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.
The eastern sky is washed in dark pink, our version of a sunset here, so near the San Jacintos. The clouds stretch north, too, as far as I can see on tiptoe. I am weeding the driveway, but I stop to look. There are two of the huge round kind I have only seen in these skies, big puffy smooshed almost-spirals that look like spaceships. The pink pales, and I go back to pulling weeds until the twilight plays tricks on my eyes. Later I remember I have left my shears sitting in the gravel. When I go back out to get them, I see the new crescent moon beside Venus in the west, a hands breadth above the mountains. I stand still, the dangling shears a weight pulling on my arm, my lips parted. They are surprising and bright above the darkening ridge. Back inside, I grab my laptop to do more work. I am carrying it to the living room when I have the impulse to look for them again. I bend my knees to peer out through the 4-inch slit of open window in my front door. They are still there, shining now through the silhouettes of the Palo Verde branches. I am like a little kid, scrunched down, nose pressed up against the screen. I stand there in the narrow hallway, giddy, computer clutched against my chest, watching the two of them for a long time, magic beings in the night sky.
Thursday morning there is the barest touch of chill to the air. I change my T-shirt for the long-sleeved pink top Mami bought me, the one with the psychedelic swirl of words on the front that she and Auntie Gardi have, too. Mine has big holes at the wrists, and I know I will have to take it off again in less than an hour. But I slide my arms into it, loving its soft suppleness, the pleasure of the fabric covering me against the momentary cold. I am guessing this may be the last time I get to wear it. It is an odd thing, this living in the desert, this craving for cold when the rest of our hemisphere is yearning after warmth. But I am not ready for this to be the last time yet, the last time I pull on a long-sleeved top, the beginning of half a year or more of heat. I count on my fingers, eight months of it if this is truly the last cool morning. (Banish the thought.) I want to stave off summer as long as I can. I relish the cool air through the open sliding glass door. There are big dark polka dots on the pavement, evidence of an attempt to rain before I woke. I sit propped up in bed to write, cozy now in my soft pink shirt. I can smell that first rain smell, moist dirt and concrete. Black clouds hug the San Jacintos, and I hear mockingbirds in the distance, a scattered quartet. I breathe in the new rain smell and smile at our good fortune. Maybe today will be a rare gray day.
I ride along the bike path on my way home from the farmers market, the San Jacinto mountains ranged before me. “Look where I live,” I whisper. I remember driving home from Santa Rosa on Guerneville Road, fields spread out beside me, the green rolling hills ahead. “Look where I live,” I’d say. I’d wiggle my butt on the seat, both hands on the wheel, dancing a little jig inside. I can go all the way back to Oakland, to that freeway junction I loved, from 580 to 24, I think. It ran in a wide climbing arc, the glory of the East Bay spread out below me. In Hopland I would sit on our wide stone porch and watch the rock outcropping change colors with the day, and I’d feel like I was living in a vacation rental. Then walking on the beach in Todos Santos, alone amidst scoops of brown pelicans, no one else in sight. Or riding the bus to San Juan Cosolá, ranchera music pouring out the open windows, my cheeks wet with grateful tears. I have been so lucky. But there is something about the San Jacintos that stirs me. And they are such a contrast to the lush farmland and oak woodland green of Sonoma County that evoked that first deep sense of wonder over where I lived. Now it is this stark, enormous nearby presence that makes my heart beat, breathes my lungs, these craggy rock mountains so alive I wonder if I can ever choose to live without them.
“I always like to end our practice by embracing our gratitude,” Janet says. We are seated on our yoga mats, hands pressed together before our hearts, elbows out. We are in the park on a Saturday morning in April, ringed by a circle of desert acacia. Big tufts of yellow lie spent in the grass around us, and the San Jacintos tower in the west, close enough to touch.
Gratitude, I think. Agradecimiento. I am crouched in shallow water in the motel pool, just below a tiny bridge seeking shade. I am grateful I am not driving, my two miserable cats unwilling passengers, my heart in my throat every time we pass an oncoming semi, no shoulders on the mountain highway, a mere six inches of margin, no room for error. I breathe for the first time in three days. The July air in Loreto is muggy and hot, the water warm but wet, life-giving. I am crouched beside a Mexican woman in her early forties. I talk to her in my excruciating Spanish, and she is patient, kind. “Mi corazon es muy lleno,” I say. My heart is very full. I feel connected to her, fellow travelers escaping the sun in Baja California Sur, scrunched together in the same small patch of shade. Her son is playing nearby. “Tengo muchas gracias para todos,” I say. I have much thank you in order for everything. She smiles, nods, doesn’t laugh at me.
“Agradecimiento,” she says, teaching me the word for gratitude, from the verb agradecer, to thank or to be grateful for. She tells me more, examples of how to use various forms of the word in sentences, but this is what I walk away with. I try it out, happy to have been fed a word that holds so much meaning for me, happy to be having my first Mexican conversation that has depth, speaking in Spanish.
“Tengo mucho agradecimiento,” I say. I have much gratitude. I grin at her, a big, proud, childlike grin, and she grins back.
“Take a moment to be thankful for the people around you,” Janet says, “for sharing this practice today.” The sound of the woman’s son splashing in the warm water under that little bridge recedes. I hear a plane flying south, a car driving past on Miraleste. A raven caws from the north, and a mockingbird begins to sing from his perch in one of the acacias. My heart is full, lleno, quiet. We all bow forward, hands to our hearts. “Namaste.”
[Editor’s note: This second photo that shows the little bridge we were under is not mine. It is a promotional photo from the motel, La Pinta Desert Inn Hotel in Loreto, Baja California Sur, Mexico.]