Archive | inspiration

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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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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The Runaway Novel

At 36,853 words, my novel has finally broken through all my attempts to control it, and it is now running amuck, making its own decisions and running its own show. I really intended, this time around, to be organized and meticulous. I was going to follow all my themes, keep track of all my characters, their names, and the relationships between them, and in general hold tightly to the reins of creativity in order to prevent my two most dreaded of problems: chaos and loss of control.

My novel and characters, however, had different ideas. “Creativity,” they said, “means just that, giving free reign to possibilities and opportunities, allowing growth and risking danger, being open to new ideas, and altogether letting go of, well, basically everything.” To them, apparently, creativity means that they can run around the novel doing whatever the fairies they want to do, using a lot of adverbs in the process, a big no-no in the writing industry today, with a special favorite being “suddenly.”

Suddenly, she saw this, and suddenly he did that, upon which, suddenly, that happened, suddenly, suddenly!

Seriously, it’s a disaster!

I had a completely different vision of writing the first draft. In my vision, the characters and the novel were all of them going to behave. They were going to be as polite and accommodating as notes on a sheet of music. Surely Mozart was not able to hold complete symphonies in his head by allowing the bassoon to run away with the flute. And I am sure Tolkien did not consent to have the dwarves and hobbits take over his plot. But somehow my characters think they can do whatever they want, and I am helpless to prevent it. Worse, a part of my seems to enjoy this train crash down creativity lane. She’s even pushing some of the train cars along!

Despite my intention to concentrate on just getting the first draft down on paper, I can’t help but be scared of what the novel will look like when that first draft is done. I fear it’s going to be a huge, big balloon of a mess, with a lot of scenes that the characters insisted on, but which make no sense in the plot, and with a lot of themes missing or characters showing up unannounced. How will I ever revise this into anything that makes sense? How would I ever revise it into one homogenous novel? There is a reason why twenty people don’t sit together and write the same novel all at once.

At the same time, the train-crash accomplice part of me is not just participating in the chaos but luxuriating in it. She’s throwing words in the air like confetti, wanting to write more and more and more. 36,853 words in sixteen days really is a great accomplishment. And so far, knock on wood, I managed to keep the critic at bay. I sent him to Hawaii where he’s relaxing next to the pool. Every day, however, he texts me to ask: “Nu? (He’s a bit Yiddish, I think) Are your words any good?”

I don’t want to think about whether the words are any good right now, or about the upcoming revision, or even about whether there will be a revision (of course there will. I feel there will). I just want to write, and if half of my words are suddenly then so be it. The other half might very well be diamonds waiting to be unwrapped.

I’m not sure what is making this novel come out so happily and easily (relatively happily and easily, and pardon the adverbs) out of me. Perhaps participating in NaNoWriMo is motivating me to write, and perhaps I was just ready. Perhaps it’s the fact that there’s an endpoint, a date after which I don’t have to stress over 1666 words a day, and perhaps I am creating a habit right now, and I’ll keep going this way, like Stephen King, forever, churning one novel after another till I die. I don’t know yet, and I guess I’m happy being in the unknowing right now. Right now, all that matters is the next scene, the next surge of words, bringing those characters, this novel alive.

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Tree Dharma

One of the questions which often haunts me is what my purpose in life is. Is there a higher purpose? Am I here, on this earth, for something specific, something special? Am I meant to do something, or expected to do something, in order to fulfill a destiny? This question somehow both attracts and repels me. I dislike (and am ashamed of) the feeling of ego that seems to me almost gelatinously attached to it, as though I am somehow unique or different from other people. At the same time, however, I long for a higher purpose, for meaning, in what I do and the way I live.

Another problem with this obsession with a higher purpose, when combined with a thread of (both inherited and nurtured) over-achiever-ness, is that no matter what I do, I never feel it is enough unless it brings fame and fortune. This means, for example, that I can’t just write a book. It needs to be on the best seller list and change people’s lives. Not an easy task, to say the least, when you’ve only got a few words on the page and are not quite sure where the plot and characters are going next.

The other day, while talking about this higher purpose business, my IMC mentor asked me what I see when I look inside — what is most important to me in there. I looked inside myself, and a tree materialized, clear as day. “There is a tree inside me,” I answered. But how is a tree a higher purpose? Can I connect it somehow to a higher purpose? My thoughts churned: hiking, climbing, protecting nature, growing tall, expanding….. aaaaaghhhhh! Too much obsessing!

I like the idea of having a tree inside, of my essence being the essence of a tree, even if I am not sure I understand what it means. After all, I love trees. I hug trees. I kiss trees (I really do). Then, on Sunday, at a group conversation about this subject at Insight Meditation Center, someone said, “A Tree does not feel the need to have a life purpose.” A part of me leaped at this sentence. Is it true? It can’t be, I thought. A tree gives us and other animals food and shelter, shade, oxygen, a place to rest, an appreciation of beauty. What is more a purpose than that?
tree
I started to play with this idea in my mind. Do peach trees feel superior somehow to a Joshua tree because they give fruit and can provide (at least in the spring and summer) more shade? Or does a Joshua tree feel superior because, in the California desert, it is really the only tree there? Do trees care about these gifts they give to us, or do they simply give them, without asking for either internal or external recognition? And, if the essence of trees is also their higher purpose, could I apply it to my question by saying, what could be a better way to achieve a higher purpose than by simply being me?

Perhaps, after all, this is the difference between animals, plants and humans. We humans continually search for more. We don’t just write a book because we want to write a book. We write because we want other people to read it. We don’t just live our life — we continually seek to influence others, change others, make an impact. Trees breathe in CO2 and breathe out oxygen. They extend their limbs to the sun. In spring they renew their coat of leaves and in fall they drop them. They allow tiny blooms to blossom out and fruit to grow without a need for any to see or use them. If one blossom is never visited by a bee, the tree does not think it is a failure. If fruit drops on the ground uneaten, the tree doesn’t obsess about the waste. Whatever comes, comes. Whatever is, is. The tree, stoically, just “be”s.

What I would like to happen, in all areas of my life, is exactly this: this calm, stoic, quintessential being. Writing a book because I want to write. Working with the Reiki because I wish to give Reiki. Spending time with the kids, with Dar, and the dogs because I wish to spend time with them. I wish for my higher purpose to be just being. No proving anything to anyone, no trying hard to be different or more than what I am. Just to be, happy with being what I am right here, right now. A tree.

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Fool’s Leap

Let’s build a box together,
Shall we?
One side made up of limitations
The second expectations
The third is disappointments
The fourth frustrations
The top from judgements
The bottom from beliefs
With some nails, scattered on the floor,
To symbolize our fears.

Let’s build a box together
A box to keep us small
To keep us safe from any need to
Grow
Expand
Or fly
Can you imagine flying in this box?
The nails shaking up a storm inside
The walls closing in
Crashing imminent.

Willing to give
Anything, anything at all
Just so there would be
No
Crashing.

And yet
What if
By crashing
Something new could come
Something fertile
Something blooming
Something green
And red
And pink
And yellow
And colorful all over?
What if
By crashing
The walls could disappear
And then
I
Could
Fly?

I’m listening to OneRepublic’s music in my car
Safe in the box
Safe in the car
Safe in my fears
But the music is beating, beating, beating
Calling me out of the box
And I find myself squirming
One part a sedate, responsible driver
The other dancing with the beat.
I want to leap out and explode
Instead of staying stuck
In this hurtling metal car
Inside of staying stuck
In my own self-built box.

Dancing, dancing, singing, dancing
My spirit’s hands reach up and out
Fingers tickling the stars
Sending storms into the stratosphere
I need to dance so I can write
I need to sing so I can write
I need more space
No box can fit
I dance and sing and sing and dance
With this creative, freedom trance.

The metal box, its speed, are gone
And in their place my soul explodes
To outer space, creating storms
Bringing blessed rain and more
Flowers, fruit, a golden shower
Words to fill out seven novels
Words to fill the heart with joy
I knew somewhere, somewhere within
This passion smoldered hid
Awaiting a single lighted match
To give it this release
Into a fool’s trusting leap.

And now,
What now?
No change.
No change at all.
After all,
That’s who I was,
You know,
Before.

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Peeling the Onion

The poem this morning is for Jeanne, who is helping me peel the onion, and in the process, understand myself.

One day
I know
All these layers
I’m peeling
Will be
Not gone
But ingested
A part of the
Richness
Of me
And then
On that day
That marvelous inner sunshiny day
Writing
Will be
Not a fear
Not a black heavy cloud
Not a choking in my throat
Or a tightness in my heart
But instead
A song
And a dance
Light and free.

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The Rainbow on the Turkey’s Tail

Spirit Rock Meditation Center is at once removed and far too close to civilization. It sits close enough to Sir Francis Drake Blvd that traffic always hums, but is also nestled into hills from which several rough trails are cut, climbing out to the ridges around. Perhaps it was leaving my cell phone in the car, the vow of silence, or just the isolation inside the community, but home seemed many thousand miles away, and not a ninety-minute drive across the bay.

Wild turkey dawdled along the road leading from the dining hall to the dorms, seeming not to care about the yogis staring at them. Lizards, less enlightened maybe, skittered in and out of the road, nearly causing accidents that could be fatal only to themselves. These last, especially, were everywhere, either streaking from the bushes or performing their daily dose of push-ups on a sunny surface. They seemed to watch us yogis without much curiosity, as though once they’ve seen one of us, we are all pretty much the same.

Before coming to the retreat, I’d been worried about my ability to sit and meditate for a whole day. I wasn’t sure how I would handle the silence, or the accommodations. And I was worried about breaks for peeing, most specifically because we were going to spend quite a lot of time in nature, and I wasn’t sure if the question would even be addressed.

My worries about the retreat, however, were not more numerous than my expectations. I had noticed, watching people who had come back from retreats or hearing them talk, that participants tend to become a bit addicted to the experience, going back again and again, year after year. I had heard that while the first couple of days were hard, the rest of the retreat seems to pass in a rosy haze of concentration and presence. I also heard that people have all kinds of mystic experiences, such as clearing of past burdens, moments of understanding of past dilemmas or conflicts, and other forms of enlightenment. That all sounded deliciously good to me.

So here I was, in this far-away, humming-with-echoing-traffic retreat center, worrying about details and expecting miracles. Perhaps you can already imagine what happened in the week I was there.

Nothing.

Yes. Exactly, perfectly, nothing.

Turns out, I did not have trouble sitting or walking in meditation. The occasional restlessness, sure, and the occasional sleepiness. Peeing was less complicated than I feared. The silence was softer, less harsh and all-encompassing than I expected (and I may have even enjoyed it as a relief). The accommodations, the bathroom most especially, were clean and comfortable. Sure, I was not crazy about sharing bathrooms with 11 other women anymore, but it was really fine, and everyone was considerate and clean.

I was able to be present some of the time, but presence, or concentration, never became easy, not after two days and not after three days, not for a whole sit or even part of a sit. Throughout the week, I experienced the usual struggle to stay present that I experience at home when I meditate. Some fears plagued me (the most annoying ones being the not being able to go pee fear and the fear that I’ll never hike the PCT, both of which seemed to me huge and petty at the same time), and they stayed on, at some level, throughout the retreat. No really big moments of enlightenment there, or in any of the other dramas of my life.

Quite simply, I just sat there. Or just walked. And that was all.

Toward the last day of the retreat, I started feeling a bit upset. Was I a failure at this too? Did I do something wrong? Perhaps I don’t know how to meditate, after all? Maybe I’m not supposed to just sit here and struggle to be present. Maybe there’s a secret ingredient I’m missing. I grew more and more irritable — no rosy haze for me. The end of the retreat was a relief. I really wanted to come back home.

Safe in the comfort of home, I happened to listen to a Jack Kornfield podcast talk about what inspires us in spirituality. I had watched him every day during the retreat as he was getting lunch. He’d walk mindfully from bowl to bowl, and as mindfully serve himself. He looked shorter than I expected, more Jewish somehow. The noble silence edict, unfortunately, made it impossible for me to go all mushy and tell him how much I admire him and how his books have helped me shift my life. But I sent him thoughts of it, hoping they’d somehow invade his presence of mind.

In the podcast talk, Jack Kornfield told a story about a friend of his who has been meditating for 30 or more years with nothing much happening. The friend had confessed that after a while (the first 10 years especially were hard), he had to come to terms with the fact that nothing was going to happen to him while meditating. No mystic experiences. No enlightenment. After thirty years, however, and reflecting back on his practice, the friend noticed that he had become kinder, more present, and a better listener. More, he said, like himself.

I listened to this story and felt a burden shift. If this is all I can expect to receive from meditation, then it is already more than the whole world. Kindness alone would be enough. Presence alone would be enough. The ability to listen to another fully would be enough. Becoming more myself would be enough. Perhaps, after all, I was not such a failure as a meditator. Perhaps, I was exactly where I most wanted to be: sitting and trying to still the mind into presence, being in the meadow surrounded by other people, all of whom, too, probably just yearn to be kinder, better listeners, more like themselves.

One of the days of the retreat, as the sun was rising above the hills, the turkeys were walking by the road. I paused in my walk down to breakfast to watch them. They walked on the grass, nodding to themselves wisely, pecking mindfully at the ground to search for food. As I watched, a ray of sunshine hit a turkey’s tail and a rainbow formed, flickering, glittering on the feathers in bright colors, as luminous as emeralds, rubies, and sapphires, as soft as just-fallen snow. My heart stopped with wonder. The turkey ambled along, oblivious to the miracle on its tail.

It seemed to me, at that moment, to be the culmination of my life’s work, as though my whole life I had been waiting only for that, the appearance (and then the disappearance) of the rainbow on one turkey’s tail.

One moment it was there, gleaming in the sunlight. Then next, I blinked, and it was gone.

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Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109