Pandemic Diaries / 2

The Great Invitation: On Learning to Listen to Bats and Pangolins

It is a full eleven days since we arrived at our sanctuary ‘shelter’ in the California hills. In eleven days our business — a nature-based retreat center serving non-profits, yogis and nuptials — has nosedived. The first wave of cancellations was followed by a second, then the third. Within four days, almost a third of our annual revenue had disappeared and my husband, Jon, after no small amount of hand-wringing, shuttered the business. In a matter of days, reality as we knew it had come to a grinding halt.

Over the last eleven years, my husband Jon and I have slowly developed Bell Valley, a retreat center near Boonville in Anderson Valley, California. Receiving invaluable support along the way from the team of people working with us, we’ve largely run the business remotely, commuting here on weekends from our home-base in Berkeley two and half hours away. Our twin 10-year-old boys, Charlie and Ben, have anchored us in the Bay Area where we’ve felt the centrifugal pull of schools and summer camps, but Bell Valley has been a workplace we travel to on weekends they’ve grown up with, allowing us to raise our children as much as possible outdoors, away from screens.

View looking through the front door, past a dog lying on the floor, and out the back door of an old wood0-sided building
The Toll House

There are too many stories to tell about the journey developing a rural retreat center. It started with the renovation of a historic toll house on highway 253 the year the boys were born. From those humble beginnings, (until a few weeks ago, at least), our team’s efforts over a decade helped to create a thriving rural hub for meaningful gatherings and reflection, accommodating groups of sixty in glamping tents, barn meeting spaces, along miles of woodland trails leading to a freshwater, swimming pond.

However, of all the stories to be told, one thread runs through them all – the thread that carries my love for the land here. As each season has passed over eleven years, (a dot in time compared to what the ancient oaks here have seen), my affections have felt returned to me in spades in a love affair that only seems to deepen with time. Over the years, no matter how busy I’ve been, (some days driving up and back on the same day), a spectacular canvas of clouds, ever-changing, like a vast, dynamic watercolor painting meets me where I park my car at the hilltop cabin. Each spring, wildflowers cast their symphony of color along the sides of the roads leading up there. Each dry august, the grasses crunch under our feet on our hikes, their prickles getting stuck in our socks as we witness the hills transform from a patchwork of green to gold. And each brisk October, the tired trees undress their many leaves one more time for the bare, prayer of winter.

Sun Rise

There were years when the stress of trying to build from scratch a place for humans to gather here in this rural landscape made me want to walk away. There were years when I couldn’t see the beauty because my marriage was faltering, the demands of the project overtaking every corner of my husband’s life. But we survived and looking back, it almost felt as if the seasons carried us through. The last three years in particular, since that fateful November day in 2016, we have thrived.

I don’t think it was Trump’s election itself that triggered the change. It was bigger than that. Trump was simply a symptom of something happening in the world that began to feel like the beginning of a Great Invitation. When America and the planet started tilting off its ‘comfortable’ axis, exposing the many shadows created by a late-capitalist, white, elite ‘alternate reality’ long preceding Trump, that which has been long kept in the dark can begin to have a chance to see the light of day. Hidden deep in the disillusionment and chaos, in the heart of the despair and confusion, the outrage and grief is an invitation to re-discover oneself and one’s life, anew.

Shortly into Trump’s first term, I started to feel my love for this landscape as an ache in my chest, a pressure beckoning to me, like a new story waiting to unfurl, searching for the human words to tell it. On our weekends up here, my harried glance towards the hillsides and views spoke to me of home in a new way. Not in the traditional sense, but rather like I was home in a precious sanctuary, a church, replete with sermons, but the pastors were the tall, ancient oak trees, the prayers were the birdsong of the sparrows and robins, the sound of rain, its irregular symphony echoing through our tin-roofed cabin at night, was the choir. This landscape I had loved over eleven seasons, in short, was beginning to speak to me.

Where it started — whether the trees were speaking to me with an insistence, or whether my body itself signaled the urgency, I don’t know. I know only that I couldn’t resist the desire to listen any more than than I might the rousing invitation of a baptist choir or the solemn and sublime meditation of a Yo-Yo Ma performance. I was being invited into a conversation, that would require I learn a new language, and to learn it, I would need to slow down and listen. Listen as I’d never needed to listen before. Listen with the apertures of my ears, but also my heart and body-wide open in tenderness. I couldn’t bear being a foreigner in my own country any longer. Alongside the trees, the birds and the rain, I wanted to belong.

Looking upward into the canopy along the trunk of an old tree, whose smooth bare trunk is bisected by a rough-textured vertical wound from a healed-over lightning strike.
Old Madrone

Since Trump took office, I’ve watched the smoke from the spate of wildfires that swept over California the following year engulf the sky across the valley. I’ve driven the two-hour drive back to Berkeley, past pylons in Santa Rosa on the side of the freeway still burning alongside big box stores and hotels, whipping in flames. Two years ago, a fine retreat center, much like ours, in a neighboring town was engulfed in these fall flames. Moving forward, there is no autumn that will pass without my daily prayers, no season when I will not notice the unsteadiness of unseasonable weather patterns here, the unreasonable heat of Januaries, the atypical hail and snow too late in springtime.

The white fluff of a dry thistle flower going to seed in dry grass.
Thistle

Most of all, through these past four years, I’ve relished a beauty, that, as yet, still reveals itself so generously without being asked and without demanding anything in return. A stunning homeland given, season after season, for free. And in this past year, especially, each time I have come here, I’ve just wanted to stay. Each drive back to the bay area, my chest would tighten in the car like an ambivalent child leaving home for school. I started counting down the years until my own children would graduate from their bay area lives so my husband and I could finally move here.

And then, of course — is it really just 11 days ago? — California schools were the first in the country to announce they would close for ‘two weeks.’ The day we heard, I scrapped my day’s plans in Berkeley and began to pack. I told the boys to set aside clothes for more than the customary weekend. Get socks, shirts and plenty of books. Alongside clothes, I packed the boys’ instruments, a guitar, a saxophone and, in lieu of our real one, an electric piano. I emptied out the fridge, packed up drawers of dried goods and moved on to extra shoes, two dog beds and several weeks of dog food. With two car-loads filled we arrived here late in the evening, surviving the guilt of our old dog Lulu’s initial foray into the dark wilderness on arrival. The next morning we woke to a blanket of snow. It was a dream come true. Except, it was built on a nightmare.

Three days later we got word of the ordinance to shelter in place. It could be up to 18 months, Trump said. Some eight years earlier than I expected, then, this sanctuary I had been yearning to move to would be our new home for the foreseeable future. Yet what a pyrrhic victory. Alongside our business, all around us, the world as we know was falling to its knees. Those far less privileged than we are, facing evictions, no money for food, and un-told complicated circumstances we may only learn about in the pandemic’s wake. As easy as it might be to take in the pristine contours of this sanctuary escape here, riding on the coattails of denial, we are here because of a global crisis. Our life, up-ended, has sent us to heaven but we got here on the hinges of hell.

There is no gift that does not behold the receiver in obligation. In the best circumstances, the obligation is couched in gratitude and love. This is my condition then. We are here not simply to escape an “enemy virus.” Nor are we here to ride out a “war” in privileged exile. Rather, we have been relocated to a landscape beckoning us to let go of what we have known so that we can finally begin to learn its tongue, finally learn to listen.

Because as devastating as this virus is, I cannot help but see it in the same category as Trump’s election, as part of the Great Invitation. In this form, it is not the enemy, rather, it is the body of the earth speaking to us. The urgency of our times, beyond the androcentrism with which we customarily meet the world, is not only for facemasks and ventilators — the things that will keep humans, and our kin alive. This urgency is a call to reflect on the world we have known, the world we have created, and all the worlds that are possible that we have forfeited in this unsustainable world we are living in at such an unsustainable pace.

News reaches me from Berkeley friends and beyond that, the invitation is reaching others, too, in cities. People are rediscovering their parks, waterfronts and hillside trails. They are tending to their health, noticing themselves, their own bodies, perhaps in ways, they haven’t for decades, racing past them to complete the tasks at hand. They are finding the space in their lives, away from what they have grown accustomed to, to meet the fresh air while we still have it. Off freeways we are clearing up the skies, getting a taste of what could be possible. Many of us are taking time in solitude sensing into our all-too-human vulnerability, acutely aware of global inter-connection on this earth. Could the invitation, even to those who are not eager to speak nature’s tongue, to learn her language, be any more clear? Like Tolkein’s great Ents, the gestures and corralling of our actions are guiding us towards an understanding of the message being ‘spoken’ from the earth.

Isn’t it beyond time to listen, after all? To begin unlearning something so we can learn to listen again within the matrix of mutuality our species knew until the amnesia created by the industrial revolution. Is this not the time we need to reconsider what we think we need to begin to see what we really need. Is this not a call to un-do ourselves, like the trees in winter, laying ourselves bare while the contours of our lives starkly change?

What if the urgency we feel really is the orchestration of a call from the earth to simply stop. To slow down. To suffer the anxiety we might feel in this sudden stillness and reach out from that awareness towards where we find support. Beyond the din of news headlines, spiking numbers in Italy, and the spin over Trump’s latest tweet, we can always open the window and listen. A virus of unknown origin is speaking, its words heard in the stress of a bat, snake, or a Pangolin sold at a wet market in China. An animal removed from its habitat and sold for the passing delight or appetite of a human’s pleasure is speaking, like the planet speaking through its own fevers and wildfires. The earth does not, itself, know how to hold back from rising temperatures to strike out the virus in its own midst — one which, if we listen more deeply, of course, we can only know as ourselves.

In the coming weeks, my husband and I will learn how to plant a garden here with the boys. We will learn to recognize the calls of the various birds, songs that in the past we have appreciated but never stopped to decipher during our work-filled weekends away from city life. We will get our food from Burt’s Boontberry Market, a lovable, small redwood shack in town with locally farmed food and handmade ointments and elixirs. We will live off less. We will learn how to clear trails, thin fir trees, and mix compost. We will nurse our old dog Lulu through her final days. We will play and fight. We will be scared, we will pray for others with far more to fear. Along with others, we will face the great creative void of the unknown. We will open ourselves up for the teaching.

When I have time, I will search for the human words that meet the new language we are learning here. In this way, the new story, at least as it unfurls in this space of shelter, will be written. We will listen, and together we will surely come un-done, learning how to live a different life.

A pink sunset over hilly country with bare trees along the ridges and green grass in the foreground.
Twilight

On March 13th, after our children’s school announced a ‘two week’ closure, my family of four (plus one dog) packed two cars full to ‘shelter in place’ at our retreat center, on 600 acres in Anderson Valley. Privileged, isolated, my husband and I will learn how to become the ‘village’ that once helped raise our children. Along with the rest of the world, we don’t know how long we will be here. Facing that uncertain future, as time permits, I will write this pandemic diary.

Pandemic Diaries

Bodies In Motion

At some point, Jon woke me up. “You need to figure out what’s up with Lulu,” he said. “I took her out two hours ago and she’s up again.” I rolled over, looking out the window to assess the likelihood of falling back to sleep again after the task. Judging from the darkness of the sky, the first thought of sunrise hadn’t reached the horizon. We were still in the thick of night.

Lulu is our seventeen and a half-year-old ridgeback mix. Two months ago, she collapsed after the two-hour drive back home to Berkeley from Boonville, CA where my husband and I own a retreat center. It took Lulu two days to recover to her feet after the drive and we decided, with no small degree of sadness, we would not subject her to the car again. Lulu would not return to the hills she’d known for most of her life where she‘d bounded and raced across tall grasses, half deer, half-bird and returned to hunt lizards on the lawn for hours. Life would be simpler for her in Berkeley, less stressful at least.

For all of Lulu’s seventeen years, she’s been allergic to driving in cars. She seems to sense what Rudolf Steiner knew about the disequilibrium our bodies experience when they move at speeds beyond anything imaginably natural. Anything faster than what she could elegantly master herself leaping across the hills in Boonville threw her into terror. Panting relentlessly in the car throughout each trip, saliva would roll off her tongue, disgusting us all as she gummed up the seats, doors, and consoles of each car we owned. We learned to live with it in time and she’d always recover quickly once she bounded out of the car on arrival, reconstituting on stable ground.

But not at this age. Not with perhaps half her eyesight gone and since she’d lost all her hearing for nearly a year now. Not after we took her and her back legs gave out and we decided it was her last time.

“You realize we need to take her,” Jon said while he surveyed the bags and boxes piled up by the front door. “Who?” I said. “Lulu,” he responded looking towards her on the dog bed, her ribcage visible with the faintest rise and fall as she slept. “She needs to come with us, we can’t leave her with anyone this time and we don’t know when we’ll be back.” So, we stacked up both cars with as much of the raw materials of our lives as we could and left in the back seat of the Bolt a broad space for Lulu. Jon offered to drive her while I drove the boys in the minivan.

On the freeway, halfway to Boonville, I got a call. “She’s freaking out,” Jon said anxiously. “She barely made it from her bed to the front seat and knocked the car into neutral on the way.” “ Pull over,” I suggested, “create a barricade we’ll get her there.” For the rest of the ride, Jon did his best to keep her settled and an hour later he pulled into a parking space at the cabin. Having arrived first, I’d already settled our twin 10-year-old boys, Ben and Charlie into bed.

It was well after dark when he opened the door leaving the barricade in place while he brought in one load of the bags to tell me he’d arrived. We connected briefly in the kitchen to acknowledge the achievement of making it there and I asked where Lulu was. “I left her in the car,” he responded, but by the time we got there, our geriatric, and intensely stressed dog had tumbled her way past the barricade.

Lulu was excellent at recall in her day, but, minus her hearing and in the dark of night, a whistle or calling her name was no recourse. Jon and I quickly searched for headlamps in the house and headed out into the dark, drizzly night, scanning the area in front of, behind, and beyond the cabin. Slowly rotating our heads like light-houses we looked for a familiar silhouette. We split up, at first within earshot of each other and then as the distance between us spread, not able to hear one another any better than Lulu could hear us.

I walked to the front of the cabin where a stretch of level ground made up our family’s much loved outdoor playground given the postage-stamp back yard we had back in Berkeley. At the edge of the leveled grass, the hillside dropped about a thousand feet down to a gulley, beyond which the views in the daytime spread across rolling hillsides dotted with oaks, firs, and the occasion vineyard latched into the patchwork. Tonight, that immense view was a black cold vacuum of space, pitch dark. I dreaded the thought, not wanting this, amidst all the other changes, to be her end. Not another tragedy, a dog, broken in too many places at the bottom of a hill that we would somehow need to find a way to bury. I scanned the steep hillside slowly with my headlamp. Would she have yelped if she was hurt? She couldn’t even hear herself. She‘d barely made a sound for years.

Slowly scanning, Jon too far away in another direction to call out to, I moved over to where the solar panels are mounted on the steep hillside when suddenly, my head stopped. There, paws flat out on top of the panels, her back legs collapsed under her, Lulu was propped against the solar board like she was sitting down at a dinner table. Silent. Still. Her body covered in the sheen of the wet night fog lighting up in floating particles by the ray of my headlamp.

Surrendered. Resigned. Inexplicably Patient. Had she the ears to hear us calling her, she would have known Jon and I were searching, but instead, she stayed there in the silent, dark, cold wet night, without the capacity to save herself. Such vulnerability and powerlessness, my heart felt like it sank ten feet down the earth with tenderness. I stepped sideways down the steep hill towards her, wrapped one arm under her frail legs, the other around her bony ribcage and stumbled back up, gripping at the mud with my boots. Her body tensed, quiet as a mouse, yet still, not fighting me, as we made it to the hilltop. I kept her in my arms, briskly walking across the wet dark grass towards the cabin where I laid her down in front of the fire.

I called Jon on my cell phone. “I found her.” “Where was she?” “ I’ll tell you later. Let’s just keep unpacking the car.”

Lulu slept for much of the following day. She took a few, slow walks outside, struggling to find her back legs as she rose. We’d brought her the fanciest dog food we could find before leaving town just to keep her eating for the designated two weeks that our children’s school had closed. Relieved to find she loved it and, against our expectations, she appeared to transition to recovery after the drive we feared would take her down. I set up her dog bed with a pillow for her head and a warm blanket to settle under. Looking down at her sleeping, nuzzled into the arrangement, I was grateful to have her sweet feminine canine body here with me, this dog whose primary language was always intuition, this dog who was the only other ‘girl’ in the house. Here, in our small cabin, I could almost always take a few steps and see her, now nestled into her silent world, appearing, as much as such an old dog can, appeased and content. We might have easily named her Grace.

When Jon woke up me in the pitch dark of night up saying she was up again, I knew it was my turn. I heard him taking her out (on a leash this time!) several hours earlier. Our cabin has a tin roof with corrugated plastic skylights and rainy nights here have always felt like being inside a tympany drum struck with tiny, metal instruments. This night was no different. The steady symphony of taps, sometimes like loud creaks in the wall or cracks opening in the ceiling, rose to a crescendo in waves when the wind swept through the oak tree above us, releasing a waterfall from its shivering leaves. I hoped I wouldn’t need to take Lulu out again. Perhaps she just needed to shift to another bed or have a drink of water.

I got up and walked into the main room of the cabin, turning some lights on as I went. With half her eyesight gone, Lulu was bound to walk into everything without light. I got her to the water bowl, but that wasn’t it. She kept walking back and forth between the two main rooms, circling the coffee table, then figure-eighting around the kitchen island, back to the water bowl, sniffing, walking by, then around to the couch again, then the bedroom, then taking the slow turn around again, back to the coffee table. I couldn’t figure it out. Maybe she does need to go outside. I put on rubber boots, attached the leash to her collar and walked her slowly out into the rain. She navigated the steps, circled unsteadily and then turned back towards the door. I helped her up from the grass to the deck and we went back inside.

Lying on the couch now as she walked through the cabin, I watched her. Circling, Circling. Was it senility or sentience that drove her in such circles? Tracking her path again around the island, I remembered back to the night I gave birth to the twins. That was another time, in the black of night, when I was woken up by dogs. Two of them because, that time, Baltie, our aussie, (aka Balthazar) was still with us. The barking at the front door didn’t register as odd at first. Eight and a half months pregnant with twins, I only knew my task was to somehow make it up off the bed to the bathroom – a regular necessity at that point several times a night. As I leveraged myself up, rolling forward towards the edge of the bed, I dropped my legs and hoisting myself up, hips and tailbone tightening in the effort. Shuffling around the bed, I turned the corner, slowly. Only halfway to the bathroom did I realize I couldn’t explain why the dogs were still barking and why they were barking at the front door, as the side door was their lookout of choice, given it was hard to see anything out the front. That night, though, it was something they were doing with an inexplicable urgency.

By the time I made it to the bathroom — no quick passage — the barking had not stopped. My mind shifted briefly to the challenge of lowering myself to the toilet seat, wiping and rising again. I toddled over to the countertop and rested my hands for a pause. The barking continued and I imagined Jon — who was sleeping downstairs that night given my pregnancy snoring had driven him out of bed — would surely be up soon to see what was happening.

It was somewhere in there, while resting my weight on the sink countertop, that my water broke. Such a strange sensation for any women the first time. I didn’t just pee on myself, right, I thought? That’s too much water. It took a moment to occur to me. This is it. I’m going into labor. At the same moment, another thought came to me. The dogs had been alerting me.

So it was this memory that came to me as I lay on the couch, eyes half-open, watching Lulu walk-in figure-eights around our cabin, bumping into the butterfly chair, angling her way back around towards the kitchen island and around again. This memory, and the feeling Jon and I both had after the birth that they must have known. We found ways to deny it, to explain it away, but our dismissals somehow paled against a strangely resurfacing respect that looped back each time we recounted the oddness of their behavior. They were speaking and, as we let ourselves become unseated from reason, we listened.

Watching her circle that night, I asked myself again, was this just Lulu’s dementia, or was her unsettledness a reflection of mine, of ours, upended, our routines removed as we drove away from home towards two weeks of exile from Berkeley, shedding a uniform we didn’t realize how much we relied on. Or, if it was her dementia, perhaps it was making transparent our unsettledness in ways we were, as yet, resisting?

Later that night, the symphony of rain on our roof quieted down to a soft silence and the following morning we awoke to a blanket of snow all around the cabin. I found Lulu asleep. She was still, but as I looked closely, still breathing on the carpet by the front door. I don’t know when or how she decided to stop her circuit. At a certain point, I chose to return to bed, leaving some lights on for her, trusting, or hoping at least, that if she bumped into something and fell it would wake me up. Lying there as her more usual sedentary self, I hoped the boys would be gracious and walk past her carefully when they entered from their sleeping cabin next door.

I got my coffee and returned to bed to find Jon listening to the Sunday morning news shows. Obama’s former CDC director reflected that the death count could range from the hundreds to the millions, a range that, itself, as a directive, or ‘estimate,’ left us disoriented, speechless. Perhaps it was the word ‘millions’ that brought to mind bodies, many of them, human, fleshy, hot, headaches, pain, these bodies, like Lulu’s, like Lulu, our vulnerable companions on the journey we take together each year around the sun.

Lulu stumbled into our room, scraping her long nails against the floorboards, her eyes searching through her nose as she passed into the room. Shakily, she walked to the dog bowl and lowered her head, paused and licked at the water’s surface, two or three times. She stopped. Settled herself, testing to see how the water went down, waiting for the feedback. Watching her, it was like her mind moved down slowly through her body as she tracked the water’s movement through it — the kind of mindfulness we humans have when we are sick, noticing the slightest impact of movement, water, the food we ingest. Lulu, sick bodies, me, acutely attuned.

Lulu’s feedback channel confirmed more water was OK and she lowered her head again for a few more laps. This mindful embodied, distributed intelligence was the intelligent embodiment I’d long since abandoned in my head-centered orientation to life. Her self care, so transparent, instinctual, so profoundly noble and tender.

Does the nose Lulu has for pending births, for the passage of water passing through her body, extend to a nose for pending deaths? Is her midnight circling around the cabin her dementia, or does she feel our collective disorientation, reflecting it back for those whose eyes open to see it? These dogs we call our pets… they are our teachers. Elders. Guardians. Ourselves.

How different it would be if we had left her at home, if we had needed to run faster still, like the families in Wuhan, who left pets by the thousands cooped up in apartments with no recourse but to starve. And how many other animals, across California, have become the sole companions and teachers of those home, alone, sheltering in place. Even with my two sons and husband in tow, how grateful I am for our old, fragile friend, for her grace, her patience, and equanimity. Animal spirit in the final chapters of life, she carries the secrets with her that we humans seem so easily to forget somewhere between our own births and our deaths.

On March 13th, after our children’s school announced a ‘two week closure,’ my family of four (plus one dog) packed two cars full to ‘shelter in place’ at our retreat center, on 600 acres in Anderson Valley. Privileged, isolated, my husband and I will learn how to become the ‘village’ that once helped raise our children. Along with the rest of the world, we don’t know how long we will be here. Facing that uncertain future, as time permits, I will write this pandemic journal.

A sleeping dog, covered by a blanket, rests her head on a soft surface.

Kissing Patriarchy Goodbye

The last time I spoke to my father, he was dead.  The OPPORTUNITY changed my life.

It’s been six years, now, since I last spoke to my father. Mid-summer, July 15th, 2014. It was in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and he was lying on a gurney at a funeral home — dead as a doornail. To hide the incisions of his autopsy, the back of his head and throat were carefully wrapped over with portions of the white sheet that bundled the rest of his body. He was propped up at an angle, his face available for viewing and the area where the sheet was raised over his arm, exposed the solid, stubborn fingers on his right hand. Continue reading “Kissing Patriarchy Goodbye”