Redbuds and Rain Showers

It was a quirk of the calendar that I ended up back at Wilbur just two weekends after my last visit. Spring seemed to have hardly moved along at all up there, though the road was now muddy and slippery in several places after the rain through the week. Driving up on Friday I had managed to stay ahead of some of the showers, and much of the heavy traffic – driving towards a rainbow on Highway 80 in the East Bay, and catching the first of the redbuds at the Rumsey end of Cache Creek Canyon just as the heaviest of the downpours hit in the late afternoon.

Saturday was another day of rain and clouds, but Sunday saw a hard frost and clear skies that made it just warm enough to lie out on the deck in the middle of the day. I had reasonable numbers for the sitting including, not for the first time, someone who had sat with me on a previous visit, as well as at least one person who was sitting for the very first time.

As part of the vicarious marathon training, I accompanied my friend on a twelve-mile run on Saturday. The simplest thing seemed to be to run down to the road bridge a mile from the springs, and take a left turn up Bear Valley Road, which seems on the map to continue north indefinitely. I had run a mile or so up it once before, but this time I was in uncharted territory.
After a little rise a couple more miles along, suddenly the valley opened up in front of us, long straight, with beautiful tones of grasses, hills and low clouds. We ran two more miles of a long straight, then the road turned ninety degrees to the left and crossed the valley and the creek to the other side. Where the ninety-degree turn to the right took the road north again, we turned for home, battling weary legs and a slight headwind, happy to be back after a couple of hours work-out to eat and soak. I was a little stiff for my next sitting…

On Monday morning it was 24 degrees as the sun came up and I prepared to leave. I poured hot water on the windows of the car I was borrowing, to melt the ice, something I don’t remember doing since I was a kid in England. One upside was that the mud on the road was frozen solid. Having dropped off the car a couple of hours later, I retrieved my bicycle to get to BART, across the bay, to the Bicycle Coalition to borrow one of their trailers (a perk for members), back home, where I loaded up eight zafu and four goza mats, and rode over to the Embarcadero to set up for the lunch-time sitting.
In the end, no-one joined me this week; this was my first time alone on the cushions, but I have been doing this long enough that I was far from feeling self-conscious. The hour seemed to pass more quickly and more comfortably than often happens. California being as it is, it was warm enough in the city to sit with short sleeves.

Early morning rabbit in front of the red house at Wilbur.

DSCF7347.jpgHard frost on the Bear Valley Road on Monday morning.


New Moon and Shooting Stars

When I give zazen instruction, as I did last weekend at Wilbur, I always tell people to notice which leg they put in front (if they are sitting Burmese), or which foot feels easier to have on the thigh (if they are sitting half-lotus), and to switch out to see how it feels on the other side. In the Fukanzazengi, Dogen neglects to suggest this, but contemporary teachers tend to recommend it.

It is always interesting to see the preferences our bodies lean towards, and the asymmetries they can reveal. It doesn’t feel unrelated to me that many years ago I noticed I had a similar bias when I was running, in that I prefered running clockwise circuits (it was not the only reason I didn’t like track running, but it might not have helped). I first became aware of this on a fan-shaped route I used to take from my home in South London to Vauxhall, along the banks of the Thames to Bermondsey and then down to the south – this was in the late eighties and early nineties when the bankside path was not fully fleshed out in the way it is now, and there were some very dark and unused sections in those days, as well as places where you had to come up to the road level instead of being able to stay under the bridges. At first I thought it had to do with following the river downstream, which seemed to help my own flow, but then I noticed the preference come up in other places as well.

At Wilbur, one of my standard runs is up to the medicine wheel, and I did that on Saturday afternoon. Though I have run the route quite a few times now, I have always gone clockwise: up the fire road, and down the Smelter Trail, so this time I was determined to do it the other way. I knew there were a couple of places I would have to pay attention so as not to head the wrong way, but the trail was pretty clear at this time of year. I could also see the notch in the hill I was heading for, which made it easier. Being a trail, some parts of it were steeper than the road, and also, since it was ending up at the same elevation, some parts of it were flatter, so it was a different kind of workout to the more steady climb I am used to. The narrowness of the trail also gave me the illusion of greater speed, a phenomenon I am very aware of both for running and riding – being in a wide open space makes you feel discouraged at your seeming lack of progress. I felt pretty good at the top, and knew I could coast down and enjoy the return. Once thing I did not change though – I always pick up a rock on the way up, to leave at some part of the wheel, and I always circumambulate the wheel, as any sacred spot, clockwise (there is a whole other post I could write about that, and how there are different ideas of how to bow at the altars at Zen Center).

Friday night and morning had been close to freezing, the new moon allowing the stars to appear abundantly, but as the sun rose (and it was high enough above the hillside to shine on the yoga deck for the sitting, which did not happen in January), the temperatures rose to seventy degrees. Later on Saturday, and all the way through to Sunday evening, there was a strong north-westerly wind, much stronger than I am used to here. It even brought a few showers of hailstones on Sunday afternoon, which provided an unexpected soundtrack to the sitting.

After sitting I did my longer run, up to the ridge; since I am accompanying a friend on some of her marathon training runs, I feel I need to keep my own mileage up. Now that I have successfully completed the ridge route three or four times, it does not feel so daunting, but I knew I would also be running into the wind along the spine of the ridge; luckily the hail seemed to have sent the hunters home – we had heard sporadic gunfire as well while we were sitting, and I was poised to blow my whistle loudly if I heard any shots while I was out. This is one route I alternate without much preference – coming from the schoolhouse end, anti-clockwise, as I did on my last visit, the climb to the ridge is harder, but the various undulations on the ridge might be a little better spaced out; coming past the medicine wheel is easier, and after a flat section at the ridge the next slope is steep and fairly relentless. In either case, the views are outstanding; the sun was low, illuminating some slopes, clouds moving by.

There even some early blossoms – redbud on the sheltered side of the hill, and along the ridge, one little shooting star. A wonderful harbinger of spring, which may be further along on my next visit. I awoke early on Monday morning, and as I sat in the outdoor plunge, a celestial shooting star lit up the sky for a moment. Hard to say which is more beautiful.

The moon on Friday evening.


Early morning sun on Saturday

Moon and Stars

The Bay Area weather could not be better at the moment, with high pressure and warm breezes taking the temperature up to the seventies; the clear, still skies seem very relaxing to me, and it is hard to believe it is the beginning of February, though I think I have the same response every year around this time.

At Wilbur last weekend, I set off for a run almost as soon as I had unpacked. Since I wasn’t able to stay until Monday morning this time, Friday afternoon seemed to offer the most suitable stretch of time, so I took off for the ridge in order to be back before it got dark. I felt better going along the top, with all the little climbs, than I can remember on my previous efforts, but I was quite stiff afterwards.

There was a fair amount of sun over the weekend so the middle of the day was pleasant, but it was definitely cold around the edges. Fewer people came to the meditation sessions, perhaps because it still felt chilly to be outside for the morning one, and the afternoon one was right at the end of the daytime warmth. Still, I had lovely conversations with people, including one woman whose family had a cabin at Tanbark, down Miller Canyon from China Camp on the road to Tassajara (as I said to her, very few people at Tassajara had any idea there were cabins there, and I only discovered them when I went exploring by mountain bike and was getting bored of just riding up and down the road).

On Sunday morning I was awake at five, and went out to float in the outdoor pool, happy to wake up slowly and gently, under the endless stars. As the sun came up, the waters steamed photogenically.

On Wednesday morning, back in the city, I got up early to see the lunar eclipse, the first one I have watched since being at Tassajara, I guess in 2008, when Linda Ruth led us all out of the zendo to the moon lawn to watch the spectacle. This one had the added selling points of being a supermoon and a blue moon – though in reality it was rust coloured – and watching it was worth the tiredness later in the day.




Christmas with Coyotes

It would be an exaggeration to say that I was woken up on Christmas morning by coyotes howling on the hillsides around Wilbur at first light; I had already been awake for a couple of hours and had my breakfast. Still, the noise was not one I had ever heard before, nor one I associated with Christmas, and I took one of the free bikes and rode up toward the parking lot to see if I could see any of them, but in vain.
I have happy memories of childhood Christmases with my family, but since I am several thousand miles away from them these days, and have not been back in England for Christmas since 2005, I don’t really go for festivities so much any more. And much as I love the traditional carols (I invoked¬†In The Bleak Midwinter¬†during one of my little talks, since the bright, slightly chilly days of the weekend in the part of California we were in are a far cry from the colder, darker days of my upbringing), I am always happy to avoid the constant piping of festive music in the run-up to the 25th. Spending the season at Tassajara was always a great way to do that, and I was also reminiscing about a trip I took to Zanzibar in December twenty years ago, where the only carols I heard were at the airport in Doha, which seemed entirely incongruous.
Wilbur was a good place for that too; signs of the holidays were few and far between. There was plenty of good cheer, though that is almost always the case up there.
I was happy to have the chance, once again, to get out of the city, and start my quiet last week of the year with some sitting, some soaking, and some running.

The main building at Wilbur at first light on the 25th.

I didn’t take too many other pictures, but here are a couple of the creek – and a tributary – further up the valley.