I choose the path on the left. It cuts through dense growth as tall as I am, berries, poison oak. There are pink flowers that scent the air with their wild rose fragrance, violet thistles, bright yellow fennel blossoms three feet above my head. If you look below, you can see pockets of open space, a honeycomb of dens and pathways for larger animals. I peek into them, hoping to spy someone. I’ve decided the animal I saw on the hillside trail was not a coyote but a red fox. That explains the way he felt so different to me, more shy, sweeter somehow, non-threatening. I would like to see him again. The sun is surprising, warm on my shoulders, but the bramble caves are empty. Once in a while the brush dips below my head, and I get to see the lagoon. I stop again and again to just stand there and take it all in. I already love this lagoon, first glimpse, how the water is always moving, talking to the sea, but in a way that speaks to stillness, to safe harbor. The pelicans enchant me, wake up in me the time I fell in love with them in Todos Santos. I watch them glide in to land on the water or take to the air in groups. The sound of them batting the surface of the lagoon with their wings follows me as I walk. I am the only human here. Halfway to the beach I am overcome by how deep the need in me was for this solitude after three full days without being alone except for that first short walk up the hill. It reminds me of living in Ajijic and wandering onto a dirt road that ran west of the town, finding myself beside a big field with horses near the lake, no one else in sight, the peace of the countryside easing a part of me I didn’t even know had been disturbed by all the concrete and bricks, my neighbors packed in tight around me. Funny, I think, to have Mexico conjured twice for me on such a short walk in this northern land. I stand alone on the path for a long time watching the pelicans, breathing in the scent of the wild roses and the darker smell of the wetlands. When I feel something loosen in my chest, I keep walking to the sea.
I dream of wearing a sign. Something like, “I’m so sorry. We want you here.” Sueno de tener un letrero que dice, “Lo siento mucho. Les queremos Uds. aquí.” Quiero decir, “No se vayan.” I want to say don’t go. Quiero decir que millónes mas gente no le votó como ellos que votaron para él, nuestro “residente.” I want to say three million more people voted against him than voted for him, our “resident” en la casa blanca. Quiero decir esto es su país, también. This is your country, too. Please don’t go. I speak to my favorite flower vendor, watch him take it all on his broad shoulders, this weighted world. I see him shrug, something I’ve admired for years, the way so often someone who grows up in Mexico can make so much room inside themselves for acceptance. “Vivimos la vida que viene,” he says. We live the life that comes.
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 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.
There are two white crowned sparrows, winter migrants, and two house finch in the tray feeders. The doves scattered earlier, probably a circling hawk. Now we have a bit of quiet in the courtyard, only the occasional melodic sounds from the sparrows and some goldfinch conversations coming from my neighbors’ tree. I love these daytime forays of the white crowned sparrows. Last year I almost never saw them. But I relished the sounds of them scavenging the fallen birdseed just before full light or in the late, late dusk before full dark. They are tender spirits, I think, quick to seek cover. Maybe the growing bougainvillea in the corner is making them more bold this year? Knowing they have a nearby retreat? Today I am battling a cold, so I am subdued, a running underlying sense of wanting to be asleep. But I feel good, too. The volunteer marigolds, over a hundred, I think, are in perfect time for the Day of the Dead. This morning their bright orange pops in the gray day. Halloween is the pagan new year, too, one of the eight main pagan holidays, a day when the veil between the worlds thins. I feel it all today in my courtyard, heralded by the hundred neon marigolds, by our migrating sparrows, by the absence of the sun. There are times when we can feel the earth turning, pivotal points like now with these looming holidays. We move more fully into the moon-dominated part of the year, from the fall equinox until the winter solstice. It feels perfect for my life right now, for my writing work, my healing, this turning inward that comes with the seasons. And it makes me even more grateful for the gift of extra time I’ve been given (regardless of the loss of income). The doves come back now in twos and threes, and the courtyard becomes busy with their steady pecking and their constant flutter. But if you listen hard, underneath their sounds you can hear Guy Gavriel Kay’s weaver at the loom. Do you hear her? The clack of the loom, the sound of the shuttle as we near next week when the veil between the worlds grows thinnest? And when you open your mouth, the air tastes like magic.
My day of the dead unfolded without effort, my altar growing little by little over the past week, my ritual organic and unplanned. I bought a big bunch of orange marigolds at the farmers market, and yesterday I plucked them from their stems, added them to the altar. Now it is a living, breathing thing beside me, candles at the heart of it. I wish I could let you see it the way I see it. The changing light adds a kind of sharpness, a clarity. It makes the colors dazzle, the flames dance. Every time I look at it it makes my heart dance, too. I have a big grin on my face, and I feel so lucky I could burst. And the smell—that spicy, earthy scent. I won’t need food if I can just keep breathing it in. Sunday in the late dusk I watered the plants here in the courtyard, went through the long list of my dead. They’d been coming to me bit by bit, but this time I started at the beginning, worked my way through each one in order, from my dog Grunt and my Oma almost 50 years ago to my cat Sofia, my newest dead. I ended up standing in the dark beside the glowing altar talking to each one, wanting them to know they are well loved and well missed, asking for blessings on them at this time when the veil between the worlds is thin, midway through these months when the moon holds sway. Today while I write a bee comes to grace the altar, touching each blossom in turn, messenger of the gods. Feliz día de los muertos. Happy turning of the wheel.
I must have been in a weird place when I read Natalie Goldberg’s Thunder and Lightning the first time. Because I remember being disappointed, and I’m loving it this second time through. I am using it the way I’ve been rereading her other books, a chapter or sometimes two before I do my daily writing. I’ve described this before, I think. Letting myself read about writing carves out time and space for me to be a writer. It makes me feel like I am part of the conversation, one writer among many. Now that I feel good about Thunder and Lightening, too, it means I have four books of hers to reread. But I will need to take a break from them when I’m done with this one. I need to read the other books I have on writing, the small collection I bought before I moved to Mexico. I don’t know what possessed me. At that time before I left the country I must have still been reading a chapter every morning, Natalie Goldberg or Ray Bradbury or even Dorothea Brande or Brenda Ueland, four of my favorites. So I combed bibliographies and bought more books about writing, consumed with preserving this ritual in foreign lands. In Hopland, where it began for me, I would sit outside on my stone porch that looked across a big field, a craggy rock embedded in the hillside. I would read first, and then I’d write a page of my novel, my answer to unearthing time for my writing even though I was still in my first years of teaching when there was no time. I promised myself I would write for eleven minutes each day. And the time before the writing, immersing myself in the world of the writer, was sheer joy.
When I’m finished reading Thunder and Lightning, I tell myself now, I will tackle one of the new books. I tried reading a few of them before, but I never made it very far. Now I am determined to read them all. Maybe there will be another gem or two I can add to my “real” collection. If I can grow it a bit larger, if I find enough of them that feed me the way my favorites do, then by the time I finish the last one in my set I can just begin again with the first, Writing Down the Bones. The thought delights me, even if it makes me sound insane. Because no matter how many times I reread them, I’m always reminded of something I’ve forgotten, something timely to my life right now. I see things I missed before, too, or I understand them in a new way. And always in returning to one of these books there is that joining in, that sharing of the writer’s life, the comfort of the writer’s voice like reuniting with an old friend, like sliding into my old, worn sweater, the color of wine, the one with the holes in it I love to dig out at the first hint of chill in the fall air. So, I’m going to read the books I haven’t read but carried with me for eight years, go looking for new old friends. But maybe, before I begin, I’ll first let myself return to Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing. Because it’s been a long, long time, and the thought of his sweet, kind, vibrant being draws me back again.