The Gap Between My Selves (45)

I lost a 4-unit class this semester because of low enrollment. Now I have seven units instead of eleven. I found out on a Friday, and that evening I was running errands, meeting Marylou and Richard for dinner. I remember riding my bike across the parking lot of Smoke Tree Commons, heading toward the wheelchair access by the bank that leads out to the sidewalk on Palm Canyon. I realized I felt like I had failed. All of my I’m-a-bad-person stuff was lit up. It broke all logic, brought tears, fifteen seconds of agony. I was tender with myself, the asphalt blurring beneath my feet on the pedals. I knew it wasn’t true. I’d done nothing wrong. I knew I’d be okay. I even knew there was a gift in this, both seen and hidden blessings, more time, more room, an unseen chance waiting, wings not yet unfurled.

But it still hurt, scared me, made me vulnerable. It was a big loss, a slash, the universe mocking me, my perfect semester, my best in ten years of teaching, now in shreds. I cried for a few minutes that night when I got home, and Sable butted his head against my chin again and again, pacing back and forth beside me on the bed. Saturday was easier. Maybe it was the yoga in the park. I felt buoyed by my belief in the rightness of things, my trust in the universe. Then Sunday morning the cats refuse to eat their breakfast, and I want to throw their bowls across the kitchen, purple glass smashing into the wall. I want to shriek at them. I don’t. I write instead, railing at the universe. It feels like being four years old, standing in the hallway, screaming “I hate you!” at my mother. It feels that wrong. Still, I want to kick, scabbing my shins, to scrabble fingernails across wood, shrieking until I am hoarse.

I want to be the kind of person who can say, “Oh my. Look at that.” I want to be the kind of person who can marvel at losing almost 40% of my income for the semester, at what it might mean. “I wonder what the universe has in store for me?” I want to smile when I say that. I want to trust fully, to relish the promise about to unfold. I am not there yet. But maybe I am close. Maybe I am in between who I am becoming and who I was. Maybe the fact that I was not able to work up a good tantrum is a funny sign of progress, only another stride or two to close the gap between my selves. Maybe I am closing it now even as I write. Because I did cry a little more when I railed against the universe on the page, and I feel better now. I can notice the sparrows in the yard, feel the cooling shade on my upper arms, my left foot asleep on the edge of the wooden chair before me. It comes to me that this semester may still be my best ever. Why would I think otherwise only because it isn’t the shape I planned? I smile, sheepish, and wonder what magic might be waiting.

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Moments (44)

photo of a Cooper's Hawk sitting on a branchI was sitting one morning on the patio thinking about how I needed to quit drinking my yerba maté. I know this because I try to take note when birds arrive, try to find a why. I heard a commotion from my House Sparrows and looked around. I found the Cooper’s Hawk sitting on the dead limb of the pine tree in my neighbor’s yard. It’s one of her regular perches, a place she lands when she has swooped past the tray feeder and failed to catch one of my birds. She sat on the branch, looking around, a bit like a cat, I thought, who pretends he wasn’t really trying for that bird he just missed, who doesn’t want to appear foolish or inept in case you are looking. The hawk just seemed above it all. (No pun intended.) She launched herself to a nearby branch, out of my line of sight, and I leaned forward in my chair to bring her back into view. She was alert, scanning her territory. When I leaned forward I saw what I overlooked on my morning walk, what was hidden from my spot on the patio–the waning moon, a big crescent, pale white in a pale blue sky, just visible beneath the arching limb of the pine, poised above the ridge of the mountain. I scrunched forward, looking at the moon, watching the hawk, humbled and grateful for the moment when I became part of it all, that moment when everything goes still, sharp, vibrant. I heard the tell-tale crunch of Sofia stealing Sable’s dry food and went inside to rescue her from it. When I came back out, the hawk was gone.

[This photo of a Cooper’s Hawk is from Wikipedia and has a Creative Commons license. Used with permission. You can find out more about the image here:]

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If My Soul Were a City (43)

If my soul were a city it would be called Sueño. Dream. It would sit beside the sea, and the citizens would serve the sea creatures in our bay. The whales would come, and we would stand ankle-deep in the wet sand to scrape barnacles from their backs or tread water beside them to help with difficult births. Cars would not be allowed in our seaside town, and everyone would know three or four languages–everyone would speak both Spanish and English fluidly and each of us would know a third or fourth language, as well. When travelers came, they would park outside our city and walk in or ride the solar-powered monorail. If they didn’t speak English or Spanish, the bells would ring and someone who spoke their language would respond to get them settled, show them their way, make them welcome in our town. We would be a desert city, and we would have a desalination plant to bring fresh water to our splashing fountains and our luscious rooftop gardens. We would gather in our plaza at dusk, our zócolo, and add our voices to the calls of the Great-Tailed Grackles. We would sing our prayers for peace, our agradecimiento, our gratitude, and when the last light began to leave the sky and the grackles settled to sleep in the jacarandas our singing would quiet, and we would walk home in small groups or by ourselves, in silence, only our footfalls in the sandy dirt, on the stone streets, only the whoosh of our skirts, the murmur of the sea in the distance. If I were a city I would be filled with color and texture, fuchsias and granite and woven cloth with soft nubs. I would be filled with birds, with caterpillars, with leopards who licked mango juice off the sticky hands of toddlers. If I were a city I would be between borders, between worlds, sandwiched between the desert wilderness and the vast Pacific. If I were a city I would sleep long hours every night and short hours every afternoon, and everything would be closed on Sundays the way it was when I was a little girl living in Tujunga. If I were a city I would sing to welcome the morning sun and rock our world to sleep each night. If I were a city I would be a home, a light, a cradle, a dream always coming true.

[Editor’s note: I wrote this piece in the 10-week Monday night writing workshop I am blessed to be a part of. The workshop is sponsored by Inlandia and is led with sweetness and grace by Maureen Alsop. The writing prompt was created by Dorothy Randall Gray: If your soul were a city, what would it be called, and what would it be like to live there?]

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Maybe I Do Love Writing (42)

Maybe I do love writing like I’d love a sister who could set my teeth clenching like no other, whose icky tone of voice would mirror mine, who might not speak her judgment out loud but the phone would be alive with it, her pause electric. Maybe I do love writing like an old friend who knows my history, my dark places, my ugliness, who loves me anyway. Maybe I do love writing because it provides this sibling comfort, holds up home to me. Maybe I do love writing because it has so much room in it, because it points me to places I don’t want to go and brings me out on the other side, different. Maybe I do love writing because it tethers me to the planet and sends me marching among the stars. It works my muscles, stretches my cells, makes room inside me like yoga practice opens up my body. It twirls me, spirals me, eats me, spits me out half-chewed, kisses the bruises it caused, makes it all better. Maybe I do love writing because it sings me like the sparrows in the hedge, like the grand piano on the open deck of a slow barge, like the first star in the evening sky who gets our wish.

Maybe I love writing because it carries me, fills me, dumps me upside down in the muddy water, sinks me like a stone, lifts me like a bubble, crashes through me like a sonic boom. Maybe I love writing like I love an earthquake, or like a long, rolling orgasm or sweaty sex, because it is sweet, connected, messy release. Maybe I love writing because it makes me who I am at my core, because it rocks me, because it digs me out from beneath the avalanche unscathed. I love writing because I am a baseball being hit out of the park, or met in a soft well-used leather mitt, cradled, held, honed, happy. I love writing because there is nowhere it can’t take me if I let it, because it lets me speak when my mouth is full of gravel, when the mud sticks to my throat, when grief squeezes me shut. I love writing because I carry it with me wherever I go, breathe it in when I am walking, stroke it with my arm that arches out of the water when I swim, brush it with my broom that sweeps the kitchen tile. I love writing because it is always with me, because I am never alone. I love writing because it is my lifeline to myself, to you, to the universe always in motion. I love writing because it spins me, weaves me, pulls my threads tight, makes me whole cloth, keeps me warm, awake, true. I love writing because it makes me never want to stop moving the pen across the page, makes me never want to stop tasting and touching, breathing sound, drinking air, makes me never want to end.

Maybe I do love writing, after all.

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The Twisting (Twisted?) Writer’s Road (41)

When people find out I’m a teacher they ask me, “Do you love it?” I am never able to give them the resounding “Yes!” their breathless question begs. I talk about the ten-year learning curve for basic competency, all the different hats teachers have to wear. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” I tell them. And if someone were to ask me if I love writing, with that same hopeful tone in their voice, I don’t think I’d have that simple “Yes” I imagine they are looking for. It’s hard work. I resist it. At times it feels grueling, even torturous. Sometimes it feels like excavating impacted wisdom teeth buried deep beneath my liver, a bloody, painful process. It is a cold metal scalpel scraping debris from the inside of my ribcage. It is a sightless groping, pawing through my slippery intestines, my fingers brown with shit. It is breathing and writing when I can’t see the edges of my words on the page through the blur of my tears, or being so angry my fingers cramp holding the pen, and I am hurting myself. Writing is an airplane engine blocking all sound, or turbulence 30,000 feet in the air on a dark night flying over Baja California without a single light on the ground to tell you the earth is there below you. It is walking across a bed of bougainvillea branches in bare feet, a basket of stones on your back pressing each foot deeper into the thorns with every step. And it is soaring with the red-shouldered hawk, glimpsing your neighborhood, finding your little garden courtyard far below, riding the thermals, the sleeping cats tiny dots in the distance but sharp and clear with your hawk eyes. Writing is being carried on a bamboo raft down a lazy river, all gliding buoyancy, all clear-eyed effortlessness, the fish and the serpentine rocks below like looking through fresh-washed glass, like beings from another world.

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Why I Write (40)

I write because I love language. I write because I am a terrible snob, and I believe only my truth is real. I write in order to dig to China. I write to meet dragons and dolphins and stand before a volcano and an ice mountain. I write to see red sky, orange seas, blue moons. I write to be able to stay home and do nothing. I write because I want to make a living in my pajamas, and I don’t want to keep teaching. I write because I want to understand myself, face myself. I write because I want to be seen. I write because I believe in the power and the magic of writing, because I love to read and be swept up into a story, to fall in love with the characters. I write because I want to be able to offer that to the world. I write because I do not want to go to the dentist. I write because I am an alligator. I write because my throat tickles and mountains are hidden by clouds. I write to keep my cats alive. I write to sing. I write because I want to.

[Editor’s note: This is what I scrawled in my composition book during a writing “practice” on November 20th of last year in response to a Natalie Goldberg prompt to write about why we write and how it’s okay to make up reasons. I am including it here unedited because that seems like the nature of the beast. And for any students who may be reading, I will say I don’t truly know if I want to not teach—this is just what came out. I think I may really want to keep teaching. I think I might miss it if I stopped, might miss you. I think I want it to become a bit more of a choice instead of a need.]

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No Regrets (39)

I turned down a chance to hike in the desert this morning with people I like very much. It would have meant catching the bus at 7:45, and it sounded like too much to me last night, too much to aim for. I didn’t want to rush today. Still, this morning I felt discomfort, a kind of regret. I’ve had to shrug it away, release it more than once, a voice asking if I was wrong to turn down time with people I care about on this eve day, wrong to choose spending it alone. But I would not have wanted to miss my journey to the farmer’s market on my bike, the morning sun like summer on my skin. I would not have wanted to miss my cup of yerba maté beside me on the patio table while I write, each hot sip rich and creamy with coconut milk and honey. I would not have wanted to miss the afternoon sunlight touching my bare feet, the sparrows chatting in the pyracanthas, the Costa Hummingbird zipping in and out of the courtyard, the sound of people visiting across the street, an outdoor gathering at the Chabad, the flutter of unseen wings, a mystery bird in the big hibiscus. I would not have wanted to deny my cats the bliss of this December day outside or myself the luxury of anticipating my long walk in the late afternoon to my favorite part of town where the condominiums have left a sprawl of wildness in the midst of the manicure, or of coming back in the late dusk or the early dark, the bright-colored glow of my Christmas lights beside the gate welcoming me home. I would not have wanted to miss sitting here beside our mountain, relishing the light and color and life of our little garden on this many-textured day when everything is poised to change. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss writing this to you, or the thought of you reading it, knowing I was thinking of you, turning outward in this inward-turning time, wishing you full hearts and ordinary miracles, sending you this quiet joy with every squiggly stroke of black ink across the page. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss savoring this moment, or the sweet one on its heels in this ending of our year, not for anything.

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The Barn Owl (38)

I walk out the gate in the late dusk. I am bundled up, wrapped in warm scarves, hands in the pockets of my down vest. There is a crooked bush three blocks away, its trunk wrapped in colored lights. I like these small quirky efforts best. I feel the cold on my nose, my cheeks, my calves. I walk fast. Someone at the Biltmore has hung a wreath and a row of colored balls over the side of their balcony, all lit up. I stand in the street with my head back, drinking in their colors, their light. This is one of my favorite traditions, walking in the dark, coming upon each unexpected lit-up treasure. I hear a loud bird call from the house with the shaggy palm trees. I have heard the cry before, I think, but tonight I remember we have an owl here whose call sounds like a scream. If this is an owl, how many times have I walked past one in the dark without knowing? I have never seen an owl, not free in the world.

I keep walking north. The house on the next corner has flood lights flush in the ground, lighting up their bougainvillea hedge, their grove of fan palms. I walk past, and a big bird glides into the path of their light. He is very near. I see his belly, soft feathers a mottled white, his curved wings illuminated against the palm trees, and then he is gone. I stand unmoving, stunned. But for the exquisite timing, I would never have known he was here. It is a brilliant gift, incandescent like the Christmas lights. I walk home, filled with awe and gratitude. I hear his cry once more in the distance. My own little cluster of colored lights greets me at my front hedge. The quiet peace of the owl’s silent gliding presence follows me back inside the gate.

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A Bicycle Built for Two (37)

photo of a tandem bicycleI hear a laughing protest from the street and look up from the page of my notebook. Through the slats in the gate and the gaps in the pyracanthas I watch a man and woman with gray hair and bright white shirts ride by on a tandem bicycle. The man is steering. “I want to get off now,” I hear the woman say as they move beyond the hedge.


I hear breathless laughing as he turns the bike around, the kind of deep, uncontrollable, almost soundless laughter that clenches the belly and brings tears to the eyes. I glimpse them again as they ride past, heading west now. I see the tall curved handlebars, like the Sting-Rays of my youth, imagine her disorientation, gripping them but unable to steer. Then her laughter breaks free, rolls out into the afternoon, sunlight spilling across the road. “Now I can’t stop laughing,” I hear her say as they ride away, flickers of white behind the wooden gate, brave adventurers on a bicycle built for two. They disappear, and I sit in the courtyard looking off in their direction. Now I can’t stop smiling.

[Tandem bike photograph by bert_m_b/Courtesy Flickr.]

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The Man at the Bus Stop (36)

There is a man with a suitcase sitting at the bus stop when I arrive. He is younger, maybe in his early forties (though I am not always good with ages). He has blonde hair that goes to the shoulders of his black leather jacket. His suitcase is black canvas, small, the kind that comes with a handle and rollers. When I first approach, I see a rhythmic movement, flashes of white, and I pause, wary of what might be going on in the dark bus shelter. I stand off the curb, in the turnout for the buses. I want to be able to see the bus when it comes around the bend, want to be sure the driver doesn’t pass us in the dark. The man is smoking a cigarette. He has one ankle resting on his knee, and he shakes his foot back and forth. It was his white tennis shoe I saw flashing, nothing sinister or sleazy. I almost laugh out loud. We wait.

After a long silence, I sigh. “I ran,” I say. “I knew I was cutting it close, so I ran.” I am lamenting because I didn’t need to run. I could have walked the distance three times by now.

“I never run,” he says.

“What,” I ask, “you mean, like it’s a rule?”

“Do you know how easy it is to get a concussion?” he asks. I don’t, not really. I think he means if you were to fall, hit your head on concrete. But he doesn’t. He is talking about how running jars our brains, how he has never known a runner who was truly intelligent.

“I think it makes us stupid, so I never run,” he says. I like his conviction, the way he matches it with action. I enjoy knowing he’s had this theory, has been watching people for years, gathering data. Because I find his declaration odd, I know he may be off, unbalanced even. But he blossoms into three dimensions for me as we talk. “None of the really intelligent people in the world run,” he says, and against all odds I am charmed.

Later on the bus I know this conversation is going to stick with me. I can see me examining his unusual premise from this point forward, studying the runners I meet in the world, wondering if they’re concussed, joking about it in my head. I sit in the lighted bus as we move through the dark night, and I imagine a character in my novel surprising me one day with those quirky, unexpected words. “I never run,” he says, and I smile at my reflection in the bus window.

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