Book Company (24)

I must have been in a weird place when I read Natalie Goldberg’s Thunder and Lightning the first time. Because I remember being disappointed, and I’m loving it this second time through. I am using it the way I’ve been rereading her other books, a chapter or sometimes two before I do my daily writing. I’ve described this before, I think. Letting myself read about writing carves out time and space for me to be a writer. It makes me feel like I am part of the conversation, one writer among many. Now that I feel good about Thunder and Lightening, too, it means I have four books of hers to reread. But I will need to take a break from them when I’m done with this one. I need to read the other books I have on writing, the small collection I bought before I moved to Mexico. I don’t know what possessed me. At that time before I left the country I must have still been reading a chapter every morning, Natalie Goldberg or Ray Bradbury or even Dorothea Brande or Brenda Ueland, four of my favorites. So I combed bibliographies and bought more books about writing, consumed with preserving this ritual in foreign lands. In Hopland, where it began for me, I would sit outside on my stone porch that looked across a big field, a craggy rock embedded in the hillside. I would read first, and then I’d write a page of my novel, my answer to unearthing time for my writing even though I was still in my first years of teaching when there was no time. I promised myself I would write for eleven minutes each day. And the time before the writing, immersing myself in the world of the writer, was sheer joy.

When I’m finished reading Thunder and Lightning, I tell myself now, I will tackle one of the new books. I tried reading a few of them before, but I never made it very far. Now I am determined to read them all. Maybe there will be another gem or two I can add to my “real” collection. If I can grow it a bit larger, if I find enough of them that feed me the way my favorites do, then by the time I finish the last one in my set I can just begin again with the first, Writing Down the Bones. The thought delights me, even if it makes me sound insane. Because no matter how many times I reread them, I’m always reminded of something I’ve forgotten, something timely to my life right now. I see things I missed before, too, or I understand them in a new way. And always in returning to one of these books there is that joining in, that sharing of the writer’s life, the comfort of the writer’s voice like reuniting with an old friend, like sliding into my old, worn sweater, the color of wine, the one with the holes in it I love to dig out at the first hint of chill in the fall air. So, I’m going to read the books I haven’t read but carried with me for eight years, go looking for new old friends. But maybe, before I begin, I’ll first let myself return to Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing. Because it’s been a long, long time, and the thought of his sweet, kind, vibrant being draws me back again.

Away and Back Again (23)

On and off all day today I feel like I want to cry. Each time, the small rush of feeling wells up, pushes behind my eyes and stops. No tears. And no real reason, either, for wanting to cry. Unless it is because I am being mean to myself, some subtle, silent conversation going on inside me. I have tried so hard this week to stay grounded in the wake of hectic work. By Tuesday I had already failed. Even Sable’s endless moanings at me weren’t enough to pierce my intense distraction, my other-where-ness. (He is such a good barometer for me. How did I miss that?) Today I lose most of the morning and part of the afternoon. At 2:22 I get to a stopping point with work, and inspired by the numbers I vow to not return to it until 4:44. It is my newest “plan,” to try to fully step away long enough to recover myself. I practice my yoga in the courtyard. After, lying in chavasana, I do cry for a moment, knowing I am being unkind. Real change takes time. I need to be patient, find my way in this. But I don’t want to sacrifice being present with my life for my work. And there are other things. I want to recognize and trust my intuition. I want to know when my tree needs water. I want more red blood cells, a happy thyroid. Lying on my yoga mat beneath the tree, I tell myself I am making good effort. I am growing and healing. But I want it all now, even though I know it all takes time. When I stand up again, I am okay. I am back. Now it’s 3:22. I still have an hour and 22 minutes that are my own. I make watermelon juice and drink it on the patio. I eat a handful of roasted walnuts, read another chapter of Natalie Goldberg’s book. (I am back to Thunder and Lightening.) When she feels “broken or splintered,” she tells us, she returns again and again to Silko’s Ceremony. “I let the ritual of the book,” she says, “make me feel whole again. I’m never ashamed to read a book twice or as many times as I want. We never expect to drink a glass of water just once in our lives. A book can be that essential, too.” It is this last sentence that makes me cry again. I have books like this, books that feed me, mend me, make me whole. But I think I cry because it is such a gift to have this, to know how essential a book can be. Like water. Like air. And I think I cry because of how it speaks to me, the intimacy, the sense of being seen, and a secret longing to be part of offering that, too. Now I am all the way back. I write the first draft of this week’s blog post. I drink more watermelon juice and sit in the courtyard breathing.

Two Hemingways (22)

I just read the chapter in Natalie Goldberg’s book where she visits Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West. She describes his attic studio with big windows and a “palpable presence.” She hears tourists gasp behind her. They feel it, too. Now that my short story has won his granddaughter’s contest, I feel connected to Hemingway, as well. I didn’t remember this chapter, but now it lights me up. Natalie talks about how he “cared about the sun and the gradation of light,” and I think: me, too. Me, too. I’ve bought his granddaughter’s memoir, Walk on Water. It’s sitting by the window on my kitchen table. And I will need to read the grandfather’s work now, as well. It is his name, his blood, that is my entrance into the literary world. I want to honor it. I want to know them both, fellow writers. I didn’t know he killed himself, or I’d forgotten. I only know I’ve had a great fondness for him for almost 40 years, ever since I fell in love with Gertrude Stein. I adopted her love for Hemingway. Now I take on Natalie Goldberg’s, too. I want direct knowledge. I want to stand in that attic studio with the Florida light falling through the windows. Maybe I will go to Idaho and stand beside his grave. Or maybe I will read The Sun Also Rises when I am walking the camino de Santiago across northern Spain, and I will visit Pamplona and stand in the room where he wrote and feel him there, this century later. And I will whisper to him that I used to think I was Gertrude Stein in another life. I will tell him about the uncanny light I fell in love with in the mountains of Jalisco. And I will thank him again and again for Lorian, for this granddaughter who loves my work.

July 31st (21)

book, notebook, binoculars, candles, altar things on patio table

It’s July 31st. I hear Carole King singing in my head and dream of waking up beside the man I love on the first day of August. Hers is a love song to summer. It’s not yet noon, over 100 degrees, muggy. Clouds piled against the mountains move toward us. One good thing: this weather gives us cleaner air. Second good thing: cicadas loud in the two trees. They change pitch, volume, breath, weave sound in and out, insect orchestra. I have just read the chapter of Natalie’s book where she talks about teachers, about Wendy. She is right. Wendy’s rich prose makes me envious. But right before, she tells us to copy Hemingway, to write a piece in one or two syllable words. I think: I do that. I don’t need to practice that. It’s organic, what comes to me. Today is the eve of the halfway point between midsummer and the fall equinox, the veil between the worlds thin. I make a small altar on the courtyard table: two tomatoes grown in the big terra cotta pot, bougainvillea, tecoma and Mexican birds of paradise from our garden, orange calcite, yellow citrine. I light one candle for this harvest time, for this turning of our world, and a second candle for all the beings I know who’ve died in recent months, feline, human, canine: Sunny, Auntie Christel’s brother in Germany, Bob, Colleen’s father, Annie. I ask for blessings on their spirits, on the ones left behind, still in bodies. May we honor both sides of this thinning veil. I take a deep breath, hear small chirpings in our tree. A verdin, I think. One lone dove sits on the wooden fence, Boo sprawled beneath the apricot mallow. Sofia comes outside, drinks water. Everything goes still. And then the cicadas begin to buzz again, and I draw another breath, keep my pen moving across the page. Sweat rolls down my right temple. My stomach growls. I twitch a fly off my forearm. I am in love with the last day of July.

Become Big, or When I Write (13)

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.

Ready to Pounce (10)

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.

Entering In (6)

I let myself read a bit of the Natalie Goldberg book every day. At some point I come close to tears. Today is no different. Richard told me years ago my writing tends to make him cry. I wonder if it still does? I think in the Goldberg it is something about the open heartedness but also the bigness of spirit, that maybe we are grouchy and critical but still human and lovable. And this bigness of spirit is in her writing itself, not just in what she says. She makes me want to reach for those open spaces in my own writing. I used to find them more often, I think, but I’m not sure. I remember talking about “entering in” at one of Clive Matson’s workshops. It seemed to happen every time I wrote. It’s hard to know now if this was even true. Was it a kind of beginner’s luck? Or was it only a different understanding of it all when I first started? I was reading Natalie Goldberg then, too, every morning on my stone porch in Hopland before I filled my page a day. I wrote the beginnings of my novel that way, felt like a “real” writer for the first time in my life. But I remember the look on Clive’s face when I was talking about it. “What do you mean by entering in?” he said. He was hesitant, puzzled. I hadn’t meant to be glib. I thought I was talking about something that happened to everyone when we wrote, that dropping down and the opening up, being part of something larger, letting the writing come out. I used to be able to do it at will. Now I’m not sure I do it at all. But maybe my memory of those Hopland mornings is exaggerated, dreamlike. Or maybe over time the experience becomes more familiar, the transition less noticeable. I don’t know. But I do know reading Natalie Goldberg makes me want to break out into something larger. And I dream about one day going to one of her writing retreats. But what if in person she rubs me the wrong way? It’s silly, I know, but I don’t want to “ruin” her books for me, like being afraid to sleep with your best friend, not wanting to take that risk. Still, I think, if I get the chance I’m going. Maybe she’ll do a retreat at a hot springs, maybe Tassajara. Sit. Walk. Write. Soak. (Sigh.) I’m in.