Wednesday, September 25, 2013

"Only Connect." - E. M. Forster

Home for now.

We are staying in a house of a woman we've never met. Talk about generosity of strangers. Doreen's house is a charming bungalow two blocks from the beach. She's my sister's next-door-neighbor in Leucadia, a little slice of paradise just north of San Diego.

Being here is one of the many sweet coincidences--or serendipities or synchronicities, call them what you will--that have peppered our journey. Dave and I had planned to come here in October to stay at my sister Ann's house while she and her husband surfed and siesta-ed at the tip of Baja.

But--and here's where the details get fun--while Dave and I were in Australia, Doreen and Kit (another neighbor) went to see the Ellen show. And there they won a trip to...Australia!

As a result, Doreen and Kit traveled to Australia shortly after Dave and I had been Down Under. And Doreen offered us her house.

A short walk from the house.

Now we get to spend a couple of weeks next door to family. Doreen happens to return the day after Ann and Bruce take off for Mexico. So we will just pack up and move next door.

Getting here was another matter. Our drive from L.A. to San Diego was fraught with traffic. Silly us, we'd thought the freeways wouldn't be packed on a Saturday mid-day. But we'd neglected the little detail that this is the land of the always-packed freeways.

Combined with the fact that we'd driven from Northern California to L.A. the previous day, we were a bit bedraggled when we hit Leucadia. Imagine how we'd have felt if our lives weren't filled with such generosity.

Uncle Gort
In L.A., we'd spent a night with Nancy and Andy. We've been there so much in the past few months it feels like we should call Gort (the huge robot in the front yard) "Uncle Gort." Nancy had stocked the house with some of our favorite things: yogurt, fruit, coconut milk. We also had a sweet, teary moment when she thanked me for not dying. No wonder she's been my best friend since high school. (For a picture of us at a Doobie Brothers concert in 1980, click here.)

Scarlet and Ann

When we hit Leucadia, my sister treated us to one of my favorite all-time meals: her famous beer-can chicken. Oddly, you impale a chicken on a partly-filled can of beer and BBQ it. I bet this insanely delicious way to cook a chicken originated in trailer parks. Thank god for drunken innovators.

The next day was another BBQ with extended family: Bruce's nephew Bryce, his wife Amber, and their two Uber-adorable children.

Mother and daughter adorables (Ava and Amber)


In a short few days, the theme of this trip has become communal gathering around food and drink--oh, and dogs. The next day, Dave and I felt sufficiently rested and settled into Doreen's pad so we made dinner. The tribe this time included Ann, Bruce, their son Beau, and Judith, a family friend. Dave made his blue-ribbon ribs, the smell of which tortured the dogs.

Digging in.

Bex being tortured.
Kit (the other Australia trip winner) lives just a house over with her husband Mark. They met up with Doreen in Australia and returned the other day. Although still a little jet-lagged they threw a party last night in their lovely yard, a field filled with fragrant lavender and fringed with grape vines.

At dusk, we enjoyed the company of the tan, flip-flopped, friendly group. In keeping with coincidences, one of the party guests was Sharon, an Australian. Another was a hilarious, frenetic story-teller named Guy. He was leaving the next day for Europe. He bought a round-trip ticket to London but had no specific plans. It sounds like he's going to show up at the door-step of friends in England, France and Sweden.

In the past I would have lived vicariously through him. Now we're living just like him. Guy is our kind of guy.

His huge slug of a pitbull--the adorable Ivan--roamed the field with the two other guest dogs. The three canines wove around our legs then burst out in a full run, butting bodies like bumper cars.

When the the sky darkened, Kit lit candles. A large screen was set up to show slides from their Australian adventure. And there was Doreen. Dave and I marveled at the fact that she stood in some of the same places we'd just traveled through two months ago. We've never met. We are separated by thousands of miles. But we are living in her home and surrounded by her friends.

It was as though there, under the stars, all of life magically converged. My sister laughed. A dog yipped. Dave's hand touched mine. I was at peace.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Letting It Go

Sebastopol flowers

I was on a walk this morning when I realized I'd forgotten my hat. The bald spot on my head needs protection. But I didn't want to go back to the house. I felt like moving forward.

The sun was bright, the Sebastopol sky brilliant blue. I decided to listen to my feelings. Going back felt like pushing against the tide. Going forward felt like fun. I figured I could find plenty of shade on my path--and, when needed, I'd cover my bare spot with my hand.

Instead of fretting about a sunburn; instead of wondering if I should have gone back; instead of beating myself up for forgetting my hat; instead of worrying about the shade/hand equation or inconvenience ... I let it go.

Consciously, deliberately I lined up with my choice to keep walking.

I breathed deeply. I thought about how a little bit of sun energy on my head is good. I felt my body from the inside-out and thanked it for being such a powerful healing machine. I thanked my legs for ambulating, and my heart and lungs for effortlessly doing their jobs.

I looked out at the beauty of the day. So much green and blue! A hummingbird. A cat in a window. Dahlias and daisies and funky art in people's yards.

A car approached. It was our friend Lee with my be-hatted husband, Dave, in the passenger seat. They pulled over. I asked Dave if I could borrow his hat. He handed it over.

It may be a little thing, but it seemed I was gifted this hat out of the blue. Once I let go and filled myself with appreciation and flow, the gift appeared.

It's beautiful to know how to line up with my decisions. I love trusting my intuition.

Maybe it's about ungripping. Maybe it's about being where--and who--I truly am.

Maybe doing this regularly with the small things makes it possible to do it with the big things, when they come.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Home Away From Home

Mark and Dave back from the nursery. 

“Your tumor saved my yard!” said Mark the other day. We laughed.

Dave and I hadn't planned to spend time with Mark this month (my medical situation made it a necessity). But I'm grateful we have.

Mark's backyard and I have something in common: These past few weeks have been about transformation. When Mark bought his house, the yard was a slab of concrete, dirt, and a couple of old fruit trees. Now it's a shady haven of tropical plants.

Dave is a knowledgeable gardener and has helped Mark decide on the design of the pavers, and which plants to put in where. Together they’ve made innumerable trips to nurseries. 

Mark asked me what one thing I would put in the yard if it was mine, and I said, “A hot tub!” Actually, I said that multiple times. I'm happy to report that now there’s a concrete pad out there, awaiting the tub.

It’s been fun to be part of Mark’s domestic life. I’m realizing that making a home life doesn’t have to occur in our own house. We can travel and enjoy the domestic comforts of home when we contribute to our friends’ lives--the generous, loving friends who invite us to stay for a time.

As we packed up our lives to hit the road three months ago, Mark was gracious enough to let us leave some boxes and our car in his garage when we are overseas. (When we were in Australia for 5 weeks, he took the car for a spin and--so sweet--washed it for us.)

Before we left for Australia, Dave gave Mark a pair of his flip flops, and a few pieces of our furniture. Our old chair is in the guest bedroom, adding an aura of familiarity. Those flip flops sit on the new patio like Dave-of-a-prior-time just slipped them off. We left Mark's house this afternoon for our next adventure (one night in Santa Cruz then a week in Sebastopol) but pieces of us will remain.

I think about the parts of us that we left behind in Australia. I went there with two pairs of jeans and returned with one. The other pair may be at our friend’s house in Brisbane, crumpled under the futon; or they may be in the home of a maid who found them in one of the rain forest cabins we inhabited for a few days. I also wonder who now has my beloved heart-shaped sunglasses; I hope they are enjoying them as much as I did! I also left behind copies of my books we'd brought for gifts--and a purple dragon statue that used to sit on our Santa Cruz patio. We brought it for our host's 90-year-old mother since he'd told us she loved Chinese tchotchkes.  

I have a Kindle, but Dave still reads books the old-fashioned way. On our travels, he’s been leaving books wherever he finishes them: guest houses, airports, restaurants. We left two Bill Bryson books at our friends’ house in Hollister--another stop on my healing journey--where we also made a few inspired purchases for our hosts: a new cheese grater (the one I was using to grate zucchini broke), a loaf pan (they had only one, and the recipe for zucchini bread made two loaves), and meditation CDs (my friend Janelle had expressed interest in them).

We also got Mark a few things for his new backyard: patio chairs (burnt red to match the trim of the house), candles, and a boom box. It’s fun to notice what our hosts don’t have that might complement their lives. While they are busy at work, we’re like elves bringing in little treats.

When we stayed with our friends in the Santa Cruz mountains, I heard my friend Stacey lament that in their busy household their coffee mugs kept disappearing. Before we left, we bought them some mugs. Orange, to match a highlight color in their decor. She liked them so much she bought more.

We left a bottle of Australian rum--purchased at the airport--with our So Cal rum-and-coke-fan friends. And adorable koala stuffed animals now live in two different homes.

One of those koalas is nestled in my friend Nancy's house. While we stayed with her for a few days, she gave me a curling iron because mine conked out, and she happened to have two. I think of her every time I use it. 

Gathering a new object is a rarity, though, because we are living out of suitcases. That has made traveling pretty freeing because I don’t even think about buying a bunch of stuff for us as we go. We have no room in our suitcases, and no home to ship things to.

That said, everywhere we go we collect incredible memories. What a privilege to be part of others’ lives: cooking and eating together, having great conversations, watching sports and movies, doing fun activities, and hanging out in the mornings drinking coffee. We leave each house feeling a new sense of closeness. As though we are now not only friends but family.

Dinner at Mark's.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Comfort in the Face of Change

Dave with our niece Hailey and nephew Evan:
Spending more time than expected in the Bay Area
has meant more fun with loved ones.

Dave reminded me that we’ve been living without a house for three months. The idea was to live a traveling life: a combination of visiting friends, staying in Airbnb lodgings, leasing places, and house-sitting.

We started with a few days in L.A. followed by a little over a month in Australia. In July, we went to Boston and Cape Cod. The month of August was supposed to look like this:

Swimming in turquoise waters, dalliance-ing with dolphins, snorkeling with turtles and technicolor fish, eating papaya with lime on the lanai, reading and writing in the warm evening, and hiking across moonscape lava.

But this is the thing about life:

You gotta be flexible. Because everything changes. Sometimes change is deceptively slow. And sometimes it happens in the blink of an eye.

For instance:  You make plans to spend a month and a half in Hawaii after your Cape Cod adventure. One day on the Cape, you go for a swim. The water is delectably refreshing in the hot, humid day. You swim out far, alone. You think about how you’re now swimming in the Atlantic, and in a week you’ll be swimming in the Pacific. You think about how being cradled in the sea is like nestling into the belly of the world. Far off, your friends play Frisbee on the sand, the plastic disc like a little green bead tossed against the blue sky.

That night, your body is at peace because of its day-long immersion in sun and sea, because of all that buoyant movement with gravity suspended. Not to mention all that fresh lobster and wine and laughter.

In spite of how great I felt, in spite of the timelessness of the summer days, the next morning did not bring what I expected: more of the same. Instead, that night, something in my brain reached a tipping point, and I woke at 6 a.m. having a seizure. And instead of Hawaii, August brought us back to California for my medical treatment.

I can’t say how many times I’ve thought about that day of dreamy swimming in Cape Cod. If I’d had that seizure 12 hours earlier, I would have drowned. It wouldn’t have been the worst way to go, transitioning while doing something I love so much. Preferable to dying of a heart attack in rush hour traffic.

In fact, when I was having the seizure and thought I was dying, incredibly something that passed through my mind was this: It’s okay if I’m going because I’ve been living my authentic life.

But apparently it wan’t my time. As a result, I have a new depth of appreciation for the preciousness of now.

I cried the other morning when Dave was holding me. Then I realized why. What I was thinking was: I don’t want to lose his body or have him lose mine.

Those Buddhists are right-on when they say human suffering stems from attachment, from desiring permanence in the face of the natural course of change, from wanting things to be different than they are. There I was, PRE-suffering: imagining inevitable change and living it too soon, when I didn’t need to!

I reminded myself that the past and the future are just thoughts. Where it’s all at is NOW. So I gently guided my mind back to the sacred moment, back to my senses, feeling Dave’s arms around me, noting our heart beats. I sensed the tenderness and tenacity of the healing in my skull that just weeks before had been cut open by a surgeon. I reminded myself to thank the surgeon, to embrace the white light of her expertise, to appreciate that I was here, now, experiencing another lovely moment of life.
We humans have amazing minds. We can make ourselves miserable. We can make ourselves joyous. Just acknowledging that I can make myself feel bad is good. It softens suffering a bit. Perhaps that’s why I’ve loved reading literature all these years: because looking at the human condition reminds me that yes, this is the way it is.

I can look at my feelings from another vantage point. Sadness and clinging don’t own me. They can pass by like clouds in the sky. And in fact, they are kind of interesting to watch because, like everything, they change. I don’t need to deny them or impulsively act out against them. I can just relax and breathe and gently think a better-feeling thought like: Sadness is kind of sweet. It says I’m a loving human being. I dig that humanity is capable of love. This life sure has a lot of beauty in it. And the next thing I know, I’m letting go of what I was clinging to. Then maybe I’m smiling. And maybe I’m feeling more and more ready to take on the day.

Living without a house intensifies the letting-go experience. When I’m living in “my” house, I can be seduced by a feeling of permanence. I like that feeling of comfort. But what I’m discovering is I can create comfort wherever I am, even in the midst of embracing impermanence. With no house, it’s very clear to me that wherever we are, we aren’t there forever. 

A house doesn’t bring comfort. We do. By coming back to this moment, again and again.