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.
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.
Hot air, brace against it. Remember to breathe, let it embrace you instead. Clear air today, the San Jacinto mountains so close you are sure you could stretch out your arm and pluck a jagged rock from the nearby ridge. More room on the sidewalks in summer. The city leans back, like vacation in a small seaside town. Palm Springs, I love you. I kiss you—you kiss me back, warm breath against my arms, my legs. I close my eyes and lift my face, inhaling you.
[Editor’s note: One of my ideas for earning money in a joyful, heartfelt way now that my income has shifted is to write spontaneous prose poems downtown for donations. This is my first effort for one of the business owners there. I told her she could pick a topic or I would just write what comes to me. She chose Palm Springs. The way she said the name it could have been a lover. I didn’t do it consciously, but I see now I have used her voice here. It was quick and fun, and by the last line I was fully “in it.” After, I took a picture of it with my iPad. I am torn about that part. Is it okay to want to keep them for myself, too? Or do I need to let them be gifts going out into the world without me? I look forward with good hope to writing more. Maybe I can find a way to do them one afternoon or evening a week? Two?]
Off and on since the fall, in fits and starts, I return to working on the novel I began a decade ago. I am determined to finish it, still convinced I need to complete it before I can move on to embrace a new big writing project. Like pulling teeth, I revise and edit the existing typed pages. It seems important to bring the writing current. During November’s National Novel Writing Month I write new pages by hand and type them up then promptly lose them. I found them last week—they sit beside me now, await revising and editing. I cull three notebooks full of scribbles and scraps, recycling most of it. Two ancient loose sheets, folded, and two notebooks each open to a page I may want to save sit here, too, a worn red ribbon that held things together resting on top of the pile. I will type these last bits up next week. I want everything clean, no more mess for this next stretch, not knowing what I have, everything in one word document. The manuscript itself will be unwieldy enough, I think. I’m pretty sure I’m writing scenes that will never make it to the book itself. But that part I don’t worry about. I have faith in that part, certain there can be no wasted effort in this, only added depth if I am lucky. And it’s how I find out what’s going to happen—in the writing itself. Lately, I find myself daydreaming about the story. There is a sweetness in that, too. I stare at the pile and pray away my ambivalence, that my resistance might melt and undivided I immerse myself in the writing. And even as I send off that wisp of prayer I feel a gentle tug, a tiny, eager spark. I wonder what my characters are up to now.
Here is the little Associated Press newsclip that got picked up in newspapers and posted on their websites. I also have a couple of pieces started about how it has all felt, but they still need to sit for a while. I have not yet fully digested the experience. But I didn’t want to wait any longer to tell you, my dear readers. I will say when I see the 857 entries it makes me gulp. And when I read about the community college professor who won the contest, I get a little thrill. It’s me, I think. It’s me.
[Here is the link to an online version in case you are relying on a screen reader: http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2015/07/25/us/ap-us-hemingway-days.html?_r=0]
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.
When I am posting the little flyers I’d made for the drop-in writing circle, I send off little hopes and prayers with them. May it be sweet and safe, I ask. When Laurie tells me she felt safe in our first circle, I hear that echo, send my thanks. And before we begin yesterday, the universe gives me a bit of a jolt I am pretty sure is tied to that same prayer, that same hope: sweet and safe. We’d opened the back doors of the hall, moved the big round table in front of them, sun and air beside us. It is just before eleven. I light a candle in the center of the circle. Laurie and Sharon are sitting at the table, and I’m standing beside it. A woman marches across the long hall, plants herself near Laurie’s elbow.
“Are you coming to join us?” I ask her.
“No,” she says. She stands where she is, a soldier at attention.
“Well, did you think you wanted to watch us?” I ask.
“Maybe,” she says.
“Well,” I say, “I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that.” I’d thought about this earlier. We were not looking for an audience.
I haven’t finished my sentence when she does an abrupt about-face and marches back across the hall. She has her arms at her sides, and she is flapping her hands back toward me as she walks, as though she can swat away my words, keep them from following her.
“Um, what is the flapping of the hands?” I ask. And, “Are you really not going to talk to me?” She keeps walking away, keeps flapping her hands in my direction. “I’d be happy to have a conversation with you about this,” I say.
She reaches the door at the other end. “Maybe,” I think I hear her say as she walks out again.
We are all a little stunned. I have to check. “Was I inappropriate in my response?” I ask. They say I wasn’t. I have to shake it out of me then, a kind of invasion I feel in my body. I wave my arms around in the air above the table. “Whoosh whoosh whoosh,” I say. A different flapping of hands, I think now. As best I can figure, this odd jolt is a message. I take it as encouragement and a reason to trust. Maybe it says we can keep our space safe no matter who comes along. And maybe it says, “Certain beings will be led away.”