The birds have vanished from the sky. Now the last clouds drain away. We sit together, the mountain and me, Until only the mountain remains.
When I lived at Zen Center, I would eat lunch out in the courtyard every day it felt feasible to do so. Over the course of the year, you could observe the shadow cast by the roof advance and retreat, roughly from the middle of the courtyard at the height of summer, to almost the top of the dining room windows in the winter. At this time of year, around the autumn equinox, it felt like the shadow moved faster.
Talking to people in different locations, as I do on some of my meditations, I hear – and encourage – an awareness of the light starting to draw in; the body notices, and responds to this natural cycle, even if we are not consciously paying attention.
In San Francisco, we have nevertheless been edging, a little uncertainly, towards the second half of our summer, which can often be the finest time of year. In the past week we have had another smattering of early rain, some interludes of fog, and also some warm sunny days. During this time I have been in and around mountains and water more than I might usually manage.
I got a little wet riding on Saturday morning; I went out that day partly as the forecast had rain arriving early on Sunday. I was also not wanting to be too tired for the roam on Sunday afternoon, where we climbed into the fog on Golden Gate Heights, the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t Sutro Tower offering lessons in impermanence (I don’t think the Heights qualify as mountains, but they are a substantial climb, with wonderful views when you get them).
On Monday, it was clear and sunny, and I started the day riding my bike to the top of San Bruno Mountain. I was actually on a quest to check out some trails in Brisbane, but the day was so nice I could not resist a little detour. Our lunchtime sitting was definitely better in the shade.
The following day I rented a car and drove up the coast, from Point Reyes to Sea Ranch – the first few miles were familiar from many bike rides, and then I was on roads I have only driven once, a few years ago now, on a short holiday from Zen Center. It was warm and bright, and Sea Ranch itself, the setting for an end-of-afternoon wedding I was officiating, looked amazing. I got to linger by the ocean a few times on the way up, and then hang out with a family of deer and a hummingbird before the couple showed up.
After the ceremony itself, I left just as the sun was setting into the ocean, and opted for the direct route inland to the 101, which was a narrow, crazily winding, and almost entirely deserted road, the light fading all the while. As I crested one ridge, I could see the last rich colours of twilight behind me. At the next, a gorgeous orange moon – one day past full – in front. I was extremely tired from all the driving, but also energised by the beauty.
On Wednesday afternoon, having dropped off the rental car and lead a couple of teaching sessions, I returned on my bike to Brisbane, where my student’s company was having an off-site day. The location was high on the hillside already. I wasn’t sure how much the group would be up for in terms of hiking, but the majority were keen to try taking the fire road that run almost straight up to the ridge line of San Bruno Mountain. I had seen that from afar, and had plans for less challenging hikes as well. It was quite a workout, and hot with it, with new-to-me views over the airport (since we were a couple of miles closer than where the road takes you to the summit). The way down required complete attention, also steep and straight down on loose rocks and dirt. It seemed that everyone managed to clear their heads from the day of strategising.
I was quite exhausted by all of that, and some unpleasant near-misses with cars while riding this week, but on Friday afternoon I had some time to ride to the foot of Mount Sutro and hike up some of the trails ahead of next weekend’s roam. I haven’t been around there in at least a year, and much work has been done – and a couple of my favourite little trails are currently closed off. The east side was nice and sunny, but the west-facing slopes were catching the fog. I am looking forward to circumambulating the mountain.
My sister and her husband have been doing sterling work – she being the only sibling still in England – to take care of matters involving my parents. While she ensures that my mother, whose mobility and eyesight are declining in tandem, has what she needs, she also recently rented a van to move boxes of my stuff from the attic of my father’s house before it is sold, to her place a couple of hours away. And being very diligent, she listed all the things she brought, and photographed a lot of it too.
I felt very poignant in response to this. Not the least part of it is not having been able to travel to England since I was there exactly two years ago, and thus missing being able to help with developments since. But more prominent was being reminded of the life I was leading twenty-plus years ago, in London. It’s not that I have ever really regretted moving to California, and right now I have no particular desire to return to live in the UK. When I packed those boxes up at the turn of the millennium, I am not sure I had much idea what their fate was going to be. I had offloaded many things, including all my furniture and other artefacts, and at least once since then I have winnowed out the remains, on my step-mother’s request; all the things that remains were what seemed important to keep ten years or so ago.
When I moved recently, I was able to trim some of my possessions here, which felt good, so perhaps it is just a matter of being reminded of the psychic weight of having things in storage. I can envision – assuming I have the time and leisure to do so – going through all these boxes one more time and maybe moving along books and CDs and kitchen wares. I hear that nineties fashion is in again, though I don’t know how ready I am to wear the same clothes as I was wearing back then. There are also boxes and albums of photogaphs, going back to the very first pictures I took at the age of eight with a camera my uncle gave me for my birthday. Perhaps some of it will get shipped back over here.
I am often aware, especially when I visit my old friends in England, that their lives have had a different continuity to mine – new relationships, new places to live, new jobs for sure, but within the same general part of the world. My life, as with that of any expatriate, is that of before and after, and not necessarily being able to hold both equally.
This body manifests a full moon expressing the bodies of all buddhas, teaching that it has no particular shape, expressing that revealing it is neither sound nor form.
Another old photo from Tassajara that I felt illustrated the poem.
September started off on the right foot in San Francisco, with a warm and sunny holiday weekend. I had a great time leading the roam on Saturday, with the fog mostly holding off, and then had two bike rides, on Sunday and Monday morning, to continue the outdoor theme, which felt very beneficial.
The general good feeling about the short week was my inspiration for the teaching sessions I held today: what part of us knows that a holiday Monday feels like Sunday, and the Tuesday feels like Monday? What assumptions are we making, and are they mental or physical? Although it might have felt like a Tuesday, I was definitely doing Wednesday things, in an enjoyable combination, as follows.
I woke up, as I often do, well before it got light, but I felt rested enough to get up and have some coffee and read the morning stories as is my habit now. That way, I had plenty of time to get ready for the first teaching session of the day, a short one with a group I very much appreciate. I had my laundry in the machine before I sat down (out of consideration for the other people in the building, I wouldn’t attempt to do laundry any earlier than 8:00), and since the sun was out, I attempted to dry everything out on the deck, which has proved sadly impossible on the foggier days we have been having (I resent having to use a dryer, and to use so much energy when it can be done by the sun).
Once that was done I rode down to Rainbow to restock the kitchen, and came back – slightly uphill all the way – with a fairly heavy pack (the nearest Trader Joe’s is about the same distance, but uphill on the way out, and downhill with the full load, so I am alternating).
Then it was time to have elevenses – coffee and toast – and do some work on the Suzuki Roshi archive. This is going to be publicly launched soon, and I am trying to make sure that all the elements are organised as best they can be.
I ate lunch before my Within class, as I usually do for lunchtime engagements: I would rather be sitting on a full stomach than an empty one (even though traditionally you don’t eat right before sitting, so I try to be able to digest for half an hour or so). The half-hour sit was a somewhat typical progression from having many thoughts to feeling quite sleepy.
It was a beautiful afternoon for a short ride, and I took myself up to Golden Gate Heights, to refamiliarise myself with some of the roads I will be using for the next roam. I discovered that one of my favourite stretches of off-road roaming, the steep dune of Hawk Hill, was all cordoned off, so I shall have to plan a slightly different route.
After showering and shaving my head, and some tea and toast, I walked the few blocks down to the Castro farmers’ market. This was the one I used to go to before moving a year ago. It was nice to be remembered by some of the vendors when I started going back, and I have met people I know through Zen Center the last few weeks down there. My dinner was a bagel and avocado, and various pieces of fruit, all bought from the market.
And then I had time to watch England’s tough World Cup qualifier against Poland before dharma sister Kim came over to sit and listen to a couple of short pieces of Suzuki Roshi’s instructions from an early sesshin. This is something we have started doing since I moved closer to where she lives: zazen, listening to Suzuki Roshi, and then discussing what he said, followed by a glass of wine and a good old natter. A lovely end to a very agreeable day.
This is happiness
crossing the stream in summer
carrying my straw sandals.
I thought of this picture for this repost, a scene from Tassajara summer a few years ago.
Camille, who I have known through Zen Center since my earliest days there, had a lovely piece about Roaming Zen published in the Bold Italic (a publication I have known about for about a decade). There was a spike in the readership on here afterwards – welcome if you are new and sticking around. It didn’t, though, boost the attendance for Sunday’s roam, but we had a nice small group, and we got very lucky with a warm sunny afternoon. Pine Lake was a wonderfully serene spot to sit and watch the herons, the cormorants, and the many dogs being walked to and fro. I could have stayed for much longer, but felt responsible to get people back to the starting point on time.
The fog has been quite insistent recently. I have only seen a couple of sunrises from the east-facing kitchen window at my new place, and these were tinged with red – my thought was ‘oh, here we are again.’ And then on Thursday, smoke of a different kind when I arrived for the morning ferry. I was chatting with the regular fellow passenger I see almost every week, and she pointed to a plume rising from the Bay Bridge. It turned out that a roofing truck had caught fire, though we couldn’t tell that exactly from where we were; we could see a few figures standing back, and heard little booms as propane tanks exploded. That was quite a start to the day, though I was feeling great relief that I was not in a vehicle stuck behind the fire on the bridge.
Even though the move to my new place happened on the 13th, there was still a lot to do to feel settled. My training came into play in a couple of ways: I spent Wednesday morning deep cleaning the old place so that I could hand back the keys at the walkthrough on Friday. I was motivated by wanting to get the deposit back, of course, but also by the practice of being on cabin crew at Tassajara, wanting everything to look impeccable – much more than one does when still living there. At the new place, I try to keep everything in its place, mostly out of sight, returning to the minimal look of my old Zen Center rooms. It took some time figuring out where those places would be for everything, but during the week all the decisions got made, even if I still don’t yet automatically turn to the right drawer or cupboard to find what I am looking for.
This place has some quirks as well: cupboard doors that need a little lift to latch, a drawer that brushes against a door frame when it is opened. I bought a new shower curtain as the stand-alone tub needed two, but did not take into account the tall ceilings and the rail hung high, which left my standard-length curtains dangling a few inches above the rim of the tub. I had to go back to get a pair of long shower liners before I could enjoy the shower at all.
As lovely as my new place is, I felt sadness arising when I handed back the keys to the last flat. My mood has not been great on the whole; I attribute it in small part to the dreary weather, in a slightly greater part to the chronically slow internet I have currently, which makes many of the things I have to do more of a frustrating chore (and which alarmed me when I came back just before my Within class after the morning of cleaning, and the network was completely dormant for several minutes). Mostly, though, it is missing the warmth and companionship of Caitlin and Collin; no amount of tidiness compensates for the lovely, lived-in nest we shared.
Moving is a pretty exhausting business. The movers came on Friday, and were skilful enough to pull in right after the street cleaner had driven through. The whole process took about the same amount of time as a year ago, although at least this time we were not in the middle of a heatwave. I still have some cleaning to do at the old place – most of which seemed prudent to leave until it was empty – and some finishing up to do here.
Apart from the quiet, and the small deck at the back, one of the main features of the new place is two lovely built-in cupboards. Since I have a couple of other storage spots, I have been working out how to make best use of them. The kitchen one obviously has plates and glasses in the upper half, as well as all my old photo albums along the top shelf (and negatives and discs full of photos in one of the deep drawers), and the open shelf is becoming what I call the whimsical altar, full of mementoes, rocks, sticks, and other things that I often have had on display in the past. In the main room, the built-in struck me right away as the best backdrop for the regular Zoom teachings (though I have not done one yet, and the internet is way slower than the smooth fibre optic connection we were just enjoying). The open shelf will be a more formal altar, and I realised it would be lovely to have a drawer for all the incense (not actually allowed per the lease, but I still have supplies of it for weddings and such), extra candles, matches, and the many altar style cloths I have accumulated. It takes me right back to the days of chidening, taking care of the altars, which was one of my very first temple jobs at Zen Center.
It feels very quiet and dull without my beloved, and it is, I realised, the first time I have lived on my own since I left London at the turn of the millennium. I remember how to do it, of course, and that it is really not my favourite thing. Luckily I made some mildly social plans over the weekend, taking photographs for the Bicycle Coalition at a bike donation event for kids on Saturday morning; the kids were adorable of course, and their enthusiasm showed even with masks on. My ride on Sunday was punctuated by stretches chatting to other riders who were heading in the same direction as me, and ended at the Great Highway, where there was a rally to keep it in its pandemic car-free state permanently, the mayor having suddenly decided to open it during the week, and where it was nice to see some familiar faces from the bike world.
On Saturday morning I waved goodbye to Caitlin and Collin, the elderly dog, as she headed off to take care of some family business, so for the last week before the movers come on Friday, I will be alone in my current place, as I was at the beginning of the lease a year ago. The silence is very noticable; I miss the many routines we all had together, and the deep comfort of always being around my beloved.
Of course I will be very busy finishing up the packing, even though we have already taken several car loads of books, clothes, and kitchenware over to the new place after I picked up the keys about ten days ago. I am naturally excited to imagine the contours of life there, although our preliminary measurements of the space revealed that I will have to be more creative with furniture placement than my initial ideas.
I was also fortified against sadness on Saturday as I spent the rest of the morning preparing for a wedding up in Marin, one that had been scheduled since last December. It was a small and sweet occasion, in a beautiful house I had ridden my bike near many times without knowing of its existence. I have another wedding to officiate at lunchtime on Monday, this time at City Hall, grand and beautiful in a different way.
This means that I won’t be able to attend this week’s sit on the Embarcadero. Zachary will still be there, and hopefully a couple of the regulars as well. It has been fun getting back into that routine. Last week was especially warm, and the dragonflies flitted about at head height. The busyness feels very familiar, though there are undoubtedly fewer people walking along the waterfront; no shortage of seagulls, parrots, pelicans, hummingbirds and cormorants however.
‘“One could tell the story of human civilization as a story of how we learned to trust one another,” (Benjamin) Ho writes. “We learned first to share the spoils of a group hunt instead of hunting and eating (or not eating) alone.” He cites the British evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, who noticed that natural community size for primates seemed directly related to brain size—the greater the relative size of the neocortex, the larger the tribe. For large-brained Homo sapiens, the predicted maximal group size, also called Dunbar’s number, was a hundred and fifty. (The number, Dunbar says, recurs in the estimated average sizes of the Bronze Age communities that built stone circles, of Anglo-Saxon villages listed in the Domesday Book, and of contemporary Facebook communities.) The concept has its critics, but the basic idea—that there are probably capacity constraints on the number of personal connections we can make with our fellow-humans—seems hard to dispute…
E. O. Wilson, the eminent biologist, once remarked that “the real problem of humanity is the following: we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.” Digital technology has shredded the putative infallibility of once vaunted institutions: the holiest figures, the grandest politicians, the greatest newspapermen. “Whatever the headlines say, this isn’t the age of distrust—far from it,” (Rachel) Botsman writes. The ambit of trust has merely shifted. “Trust and influence now lie more with individuals than they do with institutions…”
In the end, though, trust isn’t a property that can be measured in the abstract, like some sort of social ether. It characterizes a relationship.’ (from the New Yorker)
As I got on the ferry on Tuedsay, the skies were spectacular. It was warm and humid, and I had started to wonder if it was going to be the one day that it rains in the summer – there always seems to be one. The clouds reminded me rather of the storms that rolled through last summer, whose lightning strikes wreaked fiery havoc in the forests. And then I thought, ‘Every day is a good day.’ I was reminded, in Baizhang’s memorable phrase, that we trust we can find something wonderful in any circumstance, even as other things might be terrible.
When I read this article later the same day, I enjoyed the reminder of the Dunbar number, as that seemed to fit well with how I feel about sangha, especially as it coalesced around Zen Center. Then I thought, ‘I trust that everyone I meet has the potential to be Buddha, even if their current behaviour is not manifesting that.’