From birth all the way through high school graduation I lived in only one home. It was a non-descript suburban single family home, the kind that, if you visit your neighbor’s house you know where the bathroom is because they have the exact same floor plan. The suburb was erected over an orange grove. True to its name, the city of the angels, the soil that was left unpaved sparkled with possibility. When I went back to visit this home in the suburbs, it looked tiny. But while growing up it felt spacious and airy and full of wonder.
Since most of the orange groves had been paved over to create houses and pools and patios, I was drawn to the vacant lots where horned toads roamed free and all manner of seemingly exotic plant life sprang forth from any available patch of soil. In one such patch, which sat in our back yard outside my bedroom window, there was a lemon tree. There was very little of the natural world left in the neighborhood so this tree had to stand in for all of nature. Maybe because flora and fauna were so rare, or maybe because it was the only place where creatures ran wild and free, I found this little square footage enchanting. I would spend hours watching rolly poly bugs play in the dark, fragrant soil underneath the lemon tree. Golden moths and little yellow and black bees flitted gaily in and out of the sweet smelling lemon blossoms that perfumed my room. This little slice of nature felt vast to me and seeded a longing to live where trees grow tall and where there are more birds and insects than humans.
When my chance to finally leave the suburbs came, I jumped on the first train out. I was in my twenties, newly graduated from art school, without a clue as to how I’d fashion an art degree into something that looked like an adult life. I was in love with a man who looked like a good candidate for forever. We packed up our possessions in the balmy south; mine were mostly books, and headed north to, what was then, the small town of Sonoma. My soon to be husband got a job as a psychologist at an outreach office and we bought a house in an inexpensive outlying neighborhood. We thought that this would be our “starter home”, but 40 years later, here I am, still living in the “starter home” where my former husband and I laid hardwood floors and put up shutters.
This home is on 1/3 of an acre, not a lot of land by country standards but quite a bit larger than the square of dirt around my childhood lemon tree. When we first moved to this home the possibilities felt limitless. The land is flat and completely usable. At one time a river ran through the back yard so the soil is rich and loamy. The entire plot basks in the Mediterranean Sonoma sun, perfect for grapes, figs, roses and tomatoes. I found what appeared to be Miwok Indian arrowheads at the far end of the property. The land was full of undiscovered treasures. Chickens ran around pecking at worms during the day, returning to their home roost by evening. Dogs and cats and chickens all co-existed peaceably. Even the weeds were varied and never boring.
Bit by bit, year by year, the land transformed. It filled with organic fruit and nut trees, over 30 rose bushes, and a couple of raised bed vegetable gardens. I saw one of my daughter’s childhood friends at the store the other day. She told me she remembers a magical field of roses just over our fence. She said she tried to find it on google world but couldn’t and asked me where it was. I told her, what she remembers is not a field but a fence of roses that grows in front of the vegetable garden. It’s funny how childhood memory is. She remembered a whole field of roses just as I remember my childhood home as spacious and airy. The roses didn’t cover an entire field, but in summer, when their bloom is at its peak, the bushes stand 6 feet tall and sport red, pink, orange, coral, white, yellow and lavender roses. You can’t ignore the miracle of life when you face this wall of color or breath in its fragrance. Gracefully, interspersed amongst the roses and other plants, are play areas and places where humans can lay back and enjoy a book as finches twitter in the trees. There is always a mockingbird nearby to sing song after song as I sit reading or writing or meditating. He never seems to repeat himself. It was his song I listened too when I wrote my first book, healed from CFS and nursed many a broken heart.
After living three years in this home, the man from LA and I married. To commemorate the occasion my older brother planted a sycamore tree in the front yard. My new husband added on an office for his practice and a painting studio for me. Everything he built stands to this day, as does the sycamore tree. But the relationship was not so sturdy. After four years of marriage we uprooted our life together. I hung on to our starter house by a thread, not sure whether I’d be able to afford to stay. The house took on darker tones. For years I didn’t even go into the rooms he had built. But, bit by bit, I re-inhabited the house. Each year, after he left, I would give something to the house or the land. Some years it was a repaired roof, some years it was 5 new rose bushes. When times were lean I’d just barely maintain the property by myself. When there was more to money and energy to spend I’d repair and build and hire help.
At the far end of the property stands a large, sheltering curly willow tree. When I look at the willow tree I see my mom, whose ashes are buried underneath its curly branches. The unpredictable twists and turns of the branches look like my mom’s thick curly hair covering a brilliant, wild, visionary mind. An Einstein of a tree. At first the tree struggled to survive, I had to keep saving it with water and fertilizer. When she was sick with Parkinson’s, my mother stayed with me once a month in order to give my dad some respite from the constant caretaking. She outfitted her room, the room that was formerly my exe’s office, in soft tones of apricot carpeting and had an interior decorator make curtains for the large glass door leading out to the garden with matching curtains for the French doors that open to the heart of the home. She spent the last week of her life in this room, waiting until the family she loved were all in the room around her. Then she took her last breath. The willow tree is now the strongest, tallest tree on the property.
My father died in this home as well. During the final months of his life I erected a fountain right in the middle of the back yard beside the black mission fig tree he had planted and loved so dearly. Coming from a hard life, it was sheer bliss for him to walk up and pluck the sweet, ripe fruit off of the tree he had planted with his own two hands. He would sit on the deck every morning, eating his breakfast and watching the birds drink and bathe in the fountain. Every morning he was delighted by the life he saw all around him, much the same way as I was delighted by the roly poly bugs underneath the lemon tree. Dad died in the same room my mother took her last breath, the room my ex saw clients and my daughter nursed her baby. After he died, the crows cawed in his fig tree each morning for a year. Then they left.
There were times I wanted to leave this place, when I felt sick and stuck and single. The neighborhood was a foreign country. Where were my compatriots? Where was my tribe? There were years when the land demanded more of me than I could give. I dreamed of a simple apartment in a big city, a place where I wouldn’t have to weed eat vicious plants that grew faster than I could raze them, where I wouldn’t have to lug three large trash bins to the curb each week and prune 30 rose bushes each winter. I longed to live somewhere where I could wear a dress and go to dinner parties. But, due to limited finances and poor health, here I stayed. The saying, bloom where you’re planted, was my mantra. I had to accept where I was and continue to bloom amongst the vicious weeds and the neighbor who punched out my carport light rather than ask if I might turn it off at night. The practice continued through it all.
Bit by bit the land transformed into a sort of Eden. I spent many blissful hours pulling weeds, planting seeds, and collecting eggs from happy chickens. There are vegetables year round in raised beds and, through most of the year, one fruit tree or another offers it’s fruit-first the cherries, then the peaches and pears, then the almonds and plums, then figs and grapes, then persimmons and finally, in winter, Meyer lemons. The roses valiantly bloom from March through December, or sometimes January. There are places for children to play, for dogs to chase balls and for adults to lie in a hammock under a flowering tree. I listen to the wind chimes, just as I did when I was laying in a patch of sun on the living room couch while pregnant with my daughter.
There is value in staying in the same place for a long time. I’ve watched the seasons change over and over, have come to know many of the birds and plants, and can read the wind. I’ve watched myself let go of more and more yearnings through the years. In Sondheim’s Into the Woods the play opens with the main characters singing, “I wish….more than anything..”. In the play each character gets what they wished for, then everything starts to unravel. The more wishes I dropped the happier I became in this home. Now I am just here. No longer yearning for a greater career, or a husband, or more children, or more money. A day does not go by that I do not feel grateful to be living here.
The spiritual path is like this. We start with a feeling of unlimited potential, the bright world of awakening lies in front of us. We have an opening and know unconditioned bliss. For a while we walk around in this garden of bliss, eagerly adding knowledge of its contours by study and practice. We are one with our dishes, the rain, and strangers passing by. It seems like nothing will ever break that spell. Then, BHAM! A sickness, a loss, or many sicknesses and many losses depending on how thick our skin is, bombard us as if to ask, where is your bliss now? We may loose sight of the bliss and find ourselves in a very cramped space, just surviving. We can’t escape. But the bright awakening is always flickering somewhere in the background. Some of us mourn the loss of the former bliss and leave our practice, thinking we’ll find the bliss somewhere else. But the problem is not with the practice- it is the practice. A friend recently pointed out that once we dive into the practice it has it’s own life, so fasten your seat belt. There is a shape and evolution to awakening that is beyond our understanding, and it isn’t all bliss. It is a long and winding road on which we are challenged to give ourselves to the moment, whatever the moment holds.
An authentic life does not necessarily entail living in one place for 40 years, that’s just how my life has unfolded so far. I’m drawn to nature and simplicity and am a bit of a curmudgeon. Not everyone is. Some are drawn to the exciting activity of a city, or to being a player on a bigger stage. I’ve come to believe that these yearnings foretell our callings. It’s comforting to realize that our path is like children’s play cars at an amusement park. Even when we think we’re steering the car off course, an invisible track, karma, keeps our life just where it needs to be. I’m drawn to learning my lessons from dishes and chickens and weeds-who knows why. I could have just as easily been drawn to singing on large stages or spending dawn to dusk in a painting studio. Life kept me on this track, even when I fought it, even when I tried to take it off road or hit a dead end. The invisible rail that kept me in this home has allowed my psyche to unfold through a variety of terrains. After 40 years of travel, sitting on the deck looking out at the same fig tree my father loved, I’m glad for that.