Archive | Letting Go

The Center of the Universe

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

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

Shocking, right?

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

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

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

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

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

Time to move out of the limelight, Sigal.

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

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

And so we let go and trust.

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

And we pray that they survive this crazy teenaged time.

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

Man, admitting that is hard.

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

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The Avocado Sushi Dilemma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop (that’s already a big step).

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

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

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

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

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

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Lil’ Corner of Joy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Meditation on Eagle’s Wings

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

Red-tailed hawk above Coyote Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bearing Witness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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A Year to Life — Day 343 — The Strenuous Life

This fall, I took an Intro to Park Management class at a local community college, thinking that I might get back to my youthful dream of becoming a ranger. Already in the first meeting, I knew I was in the right place. The class was not only fascinating, but inspiring as well. I got the impression that no matter their age, the teacher believed in each student’s ability to find work in public land management.

The class introduced me to an entire world of history, politics, literature and art that has to do with our public lands. I was fascinated, scribbling down each book recommendation the teacher mentioned and then reading them one by one. My favorite, so far, is Wilderness Warrior by Douglas Brinkley, an environmental biography of Theodore Roosevelt.

Douglas Brinkley's wonderful biography of TR

Douglas Brinkley’s wonderful biography of TR

Roosevelt was an avid hunter and naturalist, a champion of land-and-wildlife preservation and conservation. During his presidency, he set aside nearly 230 million acres under federal protection in 150 national forests, the first 51 federal bird reserves, 5 national parks, the first 18 national monuments, and the first 4 national game preserves. In 60 years of life, Roosevelt was active not only on the conservation front. He was a prolific author, a dedicated letter writer (who wrote an estimated 150 thousand letters), social activist, military leader, adventurous explorer, rancher, nobel peace prize winner, and more.

Roosevelt believed in something he termed “the strenuous life.” Articulating on this concept in an address he gave in Chicago in 1899, he said: “I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.”

Roosevelt, it seems to me, certainly lived the life he preached.

The strenuous life, I confess, is also the life I had always wanted to live. Roosevelt described it: “…the higher life, the life of aspiration, of toil and risk….” Roosevelt’s address, intended to raise public support for war in the Philippines, would have stirred the 18-year-old me to the core. I too believed in public service to one’s country. I did not yet think of war as something to be avoided, but as an opportunity for glory, heroism, and self sacrifice. I longed to live the strenuous life, to prove myself worthy. As Roosevelt said in his speech: “We do not admire the man of timid peace. We admire the man who embodies victorious effort.” I, too, wished to be that man… or, er, that woman.

Some historians believe now that Roosevelt’s energy came from having had bipolar disorder — without ever suffering from the depression side. To me, whether Roosevelt’s energy was due to a mental disorder may or may not be an important point. I recognize in Roosevelt’s philosophy the highest ideal which I have placed before my eyes throughout my life. Knowing that this philosophy may be what we could call insane is a moot point. Most of our beliefs, after all, tend to seem illogical, unreasonable, even crazy to other people, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to stop believing in them. As a society both Israelis and Americans seem to live a life of yearning for this principle, that work will save us, that work is the highest ideal of all.

I have lately developed the belief that a lot of my suffering is caused by putting work, or the strenuous life, if you will, up on a pedestal. The other day, my therapist said that rather than try to let go of always pushing myself to be doing more (and thinking I was never enough), I needed to accept the part who always pushes me to be doing more. Perhaps for affection’s sake, I should name that part Teddy, to remind myself that it is just a part, not all of me, who wants to live this strenuous life. And it is not all of me. There are parts of me who long for peace and ease, for acceptance of things as they are. There are parts of me who are overwhelmed by this constant pushing for more and are feeling mowed over and need a break from all this doing in order to figure out what, if anything, wants to be done.

Practicing life in the face of “A Year to Live,” I find myself less willing to rush and more interested in savoring. I find myself wanting to cherish moments rather than chase through them. I begin to understand that living this year as though it is my last is not about doing more, or doing at all. As a beginning, at least, it is about understanding that nothing needs to be changed, and that my life is right and whole just as it is. In a way, the bucket list can wait for after my death. For now, I’m just going to live as though I am, in fact, going to live today.

 

To read Theodore Roosevelt’s 1899 speech given in Chicago, click here, “The Strenuous Life

A lot of the information in this article came from this page in the Theodore Roosevelt Association website.

Some interesting discussion of the possibility TR was bipolar can be found in this article.

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A Year to Live — Day 344 — Flowers at Coe

On Wednesday this week, my friend and I made our way to Henry Coe State Park to see the wildflowers. The rain had pummeled our area for several days, and the morning of March 9th dawned cloudy, misty and drizzly. Despite the bleak weather, we did not lose heart. Instead, bringing with us enough rain gear to make a New Zealand explorer feel sanguine (and leaving dry shoes and socks in the car), we waded out into the water-logged Coe wilderness.

The hills, as Julie Andrews could have sung, were alive with the sound of damp greenness. Light rain fell on us when we passed beneath the sopping leaves of trees. The trail led us up through the clouds, and though I knew the view stretched miles to the south, we could not see farther than a few feet of the slope below us.

In the meadow above Monument Trail, a few irises radiated their gentle purple-blue leaves like a three-pronged compass, looking fragile and battered and wet. A glorious perfume wafted from the just-opening flowers of the madrone; its red trunk, as yet smooth and un-peeling, looked fresh and bloody after the rain. Farther up, shooting stars, lupine and Indian warriors covered the sides of the road, colorful against the fertile brown-green background of the slippery-slopey trail.

Hound's tongue growing at Henry Coe State Park.

Hound’s tongue growing at Henry Coe State Park.

Down below Frog Lake, a fork of Coyote Creek blocked our way, the water flowing clear and cold over the trail. We took off our shoes and waded, barefoot, to the other side. We climbed, exhilarated by damp, muddy feet, the 0.2 miles to the lake. Expanding wave-rings in the water and a “plop” gave the only hint of frogs jumping into the lake one by one, like a tumbling line of invisible dominoes. My friend had brought a birthday picnic: egg and avocado sandwiches, baby bell peppers and cucumber spears, roasted chestnuts, chocolate, bananas and tangerines. A feast. We dug in, hungry already, not minding the cold, wet ground.

The trail back to the visitor center led us up in a gentle slope through meadows of wildflowers, under oak trees, and through a low manzanita forest. On a hillside, I sought out the elusive purple mouse ears. I’d heard this tiny flower grew on Corral Trail on one of the grassy slopes, but I had never seen it. On this trip, however, like a nature birthday gift, we found several of them hiding in between the grasses, all purply and fat, their ears laying wet and heavy close to their heads as they stared at us above their crown of chubby, light-green leaves.

Driving home, now in unforeseen sunshine, I thought of my expectations for this birthday and my hope that I will celebrate, for once, a happy day. I thought about the purple mouse ears, about the frogs diving into the lake, and the other wildflowers, abundant as they came alive, so ephemeral, with the rain. Next February, as our year to live winds down, these flowers will be but a memory, pictures in the mind’s eye, but together with this last birthday they will have left a pleasant, treasured feeling in my heart.

At home, Dar arranged gifts on our dining table. Yet another surprise. A huge bouquet of flowers towered above wrapped boxes for me and the kids. I look at it now and the impermanence of all around me strikes me hard. This bouquet with its bold colors looks so solid and real, but in the next few days the flowers will begin to fade and die. They too, as Stephen Levine says in his book, began to die on the day their seeds were put in the womb of the ground. I long to take a picture of the flowers and restrain myself. Let them be, I whisper to myself, and let them, peacefully, easefully, naturally, die.

Click here to view the picasa photo album for this hike.

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A Year to Live — Day 350

Getting Things Done

My daughter had the day off on Friday, and this meant I had a little more time in my usually-hurried-and-stressed-out morning. Most weekdays, but especially on Tuesday when both kids need lunches, I often feel  as though I am juggling pans, lunch boxes, chickens, dogs and my own needs under Jupiter-gravity conditions. On Friday, however, I leisurely set the alarm for a 45-minute meditation. I could have found, all too easily, other chores in the house that needed attention, but I forcibly subdued the urge to get one more thing off my list. Don’t Just Do Something, Sit there, is the humorous title of one of Sylvia Boorstein’s meditation-instruction books. I made the conscious choice to just sit there and not do.

When I came back to the kitchen 45 minutes later, however, my eyes fell on the to-do list, the one that’s been sitting on the counter for the past week. My heart sunk. That list’s been haunting me, remonstrating and reminding me I have not yet began to do several of the items on it. “When will you start?” It harangued me. “When will you finish?” And in an irritable tone: “You should have folded the laundry instead of sitting like some kind of bum.”
todo list
Perhaps the meditation had worked it’s magic and my mind was clear enough to see this, but as I breathed in and out, the realization struck me like lightning: No matter how much I work on my to-do list, it will never be completely done. There will always be more items that can be added to it. Whether it is small daily tasks like walking the dogs, cleaning the chicken coop, and unloading the dishwasher, or larger one-time tasks like coordinating the 7th grade bake sale or finishing my Bridge to Emergency Medical Responder class, the to-do list will never, ever stand on zero items. Never.

So why do I expect myself to get it all done?

When people die, I often hear relatives speak about the unfinished business the deceased had left behind. Some times it’s a messy house which the children need to clean up, pack up and dispose of. Some times it’s the details of the burial or the inheritance. I too, if I died today, will have died before signing my new will, which I’d been postponing for about a year now (though it is ready and waiting for me to sign). I wonder, though: does anyone ever die with all their business done, all the bills paid off, all documents settled, all chores completed, every single loose end tied?

This past week felt very stressful to me. Hassled and harassed, no matter how much I did, there was always more to be done. Like a clown trying to keep all the juggling balls in the air, I strove to extend my arms so I could reach all the chores at once. There may be times, I suppose, when it really is necessary to juggle more than one task at a time. Often, however, I wonder what is making me feel this desperate-and-all-encompassing need to “get things done.” What will happen if some balls/tasks were never picked up? What would happen if I picked some up and then dropped them? What would happen if someone else picked up a ball that I dropped? Will these be the big disasters I expect?

The clues to my struggle with the doing/non-doing are rooted deep in my cultural heritage. My maternal great-grandparents arrived in Israel with the reactionary immigration wave known as the Second Aliyah. These immigrants arrived steeped in socialist-zionist ideology, and many of their ways of seeing the world have lasted to the 21st century, creating the cultural environment, moral values and religious ethics with which I grew up. The Second Aliyah Jews believed in becoming a new kind of Jew whose spirituality was tied up with working the land. This belief, expounded by A. D. Gordon in the early part of the 20th century, eventually came to be called “the religion of labor.”

Labor as a religion. Get it?

If getting things done is akin to religious dogma, small wonder that I struggle so much with how much I get done. If I believe in the absolute truth of Doing, then even my just sitting there in meditation must show concrete results and consequences. Rest is dangerous. A nap is mortal sin. Letting someone else do my job is opening the door to the devil and all his brood.

And after all these words that I’ve just piled, I realize only three matter in the end: compassion and non-judgement. These words offer not a solution, but a truce of sorts: Can I be with the pain of the conflict between how I’ve been raised and how I choose to live my life without judging myself? Can I look on with compassion at all the tasks still gobbling up the space on the to-do list? And when I cannot take better care of myself in the midst of all these judgements and tasks, can I at least be compassionate for and not judge that?

….to be continued.

whitetara

White Tara, the goddess of compassion.

This exploration of my relationship to Doing is inspired by the class “A Year to Live” which I am taking at Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society in SF.

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A Year to Live — Day 357

On Noting

This morning I got up and reminded myself that I need to keep reading the book A Year to Live for class. The book, after which the class is named, was written by meditation teacher Stephen Levine. It is a short but dense and lyrical book, with long windy sentences that seem to dance around themselves, the words entwining and looping so that I often need to reread sentences to make sure I understand.

Ever since I wrote my last blog post a few days ago, I’d been thinking about my backpack of grudges. My therapist, with whom I proudly shared my understanding about letting go of grudges this year, surprised me by not quite entering into my enthusiasm for this Letting Go Project. Basically (I am loosely paraphrasing her) she said that with my history of suppressing anger, it would be a better idea not to concentrate on the end result (letting go), but on the process (exploring where this anger lives in the body, how old this part that feels the anger may be, what does it need from me, etc).

As you can imagine, I was righteously indignant at Jeanne’s implication that my beautiful realization about letting go the backpack of grudges is really another attempt to avoid facing the issue. But, of course, Jeanne was right. I would very much like just to let go of all my anger without dealing with it. I don’t do anger very well, and any opportunity, spiritual or otherwise, of getting rid of it makes me (metaphorically) want to jump up and howl with unrestrained joy.

“Fine,” I said. “Whatever. I’ll feel the anger, if you insist. I’ll turn into a red, whirling Tasmanian devil. I’ll destroy all my relationships, only to rebuild them on healthier grounds. I’ll go through the storm in order to come out a calmer, more-at-peace woman.” This declaration was followed by a pleasantly meditative period of resting in the now-righteous-happiness of having passed through all the —excuse my word — excrement, and having come out all-healed-up, a quiet, peaceful, concentrated woman. This only lasted for a few seconds, until Jeanne interrupted to remind me that, actually, I haven’t yet gone through the — excuse my word — excrement. That step is still before us, she said. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.

So for the past few days I’ve been trying to see what is going on for me when I remember one of my grudges, and let me tell you, the answer to this question is, “Not much.” I have gotten so good at suppressing and depressing all unpleasant emotions, that when the time comes to feel them, my mind will go everywhere but to the pain. This feeling and investigating the hard stuff is turning out to be, well, hard.

"Letting go a little brings a little peace. Letting go a lot brings a lot of peace. Letting go completely brings complete peace." Ajahn Chah.

“Letting go a little brings a little peace. Letting go a lot brings a lot of peace. Letting go completely brings complete peace.” Ajahn Chah.

Back to this morning and my determination to read some more of Stephen Levine’s book. Once again, as I read, I found myself somewhat detached from the actual content of the chapter. Levine was repeating in it something which I’d heard Jack Kornfield and other teachers talk about often: as we sit in meditation, we allow thoughts to come and go in our mind, noting them as they come but not becoming attached to them. The noting can be simply, “thinking, thinking,” or a more specific noting like ”sadness, sadness.” After about three paragraphs of the chapter, it dawned on me that Levine was offering this idea of noting as an important practice for our last year of life. He was suggesting that I actually do this practice when I sit in meditation. Ok. I regrouped, and, deciding I would try this for a few moments (Levine suggests starting with five minutes), I closed my eyes and allowed myself to follow my thoughts.

A moment later I opened my eyes. Here are the thoughts and feelings I noted in about five in-and-out breaths: pain, sadness, constriction around my heart, my contracted belly, heaviness, stress, pressure, tight shoulders, aversion to feeling so many unpleasant emotions, yearning to open my eyes, the thought that continuing to read the book will distract me from all this pain.

I opened my eyes, kept reading, and felt what could only be described as a minor earthquake. It turned out I had only one short paragraph left in the chapter. Here is what it said:

“How many states of mind in five minutes, in five hours, in five days, in five lifetimes? How often has our life passed unnoticed? How soon will we accept this opportunity to be fully alive before we die?”

I think, perhaps, I finally understand what Jeanne had been saying for years now. By suppressing my anger and all other negative emotions, hiding beneath the depression, sending as outcasts my parts which are trying to express these emotions, I have, in a way, been only partly alive. By feeling the unpleasant emotions, even though they are unpleasant, I will be allowing myself to live, truly, for the first time.

Sadness at so much time lost. Heaviness around the heart. Exhilaration and hope. Tears starting to burn the edges of my eyes. My breath, in and out of my chest. Tingling in my fingers with the urge to write. Sadness again, and anger at having lost time. My throat constricting with the effort to express myself. The space around me, and my heart beating, quietly, softly, with the passage of time.

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