Natalie Goldberg says in Writing Down the Bones, “Become big and write with the whole world in your arms.” I love that. I love the way it makes me feel. When I write I am my mother who cleaned the house every Friday when I was little. Daddy brought home Bob’s Big Boy that night for dinner, the combination plates, so she didn’t have to cook. When I write I am my 4th-grade self walking down the hallway in my stepfather’s house in East Granby, Connecticut, when I heard the radio saying Kennedy had been shot. When I write I am big like the San Jacinto mountains that right now are diminished by the smog between us, but I am big like their massive shoulders, big like they are when the air is clean and you think you can reach out and stroke the ridge line like a sleeping bear. When I write I am the African on a crowded raft hoping to reach Italy alive. I am lost treasure at the bottom of the sea beneath him, gold doubloons among the old white bones. When I write I am the breeze that moves across my skin and still cools me in the early summer day. I am the wind that breaks my green umbrella. When I write I hold the field of sunflowers in my arms beside the path to Santiago de Compostela. When I am big I write with Hitler and George Bush (the son) and Glinda from The Wizard of Oz—they are all in my arms. And Toto, too. When I write I am clouds, streetlights, 4711 cologne, Stalin, Ray Bradbury, Natalie Goldberg. I hold rain and starlight, yerba maté with coconut milk and honey, exhaust fumes from the diesel truck my neighbor drives, eggshells in the trash wet with the whites I have syphoned off for the egg yolks I fed the cats. When I write I hold you and Aunt Doris and Huckleberry Finn in my arms. I hold myself in my arms. I learn to be tender with myself. When I write, I hold you, too, and try to be honest and kind.
Going to the dentist makes me vulnerable. When I lived in Sebastopol I endured a long stretch of dental work. After each visit, I walked to Putto and Gargoyle. (It is now P&G Art.) I would breathe the sweetness and whimsy of this airy shop, take home a fat round mug or a big glazed candlestick to comfort me after my ordeal. It became a tradition. So when I had pre-crown work done earlier this month, I went to Crystal Fantasy and bought myself a pendant, an aqua aura, clear quartz infused with gold. They gave me a black cord, so I can wear it around my neck. Today I do my sun salutations in the courtyard. When I hold plank pose, the aqua aura dangles below my face. It has never looked so blue. I wonder if it’s picking up the sky, or if it’s the way the light reaches it when it hangs free like this. I move to downward dog and the crystal comes to rest against the tip of my nose. I want to giggle. I am a little kid with a magic stone glued to my nose. When I surrender to chavasanah I’m in tears. I am crying and laughing at the same time. It comes to me that I am doing good work. I know I am okay, even though I didn’t get up early to weed the tecoma bed beside the road, even though I still haven’t started my fall prep. I am crying and laughing because these things are true and still I know I am okay. I am doing good work. I am finding small ways to be easier with myself, kinder to myself. And maybe all my tiny efforts have added up to this small window of knowing I am enough just as I am. I sit up on my knees, my feet tucked under me, hands together in front of my heart. “Namaste,” I say. I touch my forehead to the mat, bowing to the light in each and every one of us. After, I roll up my yoga mats, and I am singing. “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,” I sing. My voice is quiet, tender, dear to me. I am enough just as I am. I keep singing. “Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”
I like to wake up slow. When Sable is beside me, I turn over for morning kisses, pettings and rubbings of his soft furry face against mine. Today he takes off before kisses. Sofia comes instead. She never used to want to be touched, but now the cat she has become will present herself for affection in rare moments. (These times tend to be when I’ve just begun to work on the computer or have just sat down to dinner, and she’s pushy about it. I remind myself I don’t know how long she’ll be here because there is something about the way she invades I don’t find at all endearing.) This morning she is quiet. She gets in my face but then sits down. She lets me kiss the top of her head, stroke her cheeks. She stays for a long time. I talk to her about not hanging on for my sake, remind her to let me know when she’s ready to go. “I’ll help you go night-night,” I say. It makes me cry, good tears. I’m not open to her as often as I’d like to be, so this feels right. Then she decides to run off the bed, quick, jerky movements. She knocks my mini iPad to the floor. I yell at her. I remember I don’t want to yell at her. “Arrrgggghhhhhhhh,” I say, sotto voce, like the whisper of cheering baseball fans on the radio. But then I tell her she’s a creep. If I remembered to stop yelling, couldn’t I not call her names? Still, maybe it’s progress of a sort. I will add name-calling to the list, I think, as I walk to the door. I let the cats outside, step out into the courtyard with them. I say my little morning prayers. I try to forgive myself for yelling at Sofia (yet again). When I “come to,” when my eyes focus, I’m staring at the big waning moon just setting behind the San Jacintos. It is framed, postcard perfect, between the smooth green limbs of our Palo Verde. It makes me stop, this miracle, this affirmation of life, of magic in the world—this big gift. I stand there, grateful, and everything else seeps out of me. I watch, not moving, until she disappears behind the ridge. Goodbye, moon.
I read Natalie Goldberg’s chapter “Be an Animal” (from Writing Down the Bones). Her words surprise me. I’ve read it I don’t know how many times before, and yet it’s all new to me tonight, each image glistening and precise. She talks about how we are writers even when we are not writing. She tells us to be like the cat, all senses focused on our prey, ready to pounce. She urges us out into the world like this. It’s the way we are when we travel, I think, all the more so in a foreign country. But we can do it here, too, on our own block, across our own town. I discovered this on a Thursday when I left my car with my mechanic in Ukiah, half the day until it would be ready. I shouldered my day pack, walked across town. I came upon a small, deserted cafe, sat by the window, drank tea with half-and-half and honey. I explored the residential neighborhoods west of State Street. I stopped for giant zinnias, hummingbirds, a red front door. I stood for a long time listening to a mockingbird singing in a tall tree on a corner. I let myself move from street to street, changing directions on impulse the way I do in a strange city even though I knew Ukiah, even though it wasn’t new to me. I let it feel new. Without trying, I met it with Zen’s “beginner’s mind.” I remember coming upon a row of small businesses. The flower shop had buckets of red dahlias and yellow sunflowers sitting out on the sidewalk in the early morning shade. It woke up in me my old dream of having my own place for flowers, soup, books, the day’s used newspapers and a messy pile of paperbacks on the window seat. I used to picture myself sweeping the sidewalk in the mornings, setting up shop for the day. I loved the quiet satisfaction of the dream. That morning in my wandering I went across the street to a little park, put my pack on a bench, did my qi gong facing southwest under a big redwood. Later, I walked to the county library, went online, checked in with my students, did some grading. Ordinary things, but because I was in a strange chair breathing different air, I stayed more awake. In the heat of the summer afternoon I walked from the library to pick up my old red Jetta, my beloved Lolita Roja. I could still feel it, the mountain lion pace in me, watching, smelling, tasting the air as I walked through the streets of Ukiah.
In spite of good intentions, I am late and run to the bus stop. I am grabbing adventure today, rushing off early on a Sunday morning, unheard of for me. On Sundays I like to laze around daydreaming over the “Travel” section of the L.A. Times, read my horoscope, eat scrambled eggs. Now as I hurry toward the bus stop I see a coyote in the park. She gets spooked, changes course and runs along the edge of the street behind me. When I turn to look at her she shies away. If I thought I could herd her back to safety, I would abandon my bus. But I know I would only scare her. She is running like a lost dog, hesitant, jerky. I am afraid to even look at her, afraid she will veer away from me into the path of a car. So instead I pray, loud, silent, fierce prayer that she be guided home, that she be kept safe. Please oh please. She stops near the corner, and I point down the street like the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. “That way would be good,” I say. She goes in the other direction, heading east. My throat hurts as she disappears. She is so lost, so tender, so very alone in this scary place. I look for her when I am on the bus, hoping she will make it, some scent will be familiar, and she will find her way. I don’t see her. The bus turns the corner, heading north, and I am sure I will not see her now. But there she is. She runs across the street in front of the bus, her panic rising. In moments we are past, and I can’t see her anymore. I cry then, big fat tears that come fast, wet my face in seconds. I turn away from people, toward the window. I push my glasses up, wipe my face with the backs of my hands, surprised and a little embarrassed. Please oh please oh please.
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.