The first time I was blasted open by wilderness was when I drove through the northern state of Baja California. The winding two-lane highway with no shoulder, no evidence of humankind anywhere except the road, only open undulating desert and scrub brush in every direction. No dwellings, no telephone poles, no water until the cats and I rounded a bend and saw the Sea of Cortez.
I suspect there may be a kind of science to becoming whole—to moving toward healing, through healing, toward the me I want to be more often. Just like I believe there can be a way to write an essay that is a little bit like doing math, and not in a restrictive way, but in building it by pieces, using a structure for discovery that can become a kind of scaffold we hang things on. And things come because there is a scaffold waiting for them. Sometimes for me this process, this psuedo science, is about breathing, or about beginning again and again. Sometimes I make a sound, tiny and dear, that comes from some secret core of me, and I hear the love and the tenderness the sound is sending me.
[Editor’s note: piece from our spontaneous writing group—the words we had were breathing, beginning, science and sound.]
A moment after the house sparrow flies off with the big feather in his beak, a small male Cooper’s hawk swoops in and lands on the wooden gate, not two feet from where the sparrow sat with his find. This bird always stops my breath, the marvel of his arrival. Today he holds still, his strong talons clutching the tops of the faded redwood boards. He swivels his head, his sharp eyes taking in small movements in the courtyard. He makes the small chirping sounds I love, the ones that feel like conversation or commentary, the ones that make me want to speak bird. I talk to him through the screen door, and he tilts his head to the side as if he’s studying me through the glass. Then in one quick motion he glides below the edge of the gate and is gone.
The assignment, to imitate a voice
so I read her letters to a friend
letter after letter
as dusk deepens
and white-crowned sparrows
chatter in the courtyard
and go silent
I write my little piece
into the dark
so easy to fall into her voice
familiar and dear to me
for forty-three years.
I wake to cat screams in the courtyard. I clap and yell, still half asleep, kneejerk. The cat fight stops, low growls outside my sliding glass door. I go outside to break them up, a huge gray cat I don’t know, long hair all fluffed from the fight, his backside disappearing over the wooden gate. My neighbor’s cat, who I love, escapes behind the shed. I talk to her through the gaps between the wooden fence. She sits cleaning herself on the hood of her fathers’ car, all twitchy from the fight. I go back to bed, take her shock with me, sadness welling. I ache for both cats. I hurt for the gray, hope he isn’t feral, isn’t lonely. And then I cry for my own two little ones, four years dead. Later I sweep the courtyard. I hear a kestral calling, looping about a nearby palm. I can’t tell if something has disturbed her, or if she’s just having fun. She widens her arc and flies over the edge of my yard. I stand still, holding the broom before me, watching. And then I see the waning moon is watching, too, big half moon still bright in the morning sky. It’s one of those moments when everything feels all of a piece. I stand there until the kestrel flies away, and it is just the moon and me, and some subliminal sense of all of us right now. The sparrows across the road and the hedges they roost in. The fan palms jutting into the blue in all directions. The mountains and their close, steady, silent presence. After, I cut a dozen branches from my laden tecoma. I apologize to the bush, to the bees. I sweep my part of the little road, a big pile of loose tecoma and bougainvillea blooms, some dried and crinkly and some still soft and fresh, all those shades of yellow and magenta, from pale to vivid. I scoop them up, and it feels wrong to throw them away, this rich and layered art. When I go back inside, I leave the gray trashcan tucked near the tecoma on the street, the cut branches of still-fresh blooms sticking up and out, a big bouquet for the bees.
I’m launching online spontaneous writing meetings beginning next week! (Our test session was wonderful.) We will write together, read our work and share positive feedback. These will be through Meetup and use the Zoom videoconferencing software. They are fee-based events. RSVP at Desert Writing Group (Meetup site).
I’ve scheduled some upcoming meetings on Wednesdays (7 to 9pm) and Thursdays (11am to 1pm). I’m not sure yet if these will become permanent meeting times or if we’ll meet on a more regular schedule in the future. (For now, I am just building them around my existing commitments.)
I plan to offer “Process and Craft” sessions online, too. I’ll be sending out a survey for feedback on desired topics and time slots (as well as feedback on alternate time slots and frequency for the spontaneous writing sessions).
Thanks for reading, as always! :)
P.S. Spots are still available for the November writing retreat in Joshua Tree:
Remembering criticism is easy for me, but I’ve never been able to remember a compliment. I wonder if learning to acknowledge my victories will begin to change that dynamic. Maybe as I practice, I’ll build a kind of scaffolding, a structure that lets me store good things about myself. Arinna Weisman encourages us to appreciate our goodness. It goes beyond counting our victories, counting our efforts, our successes. She mentions things like holding the door open for someone, the small wholesome acts we do every day, maybe without thinking. Ian tells me Arinna made a joke about it, too, how if we need to we can even lower the bar (like I did with my incremental progress). She talks about how we probably didn’t steal anything, didn’t kill anyone today. Arinna urges us to feel into those kind or generous impulses of ours. She’s asking us, I think, to seek that fine line between wholesome and unwholesome pride. My unwholesome pride tends to be more knee-jerk, cocky, too quick to puff myself up in an offhand way, even for something I deserve to feel good about. I can feel that wisp of arrogance, that taint. (Sometimes, after, the universe gives me a small smack on the side of my head.) The wholesome pride for me comes in quiet. It eases in slow, this tender pleasure in a thing I’ve done that’s good, like a small papier mache animal or a piece of writing that makes me cry or the small black ant I rescue from the splash of water on the edge of my kitchen sink. Gratitude tends to wash in next, like a gentle swell in a quiet sea, or the treasured feel of warm cement on the first barefoot day in late spring. And a kind marvel, too, that I am allowed each small grace.