Thankful

Even after twenty years, I still don’t do Thanksgiving like those who were born here (it took me a few years to warm up to gratitude in the first place).

This year, though, I do have something to be particularly thankful for: a first Thanksgiving with my partner Caitlin and her dog Collin, who braved a flight over from Kansas a couple of weeks ago. As the two of us settle in together, I am happy that the apartment looks more like a home. We are buying a few new things and moving on a few old things; now there is a cosy fullness about the place. It has also been comforting to fill the fridge, with things for Thanksgiving dishes and other staples – even as we live in a neighbourhood where there are long lines for different food banks almost every day.

I wonder how it must have seemed for Collin, who has spent all his life in the midwest: one day he gets into a noisy, bumpy container, and later that day he ends up in a new space. His first act on coming in the door was to leap on the bed, where he felt safe. It took him a few hours to trust the long hallway, and he still has a tendency to want to go up a different staircase and stop at a different floor to the one we live on. He doesn’t know he is in a different state; while he had never seen the ocean before, he lived close to a large lake, and perhaps experienced Ocean Beach in the same way as he did that – though I suspect the smells were different at the ocean. Perhaps everything else in California smells relatively familiar. He is mapping out his territory around the apartment, and has his own bed, our bed, and the couch to spend his days and nights on, sufficient food and abundant love. I think he likes it.

I know it has been a huge transition for Caitlin, leaving behind much that was dear to her in the midwest, and I am deeply grateful that she felt able to make that leap, and that we have an opportunity to create a new life together, with hopefully many adventures in many different places.  

Collin encounters the ocean for the first time.

The Health Of The People Is The Highest Law

On Tuesday night, what with the clock change and everything, I went to bed after Florida had been called for Trump. I woke up early on Wednesday morning, and even before checking the news, my body remembered the sinking feeling I woke with in 2016 – not once but twice, with the Brexit vote and then the US election.

Since it was a sunny day in San Francisco, and I had time in my schedule, I went out on my bike to gather my thoughts. I made it up to Sweeney Ridge, more settled, and glad that I had worked my legs hard to get there. As the day wore on, it did at least seem likely that Biden would be assuming the presidency – unless there are court interventions.

What caused the sinking feeling, for me and I am sure for many others, was the fact that this was not a blow-out victory – that the senate is still up for grabs (as I write). I had a notion, a wish, that there would be a massive repudiation of the shocking norm-shattering behaviour seen from the current president and the Republican party in power these past few years. It shocked me that fully half the people in the country I live in do not care for others to feel safe, healthy or supported, that they choose to continue to be represented by venal, self-serving liars. San Francisco may seem like a bastion of sanity in this country – and I would love the notion of secession to be explored if the culture war that are evident in almost every answer given in the exit polls truly represent the state of the nation – but I fear for the many people who don’t have the privilege of the safety we might feel here.

Of course, our practice asks us to keep going, to start from where we are and keep heading in the direction that reduces suffering and promotes well-being. Maybe, one day, there will be a government that cleaves to the phrase in the title, which I have written about before, and which stays clear in my mind.

On the ridge, the moon was waning, and sinking towards the fog that lay over the ocean. We trust it will rise again, and wax again.

From the top of Sweeney Ridge, a view across to San Bruno Mountain and the city.

Shaking Off The Dust

Notwithstanding what I wrote a few days ago, October really is a great month in San Francisco. The temperatures did indeed rise last week, so I had my third heatwave since moving to our new place. I had time to go and sit on the beach, and to be out on my bike early morning before it got too hot, to fmy current favourite locations – Ocean Beach, Sweeney Ridge, San Bruno Mountain, and the Crystal Springs trail.

That time was a result of not having a huge amount of work on. I got to lead an evening meditation for Core on Chalk, and it was great to have the time, and the intimacy of an audio-only format, to explore a theme – something I have missed since the Hebden Bridge sessions finished. I have noticed some second-guessing going on: do I really have anything to say, or to teach? What is my practice now? But these are more invitations to keep exploring rather than notions of despair.

I know that I miss the regular reading time I had when I was commuting in normal times; it somehow feels harder to carve that out even when I have space in my schedule. And I know that has a knock-on effect with what gets posted here, so I apologise if it has sometimes felt a little lacklustre. Seeing as we have just ticked past the fifth anniversary of this blog (with more than 1800 posts published), I thought it might be time for a refresh – only the second time I have changed themes. I hope that it is easy on the eye, and that the posts continue to be taxing to the brain for a few more years yet.

A warm still morning close to Candlestick Point on Saturday

In Place

The heatwave evaporated to be replaced by seasonally appropriate temperatures – from wandering around in shorts all day to suddenly needing to dig out all my winter clothes, and not wanting to get out of bed without some cosy layers. Chilly mornings and days that alternated between sun and fog, a definite sense of winter drawing in – even though, as we all know, that’s not an extreme thing in San Francisco. The forecast promises more heat to come; it also promised rain and that didn’t materialise in the end.

I still feel generally out of sorts: I love my new place, but just wish I was sharing it with my partner as planned. I have moved things around and bought some household things, but there are still a few pieces of furniture that are needed to make it a home. And I still feel the loss of the summer routines, the Instagram sessions and the discussions with the Hebden Bridge sangha.

While I have been doing some teaching, and have been enjoying my sitting, somehow that feels secondary, not just to this personal situation, but the collective breath-holding as the US gets closer to the election, and everything just seems to be getting crazier and crazier. And perhaps also to the sense that when winter does kick in, there will be a certain level of hibernation as the pandemic becomes more virulent again. The time feels liminal; it feels like changes – some for the better, some for the worse – are on their way, and that there is no point trying to settle until then.

And I know that such a standpoint is not how we practise. That every moment, every day – even the unsettled ones, the unwanted ones, even the ones of waiting and hoping – is valuable and worthy of our full attention. I am doing my best to do that and feel nourished in the process.

The fog on Great Highway. I confess I did not see the graffiti when I took the picture as I was riding along on my bike!
We’re still getting smoky sunsets.
On Friday I rode over to Heron’s Head to get some fresh air and stretch my legs. It was a pretty afternoon.

Equinox

I can’t say that I am used to Kansas weather, but I understand that September is one of the best months to visit – for the same reasons as that is usually true in San Francisco: warm sunny days, with just a hint of the changing seasons ahead. 

Of course this year, nothing is quite as it should be. I left San Francisco on the famous morning where the sun never came up, and the skies remained eerily orange all day. It was quite something to witness as I left early to the airport, and took off in skies that seemed to be only getting darker. There was no sight of the ground until we were across the Sierras, and even then, smoke could be seen hanging in valleys. It was also cool and rainy for the first couple of days in the midwest, before resuming a more typical week of mostly eighty-degree weather.

The initial plan had us starting the drive west last Thursday, but, even though the air had cleared in San Francisco after a hellish week, by all accounts, there were a number of fires close to our intended route, and bad air in several states that we had to cross. And we weren’t really in any hurry. So we stayed put, and are still determining whether to leave in a day or two, or to stay a full week more. Such work as I have can easily be done remotely (though trying to take the time zones into account makes me fear I am missing appointments), and this is the only kind of vacation I am going to get this year. Where we are staying, the garden sloping away from the house reminds me of being in Cornwall at my father’s house, where there is a similar sense of nothing much that needs to be done. We settle into happy, lazy days.

As always when I travel, the absence of a bike means I have laced up my running shoes – for the first time since the spring. This has felt like hard work, but I am always glad to move my body a few times a week.

Whenever it is that we leave, there will undoubtedly be many adventures on the road, not to mention hour after hour of compelling landscapes that will be entirely new to me. When we arrive, and settle into the new apartment, I expect there will be a sense of hunkering down for the winter, since the virus does not seem to be going anywhere any time soon.

Taking off on the morning of the 9th.
Wide-open skies in Kansas.
Smoky sunsets even here this past week.
Serene greenery to look out onto.

Step By Step

As I mentioned the other day, when I moved into my previous place, it was the middle of winter, a day of non-stop rain, and I was sick. This past weekend we were in the grip of an intense heatwave – luckily without the accompanying thunderstorms this time – and I was just tired.

The two guys who came along on Saturday afternoon worked tirelessly, and, with a little help from me running a few boxes down stairs and up, it was all done in just over a couple of hours. And then I was surrounded by boxes again.

On the Sunday, the temperature in my part of the city got up to 102 in the afternoon; there was precious little breeze, and the air was moderate to smoky. I unpacked slowly, though I was motivated to have things looking somewhat civilised.

Monday was barely cooler – I rode for a few hours early in the morning, having gone up San Bruno the day before, and I was totally wiped out afterwards, which slowed down my unpacking considerably. More was done on Tuesday – the heat had dissipated, and the fog felt good. This morning I am due to get on a plane for the first time since February, which is a source of stress all by itself. This trip has been discussed since April – back when I had pushed my abandoned UK flight booking back to August, which seemed like it would allow enough time for things to settle… That’s a trip I don’t envisage making until next spring at the very earliest, but three hours to the mid-west seems bearable. Let’s hope I make it back here unscathed in a couple of weeks.

The scene in our new place on Saturday night

Sunrise over McLaren Park on Monday morning.
Hard to tell where the water ends and the sky begins on the bay trail at Oyster Point

Surrounded By Boxes

September has a feeling of change about it, and this year is no exception. The lingering memories of being at Tassajara and transitioning from guest season to practice period get fainter each year; what I feel this time is a preparation for hunkering down for more months of shelter-in-place.

On a personal level, it is a time of change: after almost five years, I am leaving this cosy shared house and moving in with my sweetheart. The distance between my current place and the new one is about a mile, but the logistics are still there to be tackled.

At the outset, having found a place and signed a lease, the things to take care of seemed a bit daunting, and I woke up a few times crammed with thoughts and plans. Once I started taking the necessary steps, booking movers (because I really don’t want to move everything myself, as I did when I moved in here from Zen Center, in the rain, while I was sick), buying and picking up boxes, organising my stuff.

Now, a couple of days out, my books are all packed, and about half of my other stuff is. After moving this weekend, I will be getting on a plane to meet up with my sweetheart as she wraps up her affairs, and we will be driving back from the mid-west to San Francisco later in the month. All of which means I won’t have much time to post new things this month, and there will be some repeats scheduled – after all, with almost 1800 posts published, I like to read some of the wisdom again myself.

It seemed fitting, if sad, that the Hebden Bridge discussions wound down this week. These started back in April, as everyone was adjusting to lock-down, and it was encouraging to discuss how practice helps us meet such challenging times. I have really appreciated, as was expressed this week, the generosity of the sangha in offering this space for people across the UK and beyond, many dharma friends who do not ordinarily get to meet in person very often (as Wendy pointed out, we were coming up for the anniversary of my last in-person visit). I have also appreciated the opportunity to give regular talks, in a way that I haven’t before, and to entwine the conversation with Catherine Gammon (who, along with Wendy, I have known for about fifteen years from our time at Tassajara together) as we alternated taking the dharma seat.

Perhaps, after a hibernation, it will be possible to fly to the UK again next year. In any case, I trust the sangha will still be there, and still offering support.

I will miss the south-facing deck in my current flat…

Respite

The temperature dropped, quite considerably, on Wednesday. As much as I usually grumble about the fog, I was glad of it on this occasion, as the coolness and humidity would ease the work of the firefighters all over the state. Maybe some relief is at hand. The air had been hard to breathe on occasion – I went out on my bike on Sunday morning, when the index seemed okay, and discovered that this did not apply everywhere. The better air correlated entirely with where the fog normally lives – no doubt due to the movement of the marine layer, and elsewhere it was desperately smoky.

Up by Skyline at Millbrae
I thought the air might be better along Skyline, but it was not

Last week it felt like we were stretched even tighter than we had been already, between the pandemic, the heat, the smoke, with no sense of relief in sight. Fragility was the watchword. The friends who had just moved down to Boulder Creek had to evacuate; luckily they could stay with family nearby. It seemed touch and go as to whether Tassajara would be completely evacuated. Seeing pictures of the statues being buried in the bocce court brought back vivid memories of 2008.

Joseph and Bryan carrying the Buddha from the zendo to the bocce court

On Tuesday night we talked about refuge in my student group; one of them works in land conservation in the Santa Cruz area, and mourned the loss of the redwoods, where he was used to going for refuge. Remembering the maps that the Forest Service fire crews had brought to Tassajara in 2008, I knew that all of that wilderness had burned just in the hundred or so years of record keeping. And that redwoods know how to endure fires. I thought that rather than thinking of us saving the redwoods, we could be wondering about the redwoods saving us.

Devin, Captain Jack and David Z consulting the maps

In the midst of all this, I am planning to move into a new place – and thankful that I can take my time packing, rather than being forced to gather my most precious possessions in minutes as many people have been. I hope for this place to be a refuge, through what will most likely be a long and bleak winter, and it was chosen with that perspective in mind – enough space for my love and I to be on separate video calls when necessary.

I talked about all these things on Wednesday with the Hebden group, the last of the talks I am scheduled to give in this series that began in April. If you want to hear how the conversation has evolved, with themes reflecting the times we have been living through, they are all up on the audio page. I have been very grateful for that ongoing connection, and the sense of extended sangha that came with it; I always trust that this sangha feeling never dissipates. Connections endure, the practice endures. We all support each other to do our best and to guide others along the path.

My notes for the Hebden Bridge talk

Here We Are

There has been a heat wave this past week in San Francisco. That’s unusual enough for August, when we expect the fog to dominate, but the intense thunder storms that rolled through early Sunday morning and roiled for a day or so are even more so. And of course, lightning strikes bring fire, so by Wednesday morning the air was streaked with smoke. The times being what they are, it feels like portents for an apocalypse.

We have been here before, of course. No-one in the Bay Area has forgotten the smoky skies of recent years. We know there is more to come. The pandemic continues with no end in sight. Perhaps there is a glimmer of hope about the upcoming US elections, but there is no guarantee that it will not devolve into anarchy and civil unrest.

Our practice encourages accepting the reality of the present moment – and there is liberation in not struggling against reality – but that acceptance, and the resilience to move forward, is not the same as acquiescence. We do what we can to promote well-being and diminish suffering, in whatever arena we found ourselves in.

I decided to ride early on Sunday, thinking the storm had mostly passed through – and ended up with thunder swirling around and getting pretty wet.
The skies were pretty spectacular throughout the ride
A wan sunrise on Wednesday morning’s ride
I had to ride up through layers of smoke in Visitacion Valley to get to the clearer air on top of San Bruno Mountain

Plans

At the beginning of the year, it looked like I would have a conflict this week. One of my students had pencilled in August 8th for his wedding, since it is an auspicious date, and had asked me to officiate. The plan was shaping up to be a long weekend for many people up in Mendocino.

And I knew that Shohaku would be offering a Genzo-e at Zen Center, starting on the 7th. Even though I would have already attended the weekend in London with him in March, I definitely wanted to participate, as I am such a fan of him and the format.

So I was trying to calculate how much of the wedding weekend I could be present for, and how much of the retreat I would have to miss.

Both of the events took place, but of course not as originally planned (and the London weekend was cancelled…). In the end I decided that I did not want to clear my schedule to attend an online version of the Genzo-e from home, though I hope to be able to listen to the classes at some stage. And the wedding transformed into a socially-distanced event for families and a handful of close friends at a property outside of Santa Cruz that my student moved out to a couple of weeks ago, since his work did not need him to be present in the city.

It was the first time I had put on my robes since the last wedding, though I had not needed to leave the house for that one. Perhaps more notable, it was the first time I had been in a car since a trip I took in February – almost six months. I left the car rental place very carefully.

That cautious driving extended to my initial few miles on the 280 as I left the city. It reminded me of leaving Tassajara at the end of a practice period, when running was the fastest I had moved for three months, and suddenly, after a slow hour driving over the road, we accelerated down past Jamesburg as soon as the road was paved. There was an adjustment period for the unnatural to become acceptable.

I was also, this time, paying a lot of attention to my surroundings, as the 280 threads through most of the routes I have been riding this year, both close to the city, where I used not to be able to recognise the streets the freeway cuts through, and down the peninsula, where the names on the exits now had familiar gradients and qualities, and I could spot each sub-division along the way.

There was plenty of weekend traffic, but the southern end of Skyline, past Jikoji, was free and clear (and I remembered the very gruelling ride I took back from there at the end of a YUZ weekend). I stopped for a breather at the spot where I officiated a wedding last year, with the glorious views of woods and valleys, and made it to my destination right on time.

The event was being handled by friends and the owners of the property, who were all very gracious and working hard to make everything happen. I set up my altar, and once I had my robes on, was just there to help the bride and groom stay grounded before we got underway – a few moments with the redwoods helped with that.

It was a very personal ceremony, especially their vows to each other, for the small live audience and the hundred-plus following on a livestream. Watching so much love being expressed, not just between the couple, but from everyone present, is a complete tonic. Afterwards we ate in a large circle on separate tables, with beautiful kora music as an accompaniment.

I made my excuses so that I could drive home before it got too dark, and was rewarded with a spectacular drive, again with sun-filled tree-lined hillsides stretching off into the distance, and post sunset clouds and mist as I came back alongside the reservoirs I have ridden beside so many times this year. Even when things don’t go as planned, they can still be perfectly beautiful.

IMG_6697Finishing touches before the ceremony.

IMG_6701After the ceremony, the couple greet friends who have been following online.

IMG_6743Eating at a safe distance.

IMG_6756.jpegSpectacular evening colours on the 280, with the fog bank looming.