Saturday, November 21, 2020

Finding My Religion – Griffith Park Panic in a COVID-19 Surge

The sandy trail was siltier than usual, more slippery from the lack of rain this summer and fall, and I have to concentrate more carefully on my footing, rather than on the hawks squawking and circling overhead, the crows calling to each other as they dipped their wings, the finches flitting from branch to branch.


I feel more anxiety on our Griffith Park hike today than usual. A new safer-at-home order freshly in place, surging numbers of COVID-19 in L.A. County and around the country (and globe), and so. many. unmasked. runners and hikers.

 

I stop mid-climb, overheating from the sunny November day as well as from the anxiety, eager to stop running past the unmasked, needing a break from people who didn’t seem to care? To understand?

 

Settling down in the dirt on an outcrop of the trail, a part that looks out over the Griffith Observatory to mid-city and west L.A., and further out, obscured by haze, the Pacific Ocean. I push my feet, bulky in hiking boots, into the brush in front of me.

 

I try to practice a meditation, of watching each thought that arises drop to the ground – I can always pick them up and obsess on them later – and looking at the ground where I dropped them, I have the urge to follow my feet into the brush. It’s the same impulse I felt as a kid, and now an adult, when driving through the mountains to the Oregon coast.  Out of the windows of our family’s little 4-door Fiat, later a minivan, and still later my trusty Honda, I’d see streams, raging after a rain, burbling in a dry month, a stream that we followed along the two-lane highway until it diverged, wild, and disappeared into thick woods. Every part of me wanted to jump out, leave the car and the road abandoned, and follow the stream, to explore, to smell the wet path of water, over leaves, rocks, to hear what is natural to nature.

 

Back up sitting on the dry, southern California path, I felt the urge to push my feet further into the brush, to disappear from the steady stream of hikers, to lay flat and feel the scratches of dried branches as they marked my bare arms. To lay in the bramble and imagine what it would have been like to live here before. Before the city and streets and piped-in water and sound of helicopters overhead. Instead to play closer attention and communicate with the land and the crows and geckos and coyotes.

 

It brought to mind the Wendell Berry quote I’d read this week on Zen Farmer’s Instagram, the one that rattled something deep inside me that has been asking to be explored for years, as I dreamed of exploring those streams and where they would lead me, what they would teach me.

 

“Once we have forgotten or denied our biological kinship with the Earth and its inhabitants, it is hardly an accident that so much of human spiritual life is premised on an escape from rather than an affirmation of this life.” --- Wendell Berry

 

When was it, who was it, that first illuminated for me that Christianity, in which I’d been raised, need not be limited to the western teaching / interpretation of it? Perhaps Eckhart Tolle, in exploring the true meaning of “a new earth.”

 

Unable to meld with the earth just at this moment, I dust off my pants to take off once more on the trail, running by my fellow humans, masked and unmasked, to meet P up at the top before we descend down past the bird sanctuary and fountain where the bees drink and drown in a pool of water. Crows flew overhead, reminding me of a recent article about their intelligence and a conversation about the beauty of crow’s feet on our faces, a reminder of life well lived. A tiny bird, perhaps three inches long, wearing chartreuse green feathers and what, zooming in, appears to be a pair of shades or a superhero mask, bathes in the drip of a faucet.

 

(If anyone knows this bird’s species, please let me know!)

 








 

 



Tuesday, September 01, 2020

11 Dragonflies and How Not to Take Care of Yourself

11 dragonflies crossed my path as I hiked my usual trail at Griffith Park today.



I started counting them after the first buzzed me like a Maverick fly-by, and then three swooped and darted about each other when I stopped to stretch.  Since we’re between heat waves in Los Angeles (and the science around being outdoors wearing masks has calmed some of my Coronavirus anxiety), I’d decided to try to work some of my emotions through my body via a hike on my beloved, familiar trail. 

I had woke with low-energy in the now-normal state of anxiety, a tightness of chest mixed with low-grade depression about our government, the pandemic, people unable to work and afford food and housing, the racial reckoning and the killing of another Black man last night at the hands of law enforcement.

I started with the tightness in my chest feeling like it was filling up my lungs so much that I couldn’t take a deep breath. I tried a breathing mantra, one word or phrase said as you breathe in, another word or phrase that you want to release as you breathe out. I didn’t overthink the words, but let them rise up with my breath, allowing my body / mind to tell me what I needed to take in, and what I needed to let go.

I breathe in acceptance.
I breathe out fear.

As I started to focus on my breath, I started to slow down. This particular trail is so familiar, I’ve hiked it at least 500 times since my friend Stacy introduced the trail and me in 2001, when she and I were neighbors and would hike it almost daily at sunrise before work.

But as familiar as I might think it is, it’s constantly changing, as are we all. After the three dancing dragonflies brought the number of sightings to four, I stayed on the lookout for them. I usually see butterflies or birds, but this hike, I counted 11 dragonflies, the seventh the largest I’ve ever seen, at least four inches in body and four inches of wingspan. 

As I kept my line of sight open for them, I spotted more detail in general. How the light sage color of bushes in late summer could be wiped away as I smeared the trail’s dust from the green of their leaves. How much continues to grow and even blossom in the midst of our dry season, the cacti surviving someone’s carved initials, a bright fuchsia flower casting a shadow beneath its plant.

Stopping to pull down my sweaty mask for a drink of water, I saw a twig shaped like a dragonfly by my feet. I’m curious about what I could learn from the universe, the natural world that I too often ignore, if I only slowed down and paid closer attention. Since I’ve never spotted so many dragonflies on this hike, I did a quick search online.

A dragonfly symbolizes change, transformation, adaptability, and self-realization.

 

On my way home, I popped in to a grocery store, and was stopped by a man in the parking lot clutching a handful of brown paper towels and a bottle of blue Windex. He nodded toward Joan, my husband's Mazda, covered in dust from the dry days of living in the basin that is Los Angeles, surrounded by our dusty hills and mountains. Can I clean your windshield, he asked? I didn’t have any cash, so I asked what I could pick him up from inside the store to pay him for his work.

 

As I returned to hand him his request, a small bowl of mixed fruit and a 7-Up, I said thank you, and then told him, “Take care of yourself.” He nodded.

 

I immediately regretted it, a rote phrase said without thought. Telling someone, anyone, but especially someone who is washing car windows to earn enough to buy food, to “take of themselves,” feels callous. It smacks of what I don’t like about American culture – the concept that we are completely independent of one another, that everyone must, and should already have the means to, pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

 

It is inherently, scientifically, historically not how this life works. We are interdependent – we thrive in community, caring for one another, taking up what we can when someone needs help, allowing others to step in when we need help. It is why Black Lives Matter matters, because when one suffers, we all suffer. When an entire group of people systemically suffer, we all suffer (whether we can see it or not through the cloud of privilege we exist in). When we pool our resources and create a new table where all are equal, create a new pool, that rising tide raises us all up.

 

Don’t take care of yourself. Take care of each other.

 

The path you and I are on may seem familiar, routine, but there are reminders all around us that change is constant, inevitable, and transformation is possible. Take a moment to observe, to look for symbols, to realize that what you perceive might be a form of dust obscuring reality: wipe it away and see what’s growing. Breathe in acceptance. Breathe out fear. Root into what is resilient.  

 



 







Thursday, July 30, 2020

Nostalgia Lesson: Sharing in Other's Stories

I’m nostalgic to return to that suite at the hotel in Georgia or Chicago, to that pre-COVID-19 time when I set up my janky light kit to invite in a designer to sit across from me and share their stories, what they had discovered about themselves thus far, and what they were discovering even as we talked. It seems so few people have had someone so deeply interested in their story, the truth of their story, that to sit and reveal it to me is almost like therapy; some sharing surprise at what they shared, what, by processing something out loud, they learned about what they were thinking / acting on. That space often held tears from stories of being bullied, being broke, being scared, being brave, being heartbroken.

The string of memories started this morning with laughing at the absurdity of when I was upset about a broken light kit and a camera that turned itself off thirty minutes into an hour-long interview. So minor an irritant in the threat of secret police snatching people off streets and police brutality increasing in the face of demonstrations calling for its end, and a president trying to cast doubt on our electoral process so he can remain in power.

Memories continued to flood: all of the stories this life has allowed me to hold with people – from the fears of a child who was a refugee in Kosovo to the mother in Congo who survived the death of her child and her marriage to rebuild a life as a teacher and mentor to the p.a. who explained to me, immediately that they have Tourette syndrome, just so I knew and wouldn’t be put off by their facial tics. I had thought they were on the spectrum, we’re – no I am – so quick to categorize, to armchair psychoanalyze, our brains wanting to easily identify and box in all that one human contains.

Thinking of that lunch-long conversation with the p.a. and all the hours of holding the stories of humans and their infinite possibilities helps me as I hold my own fear and anxiety and thoughts I can’t escape about the unknown of our world. I think of all the stories from people who have only ever known the unknown, of dictators and paramilitary police and being Black or brown or different in the U.S. I think of all the eyes I locked with in connection of our shared humanity and the unknown.

It is actually dangerous to spend (un-masked) time with strangers right now, the pandemic creating new barriers to our norms of connection. But the masks don’t block one’s eyes. When I’m feeling fear, feeling disconnected to humanity, I need to remember these moments, to connect, to hold another person's stories, knowing that to hold one’s story changes me, and my story.

A white woman, my nostalgia does not serve society, in terms of wishing for earlier days when my life was easier. In fact, it highlights that for me, that even in my anxiety, I still know nothing of what it means to live in an active war-zone or to fear for your life because of the color of your skin.

It does remind me: that people are worried that their tics and quirks and differences will turn others away from connecting to their humanity. It reminds me to slow down, to ask questions and share in stories, and show extra amounts of love and openness, especially during this time when eye contact via zooms or across rooms is all we have.








Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Walking in L.A. and Different Ways of Seeing: a dog's bow, a vision in a chipped wall, re-imagining


I felt my anxiety spiking more than usual, my chest tighter, my motions jerky, my muscles almost spasm-ing as I went about my morning routine today, making coffee, feeding kitty, washing dishes.  I had 45 minutes before a scheduled Action Kivu call, and threw on my running clothes and shoes, to work out some of the anxiety through movement.

It helped. It almost always does. At the top of our hill, I saw the woman with the wiry gray curls and colorful mask with her dog whose head reaches almost to her chest cross the street; yesterday Patrick and I had seen them for the first time, and stopped in the street as they strode by on the sidewalk, to admire the dog’s beauty. He’s nine years old, she told us, I rescued him nine years ago off a highway in Mexico. (A tall, lanky dog, he looks around two or three. She clearly cares deeply and well for him.)

Take a bow, she instructed him, and the regal creature stretched straight his long forearms and slightly bowed his head and upper body over them. That was just for you, she told us. With mutual parting words to stay safe and well, we continued our opposite paths.

On my way home, the morning light striking the leaves of a tree stopped me, and I noticed this wall and gate, that I’d passed hundreds of times before without seeing. 



Seeing a bird, an old bird, somewhat dejected or tired, making its way from a closed door.

Then a young girl, facing the gate, her oversized coat jutting out in front of her, a lumpy package balanced on her back as she waits for someone to greet her at the gate.

Then a bowed head, nestled and hidden from first glance between the bird’s head and body, looking down at oversized shoes and a pair of sunglasses tucked into a hidden pocket.

As I read about the number of coronavirus-related deaths and the increasing cases and the concept that even asymptomatic folks will experience lasting lung damage and I see photos of groups of 20-somethings partying as if nothing is wrong, and hear warnings of massive evictions and unhoused communities and hunger, and pass my neighbor rummaging through our recycling before moving on to rearrange the scrap metal tower in the back of her truck, to be driven to a scrap yard and exchanged for money to buy food and pay her rent, driven there by our other neighbors as she doesn’t drive, and the truck and scrap collecting used to be done by her husband, a 60-something Latinx man, but he passed away earlier this year, as I watch more and more people call out, cry out, for a city budget that invests more in people and health and human services and education than it does for a militarized police force,

I feel hopeless and hopeful.

To examine and explore the image of our shared humanity from all angles, to see what I may not have seen when I was hurrying home, without a glint of light to stop me in my tracks. To allow space and time for different ways of seeing what appears to be the same thing.

To close my eyes. Let my imagination run wild. And then, as Angela Davis instructs us:

“You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.”

(What do you see? In the image, perhaps, but also in your imagination? In your neighborhood? In your city?)

Sunday, May 17, 2020

An Unmasked Kiss: Denying Reality and Responsibility in the Pandemic


An Unmasked Kiss

“Oh my god, it’s been so long!” she exclaimed as she ran out the gate to kiss him.

I so deeply wish this title and first sentence were the beginnings of my attempt to ghost-write romance novels and finally save for a retirement fund. Instead, it was just another night living amidst Gen Z-ers in the time of Covid-19.

The gentri-gate of the newly renovated apartment building next door had just groaned open, a twenty-something tattooed woman dancing through it to half run to a waiting car blocking the street. P and I were sitting in our folding chairs in our make-shift outdoor patio, the front portion of our tandem parking spot. 



P and I put on masks to leave our apartment, walking from our front door through the shared space of our apartment courtyard through the entry gate that opens up to the heavily trafficked sidewalk we traverse for a few feet before we skirt by our car, Joan, who sits gathering the dust of the Los Angeles basin, mostly unmoved in the time of the pandemic when, if it is possible due to privilege, it is SaferAtHome. Holding glasses of wine, we settle on to our outdoor chairs, where we take off our masks to read Mary Oliver’s writing and clink glasses as we say cheers to another bizarre day of navigating the uncertainty of a pandemic.

I read aloud the first chapter from Mary’s Long Life, entitled “Flow,” pausing for the passing of a helicopter, listening to our neighbor rummage through the recycling bins. She doesn’t speak much English, and my Spanish is scant, so we mostly greet each other and smile. Her husband used to load up his truck, parked directly in front of our gate, with used, tossed-aside machines and metal to drive to the yard to exchange for cash. Last week, I spoke to my other neighbor, e, and asked if this woman needed anything. I hadn’t seen her husband for some time, and the truck hadn’t been moved. He passed away a few months ago, E told me. I’ll ask if she needs help, but I know her son lives in the mid-west and helps her, and she likes living here. E told me that she and her husband still drive the woman and her truck, no longer filled to overflowing, to the yard to exchange the metal for her income.

She is widowed. I know nothing of her life, her experience of Los Angeles, and this neighborhood.

As we sat in our make-shift isolation space, she passed by us, her eyes above her mask acknowledging us, seemingly smiling, as she waved and made her way about her work.

I continued to read out loud from Mary, as the Los Angeles golden hour light washed over the newly remodeled apartment building next to us, the one with the automatic and dysfunctional security gate the new owners installed to make the new, mostly 20-30 something, tenants feel safe. That gate has never worked properly, at one point opening and closing endlessly, now doing it with a loud sound like an old man snorting.

“But even paradise must have rules,” Mary Oliver wrote. “I do not know whether or not those rules were engendered in the beginning by divine deftness or by chance. I rather think chance was the origin – though perhaps the chance was offered divinely – for the rules are neither nice nor neat; simply workable, and therefore, in the quest for life rather than no-life, sublime. Every vitality must have a mechanism that recommends it to existence – what seems like ornamentation or phantasm is pure vitality. It comes from an engine of mist and electricity that may be playful, and must be assertive. And also, against the odds of endurance in the great-shouldered sea, prolific.”  (Mary Oliver, “Flow,” from Long Life.)

The 20 or 30 something woman had blithely danced through the groaning, snorting gate to rush out to meet a man at his car, saying

OUT LOUD, for everyone living in the pandemic to hear:

“Oh my god! It’s been so long since I’ve seen you!”

And then we heard the sound of the unmasked kiss.

Neither friend / lover who had not been seen for so long wore a mask. Both were white.

Perhaps. Perhaps, they’d both just tested negative for Covid-19, both knowing that those tests were not false-negatives. And after the test they’d both self-quarantined, ordering in no take-out, seeing no one else, and this was their first contact, knowing they were both 100% positively negative.

Perhaps.

Meanwhile. As I write this the following day (May 17, 2020), there are 694 new cases, and 29 deaths. Today.

The numbers* based on age ranges show that the majority cases are not in my neighbor’s age range, but in ours, 41 – 65 (14, 619 total in L.A. County so far). But the number is not that different than in her age range: 12,531 deaths in ages 18-40.

The breakdown based on ethnicity shows that the Hispanic / Latinx community is the most at risk in L.A. County:

Asian
2480

Black
1580

Hispanic/Latino
12467

Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander
256

White
4514


And, as March for Science shows in this graph, if we are following the same patterns of the contagion map of the 1918 / 1919 outbreak (which it appears we are), the worst outbreak is to come.


I was speechless as we watched the unmasked kiss between two people who “had not seen each other for so long.”

As I’d just read: “the rules are neither nice nor neat; simply workable, and therefore, in the quest for life rather than no-life, sublime.” – Mary Oliver


Saturday, April 18, 2020

What About Us? Dancing Raging Crying Dancing with Ryan Heffington and Pink


What about us? Today (it’s Saturday, right?) Ryan Heffington led us (me and 6000 other people around the globe tuned in to his Instagram live feed) in dance, celebrating life and love and movement to the sounds of Marky Mark and MC Hammer. As a child of the 80s and 90s, I was in heaven – Heffington’s energy and goofiness had me laughing out loud as I wiped away sweat. 

Today I also ended up wiping away tears, though it wasn’t the usual time I cry. Normally I cry as he ends every session with a beautiful meditation, guiding us to see and imbibe the light of stars, so that we can be light to others in this dark time. He ends with the mantra: “We’ll get through this. We’ll get through this.” It often brings me to tears, feeling connected around the world, recognizing the truth of of our inter-relatedness, when one suffers, we all suffer.

Today I cried while jumping in the air, punching my fists as hard as I could, filled with rage and anger. The feelings overcame me as Ryan (I can’t decide if in the world where we are besties I’d call him Ryan or Heffington…) led us in dance to Pink’s What About Us. Pink was Ryan's guest guru on Wednesday, when she joined the Insta live party from her own home, singing and dancing and adding to the energy of us.

As he played Pink today, Heffington cried out how her powerful words apply to us, right now –

We are searchlights, we can see in the dark
We are rockets, pointed up at the stars
We are billions of beautiful hearts
And you sold us down the river too far

What about us?
What about all the times you said you had the answers?
What about us?
What about all the broken happy ever afters?
What about us?
What about all the plans that ended in disaster?
What about love? What about trust?
What about us?

We are problems that want to be solved
We are children that need to be loved
We were willin', we came when you called
But, man, you fooled us, enough is enough, oh

What about us?
What about all the times you said you had the answers?
What about us?
What about all the broken happy ever afters?
Oh, what about us?

As Ryan sang / shouted out that we wanted answers from the government, and for corporations to give money to people struggling, I started feeling rage well up inside of me. How for decades we've put profit over people, creating an inhumane system bolstered by our elected leaders in which  people are either living on a sidewalk or one paycheck from not paying for housing, for food, for medical care. For so many, even with that one paycheck, could never afford medical care. RAGE, that so many of us cried out against the deep inequality with no one hearing or caring, until a virus revealed it all. I jumped to the music, beating and punching the air with all the power I could, raging. Then a wave of grief as tears mixed with my anger.

As the song ended, Ryan moved into his meditation time, but the feelings of rage and grief were not spent, they had not run their course in my body, so I continued to pound it out and cry. At the end of his meditation, I was ready to join in, and steadied myself, grounding on two firm feet, lifting my spine upward, holding to my heart gratitude and love.

“Emotions need motion,” David Kessler, the co-author with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss. His new book adds another stage to the process, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.  Interviewed by the Harvard Business Review during this pandemic, he tells us: “It’s important we acknowledge what we go through. One unfortunate byproduct of the self-help movement is we’re the first generation to have feelings about our feelings. We tell ourselves things like, I feel sad, but I shouldn’t feel that; other people have it worse. We can — we should — stop at the first feeling. I feel sad. Let me go for five minutes to feel sad. Your work is to feel your sadness and fear and anger whether or not someone else is feeling something. Fighting it doesn’t help because your body is producing the feeling. If we allow the feelings to happen, they’ll happen in an orderly way, and it empowers us. Then we’re not victims.”

I’m aware, now more than ever, how emotions are *in* my body, and must be allowed to move through the body. They need movement, and sometimes, often, you need to aid them, through dancing, shadow-boxing, jumping, raging, laughing crying. I am endlessly grateful for Ryan’s gift of leading us in this dance-therapy. Us. What about us. We are in this together, and there is power for change and greater equality in that. 



Thursday, April 02, 2020

Global Meditation Moment: Coronvirus and Connection


I started by counting my breaths to pay attention. Dan, Patrick’s brother, had texted our family that there would be a global meditation at 6pm this evening, to add to positive energy around the world.

I needed a reminder to turn off media and be present with just my mind, my body, my surroundings. Patrick took a break from work, and we sat, my achy back against the couch, him on a chair facing the kitchen window, in silence.  I listened to the sounds, mostly from outside our apartment, cars driving by, a bird singing. I envisioned being light, light both surrounding me from outside and emanating from me. I had that moment that seems so basic but so brilliant in realizing we are all this light, we always have access to it.

I held up our hurting world, so connected by this common, frightening virus, to bathe in the light the world creates, has the potential to create.

Opening my eyes, I was thankful for what I saw, the things that surround me. Books I’ve read and learned from and loved, their worlds that I’ve been introduced to, my thinking expanded and challenged by others’ experiences. The stack of magazines from the 60s that my mother saved, filled with images and stories that inspire and sometimes horrify (“Quiz: Are You A Mini-Brain?”), that remind me that we are but a blip in time.

A stack of some of my journals, pages of collecting stories from travels and recording stories, thoughts, emotional upheavals. Pages that take me back to details I’d forgotten, that remind me that life is to be lived in all its sticky and sweaty and smelly and challenging ways, that risks are to be taken if we are to get a glimpse of the adventure even a bus ride across town can be, if we just pay attention to the details. The reactions of people to each other, the little ways people look out for each other, offering seats, holding doors, offering a hand to help. What behaviors make that man seem nervous, what actions make that baby laugh.

Right now, we shouldn’t take the bus if we don’t have to, to protect the most vulnerable who are often those who need public transportation. To protect the nurses, doctors, assistants, and cleaning crews who are working around the clock at hospitals and clinics. As we go out for a socially-distanced walk, zig-zagging across the street to avoid neighbors, I joke with Patrick that it doesn’t matter that I’m covered in cat hair; he’s the only one getting close enough to me to see it now. That in itself is breaking me right now, that I’m not close enough to others to observe what I so love in them, what makes us all human, the micro-expressions and reactions we can’t hide. Now, instead of slowing down to pay attention, I’m walking faster to create greater distance.

During of this life-saving separation, I am grateful for the posts on social media with stories and details, poems I read that conjure the minutiae of humanity. I miss my crowded buses. I miss sharing space with strangers, wondering at what their lives might be.

I know we’ll find a vaccine and move beyond this time, but I hope – with the Rebecca Solnit kind of hope that is active, that is bold and brave – that this time will not be forgotten, that we will not forget the heartbreak it is to feel lonely and distanced and isolated. That we will remember now that this has been the norm for so many in our society, for those experiencing homelessness or suffering mental illness, who have always felt isolated as others rush past them. This is the time for deep empathy, to make the basis of decisions and laws the heightened sense of connectivity we feel now, in our isolation, that has always been the fabric of our existence.  

“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be...
This is the inter-related structure of reality.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.