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’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.
Stellar, Topaz and I went for a long, slow walk this morning, stepping off the beaten path onto a trail we’ve – well, I’ve – never walked on before. They may have, and certainly plenty of wild creatures who blazed it. I turned to look back, and if I hadn’t known where I was I’d have been lost: same trees, different angle, it was a new place. I love losing myself in these woods, am grateful that for all the years I’ve lived here I can still wander aimlessly, stop, and not know where I am – for at least a few seconds, and sometimes several minutes. It’s comforting to belong to something larger and more mysterious than me.
We wandered for half an hour, slower and slower. We slowed until we stopped in silence, and simply stood still. After awhile I heard a soft tap-tap high above. I looked up to see a brilliant white-breasted nuthatch looking down at us from the top of a juniper snag, his head cocked. Then he went back to tapping the dead wood for food. Eventually he flew to another tree.
Then I caught the faint but unmistakable whiff of smoke. It was too warm for anyone to have an inside fire going, and I couldn’t see the horizon for the trees surrounding us. It was time for coffee anyway, so we turned for home. I’m grateful I could text a neighbor with a view to find out that there was no obvious plume nearby. She said the sky was hazy to the west, and we assumed it was the usual clearing fields with fire or burning ditches that happens every spring. It was the first day in many that it wasn’t too windy to burn, though still exceptionally – dangerously – dry.
We continued slowly toward home on narrow deer trails rarely traversed by our ten feet (or at least my two), and suddenly found ourselves in front of the Triangle Tree. I knew when I discovered it last fall that one day I’d find it in just the right light, and here it was! From this angle, it looks like a majestic old juniper in full sun.
After spending some time savoring the Triangle Tree, we ambled on home and went straight to the pond for Stellar to drink. By then it was already 70º and he was panting heavily after his relaxing exertions. Well, I was relaxed, after waking with a head full of unruly thoughts which got swept away by the wonder of losing myself in the woods. At the pond, I was grateful to see the first northern leopard frog of this season, a big fat female in the curly rushes.
One of the ideas that is used in the lineage of mindfulness training that I’m cultivating this year is that of mental hygiene. We spend at least five minutes a day attending to our dental hygiene, why do we not spent at least that amount of time attending to our mental hygiene? The idea has been bugging me for the past six months, as I’ve begun spending far more time on mind training than I have on physical training or fitness, never mind teeth. I tend to clench my jaws during sleep, funneling all the day’s anxiety into the night rather than dealing with it while the sun’s up. As a result, I found out today, the surfaces of some of my teeth are crazed like old china.
But that didn’t really worry the dental hygienist I saw for the first time, with gritted teeth, a bit worried that they were in as bad shape as they felt. In fact, for not having been to a dentist in almost three years, my teeth are in great shape, and I was grateful again today, as yesterday, for the compassionate care of a qualified female medical professional. The only thing Jen was really worried about throughout the teeth cleaning was the “aggressive sound” of her instruments on my delicate dentition. She apologized several times for it, reassuring me that though it sounded bad it really wasn’t. In between jaw stretches, when she had her hand out of my mouth, I reassured her that it didn’t sound aggressive, it sounded like progress.
“You’re doing great,” she cheered me on several times. I felt safe again, from the moment I walked into her office. I used to be not fond of the smell of disinfectant, and normally might have gagged at the scent when I entered. However, in Covid times, I found the aroma comforting, and relaxed immediately after meeting her. No one else in the office the entire time, everything I encountered spic n span (until my muddy shoes touched the chair), and what seems like a solid protocol for both her and her patients’ well-being. It was the most fun I’ve ever had getting my teeth cleaned, and though I kept feeling my body tense up as she scraped gently away, I also kept being able to release, let go, relax. One thing that amazed me is how did she manage to put so much pressure on the scraper, or the floss, as the tartar resisted, and then not let the tool or the floss plunge into my gum when it finally released? I was impressed with her control, and surrendered to her capable hands and the general feeling that I’d chosen well to trust her. I’m so grateful to have finally found again a place I feel safe getting my teeth tended, and inspired to pay more attention to them myself. Her intake questionnaire asks, among many other things, Do you want to keep your own teeth? YES! I answered emphatically. Floss more, was essentially what she said.
I’m grateful for my teeth, that they’re in such good shape 62 years into this life, that they serve me so well, that I know now to be gentle in what I chew to protect their fragile enamel (No ice chewing, she advised), that regular brushing and occasional flossing has been enough to keep them stable for three years, that she accepts ACA insurance so I can go back more often; I’m grateful for my teeth for all they do for me daily, crunching into celery, tearing and chewing a lamb chop, lending emphasis and clarity to facial expressions. And for all they have done for me in the past. May these teeth keep on biting, tearing, chewing for several more decades!
My gratitude today began of course first thing in the morning when Stellar and I both woke up alive and able to take a nice long walk through the forest. But it really kicked in late morning when I met my new primary care provider at the clinic, a nurse practitioner who made me feel heard and seen in a way no doctor has since the great Adam Zerr left the valley. Christi Anderson heard everything, and then asked if there was more. There was. And then she asked if there was more. There was. And then she said, “I look forward to taking care of you.” All with lots of eye contact and genuine compassion and interest. I felt a lot healthier walking out of there, simply from feeling heard and seen completely. It’s so important, whether it’s with a healthcare provider, a partner, or a friend, to feel heard and seen for who you are.
And that might have been that for today’s post, except that tonight I attended the third and final webinar on a resilient ‘circular’ local economy, hosted by one of our environmental watchdog groups, Citizens for a Healthy Community. Another of the clinic’s doctors attended this workshop to speak about integrating healthcare proactively within the main focus of the series, the ‘nutrient dense’ agriculture of this amazing valley. I’ll not go into any recap of the series, which consisted of a total of almost 8 hours over three Mondays, but I’ll share the link to the recorded workshops, in which so many entrepreneurs, farmers, artists, and others explained their amazing passion projects.
I moved here almost thirty years ago because I found what I had been looking for without knowing it: a palpable sense of community. Though in the past decade I have retreated into my hermitage on the fringe, this community continues to sustain me in a very fundamental way, and there really are no words to express my gratitude for the gift of living here, among these generous people so deeply connected to the earth our mother. I have been uplifted and inspired by everyone who spoke in these three workshops, and was honored to attend simply to witness and learn the depth and breadth of interconnection among all these non-profits and individuals, from community elders like food activists Monica and Chrys, to relative newcomers, all dedicated to supporting the ecosystem of this beautiful agricultural valley which is also a progressive creative center in food and many other arts. One of the most exciting things I learned is that there is now a countywide Farm to School food garden/curriculum in the nine elementary schools.
I’ve often thought that I found in this valley a safe place to plant myself and flourish; a place where I could be heard and seen so that I could find my voice and my vision. I am grateful every single day that I chose to settle here in the North Fork Valley.
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.