Before my eyes open, I give thanks for another day. Pulling off the mask of my continuous positive air pressure machine, I listen for its whirring to stop after ten seconds. It makes my nose hurt, and it’s digging valleys into my formerly apple cheeks. I strongly dislike it, but I stand it because it gives me something I need: air. I’m in a dormitory on a silent meditation retreat. My bed is under a loft ladder. Thankfully, I’m not superstitious, just a little stitious — a thing I’ve said since I was little — and grateful that someone has heeded the sign: If you are non-disabled enough to ascend the ladder, please leave the lower beds for, well, people like me. I don’t look sick, but I have a disease that affects my cardiopulmonary function.
I try to guess whether it’s dawn yet. When I open my eyes, it’s not, so I pick up my cell phone to see if I should try to get back to sleep. It’s after five, so I say goodbye to the spirits that linger; random things, without actual life, that need to be tamed, because, in the hour of the pearl, they seem as alive as anything, and I want to become wide awake — at least I think that I do.
Stepping onto the carpet, I feel the melting of tiny snowflakes underfoot. All these beautiful, crystalized ideas have fallen in the night — no two exactly alike — and will not last much past first-light. Before I remember my life and what the day will bring. A dot of grief flashes like a pointer. My heart skips a beat. I mean, it has another premature ventricular contraction. They aren’t dangerous. They feel like a flutter of love. But, my doctor has already talked to me about the possibility of a lung transplant down the road. If I get any sicker, what will I do? Maybe my diagnosis is a mistake. Someone else’s chart got mixed up with mine. I let myself fantasize about this for a moment — for the millionth time.
“Begone!” I say. This is the incantation I use for everything that hurts. I’m waiting for the sun to come up, for coffee, and for this five-day silent meditation retreat to begin. I see through the window, a California redwood tree illuminated by the rays of dawn where the ocean oscillates. I wish I knew the birds in that giant redwood that’s filtering sunbeams against the coastline shaped like a yin yang symbol. The pond, surrounded by boulders, is lit with lanterns for the Hanuman Temple on the summit of Mount Madonna, with Monterey Bay to the south and Santa Cruz to the north. The phrase “only in California” fits this Zen-based meditation retreat by a temple for the Hindu monkey god on a mountain named for the Virgin Mary.
I snap a crow’s picture to remind myself of the message she delivers, perched on a sign that reads, “Road Narrows.” My road has narrowed. There are things I no longer have the heart or stamina for, like housework or men. My home is two hours south of San Francisco, in a village of storybook cottages and architectural showpieces with ocean vistas that sing in praise of paradise, with a partial ocean view that has a telephone pole in the middle. Crows helped me adjust to disappointment. They look in the window at me. If they faced the other way, they’d see what I want.
Maybe when I begin meditating, I’ll stop these fruitless thoughts about death and needing answers to questions like “When will I hear about my tests?” Getting results seems so gratifying, even if the answer is bad news — while waiting seems torturous. Sometimes it feels like I’m always hanging on for answers.
I’m about to start my third silent meditation retreat in less than a year. My health has improved after each one. The numbers that signified pulmonary arterial hypertension have fallen. The doc says that the first test must have been off, that the numbers don’t go backward. Mine are now on the line between maybe and maybe not. My right heart catheterization has been canceled for now. I’m in “wait and see” mode. I can live with that.
But news about a virus that’s been ravaging parts of China and may hit other countries hard is beginning to circulate. Before arriving, I got this message: “We write to convey that our current preparations for your arrival now include several actions to address the growing concern about the COVID-19 virus.” It’s an attentive letter full of precautions based on the World Health Organization’s recommendations. They asked for everyone who is showing any symptoms to please stay home. “I sincerely hope that, with the above precautions in place, those in attendance will all be able to relax and fully drop into the opportunities that a week in silence can bring.”
The retreat manager informs us that several people have chosen not to attend after receiving his message, and we are all grateful to them for their sacrifice of staying home. There’s a triage room for anyone feeling sick. I’m thankful for her willingness to take people’s temperatures and hope that she has a mask to use for her own protection. (People weren’t wearing masks in February 2020).
The teacher asks, “Who am I?” and my internal hand goes up. I squirm in my seat.
“I know this!” I think.
“If you think you’ve got the answer,” he says, “you’re wrong.”
But I do have the answer, I say in my head. It’s not very Zen of me to say that I know the answer to the teacher’s question or anything. I get that. I know that I’m a fool, but I’m also a fool who knows the answer. I feel so confident that I imagine the most excellent Zen teacher couldn’t dissuade me.
My expertise is like Bob Wiley’s sailing prowess in the movie What About Bob? where fearful Bill Murray can go be on a sailboat on a lake only because he’s tied to the mast with several life jackets. But he’s so happy with his accomplishment that he glides along, singing, “I’m sailing, I’m sailing. Look, everybody, I’m sailing.”
A man with a cough is trying to empty his lungs, while another, in a T-shirt with Kali stretched over his belly, is weeping. I focus on emptying my mind. I envision life as gas in a primordial stew. Then, I imagine being the pores of God’s skin. So much for empty. At least I’m getting smaller. Or maybe that’s bigger. Pores on the face of the cosmos must be enormous. Meditation seeks emptiness, but I’m full of daydreams and distractions, like picturing a cyst that I had to drain on someone’s back once — ick. I’m glad this retreat is silent, so I won’t embarrass myself by blurting out my thoughts.
Another distraction comes when I envision human life on Earth as parasitic. We call nature “ecosystems.” Interdependence is a good thing, so I’ve learned, but to what purpose are we here? I see a yellow jacket vibrating in the corner of a skylight, trying to find a way out. “It’s not going to happen,” I say to it, telepathically, feeling what I think is empathy. The yellow jacket is still trying. “It’s going to die on that sill because there is no way out.
Instincts: What good are they if they can’t show the way? Just let it unfold. If I try to help a butterfly open, I’ll break its wings.” I watch a guy use an oversized mug and a piece of paper to catch and free the yellow jacket. He walks past me, holding the meditation instructions as a lid, then releases the creature outside.
I still think that I know the answer to the question “Who am I?” when the teacher changes the question from “Who am I?” to “What am I?” Oh, shit! The words come flying out of my mouth before I can catch them. “I got NOTHING.” People move their eyes to me. The coughing gets louder. Shut up and listen, I say to myself, regaining my composure, relieved that I didn’t get tossed by the retreat manager, who has flown over from England to be in charge of us for these five days.
The teacher says, “Let’s explore the mystery of why we’re here.” I’m contemplating these words while a man sitting across the room belches the grossest burps I’ve ever heard. It’s like he’s forcing them up. I don’t know why he is doing this. Maybe he has heartburn. Maybe he’s uncomfortable. But I’m here to explore the mystery of why I’m here, and I don’t think it’s to listen to his belches. As I wince, I can’t help wondering how often I’ve been someone else’s ick.
“Bless my poor old ego. I hold her in my arms and stroke her head. She wants so much to belong.” During the meditation, it’s evident that not everyone with symptoms has decided to stay home. Those in attendance will relax into the quiet as was suggested by the letter that asked sick people to stay home. Four coughers are hacking into their elbows, holding them about ten inches away.
The person who seems the sickest is a woman in a hot pink sweater. She is about 60, with a shoulder-length light-brown bob. I believe that she’s a nurse. Maybe it’s because she reminds me of a woman I once worked with. She coughs every minute, and she doesn’t stay in one place. She sits in different chairs at every break. I find myself going the other way when I see her coming. I won’t use the restroom after her. I don’t like this part of me that won’t face everything and everyone face-forward. My ego wants me to be better than that.
When I was a student intern at Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Hospital in San Francisco, one of the psychiatric technicians was a follower of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who taught that people should renounce the world and become ascetics. His followers were commanded to dress in various shades of red. I always knew where this colleague was by her dark pink clothing easily seen from a distance. I’m ashamed that I stopped wearing those colors because I didn’t want people to think I was a Rajneeshee. I could only think of his 94 Rolls-Royces in contrast with his followers’ devotion to simplicity, if not downright poverty. (There’s a Netflix show about him now.)
As I wait in the cafeteria line to receive a meal, I read a quote on the wall by Baba Hari Dass: Peace unto all creatures. The word “creatures” captures my attention, and I want to remember its origin. Is it the Latin creatura? It sounds like “creator.” Are we being created, or beings creating? Look at what we make. Sometimes it’s plain caca, but once in a while, it’s beauty. “Peace to the pink,” I say. I don’t believe that it’s going to raise my vibration or help change my irritation, but I’m open to trying things that can do no harm —first, do no harm.
On some level, I contain an unacknowledged hope that life does have meaning, whether I find it for myself or not. I said that I want to become wide awake. What that means to me is to wake up — aware — not just of other people around me, but of our oneness. We all share the conditions of life and death — here for a brief moment. But as one, none of us truly dies. When my part is gone, yours is still here, and we are one.
In the next meditation of the morning, I see a vision where I slip off to the Museum of Natural History in London. I’m walking around lost until I am face-to-face with the bones of Lucy, the oldest displayed human remains on Earth. Her tiny skeleton is like a child’s. “Look what we’ve become,” I say to her; then I cry, reciting a poem to this holy relic. She dwelt among the untrodden ways (adapting Wordsworth), and scientists can say when Lucy ceased to be — because she is NOT in her grave, and oh, the difference to me. “There is something in you that’s innately trustworthy — and not chaotic.” I tell myself this, feeling saner. I love Lucy.
I look out over a meadow. I’ve brought binoculars. Last time, I watched deer feeding there at dusk, and I thought it might be pleasant to see that again. My heart leaps when I find them, but a man in the distance is walking down the path toward the group of deer. He will scare them. I feel his excitement with every step he takes, and I feel the loss. His posture changes as they flee.
When I was a kid, I wanted a shirt with a butterfly design. With my tenth birthday came wish fulfillment. I wore that shirt every day until my music teacher said that butterflies always represent a tragic ending, like Madame Butterfly. To be safe, I began avoiding butterflies and continued to for decades. The truth is, I was more than a little ‘stitious.
Last night I dreamed that I was panning for gold with a large plastic dishpan in a flood drain after a storm. It was full of water and debris, but I saw a spot of color near the bottom. I swirled the water until I could make out that there was a soaking wet butterfly swishing around. After all these years, it seemed like time to surrender. What could I still have to fear? I pulled the half-dead thing out of the water and watched the wings expand into a bird that glittered in the light. It turned out to be a mythical phoenix bird. I heard her say, “No one knows their fate, and no one can say when our journeys will end.” I vow to become ‘stition free.
It’s the last morning of the silent meditation retreat. I open my eyes, and a figure appears. A young woman in a flowing cotton skirt is hoisting a big suitcase, trying to make it down the ladder with the other. I feel her hesitate halfway. She needs help. I have my lung condition, but I jump up and catch her bag. I hear her sigh of relief. Her palms pressed together in gratitude. I am the change that I want to see, at least in this one case, er, suitcase.
Before the silence is officially over, people are emptying their rooms and loading their cars. I reach for the reusable cup that I’ve left on a shelf in the break room. It falls to the floor. A hand reaches out to catch it and return it to me. It’s the woman in pink. I try not to recoil. I don’t want her to touch me, but I suppose that I respect her impulse. We are threads of the same cloth. How many times have I been someone else’s ick? “Who am I?” Someone who wishes that they had the guts to walk in the other’s shoes; because — Who am I NOT? •