Living Life Well
By Jim Shere
The respectable old building that had housed our group practice down in the city of Sonoma had been sold, and Ann, Maia, and I suddenly had to move. We had shared offices there for a good long time, and had grown close over the years, consulting with one another and presiding together over many community celebrations at Westerbeke Ranch. Sadly, eventually, having to move meant having to go our separate ways.
This was almost two decades ago, in the summer of 2003. Maria and I had already moved north, into the countryside of the Valley of the Moon, and I was losing interest in the changes taking place in Sonoma. Things were slower and easier in Glen Ellen, and the walks we took together were on pathways through woods rather than along city streets. I was told “but you’ll be lonely up there, away from us,” but that was not to be. People were easier to meet and — with the deer, and the birds, and the snakes — our walks became far more interesting.
One afternoon Maria and I walked along Sonoma Creek into Jack London Village. I’m a West County farm boy at heart, and the rustic old buildings there reminded me of the barns and sheds of my childhood. These were structures built for being put to work, not simply inhabited. We stopped at the Cellar Cat Café, and on a whim, I asked if there was room for me to bring my practice there. Holly— owner, cook, waitress, and lover of stray semi-feral felines— said she thought the old cabin may be available. A scholar had been using it to write his PhD dissertation on something rather Middle English, and would soon be leaving. We peered in through the single window and saw how great panes of glass across the room opened to a generous view of the creek below and to the hill beyond. We told each other yes, this would be a very good place.
I had been having trouble for quite a while with the professionalization of counseling that had begun commodifying the industry. I appreciated the discussion about improving the scope and quality of our service, but not the shift of attention from the needs of the client to the technology of psychotherapy. It was then that I moved into my cabin in Jack London Village, where my profession began to give way to my vocation — my calling to listen.
For nineteen years people have brought their concerns to my cabin, to be heard and to be taken into account. Many did not realize they also brought something far more important — their eager desire to find solace and resolution. I would tell them they were standing with one foot in quicksand and one foot on bedrock, and ask which way they wanted to lean. The work before us is to learn about what that bedrock is composed of: One’s health depends upon the foundation of one’s deepest and strongest abiding convictions, principles, and values. After all, recovery is not from a disease, but of one’s true Self, as one listens for its call.
As I listened over the years to people of all kinds — all ages, all cultures, and all genders — the cabin became more than a place, it became an instrument of intention and caring. When I had played in my high school band, I was taught that a musical instrument is only instrumental in producing the music waiting inside of you. The music within you needs the instrument to be heard, and this is your practice: the way you regard your instrument when you open its case, and the way you fit its parts together, and the way you lift it, and the way you play your music.
Each morning as I opened the door of my cabin I opened it as an instrument case and understood that my practice is not a rehearsal for some future performance; it is how I am and what I do. Like my Buddhist friends, my practice is neither a rehearsal nor a religion, and it is not a preparation for some distant performance or paradise — for they aren’t at all distant; they are within, wanting to come out. My practice is a way, but not a way to a distant event — it’s simply a way of being.
Over the years people came to talk about the concerns and significance of their lives in this instrument, my cabin, and as they fit the parts of their life together they brought pieces of their life to help me fit parts of this instrument together as well — the souvenirs and the books, the plants, the paintings hanging on the wall, and the fabrics draped across the furniture. Then, finally, one Saturday near the end of this past April, Maria and I began dismantling the instrument, thoughtfully, mindfully, respecting each part before putting it away.
This was because, after nineteen years since finding the cabin, the inevitable had begun to happen. Resting high on the edge of the crumbling bank above the stream, the old structure had begun losing its footing as the northeast pilaster slowly sank and fractured, and the great unbraced walls overhead had begun to twist and buckle, pulling the small panes of colored and clear glass from their leaded frames. As with every story I had ever listened to, the time had come to make a decision that could no longer be avoided.
It was fitting that Maria worked beside me all that day, moving the furniture into storage, placing the souvenirs brought to me over the years onto a table for people to choose and take home, and putting my books into the free library bookshelf I had established in the Village some fifteen years before, for people to take and read. And then it was fitting that, at the end of that long day, I would be alone when I encountered the snake at the threshold.
Coming out of my cabin, now empty behind me, I glanced down to see her — a gorgeous, threefoot- long rattlesnake — passing by me as she entered the cabin and moved toward the great window overlooking Sonoma Creek, lifting her head from side to side. Friend Kate reminded me that such snakes symbolize a wonderful variety of things — wisdom, protection, rebirth, fertility, healing, renewal, and primal energy. Just as snakes will shed their skin from time to time, seeing such a snake is a sign of rebirth and renewal — especially at a threshold.
And so, I gently closed the door of my cabin behind me one last time and gratefully went on looking to find the next instrument for continuing my practice.