Such A Time

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.

Ceanothus starting to flower underneath the 380 beside the airport.

Dharma Gates Of Joy And Ease

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?

One of the magnolia trees at the Botanical Garden.
Looking along to the wave organ at the Marina. Alcatraz is in the background.

Coming Attractions

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.

Looking down San Bruno mountain towards Lake Merced and the ocean
A pelican takes off near Oyster Point

Midwinter

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.

Two views of leaves in the city, pre- and post-rain

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

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

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

The Longest Day

The summer solstice seems to have sneaked up on us somehow – no doubt an effect of having been in lock-down since the spring. Nevertheless I have enjoyed the longer days – with my eternal caveat that they are longer in my native country, though I will always concede that not having the shorter days in winter here is more than enough compensation. Right now it is getting light around five, and dark around nine, which, as was true in my years at Zen Center, is pretty much the time I get up and the time I go to bed.

The weather has been a little hit and miss – there have been strong winds and some milder temperatures, but also a few clear, still warm days. I have been glad to ride on those, less so when heading into the dampness of the fog, as I did last Sunday, and to a lesser extent very early on Friday – having been woken by the bin men while it was still dark.

The solstice is not the only notable occasion right now of course, with Juneteenth in the forefront of people’s minds, and fathers’ day, and an eclipse. However, after the tumult of recent weeks, there does seem to be a sense of pause, as people gather their breath and figure out their next moves.

Giving a talk to the Hebden Bridge group this past Wednesday, continuing to develop the conversation in that sangha, in tandem with Catherine Gammon, it was hard to pinpoint a theme – though the word disruption came to mind during the zazen beforehand. So many things have been overturned since the beginning of the year, and we have somehow dealt with that, and try to figure out how we move forward when everything is so different.

I have also been thinking about The Whole-Hearted Way, since I am offering an online class at Zen Center on Dogen’s Bendowa next month. So I have a sense of the continuous practice that we undertake – and that to do that, we have to let go of notions of enlightenment as a one-time cure-all, such as I suspect many of us start our practice with. We continue to practise, doing the work when we don’t know how to do the work, which aligns with our bodhisattva vow. We strive to help, or at least not cause more harm, and we sit with all the discomforts that arise, as best we can.

Maybe it is always like this, but it feels particularly tender right now.

IMG_5769Even as other streets get busier, Great Highway is still thankfully closed to cars. The sun was more or less up, but it was obscured by fog on Friday morning, and the wind was strong.

IMG_5776Further east, a little while later, the view from Billy Goat Hill.

 

 

 

 

The Heart Of Spring

The other day, I realised that I couldn’t remember the last time I got in a car – certainly not since we started sheltering-in-place. I often say, when I am at Tassajara or Wilbur, that slowing down to human speed is deeply restful. And my body seems to have settled into that pace.

That said, I went out on my bike on four consecutive days over the long weekend – two hours on Friday afternoon and Monday morning, three hours on Saturday and four on Sunday. The weather was just too good not to. I still haven’t crossed the bridge for a couple months, but I have been happy heading out on local roads, hills and waterside, long highways and car-free stretches, extending my mental map of good roads to choose down the peninsula.

This is often the most beautiful time of year in San Francisco, and we are getting the benefit of it right now; clear skies, warm air, and often very little wind. I have been glad to get out very early on my morning rides, not just enjoying the light traffic, which allows me to take busy roads I avoid at other hours, and the general quiet, but also not to be constantly hot and worrying about dehydration.

The roads have been getting steadily busier in the last couple of weeks, after the relative tranquility of March and April, and now there is just the hope that the increase in bike- and pedestrian-friendly streets will remain in force.

I have continued connecting with the Hebden Bridge sangha, the consistency of which allows for a wonderful ongoing conversation, and a strong sense of sharing honestly and openly. And, on Friday (before I got on my bike) I officiated a Zoom wedding. This was a real treat: the couple were international, and had friends and families all over the world – New Zealand, Singapore, Estonia, Miami, Sheffield. I had the chance to put my robes on (I don’t remember the last time I did that, either, seeing as the April ceremonies I would have attended did not take place). I didn’t get to sign the marriage licence this time, so they will have to have another ceremony with City Hall, but it was certainly a celebratory occasion. And we do all need that in our lives as well.

DA563FC3-479B-48A9-8C52-761D81D3642E_1_201_aAfter the main part of the ceremony, I stayed online to hear the congratulations from all over the globe.

E159A5DB-5477-49BD-9386-D1EF1C080324_1_201_aPart of a city ride on Friday afternoon, the new bike path in Mission Bay.

295F86D9-FCE3-477F-AB0E-ED126EB65CCF_1_201_aOn Saturday I went over to Pacifica, and up to Sweeney Ridge. That is Mount Diablo across the bay.

3C3A1252-5C6F-4582-926D-35F95CAB242D_1_201_aDiablo was also visible from the high ground on Sunday morning, around Hillsdale.

E28AE115-4C90-4764-BD97-6E70A3E9AECE_1_201_aAnd from the top of San Bruno Mountain on Monday morning.