Every day in June I worry the summer will rush past me. I am afraid I won’t do the writing work I want to do, that I will blink and stand at the end of the summer with nothing to show for it. But today I discover a cucumber in my garden. I pause in the courtyard, the cucumber heavy in my palm, my other hand on the door, one foot on the step, about to abandon the hot outside world for the day. I take in the sprawling cucumber vines, the sturdy volunteer sunflowers, the tamarisk that insists on living in one of my pots. I love every blossom and every leaf in this garden. Every cricket, every lizard, every bird. Inside, I peel my cucumber, eat fat slices with pink salt. I relish every juicy bite. After, I sit on the couch and dissolve all my fears about the summer. Instead, I picture myself writing like mad, immersing myself like never before. I close my eyes and feel the next eight weeks, a long expanse stretched out before me, like summer vacations used to feel on the last day of school. I dream each day stretching, too, the time from morning to summer night endless like when I was a kid, moving from one imaginary world to another, never rushing. I dream the days ahead in flashes. Writing in my notebook in the courtyard in the early morning. Laughing on the phone, napping in the worst heat of the day, dreaming, loving every minute. Typing on the couch in the early evening, laptop on my thighs, delicious sips of cold oatstraw tea, mockingbird song through the open windows late at night. I dream a big pile of work at the end of the 59 days, and me—happy.
The psychic told me to listen to The Secret. I didn’t want to do anything she said, but I didn’t want to just dismiss it, either. What if this was a direction from the universe, the silver lining in her cloud? I looked the book up online. It was nothing I would ever gravitate toward on my own. I wrestled with myself, decided to buy it. I wanted to be open to what the universe might want to tell me. I listened to The Secret while I washed the dishes, when I rode the bus. I listened to it sitting on the train in Union Station. I tried to get past the way it felt like a big, long advertisement and just listen to the words. It’s all about the law of attraction. (So, it isn’t exactly a secret.) But it felt good to be reminded about how responsive the universe is and to hear ingenious ways people draw the things they want. I feel like I need to devote myself more fully to what I’m creating in my life and in the world. I’ve been paying attention for a long time, redirecting my thoughts, banishing my fears. But listening to The Secret made me feel like I’ve been slacking in comparison, and like I want to find a way to truly believe. And because it is so focused on drawing what we want to us without addressing the complex issues that arise, it made me wrestle with how to fit this into my world view, how to reconcile “the secret” with my ethics, with the other ways the universe works. I’m not ready yet to try to put it all in words, but I know this internal grappling has been good for me. And I’m proud of myself for being encouraged by the possibilities instead of making myself feel bad for not being further along in my life, further along in this process. That’s how I’ve reacted in the past. But when I listened to The Secret, I glimpsed a lightness, a way of being in relationship to the world that I’ve always imagined. I tend to be too serious. But this glimpse made me think maybe I can learn to play.
I’ve lost my knack for fitting things into my day. I don’t know if I need to worry. I find myself tallying up the things I’ve done, as if I now need to be productive even on a Sunday. I wonder when I’ll be living again in an organized, tidy home with clean windows. Today I feed the birds and sweep the courtyard. I cook black-eyed peas because they’re on the list of legumes I am allowed to eat. I don’t want to push myself. I’ve pushed myself for decades. Surely that’s enough. I pick off all the deadish leaf twigs from the Mexican birds of paradise, and the happy bush remaining lifts me up. Such a small thing. In between my little chores I read the free book I found at the library, Queen of Dreams. I leaf through the Sunday paper. In the “Travel” section there’s a photograph from the country of Malta that makes me want to walk to the edge of the old city, stand with my hands on my hips, eyes across the sea. In the tiny laundry room at my trailer park I start the water in the washing machine, pour in the soap. I walk outside to let it fill before I add my clothes. My sandals crunch across the gravel until I am shaded by a fat, short fan palm in a neighboring yard. When I am out of the sun, I turn south. And there is the waning half moon to greet me and a hawk making slow circles in the sky beside it. I watch until he disappears. I think, maybe everything really is okay. Maybe I am doing enough, being enough, just as I am.
I read Sylvia Boorstein’s Happiness Is an Inside Job more than once. Toward the beginning, she describes how she talks to herself when she gets startled. Sweetheart,” she says, “you are in pain. Relax. Take a deep breath. Let’s pay attention to what is happening. Then we’ll figure out what to do.” I have read this before, but one day it clicks in. I become startled so easily and so often. I begin practicing with this. I try it out right away when I get a disturbing email from my work. It keeps me from spinning out into stories about what I’m being asked to do, mostly how it’s “not fair.” (They still arise, but I don’t dwell in them.) It makes so much sense to me. There is a bit of the, “Duh!” about it for me. I have been trying to learn how to not be reactive to people, to reach for kindness. But of course I need to re-establish my connection to myself first before that becomes possible. I practice the sweetheart approach again and again. I am so excited, certain I have found a way to interrupt my autopilot after all these decades. Later I discover I am still not very good at this in the heat of the moment when other people are involved. Maybe I need to learn to catch it still in the startle, in the fear. Maybe when I get to the anger it’s too late. I am deflated. But my optimism ekes back in. I know I’m not giving up.
Something odd keeps happening to me. It is unexpected, feels a bit unreal, almost dreamlike. Again and again in recent weeks I am visited by sadness—swift, keen, quick to pass. I am washing dishes. Or I am walking to the bus stop, scarf over my bent head, concentrating just to move through the hard heat of a July afternoon in this desert town. It isn’t even as if something else sparks a thought of you, the more ordinary path. And I can’t tell if this might have begun because my book, this story about the two of us, is close to being finished, this third time a charm. (Touch wood.) Or if it might be only that the time has come all by itself, a natural ending, a kind of completion of big loss, even a final letting go. I know I began to write this book much too soon, have said this before. In what is happening now there is this flicker of feeling, this sense that now is when I might have more properly begun this book. Only now. Or maybe a little bit of time from now, when this time, too, has passed. What I do know is this sudden sadness comes, piercing, bittersweet, as though I am only just now losing you for good after all these years. It makes me want to buckle at the knees, fall to the sidewalk, cement hot against my shins, quick sword thrust of sharp grief. But at the same time, in a way that makes no sense to me but that my body seems to understand, the grief is fleeting, even quiet, softened, like the regrets of our youth at the end of a long and happy life, riches beyond deserving.
I’m engrossed in preparing for one of my classes. I sit for hours with my laptop making choices again and again about how to bring my course over into this new online learning system. Each time I need to make a small decision, I have to try to figure out how it works, explore the possibilities of the software first, then choose what seems best. Nothing is simple. But I have given up lamenting being forced to switch over. Because I am inside it now, fully engaged, no longer frustrated by the limitations of the software, only fascinated by the process, the details, the decisions. All day while I work the rain comes, steady and sweet. The birds are loud outside the window. Now and then I remember to stop to listen, look up, savor their boisterousness. In the early afternoon, I hear a soft skrittery sound. A hummingbird is sitting on the open louvers. She is out of the rain. I talk to her, touched and honored. I hope the warm air from the heater wafts over her perch. At one point I realize how good it feels to be immersed in my work like this. But I want to go for a walk, see how full the creek bed is. In the not quite dusk, I get a glimpse of the mountains when the clouds part, and I know I’ll regret it if I don’t get out there. I tear myself away from my laptop, pull my wild fuzzy magenta scarf over my head. I take my lime green umbrella, lock the door behind me. I refuse to bring my flashlight because I want my pockets free. The umbrella feels like enough of an encumbrance. Later I realize I didn’t even bring my key, but I don’t care. I stand beside the creek, the clean air cold on my face, and watch the water move. I startle a cottontail. I walk to the foot bridge where the falling water gets loud, then away again, the frogs and the wide moving water always beside me. I dream of snow falling on our mountains as I walk. It’s dark when I get back, and the light in the living room makes my home look warm and inviting. I dig out the spare key, glance at the courtyard in the light from the three paper solar lanterns in a row along the shed. Everything is glistening in the wet dark. I feel lucky and grateful for my home, for knowing I get to be warm and dry, get to have a good dinner. Before I go inside, I pick two handfuls of mustard greens for my soup. I even have a good book waiting for my Friday night. It feels like the ending of an ordinary day in an extraordinary way. Thank you.
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.