I sit on the side of my little road and watch the day arrive. I can’t see the eastern sky from my courtyard, so I bring my metal barstools outside the fence (so I can put my feet up), and I carry out the wobbly wooden stool with care where the candle will sit and which might house my tea but these days sports coffee with half and half. I try to be quiet, not bump into things in the dark, aware of my neighbors. I stretch out my legs and settle in as the sky begins to lighten. I face southeast and watch Venus rising, have the honor of a mockingbird singing and displaying at the top of the electric pole before me. I warm my hands on the cup, sip my coffee, close my eyes sometimes when his performance is especially melodic or visually impressive. I feel bad when I get lost in thought and realize I have missed part of his concert or this coming of the day, even though I love the chance to daydream, too. When I am both present and lucky I get to relish his incandescent song and the glory of the morning splashed against the sky. Today there are echoes of deep pink spread across the southern clouds, stopping just before they tint the San Jacintos. Wide stretches of sky between the clouds become that otherworldly aqua color the twilight minutes often bring us here in the desert. We’ve had an extraordinary spring, no doubt due to the extra rain the gods granted us. For weeks the mockingbirds in my neighborhood sang without stopping, day and night. There seemed a kind of frenzy in it, the sheer numbers of singers and that ceaselessness I had yet to experience. Now in the middle of May, our desert spring is over, but this one mockingbird still comes to the telephone poll to serenade me. I lean back in my front-row seat and savor his song. The neighbor’s calico cat trots by on her early morning rounds, surprised but not deterred by my presence in the road. She is not interested in me, intent on her own pursuits, so I return to my morning concert. The waning moon and Venus stay close, too, for a long time—companions in the sky.
I look up when I open the gate, and the small sliver of our waning moon hangs in the rich autumn-blue sky. At the sight I feel met, reassured, lightened. I ride my bike, my pretty new Carrot Girl, to Marylou and Richard’s. This morning I am playing elf. I leave violets and a Ziploc full of bird seed on the back porch to welcome them home. After, I buy bags of Nyger at True Value, pack them on my bike and ride off. I’m glad I didn’t leave things for later in the day because it’s already hot even though we’ve finally touched the relief of fall. I see someone on the sidewalk ahead of me, so I move to the street. There are no cars, no other people, just the two of us heading north. I hear mockingbirds in the cottonwoods to the right. It’s the first time I’ve heard them in months. “The mockingbirds begin,” I breathe, thrilled. It sounds like they’re tuning up, tapping into snatches of their repertoire, not quite breaking into song. I can see now it’s a man ahead of me, short, brown-skinned, something tied to his back, his stride easy. I pull even, and he looks over, surprised but not startled. When I turn toward him I’m already smiling, content on my bike, on this morning, on this quiet street. He grins, nods, his whole face open. I grin back and ride past, infused with joy, with the warmth of our rare, brief intimacy, so easy and glad. I ride home beside the jacarandas, weaving in and out of their shade, and hope that quick moment of connection made him feel good, too.
I know now where my mockingbird sings. Last year they cut down this old behemoth of a tree that used to block the last hour of the sun for me in high summer. They left the trunk with all it’s sawed-off limbs, still tree-high, taller than the trailers. Right now my mockingbird is perched upon it singing to us all. Now and then he sallies forth, small leaps into the air, glorious in his dark grey and white display. Then he settles back down again upon the brown trunk. His song has smoothed out over the past weeks. He sounds like a pro now, all fluidity and grace. The only reason I know he is mine is from the way the sound comes to me. I have imagined him in the night, wondering where he was. I knew he wasn’t in my neighbor’s tree. But I thought he sounded too close to be in one of the palm trees. It wasn’t until the other day I realized where he was. His sally caught my eye from my own perch in bed. It was too tempting. I had to go get my binoculars to watch him up close. The screen on the kitchen window made him a little blurry, but I sat there grinning at myself: birdwatching from bed.
I have a mockingbird this spring who comes nearby and sings to us during the night. He seems to be a bit awkward about it. I think he might be young, just learning how to mimic, still growing into his song. His repertoire seems limited, his delivery stilted. It doesn’t flow from one sound to the next. I picture him out there practicing, trying hard to get each sound right. Maybe in the longer pauses he tries to remember a new sound to do next. It makes me smile, imagining. I hope it is a good effort for him, the kind of concentrating on something we love that requires all of our attention but can feel almost effortless. I hope he feels like that, all intense focus and deep joy and nothing of angst, of worrying he may not be as good as his cousin or as quick to learn. I hope he is pleased with his efforts. I’ve never noticed a mockingbird learning his song, though maybe even the adults practice to master new sounds. It make me feel a little vulnerable, my heart softened for him in his youngness, his big fresh desire, his newness in this world of ours. May he be well loved along the way, and may his songs unfold over time, seamless and soulful in the dark, quiet night.
I lay out my green yoga mat on the far side of my mother’s pool. It seems like the best spot. The concrete is level, the valley stretched out before me to the west. The sun is low in the sky, and I angle my mat so when I’m standing I’ll be facing the orange ball while it sinks behind the mountains. (True sun salutes, I think.) I begin lying down, stretching my spine, my hips. Yesterday was the first day I did my yoga in a long, long time. I was surprised my arms were able to hold my weight when I lowered myself to the mat from plank position. I was wobbly when I came back up to standing, but it didn’t matter. I was just so glad to be doing it again. Today when I get to the sun salutations, my arms are sore from yesterday and won’t hold my weight in that slow lowering to the mat. I have to touch my knees down, and still my arms hurt with the weight of me. When I am back on the mat, dropping my knees from side to side, I see a little bird on the wall near me. I don’t have my glasses on, can’t be sure what kind he is. He looks like he might be a flycatcher, but he stays put on the wall. I decide he may be a young mockingbird, even though he is silent. I slow my movements, not wanting to startle him. He tilts his head, seems to be studying me, strange being on the ground. He stays on the wall for the rest of my yoga, and I am touched and honored by his company. The moon is out, too, bright with daylight. I am fragile today, so the wonder of these two companions swells my heart. When I sit up after chavasana, the bird is gone. But I can still touch his soft, quiet peace. Thank you, little one.
I wake up today to sunlight on the red tulips beside my bed. “Good morning,” I say to them. “Happy Valentine’s Day.” Then I sing happy Valentine’s Day to myself to the tune of the happy birthday song. I like this silly start to the day, lie grinning in the sunny room, the mountains spread before me. I began buying flowers for myself when Sable died. I needed that life here in the room with me. But these are the first tulips I’ve had since his black furry form left this world. Did you know cut tulips keep growing in the vase? I think they may be the only ones who do. I like that about them. And I love how sturdy they are, how upright. I love watching them open and close in the course of a day. Right after Sable died, I wanted a reading, found Rhonda at the crystal store. She told me there was nothing I could have done, eased a weight inside me. “Do you have a plan?” she asked me. A plan? I babbled something I can’t remember now, about how I might try to take care of myself without him here. Maybe about how I wanted to honor the death of both my furred ones by remaining pet free for this next stretch of my life, knowing as I do how it may bring things best served by this. She didn’t even blink, just listened. But then she said something that made me realize she didn’t ask me if I had a plan. She asked me if I had a plant. Ha! It made me laugh. I was touched, too, by her kindness in not correcting me. And I do have a plant, it turns out. I have a small cactus Mami gave me a year ago last Christmas. Right after Boo died, I found tiny red buds all over it. It felt like a message, like a gift. Now it’s in bloom, big deep pink blossoms like exotic birds, my Christmas cactus valentine. I heard the mockingbirds last Wednesday for the first time and wondered if they might be practicing their love songs for the big day. One is singing now as I write, his clear liquid notes drifting through the kitchen window, valentine serenade. May we all be touched by sweetness, today and always.
I read Natalie Goldberg’s chapter “Be an Animal” (from Writing Down the Bones). Her words surprise me. I’ve read it I don’t know how many times before, and yet it’s all new to me tonight, each image glistening and precise. She talks about how we are writers even when we are not writing. She tells us to be like the cat, all senses focused on our prey, ready to pounce. She urges us out into the world like this. It’s the way we are when we travel, I think, all the more so in a foreign country. But we can do it here, too, on our own block, across our own town. I discovered this on a Thursday when I left my car with my mechanic in Ukiah, half the day until it would be ready. I shouldered my day pack, walked across town. I came upon a small, deserted cafe, sat by the window, drank tea with half-and-half and honey. I explored the residential neighborhoods west of State Street. I stopped for giant zinnias, hummingbirds, a red front door. I stood for a long time listening to a mockingbird singing in a tall tree on a corner. I let myself move from street to street, changing directions on impulse the way I do in a strange city even though I knew Ukiah, even though it wasn’t new to me. I let it feel new. Without trying, I met it with Zen’s “beginner’s mind.” I remember coming upon a row of small businesses. The flower shop had buckets of red dahlias and yellow sunflowers sitting out on the sidewalk in the early morning shade. It woke up in me my old dream of having my own place for flowers, soup, books, the day’s used newspapers and a messy pile of paperbacks on the window seat. I used to picture myself sweeping the sidewalk in the mornings, setting up shop for the day. I loved the quiet satisfaction of the dream. That morning in my wandering I went across the street to a little park, put my pack on a bench, did my qi gong facing southwest under a big redwood. Later, I walked to the county library, went online, checked in with my students, did some grading. Ordinary things, but because I was in a strange chair breathing different air, I stayed more awake. In the heat of the summer afternoon I walked from the library to pick up my old red Jetta, my beloved Lolita Roja. I could still feel it, the mountain lion pace in me, watching, smelling, tasting the air as I walked through the streets of Ukiah.