I ride my bike to Ralph’s to buy ice every day now while I wait for my new refrigerator to be delivered. I approach from the back, ride in the mornings beside the long, tall expanse of windowless cinderblock in the huge swathe of uninterrupted shade it provides. I tend to be alone there, just me and my bike, Carrot Girl, and a raven or two sitting in the desert heat with their mouths open on the top of the facing wall. When I pass by I smell mint.
Sometimes I remember to “look” for it, take big breaths of air in through my nose. Other times I forget, and it takes me by surprise, the scent permeating my mask. There are trees along the wall edging the property there, but no mint that I can find. One day I ride along the parking lot of the apartment buildings on the other side of the wall, hunting for mint there. I still wonder if someone might have a dozen terra cotta pots bursting with mint on their balcony.
I am having trouble navigating these times. But I haven’t stopped being grateful. Today, I pack two bags of ice, kombucha, lasagna, sunflower seeds on my bike. When I round the corner at the back of the building, the smell of mint comes to me. It is strong today, and I coast along in the shade, grinning, glad for the gift of it, for this small, unexplained mystery of life.
I ride my orange bike on the creek path, the world quick glimpses. Five ravens in the middle of the street eating roadkill. A strip of water beside the curb on the other side, sprinkler runoff. They slow hop and waddle between the two, easy together. I grin at this offer of adjacent food and drink, this perfect impromptu dining. When I am past, I see one lone raven sitting in the shade beside the path watching them. And then they are all behind me, and I ride toward the San Jacintos. I think about going back to move the dead animal off the road and onto the sand beside the path to keep the scavengers safe from speeding cars. But I decide the car that hit the squirrel or rabbit has adhered it to the asphalt, so it’s perfect for pecking out morsels, and if I moved it, it would be loose and flap around when they tried to eat and be harder to share. That settles it for me. I don’t have to debate further, consider every angle, wonder if I might cause a fuss moving it, get a raven hit by a car, cause harm trying to help. But sometimes it feels impossible to know, and choosing is agony. Later, on my ride home, one raven stands in the center of the street. The water has dried up, as if it was never there. The other ravens sit quiet and still beside the path in that same spot of shade beneath the two short palms and the desert orchid tree, each strong, curved beak open wide in the late morning heat.
It is hard for me to name fresh, new times when I felt like I belonged because I have written about most of them already, the ones that stand out. That pile of young women on Vicki’s living room floor, laughing. Girl Scout camp, Camp River Glen, singing in the dining hall or beside the fire at night—all of me engaged, connected, joyous. For me more often is the sense of being in a group but not of it, a rigidity in my body, an inability to rest with these people who seem so at ease together. I don’t know what the common thread is, aside from myself, me as the thread. Often I just haven’t experienced what they describe—I feel different, set apart, as if they all truly come from common roots, and I am the strange flower carried far from the others, flown here by birds.
I seem to always be becoming someone new. For decades now my life has turned toward becoming whole, becoming more and more of who I want to be, becoming well, becoming comfortable in my skin. I have small rushes of time when I can feel it burgeoning in me, swept up in some big gateway. Sometimes I feel aware of being in the heart of one big transition. Other times I can sense a series of transitions, moving toward the me I want, the life I long for. Stepping in more fully, feet planted in the earth, joy flying, humble and grateful. Not arriving, or only for a moment, but always becoming.
[Editor’s note: This was a short, timed writing from our daylong Zoom retreat on June 22nd. It is lightly edited here.]
I lean over, rub lotion into my calves, my shins. I am behind on my sleep, tight from too many hours on my laptop. I dangle from my waist in the small bathroom, feel my spine lengthen. My body is stiff, foreign. I abandoned my yoga in January, maybe even before I got sick, and I have yet to return to it. As I come to standing, I think, I’ll have to plan to do my yoga through the next pandemic. (As if I have to wait until the next one to begin again. As if I can’t begin today or tomorrow. As if the idea of the next one is an everyday thought. As if anyone but me would think this is funny.) I look at myself in the mirror and grin.
The desert is funny, you know, the way it is summer in late winter, not desert summer thank goodness but ordinary summer like in normal places, so we can leave the doors open and feel the warm air in the early dark and really what can be better than warm nights, completely delightful, not hot nights of course, not like summer nights here which are dreadful, awful, so sometimes even on these silky nights in late winter it is a bit troubling really, thinking of the summer nights when it can be 111 degrees at 10:30 at night and so then it can be hard to truly relish these early warm nights because I just want it to be cool as long as it can be knowing what is coming and staying and living here those six brutal months of summer.
[This is a bit of the piece I wrote for my class. I’m imitating Gertrude Stein from a selection of her letters in The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Thorton Wilder.]
Ever since the friend who agreed to watch my cat Trair when I was away never went to feed her in my Oakland flat in 1987, I have set out a bowl or two of extra water for my cats when I’m out of town, my “talisman” water. I’ve kept this ritual up over the years since my last two cats died. I have a big round mug now, red crayon colors, wild yellow flowers, black rim. It lives beside the fridge. This morning I replenish the water. I rinse the mug, fill it close to the brim. I wipe the water from the bottom, the sides, and lower it with care to the floor in its exact spot, silent prayers for protection. Crouching beside the fresh talisman water, I catch myself in the mirror on the wall above it. I am struck by something in my face I haven’t seen of late. “Oh, there you are,” I say to my mirror self. “You’re coming back.” And with this pleased glimpse, this relief and welcome, comes grief, too, almost as if I had abandoned myself, and loneliness, as if I’d been alone all this time since I’d become sick, as if I’d left myself for lost.