It isn’t fair. I try reading other books about writing from my odd “moving to Mexico” collection. But how can any book follow Natalie Goldberg’s? I give it almost two weeks, plodding through the pages, duty and stubbornness combined, hope dwindling. I give up, return to the Ray Bradbury. I’d only read it once years ago, but already, in the first chapter, it makes me cry. It seems unbelievable how lucky I am, to have these two writers who talk about the writing process, who both move me to tears. But it’s a mystery. The other three books don’t touch me, not even Annie Dillard’s whose prose is so lush. So I wonder what it is. Is it like acting? Does the actor need to feel the emotion he’s portraying in order to affect the audience? Is the emotion of the writer able to move into us when we read their work? Is there some mix of mind, heart, body, spirit, the writer’s integrated presence, that hugs their words? Are our words infused, like magic, with how or who we were when we wrote them? Are we transported by a writer who takes us to a world of their own making because the writer was wholly planted there when the words flowed through them, feet buried in the earth? I think so. And I love the idea that our own energy might travel unseen with our writing, ghosts on a night train, lighting people up all over the planet. No wonder libraries are sacred. Holy houses, resonant with this collected energy, like centuries-old cathedrals, dust swirling in the air, caught by the late afternoon sunlight, the smell of old paper, the feel of warm wood beneath your palm, like a prayer.
I think, I hope, I am done agonizing over Sofia. Did I miss some signal? I knew she was close to the end. I asked her about it every day. “Are you ready to go?” Oh, my love. There were two times in the last few days when I saw that glazed “I’m enduring” look in her eyes for the first time. She was lying under the bed in the hot afternoon. Was that my cue? I can’t count the number of times I traced those grooves in my mind, replayed the weeks, the months. Did I miss something? But then I remember her face when I opened the closet door on that last morning and she looked up at me. I remember her clear eyes, the look she gave me. Calm. Matter-of-fact. Here you are again. Good morning. I’ve heard the vet say the time comes when there are more bad days than good. But who is to say life isn’t still worth it, isn’t still precious when all days are “bad” days with good, good moments. Morning on the chair in the courtyard. A bowl of tuna water pressed from the can. Sitting in the sun in the corner of the garden beside the marigolds and bougainvillea. A visit in the middle of that last night, head firm beneath your human’s chin, fingers stroking the edges of your mouth, a purr rumbling deep within you. Oh, my love.
Last week I began to read Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing for the second time. I tried to resist, read pieces of the Bonnie Friedman, the Annie Dillard. But they didn’t move me. The first day I read the Bradbury it made me cry. Goldberg’s work makes me cry, too. Today I read Bradbury in the courtyard in the late afternoon with the sun in my eyes. He says in order to feed your muse, “you should always have been hungry about life since you were a child.” I wonder if this is true for me. I kind of think not. But maybe so—just a quieter version than I feel from him. And I have imagined for a good while I’d like to be more avid, more eager, more vibrantly alive. Might I be on the road to that even now as I move my pen across the page? I think, too, he grew up in a different world, one I was lucky enough to touch when I was a little girl, like the last sip on the tip of my tongue. The carnival came to his town, real people who talked to him. The magician sent him home with the rabbit from his show. The world was smaller then. It makes me wish I’d been the girl next door—oh, that’s Ray’s friend Riba. I wish I’d felt the silky fur of that magician’s rabbit underneath my hand, that I was sprawled on the ground with the other neighborhood kids listening to his father’s voice in the dark, telling stories of his own childhood when there were no roads heading west, only dirt tracks and the new railroad, or lying on our backs looking up at the sky filled with stars and tasting awe for the first time in our young lives.
Today I finally build a small altar for my cat Sofia on the table in the courtyard. Tomorrow she will have been dead for one week, but I spent a good part of that time agonizing, torturing myself, replaying things over in my head. There was a lot of blood, too, on that last day. It took time for the shock to fade. So only today do I feel clean grief. It makes me grateful. I want to write about it. I have a lot to say. But I am vulnerable and exhausted and not ready. Still, I can’t say nothing. The first day or two after she died, I kept thinking I could smell her terrible cancer breath. (I wanted it to be true.) And there is that weird presence, that lit up place she used to fill, that keens her absence like a ghost. She is not lying under the bed. She is not in the closet. (The door is no longer ajar.) She should be here, but she’s not. “She’s never coming back,” I tell my boy cat. I think it’s sinking in. I still can’t walk into the back room without checking the floor to make sure I don’t step in pee. I want to go back in time and tolerate every annoying thing she ever did. I want to remember the clear look in her eyes on that last day when I slid the closet door open to say good morning. I want to kiss her soft furry head again and again and again. I feel like I have a whole book to say about her inside me. Here is the first snippet. Know you are loved, my darling girl. We miss you. Be well. Oh, please, be well.
[Photo courtesy of Marylou and Richard, shot the last time they tended my two little ones when I was away. Thank you.]
There is a sweetness in touching my “real” writing. I wonder if it is that that truly draws me to it—that deep, quiet sweetness rather than the eager, scary thrill of reading it out loud or sending it out into the world. Maybe it is different for all writers, but there is a place we all go to, at least now and then, where we do our best work. Natalie Goldberg calls it “dropping down to first thoughts,” Clive Matson, “letting the crazy child write.” I’ve always thought of it as “entering in.” When writers describe it, there is an element of the physical, of being present, anchored in our bodies, grounded. It depends, too, on what I am writing. I may be deep in it, but if it’s something hard, the sweetness isn’t apparent. Still, I think the coming out of it may be the same, even when the writing is difficult, like pushing through anger, through pain, through loss, when it feels like pulling teeth, or breaking them with my bare hands. Even then, in the surfacing there is a sweetness, a tender regard for myself, and a sense of having done good work. Even with tears still wet on my face, when I emerge from my true writing I am never mean to myself. I am only kind.
My body is tired but tense—poised to spring into action, tight from endless, focused work, staying tuned at pitch even though I have walked away now for an hour. I made watermelon juice, ate walnuts, read one of the last chapters of Thunder and Lightning. Earlier today I stopped long enough to peek at the newspaper, do my qi gong. After my next stretch of work I’ll do my yoga, roast eggplant and fennel for dinner. I am in the middle of the busiest week of my year. Monday I did 180 login help requests. My life outside, away from this frenzied beast, is broken into small chunks. What should I do with my hour? I make good effort to stay present, but the work itself blurs the brain, makes me fuzzy. Still, the miracle is I remember to breathe. I always knew it would make a difference, though I never pulled it off before. But this week I sit up straight in my bar stool in the courtyard. My feet are propped on a footstool, my laptop across my thighs. And while I enter data, do searches, reset passwords, troubleshoot, I keep taking these long, slow, deep, full breaths, as if I was always someone who did that, without even trying, as though my breath is breathing me.
I must have been in a weird place when I read Natalie Goldberg’s Thunder and Lightning the first time. Because I remember being disappointed, and I’m loving it this second time through. I am using it the way I’ve been rereading her other books, a chapter or sometimes two before I do my daily writing. I’ve described this before, I think. Letting myself read about writing carves out time and space for me to be a writer. It makes me feel like I am part of the conversation, one writer among many. Now that I feel good about Thunder and Lightening, too, it means I have four books of hers to reread. But I will need to take a break from them when I’m done with this one. I need to read the other books I have on writing, the small collection I bought before I moved to Mexico. I don’t know what possessed me. At that time before I left the country I must have still been reading a chapter every morning, Natalie Goldberg or Ray Bradbury or even Dorothea Brande or Brenda Ueland, four of my favorites. So I combed bibliographies and bought more books about writing, consumed with preserving this ritual in foreign lands. In Hopland, where it began for me, I would sit outside on my stone porch that looked across a big field, a craggy rock embedded in the hillside. I would read first, and then I’d write a page of my novel, my answer to unearthing time for my writing even though I was still in my first years of teaching when there was no time. I promised myself I would write for eleven minutes each day. And the time before the writing, immersing myself in the world of the writer, was sheer joy.
When I’m finished reading Thunder and Lightning, I tell myself now, I will tackle one of the new books. I tried reading a few of them before, but I never made it very far. Now I am determined to read them all. Maybe there will be another gem or two I can add to my “real” collection. If I can grow it a bit larger, if I find enough of them that feed me the way my favorites do, then by the time I finish the last one in my set I can just begin again with the first, Writing Down the Bones. The thought delights me, even if it makes me sound insane. Because no matter how many times I reread them, I’m always reminded of something I’ve forgotten, something timely to my life right now. I see things I missed before, too, or I understand them in a new way. And always in returning to one of these books there is that joining in, that sharing of the writer’s life, the comfort of the writer’s voice like reuniting with an old friend, like sliding into my old, worn sweater, the color of wine, the one with the holes in it I love to dig out at the first hint of chill in the fall air. So, I’m going to read the books I haven’t read but carried with me for eight years, go looking for new old friends. But maybe, before I begin, I’ll first let myself return to Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing. Because it’s been a long, long time, and the thought of his sweet, kind, vibrant being draws me back again.