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.
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.