The mystery black birds appear in the guayaba tree in the late afternoon. They perch and poke for seeds, awkward at the three tube feeders I’ve hung for my house finch. I watch through the open louvers in the back room. I thought they sounded familiar when I heard them in the morning on the telephone pole, but now I have a front row seat. They are red-winged blackbirds! I am in love with them, the females especially, so subtle and intricate—light, bright brushstrokes of paint across their blackness. Watching them in all their quiet glory takes me back to when I lived in Cotati, and I would walk out behind one of the old Hewlett Packard campuses at the end of the day. (It was a walk my friend Meri introduced me to.) Red-winged blackbirds perched on every bush and thrust of stem in an open field. I stood on the edge of the road and listened to the magic, lilting songs, waves of music echoing around me in the late dusk.
He was getting cold, but he wasn’t ready to leave. The winter sun abandoned his usual spot in the mid-afternoon, and he’d left his blanket outside the walls, folded with care and tucked up in the fork of his favorite tree. He wasn’t yet used to the sun being so far south in the sky, and these narrow streets blocked so much of the light in all seasons. He sighed and got to all fours, managed to stand up without groaning out loud. No one wanted to hear him groan, he knew. No one wanted to think he might be truly suffering, and he didn’t want people to think he was faking it to play on their sympathy, a ploy for more coins in his copper cup. The truth was he was getting old and creaky. Getting up off the cobblestones wasn’t as easy as it used to be, and the dampness in the stones, the cold that never left them for long this time of year, made it harder. But he didn’t want people to feel sorry for him. He liked his life for the most part. He wouldn’t have chosen to go blind like this, slow and steady, but if something had to give, he thanked the Weaver every day that she hadn’t taken his hearing. Then he would have had to struggle not to feel sorry for himself. He might have become the pitiful sight some people already thought he was. But the Weaver had left him his hearing and his voice, so every day he got to lift himself up to the sky, carry himself across the tops of the eastern forest, sail across the southern sea. Weaver be praised.
I live in the palo verde in the woman’s courtyard. I have waited seven years to be up in this green tree, high above the moist earth that was my home. I sing to summer, cicada sounds in me. Summer serenade, stealthy buzz, begin and end, sudden, sultry, magic. I am a magic cicada. I can turn summer into fall, drive humans from their beds, angry shouts in the night, the slamming of windows. So now I like to stay where I am wanted. This palo verde likes me in her arms, rocks me in the breeze. I am more than a little in love with her. Serena, the woman calls her. She says it like a word in Spanish. She asked the tree’s name when she planted her and saw the word in her head, scrap of paper in her mind, words from an old typewriter like letters from her father when she was a little girl, the name Serena popping out. I didn’t think I’d ever love a tree like this, much less a human. But the woman likes me. She really likes me. And after all those angry windows closed against me in the dark, it is like heaven, like cotton candy, like marbles in the moonlight to feel the woman’s pleasure when I begin to sing. Ah, cicada. I hear her whisper, feel her cherishing my song. If she saw my bug body, I don’t know if she would be able to embrace me as wholly as she does my music. But I know she would honor me still, protect me in every way she can, bug body and all. It makes me want to cry, sitting in Serena in the early dusk, so lucky here in the warm desert sky, feeling the woman’s gladness as I begin to sing.
[Editor’s note: This is a slightly revised version of an 11-minute writing in response to a Natalie Goldberg prompt to write a “waking daydream” that I wrote downtown with Stef on Wednesday in the late morning with the misters on.]
I sit on the side of my little road and watch the day arrive. I can’t see the eastern sky from my courtyard, so I bring my metal barstools outside the fence (so I can put my feet up), and I carry out the wobbly wooden stool with care where the candle will sit and which might house my tea but these days sports coffee with half and half. I try to be quiet, not bump into things in the dark, aware of my neighbors. I stretch out my legs and settle in as the sky begins to lighten. I face southeast and watch Venus rising, have the honor of a mockingbird singing and displaying at the top of the electric pole before me. I warm my hands on the cup, sip my coffee, close my eyes sometimes when his performance is especially melodic or visually impressive. I feel bad when I get lost in thought and realize I have missed part of his concert or this coming of the day, even though I love the chance to daydream, too. When I am both present and lucky I get to relish his incandescent song and the glory of the morning splashed against the sky. Today there are echoes of deep pink spread across the southern clouds, stopping just before they tint the San Jacintos. Wide stretches of sky between the clouds become that otherworldly aqua color the twilight minutes often bring us here in the desert. We’ve had an extraordinary spring, no doubt due to the extra rain the gods granted us. For weeks the mockingbirds in my neighborhood sang without stopping, day and night. There seemed a kind of frenzy in it, the sheer numbers of singers and that ceaselessness I had yet to experience. Now in the middle of May, our desert spring is over, but this one mockingbird still comes to the telephone poll to serenade me. I lean back in my front-row seat and savor his song. The neighbor’s calico cat trots by on her early morning rounds, surprised but not deterred by my presence in the road. She is not interested in me, intent on her own pursuits, so I return to my morning concert. The waning moon and Venus stay close, too, for a long time—companions in the sky.
Ah, yes. Yeah. Let it roll. Let it flip flop you around, slap the ears, soft like fur. Let it. Let it, ah, yeah. Let it make you move, only a little, mostly inside. Your heart, yeah, tap tap tapping. Your belly, yeah, keeping to the beat, the dance, the yes you can, the look at me look at us grooving. Yes, you can you can we can together we can let it roll under our tongues in our thumbs around and between us and inside us moving back and forth joining us while it passes through passes between passes along. Ah, yes. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Let it roll. Let it dance and sing. Let it ring and zing zing zing. Let it bounce between us hearts beating to the rhythm no separate selves only this room full of warm souls wrapped up together in the music.
[Editor’s note: This is an unedited piece (except for three words in the last sentence) in response to yesterday’s poetry prompt from the Two Sylvias Press advent calendar. Here is the prompt: “Write a poem about a style of music (jazz, hip-hop, blues, country, reggae, opera, heavy metal, etc.) while imitating the music style in the wording and phrases of your poem.” I feel shy posting it. Maybe it is too silly. But I felt the music right from the first line, and it was good fun letting the poem come through me. I hope it might be a little bit fun to read, especially out loud.]
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.”
At odd moments, I find myself missing bird sounds. Have I just become greedy? This time of year when I wake up they are not nearby. I hear bird voices, but they are coming from a distance. Right now, though, someone chirps from the Palo Verde, the high note coming through the open kitchen window and then gone. I miss the goldfinch who used to chatter in my neighbor’s yard. Once in a while a house finch comes to sing in our tree. I stop to savor it, as though I can pull those liquid notes through my skin, his song alive in me beside my beating heart. And sometimes when I wake up now to muted sounds of life I remember that first spring when we lived on Avenida Ortega. Early every morning a cacophony of bird sounds grew and swelled, like nothing I have ever known before or since. I want that again, that unbelievable crescendo. But I will remember to relish what we have here and to never overlook the music, to cherish each voice always. And I’ll work to help build more of a community here, too. (I have secret hopes the hedges in the new development will come alive with birds.) Here’s to feeling once again at the center of that symphony.