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.
I am sitting naked in Desert Hot Springs. Not sitting about in the center of town, no—in a small, modest resort with natural mineral springs. The warm wind has been whipping about me for hours, loud in the fan palms beside the pool. A statue of Quan Yin presides poolside. I’m in the shade now. I’ve been reading most of the day. I go into the hot mineral pool until I’m sated. The wind makes me cold when I emerge, and I wrap myself in my sarong until my skin is dry and the warm air heat seeps into me again. This morning I did yoga. I did qi gong in the early afternoon. I faced northeast, a potted bougainvillea beside me, the low slung hill visible over the bamboo fence. It has been one of those days that go on and on, the quiet stretching of time, summer days in childhood. I feel relaxed, lucky. I am grateful I’ve found this place. My eyes feel sore, a lingering fever. This morning before the wind began, there was a cactus wren laughing from one of these palms. There was a loose dog in the street when I walked here from the bus stop. I look forward to the day when coming here will feel familiar, like visiting someone I know well. I close the door behind me when I leave and walk away. I look back and see the waxing moon hanging above the roofline in the late afternoon sky as though it’s guarding the place. The moon follows me all the way home.
These past two years I felt like I made big strides but then fell back again into old bad habits. I am not certain if I ran out of will power or the cumulative stress of my effort took an inevitable toll. Last year I did my yoga, my qi gong, wrote and went for a walk every single day into May. Then I collapsed. I am so tired of the pendulum swing. For years, I’ve had this feeling things won’t last as long as I’m approaching them from the outside-in, willing myself to tend to my temple. I sensed I needed to change from the inside-out, to learn to want to take care of myself. So my focus now is on being kinder, not pushing in the same old way. I want to move forward, grab that chance at “once and for all.” I don’t want to fail, and a part of me insinuates I might. But I shed that heavy cloak two moons ago, two hours on a Saturday morning. I let that terrible message that no matter what I do it won’t be enough fall from my shoulders. I no longer need to keep pushing with all my weight against the brick wall. The barest touch of my finger, I remind myself, the wisp of intention. I silence the whisper that tells me I might not make it, send the doubter away. “I can do this,” I tell it. “I can change.”
I can hear the crickets through the open windows. Sofia is snoozing in the bathroom sink. (I almost yelped the first time I walked in and saw her there, so unexpected, like finding a tiger in the bathtub.) Sable is asleep at the foot of the bed. My eyes are heavy, but I want to post this tonight. April 8th, a summer night for anywhere normal. I’m not used to the heat yet, so today’s 96 degrees or so felt hot, but the night is gentle, soothing warmth. Long luxurious day but going since early morning. Qi gong class, then celebrating my birthday with Mami and Auntie Gardi, then easy weekly grading and finishing my four daily things. The three of us walked to lunch, my yummy yellow lentil dal. Opened presents under the umbrella here in our courtyard, all bright colors, paper and fabrics, yellow tulips, orange star flowers in the red and orange metal pot. I made iced coffee, and they oohed and ahhhed the garden, enjoyed “my” birds. I think it was a grosbeak who came to the small tray feeder, then hopped into the palo verde before he flew away. I read they were passing through. Sofia played with the ties of Auntie Gardi’s blouse, cheered us all to see it. Mami got teary when they left. I remember crying every time I drove away from her house. I’d forgotten. Now she drives me to the train station. Their visit stretched the hours, no rushing, like summer days as a kid. Now I listen to the crickets in the rich dark, a sleepy, lucky 56-year-old who’s completed the first of her 56 posts.
Have you noticed how far north the sun has already traveled across its annual trajectory? It keeps surprising me. It seems like it’s already more than halfway back toward the spot I watch it disappear behind the mountains in the height of summer, and yet we’re not nearly to the spring equinox which I’m thinking must be the halfway point in its path. One of my favorite holidays is Candlemas, or Imbolc. It falls on February second, Groundhog Day, and marks the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It’s one of the eight main pagan holidays, and it celebrates this growing light. This year for Candlemas I built a small altar with five candles. I don’t tend to follow any rules, but I chose five white tealights for the physical symmetry—I put one in the center—and because five is the human number. I picked flowers from my garden, used a baby food jar for my tiny bouquet. I meant to post to you on the holiday itself, but I went to see a play with my Auntie Christel, A Perfect Ganesh, and the Sunday slipped away from me.
But I am loving this lengthening of the days. This year more than ever I seem to have trouble getting things done while it’s still light. I end up walking around our neighborhood in the dark wearing my bright pink lighted dog leash like a sash to keep me safe from bike riders. Or doing my qi gong in the courtyard, my dragon’s punch toward the rim of the mountains just visible in the early night. I am not sorry for these, am enjoying each one, even the yoga I did the other night with a lamp beside me on the ground to make sure I could see any bugs who might decide to wander over. But it lifts my heart to feel those extra minutes of light added to every day, to watch the settling of darkness moving back a bit each night. Here is to the waxing light.
I spent Wednesday at a local resort, “day use” there my treat for spring break. I drank coffee and did my qi gong and my yoga on the cement beside the hot tub. It was warm from the sun, and I lay on my back and watched the fan palm leaves bend and bristle in the wind. I stood beside the wall of cloudy glass bricks, alone in my corner of that public world, and I kicked my legs forward and backward, punched the air before me, stood still at the end of the series, the dragon stands between the heavens and the earth. In between I floated in the hot water and let the tension leak out of my body and felt a dream emerge in me. The “Travel” section of the Sunday Times was about Mexico, and I read it greedily. It was focused on Mérida, a city in the Yucatán. Just like that, the desire to visit was alive in me. And somewhere in the midst of doing my qi gong in that hidden section of the resort, of floating in the hot water watching the San Jacinto mountains peeking out between the palm trees, of feeling the sun-warmed cement beneath my back, against my thighs while I twisted my spine and stretched my hips, a vision grew in me of a neighborhood in Mérida and a part I might play there one day. I dreamed a fountain and good food, a plaza garden, a co-op, a milpa, peace.