These last two months have seen a cascade of change. I write from a pause – a time of calm from my warm room looking out at the treetops. The clouds are low. It is raining today. From this vantage point, I share some of what has been going on.
The first week of October, Northern California had many fires. These fires burned 7000 structures in Santa Rosa alone including 5000 homes. Over 40,000 people had to evacuate. Along with the multitudes, Shanti, my special friend and the Awakening Truth Executive Director, Mom, Mom’s dog, Lacey and I evacuated. Mom and I headed to Milpitas, Shanti to Laguna Beach. This sudden dislocation was inconvenient and unsettling. However, each of us was eventually able to return home and the things we owned intact - a privilege that many thousand lost. One newly acquired ‘thing’ was my car that a freind sold me at a fraction of its value.
After getting Mom resituated, I left for the East coast to teach. When I returned, my health didn’t hold up. Air purifiers, masks, herbal remedies helped only a small amount. Trips to the beach were helpful, trips that wouldn’t have been possible without a car. Yet every time I got close to Santa Rosa, burning eyes, mouth, brain fog reappeared. Eventually when I wasn’t able to speak a few clear consecutive sentences, friends stepped in and said it was time to leave. Again.
With Shanti’s help, we evacuated. Once again we were on the road with unknown destination, the apartment left asunder – a tell tail sign of leaving in a hurry. I was advised to stay out of Santa Rosa until my symptoms were all gone.
After two weeks, my symptoms were still not gone. Mind was moving from one thing to the next, trying to find a solution that would enable me to respond to the community, support Mom and my own health needs. I had no answer.
Awareness and Love
From the whirlwind, I turned my attention to awareness and love. It was a faint glimmer, a distant memory. Putting my attention there, it grew. I felt it in my body. As I could feel it, I relaxed. As I relaxed more, the tangible expereince of awareness and love got stronger. The more it filled me up and suffused my body, heart and mind, the more I trusted it. Yet, I felt myself pulling back with all the things I had to do, who I was to different people, the expectations I had of myself and my hungers to fulfill them. As my identities, roles and expectations were keeping me bound up and anxious, I let them go. As I let them go, something shifted.
Maybe it is a little akin to what happens when you make butter. Initially you have cream where the fat is suspended in water. But after churning it inverts and water is suspended in fat. In the same way, awareness was no longer suspended in me; I was suspended in awareness. But this is where the metaphor falls apart. I wasn't simply suspended in awareness, I became porous, a thin veil from which awareness and love poured in and out. I was peaceful and clear. All of the conundrums and complexity involved with health, home, Mom, and community, still were just as pressing as they had been yet somehow, everything was different.
Silver Lining in the Cloud
On the road, people were welcoming, offering accommodation and friendship. I had some scheduled teaching enagements. Between those and spontaneous ones, we had many discussions that were delicious and rich. It is a blesing that even when my life circumstances are unsettled and health isn't optimal, the Dharma still pours through unhindered and clear.
Return to Santa Rosa
After 3.5 weeks staying with several friends in their homes in Ojai, San Clemente, Los Angeles, Redondo Beach, it was time to return to Santa Rosa even though I was still not symptom free. There had been several days of really heavy rain while I was away. Friends reported no smell of smoke in the air and were hopeful.
Re-entering the city, my eyes and mouth started to burn immediately. Along with the physical burning, my heart ached. The impending implications for my journey towards health, Mom and our community were all daunting.
I asked if I could sublet the apartment, but the owners did not agree. So I relinquished it. With the new tenent, they raised the rent. While some people see hardship as an opportunty to step up and help, other use it to profit.
Moving was only possible with a lot of community support.
Susan Hartz, an aquaintance from Julian Cell meditation group, had put her lovely Forestville home up for sale six weeks before the fires hoping to move into Santa Rosa. It didn’t sell. After the fires, price wars caused chaos in the housing market and homes were selling from 150K - 300K above asking prices. Susan would have been able to sell her house quickly but buying one was another story. She took it off the market, resigned but not happy to live another winter alone. She offered me a room, delighted to have a companion. Again without a car this wouldn't have been possible. It is fortunate this worked out as there are many still homeless. Forestville is 25 minutes west of Santa Rosa. Ensconced in trees, the air here is better.
I oscillated back and forth between gratitude for my new housemate, her offering me a beautiful sunny room and sadness. The apartment where I lived held our community gatherings. Letting it go meant letting go of a place we could regularly meet. Sally Singingtree, Kris Hall and Susan Carney each offered to host one of our meditation gatherings and discussions. Their hospitality allows continuation and new opportunities.
I was settling. Health was improving and my living situation was going to be a good place stay for a while. All of a sudden Mom started behaving very differently and needed more support. It looks like she has been having mini strokes. Her doctors say she has dementia and keeping her safe at some point may require different housing.
There is nothing like the need to protect love ones to catapult action and activity. Day and night suddenly filled up with doctor visits, research, and discussions with my brother David Fein and Mom’s closest friends. There is a bitter-sweet gladness to this new phase of being a care partner with Mom. I’m deeply grateful I’m here to support. It is such a treasured time. I see myself moving through list of things to do against the emotinal reality of what this means. My activity dissipates anxiety and distracts me from the dull ache of loss. Dementia is devastating even if rampant. I feel my self pulling back, not wanting to commit to writing what I know to be true. As if by not mentioning it, naming it, I can better protect her.
One night I went to ancient redwood trees not far from me. Nestled at their roots, I gazed up at the canopy far above. I felt protected and safe, as if I were swaddled in a blanket. I gave my body over for the Earth to hold. In the cool moist air, one breath at a time, compression slowly relaxed. I felt calm. Awareness was present. It was not defined by any of my roles. It didn’t depend on me having answers. It didn’t need Mom to respond in familiar ways. It was embracing, allowed everything to be just as it was.
I came out of the woods, grounded, rested, bright, feeling the full length of my body reaching into the dark sky with my weight sinking into the spongy earth below my feet. As I came out from under the canopy, the moon was nearly full and surrounded by a great rainbow ring. I got in my car, turned on the ignition and the panel lit up. The odometer read 191919. I took it as a sign to pay close attention.
What I have been through and continue to go through has symmetry. These times speak of beginnings and endings, of yin and yang of staying balanced and resourced in the middle of upheaval.
We Are Not Alone
All around me others are also dealing with huge changes and upheavals. The fires have caused secondary and tertiary moves, work and health issues on a massive scale. It has also generated a huge outpouring of support.
Shanti first moved to Laguna Beach to work in her aunt’s gallery. But when Southern California fires began, their clientele weren’t buying fine art. Shanti has now moved to Salt Lake City, Utah. In Shanti’s moving out of Santa Rosa, Awakening Truth has lost a fine community member and excellent Executive Director. I miss my friend.
Laurie Hope was visting in Sonoma County and welcomed me to stay in her home in Ojai, CA., over 400 miles south of Santa Rosa when I evacuated the second time. It was a much needed refuge. Hardly had I returned to Sonoma County, when Southern California fires began. Laurie evacuated. I was in regular contact with her, watching the fire map daily as fire surrounded her neighborhood. Miraculously, a small bubble safely ensconced her home and some homes nearby. She still cannot return because the smoke damage to her home and toxicity of the area. From Northern and Southern California fires, many are still displaced.
Impermanence is a characterisitc of exisitence. We are reminded there is no certainty anywhere; nothing lasting to hold on to. But the magnitidue of what we are facing is hard to grasp, hard to make sense of and process. My ability to do this has been direclty connected to understanding and advocating for succesively complex needs.
During the first evacuation from the fire, Lacey, Mom's dog, couldn't relieve herself for two full days. When what is going on is too big to process, we need the same care and kindness we would naturally give our furried family member who is so stressed that she can't pee or poo. We have to start where we are at. Meeting basic physiological and safetly needs support heart and mind opening to bigger perspectives and timeless truths.
I look at what is going on for me, Mom and for many of us. I see it as an opportunity to learn about love, learn what not having a fixed identity might mean in a completely new way. Ordinary mind focuses either on the good or bad, either the kindness and generosity or the losses and the devastation. When mind opens to awareness, a third option is revealed. Here it is possible to embrace the tender underbelly of being human, feel the importance and fragility of loved ones, our communities, the grief of personal and collective loss, and stay tuned to the mystery. Herein is the rich intersection of the human timebound journey and what is timeless.
The Call and the Catalyst
These are extraordinary times, seeking the center of a whirlwind in full catastrophe living. This isn’t all nicely tied up where calm abiding makes everything OK. Instead, this is an invitation into the messiness of being human in a world on fire. It is a tribute to the kindness and generosity of both friends and strangers, people who take time to extend a hand, help hold us and problem solve the struggle, give support where it is needed and witness what is. This is an expression of gratitude for smiles and encouragement in our small and large successes; for forgiveness and patience when we fail. This is a call to pay attention in a way that allows wholeness to emerge, love to grow stronger both in the ways we understand and advocate for ours and other's needs and to know what doesn’t burn.
On this day and all the rest; yours in this shared human experience,