Just when I think I'm saturated, something else happens. Is it possible to be with whatever is going on in the world, and in our lives, without getting overwhelmed?
Because even when we learn how to do that, there's still so much work to be done: work that to me sometimes feels empowering, but sometimes, endless.
Or maybe it's both. Has it always been both? Or is it just that from now on, it always will be both? And if so, how do we practice with that? Some ideas, on today's podcast.
Hi everyone, it’s Judi Cohen and this is Wake Up Call #316, on September 2nd.
Today is Thursday. On Monday, which was my birthday, we were supposed to be at Tahoe. My daughter was supposed to be at Tahoe, too. We were going out to dinner, no big deal, not a big birthday.
But we were smoked out of Tahoe, which I talked about last week. Then the Caldor Fire came roaring over Echo summit and into the basin and word came that evacuations were within a few miles of our place. So at noon, we got in our cars and headed back up to the lake. It’s about a three-hour drive.
Emily packed to head back to Portland, having essentially missed those sparkling few weeks of summer break she had. We intended to grab a bunch of things but as usual, we realized there wasn’t much we would take: a sculpture I love. A wire owl that’s been in our family since our old cabin on the other side of the lake. Kid artwork. One sweater. Two pairs of shoes. The rest of the time was taking videos, so I know how to rebuild if the place burns down.
And yeah, I did just say, “As usual we realized there wasn’t much we would take,” because this was déjà vu all over again. In 2017 when the Tubbs fire came at us in Sonoma, we also realized we didn’t need to grab much. It’s all just stuff, in the end. I guess it’s good to know the drill.
But the sadness. Walking out of the house and not knowing if we’ll see it standing again…again. Checking insurance, again. The smoke. The little motels flashing No Vacancy signs because they’re housing firefighters. The shuttered restaurants, barely been back on their feet from COVID. The bears, burned out of the forest and lumbering down into town for water, for food, for air. The boats floating in the lake like they’re already orphaned.
The Dhammapada says, “Few are the people who reach the other shore. Many are the people who run about on this shore.” If I’d never packed up my car and run from a fire, I would literally have been running about, grabbing this and that. But I have. A lot of California has. A lot of the world has, after this summer and last.
So we know how to flee a wildfire. And we know how to relate to a COVID surge – or at least everyone but a few U.S. governors knows. And in Louisiana – they know hurricanes. In Canada, in Europe, in Australia, they understand smoke and fire. Horrifyingly, we know how to do terrorism and drone strikes, another thing that happened this week. We’ve even know how to do anti-abortion legislation although last night took things to dizzying new heights in my opinion, letting a law take effect that essentially vigilanty-izes any private citizen who happens to not believe in a woman’s right to control her own body. When I read the order I felt like I was watching Netflix and someone was going to show up in a red robe.
So how do we think about “reaching the other shore” and not “running about,” in these times? I’m guessing, from practicing and studying mindfulness for a long time, and I’d say it’s the same thing as always, it’s déjà vu here, too. It’s by letting go.
But it’s not about letting go of our little Tahoe place, or about my daughter letting go of her community.
It’s not about Louisianans, Haitians, letting go of their homes. And with the smoke and fires and rains and hurricanes across the globe, and COVID: it’s not about any of us letting go of our place on the earth, with whatever features it has: clear water, if it has that, or clean air if it has that. On some primitive or not-so-primitive level, I want to hold onto that place and I think we all have a deep love of place – of our small blue planet, ravaged though she is.
And it’s definitely not about letting go of the right to dominion over our own bodies, for the young women, or for humans of any gender considering what a law like this could portend.
So it’s not that we need to let go of these crucial things. But then what are we being invited to let go of, to reach the other shore?
On an absolute level, I think it’s letting go of wishing things were other than they are. It’s settling into the present moment, over and over and over, and seeing it for what it is, and being with it as it is. And feeling it for what it is.
We were driving out of the Tahoe basin and my husband was talking about something, and I couldn’t understand what he was saying. It started to sound like gibberish. My ears weren’t working, my mind wasn’t working. It was all I could do to say, “Honey, I can’t hear you. I can’t even talk. I feel so much sadness.” I think we have to just let go into those moments. That moment will live in my body for a long time, whether I want it to or not, so I’m glad I was there for it. Because at least I know, that’s in there, too. It’s so much better to know.
From that perspective then, the other shore isn’t the other shore of the lake where it’s clear. It’s the other shore of letting go of grasping and clinging, even when the things I’m grasping for or clinging to are clean air and memories of forests filled with birdsong and of women making intelligent choices about their bodies without worrying that someone acquaintance or relative is going to walk in the room and arrest them. The other shore is somehow being with things just as they are: sadness. Despair. Rage. With no need to say the moment is anything else. That’s on the absolute level. That’s the building-capacity level. The figuring out how to keep our nervous systems down-regulated, our hearts open.
But on a relative level, yes, I grabbed that charcoal of Louis Armstrong that my daughter did in high school. Yes I grabbed my mom’s owl. Yes I wrote sent money right away to the ACLU. Yes I told Em to tell all her friends they’re welcome in Sonoma if the fire comes. That we have beds. That I will make soup. That all the dogs are welcome.
And on a relative level, I have nothing but gratitude for the firefighters, weary to the bone and still fighting, as Marge Piercy says, moving in a common rhythm, when the food must come in or the fire be put out. And for the aid workers helping people in shelters weather the storms. And for the lawyers, all of you!, all of us!, fighting against this Texas law, and for climate initiatives, and to steer our students and our clients in the right direction, in the most ethical direction, in the direction of wisdom, in the direction of compassion.
“Few are the people who reach the other shore. Many are the people who run about on this shore.” On an absolute level this is no time to “run about,” wishing things were other than they are. It’s a time to let go into the truth of what’s here. On a relative level, as the great mindfulness teacher Pema Chodron says, there’s no time to lose. Grab the kid-art, make soup, write letters, give money: it’s a time to grab whatever firehose we can grab, and start dousing the flames. I feel like right now, that’s the only way we can reach the other shore.