I don’t know how to stop. When I’m alone, I’m better. When I bump my head on the kitchen cabinet or the third time I try to send an email and it still doesn’t work, often I stop long enough to recognize the universe is trying to tell me something. Sometimes I can really stop and redirect myself. But with people it can feel impossible. It is a hot, humid afternoon. I am siting on the couch in the living room talking on the phone. I’m frustrated, impatient, and it’s coming through the sound of my voice. I’m trying to resolve something, unwilling to step back and let it go for now. Two hummingbirds fly in through the open louvers, but I am so wrapped up in my own disturbance, I don’t even look at them. Only a small, distant part of me even knows they have come inside. They spiral together, one glimpse from the corner of my eye. I moderate the tone of my voice on the phone, drop back to a kinder delivery, but I do not drop all the way back down to myself. Later, it makes me sad. The universe sent these amazing creatures on my behalf, tiny luminescent messengers meant to help me, and I missed the whole thing. I did recalibrate, and I’m glad for that. But I was so closed up in my limited experience I missed the magnificence of the moment. I didn’t drop down to bedrock, didn’t welcome those two little beings, didn’t touch awe or gratitude. But tonight I don’t berate myself. I touch the sadness, yes, the disappointment. But I remind myself we live in a generous universe. We get lots of chances. I’m just going to keep trying to pay better attention. I’m going to believe I can learn to stop even in the heart of my disturbance. I’m going to keep aiming myself for the next time, or the next. Or maybe the time after that.
I smell the jacarandas blooming. I am almost certain it is them, though I’ve never smelled them before. The citrus trees scent our air in late winter, and now this. This fragrance is delicate, elusive. It could almost be my imagination, but I don’t think so. I step off the paved path, walk with slow, soft steps across the grass beneath the long row of jacarandas. There are light purple petals everywhere, jewels against the green. I am all opened up from chavasanah, already buoyed, so the joy in this is crisp, immediate. Today the raven hatchling thief is far away inside me. The tree where I left the wounded butterfly weeks ago is at the end of this row, but that aching loss, too, is softened by time. Today there is just the open heart and the scent of blossoms and the richness of walking beneath these grand trees through the petal-strewn grass.
Day 10 I lie in chavasana and know how tender I am, how vulnerable, how beaten up I feel by all her anger. Every nerve is raw, taut, humming, waiting for the next assault. I am afraid every moment. What will be next? The sliding glass door opens behind my head. I keep my eyes closed, but I cringe, waiting for the blow. “I’m afraid of you,” she says. She hurls the words at me, accusation not confession, and closes the sliding glass door with a thud. It is said to wound. She said it earlier, and the best I can gather is it is because I am so “strict.” She takes to calling me Hitler, says “Yes, ma’am” with such derision I yell at her to stop. So ugly. Today I lie here, my fear vibrating, and recognize the echo of childhood fear alive, too. I keep my eyes closed and breathe. May we both be safe and free from harm. May I know I am enough just as I am right now.
My short story “Between My Ribs” is a finalist for the 2018 American Fiction Short Story Award from New Rivers Press. The 19 stories selected for their anthology are now with the final judge who will choose the first, second and third place winners in the next few weeks. I’ve been eager to tell you, my readers, wanting to share this sweet news, knowing you’ll feel glad for me and wish me well in this. But I’ve been shy about it, too. As I write, I feel big gratitude and quiet glee. But I’m not sure I can do justice to all the feelings this evokes in me. I feel thrilled and grateful and lucky. Of course. And I’m delighted my first publication will be with this university press who I’ve been so fond of for years now. But I feel afraid and sad and uncomfortable, too, and I can’t really point to why. I know I’ve been grappling with my discomfort over wanting to win. I feel honored to be chosen for the anthology, but I would very much like to win the contest, too. I worry about being greedy, so I wrestle with it. “Of course you want to win,” I say. “That’s only natural.” But it sits awkward in me, this wanting it to be more. But maybe I am only afraid of being disappointed if my story isn’t chosen for first place. Maybe it’s as simple as that.
But there is a deep desire in me to win. I want that recognition. I’ve held myself back in so many ways for most of my life, I think. I want to just step forward here. I want to lead this collection. So I’ll ask for your good wishes in this now while the judge is still reading our stories, still weighing his responses to each of them, still sorting through them for himself. I whisper my own prayers into the palms of my cupped hands. I can hear the house finch in the courtyard, and the mountains are clear this morning for the first time in months, keeping vigil with me. I kiss the center of my palms, fold them around each other, bring them to my heart. I sit very still, holding my hope. And then I open my hands, slow movements, the bird released to take to the sky. I grin, lightened, filled with the honor of this gift, at peace in this moment with whatever is meant to unfold next.
And thank you, too, for holding this in your own hearts with me. Just the thought of it makes me want to cry.
[Editor’s note: I don’t know much about Facebook, so this is clunky. But below is both their announcement of the finalists and my own section of that post when you scroll through all the photos. Here I am in my goofy head covering—I got the news when I was staying at the hostel and had to get a photo to them right away, so I took this with my iPad in my favorite chair outside. You can also access the post in their Facebook page here.]
I keep thinking I need to go to a big demonstration—for immigrants, for human rights—but when I hear recordings on NPR a part of me recoils. The chants feel too intense, too assaultive, beating against “them.” It isn’t what I want to be. It doesn’t feel nonviolent. People say Mother Teresa refused to go to anti-war demonstrations, but if we ever held a rally for peace, she said, she’d be there. I want that, a sea of humankind, all swaying and singing “Give Peace a Chance” (hippie osmosis from my childhood). What happened to Gandhi, to King? What happened to peaceful resistance? Can’t we make up songs to sing instead of screaming angry chants? Songs that connect us, singing together in the streets, on freeways or tarmacs, our voices carrying across cities, drifting across the sea. I read that in the wake of the havoc and vitriol President Trump scattered across Europe earlier this month there was a music festival in London. Paul Simon and James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt were all there. Each one of them spoke up. None of them named the president, but every one of them voiced messages of encouragement, messages of love. I’m comforted to know these musicians who I’ve loved all my life were over there, counterpoint to our president’s chaos and hatred, letting people know there are other voices in the United States. Voices that want the world to know we aren’t all ugly and mean. We aren’t all afraid of women, of Muslims, of all the dark-skinned peoples of the world, or foreign tongues, or English spoken with a Mexican accent. We aren’t all afraid of gay marriage or body ink or people in wheelchairs. We aren’t afraid of learning to include all genders, all sexual preferences, to stand up for the rights of children and for a woman’s right to choose. What we are afraid of is losing our humanity inch by inch, of letting what binds us all together be whittled away little by little until it’s too late. What we are afraid of is allowing another holocaust. I wish I’d been in those quiet crowds at that music festival, singing along, soothed. I wonder if James Taylor sang “Shed a Little Light“?
[Editor’s note: Looking at my title now in the light of day—”We Aren’t All Afraid”—I think I might need to change it. Because maybe we ARE all afraid. We’re just afraid of very different things. And some of the same ordinary things, too.]
I wait outside for Ian to pick me up before the daylong MBSR retreat. I’m standing on the sidewalk, and I glance back down my little road. I stop a coyote in his tracks. For a moment, we are both still, just looking at each other. He’s so thin it hurts me, and he hasn’t groomed himself. He is starving to death, I think. My neighbor Joel is heading toward me with his two little dogs, so I turn around to warn him about the coyote on our road. When I look again, he is gone. He haunts me, though. Two months later, I can still picture him, his dear, unkempt, emaciated form. And the look in his eyes. He looked beyond exhausted. Despairing, I think, barely able to go on. Looking back, I imagine I even saw a flicker of hope in his eyes when I spoke to him. I’ve sent up prayer after prayer for him. I dream of buying dog food in case I see him again. Was he sick? Are all our coyotes starving now? How can I possibly begin to feed coyotes? (My neighbors would flip.) I wish there’d been time and quiet to just be with him that morning. I loved him in that first moment, but there was no time to cherish him, to know him even for a little while. May he be safe and free from harm. May he have all he needs to heal and thrive. May he live with ease and well being for as long as he wants to. May he die a quiet, easy death whenever he is ready.
I dream of a pilgrimage of horses. I stand at a crossroads of dirt trails where I can see them walking en masse. It is night, but I see them crossing through intermittent moonlight. Their movement is steady, quiet. I’m surprised to see some of them are saddled and bridled. There are no humans with them, only the horses walking, four or five or six deep on the two converging trails. I feel their sense of purpose, of clear intention, though I am not certain I understand it. I stand where I can watch them, among other people. I think I am in a foreign land or in “enemy” territory because I am aware I may be shot and killed. I am afraid, but I know this is important. I want to stand with my palms together, like namaste, like the Buddhist bow. Instead, I link my fingers. I hold them against my solar plexus, like in prayer, and bear witness, homage, to their quiet passage.