Voices carry at 4:30 a.m. Two men outside the nursing home making food deliveries. The local man who spends his days walking back and forth from the halfway house to the train station passes. In silhouette, I recognise his movements – the right side of his body moving more fully, more expressively, than the left. He grunts as he turns the corner and slips into the darkness. I relax a little.

Leonard has the scent of a cat and tugs on the leash, burying his head in the neighbor’s hedge. And the morning freight train forces its way through the morning.

No phone, not distractions. Random concerns dissolving in my mind like old newspaper in water. Unresolved, but dissolving nonetheless.

The news is harsh again. Enough to hook you in the gut and force a sob. And there is the callousness of some people who are either made so from xenophobia (which I suppose is a pretty word for cultural supremacy or sometimes for out-and-out racism), or an overwhelming sense of helplessness. It is easier to get on with life if we can rationalize other people’s pain as some kind of cosmic justice. “They must have done something wrong to deserve this,” is nothing more than self-preservation: self-soothing in the face of the unthinkable.

It could have been me.
But it can’t happen to me.

Though I sometimes I wonder if I am capable of holding two thoughts in my head at once, I absolutely can.

It could have been me.
But it can’t happen to me.

When the Buddhists ask what it costs to extend compassion to everyone without judgement, maybe the answer is that it costs me the awareness of my own vulnerabilities? Not only to the damage earthquakes and violence can do to my body, but to the damage fear can do to my (for lack of a better word) soul.

A decade ago I worked with people who were escaping situations like those in the news now. And it was so easy to look for – and find – excuses to withhold compassion. Because the alternative was too painful to bear gracefully, “sensibly”.

It is a stereotype that I have heard women often bandy about: that men can’t listen without trying to fix everything. But isn’t that all of us? What we can’t fix we sometimes justify as not deserving fixing? Because it is all so difficult.

Many times I’ve watched newspapers fall apart in a tub of water. Watched the previous day’s news dissolve like the darkness at 4:30 when the sun nears the horizon in the east.

A deep breath. A dog on a leash. A human body struggling with the cost and the value of compassion.

There are roses in the dining room. And here on my desk. All coming with an apologies for the awkwardness of acknowledging a pain that is all to common but still taboo. I am grateful for the flowers, the expressions of condolence. 33 years of estrangement is in itself a very long grieving process. And I can only speak for myself but I am not feeling celebratory – it is not that kind of relief.

But it is a relief. To be rid of this burden of hope is a relief. Looking through a Buddhist lens I can see how exhausting it is: to use so much energy carrying around the weight of an imaginary future, projecting a narrative onto lives – and every second writing and rewriting to accommodate the disappointment. It is not living in the moment. It is moving through the world hobbled by fiction.

After my second child was born and I once again found myself rewriting a script – trying to embed the hope in some future watershed moment, I asked a priest if it was all right for me to let go of it: let go of the hope of my mother “coming around”, and to move on. He told me to talk to a psychiatrist. Sometimes I believe this conversation was when I gave up any hope or faith in the Church and I moved on from that cornerstone of my childhood. If the church deferred to pschyology for its moral compass, what use was it?

The odd thing was that I had given up on my childhood God long before that. I was clinging to the hope of a community, I think. In a foreign land. In a situation people hush and sweep into the offices of people trained to deal with “problems” like disordered thinking and ineffective emotional management.

In the animal world, being pushed out of the herd means death. Who are we kidding? We humans. There are so many kinds of death. Some good.

Emily Dickinson said that hope is the thing with feathers. But for me, hope is too often the thing that sinks to the muddy bottom, dragging you with it.

Letting go can be good.

Just as I rest my fingers on the keys, a freight train rumbles by. I think of a shower curtain being pulled open – metal rings sliding on a metal rod. Let’s get started with the day.

Leonard comes in to thank me for breakfast. He does that by rubbing his face on my legs (or more likely, I am a human napkin). Then he flops on the small rug next to my desk. He’s spend a good deal of the summer in here in the library. And I have often felt somewhat shamed when I’ve passed by the room without coming in to write. He loves routine, and kept his while I let mine go for a summer. But we are back on the same page now: morning walk, yoga (yes, he lies on the edge of my mat – and there is something about a bridge that still concerns him so he is always up to check my upside-down breathing: snout to nose), then coffee (breakfast) and this little room.

I am thinking that the key to serenity is to divide the day into segments and focus on one thing at a time. One task, one worry, one hope. But most days it feels like I’m trying to herd angry little shrews. I suppose it is progress to be able to stand apart and watch them scrambling, though. Writing is both difficult and not. Morning journaling is difficult, but my mind is sliding effortlessly back towards poetry. At least towards the desire and the atmosphere. It’s like sitting down with an old love and finding – oh, yes, I remember this ease.

Holding two truths at once: not everything is characterised by ease now. I dream I wake often. It has been happening for over a year now. Most often I have symptoms of Covid 19, but lately I have an allergic reaction to an herb and lie waiting for my tongue to swell. I itch. I wonder where/when the line is: time to call an ambulance, or too late. I’m awake now and get up to check my torso for rashes. My lips for swelling.

I am fine this morning. Finishing my coffee and heading out for a run before work. But tonight I know I’ll go through it all again. I will wash my face, brush my teeth, lie on the shakti mat and meditate. But at some point, the shrews will slip beneath door and scramble up onto the bed.

While Leonard sleeps soundly until morning.

Leonard is getting used to the 4:30 walk, the new route, the passing freight train. Every morning is a little darker. But I’m guessing it means every morning brings a little more mystery, a little more of a demand to focus, to be alert. Alert but not alarmed. Not on guard. Not braced.

That’s all about me, not him, I suppose.

On Tuesday I got a massage and the therapist told me my muscles hadn’t been this loose for a very long time. I think it’s odd, considering how much pain I feel. My left shoulder, my right achilles. But yeah: there seems to be an ease around my solar plexus, and the feeling that someone has unbuttoned my sternum to let it all hang out, so to speak. So many images come to mind: wrung washclothes, snapped open and hung to dry and stiffen in the still afternoon, unfurled and perfect ferns exposed to the summer’s harsh sun because that is the way of the world. There’s no getting through it unscathed. Might as well relax for the ride.

This morning I am considering gratitude. And fortunes: good and bad. I’m trying to step back and find perspective enough to let go of “good and bad”, but find it confusing in connection to gratitude. I have been thinking about my relationship with my mother and the estrangement. And in this particular “unbuttoning” I find nothing I would have done differently. Nothing I regret in terms of my choices, my behavior. Isn’t my gratitude for this peace a kind of judgement? That this is “good”? The good perspective in the bad?

I looked up gratitude and it comes from the Latin word gratus which means pleasing or thankful. Does this mean we are grateful for what pleases us? Maybe it is our job to trace our thoughts through connections of phenomenon until we find a consequential “good” to be thankful for?

I don’t know. Even though it feels like the good thing to do, it looks an awful lot like rationalization. An intellect forever in service to emotions. Forever seeking pleasure.

There are days that mark distinct lines in our lives. Like rings in trees that tell the story of how difficult a year was, how dry or how suddenly cold. The obvious vehicle for the metaphor would be our hearts: what is “written on our hearts”. But I believe that the stories are what shape our entire bodies.

On Monday I learned my mother died. And my mind was clear and easy, though in that moment I read the words, my diaphram contracted and a gasp left my body. And I guess since then my mind and body have been entirely disconnected. My mind finished grieving decades ago, but if I open my mouth to speak, my body is wrestling with something still. With pain. Maybe physical and psychological pain are not seperate in the way we think they are.

Monday afternoon E. held me while I breathed. Then drove me to the beach so I could run barefoot in the surf. It was one of the last days of summer break, but there weren’t that many people on the beach. The sky was threatening rain, but the air was still warm.

E. hates the sand. Wears shoes when we run there. But me? There is nothing more grounding than standing at the edge of the flow, letting it bubble around your ankles, then pull away as the sand beneath your feet pulls away and you can feel the tiny creatures just under your soles, just under the sand, breathing from their safe, dark places. Pulling at you. Pulled from so many directions at once.

Suspended by life.

I guess it’s appropriate that after staying up until midnight last night signing documents to release a body to a stranger – to permit cremation – I should get up befor dawn to walk the dog, do yoga* and write: to return to a school-term routine that is now familiar – and entirely new, entirely necessary.

This is a deeply drawn line in my story.

* Yoga: The word yoga is derived from the Sanskrit root yuj, meaning “to yoke,” or “to unite”. The practice aims to create union between body, mind and spirit, as well as between the individual self and universal consciousness.