I walk south toward my old neighborhood with my lime green umbrella, carrying my shade. I got it in my head I might want to change the location of my writing retreat in November. So today I walk south to find David, who I knew from convivial impromptu gatherings of neighbors in the street at dusk, who has a beautiful inn there in a bend of the road where cicadas meet to sing, to see if this might be a spot for us. Two young people stare at me when I open the door to the lobby. They are cool toward me, stiff. David doesn’t own the hotel anymore. I leave and walk north, past David’s old house. It looks the same, bougainvillea spilling over the brick wall. I didn’t know how much I was looking forward to our brief reunion, that welcome and warm mutual regard. I feel tears pushing, but I know the sadness in me is bigger than this grief. What comes next is the way the young man and woman in the lobby seemed to freeze, how they believed I didn’t belong there, and now I do cry because I am weary of people making me feel like I am less than. (I think of people of color, then, about having moments like this all the time.) So, I carry my shade, and I carry my sadness, softer now, held low against my belly with kindness, and I walk north. I cross the creek bed and let the wildness of the ravine seep into me. When I am on the other side, the church bells begin. I stand in the shade of a big desert willow and listen to the bells ring the noon hour, umbrella dangling, eyes closed. In the quiet after, I hear a small bird calling in the willow. A cicada starts it’s song, and a breeze comes. I stand there for a long time, taking it in, the big gift of it all washing through me. Then I walk north again, toward home, carrying my shade.
Chris Erskine, one of my favorite columnists at the L.A. Times, was kind enough to reply to my email years ago. I remember he talked about how writing a column or a blog can be hard because we’re dependent on what happens in our lives. It was the first time I understood the contrast for me, how it moves between plethora and dearth. Because today I want to come back to those two hummingbirds in my living room whose visit I completely missed when I was having a difficult conversation on the phone the other day. And the last time I was on my bird walk, how I was focused on a woodpecker in a nearby oak, when the man beside me said, “Oh, look, a deer.” I glanced up only long enough to see him, to note his short antlers, and went back to looking at the woodpecker. After, I felt terrible. I went looking for the young buck but couldn’t find him. “I’m sorry,” I told the man later when I’d caught back up to the group. “I shouldn’t have let bird trump buck.” But two weeks later, I still feel sad about it, lying on my back in the courtyard after my yoga. I feel sad I was unable to transfer my attention in that moment. I adore deer. If I’d made a real choice, I would have stopped, breath caught in my chest, and watched the deer in wonder. It is still a grief in me, no ease in forgiving myself, in letting even small things like this go. It comes to me I may need to allow the sadness in more when it first arises. Maybe even one brief full moment would do the trick. Maybe an apology to the buck? I coax myself in letting go. I am only human. I’ll miss moments. I’ll mess up others. I’ll get good at forgiving myself. May I rejoice in the times I remember to stop.
I don’t know how to stop. When I’m alone, I’m better. When I bump my head on the kitchen cabinet or the third time I try to send an email it still doesn’t work, often I stop long enough to recognize the universe is trying to tell me something. Sometimes I can really stop and redirect myself. But with people it can feel impossible. It is a hot, humid afternoon. I am siting on the couch in the living room talking on the phone. I’m frustrated, impatient, and it’s coming through the sound of my voice. I’m trying to resolve something, unwilling to step back and let it go for now. Two hummingbirds fly in through the open louvers, but I am so wrapped up in my own disturbance, I don’t even look at them. Only a small, distant part of me even knows they have come inside. They spiral together, one glimpse from the corner of my eye. I moderate the tone of my voice on the phone, drop back to a kinder delivery, but I do not drop all the way back down to myself. Later, it makes me sad. The universe sent these amazing creatures on my behalf, tiny luminescent messengers meant to help me, and I missed the whole thing. I did recalibrate, and I’m glad for that. But I was so closed up in my limited experience I missed the magnificence of the moment. I didn’t drop down to bedrock, didn’t welcome those two little beings, didn’t touch awe or gratitude. But tonight I don’t berate myself. I touch the sadness, yes, the disappointment. But I remind myself we live in a generous universe. We get lots of chances. I’m just going to keep trying to pay better attention. I’m going to believe I can learn to stop even in the heart of my disturbance. I’m going to keep aiming myself for the next time, or the next. Or maybe the time after that.
How can I describe it? We have a short stretch of hot days. It tops out at 122 degrees. One afternoon I hear birdsong. I follow it to the bathroom, peek around the green towel hanging on the shower rod. There is an old, weathered female house finch singing on the open louvers in the little window above the bathtub. I am charmed but baffled until I realize she is coming for the air, both the swamp cooler and the A/C on, all the windows wide open because I can’t live with them closed. I am used to the hummingbirds coming to rest on the one set of louvers without a screen, but this is new. The next day there are four house finch in the bathroom window. One is eating sunflower seeds. Later, I am working on my laptop in the living room, and I hear them on the louvers not two feet from where I sit typing. They are hidden behind the purple curtains, maybe seven of them. How do I say what it’s like to have them so near? They are almost inside my home, a magical visitation, but practical and smart of them, too. It is a dearness to know they are so close to me on the couch, their songs, chirps, their tender small selves, all feathers and air, all sweetness and light, like tiny angels calling, like crossings from another world, like family. It is like nothing I’ve ever known before. When they leave, I wonder if they were a dream.
In my kitchen a collection of bottles sits on the floor beside the stove for a year. One clear glass gallon, three liters of thick glass, the palest green, one mangled plastic pint the perfect size for watering my Christmas cactus and the little squared cactus piece I found beside the road that day in Ajijic when I wandered out of town and found horses and a peace I didn’t know I needed. And four Wild Tonic bottles from when I was addicted to kombucha, their deep blue irresistible. In the courtyard this summer’s glorious batch of bird seed sunflowers lie flat across the edge of the cement for two weeks. I’m not sure why they fell down this year, but I suspect the skunks and their vigorous rooting for bugs in the night. I cut off all the dead or dying blooms when I clean out the bed, cluster all 18 face up beneath the bougainvillea, the different sizes and shades of green and brown, the black seeds peering out, waiting for the mourning doves, unexpected art. I find one small fresh blossom, bring it inside. I wash the dust off one of the Wild Tonic bottles, fill it with water, place the small sunflower inside, the leaves fluttering out. I set it beside me in the living room, the vibrant yellow of its little self, the vivid shine of the indigo glass. They feed me for days.
When I lie down on my back for chavasana at the end of yoga, the crescent moon is above me in the sky, tender and dear in the blue of late morning. I swim the breast stroke in my mother’s pool and watch the ridge when I swim north. It is the same ridge I gazed at from the living room when she was sick. I count my row of yuccas while I swim, though they are no longer in bloom. When I get to the bird walk the leader is speaking in his warm, relaxed voice. It is a big group today. I look around for my two other favorite people, but they are not here. I struggle with my disappointment, reach for the treetops, the sound of the leader’s voice, splashing water in the distance. I can still be here, I tell myself, still tap the deep peace of this place. I can still have a sweet time. In moments, I steady. Then as if conjured the woman I like so much from before is beside me, and I hear the man I like up ahead of us making jokes in his resonant voice. Later, I think about how the leader draws us together, about what a gift he is offering, maybe without knowing. I think about his warmth, his charming lack of ego, his quiet, cheerful knowledge. I think about what a rare bird he is. (Pun intended.) We walk together, rearranging ourselves, clusters and strings of us along the trails, a small, fluid river, California towhees, an ash-throated flycather, a black-headed grossbeak in flight, a green heron across the lake, the old oaks speaking acorn woodpecker. After the bird walk I sit on a wooden bench, a black phoebe sitting nearby, and then I walk by myself through the rose garden. I take slow steps, reluctant to leave. I can feel how even in such a short time, the place has changed me, helped me ground, settle, rest inside. This extraordinary world has worked its magic.
In my arms
old square woven basket
full of dirty clothes
I walk up the small road
and feel a rush of tenderness
On my way back home
dried cactus fruit lie in the road
and I look up to see
a house finch devouring a fresh one
at the top of the tall cactus.
She is almost inside the fruit itself.
I watch her for a long time
and her big delight
washes through me.