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Allowing Joy

I’m grateful today for allowing joy, in the face of sorrow, in the simple things: making a batch of salsa verde with tomatillos and peppers from the garden; eating some on a burrito with fresh chopped tomatoes and sour cream. I’m grateful for having the burrito in the freezer from when I made it a few weeks ago, to pull out for a quick, delicious, healthful meal at a moment’s hunger; grateful for all the implications of that gift.

I’m grateful for finding delight in the creative work of others, being joyful for their success. I’m grateful for camp, for British humour, for the return of the Great British Baking Show, and Season 3 of Drag Race UK; grateful to surrender my grasping mind occasionally to the entertaining delusions of being human. I’m grateful also for an increasingly healthy relationship with death, and all the ramifications that carries for a more meaningful and joyful life; and grateful for my soul sister who sent me this article about precisely that. I’m grateful for my growing capacity for allowing joy in this world of impermanence, of constant, inevitable loss.

Letting Go

Impermanence. My brand new martini glass. How the happiness of things never lasts. Less than two weeks old, a careless moment in the kitchen… Oh well! Though I’m grateful for shiny things, I’m more grateful for my growing capacity to let go. Anyway, there were two in the set. I’ll be more mindful with the last one. And when one day that glass also breaks, that will be ok too. I’m grateful for letting go.

Michael Soulé

A portrait I made of Michael in 2013.
I’m grateful for my dear friend Michael Soulé, who died a year and a month ago. I took this shot when we traveled to Yellowstone together. We were enjoying a nice picnic in the vast wilderness, not another soul around, endless views… when… absolutely nothing happened. This was my first photoshop ever, in 2003: I used the image of a grizzly from a bookmark I got at the visitor center book store.

Michael and I hung out together for about a decade, between his second and third wife. He was smart, funny, sensitive, deep, spiritual, thoughtful, and many other superlatives, in addition to being globally known as the Father of Conservation Biology. He was naughty and mischievous, also, and great fun to be around. I’m grateful to be able to call him friend. He suffered a massive stroke last summer, leaving his bereaved bride of ten years, a valley full of friends, a beautiful extended family, and a world full of friends and colleagues, all of whom miss his warmth, brilliance, humor, and dynamite smile. Tonight, a few of us, finally able to during this break in the pandemic, gathered at my house to celebrate his life.

I’m grateful for everyone who helped put together the party, and contributed from afar. I’m grateful for all the stories and insights that were shared to celebrate and honor him, helping each of us know him just a little better through the eyes and hearts of others. I have a soul full of history with him, and few words to share it.

Michael and I frequently discussed death in its many incarnations, including ‘the coming plague,’ which he lived to see the beginning of with Covid-19. He practiced Zen Buddhism, and inspired me to deepen my study of the philosophy that became my guiding light. I told him several times that when he died, I would shave my head in his honor. The opportunity arose this evening. I’m grateful for all our friends who took a swipe at my pate with his electric trimmer, and I’m grateful to June for offering it to me afterward. I was honored to accept it.

Much fun was had by all removing my locks.
Much fun was made of my perfect whorl. As The Colonel used to say, “It’s nice to be the object of innocent merriment.”

Awareness of Death

I’m grateful today and every day for awareness of death. The mindfulness program I’m getting certified to teach in encourages us to consider three thoughts upon waking each morning:

  1. We have an incredible life with opportunities and leisure that many others do not have.
  2. Life is impermanent – death is certain and the time of death uncertain.
  3. What is meaningful to you now, and at the time of death, what will be important to you? Is it all the things in your life, or is it how you responded to life?

Much of my life has been both hampered and motivated by fear of my own death, which has kept me from doing some things and colored my perceptions of others. Yet it’s also occasionally moved me to make courageous and fulfilling choices, knowing that life is short and I could die any minute. Between the wisdom of age and the Mindful Life Program I now have a healthier relationship with death. The knowledge that I’ll die someday, as will everyone I love, as will we all, death being an ineluctable feature of living, is no longer a motivation solely for big decisions like should I choose this school, should I move from this town, leave this job, should I buy this land, take this trip…. Awareness of death now shapes my values and informs my daily decisions, helping me choose wisely where to place my attention moment to moment.

I’m grateful for the teachers and students who have helped me explore the three thoughts over the past year, and for the delightful mug that was given to me today to remind me with every sip of morning coffee that death can be a friend and ally rather than a foe.

Each Day

Some days make me feel just as wide-eyed as these little dogs; in fact, most days do, practicing gratitude. I’m grateful today for the opportunity to do chihuahua for a little while; for clearing the air despite the smoke; for getting my hands on some chicks that are all named Dinner; for perspective on some of my less healthy habits; for connection with family and friends; and for the courage to open and play my dusty piano again after years.

I’m grateful that last night’s fireworks over the reservoir didn’t go rogue and cause a blaze, and that no one was stupid enough to celebrate Pioneer Days with home pyrotechnics; I’m grateful that wildfire smoke remains distant and we can still breathe here, albeit with extra sneezing, coughing, and just a hint of nose blood. I’m grateful for each day with breathable air, knowing that fire is certain this summer and location of fire uncertain. A new fire south of Salt Lake has consumed more than ten thousand acres in less than a day, and another four-day old fire near Moab exploded today. Seeing a sky like this evening’s reminds me not only of last summer’s horrendous smoke, but of the tragic summer of 1994, when the Wake Fire in our valley burnt three thousand acres in a couple of days; its impact was quickly eclipsed on its third day by the Storm King fire near Glenwood Springs that blew up and killed fourteen firefighters. Everything we hold dear is so tenuous.

Not only because of wildfire, of course, or the slow-moving catastrophe that is climate chaos, but because impermanence is the nature of all things. Our evening walk was especially poignant in the coppery glow of the smoky sunset: Not only from the oppressive weight of the big picture, but the looming loss of the very personal was readily apparent in dear Stellar’s feeble gait. We turned around before the first gate and he hobbled back in to his comfy bed for the night. I’m grateful for each day that we both wake up alive, and I don’t have to make that horrible decision to call his time. I’m grateful for the mindfulness practice that allows me to enjoy our remaining time together, to recognize that one bad day is often followed by a few good ones, and to accept the inevitable end of both our lives. I’m grateful for the inspiration and motivation that comes from knowing that “Death is certain, time of death uncertain.”

Change

I’m

Though it isn’t always comfortable, I’m grateful for change; and more importantly, I’m grateful for my increasing capacity to handle it with equanimity. I’m really not crazy about random technical changes that show up unexpectedly on websites like this one, where now I can’t seem to add a caption to an image. But if I could, I’d write under the first picture, above, that where once there stood a lush almond tree, which froze to death last fall, there is now a blank corner for me to design a new planting; change provides unlimited opportunity. I am sad to lose the almond tree, but there was nothing to be done for it. I’m grateful I had helpers come this morning, who cut the rest of it down, and dug out the stump, which was sending up vigorous sprouts from the rootstock, which was wild plum, not almond. I dug up the very first sprout from that rootstock over a decade ago, and planted it: it grew into a beautiful, hardy shade tree (below) that fills with bees every spring while flowering, and even provided half a dozen plums last year.

Now

Where once there was a patch of weeds in the lowly, forgotten dog pen, there is now a beautiful wooden raised bed built by Mr. Wilson, eagerly awaiting the little tomato and pepper plants I started hardening off today, gradually increasing their time outside in real sun incrementally over the next five or six days. And below, where once there were empty beds and tubs (not all that long ago), garden riches are growing. Without change, there would be no growth.

Contentment

This morning brought the promise of rain, which ultimately manifested as only a few misty sprinkles between hours of cool sunshine. Stellar and Topaz walked with me through the woods, I baked some cinnamon buns and enjoyed the sugary treat outside with coffee on the patio as phoebes flitted and titmice tittered, and I finished reading a pretty good novel. Then I attended to my lesson plan and taught the first of eight classes to a second pair of students, embarking on the last practice session before I get certified to teach mindfulness. After that, we walked again, to the canyon in evening sun, and then I made dinner and watched some shows. It was a mundane, simple Saturday, the kind I love, and I’m grateful for every living moment of this day spent in contentment.

I only checked the news headlines a couple of times, and each time I felt discontent, frustrated, angry, and sad. People can be disappointing. Human nature has an evil streak, try as we might to deny it. Greed, hatred, and delusion are the three poisons of mind that cause the most suffering in the world. The Buddha recognized them 2500 years ago: They were with us then, and they remain today; they may have evolved along with our other, better qualities as we became the human species, and there may have been an adaptive advantage then, but there isn’t now. I truly don’t see any hope for eradicating them in general, but I can sure do my best to diminish them in my own mind. By choosing to turn my attention away from the so-called ‘news’ that is full of them, and toward the living, breathing planet under my feet, I’m able to water the seeds of gratitude, compassion, kindness and joy. This brings a pure, deep contentment to each day.

I found the motherlode of globe cactuses, some as tiny as a fingertip, while we wandered aimlessly home this morning.
And in the evening, we made it to the canyon where we discovered that the ice has melted in Ice Canyon, and the cottonwoods are leafing out.
I was overjoyed to see the number of buds on the large claret cup cactus on the trail home.

I’m grateful that I have lived long enough to find contentment, after a lifetime of chasing illusory ideals of happiness. I’m grateful for every step that led me here (though I think I could have done without several-many of the more painful lessons along the way), for each right step, and for each wrong step that taught me something, offered an insight, invited a course correction. I’m grateful that I survived my poor decisions, and finally understand the power of choosing where I place my attention.

But Still…

Today I’m tired, and I’m sad about Stellar, and I’m disappointed in myself for not finishing an assignment. But still, I’m grateful. Grateful for another day with my dear old wobbly dog, grateful for the red tulips and the white grape hyacinths, and the rare conditions of my life that allow me to have time to meditate; grateful for the teachers who inspire me in every sense of the word, literally reminding me to be grateful for each breath.

I’m grateful that yesterday was not the last time we got to walk to the canyon together. We both hobbled down there this afternoon, and he did pretty well considering how weak he was last evening. He seems pretty strong in the morning, but as the day wears on his back legs seem to wear out. Each day is another opportunity to practice equanimity, to release attachment to the inevitable outcome.

Lessons

This once-beautiful pink stone represents a lesson in humility that I learned twenty-five years ago, which still causes pangs of regret almost daily. But just little bitty pricks of regret, no more waves of guilt or shame.

Today I’m grateful for lessons: The avalanche of lessons I’m learning now, and the lessons I’m planning to teach; the easy lessons, and the hardballs I’ve tried to dodge throughout my life, thrown at me again and again til I finally catch on… I’m grateful for all kinds of lessons.

Is anything ever NOT a lesson?” she complained.

Nope. Nothing is ever not a lesson. Everything’s a lesson. I knew this twenty years ago but I wished it to not be so, so I kept looking for the thing that wasn’t a lesson, that was just a thing. And I can assure you there isn’t one. There’s no such thing. There is no thing in this life of being human that isn’t a lesson. 

I’m grateful for all the lessons represented here, and also for tulips emerging around the garden Buddha…
…their tender leaves protected from marauding mule deer with old chicken wire; grateful to have that lying around.

I’ve finally absorbed these words of wisdom, “Let me be a learner, learning life’s lessons.” I find that only by slowing down enough to even try to understand breath can I begin to absorb and embody this life’s lessons.

Lessons can be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. The good news is that doesn’t matter: they’re all good, any lesson learned is a good lesson, no matter how many tries it takes. So I’ve surrendered to the fact that nothing is ever not a lesson, and I’m enjoying learning again! Once I quit resisting, much of what was unpleasant became neutral, and many things heretofore neutral became a cause for gratitude. And even that doesn’t matter. The ultimate lesson is to hold all the lessons in equal regard, pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral: this is one facet of equanimity.

I’m grateful I only wrenched my big toe trying to get this shot, and didn’t sprain my ankle; practically running alongside Stellar (grateful he can move that fast!) trying to get ahead of him, watching the camera not my feet on uneven terrain. There’s at least one lesson in there.