Wednesday, December 30, 2009

In the Deep Midwinter

We all have our ways of celebrating the winter holidays. Some ways are more eccentric than others, I'll admit. This year I spent the day after Christmas looking for birds from dawn to dusk. The next day, the 27th of December, I spent the whole day in a silent retreat led by a Theravadan Buddhist nun. I've been thinking about these two days and how, mysteriously, they reflect one another. Each was a day of silence, of careful awareness, of gratitude, and of giving.

My bird-watching day was no random event: I was participating in the Christmas Bird Count, a census of birds in the western hemisphere that has been conducted annually over a few weeks in mid-winter by the Audubon Society for more than a hundred years.

According to the Audubon website, the count was begun in 1900 by an early bird conservationist, Frank Chapman, as an alternative to Christmas "side hunts" where hunters competed against each other in teams for the largest number of birds killed in a day. Now more than 50,000 volunteers in 17 countries participate in the count, and the results are used by ornithologists and conservation organizations to monitor the health of bird populations in their winter ranges.

I did the count with a friend, and we were assigned to an area of about one by seven miles in the hills above Bolinas Lagoon, out on the outer coast just north of San Francisco. Our day began at about 5:15 am - hours before either of us normally wakes up - followed by a groggy breakfast and a drive in the dark across the hills to the coast.

We're relative neophytes, so we were paired with two more experienced birders - an ecologist and an ornithologist - whom we met just before dawn in a muddy parking lot near the lagoon.

After minimal introductions, we headed up into the hills in silence, all four of us listening intently to the tweets and chirps and little sounds all around us in the dim woodland, though really only two of us (guess which two?) knew what they were hearing. Every few minutes someone would see something and we would all be peering into the tangle with our binoculars, trying to see a sparrow or a towhee or whatever might be lurking there, keeping a count of how many birds of each species we saw or - in the case of our companions - heard.

And so the day went, mostly in silence, hiking on or off trail through the canyons filled with coast live oak (and poison oak) or willow and bay, sometimes up in the chaparral or grassland of the open hills, sometimes all four of us together and sometimes split apart, each one of us completely intent on seeing and counting, eyes and ears and senses fully engaged, not stopping to eat or chat or even sit down. It was cold and gray, and in the afternoon it started to rain, first gently and then with determination, and we kept working as long as we could, until the rain came down so heavily in the early dusk that we were blinded and the birds were essentially invisible.

Part of what I loved about the day was the way that EACH BIRD MATTERED. In ordinary birdwatching, when I see one kinglet, I'm pleased, but the next one I see doesn't matter so much, and by the tenth I'm usually oblivious. But in the Christmas Bird Count, each raven, each crow, each jay matters, no matter how common, no matter how many have been seen before. Ah, if only we treated everything this way!

After a nine hour day in the cold and rain and muck, We drove back across the foggy slopes of Mt. Tamalpais to a warm cafe where we sat and drank hot chocolate, still in our wet jackets, still completely focused on the count. We added up what we had seen: sixty-three species, about average for a Christmas Bird Count in this area.

For each species our leader added up our individual counts, "Robins?" he would say, "how many robins?", and each of us would peer at our wet notebooks and scribbled, pencilled, nearly illegible numbers. "Sixteen, no, wait a minute, that's twenty, with those four I saw near the farmhouse," remembering the bright birds high up in the trees like so many orange Christmas ornaments. "Kestrels?" and we would get into a brief discussion about whether MY two kestrels were the same or different birds than the ones someone else had seen hovering like tiny kites above the hills.

Then we all shook hands and went our separate ways out into the dark. Our little count will be added to the count for all of southern Marin County, and that will be added to counts all across the hemisphere, and someday someone might comb through the data, noticing that this year, like the last few, no oak titmice were seen on the Marin coast, another population winked out, or our fleeting glimpse of a peregrine might tell a researcher that peregrines still hunt the flocks of ducks out in Bolinas Lagoon, a conservation victory after the birds came so close to extinction.

Strange to know that what felt so inconsequential - our day of effort counting robins and chickadees - would be added into a grand continental pattern created by thousands of people and hundreds of thousands of birds, a tapestry across time and space and the usual barriers between species. Even now as I write this there are people out with binoculars and spotting scopes, perhaps in your neighborhood, looking up into the trees, recording the often unnoticed life that fills the air with song and flight.


The next morning I woke up early again and drove to Spirit Rock Meditation Center, part way back toward the coast. Another gray, foggy day. The grassy hills of Spirit Rock were lost in the cold fog, but inside the meditation hall a hundred people or more sat quietly on chairs or cushions. At the front of the room were two striking women, both with shaved heads, one in brown robes, one in white: Ajahn (which means teacher) Anandabodhi and a novice nun, Anagarika Santussika.

Ajahn Anandabodhi and two other siladharas (nuns that take ten precepts, including celibacy, not handling money, depending entirely on alms, and eating only once per day) just arrived in San Francisco to start the first Buddhist nun's community in North America (Saranaloka).

Photo from Saranaloka website

The nuns, who are British, come from a monastery in Great Britain, the only one I know of in the west that trains nuns as well as monks. Although a women's order of nuns has been part of the Buddhist world since the time of the Buddha, the history of women renunciants is a history of marginalization. In many parts of Asia the women's order has died out altogether; in other areas women practice as nuns but in desperate poverty, not supported by lay people in the same ways that monks are, and often not empowered to teach.

As a consequence of this sad history, in all my years of meditation practice with many teachers, I had never been taught by a Buddhist nun before this midwinter day. I sat down near the front and listened as the Ajahn gave basic meditation instructions, struck by her clarity and steadiness. Then the hall settled into silence, silent sitting alternating with silent walking out under the dripping trees.

Usually at one day retreats each person brings their own bag lunch, but for this event, which was also offered without charge (monks and nuns cannot charge for the teachings), we were invited to bring something to share and to offer to the nuns, since they can only eat what is explicitly offered. At about 11 AM, when the nuns eat their one meal for the day, Ajahn Anandabodhi came and received the individual dishes from those of us who had brought an offering, gently taking the dish from our hands and placing it on the tables. Then she and her novice nun offered a meal blessing. Afterward we all went through the line, sharing the bounty of a hundred gifts to one another.

I've written before of how moved I am when I see the power of generosity, and this day I felt it very deeply, almost to tears, seeing both the radical trust of these women's lives, and the tremendous kindness of my fellow retreatants. It was particularly poignant to know that after two thousand years of being pushed aside, ordained women could now step forward with their gifts and be appreciated, even celebrated.

This is the best of us as human beings, I think, this generosity, just as the generosity and caring of the Christmas Bird Count represents the best of us - crazy people willing to go out in all weather in the depth of winter while their friends and relatives are at the mall or in front of the television, all for the sake of the birds of our world.

I spent the rest of the afternoon in silence and attention, just as I had the day before, though my attention was on breath and silence itself, rather than birdsong and movement, and I was grateful to be drier (!). When I walked outside, once again I saw each crow, each jay, each black phoebe, and almost without thinking found myself counting them, amused and glad at the way that my vision had been clarified by the day before.

These two worlds are both my worlds - the world of inner attention and the world of birds and trees and fog....I am so grateful for both of them, and for the people who share my love for them.

In the depths of winter, nourishment and renewal.

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Table for Four Hundred

I celebrated Thanksgiving this year up in Sonoma County. Ah, it was great. We had organic roasted vegetables from local farms, a huge selection of fine cheeses, fresh organic artisanal bread, organic roast turkey, poached wild salmon, roast lamb, local pears poached in Merlot, a selection of locally-produced wines, overflowing tables of pies and deserts.... There were linen tablecloths, white napkins, china, and lovely garden flower arrangements on every table.

And this cost nothing, not for us and not for the other four hundred people celebrating together, whether poor or rich, young or old. We went up early and spent all day with about fifty other volunteers, guided by some of the best chefs in the county, turning boxes and boxes of donated organic food from local farms and from Whole Foods into a free Thanksgiving feast, and then some of us helped serve, and then we sat down at the beautiful tables and enjoyed the abundance with everyone else, just as one does at home with friends and family.

And abundance it was - an abundance of kindness, of laughter, of good will and hard work, gourmet food and great wine, all offered generously. Kids ran around everywhere, older folks in wheelchairs chatted together or with families nearby, and street people sat next to doctors, lawyers and migrant workers. The feeling in the big community center hall was like one big four-hundred-person smile.

There were people who would have spent Thanksgiving alone, people who came to spend Thanksgiving with their friends, people who spoke no English, people who volunteered every year, people taking food back for bedridden family members - every sort of person, in every sort of situation, side by side at the long, happy tables.

What I found most inspiring was the way that there were no boundaries. I've served Thanksgiving in shelters, and found it very moving, but this was something else, a wide hospitality and a wide open door for whoever wanted to enter, vineyard owner or street kid. And no cheap donated old vegetables and canned food on paper plates, dressed up pitifully as a "Thanksgiving meal". This was the best of the best, served with love and pride.

It reminded me of Dorothy Day's radical Catholic teaching of how to be with the poor or homeless: "Bring them bread and roses." Not just bread: people need roses too - dignity and beauty. Herding a bunch of poor people into a line for canned cranberries and green beans is better than nothing, but it's not roses. Creating a place where everyone is welcome, where rich and poor sit down together, and where everyone is served beautiful, organic food - that's I think what Dorothy Day meant by 'roses'.

Over the years I've struggled with my relationship with Thanksgiving. On the one hand it seems like a perfectly lovely holiday, a celebration of the harvest and of gratitude. On the other hand, sometimes I feel that it has degenerated into a kind of family food orgy, the table groaning under vast plates of food, soon to be followed by a vast mess in the kitchen and the next day by Black Friday, the beginning of the Christmas buying frenzy. Maybe it's because most of us don't grow our own food, so the food has lost its connection to the land and its abundance. Perhaps my problem is a feeling that in a country that has grown fat on the wealth of the world, something is subtly off about a holiday that's primarily about consumption.

Some years I've fasted for the day. A few times I treated it as a normal work day - it was a fabulous day to get a lot done and I had an entire six story building to myself. But those things didn't feel quite right, as if I was out of step with something quite important, even primal. Last year I served a Thanksgiving meal in a shelter in Flagstaff, Arizona - not a very good Thanksgiving meal, to be honest, served amidst the bunk beds in a cold concrete-block building - but the gratitude on the faces of the men there was palpable, and I felt like I was finally touching something closer to the way I want and need to celebrate this holiday.

This year I'm in the Bay Area, and although there are plenty of poor people here, there aren't many free Thanksgiving meals, especially outside the churches and Salvation Armies. I was spending Thanksgiving with a friend who is allergic to organized religion, so those places were not possibilities for us. When I found out about the Sonoma Thanksgiving, I was intrigued by the idea, and my friend was particularly delighted about the organic turkey, so we traveled an hour north into the little town of Sonoma, and proceeded to have so much fun that I'm surprised it was legal.

I don't know why it's SO MUCH FUN to work really, really hard to make a free Thanksgiving, but believe me, it is. My friend carved organic turkeys to his heart's content, to the admiration of the other guys. I had the rather amusing job of trying to serve roasted parsnips to a highly skeptical crowd, "What are those? Parsnips? What are they? What do they taste like? No thank you." (A hint to other Thanksgiving volunteers: don't get stuck with the parsnips.)

Nonetheless, it was great. At the end of the day, after helping with the mountain of dishes, we were exhausted and utterly happy. The four-hundred-person smile had seeped into us and our sense of a true participation in 'Thanksgiving' was deep and complete.

Maybe the message of Thanksgiving is not just abundance, but generosity. Perhaps that's why we were so utterly happy - we had spent the day drenched in generosity, poached in generosity like those pears in Merlot (mmmmm...those were good).

Many thanks to Gary Edwards, the mastermind behind the Sonoma Community Center Thanksgiving, who somehow coordinated a bunch of raw, restless recruits and got a hundred-course meal out on time, the other great chefs and caterers, the many volunteers, the farms and businesses that donated food, and to Bob Kinsey, one of the loyal volunteers who took the photos in this post.
We'll be back for the Christmas Day meal!