I used to drive across the country once or twice a year, for more than twenty years. I felt really confident in my driving, and in my ability to handle anything that came up. But in recent years, while I’m still confident in my driving abilities, I’m less sure of the skills and wisdom of other drivers; also, the pandemic sapped my desire to go anywhere anyway. So I practiced focusing on my breath several times this morning before heading out on the highway, just to keep myself grounded. Then at the hospital, I breathed intentionally to keep calm through the intake and waiting areas. I’m grateful for how well DCMH maintains their Covid protocol, and this time I sailed through the process to get to radiology.
An MRI itself used to make me feel claustrophobic, but the new machine is like a giant donut and much easier to breathe in. I chose classical music, which happened to be a dramatic symphony that meshed in a fascinating way with the sounds of the machine. At the same time, I focused on my breath, with an awareness of thoughts arising and falling away. I surrendered to the noise: It was a lovely meditation. I’m grateful I have learned the mindfulness skills to approach this potentially grueling outing with equanimity, and make the most of what had to be done. We’ll know more later about the outcome, and I’m not worried about it, expecting only to gain information.
Then after I got home and decontaminated with a hot shower (one of the things in life I am most grateful for! Imagine–clean water flowing from the mountains through pipes underground, into a holding tank, pumped via solar power into my home, pouring out hot in a fountain in my very own shower! Life doesn’t get any better), I sat outside on the patio for a long time, just breathing, recuperating the energy it took to sustain equanimity throughout the day. Then I chaired a zoom meeting, and later sat outside again for a long while with Stellar and some cervid friends, breathing with the rhythm of the phoebes’ flights to and from their nest overhead; punctuated with occasional hummingbird frenzies off to the side. I spent a good portion of the day just being grateful for each breath.
I’m grateful for so much today: for sunshine, green growing things, a breakfast burrito for dinner; a meaningful zoom with a talented, compassionate writer friend whose book I can’t wait to see published; new glasses, Stellar doing a little better today, the fragrance of white irises, letting go of my need to control everything; half a dozen hummingbirds zipping around the feeder outside the living room window while the phoebes tag team feeding their chicklets right above the hummingbird fray, and a Bullock’s oriole pops in brightly for a moment… and the list goes on. I started the day participating in a meditation on an open heart, welcoming the richness in each moment of this life, and managed to carry that feeling through a busy morning and a productive afternoon, with moments of grounded relaxation throughout the day. I’m so grateful for the practice of mindfulness, and the joy and contentment it’s brought to my life.
I’m grateful today for our countywide healthcare provider group, Delta Health. Today I visited both the hospital and the West Elk Clinic to get some tests run prior to an intake with a new primary care provider. It was a challenging trip for me. It was only the third time in the past year I’ve driven that far: I know realistically that the chances of a car crash are greater than the chance I’ll get Covid now that I’m vaccinated, but I managed to keep that anxiety at bay for the forty-five minute drive down there. At the hospital, I girded my loins, double-masked my face, and strolled bravely into the lobby.
Things have changed since the last time I was there. A new intake desk with a touchscreen checkin, wiped with disinfectant before and after each use, and a greeter taking temperatures with a wand to the neck. Everyone waiting in the main lobby both for admissions, and for wherever they were going next. I had grabbed a New Yorker from the mail pile in the car, and when I sat down to wait I opened it to a page of LL Bean’s menswear. Oh no! I had grabbed an LL Bean catalog, not The New Yorker! I flipped through the catalog, then opened Kindle on my phone and picked up where I left off months ago in The Compassionate Mind.
It was half an hour before I got into an admission office, and during that time I was dismayed to see several employees walking around half-masked; other people pulling their masks down to speak, and so many gapped masks. But I practiced patience, and felt safer being vaccinated, and reasoned that these people probably get screened daily and act cavalier because they know they’re Covid clean.
In the office, I was mesmerized as usual by the clerk’s fingernails. They were even longer this time. I’m always grateful when I get this lady, because her nail art distracts me. She seemed subdued, distracted, not her usual chirky self. She said, “Things are gonna get much worse.” The pandemic obviously getting to her. I really felt for her, and this helped me keep equanimity. I was stressed being there, but hey, I’m grateful I get to work from home. I felt for all of them. She sent me back to the lobby to wait for Radiology to come collect me. I wished her well. I felt that my being calm, pleasant, and expressing gratitude for her work gave her a lighter moment in her day.
I changed seats a few times in the lobby, as people with droopy masks passed too close for comfort. Myself wore a ‘non-medical grade N95’ (whatever that means) that my cousin gave me, with a cloth mask over it. Time plodded on: I looked up every time someone came through the double doors from the main corridor. I started getting short of breath, and couldn’t bring myself to take a deep, full inhalation. It wasn’t the mask, it was the anxiety. Finally I walked back to the intake desk and said, “I’ve been waiting for Radiology for a long time, and I’m starting to feel anxious…” I was met with such a compassionate response I immediately felt better. One and then another attendant checked in the main office, and the second one explained that there had been some emergencies and they should be with me soon, and would I prefer to wait in the chapel by myself. That sounded good. As she was escorting me back there, the X-ray tech passed us and called out my name.
After waiting an hour, the X-rays took about ten minutes. I found myself holding my breath as the tech stood close and positioned me, thinking, If I can smell his breath (which wasn’t bad, just warm and moist and slightly scented) then he’s too close! I think I would have thought that anyway, even pre-Covid. The whole episode was a trial. I know that makes me sound like a weenie, but we all have different anxiety and risk thresholds. It’s been so long since I’ve been that close to that many people I felt a bit like an alien. Anyway, he escorted me back out to the corridor, and we parted with sincere well-wishes. This is a silver lining of Covid I’m grateful for: People really mean it when they wish you a good day, or to stay safe, or to take care.
Then I got to the clinic, and there was no order for the bloodwork. But the kind young lab tech spoke to the upcoming new doctor and got an order then and there, stuck the needle without sensation, got what she needed, and I was on my way home. I’m grateful for all the kindness that was shown to me during this adventure, and for the kindness I felt in my own heart, instead of the frustration, resentment, and irritation I might have felt had I still been an earlier version of me. I’m grateful that the fruits of daily mindfulness and meditation practice led me more or less serenely through the day, and allowed me to relax quickly after returning home, tossing all my clothes into the wash, and decontaminating in a hot shower. I’m grateful that my little blue car got me there and back safely, that Stellar was happy to see me when I got home, that hot water came out of the tap, that I had clean comfortable clothes to put on, and bread to make a grilled cheese-beans-and-bacon sandwich, and the rest of the day to enjoy this precious interconnected life.
Today was so cold, grey, and windy relatively speaking, and I had so much computer work to do, that it was a great day to stay inside. I’m grateful for choices. I left the patio pot filling and potato planting for tomorrow. I’ve caught up on all my work assignments, and now I have the rest of the week to finish coursework, and plant potatoes, and simply sit in the joy of pure being in this little sphere of influence.
Probably about time to bring the cacti out. Listen to those fat cows bellowing! Where will I put potatoes? Here’s a stray marker. What happened to the parsley? When will the sweet peas emerge? Give them time, time. Those hard dry pea seeds need to soften, relax into the ground where they’re now dwelling before they’re willing to burst their fragile boundaries and reach upward to the light.
OK, I see I’ll have to make time to simply sit this week. There’s always something new, something more, to do in the garden, or some question to consider. Not just in the garden, in the woods as well. The sphere of my influence has slowly extended outward, like the proverbial ripples on a pond, at a glacial pace. Almost thirty years here, how little I still know, yet how familiar I am with this land. Deer trails criss-cross the slope of this ancient alluvial fan. The first wildflowers are in bloom, shy buckwheats. I’ve watched these little pinions grow from seedlings to saplings, then all in a cluster turn brown and die. They’ve been a landmark first as they grew, ah yes, this is where I am, this is how far from home and which direction, and now as standing dead. Will I cut them? Will I leave them? I feel they should all be cut, taken out, this space opened for something less flammable.
But for now, it’s time to decorate cupcakes. Choices.
Back inside, as the sun set, Topaz and Stellar slept, while I frosted zucchini-chocolate cupcakes, trying out nozzles and techniques for the third time since I chose this skill to learn. I’m getting better with the roses, and discerning which patterns which nozzles make, and how to squeeze and twist the bags. What’s happened to green food coloring since fifty years ago? Who chose to make it neon green? Eew. I chose to stop after eight cupcakes as the frosting softened and roses sagged. Where’s the eighth cupcake? Well… I’m grateful for choices – it was delicious!
I’m grateful today for this community of online/telephone meditators called Telesangha, and for our teacher Cynthia Wilcox. Cynthia has been leading this half-hour morning meditation virtually every weekday since September 6, 2016. We are in our fifth year doing this together. Just a couple of the meditators have been there since the beginning, and more have been there almost as long, and some are fairly recent in the past year. Altogether there are about 18 of us, coast to coast and two in London. It varies day to day how many of us are on the call; there were times in the first year or two when there might be only three or four of us.
You can get to know someone pretty well, and care about them pretty deeply, with just a few words every few days, consistently over several years. We’ve been through some milestones together, including one woman having her first baby, several deaths in various families, health crises, travels (including one fellow calling in at two a.m. from Australia), moves, accomplishments, and breakups. It’s a genuine community, with a lot of love and concern among us, even though most of us have never met in person, or even seen pictures. Just voices, and a committed intention to meditate daily.
(I’m grateful for the technology that allows us to gather from around the world in one virtual space, day after day. (How I’ve come to rely on the world wide web through the years!) I’m grateful for the electricity that allows me to turn on a computer every day and connect with the world in any way I wish to, and grateful to get my electricity from the sun, and grateful to have a computer, and…)
Cynthia teaches in the Insight tradition of Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield, and also leads embodiment meditations in the style of Judith Blackstone. Certain days we have a recurring focus: Tuesday is Embodiment, Thursday is Central Channel, Friday is some kind of Heart meditation. Mondays and Wednesdays the meditation responds more or less to the checkins of participants. I am always grateful for the community (the sangha, on the telephone = Telesangha), and some days I’m especially grateful for the meditation, and for the kind, wise heart of our guide, whose articulate counsel this morning helped me skillfully navigate a fraught situation.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to spend two days in silent retreat, grateful for the teachers and the teachings that guided me through this unusual adventure, and, grateful to be done with it! And, I still want to do it again once or twice a month, though maybe for only 36 hours the next time. I stocked up on necessities in the days ahead of the retreat, preparing snacks, sweets, and meals, to minimize distractions. Everything went according to schedule on Saturday, spent in frequent meditation and constant deep reflection. Sunday got a little off kilter by mid-afternoon, and by dinnertime I was exhausted. It was as if I had glimpsed myself in the near future, close to the shore of another sea change, and I chose not to go there yet. I cut short the introspection, uncomfortable somehow with the intensity of it.
Saturday was so mild that we walked all the way to the rim, knowing there was a storm coming that might keep us home for a few days. Indeed, Sunday morning saw the biggest snow yet this winter (if I remember correctly!). Stellar did great on the first morning walk around the Breakfast Loop.
As snow kept falling, we walked again later, up the driveway. He was full of spunk, trotting ahead, eating snow, coming back to get me. The snow brought utter peace into my silence, first, for its primal beauty and its own pervasive silence; second, for the comfort of moisture to this parched land. Grateful, as always in the desert, for precipitation. Grateful for the dog’s good energy and mobility.
This was shortly before his back feet turned under, and he couldn’t get them to work at all. He walked halfway home on the tops of his back feet, hips dropped low, practically dragging his back legs. I kept pulling his hips up and setting his feet right but another step or two and they flipped over again. After a few tries I realized it was futile and we had a long way to go yet, so I slung my scarf in front of his thighs and limped him the rest of the way home, essentially carrying his back end. It was good I was in silence: kept me from talking myself into a state. I figured if I could get him home and rested he’d be fine, as long as we stayed out of the deep snow. This proved to be the case. He’s walked up and down the plowed driveway several times since without incident. I think his feet turned under and seized up, or just got too cold to function, from being ankle deep in very cold snow for too long. I’m grateful this wasn’t a ‘new normal,’ not yet.
I’m grateful to Philip for going out of his way Friday to deliver the coconut milk I required for this exquisite dish, which I indulged in making Sunday night, baked tofu with coconut lime rice. Unexpectedly one of the most delicious meals of the year; I’m grateful for the good sense to clip and try the recipe. I’m grateful that my days of silent solitude were flanked by gifts of friendship, grateful for loving Valentine messages from friends who didn’t know I was on retreat, and for silence from friends who did. I’m grateful for this web of life that supports me on an unconventional path, and grateful for each step no matter how challenging or painful.
Today, I’m grateful for waking up, and being able to spend the day making preparations to spend the weekend in silent retreat. I finished all the work that had to be finished this week, and feel at liberty to devote the next two days to meditation, contemplation, introspection. Working from home, setting my own hours, lets me make choices that stress me out. “We’ve forgotten the concept of weekend!” If I would work with discipline and focus every week, I could have a retreat every weekend. Instead I procrastinate, so there’s always some nagging sense of obligation, no real peace of mind, and always distraction.
This is part of our cultural delusion, exacerbated by technology that makes constant demands on our attention. I turn it all off at bedtime tonight, and live without it until Monday morning. I’m grateful that I get to relax into practice for a good two days, pondering the question Who am I? and The Four Immeasurables. Gratitude practice will continue unabated, and I’ll catch up here on Monday. I’m grateful for people who care.
I’m grateful for every single breath, whether or not I’m aware of it, and I try to be aware of my breath many times during the day. Sometimes just a single breath, sometimes a few, sometimes for five minutes, or twenty-five, I focus on the sensation of the breath.
My friend Kim and I try to meditate spontaneously together once a day. One of us will text an invitation, and usually within a few minutes we’ve both settled somewhere quiet with a guided meditation, or just a silent timer set for five or ten minutes. “The joy of each breath” comes from a meditation we did this evening, led by Peter Harper, The Drunken Monk, on Insight Timer. The joy of each breath. It really is a joy when you can breathe fully, and take a moment to pause, notice, and really feel a single inhalation-exhalation cycle. Or give yourself ten minutes to truly allow yourself to relax, release, let go. Relaxation is a skill not well known nor practiced in this predominant culture. It’s so much more than kicking back on the couch with a beer watching TV, or sitting on the deck with a martini savoring sunset, or having a great time pursuing any kind of sensory stimulation. It’s letting go of all that, resting in the stillness of nowhere to go, nothing to do. Each breath really is a miracle.
Because several people asked for the Cheesos recipe, here are the sources of inspiration for both Cheesos and the Shells. I’m not entirely digital – I still love actual cookbooks, and have a few reliable go-tos besides my own 3×5 card file, a folder of printed recipes, my mother’s lifetime recipe notebook, and two staples that forged my appetite: mom relied on The Joy of Cooking, and the Colonel swore by Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School bible. I’m also grateful for cookbooks!
Sometimes during the day, after I notice something like these cookbooks, and pay attention, and take stock of the luxuries in my life, I take a deep breath – a big sigh – and am suddenly aware of this breath – and then this breath – and I recognize the astonishing chain of events that led to my being here, in this moment, holding this cookbook that is older than I am. Each breath is a miracle. Oxygen is the real drug; breathing, the ultimate high.
Yes, I’m grateful for hats: warm hats, sun hats, fancy hats, ball caps, and berets – but HATs in this case stands for Habits, Attitudes, Tendencies. I’m grateful for the easy acronym to remind me about these constant companions, and grateful for learning the importance of recognizing one’s own HATs, acquired through a lifetime of coping with the diverse experiences of being human. We all have some good hats, and we all have some unhealthy hats. By cultivating mindfulness, one aspect of which is the ability to choose where to focus my attention, I’ve been learning how to observe and modify my tendencies, enhance and increase my healthy habits, and let go of unhealthy attitudes and habits. Or at least, if I can’t let go yet, observe and acknowledge which habits do not further my flourishing, and which do, and move in the right direction.
Judgment, for example, has been an unhealthy HAT for me. I was raised in a family that wore their judgments like Kentucky Derby hats, flamboyant and unapologetic. I have certainly lost some opportunities and friendships through the years because of my judgments, as well as caused myself immense unnecessary suffering. Letting go of judgments, however gradually, is one of the healthiest things I’ve ever done. The HATs I’ve been examining for months now are old, new, ancestral, picked up along the way from various other people… and some that I’ve knitted all by myself. Some still fit, some have become too tight, uncomfortable; some are comforting, some flattering, and some are quite unattractive. I’m grateful that on the hatrack of my mind there’s always room for another good hat, as I strive to get rid of old, unhelpful hats.
I learned about HATs in the mindfulness teacher training course I’m halfway through. I’m grateful that conditions aligned so that I could spend this first year of Covid in deep introspection, pursuing a new calling. I’m grateful for the teachers in this course, and especially grateful today for a flyby visit from two of them as they passed through town on their travels. Stellar vociferously and highly approved of Laura and John, who joined us for a walk to the rim, and some crispy, cheesy pan pizza outside in the garden afterward. I’m grateful for my new winter hat: it’s perfectly fine to picnic outside when it’s freezing, as light snow starts to fall.
Letting Go. This is who I am. This is what I do. I let go. I’ve spent a lifetime resisting, yet learning to let go, and it is time now to put to the test the letting go lessons. I’m grateful for letting go of so many things, tangible and intangible, in the past year; my letting go accelerates this year.
I let go of any expectation or even hope for perfection in material things a long time ago, while I was building this house. With an emotional punch as from a sudden death, I let go of perfect walls one morning after I worked in Grand Junction overnight, and returned to find that an unexpected rainstorm had washed away parts of several walls under a fresh bond beam. I’ll fix it later, I told myself, some day. Imperfections piled on after that, and I had to let go: Nothing in this house is plum, level, or square.
A professional finish? Forget it. The caulk around the window frames, among other things, reflects my letting go of that ideal. This was the best fix for the conditions at the time, when we discovered that blowing perlite insulation into the 4” space between the double walls was a bad idea. Before we got close to filling it up, perlite aspirated out of every minute gap between blocks and window bucks, into the house. We bought the closest caulk to adobe color; but I had to let go of noticing the difference, and call it close enough.
I’m grateful for letting go on days like this, when the internet I pay too much for is down most of the day, the new computer I paid too much for is in the shop for repair after only three weeks, four years of photo libraries are lost from a backup disc that the new computer fried, along with who knows what else. I’m grateful for letting go on other days, too; letting go of little things all along helps cultivate equanimity for when I have to let go of big things.