3:00 p.m. An alerting of the senses, as if beneath the surface of the darkening afternoon there is some danger. I find myself walking through the house—every room—flicking on the lights, trying to dissolve some phantom lurking in the dimness, beneath a couch, behind a half-closed door. I turn up the heat, warming to counter a chill inside me. I wish Patrick were coming home tonight. Standing over the heat duct, I can hear our neighbor’s TV. Countdown towards War in the Gulf. Martin Luther King’s birthday, a day to celebrate peace. I rock in my own arms’ embrace. Cradle me sweet heat, and light erase the shadows.
I would like to learn to be vigilant of how my family and I make use of oil, gas, trees and other fruits of the earth, and how our daily activities affect other living beings, the water, the air, the soil… For several months I have kept a journal to inquire into where and how I do—and don’t—live with a sense of connection to the earth. I am trying to understand what it is for me that seems, insidiously, to get in the way of being aware of, and responsible to, the life that surrounds me.
The journal entries excerpted here were written on January 15, 1991, a day when all over the earth people were anxiously waiting to see whether a new war was to begin. In my own family, in Berkeley, California, my daughter, Caitlin, was sick. My husband, Patrick, was out of town. This was a day on which my rushed or unconscious mode of being was perhaps exaggerated, but all too characteristic of the way I live.
5:00 p.m. I careen up the steps with Caitlin—snot running down her face—straddled under one arm, and the diaper bag, my purse, the groceries under the other. I rush past the stuffed mailbox, stretching a hand in to grab the sheaf of letters, newsletters and catalogs. The key somehow turns in the lock, then Cleo, our Australian shepherd pup, jumps over the baby gate to greet Caitlin. As Caitlin bumps down—”I want Cleo, Mama”—I readjust the grocery bag to feel a mean wet hole beginning to form at the bottom. Heading for the kitchen, I turn on the radio. “Still four more hours for Saddam Hussein to begin a retreat from Kuwait.” Several maroon drips seep through the bottom of the grocery bag, puddle on the rug, the kitchen floor. Diaper bag and purse slide onto the table as I maneuver the grocery bag toward the garbage. In the background, I sense the flurry of circling dog and baby, Caitlin coughing, “Cleo’s licking my cold, Mama. Stop it, Cleo!” I fly at the cabinet under the sink, open it and stuff catalogs, AIDS Walk, Greenpeace, Martin Luther King Peace Vigil, all of it, the ripped and damp brown paper bag, and, yes, it was, the strawberries, mushed under the eggs. “I growled Cleo, Mama,” cries Caitlin. I swirl around to calm Cleo, scoop up Caitlin, wipe her nose. And all the while I’m thinking, I should recycle, paper, bags, compost!
7:00 p.m. In the bath with Caitlin. My mind is sailing from the yellow ducks to the dirty dishes still on the kitchen table (alas, no strawberries) to the TV chronicling: two more hours to the deadline. The soap skids along the bottom of the tub, and Caitlin bouncing up, sneezes. “I want the other one duck Mama. Where’s the soap Mama?” “Could we even hear the phone if Patrick called?” I’m thinking. Insistent, Caitlin pulls my hand, looks up into my face, “Mommy, do it! Blow my nose!” Then suddenly I remember that this is now, and that it is so precious, and I breathe in deeply, reel in my spinning thoughts and bring out the vividness right here, Caitlin and I in the bath. The sweet nose-tickling smell of the soap envelops us, and I feel Caitlin’s wonderfully slippery and tender bottom on my lap. Her little voice is piping up with all its enthusiasms. I feel the beat of my own heart and the sweetness of her cheek just for a moment grazing mine. Hot, perhaps a fever. Better snuggle this babe into a towel. I wrap her up, hugged in my arms. Cherish this.
8:00 p.m. I meet the ants swarming the kitchen sink. Out of the corner of my eye I can see them, it feels to me, ransacking the kitchen. There they are filing up the side of the refrigerator, colliding over the crumb on the floor, sweeping over the dog food bowl. In a rush of disgust, breath held, I blast on the faucet, a surge of water sending all the ants in the sink down the drain (as I make my hasty apology, “May all beings be liberated…”).
4:00 a.m. I lie here in bed with Caitlin in her nest of dragon, tiger and rabbits. My lips brush her feverish forehead. Tucked in the curve of my body, she has finally fallen back to sleep. Two hours ago she woke, crying for me, her cough barking into the stuffiness of her attic room. When I came to her, she clutched her hot arms around my neck. “I want Mama.” So I opened the skylight for a few moments of spangling stars and we breathed in the fresh night air together. I cooled her face with a wet washrag and tucked her back into her soft nest. “You my sweetie pie Mama. You sleep here!” She pulled me down next to her.
I am restless now, sleepless as I listen to her labored breathing, smell the sweet, strangely astringent odor of her breath. I hold my body still, restraining my impulse to roll over, protective of Caitlin’s sleep, won through many lullabies. I notice now the ache in my back, the tight skin encasing my skull, the rawness of my own throat. Jolted into wakefulness against the longing for sleep, my mind stings with thought. I’m thinking about the people in Baghdad, in Tel Aviv, in the Saudi Arabian desert, fortifying their homes, checking their weaponry, trying on their gas masks, cradling their children.
Caitlin gives a jagged cough, rolls towards me, breath rasping. I adjust my position to allow her breathing more range. I note how my mother’s body attends to her. Of course only two years ago we were tied, my umbilical blood feeding her life, her health feeding me into bloom. My memories stream back to the thrumming heaviness of Caitlin rocking inside of me. When I nurtured myself, I nurtured her. As she thrived, I was nurtured. And that carries us still; quite naturally I am aware of her, and when my awareness dims, she pulls me back into focus, to do what needs to be done.
In keeping this journal, I have been touched to see how, as a mother, I do attend in a loving and careful way, without questioning, through whatever obstacles. I am finding that for me the mother/daughter connection is more often than not felt, lived and acted on. I think of Mary Oliver’s poem “The Turtle” (Dream Work, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986). Here, the poet admires the turtle’s patience, fortitude, determination, to complete “what she was born to do,” dragging her heavy shell over the mudflats to dig “a nest, and hunker there spewing/her white eggs down/into the darkness….”
and then you realize a greater thing —
she doesn’t consider what she was born to do.
She’s only filled
with an old blind wish
It isn’t even hers, but came to her
in the rain or the soft wind,
which is a gate through which her life keeps walking.
But as Mary Oliver evokes it, the turtle’s connection is not simply to her eggs, but to the whole world.
She can’t see
herself apart from the rest of the world
or the world from what she must do
crawling up the high hill,
luminous under the sand that has packed against her skin,
she doesn’t dream,
she is part of the pond she lives in
the tall trees are her children,
the birds that swim above her
are tied to her by an unbreakable string.
As the imagery opens up to include the turtle’s ties to the trees, to the birds, to all parts of the pond, I feel inspired. Just as I now experience this “unbreakable string” to Caitlin, one might experience such connection to all that exists. As I nurture my daughter, all things nurture, and might be nurtured by me. The trees are indeed our children. And at the same time, we are the children of the trees, the birds, the soil.
I do believe that this knowledge of interconnectedness with all of our “pond”—this knowledge of the “oneness” of things—is in all of us, but it is often lost, and needs to be relearned. When Caitlin was in my womb, we were tangibly one. The other ties which bind all of us here on the earth into oneness are less visible, and, alas, easier to forget. We need to teach ourselves to remember.
I think of the fears I had the other night for the peoples in the Persian Gulf on the eve of war. In the very imagery of my thoughts I would like to teach myself to reaffirm my bonds to the totality of life. Now, with a firmness of intention, I think of the war again and stretch my mind to join with people all over the world praying for peace—in their kitchens, in their fields, in their beds, gathered in mosques and churches and temples. In the Gulf itself I reach my mind—like the turtle’s—to include the Bedouin nomads with their camels, the snakes and lizards, the rodents and cactus, the wildflowers and insects and all of the secret life of the desert, which has now been violently disrupted.
What is it that gets in the way of experiencing and taking responsibility for the ties with wildlife and sand, water and stars as I do the ties with Caitlin? As I kept my journal I began to see some of what seemed to be going on: I fled from the kitchen through the bedrooms asking light and heat to bring me comfort. I drowned what seemed like great battalions of ants in self defense, as if they were invaders into territory that I had claimed as my own. I crumpled all manner of paper and foodstuffs into the same bin, as I rushed along to get on with whatever I had thought was valuable, more valuable, that is, than taking the time to remember where these paper bags and vegetables came from, where they were going….
Alas, are greed, hatred and delusion at work once again? I have been propelled by a desire for comfort or to satisfy seemingly pressing needs (greed); protectiveness or territoriality (hatred); a sense of the relative importance of my own plans and projects compared to other aspects of life (delusion).
This seems quite grim, but it is not the whole story. As I continued journal keeping, and tracked my own patterns of relating, I found that unexpectedly I began to change—or at least to want to change—some of how I was living. In order to keep the journal, I had by necessity brought at least a modicum of awareness to my interactions. Thus, what began as an exercise in investigation, became a kind of mindfulness practice. And the mindfulness practice took its own course.
At first, as I wrote my daily entries, all I could see were my failures to take care. Again and again I judged and berated myself. But as I watched my relationship to Caitlin, I began to see my own attentiveness, as well. I saw myself encourage her struggling stories in hopscotch speech, (“I growled Cleo Mama… We go in kitchen…. I… She took my… I eat Cleo’s hat, too”). Even in her flailing tempers—through screams and kicked off shoes—I saw myself embrace her warm and sure against my chest, until she felt peaceful. Recognizing my capacity (at least at times) to be caring and patient, I softened and forgave myself a bit.
And then gradually, in writing about the underside of the “failures”—the longing for solace, pleasure, convenience, safety—I began to feel increasing compassion for myself. Perhaps it was this compassion for myself which loosened whatever was getting in the way of beginning to actually feel more compassion for the surrounding world, to live with more sense of interconnection.
This change has begun in tiny ways—starting to compost, saving egg shells and digging them into the herb garden to bring our thyme and rosemary into fragrance, recycling the tattered gold and red Christmas paper, rewinding the ribbons, purchasing a dishpan in order to save some water.
I began to try find out a little more about where I live. Patrick and I tried to imagine the waterlines reaching underground, connecting with a reservoir, the streams, the snow melt trickling from the Sierras. We tried to follow the power lines from where we could see them through our window—with their finches and sparrows—stretching through the city to where we did not know. We realized we didn’t know the sources of the water, electricity and heat that we use in our own home—the reservoirs, forests, wells, that serve us daily.
And I have found that this change can be fun! Instead of driving the two miles to toddler school, I began to take a morning walk with Cleo on her leash and Caitlin in the stroller. Caitlin shrieks and laughs as Cleo yearns toward every cat, dog and bird. Sniffing and whining, Cleo yanks at her leash, dragging both me and the stroller up the hill into the brightness of the wind.
Indeed, I shouldn’t have been surprised that through an exercise which involved noticing, the experience being noticed would undergo transformation. Such is the nature of mindfulness. I remember at one mindfulness retreat in the desert—before husband, baby and dog—I volunteered to wash lettuce in the kitchen. Here, on retreat, without the clutter of everyday life, the task was to be mindful at every moment of the day. While I had washed vegetables most of the evenings of my adult life, when I came to this experience with heightened awareness, it was amazingly transformed. I remember the basins filled with precious water, and the leaves of lettuce, floating thickly. Extravagantly green! I remember the feel of the leaves, tougher somehow than I had ever dreamed, but also tender, as I gently tore off the bruised and frayed, the dying edges, rinsing first in one sink, then in the other, admiring. I was aware of the life in the lettuce, and when I tore at a piece it was with a certain trepidation. Through the tips of my fingers, I could feel the whole garden of lettuce, early morning water beading on the leaves, the soil, the sunshine. In practicing mindfulness I began to recover the experience of interconnection, of the unbreakable strings.
At those times when mindfulness practice has brought me more in contact with the life of the earth, I have overcome some of my characteristic feelings of separateness. Indeed there is an exchange. When we take care, we are nourished. As a mother to Caitlin, I know this exchange every day. I watch Caitlin and her friend Kyla hunker on the kitchen floor, the bird feeder and a jar of seeds between them. They fill the feeder spoon by spoon to overflowing. Their concentrated bows and dips turn to arm-waving exuberance as the seeds scatter everywhere. With a whoop, Caitlin calls me. “I did it Mama—with Kyla! Feed the birds, Mama. Feed the birds!” My own delight in life renews as I experience Caitlin’s delight in all her relations—with me and Patrick, her friends, her dear Cleo, the birds.
With family, with friends, we can easily recognize this exchange, as in nurturing we are nurtured. But the principle applies in all aspects of relationship, with trees, with air, with soil. Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of this often. “When we offer water to plants, we offer it to the whole Earth. When watering plants, if we speak to them, we are also speaking to ourselves.” Nhat Hanh teaches us that when we water the flowers, or plant trees, or compost our garbage, we nurture an expanded sense of ourselves, which includes all of life.
In my daily life outside the protection of retreat, I often fear that I cannot possibly muster a commitment to keep focused, to attend to all that surrounds me through the shrieks and barkings, the yanks and bounds and circlings of family life. But it is my hope that with ongoing sitting practice, and in experiencing the nourishment which comes from even cursory awareness of everyday things, my own steadiness of purpose will gradually strengthen. It will be more possible to sustain a true fullness of mind, which includes more and more of life. In the tap water running to fill the bath, I hope to learn to hear the singing of the feeding streams. In the coziness of a well heated home, I hope to learn to feel the rutted earth whose fuels allow us warmth.