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.
The third assignment I write for the MOOC doesn’t sing, but I feel better about it than the two that came before. The requirements are specific, a scene with three female characters with a fourth who comes along to “thwart their desires.” It’s the first time in this class I’ve had “real” characters come, and the fourth woman who arrives doesn’t behave at all as I’d imagined. It’s been a while since I’ve had characters acting on their own, and I love that part of writing fiction. My scene with these four women happens on a train, and the next assignment needs to take place after a catastrophe of some sort (either internal or external), so the train lends itself to that. I lie in bed this morning dreaming up bits and pieces of how I might continue with these women on the train. I see the two-story house in Oakland, watch Rachel working in the garden, hands in the dirt. And it comes to me that dreaming up fiction might be just as compelling as worrying about money or family, might take me away from being present with the same obsessive flair. But what a way to not be present. Dreaming up fiction beats focusing on my fears, no contest. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thrilled to have fiction floating through me like this. It makes me giddy and grateful: for this free class, for my lighter work load, for the cooler mornings that let me lie in bed getting to know these women in my head instead of having to be out early sweeping the patio, feeding the birds, before the brutal heat descends. The southern sun sends blocks of yellow light across the wall of my room. I love winter mornings in this trailer home, look forward to a long string of them with childlike glee. All in a rush I feel the longing for all the years I might have been churning out fiction. I glimpse how it could feel to be old and know I have characters in my head who I might never get down on paper. I tally up the years. Could I have 30 years still ahead of me to write? More? I want them, every one of them. So I will need to make good use of them. I will need to savor every character, relish every story like a good, rich stew. And bring as many of them as I can onto the page before I die.
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.