The morning after the last of my fever, I feel like something sat on me all night pushing my bones into the earth of our campsite. I head toward the meadow to do my qi gong, but I stop inside the pines. I don’t want the sun, don’t know why. I study the pine needle ground and choose my spot. I face west. Maybe because I am already slow, creaky and sore, I move through all the movements without a hint of rushing, without becoming lost in the habit of it. Halfway through I hear a tinkling passing back and forth among the trees nearest me, like hummingbirds but not, like bells, like the shimmer of light on water it it were a sound. I think of Tinkerbell, sprinklings of fairy dust. I don’t even feel goofy for it; it feels like my soundest reference, in fact. Unseen bird or invisible beings in this grove? Whoever they are, it feels like a visitation. They don’t stay long. After, I press my palms together before my chest, quiet awe and gratitude seeping out of my skin, chasing away the last taste of fever. Thank you, all.
It’s just after six in the morning. I steer my rental car down Ocean View. I’m going back to Palm Springs for the day. The eastern sky is a soft, rich orange. I stop the car in the middle of the road because the waning moon is hanging just above the layer of clouds, the thinnest sliver luminous against that green-blue we glimpse here in twilight hours. I sit, breathing, taking it in, the air cold on my face, the light growing around me. I feel greeted by the universe, the promise of a good journey, well wishes for the long day ahead. I leave my car at the airport, and when I walk out the main doors of the terminal, I’m stunned by the glory of our mountains and their snow. I feel oddly proud of our airport, proud to know people who’ve never been here before walk outside to this spectacular view. I walk home, past the fountain, relishing it all. As I go I spin in a circle now and then, scanning our ring of mountains, snow, sky. Off and on, I want to whine or pout to have missed the first day of this new snow. But mostly I feel lucky again and again. I go to the library, buy four used books for four dollars. I don’t want to worry about due dates right now, but also I love these soft trade paperbacks. And lately I’ve been reading my way through my pile from the last big library sale, the books that appeal to me when I’m filling my bag but so often go unread. I’m enjoying all the different voices, and I want to keep going. I buy vegan wraps at the health food store, and then I am home. The birds all still have a little seed left in their feeders. The mouse in the house has eaten the small succulent on the kitchen table that Mami gave me and a few of the buds on the Christmas cactus, but she’s stayed out of my bed and not caused havoc, so I’m grateful. I clean up the bits of dirt from the table, sweep the floor, ride my bike to get my hair cut, eat two wraps, drink kombucha, make small piles on the bed for repacking. In the evening I call Ian for a ride to class, get to hear about his metta retreat. After he drops me off again at home, I pause outside my door. All the feeders are filled, ready for the morning birds. I look up at the stars, take a deep breath, soaking up my dark courtyard, my sky. I close my eyes, and when I open them I see a falling star above my home. I make a wish. I open the door, step inside, deep, quiet awe welling up in me for the framing of this day: the moon at sunrise, the falling star, brackets of welcome, of reassurance, of solace. Thank you.
The third assignment I write for the MOOC doesn’t sing, but I feel better about it than the two that came before. The requirements are specific, a scene with three female characters with a fourth who comes along to “thwart their desires.” It’s the first time in this class I’ve had “real” characters come, and the fourth woman who arrives doesn’t behave at all as I’d imagined. It’s been a while since I’ve had characters acting on their own, and I love that part of writing fiction. My scene with these four women happens on a train, and the next assignment needs to take place after a catastrophe of some sort (either internal or external), so the train lends itself to that. I lie in bed this morning dreaming up bits and pieces of how I might continue with these women on the train. I see the two-story house in Oakland, watch Rachel working in the garden, hands in the dirt. And it comes to me that dreaming up fiction might be just as compelling as worrying about money or family, might take me away from being present with the same obsessive flair. But what a way to not be present. Dreaming up fiction beats focusing on my fears, no contest. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thrilled to have fiction floating through me like this. It makes me giddy and grateful: for this free class, for my lighter work load, for the cooler mornings that let me lie in bed getting to know these women in my head instead of having to be out early sweeping the patio, feeding the birds, before the brutal heat descends. The southern sun sends blocks of yellow light across the wall of my room. I love winter mornings in this trailer home, look forward to a long string of them with childlike glee. All in a rush I feel the longing for all the years I might have been churning out fiction. I glimpse how it could feel to be old and know I have characters in my head who I might never get down on paper. I tally up the years. Could I have 30 years still ahead of me to write? More? I want them, every one of them. So I will need to make good use of them. I will need to savor every character, relish every story like a good, rich stew. And bring as many of them as I can onto the page before I die.
When I think about my summer, my time without students is bookmarked by my meditation retreat and my writing workshop camping trip. They were both intensive, designed for breaking through, and I did. But each time I do I slump back again, go dormant. I eat too much, read too much, do too little. And summer itself feels like too much, sapping me. Then I get caught up in the semester start, all that needing to step up, all the patience and kindness it takes to welcome all those people, help them all get settled. Amid the flurry of it I return to my daily yoga practice, moving my mat to follow the shade of the umbrella, misters wetting the cement. One day I lie on my back and see the deep impossible blue of the sky against the edge of the orange umbrella. It takes me by surprise. I can’t remember the last time we had that color in the sky here. The days shorten, and the nights drop into the sixties. I return to writing again first thing because I can afford to sweep the courtyard and feed the birds a little bit later in the morning now. I write propped up in bed, a jar of cold herb tea beside me, my house finch loud and cheerful in the corner of the courtyard. I can see them through the kitchen window. I do my sitting practice next, listen to my finch, to the pwitter of dove wings, to the sound of cars along the road, the hum of the fridge. I hear a big frenzy of flapping, likely a hawk circling. And in the sudden quiet after all the birds take flight, I hear the soft sound of the second hand moving on the small green clock beside my bed. I can feel the promise of fall, of winter here when we can all burst out into the world again, take a walk in the middle of the day. This easing now of life in the desert becomes certain. I wonder, too, if my slumps weren’t also part of the natural cycle of things, the moving forward and moving back. I wonder if I might even find a way to honor that dormancy, to trust in the need to lie fallow. Might I stop resisting it, allow it to be, not make it wrong? Because now I am somewhere in the middle, I think, like the season. I am not quite one place or another, trusting in the transition.
Little by little I ease back on how much I demand of myself. It isn’t new, this reaching for a place that’s different from always having to do more. Sometimes I worry about going too far in the other direction, the pendulum swing to not doing enough, this effort toward kindness turning into sloth. But this week it’s felt right, like maybe I’m finding a balance, cultivating that kindness and having it bear fruit. I entertain the possibility of actually running out of nyger seed for a day or two. (The mourning doves would still have the mixed seed, and there is still some nyger in the tube feeders for the goldfinch.) I let my bed go unmade and the floor unswept this week because I am focusing on my classes, on my writing, on the Canvas training, on fitting in daily yoga and sitting practice again, on eating well. Last weekend I let myself not follow through on changing the bed, mopping the floor, tasks I prepped for, clearing things away at the beginning of the long weekend and then running out of steam. Tuesday morning I have this lovely dream come to me where I am writing a poem in my head about something that happened in the dream, and then I’m at a writing workshop with a handful of women sitting on beach towels spread on the side of a hill. I wake up and grab my notebook to write down the poem I began in the dream. I marvel that this, this magic feeling of being connected to both worlds, arose from abandoning my dirty floors and watching too many episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. It came, I think, because little by little I am letting go of things I don’t need to carry anymore. I haven’t looked at the dream poem since I scribbled it down with one foot still in that other world. Maybe I’m a tiny bit afraid of what I might see, afraid some harsher part of me might find it lacking. Or maybe I am only savoring the wait before I read it, because in the meantime when I think of it sitting there—just pages before the one I write on now in my notebook, dove wings beating beside me in the courtyard—the thought of the poem is a small magic stone pulsing with life. It’s secret and glowing beneath a mound of feathers, cradled on warm, moist earth, just waiting to be uncovered.
Around me, everyone is awed by the splendor of the eastern Sierras, but I am in shock again and again. Everything is ailing: the air, the pine trees, the scrub brush. Even the deer feel different, thirsty, the yip of the coyotes desperate. The only place I don’t feel pain is when I soak naked in hot water in the center of the caldera, the wide plain and rocky mountains spread out in all directions. We go there for the Perseids, then lie on our backs in the middle of the night on picnic tables at Mono Lake fighting sleep. The heavens grow odd, the Milky Way a huge space station, a gigantic metal insect. We write each morning for hours at our campsite, in among the pines. A chipmunk appears beside my notebook on the picnic table, his deep brown eyes intent on my face, alight with curiosity and kindness. The peace is tangible, surprising. I am not used to living in a group, don’t quite know how to keep my center, yet the peace reaches me in still moments. An osprey perches on a bare tree at the top of our hill and calls again and again in a high voice I don’t recognize. We read our work out loud in the late afternoon or just after dinner. I may be the most present then, ready to mirror back the parts that speak to me, to swim inside and come back with something I can put in words about what I see happening in the writing. I like reading my own work, notice I am not afraid the way I used to be. I am grateful for the feedback, too, these faces in the fading light, these voices who have grown dear to me. I want to stay here always, writing pieces of my book, reading them aloud. Leaving comes in pieces, too. A wistfulness before our time is over, leaving the wilderness, the long hot stretch of the central valley, arriving back in Oakland, taking the train home the following day. Now our time together is a dream, and I am not yet quite awake again in my ordinary life. I miss these people, miss our campsite home. Being alone is lonelier, the way they are with me but not with me, ghosts now in my Palm Springs home.
Today I wonder if my memoir is complete crap and needs to be abandoned. I decide to make a list of the things I want to write about again for this new manuscript, this third round. I make a list, but it isn’t very long. I like the first piece in the book, so I decide to keep it. I find a zillion pages I don’t like anymore. I delete them. I end up removing two thirds of the book. It reminds me of years ago, sitting on the bed at my place on Avenida Ortega when I began culling the original manuscript, making piles of yes, no, maybe. There was almost nothing in the yes pile. This feels the same way. Most of the writing seems dull, boring, lifeless. No one would want to read it. I’m not even interested anymore. How could anyone else be? How could this manuscript have been one of nine finalists for a national book award? Did they receive terrible submissions? Was mine never actually in the running, only chosen as a matter of formality, better than even worse writing? I don’t want to be mean to myself, but I don’t evade the questions. And I don’t know the answers. I wonder if this is natural and right, that after a period of time we become more objective, a sluice to separate the sand and gravel from the gold. I wonder if I am throwing away good work. I wonder if I need to leave this book behind. I know enough to know I am not the first writer to feel this way. I tell myself it is too soon to give up. I point out I have kept more of the manuscript than last time, but this argument is weak. I am only certain I want to keep a handful of the pages I’ve saved. The rest are maybes. I’ve written two new pieces, but they don’t sing. That doesn’t mean the fourth one won’t, I insist, or the seventh. I think again about turning this into a work of fiction. I decide to keep going, to trust myself to know what is true. I recognize fear, a clenching in my belly. But I’m pretty sure there is excitement rolled up in there, too. Maybe when I get inside the writing it will open up. Maybe it will fly. I think about what an odd and funny beast writing is, what quirky creatures writers are. I notice I can breathe again. I send up quick prayers for lift off, for flight.