In the air I’m a kid, split second floating, suspended, before gravity tugs me back to the coiled elastic mat. Legs, torso, shoulders, body of pounds, my weight denting the flexible floor. Calve muscles support the landing, trembling energy moving like a feeble pogo stick. Is that all you’re gonna do, just sit there jumping up and down? My daughter asks. As if I have a choice, as if I could leap spontaneously, do a flip or twist. I smile watching her limbs lunging carefree, that song Riptide playing in the background, the one we both like. This is all I can do, but I won’t stop. I say like the middle-aged man that I am. Do a trick, come on, she cajoles. Deliberate, I push harder, hop higher, watch this, touch my toes in mid air. That’s your best? She laughs. I just grin, glad that I’ve fooled her, glad that she thinks there’s more in the tank.
Once the Irish, the Germans, the workers pressed together, clustered little Victorians, where they were born, lived, then died. Now babies in strollers, babies pressed against mom, against dad, toddlers wobbling, wide blocks of deconstructed, reconstructed, houses, pasted photos, smiling women and men, realtors, listing, listed, selling, sold. White buses, elevated people, wearing laptops like blankets, heading south to touch more technology. Hilly hills, wisps of fog, oceanic clouds, permanent winter like they say Twain said. Past and present commingle in gusts of wind, September summers, sometimes rain and rainbows.
He’s almost 8, my son lying next to me, his permanent smile mirroring my own. Is that Saturn? he asks, looking up at the sky. I ditched the tent’s cover, only transparent thin fabric between us and the universe. Am I trying to remember what 7 was like, or did I never grow up? It doesn’t matter, we are here, together, our fingers pointing at constellations, sometimes a plane flying off to cross the Pacific. We talk about other earths and aliens until he drifts into slumber mid-sentence.
As he snores quietly I read about Lydia Child, her quest to end slavery. I listen to the crickets, imagine camping without the tent, without freedom, following the north star to Philadelphia or New York or Canada. Then I’m asleep. I dream about walking deep in the woods, seeing a gray fox. I wake to the sound of rustling bushes. It might be 1am, click my flashlight on, sets of eyes reflect back from outside the tent. Two deer a few feet away nibbling grass. Pausing they stare at me, then trot off. Asleep again until maybe 4am, then Hudson has to pee. We totter out half-awake, an owl hooting nearby, the two of us in our pjs, little streams in the dark.
It’s morning, Hudson says at 7am. He’s snuggled up next to me in his sleeping bag, hair mussed. Good morning, kid, I say. We grin, no words, just love.
20 years since slogging through the reddish mud country roads of Guaira, Caazapa, and Caaguazu. Guarani names that I practiced saying over and over before the flight to Asunción. A language that survived because of coitus, six women to every Spanish soldier.
Sitting shotgun in a truck, 3 of us squeezed in the front (Cayo, Ernesto, Me), no seat belts, sipping yerba mate. I’m speaking Spanish, asking questions about recycling plastic and filtering water with chlorine. Cayo drives, points his finger up at the windshield, motioning to each vehicle we pass on the two lane highway. Yvaga, he says, cielo, heaven. That’s where you will go when you die, his finger silently communicates. Watching this ritual I see the other drivers smiling at us, their fingers also pointing upward, telling us the same thing.
Cayo asks me about California. The Paraguayan campo has no cable TV, no CNN, no movie theaters. He doesn’t question me about celebrities or our president, he asks about the land, trees, animals, what the air smells like, feels like. I tell him about non-native eucalyptus trees, how they suck water out of the earth, take nourishment away from other plants. He understands. The conversation is easy, like the cumulus clouds that float like cotton above us. Ernesto speaks and at first I think I understand, the cadence sounds the same, but then I’m lost in a time before Spanish, before South American roads. I close my eyes for a few seconds, a lightness takes over. I’m hearing a language not of an evangelizing church or of plundering capitalism, but of a people, a community. A few minutes later we slow down, pick up a hitchhiker, normal in this part of Paraguay. I see the guy sitting in the truck bed, a large heavy sack between his legs. A man on a journey, we both watch the road, I look out the front, he looks out the back.
I actually want the time to show, let the world know that I’m that much closer to the abyss. Aged ringlets at the borders with brown, blonde before that, when hair was just hair. Above my ears a battleground, the grays sending sentinels, accumulating knowledge for the next attack. I stop and stare like Rembrandt with a ballpoint pen, pluck rogue whites from eyebrows where they grow as if I were a 19th century senator. Better than bald, some say, distinguished, the old compliment the old. Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice, my favorite Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young line. Oh but we do, ointments to push back nature, like pioneers clearcutting ancient redwoods. I look in the mirror again, as if it matters, as if I will be here forever, in wonder over the me I see. This face, this head, these gray hairs, human dust clinging to a self making meaning out of molecules.
I turned twelve once
the party was chaotic
all boys tackling boys
football on the lawn
she is totally different
sitting by the pool
laughing with her friends
5’5 a girl woman
talks about Victorian houses
between ballet kitchen twirls
in the shower forever
singing Shawn Mendes songs
her door closed now
at night reading alone
wants a phone because
her friend has one
we watch Mamma Mia
imagine her in Greece
want to freeze time
keep us both young
I embrace it all
childhood has to go
teenager around the bend
beginning of the end
Skinny men stuff newspapers against their chests, insulation for the freezing French mountain air, their bicycles soaring down steep roads through tucked away villages. Calf muscles pulsate for days on end, wheels moving past wheels, a colorful trained stampede of lungs pumping, faces grimacing, as fans run half-naked among the cavalcade. Alpe d’Huez, La Rosiere, through the Alps, the Pyrenees, they ride wary, ready to attack, counter attack, slurping energy goos in pursuit of the yellow jersey.
I first watched with old men in Madrid, we gathered around the hotel’s black and white TV. 1989 and I barely knew what France was; Voltaire, World War II, my parents listening to Edith Piaf, not much more. I became captivated, not by the mass of the peloton, but by the lone rider, the one who would pedal ahead of the pack, desperate, confident, like a rogue gust of wind pushing a kite to fly. Some days he’d be caught, reeled in, but other days he’d escape, stay free, win the race. I imagined that he was me, fearful, fearless.
We wait in a large quiet basement room, a voice calls out our last names. We are the citizens, non-convicts, resident San Franciscans; the ones able to judge right from wrong, upholders of the Constitution. The orientation video entices us, invites us to witness the criminal justice system up close, be Judge Judy for a day. We shuffle into the courtroom, African-American, Asian, White, Latino, all here when called upon. I become a witness to factual knowledge, as people in the jury box state their occupation, marital status, whether they rent or own. A voyeur, I listen for stories. The man married 32 years, the older woman still living with her parents, the UCSF nurse who helps the chronically ill, bits of life shared with a room full of strangers. Potential unlawful eviction, but I’m not to reveal trial details, took an oath not to tell. I scribble notes on the book that I brought to relieve boredom, think of my father and sister, both lawyers, they’ve lived in rooms like these. I observe while the attorneys work, sweating, brains churning. Who to keep? Who to release? Juror number 5, tell me again about being a landlord, you own three houses? They query, looking for answers, for an advantage, sizing up faces like poker players. Women stand up, men sit down, human beings shifting seats 1-21 like musical chairs without the melody, money at stake. Hours have passed, I find myself spacing out, listening to my breath, what am I doing here? I’ve forgotten. Then suddenly the words, the rest of you are dismissed, you have done your duty. We walk out of the room, the doors of democracy opening into afternoon sunlight.
It took me 22 years to stay at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center by the Pacific Ocean. I’d passed it a couple of times while hiking in Marin County long ago, but there was an invisible barrier bigger than the 10 foot fence keeping me (and the deer) out. Hour after hour of silence, meditation in the austere zendo, no distractions apart from the sound of bees moving among long strands of lavender.
I walk into the Welcome Center, You’re Daniel, we’ve been expecting you, a woman named Lucy says with a British accent. I’m one of very few guests staying at the zen farm. My room isn’t ready so I walk to the zendo, remove my sandals and step inside. I’ve been in the zendo before, but on a Sunday when the space was filled with people. The wooden room is now empty, smells vaguely of incense, zafus (meditation cushions) line the floor in rows, two Buddhas watch over the wide expanse from an altar near the front. I try sitting on a zafu, but after a few minutes my aching back says no. I find a chair and meditate for an hour, then walk out imaging the years of silence that the room has absorbed. The long departed women and men who once sat where I was, content, grief stricken, finding their breathing over and over again.
I arrive at my room, it is mostly glass windows, sliding doors, no key. No locks, that is how we roll around here. Lucy said. For a split second I remember that tomorrow is Friday the 13th, but quickly stuff thoughts of Jason back into my brain (I’ve never watched one of those movies). My quarters have a private bathroom. Most meditation retreats emphasize the communal, shared rooms and toilets. In theory I’m not against being communal, but I almost always pee in the middle of the night at 3am and would rather skip the walk to wherever that toilet might be. I opted to do a retreat with no set requirements, no alternating hours of sitting and walking meditation, no dharma talks every night, no emphasis on complete silence. I appreciate all those things, but I had to make the retreat work with my family. Green Gulch is close to San Francisco and is usually available anytime for guests, unlike other meditation retreats that book up weeks in advance.
After getting settled I amble over to a pond, its edges filled with green vegetation poking out of the water. I sit on a bench and meditate again, and appreciate my good fortune. The whole scene has rustic fragrant beauty with abundant earthen sounds, like a summer camp aviary for peace seekers; a complete contrast to the noise and cigarette littered streets of San Francisco.
Two periods of meditation complete, I walk past penstemon and buckeye flowers, then acre after acre of plants rising through soil, the farm’s edible rainbow; purples, greens, yellows, all in rows, an oasis of curated nature stretching out almost to the ocean. Women and men till the ground, water plant roots, their unlocked bikes rest on the ground nearby. The farm is a miniature utopia, a perfect society, a Buddhist hippie kibbutz. Everyone smiles at me as I pass, hummingbirds dart in and out of flowers, rabbits sniff the air, then disappear. I feel like my five-year old self singing I’ve got the whole world in my hands, with my post-Vietnam War teachers smiling peace at me.
6pm the dinner bell clangs slowly, then faster, letting everyone know it’s time to gather in the dining hall. The food is served buffet style, pinto bean stew with sauteed onions, garlic, tomatillo sauce, grilled corn, and steamed leafy chard. It goes without saying that everything is organic, of the earth only yards away. As mindful as I try to be, my wife is the first to say that I eat too quickly. I blame it on being a teacher, always cramming in my food before class, or maybe I’m just like most Americans steeped in a fast food world where eating rapidly is the norm. This is my chance to be different. There is a clock on the wall, I tell myself, you’re not leaving here for 40 minutes. The pinto stew mixed with brown rice is delicious, I make a point of laying my fork back on the plate after savoring each bite. I don’t take another forkful until my mouth is completely empty. 35 minutes later and the food is gone. I slowly get up, walk to the front and pour myself a cup of peppermint tea. I sit for another 10 minutes, completing a 45 minute silent dinner. We are short of volunteers in the kitchen, a young woman with red curly hair calls out after ringing a bell. I have nowhere else to be so I find myself in the dishroom with Santosh, a 70-year old woman originally from the Punjab region of India. She does the first scrubbing, I dip the dishes into a tub of soapy water, then into a drying rack. Santosh’s daughter invited her to Green Gulch as a birthday present. When we first meet we bow to each other, then work in silence for several minutes, occasionally bowing to other people as they leave their plates and utensils.
After dinner I hear coyotes crying out into the night, they live in the low mountain ridges that surround Green Gulch, a chorus of loud lonely barks and howls, high pitched and haunting. The evening brings more meditation, some writing, then reading a Buddhist text by Ajahn Chah. His words remind me that my body and life are not permanent. At 9pm a monk claps blocks together, telling everyone that it is time for slumber (the monks and zen students will be up at 4:30am the next day to meditate).
I arise the following morning at 5:45am, do an hour of meditation, then a few push-ups, and more reading. I won’t go into all the breakfast details except to say the blueberries are bursting with sweetness, bringing the oatmeal to life. I sit with a woman named Janet, also a teacher, married with two adult daughters. We are grinning ear to ear, both incredibly happy to be in this place. She is staying in the guest house. Is it full? I ask. No, only three other people. She tells me. We can hardly believe that Green Gulch is empty compared to all the other spots around San Francisco that are overflowing with tourists. Remove TV, booze, and meat, add a little silent Buddhism, and I guess that is all it takes for the zen center to remain mostly unknown to the public.
After breakfast I walk the 20 minutes to Muir Beach, meditate on a bench, listen to the waves crash, then watch a woman dive into the ocean with all her clothes on, laughing, supremely happy with her decision. I smile, she feels the way I feel, covered, drenched in elation, very thankful for another day of tranquility at Green Gulch.
People schedule SoulCycle, mani-pedis, evening cocktail encounters with friends. I schedule spiritual growth. Very American of me, I know, but I live in a world of kid carpools, grocery shopping, laundry, and taking the dog out to poop. My daily calendar is always filled to the brim with bills that need to be paid and emails that must be returned. If I don’t make time to listen to myself, everything else takes over.
For years I knew there was a spirit in me, a writer in me, a poet in me, never fully free, always bound by external obligations. I have figured out a formula for expressing my inner being. I begin each morning reading a spiritual text that helps guide me on my journey. I meditate at least 45 minutes a day, scheduled breathing, in, out, trying to be as present as possible. Most Wednesday nights I meditate for an hour with a small group of friends, we then read and discuss the writings of Thich Nhat Hahn for another hour. I spend daily minutes (often hours) writing, reflecting on who I am with words, my words, on a page or computer screen. Every two months I plan intensive meditation weekends (Friday-Sunday) where I meditate multiple hours a day either at home or away. Each day I also do some form of yoga.
What exactly is spiritual growth? For me spiritual growth invites my internal quiet to speak loudly with truth. When I grow spiritually I learn things like love is everywhere, more is learned by listening than talking, there is good in everyone, anger is always reactive. Wisdom I’ve heard before, known before, but I need reminding, over and over again. Am I sitting enlightened under the bodhi tree? No, but I’m keeping a channel open, my spirit touching a timeless stream.