2018 American Fiction Finalist (22)

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.]

Announcing the finalists for American Fiction 17! We've sent the stories on to our finalist judge (Colin Fleming), and expect to announce the winners within about a month. Stay tuned for the announcement!

Posted by New Rivers Press on Thursday, August 16, 2018

Back to Myself (21)

The sun is unexpected the first day I walk to the beach. I plant myself on a huge driftwood tree, a big pine, I think, in its former life. A woman is painting behind me near the lagoon, easel set up on the sand. I hope I am not in her way. I eat fat green grapes and roasted pumpkin seeds, the shelled kind I bought at Trader Joe’s in San Francisco. I turn my alpaca sweater inside out and fold it into quarters to soften the hard curve of wood beneath my butt, the sweater made up of small colored squares that I found at that garage sale six doors up the street when I first moved to Palm Springs, the one the woman bought in South America. I bunch up wool socks I’ve discarded to cushion my ankles, and I do my sitting practice. After, I write in my notebook. All these things in sequence seem to ground me, and all at once I feel like I have finally arrived, my second full day here. When it happens, the soap bubble disappearing, popping me free, I cry quick, grateful tears. A boy ladybug skirts the back of my neck, skims the top of my head, settles at last on the edge of my mini iPad and seems to be cleaning his legs. He’s visited me several times since I’ve been perched on this tree trunk. I dream him to be the same ladybug, feel like he’s keeping me company. When I go to leave I find a place for him on the tree, a stubby knob, thank him for being my silent companion. On the walk back beside the lagoon I count 200 pelicans. I’ve never seen so many in the United States. Back on the paved road, I feel how much my body wants yoga, and I think about sneaking one of the mats outside. It sounds like just the thing to celebrate my return, to bring me all the way back. I keep walking toward the old cypress trees. I am sleepy and solid and so glad to be myself again.

Maybe We’re All Afraid—But of Different Things? (17)

I keep thinking I need to go to a big demonstration—for immigrants, for human rights—but when I hear recordings on NPR a part of me recoils. The chants feel too intense, too assaultive, beating against “them.” It isn’t what I want to be. It doesn’t feel nonviolent. People say Mother Teresa refused to go to anti-war demonstrations, but if we ever held a rally for peace, she said, she’d be there. I want that, a sea of humankind, all swaying and singing “Give Peace a Chance” (hippie osmosis from my childhood). What happened to Gandhi, to King? What happened to peaceful resistance? Can’t we make up songs to sing instead of screaming angry chants? Songs that connect us, singing together in the streets, on freeways or tarmacs, our voices carrying across cities, drifting across the sea. I read that in the wake of the havoc and vitriol President Trump scattered across Europe earlier this month there was a music festival in London. Paul Simon and James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt were all there. Each one of them spoke up. None of them named the president, but every one of them voiced messages of encouragement, messages of love. I’m comforted to know these musicians who I’ve loved all my life were over there, counterpoint to our president’s chaos and hatred, letting people know there are other voices in the United States. Voices that want the world to know we aren’t all ugly and mean. We aren’t all afraid of women, of Muslims, of all the dark-skinned peoples of the world, or foreign tongues, or English spoken with a Mexican accent. We aren’t all afraid of gay marriage or body ink or people in wheelchairs. We aren’t afraid of learning to include all genders, all sexual preferences, to stand up for the rights of children and for a woman’s right to choose. What we are afraid of is losing our humanity inch by inch, of letting what binds us all together be whittled away little by little until it’s too late. What we are afraid of is allowing another holocaust. I wish I’d been in those quiet crowds at that music festival, singing along, soothed. I wonder if James Taylor sang “Shed a Little Light“?

[Editor’s note: Looking at my title now in the light of day—”We Aren’t All Afraid”—I think I might need to change it. Because maybe we ARE all afraid. We’re just afraid of very different things. And some of the same ordinary things, too.]

Lullaby (15)

Mammals need three things when we’re young: warmth, touch, soothing vocalizations. I think of lullabies I can’t remember. (Were there lullabies?) I think of the funny nonsense sounds I used to make to my cat Boo, lots of made-up words with muted m and u sounds, my way of loving him out loud. I make those same sounds without thinking to the hummingbird when she alights in the guayaba tree ten inches from my face. I think she decides I’m safe because after listening to my noises she moves to her soft little nest I didn’t even know was there, three branches over. I string fuchsia ribbons to keep her safe with notes attached that read “Temporary closure—hummingbird.” Later, back inside my trailer, I hear odd little sounds coming through the bathroom window. I step into the bathtub, creep close. A female goldfinch is perched high in the guayaba making quiet scrijjery sounds I’ve never heard before. I think of the mammalian need for vocalizations. Maybe birds need them, too. Maybe the goldfinch is making these soft noises for the hummingbird eggs. I remember the pretend German songs I used to sing to myself for hours while I crouched on the walkway in front of our Tujunga house dreaming up little make-believe worlds amid the succulents. I feel a dearness for my young self and a rush of grateful pride that at age four she knew just how to soothe herself. (When did she forget?) A whir of wings brings me back. The hummingbird settles on the branch beside the goldfinch, facing her. They sit together like old friends, and then the hummingbird flies back to her nest. I am tired and tender, all opened up. I stand in the bathtub for a long time listening to the goldfinch song. I feel like I belong, all of us woven together by this lullaby: the goldfinch, the hummingbird, the two beings in her tiny eggs, and me.

Riding the Swells (14)

I breathe in what I need. I breathe out compassion. I am sitting on the floor. My eyes are closed, but I can feel the other women in the room with me. We breathe in and out together. They are buoys in my ocean. We ride the swells of our breath. The teacher’s voice guides us, goes quiet, guides us again. I concentrate. I drift. I feel overwhelmed. I remember the teacher telling us we can close when we need to. I lay my folded arms across my raised knees, touch my forehead to my forearm. My neck is stiff, tight. I curve but do not let go. Then I do, letting my arms cradle the weight of my head. I feel the release all along the length of my spine. I open my eyes. My face is in a cavern. I see the cluster of crystals against my chest, the white linen of my shirt. Light seeps in from the bright desert afternoon outside the windows, and the blue of my cotton pants tints the air. Now that I am here inside this soft-light cave, I no longer need to close. The teacher’s voice soothes me. I make no effort to understand the words, but I sense them sinking in. I rest in a way I may have never rested before in a group like this. I am inside my cavern, but I am part of all the women in the room. I am a buoy now, too. We ride the quiet sea together. I think, maybe I can take the memory of this place with me. Maybe I can resurrect it when I’m in the midst of disturbance, let it give me access to compassion for myself. Later, I remember the comfort of my cavern, the hushed softness, the quiet light like stained glass windows, like a cathedral.

Midsummer Day’s Dream (13)

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.

Building Sweetness (10)

I started walking again last Tuesday. I go early in the morning, walk along the creek path. I’m trying to train myself into summer mode, but I’m behind on my sleep. I’m proud of myself, though, and hopeful. I walked almost every day for years before it fell away, and I’ve been wanting to return to it for a long time now. I’m hoping to get up even earlier, be out by the creek bed closer to the first real light. But I want to be kind to myself in this, too, so I am not pushing, and I’m going to play it by ear, let myself go back to sleep when I need to, trust I can ease into this. This morning I wake to the waning moon calling to me in the lightening western sky, birds alive in distant trees. I roll over and go back to sleep. When I walk later, I stop on the footbridge, taking it all in, grateful for this swathe of wildness in the middle of town. I close my eyes, and when I open them I see an animal in the gully. At first I think it might be a deer. I know it must be a coyote, but it seems impossibly thin, and its walk is odd, choppy, un-canine-like. I watch it ramble, climb to the dirt path, slip off into the side streets when a person approaches. I say metta for her without thinking. May you be safe and free from harm. My chest aches. I keep watching for her on my way home. As I walk, I stop worrying. Instead, I dream up the world I want us to live in. I picture a world where we are all safe, where we all have everything we need to thrive. I picture a world where there are systems in place to help. I can make a call. A group of people fan out to find the coyote. They clean her up, feed her. (She was shaking her ears, itchy all over, so skinny it hurts.) I imagine food drops up the canyon for them, once a day, picture animal psychics explaining they can come to eat, to have their wounds looked after. I dream I am one of them. I look into the eyes of “my” coyote. You’re not alone anymore, I say. I outline the routine in my mind, the daily food drops, the tending of wounds. She twitches one ear, stares back at me for a long moment, wary. She wriggles once, all tender hope. Then she settles in to eat.

[Editor’s note: I can’t be certain, but I think I owe this interlude to how The Secret has affected me, to becoming even more aware of when I can just build good pictures, can reach for hope, dream up sweetness in the world.]