My bike is stolen, and life gets dreamlike. I walk outside and see the empty black metal bike rack, the cut lock lying on the grass beside it. The police dispatcher tells me it could take five or six hours before an officer would get there to take a report. I start walking to the police station. Halfway there the universe sends me a bus driver who stops for me, unasked, unheard of, in the middle of the block. When the officer at the front desk is gruff and makes me feel like I’m foolish to even bother filling out the form, I begin to cry. “What would have been nice,” I say, “is if someone had acknowledged this is a loss for me.” The woman behind the glass softens then, becomes kind, explains how the serial number will go into a database. I head back out into the hot afternoon, a bubble of hope in the palm of my hand. I loved that bicycle. I had her six years, my pearl green bike, my Celery Girl. She was pretty and sturdy and loyal and carried me all over town, to Trader Joe’s, to yoga, to Sunday meditations. I rode her beside the creek singing “I Could Have Danced All Night” at the top of my lungs. I miss her already. I walk to Jack in the Box, drink diet Coke and eat tacos, unheard of for me now, my ancient comfort food, refuge, too, from the Palm Springs summer still outside. I give money to a homeless man charging his cell phone beside the door. I walk across town shaking my cup of ice. I think: I am lucky. I have a small savings. I can buy a new bike. I think: how will I ever be able to leave it anywhere again? I think: I am lucky I didn’t have to be afraid. There wasn’t any threat of violence. It didn’t happen at home. I don’t get angry. I feel sad, vulnerable. I stop in the middle of the sidewalk, my cup in my hand, my face wet with tears. I think: I should have had a friend I could’ve called today when this happened. I walk home from the grocery story with a small bag of bird seed slung over each shoulder and a watermelon cradled in my arms, bikeless. The next day it seems like a dream. I forget three times I don’t have a bike anymore. In the late afternoon, I stand in front of the mirror for a long time and cry. “I love you so much,” I say, hands pressed flat against my chest. “So much.” I smile, look in my wet eyes. I laugh and watch my face grinning back at me. I know something is happening, some deep bedrock thing that got opened up in me when I saw that empty space where my Celery Girl was supposed to be, her mangled lock lying in a lonely coil there on the grass.
Around me, everyone is awed by the splendor of the eastern Sierras, but I am in shock again and again. Everything is ailing: the air, the pine trees, the scrub brush. Even the deer feel different, thirsty, the yip of the coyotes desperate. The only place I don’t feel pain is when I soak naked in hot water in the center of the caldera, the wide plain and rocky mountains spread out in all directions. We go there for the Perseids, then lie on our backs in the middle of the night on picnic tables at Mono Lake fighting sleep. The heavens grow odd, the Milky Way a huge space station, a gigantic metal insect. We write each morning for hours at our campsite, in among the pines. A chipmunk appears beside my notebook on the picnic table, his deep brown eyes intent on my face, alight with curiosity and kindness. The peace is tangible, surprising. I am not used to living in a group, don’t quite know how to keep my center, yet the peace reaches me in still moments. An osprey perches on a bare tree at the top of our hill and calls again and again in a high voice I don’t recognize. We read our work out loud in the late afternoon or just after dinner. I may be the most present then, ready to mirror back the parts that speak to me, to swim inside and come back with something I can put in words about what I see happening in the writing. I like reading my own work, notice I am not afraid the way I used to be. I am grateful for the feedback, too, these faces in the fading light, these voices who have grown dear to me. I want to stay here always, writing pieces of my book, reading them aloud. Leaving comes in pieces, too. A wistfulness before our time is over, leaving the wilderness, the long hot stretch of the central valley, arriving back in Oakland, taking the train home the following day. Now our time together is a dream, and I am not yet quite awake again in my ordinary life. I miss these people, miss our campsite home. Being alone is lonelier, the way they are with me but not with me, ghosts now in my Palm Springs home.
I make myself a little crazy when I travel. There are so many things I need to do before I go, and such a clear end point. I’m used to being able to move my undone tasks to tomorrow. In the time before my camping trip, my writing workshop, I keep tensing up. Then I notice. I relax my shoulders. I exhale. I send up little wishes and tell myself all will be well (and all will be well, and all manner of things shall be well). The prep I still need to do for my fall classes is only part of it. I bought an automatic bird feeder, and I fret about it arriving in time from Amazon. I have to cut my fingernails, my toenails, shave my legs. There is still some fiddling I need to do in my courtyard garden, adjusting timers, moving the pot of aloe vera that won’t get watered by my mister when I’m not here, adding an extra line to the honeysuckle. Should I tie the umbrellas down? I decide and un-decide eight times. I mentally pack and unpack my bag, juggling priorities. I’m taking the train, so I need to pare things down. In between, I think about seeing the Milky Way splashed across the night sky, of writing through a lazy mountain afternoon, of laughing at breakfast. Even the delight of burrowing into my checkered alpaca sweater I found at that garage sale in my old neighborhood and almost never get to wear, the thrill of cold air against my face, fresh from a Palm Springs summer. I hear my house finches chattering though the open kitchen window, and I know I am so lucky in both my little home and my upcoming trip. The green sarong flung across the window to block the afternoon sun is flapping in the breeze. I get a goofy grin on my face. I’m going on an adventure.
Today I wonder if my memoir is complete crap and needs to be abandoned. I decide to make a list of the things I want to write about again for this new manuscript, this third round. I make a list, but it isn’t very long. I like the first piece in the book, so I decide to keep it. I find a zillion pages I don’t like anymore. I delete them. I end up removing two thirds of the book. It reminds me of years ago, sitting on the bed at my place on Avenida Ortega when I began culling the original manuscript, making piles of yes, no, maybe. There was almost nothing in the yes pile. This feels the same way. Most of the writing seems dull, boring, lifeless. No one would want to read it. I’m not even interested anymore. How could anyone else be? How could this manuscript have been one of nine finalists for a national book award? Did they receive terrible submissions? Was mine never actually in the running, only chosen as a matter of formality, better than even worse writing? I don’t want to be mean to myself, but I don’t evade the questions. And I don’t know the answers. I wonder if this is natural and right, that after a period of time we become more objective, a sluice to separate the sand and gravel from the gold. I wonder if I am throwing away good work. I wonder if I need to leave this book behind. I know enough to know I am not the first writer to feel this way. I tell myself it is too soon to give up. I point out I have kept more of the manuscript than last time, but this argument is weak. I am only certain I want to keep a handful of the pages I’ve saved. The rest are maybes. I’ve written two new pieces, but they don’t sing. That doesn’t mean the fourth one won’t, I insist, or the seventh. I think again about turning this into a work of fiction. I decide to keep going, to trust myself to know what is true. I recognize fear, a clenching in my belly. But I’m pretty sure there is excitement rolled up in there, too. Maybe when I get inside the writing it will open up. Maybe it will fly. I think about what an odd and funny beast writing is, what quirky creatures writers are. I notice I can breathe again. I send up quick prayers for lift off, for flight.