way I can move from a ball to a beautiful pancake ready-to-be-served is with encouragement and love. It’s impossible to cook a nicely-shaped, yummy pancake — or a magical novel — with censure and hurt.

Other than discovering that NaNoWriMo does in fact motivate me to write, I’ve also noticed something else. I have more self discipline than I used to. I think all this meditation and qigong and Reiki practice is really paying off. I am better able to concentrate and to sit down for something that I know deep down inside to be very important to me. I am also, somehow, better able to let go. I put down the words, and whether or not the critic mumbles something from his place of semi-exile, I let my written words flow. There will be a time to review them later.

Having written one novel before, even if I did decide, after who-knows-what-number version, to leave it, I feel both awed and overwhelmed by the thought of what comes after the first draft. I know the task that is ahead of me, and I know what it feels like to have put so much effort into something meaningful to me only to discover that it is just not going to bear fruit anytime soon. I try to let these thoughts go too. Right now there are only two things I am doing, and they are allowing the story to tell itself and myself to feel the fun of it without thinking too much ahead.

Tomorrow I am going to a meditation daylong at Spirit Rock about releasing the inner critic. Very apropos, I think. I hope it will help with the writing as well. I have dreamed about writing a novel for so long, I’ve written and hoped, cried, shut down, avoided writing for months and months, and then found myself trying again and again. A part of me wants so, so much for it to happen finally, but I’ve decided to let go of expectations and hopes, and even of dreams. I have decided to let whatever happen, happen, and to stop interfering.

Many years ago when I was a student at Stanford, one of my professors said to me that in order to write a doctorate you need to have a fire burning in you. For me, the fire has always been in writing a novel. Sometimes it was on low heat. Sometimes on high. But it was always there, burning away, sending desire after desire into the sky. So we will see, won’t we, what will come of this new endeavor, this new concept for my novel. I will keep you updated as I continue following the NaNo path. For now, all is well. I hope all’s well also in your life.

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Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109