I’m on Whidbey Island for four days at Windhorse, the retreat center I visit every year when the Buddha House is available because the meditation cabins don’t have toilets and I’m sorry, I don’t leave the house to use the toilet. I need a modicum of comfort and the cabins, though lovely inside, don’t leave room for a lawn chair, which I have learned to bring with me. I can open it on the balcony outside the meditation hall or put it on the front porch depending on the situation with wind, rain, and sun.
Also depending on where I am most likely to see the deer. Tommie (who owns the retreat, and is also my beloved voice teacher) told me there were “deer everywhere,” but I think that when a property owner says there are deer everywhere, hers is a different perspective than that of a city girl who hopes she’ll have to thread her way through a herd just to get to the front door.
As far as I can make out, there are exactly two deer here. I think of them as “that lovely couple from Burien” as one of the caregivers from All Present once called my assistants –and friends– Susan and Mike. At first light and at dusk, I am either out walking (stalking really) or stationed at one of my vantage points to get a sighting of the lovely couple from Burien.
Last June there were twin fawns running around with a harassed doe barely able to contain their exuberance and I saw a lot of them. This year there are three baby goats at the farm across the road. I stand at the fence several times a day and wait for them to get curious enough to come over. So far they are being very cautious so yesterday I used my close-up lens to get some photos. In doing so I discovered which part of the fence was electric. There’s an enormous white dog the size of a cow with enough drool coming out of him to water a small garden. He barks and wags his tail and backs up when I reach through the un-electric part of the fence with a dog biscuit.
An insistent meow made me turn to find a black cat about the size of Suli the cat across the street in Seattle who knocks on my door when she’s bored and comes in to sit on top of my refrigerator and incense my cat Artemis. She was friendly, rubbing against me and letting me pick her up, purring her profound feelings, whatever they were—one learns to not speculate about these things with cats.
There’s now a path from Windhorse into South Whidbey Island State Park. There have been some terrific windstorms lately that have toppled at lot of trees in the area. There’s a notice in the Buddha House to not walk in the woods if it’s windy. During my first venture into the park, I followed a trail until it felt unsurpassable due to the trees, branches, puddles and mud in the way. The second time I walked in the woods, the sun shone through the trees even in the deepest part of the woods. When the sky is cloudy the woods feel safe and womblike; the sun illuminating this but not that is an enticing invitation into another world. Out of the corner of my eye I see a structure—a fairy house?—but when I turn to view it straight on, it slips into the other world. The same thing happens with a little foot—a wood nymph maybe?
At the bottom of the bowl of the retreat center is a little pond populated by frogs who have regular choir practice. Every time I visit, though, they are on a break, and I have yet to see one. I haven’t seen a frog since I was a child. We caught them in Lake Washington and took them home in shoe boxes. We tried to make them be pets. We freed them into the fish pond outside our house and never saw them again.
Every day I walk the mile and a half out to the highway. Yesterday I saw one rabbit. On the walk back I saw at the top of a pine tree an eagle so enormous I spontaneously sang “Oh, beautiful for spacious skies” but stopped because it immediately felt a little weird. That’s where all the rabbits have gone—into that gargantuan sitting atop the tree.
I brought a ridiculous amount of things to do during my few days here: three books of poetry, two novels, one book on tape, a history and a book about Buddhism. I brought painting and drawing supplies, several notebooks, and the computer though there’s no internet service at the Buddha House. I almost brought music because Tommie has a studio here, but I knew I could find anything I wanted to sing or play amongst her stacks. As a child I wanted to pack half my bedroom into the car for a car trip. How did I know what I was going to want to do? Last June the car was full but I ended up doing nothing but read two novels and watch for the twin fawns.
It’s colder now than it was in June so when I sit outside with a book, I wear two shirts and a windbreaker. With my lined-with-fleece wool jacket tucked around me and my feet in the hood, I can stay comfortable for about an hour. I’ve been reading The Magic Mountain because it had been recommended to me twice in the same week, one person telling me he thought it was the greatest novel of the 20th century. It’s 850 pages and I am up to 260, reading a little bit every day. I was afraid if I stopped for four days I would lose the momentum; it is so slow-going that it could take an entire century to read. Which reminds me that I really want to finish the last hundred pages of Ulysses.
I brought Christopher Buckley’s The Relic Master because it came in at the library the day before I left town. I read that in the afternoon when I can’t concentrate on anything heavy; it’s very funny and I snort tea out my nose at unexpected asides. I’ve got poems by Stephen Dunn and Fernando Pessoa and a notebook of poems I’ve collected. I read those in the morning after Thomas Mann and before Keeping the Faith Without a Religion, by Roger Housden, which I highly recommend, by the way. I highly recommend the poetry books, too but hardly anyone reads poetry anymore. We’re a strange little coterie, those of us who love poetry.
At night I put on The Phantom Tollbooth which I have listened to before but now I am also reading along. I marvel that I never read this book that was published in 1961 and must have been an offering of the Scholastic Book Services, which my mother was glad to shell out money to. On the other hand I don’t know that I could have appreciated a fraction of its cleverness when I was a child. For example: a car that goes without saying. Meaning everyone has to stop talking to get it started. One of my favorite characters is the Spelling Bee who spells the occasional word in all his sentences. S-e-n-t-e-n-c-e-s. “Years ago I was just an ordinary bee minding my own business, smelling flowers all day, and occasionally picking up part-time work in people’s bonnets.”
It’s been a week of walking, reading, reflecting, and watching for deer. It’s hard to think about leaving but as the time gets closer I feel pulled toward home knowing that I always take some of Windhorse with me until I need to come back for more.