My new piece doesn’t win the Fish Flash Fiction contest. I am stunned. I thought I was going to win. I thought “The Second Flood” was that good. (Did I know I thought I would win? Have I ever thought I would win before?) I scan the short list and then the long list. My piece is not on either one. If I needed to right now, I would be unable to speak, to push out words that make sense. I scan the short list and the long list two more times in case I missed my name. It is not there. There were more than 900 entries, but I can’t believe my story wasn’t even in the top ten percent. I plunge. I wonder how I could have been so delusional. How could I think my piece was any good at all? I know I am a terrible writer. I am underwater, deep in the cold sea where no light lives. I don’t know how long I stay submerged. Maybe work drags me back up, makes be break the surface, breathe air, answer helpdesk questions, grade summaries. Days pass. I am lying on my back in the courtyard in chavasanah. I dream up ways my livelihood might move even more toward my writing. I picture percussive instruments at my writing retreat, and my feet bounce on the yoga mat. I think of a new way of structuring, “When I Was a Dog.” My fingers itch for the pen. “Commit more deeply to your No. 1 focus,” this week’s horoscope says, “and throw yourself into the daring adventure of it.” I leap. This water is warm, strewn with sunlight. I roll over and float on my back, let the tide take me. I remember I can swim.
I take off my necklace before yoga practice, lean forward to lay it on the glass tabletop in my courtyard. I’m not paying attention. I wake up partway through the act. There is something alive on the table. I make a little noise, wave my hands, knee-jerk startle, before I come to all the way and see who it is. It’s a small, scruffy male house finch, touched with orange-yellow. He is sitting in the shade of the umbrella facing away from me, his feathers unkempt. “Oh, I’m sorry,” I say. “You scared me.” I laugh because it is funny being scared by a bird. I bring seed in a sturdy metal dish, water in a red glass bowl. I move with care, but I push them close. He is missing one eye, partly blind in the other, I think. I murmur gentle sounds, gentle wishes. He turns toward my voice, moves his head as though maybe he can get a kind of read of my basic shape. He is not alarmed. I let him be, and he steps onto the edge of the metal bowl to eat. He is slow and steady. He eats for a long time while I do sun salutes beside him, careful not to swoop my arms up too swiftly each time I rise. I wonder if this is the most food he’s been able to have for a long time. I wonder if he’s nearing his end. After, I sit on my yoga mat and look up at him. He’s drinking the water, scooping up mouthful after mouthful. It is so dear to watch it brings tears to my eyes. He’s so beautiful, all delicate grace. I glance away, and then he’s gone. I bow forward, ask the bird gods for mercy. When I go to L.A., I leave the bowls on the table for him just in case.
I fall in love with people at the hostel. Three who work there and a handful who are visiting like me. There are two young women in particular, one from Senegal and one from Argentina, who steal my heart. They are both so vibrant, so strong and confident, so warm. (I cry when we have to say goodbye.) I spend mornings in my green wooden chair overlooking the meadow. I greet people as they walk by. One morning I am brimming with goodwill, and I notice little ways I’ve come to be different. I am saddened by one woman at the front desk who decides I am annoying. (I can be, I know, don’t think I’ve been unduly so with her.) It hurts my heart, but I don’t let it swallow me. I turn away from it, instead, allow it to be her problem, let my heart lift again. I am irked by the woman in my dorm who gets up early, goes in and out, lets the door slam every time. But I don’t get myself all worked up over it, don’t stir self-righteous anger. (I do show her later how to close the door more softly.) In the late afternoon, I sneak a yoga mat from the big basket in the basement and an extra blanket from my bed upstairs and walk down to the basketball court beside the meadow. Birds sit on the chain-link fence and watch me meditate, keep me company when I do my sun salutes. Once, the covey of quail come, and I take quick peeks at them, shy and sweet in the coastal grasses. I take the ferry back to San Francisco, and a second one to Oakland and my train, loving the sunlight and the open water. I eat sourdough olive rolls from Acme bakery and fresh, purple figs on the long trip home. I drink black tea to stay awake, write two blog posts, read a novel on my mini iPad. The late-night air is hot in Palm Springs when I arrive. Exhaustion claims me. I feel a little lost now in this other world.
The sun is unexpected the first day I walk to the beach. I plant myself on a huge driftwood tree, a big pine, I think, in its former life. A woman is painting behind me near the lagoon, easel set up on the sand. I hope I am not in her way. I eat fat green grapes and roasted pumpkin seeds, the shelled kind I bought at Trader Joe’s in San Francisco. I turn my alpaca sweater inside out and fold it into quarters to soften the hard curve of wood beneath my butt, the sweater made up of small colored squares that I found at that garage sale six doors up the street when I first moved to Palm Springs, the one the woman bought in South America. I bunch up wool socks I’ve discarded to cushion my ankles, and I do my sitting practice. After, I write in my notebook. All these things in sequence seem to ground me, and all at once I feel like I have finally arrived, my second full day here. When it happens, the soap bubble disappearing, popping me free, I cry quick, grateful tears. A boy ladybug skirts the back of my neck, skims the top of my head, settles at last on the edge of my mini iPad and seems to be cleaning his legs. He’s visited me several times since I’ve been perched on this tree trunk. I dream him to be the same ladybug, feel like he’s keeping me company. When I go to leave I find a place for him on the tree, a stubby knob, thank him for being my silent companion. On the walk back beside the lagoon I count 200 pelicans. I’ve never seen so many in the United States. Back on the paved road, I feel how much my body wants yoga, and I think about sneaking one of the mats outside. It sounds like just the thing to celebrate my return, to bring me all the way back. I keep walking toward the old cypress trees. I am sleepy and solid and so glad to be myself again.
Monday morning I say prayers for the spirits of Syrians killed by poisonous gas and for the people who love them. I pick dead blossoms from the three big pots of pansies and pull soft, fuzzy, pale green weeds nestled among them. (I’ve decided to do one task each morning toward a clean courtyard.) I break off a pansy bud by mistake. I set it in water, place the small glass beside my bed. The deep purple against the white wood and the soft curve of the tiny stem makes me cry. I cook brown rice, pack pears and peanuts for my snack between writing group and sangha. I still want to do my sitting practice and a tiny bit of yoga before I have to leave, so I keep my writing short. I cry more often these days, small things like the bread and butter or the pansy life stopped short. Big things like dead bodies in Syria, like being afraid about my health or feeling like a failure. But they are brief, quick moments only, and I tend to be kind to myself when they arise. I count to 29 to blend my garlic lemon drink for my liver, and I remember seeing Amma in the grocery store last night, how much better she looked. The memory makes me glad for her, grateful for her Tibetan doctor. And in the same breath, still counting seconds while the blender fills the room with its loud machine noise, I recognize again the part of me who still believes nothing I do will ever be enough. The tears come, but so does a deep certainty that I am healing (louder than that other voice? louder than the blender?) and a wash of dearness for myself and my good efforts.
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.