How the Dead Return to Us (10)

Being a writer can be kind of weird. And writing a blog or a newspaper column can be even weirder. I once had an email exchange with one of my favorite columnists for the L.A. Times who pointed out to me we are dependent on what happens. It sounds crazy obvious now, but I’d never put it together before. There’s always the interior world, too, of course. But when we can “hang” that inner world on a scaffolding of outer events, when there’s enough happening both within and without to make connections between them, the possibilities seem endless. This is my eighth year for writing a blog, and I seem to either have endless “Blog?” markings on the pages of my notebook, or I have a dearth of ideas. It feels like a long time since the floodgates were open. Yesterday, I was so glad to have something happen I could write about. But then the weirdness peeked around the corner. I meant to show my ugly bias arising even in the midst of it all. But a sneaky voice hisses at me after I post. “It sounds like you’re trying to pump yourself up, like you’re trying to make yourself look good.” Does it? Really? I only wanted to tell the story the way it happened, so glad there was a story to tell. Maybe, I think, I should’ve explained more about the connection I was making to the day I found out my father was dead, how this time I got to be the stranger who wanted to help. That day all those years ago I let the policemen inside my father’s apartment and wait outside on the concrete landing. One of the women from the place next door comes out and asks me if there’s anything they can do, anything I need. “Do you have any beer?” I ask. (I remember feeling foolish asking.) I’d already found out he was dead. I’d already asked the policemen if there was any beer in his fridge. (That would remain a lingering regret, that he died without any beer in the fridge, without any cigarettes. What was I thinking?) Instead of bringing me a beer on the porch, the woman brings me inside, sits me at their dining room table, hands me an icy bottle of St. Pauli Girl. She and her two roommates gather round. They tend to me through that long afternoon, the lazy Memorial Day holiday, 1985. And then in the fall of that year I dream about my father. “What are you doing here?” I say. “You’re supposed to be dead.” I remember the shock of that first dream. I must not have learned yet how the dead can return to us, living again and again in our sleeping dreams.

Finding Our Way in the World (50)

(chalk? pastel?) drawing of a heart, red on blue

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.

All We Are Saying (49)

colorful drawing of a peace sign

I was ten in 1968, an only child. None of my parents were activists. I was imbued with the spirit of the time but not a part of it. I am a child of the seventies. I grew up with duck and cover drills, crawling under our desks at school and covering our heads (as if this might actually help us in the quake of an atomic bomb). We grew up knowing Social Security may not be there when we reached 65, knowing the world could be destroyed anytime at the press of a button. Maybe it was in the face of this I became an eternal optimist, or maybe it was simply in my nature. But optimist or not, I have lived my whole life afraid that one day I would need to put myself in front of people with machine guns to stand up for what is right. And I didn’t want to have to die like that. In recent years, I’ve shaped a softer possibility for myself. Maybe I don’t have to die. Maybe I can speak up, do the right thing, without risking my life. But our current climate in the United States has awakened all my earlier fears. On the way home from my mother’s last week I met a woman named Liz. She and Zoë and I met at the Fullerton Amtrak station and shared the three seats at the back of the bus on the last leg of my journey. We talked nonstop for hours. Liz told me they threw grenades at the protesters in North Dakota. She said one woman had her arm blown off. She said another had one of her eyes put out by a rubber bullet. She said they used water hoses on the protesters in the heart of a northern winter. I have not researched this, but I’m inclined to believe her. Today between work needing to be done I Googled “Sacred Stone” and signed letters for my U.S. senators and my congressman to stop the pipeline. I called Palm Springs City Hall and left a message in hopes of finding out what I might be able to do to make sure we declare ourselves a sanctuary city. On the way home from Ralph’s before dark I start singing, “Give Peace a Chance.” I want to be able to stand up for what is right, but I don’t want to have to die for it. I’ve heard people are being “planted” to stir up trouble where the intention is to practice nonviolent resistance. The only thing I can think of in my head if I am there when this happens is to just start singing. So today I sing all the way home from the grocery store. It’s a warm evening. People look at me through the open windows of their cars. No one waves or gives me any indication of being with me, but it is my hope a happy sense of that comes to them moments later, after I pass by. When I walk through the trailer park, I imagine my song touching people through the open sliding glass doors. I know some people might think I’m crazy or even wrong. But I don’t stop. In between, I laugh. I am all welled up with the love of it. The waxing moon is rising in the east. It will be full here on Friday afternoon. I sing to the moon as I walk. And I get good chills along my arms, my legs. I am embarrassed and joyful, both. I wonder what my neighbors think as I get close to home. I hope some of the people who hear me, whether they know me or not, are touched by my heartfelt song. “All we are saying,” I sing, “is give peace a chance.”

Bird by Bird (38)

I like to play with my titles here. Song titles, famous expressions. In blogging it feels like we have more license to amuse ourselves. Here I am stealing the title of Anne Lamott’s book about writing. I saw it on my shelf just the other day. It seems to fit what I want to try to write about tonight, the bit by bit approach. One day when I was in my third year of teaching English I knew I needed to begin writing for myself again. I was building an online class on the fly, in addition to my other classes, and every Sunday I stayed up all night to get the next week’s materials in place for my students by Monday morning. I had no time. But I knew I didn’t want to get to the end of my life saying I’d always wanted to be a writer. So I decided to write eleven minutes a day. I sat on my stone porch in Hopland every morning and filled a page in my composition book. I don’t remember how it happened, but characters emerged. I began writing a novel. I don’t know if it was beginner’s luck or some quirk of timing or state of mind, or maybe because the characters were so crisp and so alive for me then, but I would just sit down and “enter in” to the story every day for those eleven minutes. I thought that’s how it worked, thought I would always be able to immerse myself in that way. But today I feel light years away from that, my imagination rusty, my hand creaky, my mind less agile, less willing or able to stretch, take leaps. So, yesterday I began a commitment to address a new writing prompt from Two Sylvias Press every day in December. I’ve done two now, and like my assignments for my recent MOOC, they are nothing to write home about. But I’m hoping I can quiet my critic, just keep practicing this act of letting go that used to come to me unbidden. It’s a tightrope act, finding my balance between reaching for this hope, writing with this goal in mind, and not going rigid with it. I think to soften I may return to reading Natalie Goldberg. Or maybe I’ll read Anne Lamott’s book again. In her story, when she has a big report to write for school, her father tells her to just take it “bird by bird.” So, I’m going to take this prompt by prompt, and wish for but not insist on limbering up in the process, pray for magic but not try to hold it in my fist. And in the meantime, the birds keep showing up, too, signposts still along my way. But that is a story for another day.

Love Still Trumps Hate: All Evidence to the Contrary (36)

Tuesday dread settles over me like a heavy coat, lead in the pockets. I fall asleep with a candle burning and a ceaseless prayer. Please don’t let him win. Wednesday I wake up and cry. I am surprised it hits me so hard. After, I do my sitting meditation. I practice metta. I don’t try to love Trump. I don’t try to love the people who voted for him. But I can hold them anonymously when I say metta for all beings everywhere. I can be inclusive of them in my practice because I believe we all deserve to be safe and free from harm. I believe we all deserve to live with ease and well being. We all deserve to know both deep joy and deep peace. But I don’t try to single them out for this, as you would in a traditional metta practice. I don’t want to try. Not yet, at least. Not now. Right now I am still too raw. Right now it is all I can do to keep my fear from grabbing me and sprinting off. Will he begin deporting people, pulling apart families? Will he try to take away our right to choose, strip away gay rights? I hear he doesn’t believe in global warming. Will he undo everything good people have fought so hard for for so long? I tell myself people who voted for him wanted to overthrow the government. It’s an understandable desire. But how could it not matter that he hates people of color? Women? Foreigners? How the hell could it not matter that he bragged about grabbing pussy, claimed Mexican immigrants are criminals and rapists? How can there be no lines drawn for the kind of person we even allow to run for president, much less elect? I cringe to think of all the white women who voted for him because their husbands told them to, women who have internalized the misogyny Trump embraces. (And there, perhaps, is my truer entry into compassion.) I know racism and misogyny and xenophobia never went away. But I never expected almost half the voters in this country to exalt them. I’d hoped just the fact that Trump was in the running was enough of a backlash. That it meant we were making progress in this world of ours. Now it looks like it will have to get worse before it gets better. So I’ll pray it doesn’t get too bad. I’ll pray it doesn’t last too long. I’ll pray this is how we expose and exorcise this kind of hate. And I’ll cling to being grateful and proud to be a Californian. On Wednesday morning when I look at the nice little west coast block of us, of Clinton states—California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington—I can’t help but wonder. Could we just secede? But maybe that’s the coward in me talking.

Hawk Talk (31)

On the first day of the Joshua Tree retreat in July, Beth asks us why we are here. Then she asks us why we are really here. “Now,” she says, “why are you really, really here?” Each time to my surprise a deeper answer comes. Later in my courtyard this same kind of layered knowing unfolds for me. I am writing in my notebook about my new idea to begin a second memoir, one that is just about me and not about my big lost love. I dream of committing to writing one piece for this new project each week in addition to my blog post, how making choices about what goes into the book and what goes on the blog might be confusing. (This is already happening to me with the book I’m working on now.) Without knowing, I forget to keep the pen moving across the page. I think about how I have aimed myself at this book contest deadline against all logic. And since the winner won’t be chosen until next summer, how maybe I’ll send the manuscript to Graywolf Press, how I’d like to send it to whoever published All We Know of Love, as well. So maybe I won’t wait for the contest results, only send up a prayer for the best right thing to happen. I drift on to the idea of entering contests again more often, writing new short pieces, too, while I work on my novel. And in the middle of my daydreams a Cooper’s Hawk swoops in. The doves scatter in forty directions. I duck in my chair, shoulders hunched to my ears. The hawk tries to land on the bottom ledge of the wooden fence beside the gate, but she can’t find purchase. So she launches herself back into the air, fanned tail almost close enough to touch, and sails over the roof of my neighbors’ trailer. Everything goes silent in the courtyard. But inside I am whooping. This dramatic whooshing in big strong wings feels like a sign from the universe telling me to keep writing, keep entering contests, begin pursuing publication. And I hear even more than this big “Yes!” beneath the wingbeats. Under them I hear another yes that says this is where your heart leads. This is your passion, your path. Follow. Follow. I am incandescent for a day, this validation shiny and new inside me. And then if I am honest this message feels like a promise. Keep writing. Keep trusting. Everything will be okay. More than okay. This is the right direction to aim yourself. We will help. It makes me want to cry.