Mammals need three things when we’re young: warmth, touch, soothing vocalizations. I think of lullabies I can’t remember. (Were there lullabies?) I think of the funny nonsense sounds I used to make to my cat Boo, lots of made-up words with muted m and u sounds, my way of loving him out loud. I make those same sounds without thinking to the hummingbird when she alights in the guayaba tree ten inches from my face. I think she decides I’m safe because after listening to my noises she moves to her soft little nest I didn’t even know was there, three branches over. I string fuchsia ribbons to keep her safe with notes attached that read “Temporary closure—hummingbird.” Later, back inside my trailer, I hear odd little sounds coming through the bathroom window. I step into the bathtub, creep close. A female goldfinch is perched high in the guayaba making quiet scrijjery sounds I’ve never heard before. I think of the mammalian need for vocalizations. Maybe birds need them, too. Maybe the goldfinch is making these soft noises for the hummingbird eggs. I remember the pretend German songs I used to sing to myself for hours while I crouched on the walkway in front of our Tujunga house dreaming up little make-believe worlds amid the succulents. I feel a dearness for my young self and a rush of grateful pride that at age four she knew just how to soothe herself. (When did she forget?) A whir of wings brings me back. The hummingbird settles on the branch beside the goldfinch, facing her. They sit together like old friends, and then the hummingbird flies back to her nest. I am tired and tender, all opened up. I stand in the bathtub for a long time listening to the goldfinch song. I feel like I belong, all of us woven together by this lullaby: the goldfinch, the hummingbird, the two beings in her tiny eggs, and me.
I breathe in what I need. I breathe out compassion. I am sitting on the floor. My eyes are closed, but I can feel the other women in the room with me. We breathe in and out together. They are buoys in my ocean. We ride the swells of our breath. The teacher’s voice guides us, goes quiet, guides us again. I concentrate. I drift. I feel overwhelmed. I remember the teacher telling us we can close when we need to. I lay my folded arms across my raised knees, touch my forehead to my forearm. My neck is stiff, tight. I curve but do not let go. Then I do, letting my arms cradle the weight of my head. I feel the release all along the length of my spine. I open my eyes. My face is in a cavern. I see the cluster of crystals against my chest, the white linen of my shirt. Light seeps in from the bright desert afternoon outside the windows, and the blue of my cotton pants tints the air. Now that I am here inside this soft-light cave, I no longer need to close. The teacher’s voice soothes me. I make no effort to understand the words, but I sense them sinking in. I rest in a way I may have never rested before in a group like this. I am inside my cavern, but I am part of all the women in the room. I am a buoy now, too. We ride the quiet sea together. I think, maybe I can take the memory of this place with me. Maybe I can resurrect it when I’m in the midst of disturbance, let it give me access to compassion for myself. Later, I remember the comfort of my cavern, the hushed softness, the quiet light like stained glass windows, like a cathedral.
Every day in June I worry the summer will rush past me. I am afraid I won’t do the writing work I want to do, that I will blink and stand at the end of the summer with nothing to show for it. But today I discover a cucumber in my garden. I pause in the courtyard, the cucumber heavy in my palm, my other hand on the door, one foot on the step, about to abandon the hot outside world for the day. I take in the sprawling cucumber vines, the sturdy volunteer sunflowers, the tamarisk that insists on living in one of my pots. I love every blossom and every leaf in this garden. Every cricket, every lizard, every bird. Inside, I peel my cucumber, eat fat slices with pink salt. I relish every juicy bite. After, I sit on the couch and dissolve all my fears about the summer. Instead, I picture myself writing like mad, immersing myself like never before. I close my eyes and feel the next eight weeks, a long expanse stretched out before me, like summer vacations used to feel on the last day of school. I dream each day stretching, too, the time from morning to summer night endless like when I was a kid, moving from one imaginary world to another, never rushing. I dream the days ahead in flashes. Writing in my notebook in the courtyard in the early morning. Laughing on the phone, napping in the worst heat of the day, dreaming, loving every minute. Typing on the couch in the early evening, laptop on my thighs, delicious sips of cold oatstraw tea, mockingbird song through the open windows late at night. I dream a big pile of work at the end of the 59 days, and me—happy.
No unsolicited feedback. No cross talk. Patience. Listening. “Respect,” I say. Then I realize it is inherent in most of the items already on our list. What kind of culture do we want to create for our class? By the time everything is written on the white board my spirits have sunk. I think I am just tired. The first night of this self-compassion class there is a lot of material to cover. When we take a short break, I go outside into the warm wind. I lean over from my hips, stretch my spine. I stand and swing my arms, turn from side to side, loosen my neck, my shoulders. I understand I am not just tired. I am discouraged by the list of guidelines for our behavior because I am afraid I won’t be able to honor them. I am afraid I will blurt things out, hurt people’s feelings, break the rules. I am afraid my bad behavior will make the space unsafe. I am ashamed in advance. The teacher said we’ll make mistakes, I tell myself. But her voice was casual, and I know for me it is not casual. It is a big deal. I move near the edge of the balcony and face northwest. I stand still and take in the long stretch of desert before me, the mountains in the distance, the smog. I feel the warm wind on my face, my arms. I let the fear and the shame seep out of me, be swept away in a warm gust of air. Later, I walk home in the dark. I stop on the sidewalk beside a small square block of undeveloped desert. I look up at the moon and Venus in the sky. I hear traffic in the distance. The half moon shows the contrast between the sand and dark lumps of brush. I scan for coyotes. I stand for a long time looking out at the quiet, moonlit field. I feel safe, satiated, washed clean.
I try to be quiet when I leave my courtyard, but the gate screeches, wood against wood. I walk toward the creek path in the early morning. There’s a mockingbird every half block marking my passage. Today I see three cottontails in the creek bed, no coyotes. A squirrel races across my path. I stop to watch a mockingbird displaying from the top of an old, wide fan palm near the footbridge. On the bridge, I watch the swifts. There are more of them than I have ever seen, flying in a big circling cloud, then pausing on a stretch of nearby wires, as if they, too, are taking in the show. Or maybe I am their show, the lone human so strangely fascinated by their ordinary acts. I don’t know if they’re really swifts. I’m making that up because until today I never saw them sit still, and they are always quick in flight. Today, when they sit on the wires, I see their tails are forked. I stand there for a long time looking up, my mouth open, watching them swoop and circle, their small noises a communal sound, as if this ever-changing shape of small bodies is one beast, all those wings and hearts beating together. Then the extraordinary happens, flashes of yellow gold on their bellies, beneath their wings. At first I’m confused, but then I understand. The sun has risen, and it’s lighting up their undersides because it’s so low in the sky. I watch until the light changes, until the cloud shrinks to just four handfuls of birds. This reminds me of when I lived in Sebastopol and discovered that three-week window when you meet dark furry caterpillars everywhere on country roads. I remember dodging each one, so surprised I’d never noticed them before. And now at sixty this first glimpse of small birds lit from below, dazzling, the waning half moon behind them, suspended and silent in the blue sky.
I started walking again last Tuesday. I go early in the morning, walk along the creek path. I’m trying to train myself into summer mode, but I’m behind on my sleep. I’m proud of myself, though, and hopeful. I walked almost every day for years before it fell away, and I’ve been wanting to return to it for a long time now. I’m hoping to get up even earlier, be out by the creek bed closer to the first real light. But I want to be kind to myself in this, too, so I am not pushing, and I’m going to play it by ear, let myself go back to sleep when I need to, trust I can ease into this. This morning I wake to the waning moon calling to me in the lightening western sky, birds alive in distant trees. I roll over and go back to sleep. When I walk later, I stop on the footbridge, taking it all in, grateful for this swathe of wildness in the middle of town. I close my eyes, and when I open them I see an animal in the gully. At first I think it might be a deer. I know it must be a coyote, but it seems impossibly thin, and its walk is odd, choppy, un-canine-like. I watch it ramble, climb to the dirt path, slip off into the side streets when a person approaches. I say metta for her without thinking. May you be safe and free from harm. My chest aches. I keep watching for her on my way home. As I walk, I stop worrying. Instead, I dream up the world I want us to live in. I picture a world where we are all safe, where we all have everything we need to thrive. I picture a world where there are systems in place to help. I can make a call. A group of people fan out to find the coyote. They clean her up, feed her. (She was shaking her ears, itchy all over, so skinny it hurts.) I imagine food drops up the canyon for them, once a day, picture animal psychics explaining they can come to eat, to have their wounds looked after. I dream I am one of them. I look into the eyes of “my” coyote. You’re not alone anymore, I say. I outline the routine in my mind, the daily food drops, the tending of wounds. She twitches one ear, stares back at me for a long moment, wary. She wriggles once, all tender hope. Then she settles in to eat.
[Editor’s note: I can’t be certain, but I think I owe this interlude to how The Secret has affected me, to becoming even more aware of when I can just build good pictures, can reach for hope, dream up sweetness in the world.]
The psychic told me to listen to The Secret. I didn’t want to do anything she said, but I didn’t want to just dismiss it, either. What if this was a direction from the universe, the silver lining in her cloud? I looked the book up online. It was nothing I would ever gravitate toward on my own. I wrestled with myself, decided to buy it. I wanted to be open to what the universe might want to tell me. I listened to The Secret while I washed the dishes, when I rode the bus. I listened to it sitting on the train in Union Station. I tried to get past the way it felt like a big, long advertisement and just listen to the words. It’s all about the law of attraction. (So, it isn’t exactly a secret.) But it felt good to be reminded about how responsive the universe is and to hear ingenious ways people draw the things they want. I feel like I need to devote myself more fully to what I’m creating in my life and in the world. I’ve been paying attention for a long time, redirecting my thoughts, banishing my fears. But listening to The Secret made me feel like I’ve been slacking in comparison, and like I want to find a way to truly believe. And because it is so focused on drawing what we want to us without addressing the complex issues that arise, it made me wrestle with how to fit this into my world view, how to reconcile “the secret” with my ethics, with the other ways the universe works. I’m not ready yet to try to put it all in words, but I know this internal grappling has been good for me. And I’m proud of myself for being encouraged by the possibilities instead of making myself feel bad for not being further along in my life, further along in this process. That’s how I’ve reacted in the past. But when I listened to The Secret, I glimpsed a lightness, a way of being in relationship to the world that I’ve always imagined. I tend to be too serious. But this glimpse made me think maybe I can learn to play.