Last night was the final Monday evening public program of Desert Mirror’s 2011 calendar.  Tomorrow Joe emerges from his cloistered monastic practice period at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, and I’ll be there to meet him when he arrives back up at San Francisco Zen Center’s city temple.

Three months is a long time to be separated from your sweetie!  For months we’ve been planning that our first dinner as a reunited, happy couple will be celebrated in Hayes Valley, just a few blocks from Zen Center, at the restaurant known as Bar Jules.  Everyone raves about the place, so I’m really looking forward to it!  After a couple of days in San Francisco, we’ll go down to Santa Cruz to visit family, and then we’ll be back relaxing at home in Albuquerque for the last few days of the year.

Yesterday afternoon I went out on an errand in Albuquerque and came back to find that we’d had a power outage in our neighborhood.  At first I thought nothing of it.  I assumed that it was probably associated with some of the seemingly never-ending road construction work going on in our area, and I assumed that the power would be back on very soon.  Within two hours, though, the temperature in our poorly insulated house had dropped by 5 or 6 degrees, and it was getting chilly.  It was also getting on toward the end of the business day, so I figured I’d better call the local utility company and check to be sure they were actually working on restoring our power.  PNM’s automated voice mail system said there were no major outages reported in my zip code.  (Teaching note to self: With any experience, the significance level is in the eyes of the beholder!)  But they provided an automated process for reporting the outage, and the system then estimated that the power would be back on by 5:00 pm.

By about 5:30 pm, when the power still wasn’t back on in my house, it was getting dark enough to notice that nearly everywhere else around me did have power.  The church across the street, the big, neon-lit diner down on the corner, even my next door neighbor to the east, all had lights on.  But my neighbor to the west’s home was dark, so I called her.  She confirmed that her house was without power, and that she had also reported the outage to PNM’s automated system.  Plus, she said she’d spoken with another neighbor who was without power, and PNM had now estimated that our power would be restored by 8:00 pm.

This would have been merely an interesting sociological experiment on any other evening; but being a Monday, this was public program night at Desert Mirror, and I wasn’t sure what to do about that.  It was dark, cold and probably fairly slippery outside, after snowing all day, melting and refreezing, and then the temperature dropping sharply.  So maybe I should try to cancel Desert Mirror’s public program.  But we never know in advance who’s coming to our programs, and we probably don’t have phone numbers even for the ones who we’re pretty sure are likely to show up.  So I pretty quickly decided I should just push onward and normalize the experience of the evening.  I hunted around for the bag of candles I had purchased for the zendo recently, and I pulled out quite a few little glass votive holders, which I’ve collected from garage sales over the years in anticipation of exactly this scenario.  I found the Strike-Anywhere stick matches, and I started preparing our home, property and guest house to be warm and hospitable, even while temporarily off the grid.  Which turns out to be a time-consuming task the first time around!

Not that this is exactly headline news, but it was interesting to very concretely notice how many ordinary needs of daily life are associated with fossil fuels power consumption.  And, accordingly, how many needs one would have to find an alternate way of meeting if said fossil fuels stopped being delivered in their normally reliable fashion.  (Note to self: Even though we’re no longer in an earthquake zone, emergency preparedness is still a prudent planning priority.  Get on it!)

We were lucky — and I was mystified by the fact — that the gas heater in the guest house was still running, even though it relies on a thermostat to tell it when to go on.  (Probably battery-operated rather than electrically, right?)  The beautiful and startlingly-expensive-to-run gas fireplace in the main house provided a cheery and warming focal point for a while; but then it suddenly went out with an audible FOOMP.  Hmm.  I wondered whether that FOOMP meant that the unit had just had a certain amount of fuel already in the lines leading up to the burners, and after that already-in-the-pipeline gas had been consumed, no new fuel was arriving to the house.  Or perhaps there was still gas coming into the pipes and burners, but a particularly strong gust of wind had blown out the flames and the pilot light.  Or maybe there was some other explanation entirely . . . After about fifteen minutes of wondering about this while wandering around, lighting and distributing candles to light the path for our congregation, I suddenly realized that if there was even a possibility that there was still gas coming in to the fireplace, it probably would not be so good to be striking matches and lighting candles in its vicinity.  As I headed for the fireplace’s on/off toggle switch and flipped it to the off position, I visualized the headlines: “Mindfulness teacher, home and property blown to smithereens in gas leak.”

When the first sangha member (meditation practitioner) arrived, he mentioned how delightful it was to have driven up and seen the one lone, flickering candle on the edge of the flower bed in front of the house.  When he saw it, he thought, “Oh, look, there’s a candle.  I bet there’s another one around the corner.  Russ has prepared a lovely, special holiday offering of lights for us!”  Which was true, of course, though not for the reasons he had assumed.  But I had set little votive candles along the edges of the driveway path and garden, to light the way toward the back yard and the guest house, and they did look quite charming.  The zendo was too cold to sit in, so we held the meditation and talk in the guest house.

After first arriver Kevin had nearly taken a tumble on his way up the driveway, he and Robert shoveled the snow and ice off of the driveway, and spread some road salt on the icy areas, so that no one else would slip.  Then the three of us went into the guest house living room and sat in the dark together, two small candles providing just enough light to illuminate each other’s shadowy faces.

Metaphors abounded!  The relative absence of light that did not hinder our practice; the beauty and potential danger of the dark, cold and slippery pathways; the relatively small but still strikingly helpful light of the tiny votive candles.  Even the fact that, while occupying more or less the same space and reality, some people’s lives were fully illuminated, and some were sitting in the dark – all these images figured in the little talk I gave after our sit.  It was a pretty “meaty” talk, and Kevin suggested that it be saved and given again, when more of our group are present.  So I will save the talk itself and post it on another day.  Just considering the themes of darkness and light – especially during this season of lots of both – is enough for today.

I think it would be interesting and useful if the Albuquerque-area Desert Mirror sangha had an emergency-response plan as a community.  If you are a part of this community (either as an active zendo participant or a virtual online supporter), and you’d like to ponder this logistical challenge together, please be in touch to let us know of your interest.

Thank you for your good intentions in the world!  Please continue your practice, please be alert for opportunities to “turn up the heat” just a little bit, and please let us know if we can help support you and your practice.

Sending love and light, and good wishes for an ever-ascending New Year for all,

Russ and Joe