Like a switch being flipped, the fog burned off on Thursday, and the skies cleared. Friday was warm and windless. Since it was the only morning this week I had free to ride, I was happy to get up San Bruno Mountain. On the way up, I discovered, as I used to on my pilgrimages to Mount Diablo, that I crossed a temperature layer. It was much warmer closer to the summit, just as, the last time I was there, the fog got denser and the wind stronger. I am not sure exactly what altitude it was, but it was abundantly evident on the way down again as well, as I felt the air get several degrees cooler.
I am busy trying to arrange my next housing situation at the moment, and it has taken a lot of energy this week. I have now seen two places that I like, so I hope that I can land in one of them. Every time I am asked for pay stubs, I wonder, which job? I have three places that pay me regularly, and four or five that I invoice, as well as jobs that I get paid for directly. While I feel pretty flush at the moment, I don’t know how that holds up to the gimlet eye of the San Francisco housing market. And, this time around, I am not ready to leave the city. Not when I have just got the roams going in person again, even if just about everything else is remote. Speaking of which, if you read this early enough on Saturday, you can join me as I offer zazen instruction via the SFZC online zendo at 8:10 local time.
Someone who has been attending perhaps my favourite ongoing corporate meditation group forwarded me an article the other day that sent me on a little adventure reading about ‘soft fascination.’ When I discussed the notion with a couple of people who came on last Saturday’s roam, their response was pretty much, well, we know that.
The basic idea is that we can feel good in the kind of environment that doesn’t require constant vigilance and evaluation, but is familiar and enjoyable; where the mind can take in what surrounds it in a way that recharges rather than depletes. In other words, nature fits the bill. As does meditation. So unsurprisingly, experienced participants in Roaming Zen don’t feel they need a particular terminology, but know they enjoy the experience.
And, I also know that for the dubious, and the sceptical, and those who set store by data and science, anything they can put a name to helps them along the way. I also think it is what Suzuki Roshi was pointing to in the post from Saturday. To stretch it a little, though it made perfect sense to me while I was riding my bike on Sunday morning, it is just as Dogen reminds us: ‘although actualised immediately, the inconceivable may not be distinctly apparent.’
Somehow, almost imperceptibly, we have arrived at mid-summer, with the temperature having crept up a few degrees over the past week. The humidity did as well, but right now we are in the middle of a San Francisco-style heatwave (perhaps the third such week this year), and we can enjoy early morning and late evening sun in our north-facing bedroom, with all the windows wide open.
It was, naturally, much warmer when I drove down the Peninsula to officiate a wedding in Los Altos on Saturday. I was wearing my robes, and was glad the ceremony was in the late afternoon, and the open air location was shaded. This was the biggest wedding I have done in at least a year and a half, and the first time I have stayed for dinner since that time. I left before the dancing, and drove back with the sun setting behind the fog bank west of the 280.
Officially California has re-opened, though I will still be wearing masks indoors for the foreseeable future. I did feel emboldened enough to schedule a roam, for this Saturday. There seems to be some pent-up demand in the Meetup group, which has grown significantly in size since lockdown started, and now I have a waitlist, with several of the people on it having also snagged places on the next roam. I was also asked if I would lead a roam for Zen Center as part of the delayed Zen-a-thon, and last I heard, that had reached a number that I would consider full capacity.
And then things start to happen with the re-opening as well: one evening this week, almost at monk’s bedtime, I had a text from a friend I have more or less fallen out of touch with over the course of the pandemic, suggesting we should meet up soon; close on the heels of that, a text from Nancy the tanto inviting me to give the talk at Zen Center next Wednesday. My dance card is definitely filling up.
I feel a little self-conscious that when I write about my current life, the weather figures prominently in the story; then I think of Linda Ruth, and how she started almost every talk she gave during practice periods at Tassajara (I did three which she led) with some comments about the weather, as a way of grounding whatever followed in the reality that we were dealing with – and at Tassajara, the weather was always very prominent, and we spent a fair amount of time outside.
So anyway, after the last post, the fog came back with avengeance (if you read my stuff on Patreon you will have already seen the pictures); I read that it has been the coldest April and May round these parts for decades (unfortunately it has been a long way from being the wettest, so now we have drought to face again). This all feels part of the way the weather has been tilted off axis through the course of my life.
What blew away the fog and brought some clear, if not especially warm, weather, were some mighty winds, loud enough to rattle the chimneys on our roof. These at least allowed me to pull out the old analogy of the oak and the willow when I was teaching meditation last week, encouraging flexibility from our strong roots on the cushion (though I am aware that very few, if any, of the people I am leading in the sittings are going to be on a cushion).
After which, rather embarrassingly, I felt like I had run out of things to say about meditation. I had a recording due, and couldn’t think of what I wanted to talk about. The live sessions are easier, because there is always somewhere to start, depending on the mood of the participants – including myself – but I have the notion that an enduring recording should have more heft. In the end I talked about basic awareness practices.
Of course, the nature of wind is that things change, and I am sure I will come up with some resonant phrases again soon.
One way I have noticed change in myself recently is, now that I am fully vaccinated, and with the sudden shift in CDC guidelines, I am considerably less agitated to see people walking around without masks; out on my bike, I have stopped riding with a bandana around my neck, ready to pull up, and instead have a mask in a pocket, ready to pull out if needed. It has taken a few weeks of adjustment, but now it feels almost normal.
Another, more banal change is that the regular football season has finished in England. There are still a couple of European club finals and the European nations tournament to come in the next few weeks, but I know I will suddenly have quite a few more hours in the week – especially weekends – without matches to get absorbed in. I may even manage to finish a book. I picked up a new book by Shodo Harada on the Platform Sutra from the Zen Center bookstore on Friday, and I am excited to dig into it.
And to wrap up, here are some photos from the last couple of weeks:
As someone who still usually wakes up at monk-o-clock, I appreciate how early it gets light at this time of year. At the same time, we have entered a spell of warm weather, so I don’t have to bundle up as soon as I get out of bed; I can feel how my body relaxes with this, and with walking in the sun. And as the sun rises and sets further to the north, we can enjoy early and late sun slanting in through the window of our north-facing bedroom.
After a couple of weeks with minimal riding due to myself and my partner getting our vaccines, I was ready to put in some hours on the bike this past weekend, and was rewarded with perfect conditions: endless blue skies, and, on Saturday at least, not a breath of wind. Both days I left the house before 7:00am, which meant I could enjoy the roads with fewer people out. On Saturday I took the Crystal Springs trail for the first time in months, being a little more relaxed than last time about the number of people not wearing masks. On Sunday I was out along the Bay Trail, doing my own version of Bay to Breakers, crossing from adjacent to the airport, over the crest at Skyline, towards Pacifica before turning north to Ocean Beach. On the roads and trails over the weekend I saw more wildlowers, columbines and white lupins particularly, as well as quail and hawks, even a lone Stellar’s jay in Golden Gate Park, which almost made me nostalgic for their hegemony over Tassajara.
It is the anniversary of my arrival in San Francisco; I always like to note it, last year especially so, as it marked twenty years of living here. For all that the pandemic lingers and threatens never to disappear entirely, I feel content about my life, and happy that I get to be sharing the teachings so often.
This week only, I am making a couple of extra appearances on Within: in addition to my ‘Just Sitting’ class this evening at 6:00, I am subbing the Saturday morning class, at 8:30, which will be more traditional mindfulness than my regular class; then on Sunday I am offering an hour-long presentation and discussion, as part of the series How Mindfulness Can Change Your Life. Organising what I am going to say for that is also offering many opportunities for reflection.
A typhoon came across the Pacific in our direction last week. We had some grey and drab days, and on Sunday, a smattering of rain – though not as much as forecast, and not enough to ease the impending drought. I remember how last year it rained into May, adding an extra sense of weight to the early weeks of lockdown. Then the sun came out and we had some bright warm days. It was the time of the pink supermoon, which rose above the clouds in the evening, and shone bright in the early morning sky.
On a free morning I rode up to Sweeney Ridge, and enjoyed seeing the many currently blooming wildflowers along the narrow road: paintbrush, ceanothus, irises, penstemon and lupins. It was also bunny season, and I must have seen twenty scurrying for cover as I approached their little corner of the world. I realised how much I have missed getting my doses of wildflowers at Wilbur and Tassajara these past two springs.
Typically, of course, when I went out on my bike again, yesterday, climbing San Bruno Mountain, I arrived at the fog line, with a chilly wind blowing the fog across the road, for all that it had been sunny when I set out. I wanted to get some riding in before the weekend as today I will be heading over to SF General for my second vaccine, and thought it best to have a restful weekend, as I did after my first shot, especially having heard stories from a number of friends of the after-effects of their vaccinations.
As I have written on Patreon, I am teaching more meditation at the moment than I have probably at any time before, mostly to corporate groups across different time zones. The work makes me happy, and I hope that some people find a spark of inspiration to continue practising, but we can never really know the impact of what we do. I will keep plugging away at it, and I do look forward to sitting in the same room as people one of these days. Hope seems close at hand, but not so close or clear that we can rely on it yet.
This is the last week before the clocks go forward here. It’s the time of year when robins sing before light, cheerfully heralding the day, as I used to hear them do during morning meditation at Zen Center.
Recently the light has been clear, and then soft; the other evening a short squall of rain lashed the windows on all sides of our flat, and sent the blossoms to the ground around the neighbourhood. I remember how much rain we had after lockdown started last year, and I hope for a similar amount this year so that we do not suffer from drought.
Out on my bike last Sunday, I took to the bay trail, without having intended to beforehand, as I felt it would be good for my spirit to be beside the water. I passed the ceanothus bushes on a short stretch of trail that follows a creek – sandwiched between the airport parking lots and the various freeways. My first view of these bushes was on one of my earliest lockdown rides – and they symbolise that time for me in the same way that Sweeney Ridge does (along with the associated revelation that the presence of the ridge, and the protection it offered the stretch bay to the east from the fog made the decision to expand the old airstrip into the principal airport an inspired one).
I don’t know that there is much to say about the pandemic these days. I hope to be vaccinated in due course (and hope that the rollout of the vaccine becomes more efficient than it has hitherto), and I hope that I will be able to travel to see my declining parents before the end of the year. In the meantime, I don’t plan on doing any indoor dining or going to the cinema, and as I walk around, I am glad, still, to be in a place where people widely demonstrate their compassion and kindness by wearing masks.
As we approach the one-year anniversary of moving into lockdown, it seems inevitable that there will be a fair amount of reminiscing. I have recently had a couple of outings to the places we took the last couple of roams – the Botanical Garden as the magnolias started to bloom, and the wave organ at the Marina – and thought back to those occasions twelve months ago. Ideas about resuming them still seem way off in the future; when I canceled my trip to England last March, I rebooked the ticket for August but reality overtook that optimism ; these days I have a notion that it might feel safe to get on a trans-Atlantic flight by the end of the summer, though I suspect I will be disappointed again.
It is commonplace, and completely understandable, to talk of how frazzled we all are from the impact of lockdown and isolation. I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to continue earning money, and co-habiting with my partner for the past few months has taken care of my suffering from lack of human contact and brought so much joy to my day-to-day life.
As you may recall from the time, getting out on my bike has also contributed greatly to my well-being during the lockdowns. What I have most noticed about my riding in the past year is how I have shaped my routes to avoid aggravations. This partly started with not crossing the bridge to ride in Marin: apart from my increased anxiety when being on the bridge itself, unless there is no wind at all, I had been finding in recent years that the traffic in and around Mill Valley and Mount Tam to be of greater volume and often accompanied by less consideration – or sometimes greater aggression. There are incredible landscapes to be ridden out in Marin, and I have been riding them for two decades; now I am less convinced that they are worth the hassle of getting there.
In place of that, I have been building up my repertoire south of the city. Some of the landscapes are not so tremendous, but the riding is more relaxing. San Bruno Mountain is not as tall as Mount Tam, but is much easier to get to, and has two car-free sections on its slopes; Sweeney Ridge has been a revelation in the past year – also car-free towards the top, and the trail along the San Andreas reservoirs to Crystal Springs a wonderful retreat from traffic.
The last time I was out on the trail, a couple of weeks ago, though, I despaired at the number of people not wearing masks on what was a busy morning, when you couldn’t go a few yards without passing someone, the trail being too narrow to give six feet of space. So I have put that aside for the time being – unless I can go earlier, or on a week day – and instead focus on the other good riding possibilities. The mental map I have been creating is now pretty robust. I find that even doing a route once leaves an impression: oh, this is a tough climb, but nice; this stretch has too many cars; this route is more relaxing than the slightly more direct way. My body relaxes or tenses in response to this stored memory, and I am doing my best not to add more tension in my life.
It feels like doing this – choosing routes with less aggravation – is a way I am taking care of myself. I am building a good set of habits to help me keep my equanimity. This is something that is worth doing in all aspects of our lives. What would it look like for you?
Happily, I am starting 2021 with three new (or newish) dharma offerings, and I hope that you will be able to tune in to one or more of them:
On Saturday 2nd, I will be giving the dharma talk at Zen Center at 10:00 am PST. It will be available via the online zendo. This will be my first talk for Zen Center in a shade over a year, and I am still thinking of exactly what I want to say.
The following evening at 7:00 pm PST, I will be offering a guided meditation for Core on the Chalk app; I love the intimacy of doing an audio-only talk, and this one wiill probably be focusing on ‘new beginnings.’
On Wednesday evening, at 6:00 pm PST, I will be making my debut for Within Meditation, with an online, somewhat guided, sit.
Just to make the post a little more pretty, here are a couple of pictures from the bike rides I took over the holidays.
When I type the word midwinter, I think of scenes of old England, cold, dark and snowy, as per the hymn, which is not really how it is in San Francisco. Weeks of mostly sunny weather, gradually getting colder, finally gave way to the season’s first serious rain over the weekend. I took this as an excuse not to get out on my bike as I usually would, and instead found myself keen to try a run, which, aside from a few outings in Kansas during September, I have not tried since March. Luckily things did not hurt too much, and with the forecast promising more rain, I will have a chance to try a few more of that soon.
I find myself not counting the days down to Christmas so much this year, even though I am looking forward to it – and have decorations, in our new place, for the first time in my years out of Zen Center. Instead, I am thinking about the number of days until the solstice, and the subsequent promise of slowly increasing daylight. There is also the countdown to the Inauguration – even if the outgoing incumbent is intent on throwing tantrums every day, it does seem like roadblocks to the orderly transition of power are melting away, one by one.
And then there are the two faces of the pandemic – soaring numbers, even here in the Bay Area, which has fared as well as anywhere in the US until now, and the imminent distribution of the vaccine. It does feel like a time for holding tight, staying safe and isolated and indoors as much as possible, with the hope of things being different next year. I hope that you feel this possibility of renewal too.