Seventeen-year-old Dee Adair had never been on a meditation retreat but, on a whim, she set up a fall weekend retreat at the camp she worked at each summer.
My shoulders were cold. I reached for my jacket behind me and looked at the rest of the women round the fire. Shanti, Pauline, and Leslie were sitting cross-legged on camping pads on the ground. Sandy, majestic in an old white hippie kinda way, was on her camp chair, eyes focused on the space in front of her, arms resting on her thighs. Smoke from the fire rose up and vanished into the black of the October night.
I let out a big sigh, and the others shifted in their seats. Couldn’t handle that kind of meditation with no mantra or nothing. My thoughts went crazy, and I forgot what I was doing.
Sandy glanced at me and smiled.
“Okay, everyone,” she said. “How did that go for you? Are you a little more relaxed now?”
“Nope,” I said, shaking my head.
Shanti cracked up, letting out chirp-like trills and holding her sides. She was the easiest one to see cuz her blond hair and puffy white coat were lit up by the firelight. At least one person there got me. Two, really, cuz Sandy understood me most of the time. Even when she didn’t, I still loved her to pieces. Since Mr. Archer went back to Tibet in September and stopped teaching in her living room, I guess you could say she’d been my teacher. You know, like, for meditation and spiritual stuff.
Sandy pressed her lips together sympathetically and nodded again. “I love your honesty, Denise.”
She still called me Denise, like the teachers on the first day of school, even though it’d been five months since we first met at the Health Stop. Someday I’d tell her everybody called me Dee. I was so not a Denise. What were the angels thinking when they sent a baby dyke down to Earth with a name for a femme?
“I know I’m ’sposed to be paying attention to my out breath, but my mind goes right on thinking ’bout everything. For a while, I forgot I was even here,” I said.
“I hear you. That’s no biggie,” Sandy said. “I’ll give you guys the skinny on how to handle distraction later in the weekend.” She yawned, and her ancient aluminum camp chair creaked as her weight shifted. “But, right now—I’ve got to level with you—I’m totally wiped. Let’s head to our tents. We can start up again after breakfast tomorrow.”After I got in my sleeping bag, it all started to seem real. Yeah, I’d been a counselor here for two years—and a camper since I was twelve—but I didn’t really think Jerome, the camp director, would say yes when I’d called him at his office at the Oakland Y.
“Hey, Jerome,” I’d said. “It’s Dee Adair from Jade Camp. Any chance I could invite the meditation group I’m in up to the camp for a retreat after it closes in the fall? It’d be mostly adults and one of my friends and me.”
“Why not? As long as you’ve got adults there, better the place gets used.”
It was true, the simple green wood buildings did look kinda lonely now. Maybe they missed the sixty city kids who came up each summer session from Oakland to be in nature for the first time, where a marshy branch of the Sacramento River ended at the sharp rise of Lightning Peak, the closest mountain of the Cutter Range. Even though it was a bird watcher’s paradise, a major birdie hangout on the Pacific Flyway where all the West Coast migrators rested on their way north or south, the place was deserted in October.
The wind started to kick up outside the tent. I’d heard they get some serious thunderstorms at the camp in autumn. Personally, the sound of the wind outside chilled me out. I lay there, looking up at the roof of my tent, cradling the back of my head with my hands. Or maybe it was the meditation.
Maybe Sandy was still awake. The impulse to go tell her that that little bit of meditation mighta helped me after all charged across my brain. I could check on her tent to make sure it was staked down good in case the wind got worse. Okay, that would be lame. She’d camped out a lot and was probably already asleep. The sound of thunder rumbled in the distance. Then a huge bang sounded, and my tent lit up with blinding light. I sat straight up. Lightning. Here we go. The pitter-patter of the rain was more soothing than scary, and I settled down into my comfy bag.
Next thing I knew, I was zooming up high above the circle of the Cutter Mountain Range looking down at Lightning Peak, like a vulture spiraling. I caught an updraft, and my stomach jumped, an elevator kinda feeling.
As I was swooping through the crags, something strange came into view. A clear, deep yellow Buddha—like the Buddha, you know?—was floating in the air over the mountain. A bolt of lightning flashed from the mountaintop, shooting downward at a peak below. Buddha turned his head and looked me in the eyes like he knew me. Better than anyone. It made me feel good. Real good.
After that, I was wide awake from the moonlight glowing through the green nylon wall of my tent. No, couldn’t be that—the rain had ended. That light had to be dawn. I reached out to grab my flashlight and brushed my arm against the cold, slick skin of my sleeping bag. Dew.
I’d been dreaming. Something about that dream made me feel like I was soaked with joy. Not joy like kicking it at a party. Joy all through me. Every muscle loosened, like during the night I’d set something heavy down I’d been carrying my whole life. It felt important. But Buddha? Really? Who would ever have thought that this black girl from the East Bay would be meditating and dreaming about Buddha? Couldn’t it’ve been Sojourner Truth or something? But ever since I met Sandy in the spring, going to the classes at her house was one of my favorite things. I didn’t even tell some of my friends, cuz they’d give me shit about it for sure.
I grabbed the travel alarm from the gear pocket on the side of the tent and squeezed it so it lit. 5:45 a.m. If this was summer, I’d already be late to help Collin set the mist nets in the woods so we could catch birds and band them. Birds flew low and almost blind in the low light just before dawn, smack dab into our net that hung like a baggy volleyball net a few feet above the ground.
Once we caught ‘em, Collin would untangle each startled little guy from the mesh. The first time it was a chickadee. He taught me how to hold it—its tiny heart beating against my palm—and how to fasten a band around its leg. I’d hold my breath, worrying I’d break its tiny ribcage by accident. Someday, someone might find it with the band on its right leg and know that the bird had flown from Jade Camp, by Lightning Peak in California. Represent!
I pulled on a long-sleeved tee and some sweats and unzipped the inner mesh door of the tent and then the outer flap. The small noise of the zipper sounded as loud as a siren in the still blackness. My hood caught on the tent’s fly, pulling it back and shaking droplets loose that wet my neck as I ducked outside.
When camp was in session, ice cubes crashed inside the ice machine day and night, but now it was dead quiet. Oh, and—check it—Jerome’s damn air conditioner wasn’t punishing us with its rattling moan.
A flashlight flicked on fifty feet in front of me.
“Who there?” I whispered.
“It’s me.” Without a doubt, it was Shanti, chirping like a sparrow.
“Did you stay dry last night?”
“It was fine. That thunder was amazing.”
“Yeah, it was dope. Whatcha doin’ up so early?”
“We went to bed at eight. I’m done lying around in a sleeping bag.”
“Me too. You wanna go out to the dock?”
I shined my flashlight up a dim dirt path. “That’ll take us out to a wooden ramp through the marsh. The ecosystem is fragile out there, so we don’t usually walk around off the ramp.” I sounded so dorky.
Our feet made creaking thuds on the ramp. Then, when we stepped onto the floating dock, it echoed hollow and shifted a little as we walked.
Weird not to see the canoes there, even though I was the one who put them away. It was one of my jobs to help stash all six of ’em in the shed when camp closed in August.
Rippling water slapped against the sides of the floats under the dock. A hoarse bark echoed through the reeds. A grackle. T—they sounded more like bulldogs than birds. The eastern horizon whitened. None of my homies back in the East Bay would want to be out here in the musty air, watching the sky change color.
Shanti started doing yoga right there on the dock.
“Girl, you are twistier than a pretzel,” I said.
“Come on! I’ll show you how.” She bounced up to her feet like a spring.
“Not my thing. Don’t you want to look at the birds and stuff? You can do yoga anywhere.” No reason to get into yoga when I wouldn’t be any good at it. Too stiff. I had plenty of things I was great at. I liked it that way.
“I can see birds pretty much anywhere, too.”
That’s how I used to think. Birds were birds. Now it was different.
“Part of my job here is to survey the wildlife,” I said.
“Does that mean you count them?”
On cue, a bird flashed up from the inlet and sailed off down the waterway.
I shaded my eyes with my hand and followed its flight path. “That one’s a green-winged teal.”
“I don’t know how you can tell what bird that was. It flew by, like, zooop!”
“It’s not that hard. First you figure out the outline of each kinda bird. A teal has a bigger head than the other water birds. Then you take in the color. If you’re lucky, the bird will make its call. That helps. Birding’s pretty easy. It’s the reptiles that are a pain in the ass to I.D..”
“You guys count snakes and stuff?” Shanti asked. She was on her hands and feet, pushing her butt up in the air.
“We try. We get way muddy looking for those fuckers.”
“Why go to all that trouble for a snake? Swamps are full of snakes,” she said.
Swamp. Inland marsh. Totally different. Was it worth it to try to explain? She didn’t care, and I didn’t like sounding like a nerd. Did she really need to know that I actually cared about every last one of those creepy crawly things? The fact that they were invisible made me care about ’em even more.
I checked my words carefully. “There’s an endangered species of garter snake—only lives right around here. During camp, anyone who finds one doesn’t have to do chores for a whole week. They get a prize, too.”
Shanti inhaled and moved from a forward bend she called Uttanasana to standing then straightened herself and looked up. She breathed out and jumped both feet back into a push-up position, her elbows bent.
“What’s that one called?” I asked.
“Chaturanga Dandasana. It’s a lot like a plank.” She could talk and do the most outrageously hard yoga postures at the same time. “So what’s the prize?” she asked.
“Oh, the prize, yeah…” I said. “A garter.”
“An actual garter, like you wear on your leg?”
“For real. You get to wear it until the next person wins.”
“Please tell me you have a garter on underneath those butch jeans.”
My face got hot. “’Fraid not. Jackson Everly is the current Holder of the Garter. I did have it once last year for about two weeks, though.”
“And I wore it on my upper arm, outside my clothes.”
“Me, I’d get a little skirt and some pink tights and wear it around my thigh,” she said.
I looked at her perky blond ponytail. “Goes without saying.”
I inhaled a deep breath of the magical air. If I could only put this in a jar and take it home to our apartment in Alameda. I figured when things started to get to me, I could unscrew the top, and the air of Jade Camp would, like, waft around my room, and it’d be like I was right here looking up at Lightning Peak.
Hmm. That dream was so intense. What was up with that? Musta been my mind playing through everything that’d happened in the evening.
Or was it something more? An omen? I glanced at the actual mountain, lit up by the rising sun.
Excerpted from The Buddha of Lighting Peak, Mayum Mountain Resources, 2016. Photo’s provided by the author.
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