I sit on the stoop in the courtyard, my feet soaking in the round red basin I bought when I lived in Mexico. I’ve grown lax about my grooming. You would shiver if you saw my toes right now. There are a score of mourning doves on the ground in quiet pursuit of spilled seeds, and the goldfinch are noisy at the tube feeders. I’m reading the book my friend Richard lent me, The True Secret of Writing by Natalie Goldberg. Reading her connects me to the world of writing. It has since the beginning. I used to read Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind as often as they would have me. Her books make me feel I am part of a community of writers. I write now with my notebook on my thighs, the palo verde sending spotted shade across my forearm. Quiet pride rises in me. Maybe I am learning to stop the autopilot, the not breathing but moving always to the next thing. Can I make my days different even when my work becomes insane again? Today I remember twice to get on all fours on the concrete to kiss my black cat. I visit Sofia in the closet. This morning there were six goldfinch perched on the leaning sunflower outside the sliding glass door taking big bites out of the leaves. I watched them from bed and dreamed of a secret zoom lens to photograph them without moving, without making them scatter. I no longer reach for my laptop as soon as I wake up. Yesterday I took a shower before dark and marveled at the view outside the little window, the clouds pinking in the last reflected light, the sun long gone. I kept my eyes on the palm trees, on the sky, while I washed, dusk thickening. Now I perch on the steps in the late afternoon, a glass of lemonade beside me, my feet waiting prunes in the red basin. I hear the visiting cowbird’s song, glance up to see his shiny sleekness at the big tray feeder. His watery trill passes through my skin, chasing peace.
I had a funny thing happen with mailing labels, and I want to let it change my life. I wished for more—you know, the free ones wildlife organizations send out, pictures of polar bears and eagles. I was almost out, and I was thinking about that one afternoon walking back from the mailbox, hoping more would come. Within two weeks I must have had eight or nine sheets, more than I’ve ever had at one time. I’ve always had a funny thing about visualizing, too. It isn’t easy for me, unless I’m imagining the things I don’t want to happen. Those spring to life with gruesome ease and require regular banishment. I’ve never been sure, but I suspect I try too hard when I’m asked to visualize something, or maybe I’m afraid I won’t be able to picture it, so I block the image from forming. But these mailing labels were easy, quick, almost unintentional. And not only was picturing them arriving in the mail effortless, but I was not attached to receiving them. I’m certain that was key here, the secret to my largesse. I have tried to visualize winning writing contests, but I don’t know how to be matter of fact about them. I don’t know how to not be attached to my hope of winning. But these mailing labels have inspired me to work in this direction. I am picturing more house finch in our yard, maybe twenty or thirty at the small tray feeder. I am seeing myself thinner and stronger and thriving. And while I was grading a discussion task the other day I went looking for my own “aha” to share with my students and read we should think about how we will feel when we get to have what we want. I like this idea. I think it may help me find a way to “enter in,” that focusing on the feelings may let the pictures arrive unforced. So I am thinking now about how it will feel to have that happy chatter in the mornings from the house finch, joyful and thankful for their company. I am thinking now about how it will feel to have lost more weight, to be healthy and vigorous again, the sheer pleasure and the ease of it, that vibrancy of life. And I am thinking now about how I will feel when I hold a copy of my first book. I can see myself sitting on the patio, eyes closed, stroking the cover. I feel childlike awe, an Easter egg between my open palms, thrilled disbelief, deep gratitude. I feel like the luckiest woman in the world.
Sofia’s been gone since yesterday morning. I cried when I woke up in the middle of the night. She’d done this already three days in a row, but the latest she showed up was midnight. I remembered Richard talking about the poems he’s writing for their cat Sunny who died only weeks ago. He’s wishing he’d been as loving, as open to her, as appreciative of her in her coming as he was in her going. I tortured myself in the dark with memories of pushing her off the bed with a pillow when she returned at midnight two days before and wouldn’t settle on the bed with us but kept making determined strikes for the bolster above my head. I wondered if she had found a home where she’s happier, where she is better loved. Even as the thought broke my heart, another followed on its heels. How could I deny her that?
Logic tells me she is only up to independent cat things. But I can’t remember when she had a stretch like this. Sebastopol? Over a decade ago? It’s an upswing in her cyclical illness, I think. She must be feeling better to take off like this. She’s hardly left the courtyard in months, almost always returned in an hour or so on the rare occasion when she did. She would disappear like this when she was young, first a response to her adoption, feral cat that she was. Later because the Hopland countryside was irresistible. I’ve gone through this with her for years.
I am sitting in the courtyard in the late morning, telling my mother about it on the phone. She’s been gone for over 24 hours now. “I tell myself she’ll be okay,” I say. “But every time I wonder if this will be the time she doesn’t come back.”
And then there is movement beside me. Sofia appears in the courtyard on her quiet cat feet. She acts as though she never left, or had been gone only for a moment. I tell my mother she was the magic talisman. I cry again, a muddled combination of relief and gratitude and fear. And then I laugh, kneeling, hugging her, shaking teardrops around us on the cement.
I am determined to stay current with my blog this year, so I will post today no matter what. Even if what I post is terrible. Natalie Goldberg does tell us we need to be willing to write the worst crap in the United States, yes? Or in the universe. Though I don’t believe she means we need to be willing to publish the worst crap in the world. Only that we need to not be afraid to write badly. We need to not be afraid of our thoughts, afraid of ourselves. We need to be willing to put everything down on the page—no holds barred. Still, after the act of writing we get to choose. Do I really want Uncle Horace to know this about me? What about the people I work with? Do I really want to publish this even though it seems clunky and unpolished? Am I really willing to be that honest, show that much of myself to the world? It is a choice we face again and again, like deciding not to light that cigarette, not to cheat on our husbands. But unlike failing at quitting smoking, unlike making that decision to light up, choosing to edit out parts of our story doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Right? Each time we send something we’ve written out into the world, we decide how much we want to risk, how vulnerable we want to make ourselves. We get to keep ourselves safe. And I think that’s a good thing. (I can hear the clamor of this controversy even as I write.) Is it without its own dangers? No. We might end up not being willing to take risks in our writing. We might keep ourselves too safe. But knowing it is our choice what to reveal, when to reveal it—that’s a comfort to me (if also a conundrum). Thank you, writing gods. Thank you for that. And here’s to being willing to risk. Here’s to trusting we can still be safe.
I make a point of entering my work in writing contests. I’ve been doing it for about four years now. One of my pieces won a small local contest, and most of them have now been finalists here and there. Each time, it heartens me, makes me hopeful. At first I entered almost every contest I came across. Over the years I have narrowed things down some. I tend to not enter the very expensive ones, for instance. And I try to re-enter the ones where people have liked my work in the past. Some contests seem more far fetched than others, but for some reason they appeal to me, so I keep entering them. Fish is one I’d put in that category. I think maybe once a good bit of time ago one of my pieces made it to their longlist, but I don’t remember the details. I don’t remember feeling encouraged by that. (I think it was a very long longlist.) The other day when I was looking over something contest-related, I wondered if I should stop submitting to them. After searching through their lists for my name so many times and not finding it, I was discouraged. And they always had a gazillion entries. I think without admitting it to myself I was wondering if the competition was too stiff, if maybe my work wasn’t good enough. Yesterday when I got their email announcing the winners of their 2014/15 Fish Short Story Prize, I started scrolling through their shortlist with zero expectations of finding my name. (They present the lists in alphabetical order by the writers’ first names.) But I got to the Rs, and there I was–not only listed, but listed twice. Both of the short stories I entered made the shortlist. Out of 1575 submissions, my two pieces were among 103 that were shortlisted. I can’t believe they both made it there. It still makes me grin, remembering what a sweet surprise it was to see my name and the two titles. I just wanted to let you know, my faithful readers. I am feeling encouraged now. And grateful, too. If Fish has shortlisted them, then who knows what might happen next.
Weird how some days are light—busy, maybe, but easy to move through. Nothing jars you. Nothing weights you. Nothing rattles, jangles, presses too hard against your skin. And some days weigh more. Things you can take in stride on any other day push at you, jiggering your insides, everything crimped, all sharp angles. Sometimes I think the universe is toying with me. How many things can she bear in one day before she explodes? Small things, I mean—nothing serious. The cat tracks poop across the down comforter, sprays it against the white wall. The qi gong class you rushed to get to is not the one you were hoping it would be. The wind comes in the late afternoon and chases you inside. You fight with the curtains. They have sprung free from the weights set to hold them, and they are billowing against you as you work, pushing into your space. Your annoyance has no rational tie to the smallness of this invasion. But some days it is the steady press of small things that pisses me off, makes my body feel too small to hold my anger, unjustified though it may be. Was it only this morning I saw the hawk leap from our fence to the sky? Only this morning I followed his flight with my eyes and found the waning moon nestled against the mountain ridge? Was it only this morning I stopped, then, looking at the pale curve of moon and remembered how lucky I am?
I am standing beside the pine table in front of the kitchen window mixing the tuna and medicinal herbs for Sofia. My own watermelon juice was first, the jars full of pink clustered together now on the top shelf of the fridge. I move the blender through its speeds, my body on automatic with the familiar steps. I stand looking outside but not seeing. I am glad I’m finally taking care of this. I’d put it off for too many days, something always getting in the way, robbing the time or the inclination. I flip the lever to slow the speed, turn the other to shut the blender off. I am still staring out the window when I come to. I see Serena, adorned with her yellow palo verde blooms. I see the lime green umbrella, the mountains in the distance, doves in both the tray feeders, late morning snack. Pleasure washes through me. I take it in all at once like a song. I really, really love our new home. Gratitude pours out. This appreciation comes often now, slipping in at odd moments, seeming quieter and deeper than I’ve known before. Maybe that comes with age. Maybe it’s tied to the fact that this one belongs to us more fully than before. Or maybe it’s just her own magic working on me, her spot on the planet, her mountains nearby, her birds, her sky, now her palo verde, her bougainvillea, her human, her cats. I feel like we belong here. And so lucky. I hope she’s glad we came.