Jesus, Buddha, Trees: A Toast

The Tunnel*

Directly below us, there’s a tunnel full of alphabets and symbols. It starts right under the house and runs into the neighbor’s property, only of course they can’t see it, being underground. Only we in the house know about it; we have to be careful what we bring out.

We go down at night, bring our headlamps and cheese sandwiches in case we get stuck. The tunnel holds glittery promise: barrels of poetry, buckets of thought. We keep going. There must be something more, a new way of spelling the word love. The possibility teases us. It makes us restless in the daytime, knowing it’s down there. The Big Idea. The adjective of the adverb of the verb. Something not pushed at from the side by a metaphor, or constructed in the air by allegory. Something solid. A rock of meaning.

***

(Continuation)

***

Meaning. Meaning. Meaning. Meaningmeaningmeaningmeaning. And just like that, it’s lost.

***

I start with the Zen Buddhists high up on the hill near the Mission Santa Cruz. It’s a lovely, breezy Saturday in December. Dry leaves blow through a small courtyard where I meet with a temple guide. He spends two hours explaining to our small group how to enter the temple, where to bow, and how to sit in meditation. Two hours, and of it, we meditate for ten minutes. It’s not my first mindfulness pony ride, but staring at the wall, my eyes half-lidded, is a new twist. Unfortunately, to my boredom-soaked brain, it’s too twisted. I’d made the mistake of driving there and on the way home, I fight an urge to scream the entire way.

***
I’m a graduate of Sunday school and willfully attended Jesus summer camp as a kid. I took a break from religion for the period of life when I and everyone else was fighting to fit in like it was an MMA sport. But First Community Church left me with two invisible Jesus tattoos: I’m a sucker for singing in crowds, and I can’t swallow a big fat faith pill with a faith chaser. It’s got to feel true.

***
From the seat of my bicycle, truth is as easy to grab as the next turn. There’s just one purpose, and it’s the best one: To move forward.
Here in California, the sun seems to blanch out all the shadowy goodness of my homegrown Oregon mix of new-age moon worship and eye-rolling empowerment. I feel like I need a community to help me hold it together against the -holics: Shop, Work and Alco. I want there to be more singing. So I embark on a new quest.

***

The hour is just after dawn. I’m sitting cross-legged with five other women chanting Yoga sutras. There is a happy lilt to their voices, but when we dive into the finer pronunciation of the consontant-packed Sanskrit, boredom again sinks her mean claws into me. It’s pouring outside. The day will bring fatal mudslides to the Los Angeles area, but at this moment, the big splashes of water on pavement are beautiful — like individual lotus buds opening up on a time-elapse film. It’s the first real storm of winter and the land around this blissed-out coastal city has been parched. We should be standing, pressed up against the glass, watching each precious drop make landing. (I think to myself, more than a little contemptuously.) But who else in this city is actually watching the rain fall and loving it? Is there a support group for recovering Oregonians?

***
I park my bike outside the door of a modern glass building and scrutinize the young man walking up the sidewalk. Is he also going in? He looks okay, though his coat is absurdly heavy for the 60-degree weather. Californians.

A grinning man shakes hands with us at the door. I’m fine with this. We all have our rituals, though this group has no outward spiritual goals. It’s Toastmasters. The website description says it’s a supportive community to work on public speaking skills, and it turns out to be very much as described.
The topic of the evening, interestingly enough, is transportation, and I’m not the only fresh meat in attendance. There’s a woman next to me in emerald green who is scared to death. But one of the featured presenters is absent tonight, so we’re all going to get a turn at the podium.
I’m asked to speak for 90 seconds about busses and surprise myself with my confidence as the seconds whiz by. Maybe it was the fact that the group had clapped enthusiastically for each member as we waxed on about various modes of getting from one place to another. When failure is not an issue, we’ll try anything.
Still, the woman in green is petrified when she goes up. Her topic is space travel. Visibly shaking, the first thing she says is that she has been trying, lately, to meditate.
“It’s amazing,” she says. “I can sit at home and try so hard to clear my mind and it barely works. Then I come up here and… nothing.”
We all laugh. It’s the truest thing I’ve heard all day.

***

This summer I rode my bicycle 400-odd miles through the eastern Oregon desert. From all the events — public and private — of the year, I needed a respite. I needed to drop out of the world. I needed to see myself more clearly because I have come to realize that what lies beneath my skin and between my ears is maybe the only thing I’ll ever get to depend on in the universe.

The ride was the medicine I needed. Each day a new adventure, and a reintroduction to myself. 
“Hello, self,” I’d say, peering into the shined-steel mirror at a public rest stop. “Who the hell are you?” And the rattle snakes rattled back, “sheeeeee”, and my tires whistled up, “daredeveldaredevildaredevil” and the trees simply stood with their colonies of life in, through and under them and motioned through the breeze that none of us, not a single one, is ever alone.

*I wrote this poem back in 2011 and it was published in the postcard-magazine HOOT Review, so go check them out!

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