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.
My short story “Between My Ribs” is a finalist for the 2018 American Fiction Short Story Award from New Rivers Press. The 19 stories selected for their anthology are now with the final judge who will choose the first, second and third place winners in the next few weeks. I’ve been eager to tell you, my readers, wanting to share this sweet news, knowing you’ll feel glad for me and wish me well in this. But I’ve been shy about it, too. As I write, I feel big gratitude and quiet glee. But I’m not sure I can do justice to all the feelings this evokes in me. I feel thrilled and grateful and lucky. Of course. And I’m delighted my first publication will be with this university press who I’ve been so fond of for years now. But I feel afraid and sad and uncomfortable, too, and I can’t really point to why. I know I’ve been grappling with my discomfort over wanting to win. I feel honored to be chosen for the anthology, but I would very much like to win the contest, too. I worry about being greedy, so I wrestle with it. “Of course you want to win,” I say. “That’s only natural.” But it sits awkward in me, this wanting it to be more. But maybe I am only afraid of being disappointed if my story isn’t chosen for first place. Maybe it’s as simple as that.
But there is a deep desire in me to win. I want that recognition. I’ve held myself back in so many ways for most of my life, I think. I want to just step forward here. I want to lead this collection. So I’ll ask for your good wishes in this now while the judge is still reading our stories, still weighing his responses to each of them, still sorting through them for himself. I whisper my own prayers into the palms of my cupped hands. I can hear the house finch in the courtyard, and the mountains are clear this morning for the first time in months, keeping vigil with me. I kiss the center of my palms, fold them around each other, bring them to my heart. I sit very still, holding my hope. And then I open my hands, slow movements, the bird released to take to the sky. I grin, lightened, filled with the honor of this gift, at peace in this moment with whatever is meant to unfold next.
And thank you, too, for holding this in your own hearts with me. Just the thought of it makes me want to cry.
[Editor’s note: I don’t know much about Facebook, so this is clunky. But below is both their announcement of the finalists and my own section of that post when you scroll through all the photos. Here I am in my goofy head covering—I got the news when I was staying at the hostel and had to get a photo to them right away, so I took this with my iPad in my favorite chair outside. You can also access the post in their Facebook page here.]
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.
I choose the path on the left. It cuts through dense growth as tall as I am, berries, poison oak. There are pink flowers that scent the air with their wild rose fragrance, violet thistles, bright yellow fennel blossoms three feet above my head. If you look below, you can see pockets of open space, a honeycomb of dens and pathways for larger animals. I peek into them, hoping to spy someone. I’ve decided the animal I saw on the hillside trail was not a coyote but a red fox. That explains the way he felt so different to me, more shy, sweeter somehow, non-threatening. I would like to see him again. The sun is surprising, warm on my shoulders, but the bramble caves are empty. Once in a while the brush dips below my head, and I get to see the lagoon. I stop again and again to just stand there and take it all in. I already love this lagoon, first glimpse, how the water is always moving, talking to the sea, but in a way that speaks to stillness, to safe harbor. The pelicans enchant me, wake up in me the time I fell in love with them in Todos Santos. I watch them glide in to land on the water or take to the air in groups. The sound of them batting the surface of the lagoon with their wings follows me as I walk. I am the only human here. Halfway to the beach I am overcome by how deep the need in me was for this solitude after three full days without being alone except for that first short walk up the hill. It reminds me of living in Ajijic and wandering onto a dirt road that ran west of the town, finding myself beside a big field with horses near the lake, no one else in sight, the peace of the countryside easing a part of me I didn’t even know had been disturbed by all the concrete and bricks, my neighbors packed in tight around me. Funny, I think, to have Mexico conjured twice for me on such a short walk in this northern land. I stand alone on the path for a long time watching the pelicans, breathing in the scent of the wild roses and the darker smell of the wetlands. When I feel something loosen in my chest, I keep walking to the sea.
I ask a woman at the hostel about a short walk to squeeze in after I unpack. She gives me directions for the paved road, a vast view, but a dirt trail on the way distracts me. I send a silent query. The path or the road? I hear loud bird calls off in the distance, the direction of the trail. The immediacy of my answer surprises me. I turn toward the path just as a coyote comes around the bend. I think he’s a coyote, a young one, but his thick fur, his bulk confuses me. I realize I’ve grown used to our desert coyotes, ribs bared. For a moment he seems confused, too, not sure if he should just keep coming, but then he turns around and disappears. I climb along the hillside path that cuts through wild berries and tangled brush. There is thistle, honeysuckle, nettles. There is a red flower like columbine but not, I think, and big patches of tall, white strawflowers. There is poison oak everywhere. Near the top of the hill I talk myself out of going farther. It is already evening, and I don’t want to be stupid. I sit on an old cement wall, drink my kombucha. I can see the ocean, the sun low in the sky. I hear a raven, then see him in the tip of a tall cypress down below. On the way back, I hear a woodpecker in a grove of eucalyptus. The place feels enchanted, ancient, sacred. I feel like I’m staying in a cathedral.
I love the daytime moon, the moon in all her guises. You already know that about me if you’ve been reading my blog for a little while. (Oh, dear, another voice says. Do I talk too much about the moon?!) My first morning at home after being gone, after a difficult visit, I reach up, place a handful of mixed seed in the tray feeder for my mourning doves. My head is at a funny angle, and I catch the moon through a gap between the bougainvillea branches, thick waning crescent. The sighting touches me, this unexpected old friend. The fondness I feel for her softens me, and I am surprised by tears, so glad to see her familiar form, and sparked into the release I need to shed the tension I am carrying. In the early evening I walk home from Ralph’s with cilantro and jalapeños and more bird seed, and I see she is still in the sky, hovering just above the San Jacinto mountains. I am moved again. It feels like she’s waited for me, bracketing my day. Five days later, long, busy days, I make my way through airport security, and somehow I manage to not get icky when they pull both my bags off to be searched by hand. The man doing it is careful and slow. Nothing is jumbled. I end up thanking him. I buy iced green tea, make my way to a spot beside the grass to do my qi gong. I take time to find my own true east for my liver, point my feet there, my best guess. When I sweep my arms up, my head follows, and I see the thin sickle moon, last day, shining through the palm leaves in the pre-dawn not-quite dark. I can’t believe it. Do I make a sound? It feels like she is living proof I have made my way to the right place in this moment. I practice my qi gong, savor the sight of the moon, shake my head in marvel. Later, I wonder if she might be my reward, my gift, for staying calm through the security search, my own “atta girl” from the universe (who knows how hard composure is for me).
I keep thinking I need to go to a big demonstration—for immigrants, for human rights—but when I hear recordings on NPR a part of me recoils. The chants feel too intense, too assaultive, beating against “them.” It isn’t what I want to be. It doesn’t feel nonviolent. People say Mother Teresa refused to go to anti-war demonstrations, but if we ever held a rally for peace, she said, she’d be there. I want that, a sea of humankind, all swaying and singing “Give Peace a Chance” (hippie osmosis from my childhood). What happened to Gandhi, to King? What happened to peaceful resistance? Can’t we make up songs to sing instead of screaming angry chants? Songs that connect us, singing together in the streets, on freeways or tarmacs, our voices carrying across cities, drifting across the sea. I read that in the wake of the havoc and vitriol President Trump scattered across Europe earlier this month there was a music festival in London. Paul Simon and James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt were all there. Each one of them spoke up. None of them named the president, but every one of them voiced messages of encouragement, messages of love. I’m comforted to know these musicians who I’ve loved all my life were over there, counterpoint to our president’s chaos and hatred, letting people know there are other voices in the United States. Voices that want the world to know we aren’t all ugly and mean. We aren’t all afraid of women, of Muslims, of all the dark-skinned peoples of the world, or foreign tongues, or English spoken with a Mexican accent. We aren’t all afraid of gay marriage or body ink or people in wheelchairs. We aren’t afraid of learning to include all genders, all sexual preferences, to stand up for the rights of children and for a woman’s right to choose. What we are afraid of is losing our humanity inch by inch, of letting what binds us all together be whittled away little by little until it’s too late. What we are afraid of is allowing another holocaust. I wish I’d been in those quiet crowds at that music festival, singing along, soothed. I wonder if James Taylor sang “Shed a Little Light“?
[Editor’s note: Looking at my title now in the light of day—”We Aren’t All Afraid”—I think I might need to change it. Because maybe we ARE all afraid. We’re just afraid of very different things. And some of the same ordinary things, too.]