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.
The mockingbirds seem to be celebrating the equinox today, marking this turning of the world. I have heard them singing day and night, more of them than I can ever remember. So, I think they must be heralding in this changing time. Yesterday I walked beside the creek bed with Audrey and Bear. I left them near the bridge and walked back along the path in the late dusk. The big frog choir starting up held all my attention, unconscious of my head cocked toward them as I walked. And I could hear a large gathering of birds beginning to roost in big bushy trees on the other side of the wash, their high-pitched calls coming across to me in waves as they settled in for the night. But when I left the path, it was the mockingbird songs that followed me home through the neighborhoods. They sang from the fan palm to the east, the telephone pole behind me. And when I was almost home a mockingbird was singing across the street in the tree whose name I do not know but whose smell takes me back to childhood. I felt the warm silky air against my calves, my face. This would be summer weather, I thought, almost anywhere else in the world. But here we have a chorus line of deep-voiced frogs and spiky ocotillos blooming red and the bursting of yellow Palo Verde blossoms everywhere you look. We have warm night air and mockingbirds singing their hearts out in the almost dark. Here we are in the throes of late, late spring. Happy vernal equinox. Happy solar new year, everyone.
When I was walking home along the creek path the other evening, I heard a mockingbird. I stopped to listen, arms limp at my sides, my back to the creek bed. I could hear him singing behind the row of houses there. I was surprised to hear another bird pick up when he stopped, singing now from a little further away, and then a third one, quieter yet. Last night I heard this happen nearer our home. I have always thought of one mockingbird, a lone voice in the middle of the night or in the early dawn. But these birds were in this together. Their songs sounded joyful, musicians playing, improvising, meeting in that place where music goes, where music takes us, each connecting in those spaces. I think of that unexpected bird symphony now when I get ready to head out into the early dusk hoping for a little more night music.
“I’d count myself lucky,” I said to her, or something like that. Was I snippy? Too harsh? I can’t remember, but I know there was a stiffness in me when I spoke, and I’m pretty sure I sounded critical. I was judging her because I couldn’t understand how having a mockingbird singing outside your window would be reason to lament, even in the middle of the night. “I’d count myself lucky,” I said. And I’ve been lucky in the last few weeks. There’s one who comes now to the electrical pole not far from the window by my bed. He sings from his perch there during the day, but it’s the late night hours I find the most enchanting. It reminds me of living in Santa Rosa years ago, not many months after I first learned who the mockingbird is. One would come to the tree outside my bedroom window and serenade our quiet neighborhood in the middle of the summer nights. It always felt like a dream, like magic, a holy visit. Now when I hear our Palm Springs mockingbird singing when the rest of the world is silent, that same sense of enchantment comes over me. I relish his song while I lie in bed, the way I savor the sound of raindrops on the roof, sometimes only half waking in the dark, like a lullaby, sending me deeper into dreams. The late night singing feeds me freesias and night-blooming jasmine, fresh sea air and moonlight on water. It feeds me stars and the night sky, the scent of moist dirt rising. Not once have I wanted to stop his singing, only to be able to keep listening, keep soaking it up like the dry earth soaks up rain. The mockingbird’s song is a dance, a celebration, an invitation to take wing. My heart soars with his cadence, and I slide back into sleep.