This morning I read one of the last chapters in the Natalie Goldberg book. It is titled, “Blue Chair.” She comes back again to Gwen, the student and friend who died. The last line ends like this: “it comes home deeper that I don’t get to say any more; what was said, was said, though the knowledge of her death ripples long after the last stone dropped, rich and living on.” At the beginning of the chapter she is painting a big, “fat” blue chair, “the kind of chair you want to nestle in.” Read in. Write books, your legs dangling over the big arms. She describes the layers of gouache she brushes over it, color after vibrant color until the chair has texture and depth, is no one color but alive in its layered-ness. While I write, a dove sits on the neighbor’s carport, his mourning song echoing the sadness and the layers of her chapter still sinking down inside me. I have felt at times in recent years like I am waiting for all my immediate family to die. Then I will go on to the next part of my life, walk el camino de Santiago, see Greece, Africa, find my “real” home, the place I will spend the rest of my own life. I expect my cat Boo to be the last, hope he will see me through the other losses, spend more years beside me. Because he is too thin and won’t eat much, the other day I became afraid it’s all going to happen too soon, too fast. I don’t want to lose any of them. Ever. I’ve told the universe again and again over these last few years: I am in no hurry. I want to be very clear about that. I am happy to wait. A wave of big, big losses rolled through life in my twenties. Now I am poised for another. But even as I write I know I am not really waiting. I just don’t want to leave them to go do other things. I would rather stay, be nearby. Stock up on life together. I can go later in a different time after the wave has washed back out to sea. I know even though I don’t want this wave to come, it will come anyway. And writing now, I know another thing. I know I must not brace myself against it, in spite of what my past, what my instincts beg. Instead, I want to tread water beyond the breakers, keep warm, nimble. I want to stay close, be ready to launch myself into the swell of it. I want to ride it all the way to the shore, the tears on my face indistinguishable from the salty water that holds me, buoys me, carries me whole and unharmed to the warm sand at the sea’s edge, new layers of bright-colored gouache painted on my soul.
I hear a bird who is not one of my “regulars,” and I stop sweeping, stand listening in the open doorway of my trailer home. A timid peep comes from the Palo Verde, a verdin, who also doesn’t visit often. But his is not the sound I’ve stopped for. It was someone louder. Someone is calling from the top of the electrical pole across our small road. When I walk outside to look, I can’t see anyone up there. But he keeps talking, so I go get my binoculars. I used to bring them out to the courtyard every morning, to sit beside my notebook, my pens, my small pile of books. Sometimes I would just sit and watch my regulars, my mourning doves, my house finch, my hummingbirds. But they would be handy when someone unusual showed up. It’s a habit I’d like to resurrect. Now I study the top of the pole with the binoculars. It takes a bit of time, but when I see the bird it clicks. He is a great-tailed grackle, one of my favorites. I used to talk to them when I walked in the mornings along the bike path. But now there is no water for them on the golf course, and I don’t hear them anymore. I would say they never come to our trailer park, but there he is. I watch him on the pole, glossy black, big tail waving, intense. I stand listening to his calls. I should have recognized his voice. It is the sound of the Mexican mainland to me, a return to civilization, the exotic calls both welcome and comfort. He flies off heading south. I stand at the edge of my courtyard and watch him fly away. It feels like he came to visit me. Warm tears push at the corners of my eyes. And now the moon is in the south, too, a thin waning sickle in our pale blue sky. I breathe and settle. Goodbye, grackle. Hello, moon.
I let myself read a bit of the Natalie Goldberg book every day. At some point I come close to tears. Today is no different. Richard told me years ago my writing tends to make him cry. I wonder if it still does? I think in the Goldberg it is something about the open heartedness but also the bigness of spirit, that maybe we are grouchy and critical but still human and lovable. And this bigness of spirit is in her writing itself, not just in what she says. She makes me want to reach for those open spaces in my own writing. I used to find them more often, I think, but I’m not sure. I remember talking about “entering in” at one of Clive Matson’s workshops. It seemed to happen every time I wrote. It’s hard to know now if this was even true. Was it a kind of beginner’s luck? Or was it only a different understanding of it all when I first started? I was reading Natalie Goldberg then, too, every morning on my stone porch in Hopland before I filled my page a day. I wrote the beginnings of my novel that way, felt like a “real” writer for the first time in my life. But I remember the look on Clive’s face when I was talking about it. “What do you mean by entering in?” he said. He was hesitant, puzzled. I hadn’t meant to be glib. I thought I was talking about something that happened to everyone when we wrote, that dropping down and the opening up, being part of something larger, letting the writing come out. I used to be able to do it at will. Now I’m not sure I do it at all. But maybe my memory of those Hopland mornings is exaggerated, dreamlike. Or maybe over time the experience becomes more familiar, the transition less noticeable. I don’t know. But I do know reading Natalie Goldberg makes me want to break out into something larger. And I dream about one day going to one of her writing retreats. But what if in person she rubs me the wrong way? It’s silly, I know, but I don’t want to “ruin” her books for me, like being afraid to sleep with your best friend, not wanting to take that risk. Still, I think, if I get the chance I’m going. Maybe she’ll do a retreat at a hot springs, maybe Tassajara. Sit. Walk. Write. Soak. (Sigh.) I’m in.
I read in the newspaper there is now a “movement” to have one day each week free from technology. (It also said most people in the United States check their cell phones 150 times a day. Gasp. Choke.) Because of time spent engaged with technology, the article went on, kids feel their parents aren’t present. I tend to see this in the grocery store, the child trying (and failing) to get their mother’s attention while they wheel the cart down the isle one-handed, talking on the phone. This isn’t anything new. It’s been going on for a long time now. I see dogs suffering when they’re out for a walk. The people on the other end of the leash are on their cell phones, talking or texting. The dog walks beside them. You can feel their sadness, their loneliness, their longing for their human. It’s supposed to be a special time to be together, connected in those quiet moments of mutual pursuit. Instead, I watch the dog walking alone, their human miles away. I’ve watched this for years with my students, too. The moment they step out of the classroom, their cell phones come out. If they have ten minutes to get to their next class, they fill it up. “Hi,” they say. “Where are you?” Too many people are never alone with their thoughts. They are listening to music, talking, texting. It’s rare to see people sitting on the bus just taking things in. Once in a while I see someone reading a real book, and it makes me glad. The act of reading is alive with imagination, and it can be looked up from, left in intermittent moments to become immersed in the environment. It doesn’t separate us in the same way. If there is truly a movement to leave technology behind one day a week, I’m all for it. I’ll even vote for two days. Because this trend has worried me for years. If we can’t be alone with our thoughts, can’t be comfortable in silence, what kind of life does that leave us? And I don’t think it’s only troublesome in terms of its toll on heart and soul. What about the vanishing attention span? I’m afraid we’re creating people who won’t be able to focus on one thing long enough for complex thought. And, well, too many lonely dogs.
I sit on the stoop in the courtyard, my feet soaking in the round red basin I bought when I lived in Mexico. I’ve grown lax about my grooming. You would shiver if you saw my toes right now. There are a score of mourning doves on the ground in quiet pursuit of spilled seeds, and the goldfinch are noisy at the tube feeders. I’m reading the book my friend Richard lent me, The True Secret of Writing by Natalie Goldberg. Reading her connects me to the world of writing. It has since the beginning. I used to read Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind as often as they would have me. Her books make me feel I am part of a community of writers. I write now with my notebook on my thighs, the palo verde sending spotted shade across my forearm. Quiet pride rises in me. Maybe I am learning to stop the autopilot, the not breathing but moving always to the next thing. Can I make my days different even when my work becomes insane again? Today I remember twice to get on all fours on the concrete to kiss my black cat. I visit Sofia in the closet. This morning there were six goldfinch perched on the leaning sunflower outside the sliding glass door taking big bites out of the leaves. I watched them from bed and dreamed of a secret zoom lens to photograph them without moving, without making them scatter. I no longer reach for my laptop as soon as I wake up. Yesterday I took a shower before dark and marveled at the view outside the little window, the clouds pinking in the last reflected light, the sun long gone. I kept my eyes on the palm trees, on the sky, while I washed, dusk thickening. Now I perch on the steps in the late afternoon, a glass of lemonade beside me, my feet waiting prunes in the red basin. I hear the visiting cowbird’s song, glance up to see his shiny sleekness at the big tray feeder. His watery trill passes through my skin, chasing peace.
I had a funny thing happen with mailing labels, and I want to let it change my life. I wished for more—you know, the free ones wildlife organizations send out, pictures of polar bears and eagles. I was almost out, and I was thinking about that one afternoon walking back from the mailbox, hoping more would come. Within two weeks I must have had eight or nine sheets, more than I’ve ever had at one time. I’ve always had a funny thing about visualizing, too. It isn’t easy for me, unless I’m imagining the things I don’t want to happen. Those spring to life with gruesome ease and require regular banishment. I’ve never been sure, but I suspect I try too hard when I’m asked to visualize something, or maybe I’m afraid I won’t be able to picture it, so I block the image from forming. But these mailing labels were easy, quick, almost unintentional. And not only was picturing them arriving in the mail effortless, but I was not attached to receiving them. I’m certain that was key here, the secret to my largesse. I have tried to visualize winning writing contests, but I don’t know how to be matter of fact about them. I don’t know how to not be attached to my hope of winning. But these mailing labels have inspired me to work in this direction. I am picturing more house finch in our yard, maybe twenty or thirty at the small tray feeder. I am seeing myself thinner and stronger and thriving. And while I was grading a discussion task the other day I went looking for my own “aha” to share with my students and read we should think about how we will feel when we get to have what we want. I like this idea. I think it may help me find a way to “enter in,” that focusing on the feelings may let the pictures arrive unforced. So I am thinking now about how it will feel to have that happy chatter in the mornings from the house finch, joyful and thankful for their company. I am thinking now about how it will feel to have lost more weight, to be healthy and vigorous again, the sheer pleasure and the ease of it, that vibrancy of life. And I am thinking now about how I will feel when I hold a copy of my first book. I can see myself sitting on the patio, eyes closed, stroking the cover. I feel childlike awe, an Easter egg between my open palms, thrilled disbelief, deep gratitude. I feel like the luckiest woman in the world.
Sofia’s been gone since yesterday morning. I cried when I woke up in the middle of the night. She’d done this already three days in a row, but the latest she showed up was midnight. I remembered Richard talking about the poems he’s writing for their cat Sunny who died only weeks ago. He’s wishing he’d been as loving, as open to her, as appreciative of her in her coming as he was in her going. I tortured myself in the dark with memories of pushing her off the bed with a pillow when she returned at midnight two days before and wouldn’t settle on the bed with us but kept making determined strikes for the bolster above my head. I wondered if she had found a home where she’s happier, where she is better loved. Even as the thought broke my heart, another followed on its heels. How could I deny her that?
Logic tells me she is only up to independent cat things. But I can’t remember when she had a stretch like this. Sebastopol? Over a decade ago? It’s an upswing in her cyclical illness, I think. She must be feeling better to take off like this. She’s hardly left the courtyard in months, almost always returned in an hour or so on the rare occasion when she did. She would disappear like this when she was young, first a response to her adoption, feral cat that she was. Later because the Hopland countryside was irresistible. I’ve gone through this with her for years.
I am sitting in the courtyard in the late morning, telling my mother about it on the phone. She’s been gone for over 24 hours now. “I tell myself she’ll be okay,” I say. “But every time I wonder if this will be the time she doesn’t come back.”
And then there is movement beside me. Sofia appears in the courtyard on her quiet cat feet. She acts as though she never left, or had been gone only for a moment. I tell my mother she was the magic talisman. I cry again, a muddled combination of relief and gratitude and fear. And then I laugh, kneeling, hugging her, shaking teardrops around us on the cement.