If you agree to agree,
your mind becomes sure.
— from Japji
The rooster shows up unbidden. One day in October I pull up into my driveway and there he is, sitting on the cinder block wall between our house and the neighbors. Adrian, the neighbors’ thirteen-year-old son, calls out to me, “Do you see the rooster?” I do indeed. He’s perched quietly next to the bougainvillea, his black eyes watching everything.
I grew up in the city. I don’t know much about roosters beyond Foghorn Leghorn. But even from my untutored perspective the visiting rooster appears extraordinary, with a mane of tousled blonde hair like a rock star cascading down his neck, wings with patches of brick red and cream, and dark tail feathers reflecting a blue and green patina.
“My dad says he’s a fighting rooster,” Adrian contributes. “We think maybe he got away from someone.”
Cock fighting is illegal in the city of Los Angeles, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Considered a “blood sport,” the gamecocks are especially bred for aggression and stamina. This rooster is missing its comb and wattles; it is tradition to cut them off, to remove anatomically vulnerable body parts. I feel sad for the rooster, wishing for it a different fate, but perhaps he has escaped and created his own destiny.
Suddenly he flies from the wall, a not very graceful descent accompanied by a flapping of wings, and lands in our backyard. And there he stays, much to the disappointment of Adrian and his family. The rooster sleeps in our sapote tree at night and wanders our yard during the day, eating bugs, patrolling, and letting loose a distinctive four-note crow whenever he pleases.
I look up the totemic meaning of roosters: “New beginnings.” Yvonne has just officially moved in with me, a year since we started seeing each other. “Protection and confidence.” What a lovely gift the universe has delivered to our home.
Yvonne names the rooster Aztlán, after the legendary home of the Nahua peoples, and after the Los Lobos album, Good Morning, Aztlán. When I tell my friend Linda about the new member of our household, she asks whether I think he is the reincarnated spirit of another being. As I contemplate this, I become convinced that Aztlán is the reincarnation of Lacy, my cat who’d disappeared a few years before.
Lacy was a champagne-colored Siamese whom I’d found at a rescue adoption booth at the Hollywood Farmer’s market. It’s probably more accurate to say she rescued me. She was an extraordinarily comforting presence at a very challenging time in my life. She would sit on my printer while I was working at the computer, and she would sit by my side each morning when I meditated and played the gong. She seemed to intuit when I was sad or fearful, and took extra pains to be near me. We had such a deep bond, I came to consider her an angel, a spirit sent to bring me solace.
One day Lacy went out for her daily explorations and didn’t return. When she didn’t return the next day I contacted Hilary, an animal communicator. I’d worked with her once before when Lacy had not come home overnight. That time, Hilary had told me Lacy was treed by a dog and was afraid to come down. She advised me to call the cat in my imagination, and to visualize putting her favorite treats into a bowl outside the house. Lacy came home the following day.
This time, Hilary told me that Lacy had been chased and was far enough out of her territory that she didn’t know how to get home. She’d also lost her collar, and therefore her identification. Hilary described the yard the cat had found refuge in—seen through Lacy’s perspective—but though I walked and drove around and around my neighborhood, I never did see a place that matched the psychic’s description. A few days later the psychic told me she saw Lacy inside somewhere; someone had taken her in and was not letting her out. Lacy wanted to come back to me, the psychic said, but she was unable to. Devastated by the loss of my angel, I had to be grateful that she was safe and being cared for. A few years later I had the intuition that Lacy had died and that she would try to return to me in her next life.
“Are you Lacy?” I would ask Aztlán, as he sat on the wicker chair outside my front door, and he seemed to agree. Both Yvonne and I felt enormously blessed by his presence.
Harijiwan Khalsa, my yoga teacher, poses a simple and utterly revolutionary proposition: what if everything that happens is created by the universe for our benefit? What if the universe is a benign place that only wants each of us to grow and excel? And what if our job is to meet each circumstance with the question, “How can this benefit me?”
How does my view shift if I embrace this idea? How does my life change with this re-orientation?
It’s easiest to practice this in retrospect. Events that I thought were terrible at the time I faced them turned out to be exactly what I needed to push me in a new direction. My suicide attempt at age 21 propelled me to move to California and to the Woman’s Building, providing me with both community and a context in which to grow into the artist I longed to become.
The collapse of four romantic relationships, one right after the other, in my early thirties became the impetus to seek out Jael Greenleaf’s Adult Children of Alcoholics workshop, in which I learned that though my family history had shaped me it did not have to be a life sentence.
The dissolution of a long-term romantic partnership in my early forties was what brought me to the practice and eventual teaching of Kundalini Yoga, which restored a spiritual basis to my life that has dissolved much of the despair that colored my early decades.
My favorite example of perceived adversity yielding enormous benefits involved the publication of my memoir about the Woman’s Building, Insurgent Muse. I had already published three books, but this was the first I’d ever sold on the basis of a proposal; the work was not yet completed. My editor at City Lights, Elaine Katzenberger, proposed a schedule for completion of the manuscript and publication. I confess I struggled to meet these deadlines; I found the challenges of memoir writing—being truthful, insightful, fair, thorough, and artful—were not easy to balance alongside the goal of generating a certain number of pages per day. In the end, I did deliver the manuscript, more or less on time, and expected to have a bound book delivered into my hands, like a baby, nine months later.
Once I’d sent it off, I eagerly awaited my editor’s response. But it didn’t come. I waited longer, a little impatiently. Then waited some more. After a couple of months, I was mad every day I didn’t hear from her. Indignant, outraged, stricken—for a practicing yogi, it wasn’t pretty. My book was not going to come out when I’d planned. Finally it occurred to me that I needed to just surrender to the way it was, even if it wasn’t the way I thought it was supposed to be. A practicing yogi, I allowed myself to entertain the idea—one that had proven to be true in the past—that the timing is always perfect. If I wasn’t entirely chilled out, I was finally mollified.
Then came September 11, 2001. Everything else drained from the cultural landscape for months after. September 2001 had been the original publication date projected for my book. How grateful I was not to be trying to promote a book during that cataclysmic time.
Another benefit of the ten months that elapsed between my turning in the manuscript and eventually receiving my editor’s notes was that with time I gained distance and perspective on the project. When Elaine suggested that there might be a difference between what I had a personal need to express and what the reader needed to hear, I didn’t freak out. When she suggested some substantial changes, I was able to see that these recommendations would strengthen the book. In the end I had no resistance to letting go of some sections, reorganizing others, reframing still more. I was able to follow her direction and allow it to become a stronger book. The timing had indeed been perfect.
Aztlán the rooster behaves more like a cat than a chicken. He comes when he hears my voice. He waits at the front door if I am in the living room, at the back door if I’m in the kitchen. He gets edgy when I try to touch him, but he likes to stay close by. He will pluck a grape from my fingers. He likes to sit on a chair on the front porch if Yvonne or I are home and in the living room. He follows Yvonne around when she gardens.
He wants to come in the house and one day, when Yvonne and I are both home, we let him. He comes through the back door, into the kitchen. He pecks a little at Annie’s food bowl (Annie, our cat), stares up at the countertop as if he might fly up and roost there, wanders briefly into the bedroom (“As if he remembers it from when he was Lacy!” I exclaim to Yvonne), comes into the living room, poops on the carpet, then walks out the front door.
On another day he comes in and repeats the same basic circuit. But this time when he goes into the bedroom, he sees himself in the full-length mirror. Instinct and training as a fighting cock kick in and suddenly he is flinging his body at the mirror with enormous force, talons forward, trying to attack the other bird he sees. I’m afraid he’s going to shatter the mirror and kill himself. I grab a blanket from the bed and cover the glass as Yvonne shoos him out of the house. I realize that this bird, for all his sweetness, for all that he may be a reincarnation of my beloved Lacy, is still a wild animal. Yvonne and I agree we cannot be letting him in the house any more.
But he does come in one more time. I’m meeting with my attorney about revising my Will, and she’s been sweet enough to come over to my house. As we’re wrapping up, I go outside to pick some beets from the garden so she can take them home. I unthinkingly leave the back door open, and Aztlán seizes his opportunity. Before I can stop him he’s in the house and headed for the bedroom. This time, though, he ignores the mirror. Instead he hops on the bed (“Just like he remembered when he used to sleep with me when he was Lacy,” I’ll tell Yvonne later) and then hops onto the headboard, where he roosts. I am torn between the adorableness of it and my concern that he will catch a glimpse of the other rooster in the mirror. I talk to him about when he was Lacy, how she liked to sleep on top of the covers in the “V” between my legs. I open the window beside the bed and after a while, Aztlán scoots to the other end of the headboard and calmly flies out the window.
Another yogic principle is that, not only is everything that happens for our benefit, but we’ve also chosen it before we came into this incarnation. Think of the space between lifetimes as one of assessment: I did an okay job with money, say, I grew in my understanding of power, but I never really got a grip on my cravings. So in my next life I’m going to choose to encounter a lot of situations that will put me to the test, to see if I can do a better job next time of releasing, letting go, not clinging and craving.
If you buy into this principle, then there really isn’t anything to complain about. It’s like signing up for algebra in school and then feeling persecuted by having to learn about polynomials. If I’ve signed up for algebra, it’s because I think it will benefit me to learn it, so why not remember that benefit and study it with all my heart? And if I’ve signed up this lifetime to learn about clinging and craving, why feel victimized when those opportunities for letting go present themselves.
Rose presented me with such an opportunity, and oh, did I hate it. At the beginning of the relationship I was so excited. She is a romantic and it was thrilling to weave the dream with her of how it would be between us. But it was not a dream we could sustain.
At first, after it ended at her insistence, I believed she was the one who could not sustain it. She did not lay any blame on me, so it was easy to let her carry it. It was only over time, sitting with myself, sitting with the pain of losing the dream, that I began to understand my own incapacities: misunderstandings of what it meant to love, the expectation that it was her job to meet my needs, the unkindness of not accepting her for who she is.
I could not agree to the idea of not being her partner. I kept hoping something could be undone, something would shift, that somehow the opportunity might arise again. I remained friends with her and accepted that the price for doing so was often increased emotional pain in the aftermath of interacting with her. I took responsibility for that choice and learned to sit with the pain, to contain it, to breathe through it. I feared that I might now be alone for the rest of my life, loving her and not being able to be with her, and I worked to accept that possibility.
Most of my friends thought I was crazy, but a few of them understood that something deeper was happening, that I was working on something in myself, studying what it means to love and how letting go can be part of that love. In a Kundalini Yoga training about “authentic relationships,” I learn a few key things: It’s not someone else’s job to meet my needs; only my relationship to Spirit can do this. If I have a problem with someone else’s behavior, it’s up to me—not her—to shift. To truly love someone is to want what is good for her, not what is good for me. Seen in the light of these values, I was not a good partner to Rose at all. So I set about to try to be a good friend to her, to love her without expectation.
One day, I went to see Sara Eaglewoman, a shaman and healer. I thought I was there to work on something about my creative life, but the moment she experienced my energy field, she said, “You’re wrestling with an obsession.” Yes, I supposed I was. In the course of that session, I felt my molecules rearranged as the obsession was released. “Time is continuous,” Sara assured me. “All the love that existed still exists. It just needs to find a different form.”
I didn’t know what that form might look like, but I understood at a molecular level that the dream I had been clinging to would not come to pass in the way I had imagined it. After four years of meditating on the loss of Rose, something released inside me. A different form, then, I would agree that.
It was only a month or so after this that Yvonne began emailing me jokes everyday; I’d claimed I was “joke deprived” because I don’t work in an office where funny stories are exchanged as part of the daily currency. Sometimes Yvonne’s jokes were written, sometimes they were visual, sometimes she’d record them and send them as audio files. Yvonne, whom I’d known for fourteen years. Yvonne, with whom I’d experienced a sense of deep understanding and identification, about whom I’d always thought, “She is a member of my tribe.”
Yvonne, to whom I suddenly felt open. And to whom I could bring a new understanding of love. Those previous four years, to which I’d agreed, made me into someone whom, I hope, is capable of loving Yvonne in the way she deserves to be loved, the way we all deserve to be loved. And into someone who is capable of receiving all the love she holds in her heart for me.
Another healer will tell me that Yvonne’s presence in my life is “evidence of the universe’s compassion and mercy.” She has brought me another chance, a different chance to learn and grow. And I agree.
At the end of May we get a letter from the City of Los Angeles. Someone has made a complaint about our rooster and we are in violation of two municipal codes. One would require us to keep Aztlán confined at all times. The other is impossible to meet; his pen is required to be 100 feet from any other dwelling. We live in a residential neighborhood on a regular-sized lot; there’s no way to get 100 feet from anything. If we cannot comply, the letter informs us, the City will impound him.
Despite our yoga and meditation practice, Yvonne and I go into full freak-out mode. She wants to go after the individual whom we suspect of making the complaint. I want to hire my attorney to help us negotiate with the City. Yvonne begins designing a pen tall enough to still allow him to roost in his tree. We think maybe if we comply with the confinement provision, they won’t force us to comply with the other. But how can we confine him? I think about going to talk to the complainant, see if there isn’t some way to work things out. We both pray for a miracle.
It’s a funny thing about miracles; they don’t always come in the form you expect. Two nights later, we’re awakened from a dead sleep at about 2:00 a.m. We hear Aztlán, not crowing but kind of cackling. Peering out the window, Yvonne sees a raccoon waddling down the driveway toward the street. Why don’t we get up and go outside? It’s inexplicable. I can barely keep my eyes open. A while later the raccoon comes back and climbs the pine tree outside our window. Yvonne yells at him to leave but, again, we don’t get up.
In the morning, we do not hear his customary 4:00 a.m. crow. When I go outside to feed him, he is not in his tree. When I walk around the house, I see his feathers scattered on the front porch. I walk all around the property, terrified that I’m going to find his carcass. I find nothing.
Later that day, as the sun is going down, I hear his distinctive, four-note crow. He’s nearby, but because we are surrounded by hills, I can’t tell exactly from where he’s calling. For a few days I walk the neighborhood, scattering cracked corn and seed, searching the trees, calling to him. I continue to hear him, but I cannot find him.
Yvonne and I are devastated. We miss his daily presence, all our little routines with him. I’m concerned about the departure of what seemed like such an optimistic omen. Yvonne is incensed with the raccoon that drove our friend away. I feel it’s so unfair.
It takes a cooler head to suggest a different perspective. My friend Linda reminds me that I know two things: Aztlán is still alive and he is still free. What if the raccoon, rather than being a marauder, was instead the agent of miracle? What if the real threat was the City Department of Animal Services and any steps Yvonne and I might have taken to comply with its codes? Perhaps Aztlán’s departure from our yard was, if not of benefit to Yvonne and I, certainly of great benefit to him. And caring about what’s best for him, not clinging and craving, is of course what it means to love him.
This life is filled with challenges. They might be monetary or health-related. They might be career setbacks or family rifts. They might involve conflicts with lovers or friends. They might feel like irredeemable losses. The intensity of suffering is not always proportional to the actual challenge or its actual consequences. A challenge asks us to meet it with our strength, and if it shows up in an area where we still need to cultivate strength, it may feel devastating.
Yet I have learned there is opportunity in each challenge—an opportunity to grow, change, confront an unsustainable pattern or belief system within me, find another path, get strong in ways I haven’t been before. In this way, everything that happens is for my benefit, if I can only agree to agree. On the nearby hillside, we still hear the rooster crow, at dawn and at dusk.