Being a writer can be kind of weird. And writing a blog or a newspaper column can be even weirder. I once had an email exchange with one of my favorite columnists for the L.A. Times who pointed out to me we are dependent on what happens. It sounds crazy obvious now, but I’d never put it together before. There’s always the interior world, too, of course. But when we can “hang” that inner world on a scaffolding of outer events, when there’s enough happening both within and without to make connections between them, the possibilities seem endless. This is my eighth year for writing a blog, and I seem to either have endless “Blog?” markings on the pages of my notebook, or I have a dearth of ideas. It feels like a long time since the floodgates were open. Yesterday, I was so glad to have something happen I could write about. But then the weirdness peeked around the corner. I meant to show my ugly bias arising even in the midst of it all. But a sneaky voice hisses at me after I post. “It sounds like you’re trying to pump yourself up, like you’re trying to make yourself look good.” Does it? Really? I only wanted to tell the story the way it happened, so glad there was a story to tell. Maybe, I think, I should’ve explained more about the connection I was making to the day I found out my father was dead, how this time I got to be the stranger who wanted to help. That day all those years ago I let the policemen inside my father’s apartment and wait outside on the concrete landing. One of the women from the place next door comes out and asks me if there’s anything they can do, anything I need. “Do you have any beer?” I ask. (I remember feeling foolish asking.) I’d already found out he was dead. I’d already asked the policemen if there was any beer in his fridge. (That would remain a lingering regret, that he died without any beer in the fridge, without any cigarettes. What was I thinking?) Instead of bringing me a beer on the porch, the woman brings me inside, sits me at their dining room table, hands me an icy bottle of St. Pauli Girl. She and her two roommates gather round. They tend to me through that long afternoon, the lazy Memorial Day holiday, 1985. And then in the fall of that year I dream about my father. “What are you doing here?” I say. “You’re supposed to be dead.” I remember the shock of that first dream. I must not have learned yet how the dead can return to us, living again and again in our sleeping dreams.
I cross the street behind my home on my way to the dumpster with my little bird seed bag of trash (stapled shut) and to get yesterday’s mail. I pass a woman in the street crying. “I just found my dog online,” she says.
“Oh good,” I say. I think he was lost and now she’s found him. I think she is crying from relief, from gladness after the long and terrible scare.
“No,” she says. “He’s dead.”
“Oh, no,” I say. Without thinking I open my arms to her and she walks into them. How can you not be held at a time like this? The world is dropping out from underneath her. This is a dog who snuggled up to her every night, head on the pillow beside her.
“She didn’t move all night,” she tells me. How do you recover from the gaping loss of that kind of daily intimacy? Not quickly, I think. I urge her to be extra kind to herself. I warn her not everyone will understand how devastating this is. I think of Pilar when her horse died. It’s only a horse, people said. How could they? And then, more gently, a reminder for compassion: they must have never known the kind of love that comes to us like this.
She has tatoos. I don’t recognize her. Unfairly or not, I can’t help but wonder if she’s connected to the drug dealer’s home, an endless source of dismay in our little trailer park. But none of this matters in the moment. There is only this devastating, fresh grief and a desire to meet it somehow. There are only warm arms and eyes and one heart going out to the other. I remember how blessed I was the day I found out my father was dead and his next-door neighbors took me in while I waited for the coroner and then for the people from the cremation place. This doesn’t come close to what those women gave me through that long afternoon, to how tenderly I felt held by the universe in them that day 32 years ago. But I am glad I walked across her path. I hope she felt met, and maybe in those few minutes together just the tiniest bit less alone with the crashing of her new, terrible grief.
Twenty-nine years ago today, on April 18th, 1988, I quit smoking. The year before, I tried to quit eleven times, but this was the first one that stuck. It ran unbroken thirteen years and still holds sway over most of these past three decades. Because of this I notice April 18th out in the world. It’s a red number day for me. Isn’t April 18th the day Harprita had to have all the potions decocted and the twenty-seven soft blue bundles wrapped and ready for the ship in the novel I’m reading? And isn’t April 18th even a day in Angels in America? Is it the San Francisco earthquake, maybe?
I lean back in the sturdy metal chair in the courtyard, the big round cup of hot tea cradled in my hands. And then I remember. April 18th is the day you and I first laid eyes on each other on that southbound 80 bus. It’s the day I went home to hear that message on my machine from a possible sperm donor. That’s why I know the date, why I was able to trace it back later when I was halfway in love with you and the morning we first saw each other on the bus counted. When I think of you and I that first day at the back of the bus, I can feel the awkwardness between us. Because I think you scowl at me, I avoid looking in your direction and try instead to adjust to sitting in the stupid side-facing seat. I fuss and fidget some. I sigh in exasperation. I never stop being aware of you reading the paper nearby.
Didn’t our eyes meet again later on that first bus ride? Wasn’t it a less guarded look, over the tops of your glasses? Did we both look away? I think I may have watched you reading, too, that morning, chewing on your bottom lip, not looking at me. I know we talked about it years later. You wanted me that morning. I didn’t have a clue you felt that way then, me and my misinterpreted scowl. It still makes the corner of my lips curl to remember. You wanted me the first time you laid eyes on me. There’s a surprising satisfaction in knowing this. I am the cat licking cream from my paws.
I’ve taken to counting us in the courtyard. The other day there were nine mourning doves and one goldfinch. I made eleven. I think this counting thing’s because the white crowned sparrows left. I don’t want to believe they’re really gone. And I still miss my own small furred ones. But I’ve had so many encounters with the feathered of late, too. There is my hummingbird mama and her two little ones in the guayaba tree who are a surprising, tender thread woven through my days. At the park I have a long conversation with a grackle in a nearby tree and watch a volunteer from the animal shelter walk a big dog that stirs my longing. I hear a hawk call. I look up to see him land in the tree behind me. I don’t know what kind of hawk he is, but I have an uncanny feeling when I hear his voice and watch him settle in the branches of the tree. Oh, yes, I know you. I’ve known you for a long time. Later I wonder if this hawk has been nearby for years, or if he is someone I have known before in this life or another. Oma comes to mind. Oh, and in the courtyard I look up to scores of egrets flying northwest across the late dusk sky. Such a gift, this glancing up, the chance to watch their silent progress. And this long flurry of birds reminds me of the dream where I stand with a handful of people in a big clearing surrounded by trees. All kinds of birds circle the clearing, a steady, patient flapping of wings. A blur of movement, rush of air and feathers. Someone calls out. It feels like they’re waiting for us to do something. Or maybe we’re all waiting together. I’m wearing old hiking boots and holding my wooden walking stick loosely in both hands. I turn to look over my shoulder at the birds. I spot the belly of a red shouldered hawk as he passes, just out of reach if I stretched my fingertips up to him. I spy white crowned sparrows bobbing in and out, and house finch, too. I see a Eurasian collared dove, big and gangly by comparison, the slower moving bear to their darting squirrels. John says he has roadrunners who live in the tree in his back yard. They are great darters, too. In the dream, we are an odd host, but we are gathered and steady. Hawks, crows, northern flickers, hikers, songbirds, people’s dogs and kids weaving in and out, noses on other things. We are an unusual line of defense.
I dream I am on the phone talking to Mami. “Thank you for going underwater with me,” she says. I have a dim memory of holding hands at the edge of a lake, bending our knees, submerging ourselves in the cool, shallow water. It makes me want to do it now as I write, remembering the dream. To come up together sputtering, scattering drops of water across the quiet laketop, our laughter loud across that stillness. Her voice on the phone comes out choppy and odd, like the words are hard to grasp, then hard to push out. “I’m going to miss you,” she says later in a small voice. I am incredulous. What, when you go? When you die? I can’t believe I am scoffing her even in the dream. Because I am shielding myself? Because I am not being present? In my mind I am thinking, I will miss you. I wish I had dropped down, met her where she was. I wish I’d told her how much I would miss her, how terribly so. I wish I’d told her I won’t know how to be in this world without her.
If I were told to create a scrapbook of our springtime in Palm Springs I would include a photograph of the full moon setting in the west this morning, its newly-waning glow poised above the mountains just as the light began to find the day. I’d bottle the air I woke up to last night, how it felt to sit in the center of my bed breathing in the scent of lemon blossoms. Wow, I thought. Inside my home! In the middle of the night! What a gift, I thought. I’d add an audio file to the scrapbook of the grackle who’s calling out this morning from the telephone pole. I’m in the courtyard filling the tray feeders, seeds sliding through my fingers as I listen. It’s his second morning here. I’ve never had a grackle near my home before. It feels like wishes coming true. It makes me want to drive down the western coast of mainland Mexico again, south from Topolobampo on a morning in early April, watching the world begin to show itself around me as I drive along the carretera in the last of the dark. I will park my car off the highway beside the tiendita after the toll booth. I will buy warm tortillas and beans and salsa for breakfast. Even before I get out of the car I can hear them, like nothing else I’ve ever heard before. I stand beside the road turning in a long, slow circle. I see big black birds in every tree, lines of trees that stretch along both sides of the carretera, no cars at this hour. I can see the sea off to the right. The air is wet with it, but the morning sun is warm. Sunlight glints off black feathers, making the birds shine between the leaves of the trees. It takes a little time for it to sink in as I stand there, even though I’ve been here before, even though I’ve sought this out. Every tree is filled with grackles, hundreds and hundreds of them as far as I can see along the road. The air is a cacophony of their calls, these wild, wacky, exotic, zany, happy bird noises. They fill me with their exuberance, their vibrant, lusty liveliness. I am in love with these great-tailed grackles. I am in love with Mexico on an April morning by the sea. I could stand here forever.
[Editor’s note: This piece was written in response to a writing prompt from Bryan Chohen’s book Four Seasons of Creative Writing.]
I’ve been going through a rough patch. I notice I want myself to be “better” before I am. Now I’m wanting to trust myself more. I do always turn the corner, always come back to being whole and well again. It’s happening already. But I tend to try to make it happen before its time. I try to rush myself. Maybe now I’m learning to let myself be, to have more faith. I remind myself it will pass. I’ll “return” when I am ready. For three weeks I dream busy dreams where I’m working with a repetitive task throughout the night. I don’t remember them in the morning, only the feeling of them. At first I think they are stress dreams, the kind I get when I work too hard. Years ago when I worked in catering in Los Angeles, there would be long stretches of prep for big parties. When I slept I’d dream about 12-gallon stainless steel stock pots at the foot of my bed. All night I would stir them with big wooden spoons. But then I remember two of my current dreams, and I know I’ve been doing healing work. In one dream there’s a kind of mind map I am building. I have a memory of rows of dark shapes and small bits of text with straight lines leading from one to the other. On the top layer are drawings of envelopes. They’re lit up like neon signs, green envelopes with pink hearts at their centers like seals. I check on them during the night. Sometimes there are two envelopes waiting, sometimes three. Their lights wink off and on. I think I am sending myself love letters. In the second dream, the moon is hanging in the western sky above the mountains. I wake up to it sometimes like this in the night, a beacon shining through the sliding glass door. On this night I drift in and out of sleep, the moon waning but still almost full. In the dream it’s almost dawn, and I’m taking sips of this luminous disc, again and again at regular intervals, like medicine.