The glittering now

I wake to the muted static of freeway traffic in the distance.

It’s comforting, like a den radio someone’s grandfather fell asleep to in a burnt orange recliner, long after last at-bats and even hours later, when they run through the highlights of the baseball game he was listening to.

Or maybe the hushed whooshing is a lone horse in the greenest of grassy pastures, serenely swatting flies with its tail. 

It’s the whispering creak of a weathered hammock, resting between two bowed birches.

It’s that cozy quiet, that contented state of being, the freeze frame inside the moving picture: before the frayed knots give way and the hammock collapses. Before the horse gets spooked and bucks clumsily into a fence post. Before the radio angrily blasts heavy metal and startles the grandfather awake.

I linger a little longer so I can commit this insignificant Sunday morning to memory: when the world was still moving but I was still. And the present remained untouched by the future. And for a brief, suspended moment, everything was perfect in the stillness of the glittering now.

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Quietude

Try to explain to your mother, an extrovert who was raised in a family of 11 and whose idea of perfect happiness is having all her kids back under the same roof, that it doesn’t matter how much you love them… constantly being surrounded by people without any alone time for 10 days straight is exhausting for you. It saps you of all energy, and you need to be by yourself to replenish that vital life source.

On a trip where every minute is accounted for from the instant you wake to lights out, you steal moments where you can.

You sip them with the reverence of a holy sacrament or like the purest water you ever drank, from a fast-flowing mountain stream at a national park, before you had any fear or knowledge of brain-eating amoebas or flesh-eating viruses.

At 8 a.m. when she pokes her head into your room to see if you’re still sleeping, like an untrained puppy who can’t wait to play, you sometimes pretend not to be up yet.

You linger in the shower, even as the water temperature dips in and out of hot and starts pooling at your feet.

You shut yourself in a room for an hour to wrap presents with the concentration and slowed intentionality of a Buddhist monk tapping out sand from a metal straw into a mandala. Don’t peek, you urge when they knock.

You find yourself relishing those mid-night wakeful hours reserved for sleep and perfect stillness. The ones not meant to be observed and that normally taunt you in throes of relentless tossing and turning.

You volunteer to help with the measured and muted repetition of chopping vegetables for Christmas Eve dinner.

When you happen to turn down the one New York City street without anyone else on it and slow your pace to a wedding march.

While out running errands, a flock of birds passes overhead like a perfectly choreographed ballet, and everything pauses for just a second.

And sliding the shade up just after takeoff, you see the earth as a twinkling blanket of a million anchored stars.

Remembering this time last year: the complete and ineffable isolation you felt in Iceland. You realize it’s not solitude you’re searching for.

You’re learning, no doubt as your mother did long ago, to gather up moments of quietude, like so many spring blossoms, amidst the polyphonic rhythm of others.

The taking

It starts like the unraveling of a tattered sweater, one thread at a time. A little pull and some of the stitching comes undone. It’s so familiar and subtle you don’t even notice it, at first. Just a snag, you think. Not enough to affect the function of the sweater.

Eventually you become aware of a hole. You patch it. You do your best to sew together two separate pieces of cloth, even though the patterns don’t match up, and there’s a bulge where the materials overlap. You tell yourself, it’s fine. It’s still functional. No one will even notice. Until the sweater is a patchwork you no longer recognize.

When you look in the mirror, you don’t look at the sweater. It’s comfortable. You know by now that if you don’t look, you can’t see it. So you choose not to look. You let the unraveling continue to happen, string by string, section by section, until you’re standing cold and half-naked in tatters.

 *     *     *

When you’re a people pleaser, you do whatever’s necessary to meet another person’s expectations. You go along. You bend, and stretch, and give.

When you have a great capacity for compassion, you can clearly see another person’s pain and suffering and you want to stop it, heal it. You want to make it better for them.

When you’re taught from a young age to put others before yourself, you relent. You over-accommodate. You sacrifice yourself completely.

And if you’re not careful, others will take advantage of you. Some won’t even realize they’re doing it. Most won’t realize they’re doing it. But they’ll take and take and take. And before you know it, you’ll allow yourself to be crucified for someone else’s sins… or wants, or needs.

 *     *     *

In Buddhism, there are 5 precepts, guidelines for how to live ethically. The second one — the one right after abstaining from killing — is abstaining from taking that which is not freely given.

You’re used to men taking without asking. They take with their eyes. They take with their hands. They take with their thoughts and their words.

One of your earliest memories is of a boy in your preschool class lunging at you, pushing you over and pinning you down, trying to kiss you.

Maybe they’re taught from a young age that everything is for them, they just have to reach out and take it.

Maybe they’re taught to put themselves first, always. To bend for nobody. That bending is for the weak, long grasses, and women.

Maybe they’re taught by history that with enough force, you can get anything you want. You just have to take it.

And maybe you reinforce this belief by letting go and giving, giving, giving, until you’ve given it all away. Until there’s nothing left for them to take. Until there’s nothing left for you.

 *     *     *

The one for me, one for you approach is not selfish. It is equitable. It acknowledges and respects each person’s needs.

The one for you, ten for you, fifty for you… all for you approach is unhealthy. It’s unfair. It acknowledges and respects only one person’s wishes.

When you have boundaries, you put limits on the taking. They need to be stronger than a backstitch to stop the fraying.

They should be like a seawall, pushing against the intrusive tide, holding it in its place. A seawall says gently but firmly, no further, please. This belongs to me. 

Without this separation of sea and land, there would be no dry, safe place to nurture and sustain human life. There would be only a hostile and dominating ocean, like one of Jupiter’s distant, frozen moons.

Satellite

The moon is full (well, 99.8%, according to the internet).

Last night it shined like a spotlight or the opening at the end of a long, dark tunnel. This morning it’s turned orange like the cartoon moon on my trick-or-treating bag from childhood. I can almost see the silhouette of a witch flying across it.

I think of what they say about hospitals scheduling extra staff for nights like this. I think of what they say about women’s bodies being attuned to it. Sailors being saved by it. All the love songs written about it. The tides’ constant, humble bowing to it. I think of its violent birth and its strong iron core and all the power we attribute to it.

And yet I wonder if the moon, the Earth’s child, simply exists as a mirror for the sun, to remind it of its own radiant light.

What fire can’t destroy

I have anxiety.

When I get overly stressed, it flares up, like a tree on fire in the middle of a dark forest. There are pops and cracks. Animals flee with the life-and-death urgency that an uncontained flame elicits. The air feeds it and then becomes tainted by it, thick and hard to breathe as the reach of its destruction expands.

I’ve tried containing it myself, hurling positive affirmations like buckets of water. I’ve tried ignoring it, pretending not to feel the heat. I’ve futilely tried to birthday-candle-blow it out with all my might, until I’m half-dead from exhaustion.

But see when you find yourself alone in the middle of the dark woods without a phone or a prayer, you become desperate. You’ll try anything. You yell and scream and cry for help. You know how foolish this is, but it doesn’t compare with how scared you are. Your intensity is nothing compared to the funeral pyre raging inside.

When it’s clear I can no longer handle it myself, I frantically warn those in its path. Sometimes they try to help. Sometimes they run. Sometimes they stare in contempt as if to say, “Don’t tell me. Call the fire department!” Sometimes they blame me for starting it. They yell, this house wasn’t on fire when I bought it! What’s wrong with this house?! And I faintly whisper against loud explosions, “It’s not the house…”

Fire allowed humans to cook their food, create tools, stay warm, and ultimately survive for at least the last 400,000 years. It gave us bonfires. It gave us sparklers and fireworks. It gave us wood-burning stoves. It gave us s’mores. It even gave us smoking.

But we only love it when we can control it.

There’s no guaranteed way to prevent fires altogether. That’s unrealistic — especially when you live in Northern California and conditions tend to be right. We don’t get enough rain. Everything is too dry. The sun is fierce, and it shines fiercely much of the year. People like to camp and hike in this beautiful part of the country I call home. And they also accidentally trigger catastrophic events.

Everything in a fire’s path can be ignited and eventually devoured by it. It leaves a blackness around it, and the scars remain long after it’s been reduced to soot. It takes a long time for flora to grow back. But given enough time, it will. Nature has a way of regulating.

I do not wish to eradicate fire. A world without it would be a far more dire place: eyes with no spark, ideas without creativity, apathy in place of passion.

Like the firefighters who train for the moment that alarm bell sounds and dauntlessly attack it every day of dry season, I wish only to understand fire and to more expertly contain it.

If you’ve never been a firefighter, you’ll never know all the work, and strength, and courage fighting a fire requires. The sheer stamina.

If you’ve never had a house fire, you can’t truly know the unique devastation of losing your home, your dearest possessions — a loved one — all in one shot.

But as a human being, you’v experienced fear. You have the capacity to feel compassion. You may not know exactly how fire works, but that doesn’t make it wrong. It doesn’t make it not exist.

Fire is not an element. It’s an event. It’s part of a series of chemical reactions, the tangible side effect of matter changing state. It will continue to burn as long as there’s fuel and oxygen around it.

Fire can be extremely destructive, yes. But, it always produces water and warmth. It always produces light.