Today, my walk takes me across Vallejo Street to the Lyon Street Steps. When I get close to the edge of the Presidio there, the scent of the Eucalyptus overwhelms me and I am filled with an old feeling of home. In one of the backyards of my childhood, big silver-dollar trees littered the patio with their dusty discs, and the smell was like this, with a little more menthol to them. It is a primary California scent for me, and here at the end of the street a whole forest waves the fragrance past the buttercream mansions and the immaculate vista. It is a warm, cloudless day, and the water of the Bay is a blue sky on which islands float. I come first upon a hummingbird, sipping from the pink and white salvia. I am an arms-length away, and he is lost in a dream of nectar, so I get close-up to his chubby body, his glittering copper head, and his impossibly iridescent green belly.
I hear a high twit from a branch and see a sparrow there, looking at me and needling me for attention with his steady siren. In fact, the bird sound, as I stand on the landing between the high steps up and down, is cacophonous. I hear a jay far above, and there are so many dragonflies I hear them hum as they fly up to me in greeting. A yellow warbler rises up from brush trees like a caped crusader and lifts to a tall branch for a moment, perched and buzzing his funny call, and then he dances away with another, off to fight crimes together, or to commit them, through the high castles of the neighborhood.
There are a few folks running up the steps, headphones on, and I marvel at their dedication to such physical exertion. I feel their hearts so strong and noble, a revelation of function and purpose, strong machines moving this other machine up to the top. I wish, when I had the will to exert myself so, I had felt that appreciation for my heart muscle. Maybe I did. Next time I play drums, I will remember to adore my heart for a while.
I walk down the steps and am lost in looking in windows, up driveways, into door glass across landings where I see rooms bathed in this view of the day. I guess I will always believe that to live in such a masterpiece of architecture, life must spill out from moment to moment in a fresh and melon-y way, crisp as white wine and the breeze that blesses me as I walk to the bottom of the hill. There is such a narrow window of temperature here, a sliver of options that enable you to paint a house pink with bright creamed cornices with no danger of deterioration of luster. I guess that is what “rarified” means, that the options have been narrowed down to only the very best.
I turn a corner and there is a café I forgot about, a café that I always forget about until I end up on this street and turn this corner and again I remember it. I sit and have lunch and watch the lunch crowd coming and going, mostly elderly people, seemingly wealthy. I hear a couple speak about their upcoming holiday, loud enough to interrupt my reading, so I just watch the white birds fly high above, and imagine that I, too, would love to plan a trip to Hawaii, and then one day to Tahiti. I am grateful for my seat in the shade, my lunch, the light.
A young woman pulls in to the parking spot next to the patio and sits for several minutes with the engine of her SUV idling as she furiously types on her phone inside. I know she is lost in thought, not in this moment at all. I’m trying to enjoy my salad, though, and the exhaust is drifting into my taste buds and this won’t do, so I smile and ask her to turn off her car. I know I have been her, lost in conversation and plans, not realizing my inconsideration and thoughtlessness. I know I have the luxury of being right here today, with little stress to occupy me at the moment, obsessed with trees and birds and shadows on sidewalks. I know what a luxury that is. I feel nothing but peace toward her and smile as she exits the still car several minutes later.
I know I have been judgmental and annoyed often, watching the people around me and attributing all sorts of meanings to their behaviors. I know I still do it from time to time. Forgive me if I have told this story here before, but once, I was at a meditation retreat, bunking in a room with about eight women. There was a woman there who was small and stompy, and everything she did was loud. It was a silent retreat, and so I was so trying to be as invisible as possible so as not to disturb anyone’s quiet, and she seemed to have no such awareness. She would search through her bag with a flurry, banging things around and dropping them on the wooden floor. She would come back from the bathroom and fling herself into the mattress, the wooden frame bumping on the wall with a shout. Over the nine days, I created a whole personality for her. How did someone so rude, so inconsiderate, so angry, find her way to this retreat? I spent a good amount of my time at the retreat, especially in the evenings, thinking about this person, avoiding this person, and washing my cells in vitriol.
On the tenth day, when we could speak again and conversation spilled out in a kind of joyful chaos, I found this loud person across from me when the silence broke. From the first word, she was marvelously sweet. She worked in social services. She was selfless and wholly interested in my experience of the camp. She was light and sunny and a true joy.
As we spoke, the weight of all of the time I had spent attributing negative things to this sunshine person fell on me, and the truth. Darn it. I am the asshole. All of the negativity I was assigning to this person lived only in me. She was oblivious to it all, and yet for nine days I had bathed myself in negativity of my own making. It had nothing to do with her. She was a mirror on which I reflected all my judgment, all my attachment to etiquette, my narcissistic belief that my way was the right way. This was probably one of the most valuable lessons of my life.
When I read social media these days, I struggle. I get angry and fearful and despairing about the state of the country, the world, society in general, just as everyone does. I have a million retorts and responses to things I am offended by, opinions I believe are short-sighted, injustice and plain ignorance. I struggle to come with anything I can say to make a difference, to find the magic response to set people to believe as I believe, as I know to be Right.
When I try to address modern problems, I know I come off sounding Pollyannaish, a bright-side-looking, head in the clouds, ignorant, privileged moron who is ignoring the very real and terrifying truth of it all. I can get just as shrill as the most shrill, just as fearful and angry, and I too can add to the wave of energy carrying us to the brink of all we fear. How do I add my voice to the big argument when no one is listening, when the argument seems to be the whole point?
I am not a lawyer, but I know there are lawyers working to right wrongs. I am not an activist, and I know there are armies of them making a difference. I am not a politician or an economist or a philanthropist or an environmental engineer. How will anything I do measure up to these noble occupations? It won’t. This is my lot, and this is the way life is unfolding in this incarnation for me.
All I know how to do is to support those people who are working to save me. The only way I know how to support them is with tangible things, like donations, my vote, my purchase power, my entertainment choices. But moment to moment, how do I live a life that matters? How do I contribute to the positive change I want to see?
The only thing I can come up with is to see the good in every being I interact with. I don’t know how to do anything else. Seeing the good, believing the best intention, finding the light in the darkness, I don’t know what else I can do that will matter. The fear is there, the pain is felt, but when I merge with the light of each moment and with the magic at the heart of each person I encounter, these emotions move through and don’t stay. Nothing stays but that which is beneath, that infinite stillness that is within me, within each being, within the seconds and microseconds of silence that hang in the center of every minute.
I am the worst person to complain to. Commiseration has become impossible. Difficult situations are tests in which we are asked to find this stillness, this light there. The inconsiderate person is a challenge, a way to see inside of their actions to the hurting or lost person really there. When I forgive them, I forgive myself for my complicity, for all of my missteps, for all of the ways I have contributed to the fields of pain and fear and hatred that we all manifest together. There is light in it all, even the most cruel, even the most painful. I know this is what we’re meant to learn.
If I can see this light, if I can learn to be neutral to the outward displays of selfishness and inconsideration and cruelty and find that depth of love for the other and for each, then how will that affect not only my experience, but the experience of those around me, and then the greater world?
It’s all I can think of to contribute. I struggle to come up with anything else that makes any sense.
When the Dalai Lama said goodbye to John Oliver at the end of his recent interview, he took John Oliver’s hand and pressed it to his cheek in the most tender, loving, and sweet way. In that action, you could see the utter love he felt for the other, the oneness he acknowledged, and the overwhelming compassion. You could see John Oliver startle and collapse in delight. In Buddhism, compassion comes from the realization that you are me, there is no difference. As I love myself, I love you.
How wonderful to startle those around you with a simple motion that conveys unconditional love and oneness. Can I find my own ways to startle the world with my love? Can I lose myself in love for the other? I know we share pure light, in the center. This knowledge is all I have.
(Also, I know how to meditate, how to calm the physical body, how to find that still center in the middle of the chaos. I am including a link to a 30-minute meditation here for you. )
You can hear me read this post here: https://soundcloud.com/clemthegreat/the-view-from-lyon-street