I sit on the side of my little road and watch the day arrive. I can’t see the eastern sky from my courtyard, so I bring my metal barstools outside the fence (so I can put my feet up), and I carry out the wobbly wooden stool with care where the candle will sit and which might house my tea but these days sports coffee with half and half. I try to be quiet, not bump into things in the dark, aware of my neighbors. I stretch out my legs and settle in as the sky begins to lighten. I face southeast and watch Venus rising, have the honor of a mockingbird singing and displaying at the top of the electric pole before me. I warm my hands on the cup, sip my coffee, close my eyes sometimes when his performance is especially melodic or visually impressive. I feel bad when I get lost in thought and realize I have missed part of his concert or this coming of the day, even though I love the chance to daydream, too. When I am both present and lucky I get to relish his incandescent song and the glory of the morning splashed against the sky. Today there are echoes of deep pink spread across the southern clouds, stopping just before they tint the San Jacintos. Wide stretches of sky between the clouds become that otherworldly aqua color the twilight minutes often bring us here in the desert. We’ve had an extraordinary spring, no doubt due to the extra rain the gods granted us. For weeks the mockingbirds in my neighborhood sang without stopping, day and night. There seemed a kind of frenzy in it, the sheer numbers of singers and that ceaselessness I had yet to experience. Now in the middle of May, our desert spring is over, but this one mockingbird still comes to the telephone poll to serenade me. I lean back in my front-row seat and savor his song. The neighbor’s calico cat trots by on her early morning rounds, surprised but not deterred by my presence in the road. She is not interested in me, intent on her own pursuits, so I return to my morning concert. The waning moon and Venus stay close, too, for a long time—companions in the sky.
I climb the black metal table for the second time. The first time, weeks ago, I peered over the edge of the nest at two tiny perfect hummingbird eggs nestled side by side. Today, I see a black gangly shape lolling against the inside of the nest, beak to the sky. I am afraid he is dying. The wild bird rescue woman is so reassuring on the phone I almost cry. I see mama hummingbird zoom in and out. I blink twice and the two younglings are jostling each other beside the nest. Then they are gone, though this morning I think I spy one at the feeder. How does that work? Do they need to fan out very far from home? Are there rules about this? But oh. For one more day I catch glimpses of them perched in the guayaba tree, nowhere near the nest. Now I still check. I talk to the empty guayaba just in case they are nearby. (They are hard to spot.) The empty nest makes me ache even as I am so glad they made it. How many times did I worry? Now that they are gone, my fingers itch to dismantle the nest. I want to feel the way it resists or the way it tears or gives way against me. I want to smell it and to know if it is as soft as it looks or strangely rough because it is so strong. Of course I don’t do it. What if they can use it again? And how could I destroy the nest, so beautiful and alluring, poop and all?
It would be sacrilege, I think, to harm the nest. I remember the dream I have where hummingbirds are coming in through the windows and making nests inside my home. I worry about them being trapped inside during the night. But the nests they begin to build against the white walls or nearer the ceiling are more like hives than hummingbird nests, mud-wasp-like, a little creepy except the birds themselves are flitting about dispelling all possibility of anything sinister, so these are just an oddity, it seems. One set of my louvered windows in real life don’t have a screen, and sometimes a hummingbird does fly into the living room with me. They are usually quick and curious, and I’m thankful they tend to leave quickly, too, before I have time to worry for their sake. Since my dream, though, when they come and they poke their curious beaks toward the southwest corner of the ceiling, or they investigate the crevice beside the facing window, sometimes I wonder what it would be like if they did live here. The imagined mess makes me cringe. I would truly abandon any meager tie to civilized living. But think of the potential joy, too, all those incandescent little ones buzzing in and out or asleep nearby in the night. What if the approaching dusk meant I needed to be sure they were all accounted for, so I could close the window before full dark, so I could help to keep them safe here through the night?
I’ve taken to counting us in the courtyard. The other day there were nine mourning doves and one goldfinch. I made eleven. I think this counting thing’s because the white crowned sparrows left. I don’t want to believe they’re really gone. And I still miss my own small furred ones. But I’ve had so many encounters with the feathered of late, too. There is my hummingbird mama and her two little ones in the guayaba tree who are a surprising, tender thread woven through my days. At the park I have a long conversation with a grackle in a nearby tree and watch a volunteer from the animal shelter walk a big dog that stirs my longing. I hear a hawk call. I look up to see him land in the tree behind me. I don’t know what kind of hawk he is, but I have an uncanny feeling when I hear his voice and watch him settle in the branches of the tree. Oh, yes, I know you. I’ve known you for a long time. Later I wonder if this hawk has been nearby for years, or if he is someone I have known before in this life or another. Oma comes to mind. Oh, and in the courtyard I look up to scores of egrets flying northwest across the late dusk sky. Such a gift, this glancing up, the chance to watch their silent progress. And this long flurry of birds reminds me of the dream where I stand with a handful of people in a big clearing surrounded by trees. All kinds of birds circle the clearing, a steady, patient flapping of wings. A blur of movement, rush of air and feathers. Someone calls out. It feels like they’re waiting for us to do something. Or maybe we’re all waiting together. I’m wearing old hiking boots and holding my wooden walking stick loosely in both hands. I turn to look over my shoulder at the birds. I spot the belly of a red shouldered hawk as he passes, just out of reach if I stretched my fingertips up to him. I spy white crowned sparrows bobbing in and out, and house finch, too. I see a Eurasian collared dove, big and gangly by comparison, the slower moving bear to their darting squirrels. John says he has roadrunners who live in the tree in his back yard. They are great darters, too. In the dream, we are an odd host, but we are gathered and steady. Hawks, crows, northern flickers, hikers, songbirds, people’s dogs and kids weaving in and out, noses on other things. We are an unusual line of defense.
I’m doing sitting practice on a Thursday morning in March. All the windows are open. I can hear the low hum of the swamp cooler in the back room, feel puffs of air against my skin. When I open my eyes the bougainvillea in the courtyard catches my heart. I close them again, take a long breath in, a long breath out. I feel a familiar tightness in my belly, like it might be messing with my breath. I stay with the feeling, sink deeper. All at once I know this part of me has been afraid for 59 years. The knowing floors me. I’m heartbroken for her. Her dedication humbles me, decades of being afraid on my behalf, wanting to keep me safe. I talk to her. I tell her how sorry I am she’s been afraid all these years and I didn’t know. I invite her to let go. I’ll be afraid again, I say, but you no longer need to hold it all the time. I am bowled over by her sheer strength, to have held this fear all my life. I cry, cradle my belly with my palms, my forearms, both sad and grateful for her sacrifice. I’ve known my fat was a way to protect myself, but this deepens my sense of this. Was my body trying to cocoon this ball of ancient fear, buffer her, maybe, so her efforts might be just a little easier? It’s okay now, I tell her. We’re safe here, I say. We’re safe here doing sitting practice beside the open sliding glass door, the house finch chattering in the courtyard. (Well, safe barring maybe an earthquake, I think.) I tell her she can come on duty now only as needed. You don’t need to do this all the time, I say. I don’t know if she can unfurl just like that, but I vow to remind her again and again. I am still made dumb by what she’s done, this gallantry, the immensity of this feat. It’s okay, I tell her again. It’s okay to rest now in between, I say. Rest, the way the deer’s body relaxes when the danger’s passed, the way she returns to ease, nibbles more grass. Rest, the way the white-crowned sparrows drop down one by one from the bougainvillea after I walk by, going back to eating seeds from the ground, talking music. Rest, I tell her. Sleep, even, if you can. I’ll be right here.
If I were told to create a scrapbook of our springtime in Palm Springs I would include a photograph of the full moon setting in the west this morning, its newly-waning glow poised above the mountains just as the light began to find the day. I’d bottle the air I woke up to last night, how it felt to sit in the center of my bed breathing in the scent of lemon blossoms. Wow, I thought. Inside my home! In the middle of the night! What a gift, I thought. I’d add an audio file to the scrapbook of the grackle who’s calling out this morning from the telephone pole. I’m in the courtyard filling the tray feeders, seeds sliding through my fingers as I listen. It’s his second morning here. I’ve never had a grackle near my home before. It feels like wishes coming true. It makes me want to drive down the western coast of mainland Mexico again, south from Topolobampo on a morning in early April, watching the world begin to show itself around me as I drive along the carretera in the last of the dark. I will park my car off the highway beside the tiendita after the toll booth. I will buy warm tortillas and beans and salsa for breakfast. Even before I get out of the car I can hear them, like nothing else I’ve ever heard before. I stand beside the road turning in a long, slow circle. I see big black birds in every tree, lines of trees that stretch along both sides of the carretera, no cars at this hour. I can see the sea off to the right. The air is wet with it, but the morning sun is warm. Sunlight glints off black feathers, making the birds shine between the leaves of the trees. It takes a little time for it to sink in as I stand there, even though I’ve been here before, even though I’ve sought this out. Every tree is filled with grackles, hundreds and hundreds of them as far as I can see along the road. The air is a cacophony of their calls, these wild, wacky, exotic, zany, happy bird noises. They fill me with their exuberance, their vibrant, lusty liveliness. I am in love with these great-tailed grackles. I am in love with Mexico on an April morning by the sea. I could stand here forever.
[Editor’s note: This piece was written in response to a writing prompt from Bryan Chohen’s book Four Seasons of Creative Writing.]
Three weeks ago the mockingbirds began to sing. When I’m lucky I hear one singing nearby in the middle of the night. I’m hoping he comes closer. Last Wednesday when I walked out of my class at the Annenberg Center the air smelled like heaven. I stopped, eyes closed, taking in deep breaths of it. The scent was so familiar, but I couldn’t recognize it. I opened my eyes to the lemon blossoms in the tree above me. Every year I forget how strong the fragrance is, how it finds you everywhere, even when you can’t spot a tree. The sun’s been moving north at a steady pace, all stealth until now when you see it’s almost halfway through its journey. It sinks behind the mountains as I write, facing me straight on now. I’m sitting inside with the swamp cooler on and the sliding glass door wide open to the courtyard. My neighbor’s tree, the one who hosted goldfinches like ornaments all winter, has budded into leaf. I think: don’t tell me we don’t have seasons here. I think: don’t let it bend you out of shape, Riba, annoyed now at all those imaginary people who like to claim we don’t. I’m doing my sitting practice facing the mountains, and my mind is crazy busy. Yesterday, too. I wonder what’s going on. I’ve been looking into rooms, wanting to begin to teach a writing class, give a workshop, lead a writing circle. I’m even fantasizing about offering a retreat, too, maybe in Joshua Tree. This is where my mind zooms today again and again while I’m supposed to be meditating. Could we get a cluster of their studio cabins all together? Could people bring their own food, plan for a pot luck or two? Can I keep it affordable? Do I charge a fee for my efforts or let people offer dana? Do I teach craft or just guide us in entering in? I am gone so long during the meditation that when I wake up and come back I feel the urge to be angry at myself. My laugh surprises me instead. But I do wonder what’s going on, wonder if I should be worried. I sit for the last minutes with my eyes open, taking in the laden bougainvillea branches arching across the wooden fence and the mountains behind them. I hear a mourning dove calling from the roof of my trailer, the first call of the year. I cherish the longing and the full, rich sweetness of his voice. Maybe, I think, I don’t need to worry about my busy mind. Maybe I’m just ready to spring forth with the season. Maybe now I get to burst into bloom.
I’ve been eating meat again. And drinking coffee, too, though not every day. I am more buoyant, more outgoing, with the caffeine. But I don’t think it’s good for my heart, and I don’t know how to “right” myself, how to become thrivingly healthy so I don’t need the difference that boost makes. And I don’t want to be eating animals, or eating dairy from unhappy animals, not just for my pleasure–but I’m not stopping yet. I can’t even really speak to why I’m doing it. Is it a way to recover from disturbance? Or an instinctive try for balancing my body chemistry? This morning I ate breakfast sausage wrapped in squishy Oatnut bread, a flashback from my twenties. Last night I ate Cheetos for the first time in years. This afternoon, I have a small bag of Doritos waiting on the table beside me, but for now I’m sitting on the couch, holding a piece of labradorite in my left hand and gazing at my mountains. Liz, the woman I met on my last Amtrak journey, gave me this stone. She found it and cut it and polished it by hand. I rub my thumb across the polished face of the stone, and I think, oh, I’d really like to write a blog post today. It’s getting close to the end of my blogging year, and I still have two more weeks that need an “extra” post in order to reach 58 posts while I am 58. As soon as I think the thought, the birds scatter in my courtyard. I hear a dove bump against the trailer in the panicked exit, and I cringe. I lean forward, scanning the courtyard through the screen door, looking for the hawk. She’s perched on the wooden fence, but hops down and explores the yard. She’s gorgeous and regal and oh so alert. I never want to see her eating one of “my” birds, but I still always wish her a full belly when I see her. It’s hard to be a wild one in this world.
Because the hawk came when I thought about writing a blog post, I pull my laptop to me when she flies away. But what do I write? Who wants to hear how I am eating animals even though I don’t want to be? I wrote once to one of my favorite columnists, Chris Erskine, at the Los Angeles Times. He pointed out the obvious when I lamented sometimes having trouble coming up with ideas for my blog. “We’re dependent on what happens,” he says. I know sometimes I have tons of blog ideas marked in my notebook, and I have to choose between them. But for a long time now I feel like there’s been a dearth. I reach for anything I can grab. Chris Erskine’s column runs in my favorite part of the paper from the whole week, the “Saturday” section. It hasn’t been there for at least the last two weeks. Today he is back, and he tells us about his wife’s cancer diagnosis. The bottom drops out of me as I read. I’ve pictured him on a family vacation, not at the hospital. I don’t want this to be true. I don’t want this to be “what happens,” what emerges in his column. But life turns on a dime. I know that. His wife takes the brunt of some of his humor, enough so that I’ve wondered about their relationship. Today he writes they “are a team again.” I think about their Valentine’s Day, both darkened and brightened by this new life they’re navigating together. I yelled at the phone repairman today. Then I apologized, and he was gracious enough to accept. We ended well. I helped him tape a small piece of aventurine to his bluetooth device for protection. (It gives him headaches.) It wasn’t navigating a cancer diagnosis, not something that changes your bedrock, quakes your world. But we made our way through a rough spot together, two strangers, and we ended up feeling good about each other. It’s something to celebrate, I think, each small victory. I’ll send a card to “my” columnist, too. And I’ll wish for him and his wife Posh to find all those little moments every day to cherish, to draw close in. And for you, too. May we all treasure every little bit of time we can remember to treasure as our year comes round again to the day of love.