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.
I do my qi gong in Clive’s back yard. I face east, the direction of the liver in traditional Chinese medicine. I stand before the climbing vines and blackberries, the wonderful vegetable garden, old growth, parts untamed, calls to me. I lean forward from my waist, head hanging, arms loose to the ground. I like the looks of me, this upside down view, my feet’s tan lines darker than ever from all my walking this week, the blues and thin-lined purples of my plaid pants, my stones dangling from my throat, the aqua aura bluer today against the blue of my thin shirt, the red yarn still tied to my left wrist, and that little rush of recognition, of familiarity, of fondness for myself. This is me.
I live in the palo verde in the woman’s courtyard. I have waited seven years to be up in this green tree, high above the moist earth that was my home. I sing to summer, cicada sounds in me. Summer serenade, stealthy buzz, begin and end, sudden, sultry, magic. I am a magic cicada. I can turn summer into fall, drive humans from their beds, angry shouts in the night, the slamming of windows. So now I like to stay where I am wanted. This palo verde likes me in her arms, rocks me in the breeze. I am more than a little in love with her. Serena, the woman calls her. She says it like a word in Spanish. She asked the tree’s name when she planted her and saw the word in her head, scrap of paper in her mind, words from an old typewriter like letters from her father when she was a little girl, the name Serena popping out. I didn’t think I’d ever love a tree like this, much less a human. But the woman likes me. She really likes me. And after all those angry windows closed against me in the dark, it is like heaven, like cotton candy, like marbles in the moonlight to feel the woman’s pleasure when I begin to sing. Ah, cicada. I hear her whisper, feel her cherishing my song. If she saw my bug body, I don’t know if she would be able to embrace me as wholly as she does my music. But I know she would honor me still, protect me in every way she can, bug body and all. It makes me want to cry, sitting in Serena in the early dusk, so lucky here in the warm desert sky, feeling the woman’s gladness as I begin to sing.
[Editor’s note: This is a slightly revised version of an 11-minute writing in response to a Natalie Goldberg prompt to write a “waking daydream” that I wrote downtown with Stef on Wednesday in the late morning with the misters on.]
I climb the black metal table for the second time. The first time, weeks ago, I peered over the edge of the nest at two tiny perfect hummingbird eggs nestled side by side. Today, I see a black gangly shape lolling against the inside of the nest, beak to the sky. I am afraid he is dying. The wild bird rescue woman is so reassuring on the phone I almost cry. I see mama hummingbird zoom in and out. I blink twice and the two younglings are jostling each other beside the nest. Then they are gone, though this morning I think I spy one at the feeder. How does that work? Do they need to fan out very far from home? Are there rules about this? But oh. For one more day I catch glimpses of them perched in the guayaba tree, nowhere near the nest. Now I still check. I talk to the empty guayaba just in case they are nearby. (They are hard to spot.) The empty nest makes me ache even as I am so glad they made it. How many times did I worry? Now that they are gone, my fingers itch to dismantle the nest. I want to feel the way it resists or the way it tears or gives way against me. I want to smell it and to know if it is as soft as it looks or strangely rough because it is so strong. Of course I don’t do it. What if they can use it again? And how could I destroy the nest, so beautiful and alluring, poop and all?
It would be sacrilege, I think, to harm the nest. I remember the dream I have where hummingbirds are coming in through the windows and making nests inside my home. I worry about them being trapped inside during the night. But the nests they begin to build against the white walls or nearer the ceiling are more like hives than hummingbird nests, mud-wasp-like, a little creepy except the birds themselves are flitting about dispelling all possibility of anything sinister, so these are just an oddity, it seems. One set of my louvered windows in real life don’t have a screen, and sometimes a hummingbird does fly into the living room with me. They are usually quick and curious, and I’m thankful they tend to leave quickly, too, before I have time to worry for their sake. Since my dream, though, when they come and they poke their curious beaks toward the southwest corner of the ceiling, or they investigate the crevice beside the facing window, sometimes I wonder what it would be like if they did live here. The imagined mess makes me cringe. I would truly abandon any meager tie to civilized living. But think of the potential joy, too, all those incandescent little ones buzzing in and out or asleep nearby in the night. What if the approaching dusk meant I needed to be sure they were all accounted for, so I could close the window before full dark, so I could help to keep them safe here through the night?
Buddhist teachings keep me guessing. Depending on the teacher and the topic, I am reassured or doubtful, suspicious or yielding, intrigued or cross-eyed. Often things just make sense, ring true to me, familiar, like the life I’ve been living for decades. Sometimes I wonder if I’m missing something. Do I only think I understand, have been observing these same things in my life and in the world around me all these years? I’m not sure what makes me doubt myself, but doubt arises. And I’m not sure what inclines me to always calibrate. Is this something I already know? Do I only think I know it? Maybe it’s an old fear, not being enough. Maybe it’s only hubris. Or maybe it’s tied to the way I bristle over sentences that begin with, “Those of us who’ve been practicing for years—” The speaker means a formal sitting practice. But what if we’ve been practicing “off the cushion” all this time? I love sitting practice. I suspect it accelerates things. And it feels like a luxury, all that stillness, all that not doing. Of late I tend to divide my time between the “long breathing in, long breathing out” I’ve been learning and my metta practice. Since I decided to offer the writers retreat this summer in Joshua Tree, I have to bring myself back more than usual, my mind and heart busy dreaming up ideas. I’ve begun sitting with my eyes open more and more. I think I may be giving myself more permission to do what feels right to me, become less concerned with following the rules. But there’s still a part of me who wants to “do it right,” a part of me who wants to know if I’m delusional about the things I think I know. The other day people were talking about feeling one with the mountain. That seems easy and natural to me. But on the surface, I don’t buy the “no self” spiel. Because there is a me. There is my portion of spirit housed in this body. Unique in place and time. Never again will the two be joined, this same form and spirit. But it doesn’t stop me from feeling one with the mountain or the moon or the desert rat dying in my courtyard on a summer afternoon. Or with the ant I stepped on yesterday because I must have hurt him when I was sweeping the courtyard. I put my sandal down on him, my chest aching, to end his tortured movements. I may not buy the “no self” deal, but I do know we’re all one, the mountain and the moon and the rat and the ant—and me.
I’m doing sitting practice on a Thursday morning in March. All the windows are open. I can hear the low hum of the swamp cooler in the back room, feel puffs of air against my skin. When I open my eyes the bougainvillea in the courtyard catches my heart. I close them again, take a long breath in, a long breath out. I feel a familiar tightness in my belly, like it might be messing with my breath. I stay with the feeling, sink deeper. All at once I know this part of me has been afraid for 59 years. The knowing floors me. I’m heartbroken for her. Her dedication humbles me, decades of being afraid on my behalf, wanting to keep me safe. I talk to her. I tell her how sorry I am she’s been afraid all these years and I didn’t know. I invite her to let go. I’ll be afraid again, I say, but you no longer need to hold it all the time. I am bowled over by her sheer strength, to have held this fear all my life. I cry, cradle my belly with my palms, my forearms, both sad and grateful for her sacrifice. I’ve known my fat was a way to protect myself, but this deepens my sense of this. Was my body trying to cocoon this ball of ancient fear, buffer her, maybe, so her efforts might be just a little easier? It’s okay now, I tell her. We’re safe here, I say. We’re safe here doing sitting practice beside the open sliding glass door, the house finch chattering in the courtyard. (Well, safe barring maybe an earthquake, I think.) I tell her she can come on duty now only as needed. You don’t need to do this all the time, I say. I don’t know if she can unfurl just like that, but I vow to remind her again and again. I am still made dumb by what she’s done, this gallantry, the immensity of this feat. It’s okay, I tell her again. It’s okay to rest now in between, I say. Rest, the way the deer’s body relaxes when the danger’s passed, the way she returns to ease, nibbles more grass. Rest, the way the white-crowned sparrows drop down one by one from the bougainvillea after I walk by, going back to eating seeds from the ground, talking music. Rest, I tell her. Sleep, even, if you can. I’ll be right here.
If I were told to create a scrapbook of our springtime in Palm Springs I would include a photograph of the full moon setting in the west this morning, its newly-waning glow poised above the mountains just as the light began to find the day. I’d bottle the air I woke up to last night, how it felt to sit in the center of my bed breathing in the scent of lemon blossoms. Wow, I thought. Inside my home! In the middle of the night! What a gift, I thought. I’d add an audio file to the scrapbook of the grackle who’s calling out this morning from the telephone pole. I’m in the courtyard filling the tray feeders, seeds sliding through my fingers as I listen. It’s his second morning here. I’ve never had a grackle near my home before. It feels like wishes coming true. It makes me want to drive down the western coast of mainland Mexico again, south from Topolobampo on a morning in early April, watching the world begin to show itself around me as I drive along the carretera in the last of the dark. I will park my car off the highway beside the tiendita after the toll booth. I will buy warm tortillas and beans and salsa for breakfast. Even before I get out of the car I can hear them, like nothing else I’ve ever heard before. I stand beside the road turning in a long, slow circle. I see big black birds in every tree, lines of trees that stretch along both sides of the carretera, no cars at this hour. I can see the sea off to the right. The air is wet with it, but the morning sun is warm. Sunlight glints off black feathers, making the birds shine between the leaves of the trees. It takes a little time for it to sink in as I stand there, even though I’ve been here before, even though I’ve sought this out. Every tree is filled with grackles, hundreds and hundreds of them as far as I can see along the road. The air is a cacophony of their calls, these wild, wacky, exotic, zany, happy bird noises. They fill me with their exuberance, their vibrant, lusty liveliness. I am in love with these great-tailed grackles. I am in love with Mexico on an April morning by the sea. I could stand here forever.
[Editor’s note: This piece was written in response to a writing prompt from Bryan Chohen’s book Four Seasons of Creative Writing.]