Natalie Goldberg says in Writing Down the Bones, “Become big and write with the whole world in your arms.” I love that. I love the way it makes me feel. When I write I am my mother who cleaned the house every Friday when I was little. Daddy brought home Bob’s Big Boy that night for dinner, the combination plates, so she didn’t have to cook. When I write I am my 4th-grade self walking down the hallway in my stepfather’s house in East Granby, Connecticut, when I heard the radio saying Kennedy had been shot. When I write I am big like the San Jacinto mountains that right now are diminished by the smog between us, but I am big like their massive shoulders, big like they are when the air is clean and you think you can reach out and stroke the ridge line like a sleeping bear. When I write I am the African on a crowded raft hoping to reach Italy alive. I am lost treasure at the bottom of the sea beneath him, gold doubloons among the old white bones. When I write I am the breeze that moves across my skin and still cools me in the early summer day. I am the wind that breaks my green umbrella. When I write I hold the field of sunflowers in my arms beside the path to Santiago de Compostela. When I am big I write with Hitler and George Bush (the son) and Glinda from The Wizard of Oz—they are all in my arms. And Toto, too. When I write I am clouds, streetlights, 4711 cologne, Stalin, Ray Bradbury, Natalie Goldberg. I hold rain and starlight, yerba maté with coconut milk and honey, exhaust fumes from the diesel truck my neighbor drives, eggshells in the trash wet with the whites I have syphoned off for the egg yolks I fed the cats. When I write I hold you and Aunt Doris and Huckleberry Finn in my arms. I hold myself in my arms. I learn to be tender with myself. When I write, I hold you, too, and try to be honest and kind.
This morning I read one of the last chapters in the Natalie Goldberg book. It is titled, “Blue Chair.” She comes back again to Gwen, the student and friend who died. The last line ends like this: “it comes home deeper that I don’t get to say any more; what was said, was said, though the knowledge of her death ripples long after the last stone dropped, rich and living on.” At the beginning of the chapter she is painting a big, “fat” blue chair, “the kind of chair you want to nestle in.” Read in. Write books, your legs dangling over the big arms. She describes the layers of gouache she brushes over it, color after vibrant color until the chair has texture and depth, is no one color but alive in its layered-ness. While I write, a dove sits on the neighbor’s carport, his mourning song echoing the sadness and the layers of her chapter still sinking down inside me. I have felt at times in recent years like I am waiting for all my immediate family to die. Then I will go on to the next part of my life, walk el camino de Santiago, see Greece, Africa, find my “real” home, the place I will spend the rest of my own life. I expect my cat Boo to be the last, hope he will see me through the other losses, spend more years beside me. Because he is too thin and won’t eat much, the other day I became afraid it’s all going to happen too soon, too fast. I don’t want to lose any of them. Ever. I’ve told the universe again and again over these last few years: I am in no hurry. I want to be very clear about that. I am happy to wait. A wave of big, big losses rolled through life in my twenties. Now I am poised for another. But even as I write I know I am not really waiting. I just don’t want to leave them to go do other things. I would rather stay, be nearby. Stock up on life together. I can go later in a different time after the wave has washed back out to sea. I know even though I don’t want this wave to come, it will come anyway. And writing now, I know another thing. I know I must not brace myself against it, in spite of what my past, what my instincts beg. Instead, I want to tread water beyond the breakers, keep warm, nimble. I want to stay close, be ready to launch myself into the swell of it. I want to ride it all the way to the shore, the tears on my face indistinguishable from the salty water that holds me, buoys me, carries me whole and unharmed to the warm sand at the sea’s edge, new layers of bright-colored gouache painted on my soul.