I sit when I can in the back corner of the yard beneath the lime green umbrella where I can see the ridge behind us. In these squirreled away minutes I savor my yerba maté and commune with these foothills. I hunt for signs of life, hope for red-tailed hawks or ravens, the ridge my much-loved companion. She came to me in my compassion class when we were asked to call up a comfort image. The ridge came, and my beloved San Jacintos came, too, with their many layers of ridges, old, old friends now. Mountains are in my blood, though I didn’t understand this before today, these foothills from childhood, my Girl Scout mountains, my Ajijic mountains, my Palm Springs mountains. The steady nature of them all, an ancient abiding, wise, deep beings every one. When I lived in Mexico I translated one of my favorite rounds into Spanish, not word for word but the feeling of the song. I would sing it from the third-floor roost of my blue house in Todos Santos at the end of the day, my long hill darkening before me, running west toward my sliver of sea. “Los cerros que viven aqui,” I sang, “Ellos pasan tiempo conmigo. Doy gracias por los cerros.” The hills that live here, they keep me company. I give thanks for the hills. I sing the song tonight in this late, late dusk, my ridge now a dark but breathing silhouette against the blue purple sky. The west a fading orange, and Venus brilliant just above that swathe of pale green we get in this longitude. New moon evening, one lone cricket starts his song. I wonder if I’ll hear the owls tonight.
Young corn plants growing, bright green shoots unfolding into leaves that bend and curve, little beings in the moist dirt. I don’t think I’ve ever met a happier plant than corn plants. But maybe in part it is the way they grow together that makes this true, that they sprout up in kinship with the other corn plants around them. Maybe they are happy because they are in community. Today they make me think of the brown pelicans gathered on the broad, sandy beach outside Todos Santos in Baja California Sur. They stood upright, too, in clusters, alert, their kind eyes watching me, old souls. Maybe corn folk are old souls, too.
In my kitchen a collection of bottles sits on the floor beside the stove for a year. One clear glass gallon, three liters of thick glass, the palest green, one mangled plastic pint the perfect size for watering my Christmas cactus and the little squared cactus piece I found beside the road that day in Ajijic when I wandered out of town and found horses and a peace I didn’t know I needed. And four Wild Tonic bottles from when I was addicted to kombucha, their deep blue irresistible. In the courtyard this summer’s glorious batch of bird seed sunflowers lie flat across the edge of the cement for two weeks. I’m not sure why they fell down this year, but I suspect the skunks and their vigorous rooting for bugs in the night. I cut off all the dead or dying blooms when I clean out the bed, cluster all 18 face up beneath the bougainvillea, the different sizes and shades of green and brown, the black seeds peering out, waiting for the mourning doves, unexpected art. I find one small fresh blossom, bring it inside. I wash the dust off one of the Wild Tonic bottles, fill it with water, place the small sunflower inside, the leaves fluttering out. I set it beside me in the living room, the vibrant yellow of its little self, the vivid shine of the indigo glass. They feed me for days.
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.