Tag Archives | Letting Go

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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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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California Naturalist Class, Part 5: David Plays

There are no lights outside the Chief’s House, and Lesley and I follow David carefully up the uneven stone stairs to the grassy area (which I’d been eyeing jealously as a comfortable meditation spot) and around to the back of the house. It’s late at night, but the fog which had rolled in with the evening’s wind makes the darkness seem lighter somehow. Perhaps particles of starlight, colliding with particles of water, become diffused in the atmosphere, illuminating the darkness with infinite drops of fluorescent fog.

The cypresses wave and creak behind us, and I wonder if our Great-horned owls are watching us from the canopies, eyes yellow and bright, penetrating the shadows with ease. Raptor eyes, they had followed and hunted countless scurrying beasts like us in the mad scramble on the ground from one place of safety to the next. The inner mouse in me quakes at the thought of them taking off on their silent wings, gliding above us. Are they scrutinizing us, establishing our general height and weight, determining if they could — perhaps together? — grasp one of us in their claws and….

I know David’s been in the Chief’s House many times, but our quiet stumble and tiptoe to the back door seems somehow stealthy and clandestine, as though we are breaking in somewhere we’re not allowed. We seem to me, in fact, not much different from the two musicians in Some Like It Hot as they walk-crouch near the wall, covering themselves with their instruments, trying to seem inconspicuous as they run away from the police trap. I am carrying David’s violin, and he is carrying his mandolin and a guitar, so the reference is not quite as far-fetched as it would seem.

“The front door key doesn’t work,” David explains.

I am not surprised. I wouldn’t be surprised, in fact, if in order to get in David lifted a rock and broke the window in the back door, threaded his arm through the broken fragments, and opened the lock from the inside. My breath hitches, but David does not lift a rock. He pulls out a key, and the door swings open without a squeak or a groan.

The three artists who had stayed in the house for the past week had left earlier that day. I’d watched them in the days since we arrived at the Boathouse, a peek here and there, as they wandered the grounds. One carried a camera with a big lens. Another, young, had come to listen to a lecture and had stayed for lunch with us. The third I often saw near the docks where I meditated in the mornings. We, aspiring California Naturalists, had left them be. They had come to spend the week in retreat with the intention of growing creative and inspired, becoming nourished by sea and sand and wind. Now they’d gone home, perhaps to turn the inspiration into essays and poems, paintings, photographs, eternal works of art or books.

The house towers above us, windows tall and unlit. David puts two instrument cases down, reaches for his violin, and holds the door open for us. Lesley and I tramp in and find ourselves inside a small mudroom which opens to a kitchen and a spacious dining room beyond. The kitchen has white cabinets, old and crooked. No table or chairs. A refrigerator hums in the corner. It reminds me of my grandmother’s kitchen when she lived in her old house in Tel Aviv. To my surprise, the rest of the house is beautifully furnished. I had expected it to look sparse, having heard from David that he had scrounged every single item himself from people he knows or at the office. I should have known better. This is David, after all, and the house is, therefore, lovingly decorated with attention to detail and comfort. There are paintings on the wall, apples in a bowl on a side table, and knick-knacks, suitably ocean-themed. David proudly leads us to a sitting room, the most beautiful room in the house, he says. He showcases the front porch and a window, from which, he says, we could see Drake’s Bay in the morning.

We follow David up the stairs to see the three bedrooms. None has a bathroom attached. The bathroom is downstairs, David tells us, and there is another one in the basement, but the basement had not been cleaned out yet.

“We could fit twelve people in here,” he says.

I wonder how. The beds are easily recognizable as halved bunk beds, perhaps from the Boathouse. One of the rooms, which both Lesley and David declare as their favorite, is so tiny as to be more like a monk’s cell than a room. I wonder what it’s like to walk downstairs in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, to sleep in this haunted, groaning old house. What is it like to sleep in a house with a cellar which may still have remnants of inhabitants dead long ago, spider-webbed furniture, old photos strewn near a clothes chest that smells powerfully of dust?

Downstairs, Lesley and I settle on the sofa. I drag the ottoman toward us, and we both put our feet on it. David sits across from us near the dining table and brings out, in order, his mandolin, guitar, and violin. He plays and sings. The dining room is cheery, and David’s voice fills the silence of the house with a lively song. David wrote the words and the music to all the songs he’s singing for us, real and fantasy stories about his experiences mixed with commentary and dialog.

I don’t dance, but I wish I could. I let myself merge with the music, the old house, the nearness of new friends, the cypresses waving in the wind outside. Only one and a half  days are left in the class, and my mind and body are tired. Tired of not sleeping well, tired of being in close proximity with other people, of filling my head full of facts and names of things. I am happy to surrender to the sound of David’s music, to the notes twirling around the room in a jiggy dance. The house creaks gently. Rob, our cook’s partner, comes in and settles in a chair across from us. Later, the next day, I’ll discover he’s a backpacker, and my interest in talking to him will unfurl, but for now I am ready to leave and allow him to stay with David and talk about whatever it is men talk. Lesley and I make our way back around the house and under the cypresses and down the hill to the Boathouse. David’s cheerful music, the ominous creaking of the cypresses and the imaginary wings of silent owls hunting follow me into my sleeping bag and uneasy dreams.

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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 — 361 Days

Holding Onto Grudges

A deer at Rancho from a few years ago. I thought it appropriate to the idea of freedom and letting go.

A deer at Rancho from a few years ago. I thought it appropriate to the idea of freedom and letting go.

On Tuesday, I went for a hike with a new friend, J-N, who I met that morning for the first time. We were supposed to hike with another woman, a mutual friend, but since she couldn’t come, J-N and I found ourselves in the funny position of meeting for a hike without ever having seen each other before. Despite our lack of familiarity with each other, we quickly dove into the depths of a rather personal conversation. From talking about love of the outdoors, to sharing how we met our life’s partners, we soon progressed to speaking about life itself, and through that, to my year to live and my death in (now) 361 days.

As we talked and walked, I found myself time and again complaining about grievances from my past. “Wow, I am still bearing a grudge,” I commented each time, wondering at myself for my ultra-long memory in keeping resentments. I was carrying my usual, regular backpack, as I always do, but as one grudge after another flickered to life in my memory, it occurred to me that my physical backpack was not the only one I was carrying. There I was, in the greenness and beauty of a gloriously wild place, in the sunny clarity of a California summery winter day, carrying on my back a gaggle of grudges, seemingly without any intention to let them go.

Our walk passed through rolling meadows, low oak forests, and inside the brim of a gorge almost completely overrun by fallen and uprooted trees and shrubs (perhaps the result of the last storm). Still-green trees and shrubs lay in the path of the creek, creating what could almost be a dam, and we wondered what would happen in the creek bed when the rains came again. “Erosion,” J-N said, looking at the destruction around us. We couldn’t help but imagine the violence of the storms that brought about so much collapse, that worked their way by wind and water around the roots of these trees, till finally those mighty beings could hold onto the ground no more, and even they, the giants of the earth, succumbed to the inevitability of the circle of life.

Grudges work the same way, I thought. They insidiously wear away at the foundations, exhausting good will, trust, and peace of mind. Even the tallest tree or the hardiest shrub cannot withstand the repeated corrosive efforts of resentment. I looked in the face of each one of my grudges as they came up, and I was surprised to see how little true emotion was left in them. Rather, these grudges I was holding onto, as though my world depended on them, were like a frayed tale, told so many times that it no longer held any meaning.

“As you hike,” a friend once suggested a meditation, “imagine you are carrying with you a backpack filled with all your sorrows, upsets, ill will, and anger. While hiking up a mountain, pause once in a while, perhaps during switchbacks in the trail, and imagine yourself opening the backpack and taking something out. Leave these by the side of the trail, one at a time. You can always pick them up on your way back, if you need to, but perhaps by the time you hike down you will realize you no longer need those burdens you’ve carried, and you can leave them there to be recycled back into the earth.”

In these last 361 days which I have before I die, I would like to let go of as many grudges and resentments as I can. For a moment there, during my hike with J-N, I could see with utter clarity what it would be like not to carry these grudges anymore, to hike without the backpack of resentment. If you’ve ever gone backpacking before, you know the relief of setting your pack down after a long day of hiking. The backpack, containing everything you need to live in the woods for a while, becomes a part of the body, turning you into a big turtle who is carrying its house. Setting it down is like a revelation, a release, a freedom that can only be experienced, impossible to describe.

I have carried my grudges long. I have brought them with me so far. But now, I think, it is time to set them down, one at a time. Like ultra-light backpacking, or like John Muir hiking only with his tin cup and a blanket, so do I too wish to complete the journey of my life with as little baggage as I can. Whether this means forgiving myself, forgiving others, or begging others for their forgiveness, I am getting ready to step into the creek bed and allow the water and the wind to wear the foundations of my grudge-constructs down. These stories I’ve been telling myself for so long, unlike the trees downed that I saw in my hike with J-N, were never really alive. It is time, as Jack Kornfield says, to let go of all hope of a better past. I like this idea. Wish me luck.

 

The class “A Year to Live” is offered by Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society in SF. It is based on the book A Year to Live by Stephen Levine.

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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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Getting Lapped

Every once in a while I find myself hiking the Dish, a nearly-four-mile loop in the Stanford Hills, where seemingly all of Palo Alto and the neighboring communities come for a taste of nature and some daily exercise. An eclectic crowd: healthful Stanford students, mothers pushing strollers, athletic women in sports bras, shirtless sweating men, joggers, hikers, people of all sizes and shapes, even irritable-looking children. Like a London height-of-the-season promenade, the Dish is the place to people-watch and be seen, and it is all too easy to fall into comparing myself — my pace, my level of fitness — with those of the other hikers and joggers there.

Sadly, the comparison nearly always falls short. I would like to sing songs of my glory, but I am a slow hiker, and my fate at the Dish is to be passed by. Worse, I often see the same joggers or hikers twice. I am not just passed, but lapped! Lapped by younger, sexier, fitter looking individuals! And it doesn’t help to remind myself that I’ve climbed mountains, or excuse myself by saying that my legs are short, or to imagine that my perseverance is great even if my speed is nil. I am getting lapped, and in the moment of seeing one hiker or jogger after another zoom past, it seems to me as though I am barely moving, or even standing flat.

The impression of standing still while getting lapped often plagues me in my writing and my spiritual work. I struggle with feeling left behind, with stuck-ness. Just like when lapped at the Dish, in the dust of other people’s seemingly speedier achievement of dreams, I imagine that I am standing motionless. Comparing myself to others (always a dangerous pastime) and the feeling of lack of forward motion is dispiriting. At the Dish, signs on the trail, trees or other features give me a sense of movement even when lapped, no matter how slow I walk. But in the path to spiritual enlightenment or to publishing a book, I am left not only with the question “Am I there yet?” but also with, “Am I anywhere nearby or even on the right road?”

downriverWriting these words, I am reminded of Abraham’s metaphor of the river. Everything we want, Abraham promises, is down the river. All we need is to let go and allow the river to carry us there. The struggle of how far along I’ve come is really a desperate swim against the current, an attempt to see progress back where I came from. But there is no going back to the past, no retracing my steps. Words cannot be unwritten and steps climbed on the spiritual path cannot be undone. And yet, to surrender to the river can be as scary as struggling against it — depending on my perspective, going with the flow can also give the illusion of lack of motion, or, perhaps worse, it can give the impression of too much speed. And how would I be able to snatch at anything I want if I am hurtling uncontrollably along?

Just as in everything, it is up to me to track forward progress, to notice changes, to appreciate my own work. Only I can remind myself of the twenty thousand something words in my new book, give credit to myself for the ideas I wrote in my head during a morning hike, or appreciate that this blog has now been alive for more than 28 months. Only I can really remember where I was emotionally eight years ago and notice where I am today. Am I there yet? No, probably not. But am I on the right road? I believe I am.

I guess all that is left is to surrender to the flow of the river, to believe there is meaning in where I’ve been so far and in all I’ve done, and to trust that the river knows best —  that I had manifested well what is to come. And perhaps some folks who are good at the letting go will pass me by, cruising on tubes, or on a gondola or two, looking enlightened and well-to-do. I will wish them happiness and joy on their journey and let go of comparing our relative speed. Whether I am ineptly flailing around in the water, floating on my back, or carried downriver by twin silvery dolphins, I have chosen my path. The path is enlightenment, alignment, joy, grace. All I wish for now is the confidence to follow it through all of its different twists, waterfalls, and turns.

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