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.
I make myself a little crazy when I travel. There are so many things I need to do before I go, and such a clear end point. I’m used to being able to move my undone tasks to tomorrow. In the time before my camping trip, my writing workshop, I keep tensing up. Then I notice. I relax my shoulders. I exhale. I send up little wishes and tell myself all will be well (and all will be well, and all manner of things shall be well). The prep I still need to do for my fall classes is only part of it. I bought an automatic bird feeder, and I fret about it arriving in time from Amazon. I have to cut my fingernails, my toenails, shave my legs. There is still some fiddling I need to do in my courtyard garden, adjusting timers, moving the pot of aloe vera that won’t get watered by my mister when I’m not here, adding an extra line to the honeysuckle. Should I tie the umbrellas down? I decide and un-decide eight times. I mentally pack and unpack my bag, juggling priorities. I’m taking the train, so I need to pare things down. In between, I think about seeing the Milky Way splashed across the night sky, of writing through a lazy mountain afternoon, of laughing at breakfast. Even the delight of burrowing into my checkered alpaca sweater I found at that garage sale in my old neighborhood and almost never get to wear, the thrill of cold air against my face, fresh from a Palm Springs summer. I hear my house finches chattering though the open kitchen window, and I know I am so lucky in both my little home and my upcoming trip. The green sarong flung across the window to block the afternoon sun is flapping in the breeze. I get a goofy grin on my face. I’m going on an adventure.
I didn’t plan it. It just turned out this way, a surprising convergence of energies as if in preparation for my Vipassana retreat. I leave tomorrow, seven days in the high desert, silence, insight dialog, lots of sitting practice. I finished the semester’s grading late last night. On Monday I met my vow this year to get my home together inside and out before the heat of summer when (I finally understand) you have to just hunker down, get through the brutal heat, expect yourself to do only what is required. I wiped down books and boxed them, stacked things in the bathroom in the in between time. It was a lot like moving only not being forced into the work of it. And for nine days now I’ve been only eating watermelon and salads of cucumber, radish and tomatoes. (I’d been eating badly and too much. I needed this, my own odd twist of a fruit and vegetable fast.) But I didn’t plan to do it as preparation for my retreat. Like I didn’t plan to become newly freed from the awful weight of my messy, filthy trailer just before I left, or to be able to wrap up my semester, say goodbye to my students, post the final grades. But here I am, poised to go on my first retreat longer than one day. And thanks to the kindness of the universe, my house is in order, both literally and figuratively. I feel freed up, ready, eager, a little afraid. And oh so grateful I am arriving clean. Here’s to what’s to come.
Yesterday was midwinter’s day. It’s a day in our year that holds magic. I remembered in the early morning hours, and then I forgot again until I was writing on the bus in Desert Hot Springs. The day was almost over, the clouds tinged pink, our longest night of the year about to begin. The fist time I remembered, I woke up in the dark and realized I had no one to tell. It was something I did, waking up sometime after midnight, the official beginning of a holiday or one of our birthdays, greeting the cats, maybe kissing them on the head before I rolled over and went back to sleep for the real dawning of the day. “Happy winter solstice, you guys,” I whispered to the dark. “I love you both so much.” And then a moment later, “So much.” When I woke up again I’d forgotten. But I did spend the day at the hot springs, feeling like I was in heaven, so maybe I soaked up some of that magic, felt that thinning of the veil between the worlds. I didn’t make an altar. But maybe that has more to do with not spending time in the courtyard. I realized yesterday evening I haven’t sat out there since Sable died. It will be something to take back with the ending of the year, I think, or the beginning of the new one. Annie called me from the vet in the afternoon to tell me Sable’s ashes were ready. I thought I’d leave them until I returned, but I decided to go pick them up last night. When I pictured leaving for Christmas, I knew I’d feel better if both sets of ashes were together at home. I know it doesn’t matter to them. But the thought of walking out the door knowing their two little wooden boxes will be sitting beside each other on the tiny kitchen altar makes something rest easier inside me, a more peaceful turning of our world.
Today I take Amtrak to Oceanside. According to some schematic of the Peaceful Warrior, this year for me is about adventure. (Last year was stability.) Unwilling as I am to leave the cats for long, I am determined to embrace the small adventures, day trips across town, across the state, over the border. When this one is complete (I am about an hour and a half away from Palm Springs as I type this), it will have been a 12-plus hour trip for two and a half hours in Oceanside, but it is worth it. I spend travel time writing and working on my blog, my breath caught short when I first see the ocean through the train window.
I talk for a long time to a man with a Catalan accent who lives blocks from me. In Oceanside the tide is in, so I can only walk for a short stretch on the beach, but I relish it, the untamed rush of water that splashes my thighs, the frolic of my fellow beachgoers, bright umbrellas clustered everywhere. I love every minute of walking through the town. The air is clean. I study each street as I walk, dream about living in the old apartment building with the tangled bottlebrush lining the sidewalk, windows thrown open to the sea only a short block away. I am not here long enough to get a sense of the community, but nothing rubs me wrong. Already it feels like a new friend, that first blush. I look forward to more visits, to the getting-to-know-you process, to finding the warts, discovering the underbelly. Back in Riverside County in the middle dusk, the fresh sea air and the shimmer of sun on water seem like a dream, like a thousand miles ago. But it’s a good dream, the kind of dream you want to wake up from slowly, the kind you want to savor, wet sand beneath your bare feet, the warm air salty on your tongue.
I read Natalie Goldberg’s chapter “Be an Animal” (from Writing Down the Bones). Her words surprise me. I’ve read it I don’t know how many times before, and yet it’s all new to me tonight, each image glistening and precise. She talks about how we are writers even when we are not writing. She tells us to be like the cat, all senses focused on our prey, ready to pounce. She urges us out into the world like this. It’s the way we are when we travel, I think, all the more so in a foreign country. But we can do it here, too, on our own block, across our own town. I discovered this on a Thursday when I left my car with my mechanic in Ukiah, half the day until it would be ready. I shouldered my day pack, walked across town. I came upon a small, deserted cafe, sat by the window, drank tea with half-and-half and honey. I explored the residential neighborhoods west of State Street. I stopped for giant zinnias, hummingbirds, a red front door. I stood for a long time listening to a mockingbird singing in a tall tree on a corner. I let myself move from street to street, changing directions on impulse the way I do in a strange city even though I knew Ukiah, even though it wasn’t new to me. I let it feel new. Without trying, I met it with Zen’s “beginner’s mind.” I remember coming upon a row of small businesses. The flower shop had buckets of red dahlias and yellow sunflowers sitting out on the sidewalk in the early morning shade. It woke up in me my old dream of having my own place for flowers, soup, books, the day’s used newspapers and a messy pile of paperbacks on the window seat. I used to picture myself sweeping the sidewalk in the mornings, setting up shop for the day. I loved the quiet satisfaction of the dream. That morning in my wandering I went across the street to a little park, put my pack on a bench, did my qi gong facing southwest under a big redwood. Later, I walked to the county library, went online, checked in with my students, did some grading. Ordinary things, but because I was in a strange chair breathing different air, I stayed more awake. In the heat of the summer afternoon I walked from the library to pick up my old red Jetta, my beloved Lolita Roja. I could still feel it, the mountain lion pace in me, watching, smelling, tasting the air as I walked through the streets of Ukiah.
This morning I read one of the last chapters in the Natalie Goldberg book. It is titled, “Blue Chair.” She comes back again to Gwen, the student and friend who died. The last line ends like this: “it comes home deeper that I don’t get to say any more; what was said, was said, though the knowledge of her death ripples long after the last stone dropped, rich and living on.” At the beginning of the chapter she is painting a big, “fat” blue chair, “the kind of chair you want to nestle in.” Read in. Write books, your legs dangling over the big arms. She describes the layers of gouache she brushes over it, color after vibrant color until the chair has texture and depth, is no one color but alive in its layered-ness. While I write, a dove sits on the neighbor’s carport, his mourning song echoing the sadness and the layers of her chapter still sinking down inside me. I have felt at times in recent years like I am waiting for all my immediate family to die. Then I will go on to the next part of my life, walk el camino de Santiago, see Greece, Africa, find my “real” home, the place I will spend the rest of my own life. I expect my cat Boo to be the last, hope he will see me through the other losses, spend more years beside me. Because he is too thin and won’t eat much, the other day I became afraid it’s all going to happen too soon, too fast. I don’t want to lose any of them. Ever. I’ve told the universe again and again over these last few years: I am in no hurry. I want to be very clear about that. I am happy to wait. A wave of big, big losses rolled through life in my twenties. Now I am poised for another. But even as I write I know I am not really waiting. I just don’t want to leave them to go do other things. I would rather stay, be nearby. Stock up on life together. I can go later in a different time after the wave has washed back out to sea. I know even though I don’t want this wave to come, it will come anyway. And writing now, I know another thing. I know I must not brace myself against it, in spite of what my past, what my instincts beg. Instead, I want to tread water beyond the breakers, keep warm, nimble. I want to stay close, be ready to launch myself into the swell of it. I want to ride it all the way to the shore, the tears on my face indistinguishable from the salty water that holds me, buoys me, carries me whole and unharmed to the warm sand at the sea’s edge, new layers of bright-colored gouache painted on my soul.