My book manuscript sits on the stool, clean new printout, spiral bound. Now and then I pick it up, rub the clear plastic cover with one hand the way I used to stroke my cats. I cradle it against my chest with both arms, rocking side to side. I am in love with its fresh newness. I am in love with its story. I am in love with its existence after all these years. I am eager to make my final pass or two through its pages. But I am not doing it. I think that’s okay. I trust I’ll pick it up at the right time. I wonder if I’m avoiding, resisting, afraid to finish. And if I am, is it because I don’t want it to be over? Because I don’t want to have to grieve? Or is it because I am afraid of what comes next? Maybe all of it is true. But I am comforted to see it waiting for me on the stool. That feels like a good sign. “Soon,” I murmur. “Soon.”
My short story “Between My Ribs” is a finalist for the 2018 American Fiction Short Story Award from New Rivers Press. The 19 stories selected for their anthology are now with the final judge who will choose the first, second and third place winners in the next few weeks. I’ve been eager to tell you, my readers, wanting to share this sweet news, knowing you’ll feel glad for me and wish me well in this. But I’ve been shy about it, too. As I write, I feel big gratitude and quiet glee. But I’m not sure I can do justice to all the feelings this evokes in me. I feel thrilled and grateful and lucky. Of course. And I’m delighted my first publication will be with this university press who I’ve been so fond of for years now. But I feel afraid and sad and uncomfortable, too, and I can’t really point to why. I know I’ve been grappling with my discomfort over wanting to win. I feel honored to be chosen for the anthology, but I would very much like to win the contest, too. I worry about being greedy, so I wrestle with it. “Of course you want to win,” I say. “That’s only natural.” But it sits awkward in me, this wanting it to be more. But maybe I am only afraid of being disappointed if my story isn’t chosen for first place. Maybe it’s as simple as that.
But there is a deep desire in me to win. I want that recognition. I’ve held myself back in so many ways for most of my life, I think. I want to just step forward here. I want to lead this collection. So I’ll ask for your good wishes in this now while the judge is still reading our stories, still weighing his responses to each of them, still sorting through them for himself. I whisper my own prayers into the palms of my cupped hands. I can hear the house finch in the courtyard, and the mountains are clear this morning for the first time in months, keeping vigil with me. I kiss the center of my palms, fold them around each other, bring them to my heart. I sit very still, holding my hope. And then I open my hands, slow movements, the bird released to take to the sky. I grin, lightened, filled with the honor of this gift, at peace in this moment with whatever is meant to unfold next.
And thank you, too, for holding this in your own hearts with me. Just the thought of it makes me want to cry.
[Editor’s note: I don’t know much about Facebook, so this is clunky. But below is both their announcement of the finalists and my own section of that post when you scroll through all the photos. Here I am in my goofy head covering—I got the news when I was staying at the hostel and had to get a photo to them right away, so I took this with my iPad in my favorite chair outside. You can also access the post in their Facebook page here.]
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.