An afternoon walk offers an opportunity for gratitude.
On the first day of the new year, I had a close encounter with a mountain lion. My neighbor Eric had seen it lounging in the sun like a housecat earlier in the day, near the crest of a Tilden Park trail that my husband and I frequently hike with our dog. The park ranger, who was sent to the site by the Park Police, told us that a mountain lion’s territory can span 20 to 50 miles. Then, turning to my neighbor somewhat wistfully, he added that he had worked in the park for 20 years and had always wanted to see one.
“This is your lucky day,” the ranger told Eric. “If I were you, I’d go buy a lottery ticket.”
By afternoon we figured the creature had moved along to more familiar surroundings. But as my husband and I walked our dog along the busy trail where the lion had been sighted six hours earlier, I was startled to see the animal bounding down a lower trail we walk on nearly every day.
I spent the better part of the afternoon and evening phoning all my neighbors, especially those who walk in the park alone or with their dogs, to warn them about the sighting and encourage them to be vigilant.
I created a flier and put it in all mailboxes in the neighborhood. Since we had never before seen a mountain lion in the 10 years that we lived in the area, I deduced that it was likely last year’s explosion of non-native weeds that provided a new cover and habitat for the animal. I called the city and asked them to bring back the herds of goats that in prior years had kept the hillsides in a state of manageable chaos, but at least free of the tall dried hemlock and euphorbia grass that now proliferated along the walking trails.
While reiterating my story to a number of people, I noticed a distinct difference in reaction between the people my age and those who live with the surety and sense of invincibility of youth. One of my contemporaries suggested that I call animal control and “have it taken care of.” Her statement brought to mind images on the 10 o’clock news of limp beasts being dragged away from neighborhoods where they had strayed too far into the urban/suburban interface.
Another friend, who for 35 years worked for a veterinarian and with the Lindsay Wildlife Museum, reinforced my anxiety by encouraging me to stay far away from the area. But then she described the incredible beauty of a mountain lion raised in captivity which she once had the pleasure of petting while its keepers were reintroducing it to its natural habitat, teaching it how to hunt.
“His purr was like a soft rumble,” she recalled.
My younger friends, on the other hand, had much the same reaction as the park ranger. One wrote, “Lucky you. I’d take that as an auspicious sign.”
Another young woman with eager and shining eyes said: “You are very fortunate. Don’t worry, the lion is not interested in you.”
That evening, I turned on the lights in the kitchen and the room illuminated; I turned on the faucet and out came hot water: two simple acts that I relive every single day of my life. They got me thinking how much I live in a kind of fog—a bubble of comfort, safety, contentment. I imagined another lifetime as a pioneer living out on the prairie, confronting peril at every turn: predators, violent weather, illness. Then my mind turned to more contemporary perils: daily life in troubled areas of the inner city, sadly, perhaps, an even more predictably dangerous environment. This morning our housecleaner told me that her sister’s car was recently riddled with bullets while she and her son were waiting at a stoplight in Richmond. They were the lucky ones—no one was hurt.
In spite of the daily dangers our ancestors lived with, what they had, at least, was the immediacy of nature, of life in its fullness and all of its natural cycles. Sleep came after a day’s labor when the sun went down and ended when morning light shone through the curtains. Vegetables got planted when the frost retreated; families shared stories of their day around the hearth. Today, we’re tempted with life 24/7: “Las Vegas is calling, baby!” An entire generation walks around in a kind of collective daze, white cords dangling from their ears, connected electronically only to one another through an invented mini-language: “C U LTR, MOS” (Mom Over Shoulder), instead of engaging in conversation at the dinner table.
Over the last year and a half, I’ve watched as 11 people in my life died. The first death, my mother’s, was long expected, but no less shattering. Before I could get my bearings, a friend’s husband died, succumbing after years of treatment for lymphoma. And on they tumbled: a second friend’s husband joyously recovering from a new radical cancer treatment, only to be brought down by food poisoning, his weakened immune system unable to fight a simple stomach bug. A friend’s niece, killed by a friend’s bullet on the streets of Berkeley in a Shakespearean tragedy. Long phone conversations with Laura, my former colleague, from her hospital room in Oklahoma, until her pain-riddled body finally gave out. My salvation, my “surrogate mother” Doug, offered me comfort that even extended to embracing Marianne, another of my dying friends, until shockingly, he suddenly discovered that he, too, had inoperable cancer and 90 days later was gone. My emotional landscape seemed littered with banana peels—only nobody was laughing.
But in the wake, something miraculous happened. I seemed to have lost my fear of death. In fact, I seemed to have lost my fear of a lot of things that used to haunt me—traveling long distances alone, doing things by myself when no one else wanted to join me, crossing bridges after earthquakes. The way I transcended my other fears was to simply step up to them one at a time. What I discovered behind the imagined content of each fear was a flood of sadness, and once I felt the sadness completely, the fear evaporated. A ubiquitous wall of separation that has kept me apart from everything and everyone around me has begun to crumble, too. The young Buddhist teacher Adyashanti says, “Courage is moving in the face of fear. Love is what arises in the absence of fear.”
The next day, I decided to walk my dog along a road that I frequent in the winter, not far from where I had seen the mountain lion. My mind conjured up dark images of threat—a mirror to the hidden corners in my psyche that still harbor some remnants of fear, especially fear of physical pain. For a moment I considered taking another route, but my heart led me back to that trail. I decided to carry a large stick, mostly a symbolic vestige of my belief in control. But as I walked along the road, the pale sun hiding and then reappearing though oaks and pines, I breathed in the vibrant, fresh winter air, inhaling the rich fragrance of the damp earth upon which the lion possibly trod nearby, and I thanked God for what I still had in this world.
Andrea Pflaumer is a frequent contributor to The Monthly.