Chris Erskine, one of my favorite columnists at the L.A. Times, was kind enough to reply to my email years ago. I remember he talked about how writing a column or a blog can be hard because we’re dependent on what happens in our lives. It was the first time I understood the contrast for me, how it moves between plethora and dearth. Because today I want to come back to those two hummingbirds in my living room whose visit I completely missed when I was having a difficult conversation on the phone the other day. And the last time I was on my bird walk, how I was focused on a woodpecker in a nearby oak, when the man beside me said, “Oh, look, a deer.” I glanced up only long enough to see him, to note his short antlers, and went back to looking at the woodpecker. After, I felt terrible. I went looking for the young buck but couldn’t find him. “I’m sorry,” I told the man later when I’d caught back up to the group. “I shouldn’t have let bird trump buck.” But two weeks later, I still feel sad about it, lying on my back in the courtyard after my yoga. I feel sad I was unable to transfer my attention in that moment. I adore deer. If I’d made a real choice, I would have stopped, breath caught in my chest, and watched the deer in wonder. It is still a grief in me, no ease in forgiving myself, in letting even small things like this go. It comes to me I may need to allow the sadness in more when it first arises. Maybe even one brief full moment would do the trick. Maybe an apology to the buck? I coax myself in letting go. I am only human. I’ll miss moments. I’ll mess up others. I’ll get good at forgiving myself. May I rejoice in the times I remember to stop.
I don’t know how to stop. When I’m alone, I’m better. When I bump my head on the kitchen cabinet or the third time I try to send an email and it still doesn’t work, often I stop long enough to recognize the universe is trying to tell me something. Sometimes I can really stop and redirect myself. But with people it can feel impossible. It is a hot, humid afternoon. I am siting on the couch in the living room talking on the phone. I’m frustrated, impatient, and it’s coming through the sound of my voice. I’m trying to resolve something, unwilling to step back and let it go for now. Two hummingbirds fly in through the open louvers, but I am so wrapped up in my own disturbance, I don’t even look at them. Only a small, distant part of me even knows they have come inside. They spiral together, one glimpse from the corner of my eye. I moderate the tone of my voice on the phone, drop back to a kinder delivery, but I do not drop all the way back down to myself. Later, it makes me sad. The universe sent these amazing creatures on my behalf, tiny luminescent messengers meant to help me, and I missed the whole thing. I did recalibrate, and I’m glad for that. But I was so closed up in my limited experience I missed the magnificence of the moment. I didn’t drop down to bedrock, didn’t welcome those two little beings, didn’t touch awe or gratitude. But tonight I don’t berate myself. I touch the sadness, yes, the disappointment. But I remind myself we live in a generous universe. We get lots of chances. I’m just going to keep trying to pay better attention. I’m going to believe I can learn to stop even in the heart of my disturbance. I’m going to keep aiming myself for the next time, or the next. Or maybe the time after that.
I sweep the courtyard in the morning heat. It is covered with seed casings and feathers and the odd dried bougainvillea blossom. I am sick of the mess. I remind myself I love my birds, that this is a small price to pay. I know this because decades ago I was vacuuming just after my dog Sanji died, and I smelled her warmed fur in the machine. I cried thinking about all the times I resented her hair on the furniture, how much dirt she brought in, how I would so gladly deal with it now if only I could have her back. Still, I am grumpy and resentful of the daily bird mess. The hot, humid air only makes it worse. I am angry with myself for not hosing down the cement, for wanting to wait until I’d be home for a longer stretch to enjoy it, setting up the umbrella, bringing out the pillows. I am angry at myself for wanting it all to be perfect at the same time. I know the daily bird mess would feel less overwhelming if the cement wasn’t so spotted with bird poop, so filthy sweeping seems to make little difference. I think of all the birds partying here when I am gone, living it up all over the courtyard. They don’t do that when I’m home. Still, I am pulled down by my grumpiness. I sweep beside the edge of the cement and look down. There is a small mango nestled in the dirt. It stops me, it’s soft greens and golds, the smoothness of its skin when I pick it up. I rest the mango on my open palm, look at the sturdy little tree who has been so abundant this summer. She has jasmine and a wild vine with trumpet flowers looping about her, but she seems content. I remember how lucky I am, how much I have, how much I am given, always. I look up and see the last quarter moon in the blue sky, another gift. I slough off my discontent. It is heavy, anyway. I let the earth swallow it. I lean the broom against the washing machine, wrap both hands around the mango, chastened. “I promise to savor it,” I tell the tree. I carry the mango inside to the cooler air, grateful.
I stay up past 2am, surprise myself by sleeping until almost nine. I’m allowing myself bizarre behavior, working until late, getting up most days between seven and eight, deep sleep again in the afternoon or early evening. My nights keep growing later and later, my naps, too. I can’t tell if this is crazy dumb or something else, some new allowance on my part, not listening to the insistent logic of the gatekeeper, a good thing, maybe. I know it’s opened something up in my days, knowing I can begin again fresh each evening, knowing there is a long stretch of the night ahead of me. In past years, I trained myself to be up by 5:30 or 6am, the thing to do in desert heat, a chance to be outside. This morning I am leery stepping out into the courtyard, testing the air, but even at 9am I am okay. Saved, still, by our delicious, short summer, only four months this year instead of six or seven, so in August I am not yet used up by the long trudge of it, and already it is lessening. Subtle changes, the peak heat not lasting as long, the temperatures easing back when the sun disappears behind the mountains. Today I am late, though, so for now I sweep only the bit I need to lay down my yoga mats, the thin old purple one on top of the shorter, thick, bright orange one I had to cut off because the young desert rats chewed on it during their inadvertent run of the trailer. I watch the shade move across the cement and begin my yoga just in time. I salute the sun again and again. But I linger too long in chavasana, so the sun itself catches me at the end, only half my body left in the disappearing shade. I went deep, though, so it doesn’t matter. I come to sitting, slowed, opened up, grinning. Namaste.
How can I describe it? We have a short stretch of hot days. It tops out at 122 degrees. One afternoon I hear birdsong. I follow it to the bathroom, peek around the green towel hanging on the shower rod. There is an old, weathered female house finch singing on the open louvers in the little window above the bathtub. I am charmed but baffled until I realize she is coming for the air, both the swamp cooler and the A/C on, all the windows wide open because I can’t live with them closed. I am used to the hummingbirds coming to rest on the one set of louvers without a screen, but this is new. The next day there are four house finch in the bathroom window. One is eating sunflower seeds. Later, I am working on my laptop in the living room, and I hear them on the louvers not two feet from where I sit typing. They are hidden behind the purple curtains, maybe seven of them. How do I say what it’s like to have them so near? They are almost inside my home, a magical visitation, but practical and smart of them, too. It is a dearness to know they are so close to me on the couch, their songs, chirps, their tender small selves, all feathers and air, all sweetness and light, like tiny angels calling, like crossings from another world, like family. It is like nothing I’ve ever known before. When they leave, I wonder if they were a dream.
In my kitchen a collection of bottles sits on the floor beside the stove for a year. One clear glass gallon, three liters of thick glass, the palest green, one mangled plastic pint the perfect size for watering my Christmas cactus and the little squared cactus piece I found beside the road that day in Ajijic when I wandered out of town and found horses and a peace I didn’t know I needed. And four Wild Tonic bottles from when I was addicted to kombucha, their deep blue irresistible. In the courtyard this summer’s glorious batch of bird seed sunflowers lie flat across the edge of the cement for two weeks. I’m not sure why they fell down this year, but I suspect the skunks and their vigorous rooting for bugs in the night. I cut off all the dead or dying blooms when I clean out the bed, cluster all 18 face up beneath the bougainvillea, the different sizes and shades of green and brown, the black seeds peering out, waiting for the mourning doves, unexpected art. I find one small fresh blossom, bring it inside. I wash the dust off one of the Wild Tonic bottles, fill it with water, place the small sunflower inside, the leaves fluttering out. I set it beside me in the living room, the vibrant yellow of its little self, the vivid shine of the indigo glass. They feed me for days.
When I lie down on my back for chavasana at the end of yoga, the crescent moon is above me in the sky, tender and dear in the blue of late morning. I swim the breast stroke in my mother’s pool and watch the ridge when I swim north. It is the same ridge I gazed at from the living room when she was sick. I count my row of yuccas while I swim, though they are no longer in bloom. When I get to the bird walk the leader is speaking in his warm, relaxed voice. It is a big group today. I look around for my two other favorite people, but they are not here. I struggle with my disappointment, reach for the treetops, the sound of the leader’s voice, splashing water in the distance. I can still be here, I tell myself, still tap the deep peace of this place. I can still have a sweet time. In moments, I steady. Then as if conjured the woman I like so much from before is beside me, and I hear the man I like up ahead of us making jokes in his resonant voice. Later, I think about how the leader draws us together, about what a gift he is offering, maybe without knowing. I think about his warmth, his charming lack of ego, his quiet, cheerful knowledge. I think about what a rare bird he is. (Pun intended.) We walk together, rearranging ourselves, clusters and strings of us along the trails, a small, fluid river, California towhees, an ash-throated flycather, a black-headed grossbeak in flight, a green heron across the lake, the old oaks speaking acorn woodpecker. After the bird walk I sit on a wooden bench, a black phoebe sitting nearby, and then I walk by myself through the rose garden. I take slow steps, reluctant to leave. I can feel how even in such a short time, the place has changed me, helped me ground, settle, rest inside. This extraordinary world has worked its magic.