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’ve decided to offer a writing retreat this summer.
Thursday July 6th (late afternoon) through midday Sunday, July 9th
at Joshua Tree Retreat Center
Joshua Tree, California
(about 45 minutes from the Palm Springs airport)
What we’ll do
Our focus will be on spontaneous writing a la Natalie Goldberg (or Peter Elbow) with several different writing prompts for short timed writings. We’ll write together and read our work out loud, letting the alchemy happen. We’ll do some sitting practice, too. Afternoons will be in silence. And I’ll bring in a few tidbits about the craft of writing, as well. People will be encouraged to take care of themselves and bow out of any activity they may not feel comfortable with. But we’ll create a supportive and expansive space for each of us to try our wings as desired.
Costs for early registration
I will post registration details ASAP, but I’m eager and excited (and a little afraid!) and wanted to tell you all right away. Tentative cost for early registration is $400 for the retreat program, three nights shared lodging and three vegan meals per day (possibly with some eggs and dairy available on the side—not sure yet).
More details and to register
I’ll post a copy of the flyer as soon as it’s available. In the meantime, if you’d like more details or would like to register at this early registration price, please call me at home weekdays (Pacific Daylight Time): 760-327-9759.
Thank you for reading this! And if you know anyone else who may be interested I would so love for you to pass this on (and perhaps the flyer when it’s ready, too). Oh, and if you happen to know of any writing sites or retreat sites or someplace you think I might advertise this (for free or at low cost), that would be really helpful, too. Thanks again.
Holding the dream of magic here!
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.
Take me, I want to say. I am the drug. Choose me. Not pancakes. Not T.V. Not empty flirtations with women you have no real interest in. Take me. I can get you high. We can make each other stoned. No fuzzy head. No hangover. Only rich, juicy currents down through our toes. Only loud bursts of laughter, warm chests, always reaching for the other. Old souls, familiar and still glad in our depths. Never boring. Never bored. Two only children playing, quiet in the corner. Whole worlds we used to make. Now we can play together in this one, savor everything. The bee buzzing the pomegranate. You hold one bright red seed between your teeth, grinning at me. The quick shared glimpse of the swallow’s tail. The way the wind comes in the fan palms, how we can hear it begin three blocks away before it arrives in our courtyard and chases us inside. Take me. I am the drug. Choose me. Make me stoned on you. “Choose you?” you say, one eyebrow raised. “I thought I already had.” You did, yes. Do it again. We choose over and over. Choose me now. Or I’ll choose you.
[Editor’s note: Another Two Sylvias Press advent calendar prompt, to begin with the Salvador Dali quote, “Take me, I am the drug . . .” and to use two titles of his paintings.]
Today’s my father’s birthday. He’d be 83. (Funny, isn’t it, how we do that with our dead?) When I was young, I always spent Thanksgiving with him. Maybe he somehow got that in the divorce. I remember his wife Jeannie and I laughing in the kitchen of their Sylmar home, black olives on the tips of all my fingers. Later, I brought my braided garlic French bread and tomato pesto soup to a Thanksgiving celebration at Colleen’s house in Sunland when we were young adults, and once in Sacramento, just the two of us that day, giddy on our pretend wine. And even later, Thanksgivings with Meri and her first husband, six or eight of us at the kitchen table playing Pictionary and rolling in the aisles. But decades ago it became a day I looked forward to spending alone. I like to let the day unfold, knowing there are three more days that follow, all without work, without plans. For years this was often my first day off in the fall semester, and even now these four days stand like a beacon, the blessing of a real break. I love knowing I can do what I feel like in each moment, the hours stretching like magic, like summer days in childhood, knowing I have no deadlines, no need to be ready to leave the house at a particular time. People often don’t understand my choice, and even now there’s a small voice in me who asks, “Is there something wrong with me?” For seeking solitude on a day when most people want to gather? So I’m making peace with this now, trying to trust it’s okay for me to make this choice. I turned down a chance to be with people I love today, nearby at Chimney Ranch. When I think of them together, part of me longs to be in their midst. Maybe it’s because I’m an only child, but today being alone calls me. It’s how I am able to have a sustained connection with myself, with this earth. I want to keep moving through the quiet of my day, the happy bird sounds in the courtyard, the soft sweater against my skin, the persimmons ripening on the blue plate my mother made, the changing slant of the sunlight as it moves with the day. I want to relish the bougainvillea blossoms, expand at the sight of the San Jacintos before me. And later in the afternoon I want to walk for hours in the stillness of this day, returning again and again to my glad and grateful heart. May those same moments of remembering to return come to you, too, to each of us over and again, today and always.
I am taking my first MOOC (massive open online course). It is presented by the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. The first week before I wrote my own assignment, I read an incredible piece by one of the other participants. In a thousand words she’d built a whole compelling and creepy dystopian world, and made me care about the mother and daughter who lived there. It made it hard for me to write my own assignment. I couldn’t stop comparing my own writing to hers. It troubled me. I loved her piece for itself and for her sake, for the evidence that she’d so clearly entered in, had experienced the magic of fiction unfolding. It thrilled me for her. But I let it make my own writing feel pale and weak. It couldn’t stand up to hers. I am rusty at writing fiction, and in the first two assignments that magic hasn’t happened for me yet. But I haven’t given up, so that is something to feel grateful for, and maybe a little proud, too. I am being a writer. And it reminds me, too, that being a writer does not often match up with the easy, romantic image we have built. It means writing and even submitting work that is only the best we can do in the time allowed. It means envying a classmate for writing “so much better” than we can. It means slogging through a writing task when our critic keeps yelling at us to stop, to give up, to throw it all away. To take up house painting instead. But it also means getting to study craft, to listen to other writers talk about how they write. It means having a chance to practice even if it doesn’t always feel good, knowing it is all part of the writer’s journey. And it means always having the pleasure of reading the work of other writers, of being moved by their words, waking up. I read another piece by a classmate in this MOOC that will stay with me always. Her story doesn’t just lead me into the reality she builds or give me a glimpse into her characters. It changes my way of looking at the world. Hers is a conversation between two sisters in the spirit world visiting their family’s Day of the Dead altar. I’ve always thought about all these people making the offerings themselves, the favorite foods, the photographs. I’ve built my own altars, talked to my own dead. But until I read her piece, I never pictured these gatherings in the spirit world, how they might look forward to this event all year. Now I can see them whispering in anticipation, gathering to watch the altars being built here in our world. It brings things together for me, makes this a complete whole in a way it never was for me before. So, thank you, fellow writer. Y feliz día de los muertos a todos.
I fall in love with chanting at the retreat. Our first sitting practice each day begins at 6am. The windows are all still open before the heat comes. I have a big screen door at my back. The desert is quiet in the early morning, the soft, steady cheep cheep cheep of a verdin, the rarer song of a house finch. Sometimes I hear the wind moving outside the zendo, or the louvered curtains knocking against each other. The teacher rings the bell three times at 6:45, and we begin to chant. There are teaching chants, monotones with dips and rises. Following them uses all of me, keeps me present. Sister Dhamma Dera has written songs, too, and plays for us on a beautiful wooden stringed instrument laid across her lap. I like the singing best, and watching her concentrate, her sweet heart leaping and shining. Singing with all these open-hearted people reminds me of Girl Scout camp. I come home with one chant in my head though I don’t know if I have the melody right. I Google it and discover it’s one of the most common. What I remember from our chant book is the “jewel of compassion.” I want that—for myself, for others.
I sing it when we leave at the end of the retreat, and the woman driving isn’t sure we are going the right way on the dirt road. She’s afraid of getting stuck in the sand, of dying in the desert, and I think heading out without knowing the directions is only asking for trouble. So I sing “Om Mani Padme Hum” because I don’t know her very well, and it’s all I can think of doing to get out of the way, to be of any help. Now, the chant comes to me in odd moments, its steady rhythm silent inside me. I sing it out loud after yoga when I’m riding my bike to go vote. I pass a man standing at a bus stop underneath a big tree. When he turns toward me I draw in my breath. His face is blackened by the shade, his eyes big, desperate. My heart goes out to him, but I am shocked, too. I hadn’t expected what I see in his face. I don’t stop. The next day I see him outside the grocery store peering in the open doors. “Can I get you something to eat?” I ask. He nods. I have to get him to tell me what he’d like. “A sandwich and a soda?” he asks. When I return, he thanks me. “I’ll pray for you,” he says. Twice. I thank him. I am glad to see him again, to have this chance to respond to what I saw in him the day before. His eyes seem less bruised today, less haunted. I hope it’s true. I sing the chant out loud again on my way home, my voice quiet and sure, the air warm against my skin as I ride. “Om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum om mani padme hum.”