A Bookcation!

Madeleine L ’Engle said, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” She is right. Books for children carry untold nuggets of wisdom. Certainly, my third-grade teacher knew this. Mrs. Vawter read to us every day after lunch. Her gift: she impersonated book characters. She was George Washington shouting orders to the troops when we read his biography. She was Jody Baxter with a backwoods accent when she read The Yearling, a heartbreaking tale of a boy shooting his own pet. In that classroom I often hid behind the book bins after school to read. It is there I learned to love books.

Bump forward a few decades. There is a pandemic. Initially my granddaughter Macy and I loved the novelty of staying home and doing lessons together in a Zoom room, but when we had to cancel a beach trip and the dog days of summer slapped us with three-digit heat, Macy’s enthusiasm waned. Her sapphire eyes lacked their shine. Her voice lingered sadly on words and lacked her trademark joy. Together we decided to go on our own journey. Through books. As Dr. Seuss said, “Oh the places you’ll go!” Even amid a pandemic.

And so began our reading trek down to Mexico where at age twelve Esperanza (Esperanza Rising) lived a fairy-tale existence on a sprawling ranch. As her family’s laborers harvested the grapes for market, Esperanza and her family prepared for the annual fiesta and her thirteenth birthday. But there would be no celebration. A sudden tragedy shatters her perfect world, and Mama and Esperanza are forced to flee to a migrant work camp in California where the Great Depression complicates their lives. Mama falls ill, and Esperanza undertakes hard labor to keep them fed.

Next our reading journey led us from the Great Depression to the deserts of Sudan where we trekked with the teenage Salva (The Long Walk) across his war-torn country in search of the family he had lost. From the rebellion in Sudan, we journeyed to Saigon (Inside Out and Back Again). A young poet Ha wrote poems to share the beauty of her life with friends and her beloved papaya tree before the Vietnam War drove Ha and her family to flee aboard a crowded ship headed toward hope. Headed to America—a country that baffled Ha with its strange food and confusing, mixed messages for immigrants. We read more poems that captured the anguish of a similar prejudice. Poet Jacueline Woodson taught us what it was like to be a brown girl struggling to find her place as she grew up in the South (Brown Girl Dreaming). Along with the stray dog she adopted, Opal (Because of Winn Dixie) taught us how to befriend those in need and how to thread together a truly disconnected little town. “Opal is a hero,” Macy explained to me.

By early August we had read ten books. We celebrated with cake. These books wrapped our brains around endless lessons. We had learned that war is all too common on our planet. That events like a depression or a pandemic have been recurring throughout our history. We learned that all of us must go on our own hero journey—and that there will be losses, pain, and growth.

One of the most memorable moments came from a silverback gorilla, Ivan (The One and Only Ivan). Witty Ivan made us laugh at the follies of humans. Using all his resources, Ivan saved a baby elephant from being whipped into submission in a show and hatched a plan to get her safely to a zoo. Ivan was brave, kind, patient, funny—and we grew to love him. One afternoon as we read, cheering for his success, I saw Macy eyes shining brightly on the Zoom screen and then I heard it–Macy’s hiccup laced laughter had returned.

Long after the pandemic, long after Macy is grown, I will still revel in this experience—and how it brought back the wisdom and joy that can come of reading.

Wisdom from My Tree

Yesterday I hung out to the end of the newscast for the “the good news” clip. It was worth it to see Greta Thunberg smile. The seventeen-year-old climate activist had just won the Gulbenkian Prize for Humanity and pledged the million-Euro prize to help with projects that will fight climate change and increase sustainable living. I love her fight. I love her connection to our Earth. I learned while teaching high school that seventeen-year-olds often carry the wisdom of the ages.

During COVID my backyard has become my refuge. I love the quiet. The fountains. The gaura blooms. The hummingbird feeder and the “ta ta” of the hummingbird who has marked it as his. I love to sit alone on the patio and eat salads that seem noncaloric but that I smother with chipotle ranch. I love the cactus wren who often joins me, perching on the nearby wall to sunbathe. Last night the sky was so dark I could see traces of the Milky Way and was filled with wonder.

This morning I arose to walk by the canal but even at dayspring the sun beams cut a harsh path across my trail. When I returned, Siri announced that morning temperatures had slipped into triple digits. Sweat trickling down my back, I unlatched the gate to water and to check on my Tipu. Her leaves are returning, and I think I see a bubble of yellow blooms. I am relieved.

I planted this Tipu twenty-two years ago when the yard was young, freshly carved from the Dobson farms, odd-sized chunks of land because the owner did not want track homes dotting his former fields. The Tipu was not the first tree in the back corner of my trapezoid lot. There was a Blue Palo Verde who nursed the seven Golden Barrel cacti who grew from the size of coffee cans to the size of wheelbarrows. Each spring the Blue Palo reined as queen of the yard when she burst forth with dazzling yellow blooms, danced in the sunlight with grace, and spread her yellow magic dust to every corner of the backyard. But the Palo’s roots were weak, and she was felled after six seasons by a wicked monsoon storm that spun through the yard and split her open before ripping her roots from the ground. Each spring I still miss the yellow coating of her dust across the yard and the perfumed smell

The Tipu tree, little more than a twelve-foot twig, arrived shortly after the Palo’s limbs were hauled away. The nurseryman promised me “strong roots.” The Tipu was a modest tree, not showy like the Palo. She hid at the back of the yard. Discreet. I watered her and she grew tall and lanky. While I buried my nose in student stories and memoirs, the Tipu made friends with a Ficus on the other side of the fence and together their arms would touch as if dancing. Many evenings I saw their branches swaying together as if to a waltz or jazz melody.

I became busy with a book. With travel. With workshops. Much ado, and I forgot about the Tipu. For years. But when events cascaded off my calendar last March, I took solace in the quiet of my yard. There I rediscovered how to be in the moment with the cactus wren, the hummingbirds, and the gaura—and as I transitioned into this new life, I noticed the Tipu.

At the age of twenty-two, she looked like an old, old woman who was hunched over and burdened by the sun. A huge deep gash, a scar of nature was sliced up her side four feet long and two or three inches deep. I placed my hands in the gash. The skin of her bark was covered with shards. Sharp pointed splinters. I touched them gingerly for these wooden needles were brittle and ready to snap.

Over the years the Tipu and the neighboring Ficus had reached across the fence and embraced each other with many branches entwined. Together they had grown into a beloved sanctuary for birds filled with early morning song. While I had been out-of-town for a book event, the city had tacked a notice on my mailbox that the Tipu and Ficus trees could not hang over the fence into the alley. I was promised a hefty fine if I didn’t comply. My well-meaning neighbor texted me, “I called tree-trimming Travis!” I replied with a thumbs up.

When I returned home, I peered up the Tipu’s trunk and it stopped me short. Her backside had been ravaged. Pillaged. Dozens of branches on her back and fence-side had been hacked and chopped heedlessly. There was no back. No fence-side. The Ficus had met with a similar fate. The two trees no longer touched. No longer danced together. They were eerily devoid of birds and songs. At the sight of it I felt nauseous.

Later that afternoon I climbed the ladder in the shed, teetered for a moment, regained my balance, and successfully tugged the hose from the highest shelf. I was formulating a plan to save my tree, but all the while I muttered words that I swear I never say. The anger simmered within in me that afternoon and well into the next day. Not rage with my well-meaning neighbor or with tree-trimming Travis, and certainly not with the tree. I was angry with me. Angry that I had ignored my trees. Fearful I had been self-absorbed and not attentive to what matters. My trees, my yard, and this Earth are my home. They are our home. They reach out to us when we need to listen—and we need to listen.

In the coming weeks I watered, pruned, fertilized, weeded, and attempted repairs to my sprinklers. Even in the heat. Early in the morning I learned to talk to my tree and share a litany of gratitude when I entered my yard.

The Tipu has returned. She even has a baby sprouting in her shadow. I realize both my tree and Greta Thunberg have become my best COVID teachers. We all need to pause and work to honor this Earth. Amid this pandemic, this may be one of the most important gifts I carry forward. I hope you will join me.

Holding On

Now that my local café remains closed because of the pandemic, I hide in my kitchen booth and try to tap out a blog. When all of my workshops and speaking engagements cascaded off my calendar, I felt certain I could sit here and knock out a new book. But the COVID lifestyle has proven unwieldy. Surprising. Time-consuming.

Because I live in the desert, today I arose at 5 am to walk before the temperatures reached 100 degrees.  After my walk, I trimmed dead leaves from the succulents in the pots on the patio and watered my plants. A purple throated hummingbird made a quick stop at the feeder above my head and made her “ta ‘ta” sound so I would know the feeder needed to be replenished.

Then I left a message at Hendel’s about the air conditioner that only whinnies to a halt in June, and I headed out to shop at the nearby Fry’s grocery at 6 am. While there are no longer lines wrapping around the store, and most people are sporting masks and keeping their distance, shopping has become a task that takes two hours and leaves me feeling like I have been to a somber wake. Once home the process is a bizarre ritual of removing shoes and wiping down my groceries in the garage, currently “the decontamination center.”

Afterwards I settle into my writing booth, but after two sentences the doorbell pierces my writing reverie. Still, I am grateful to have the company of Henry, the masked-repairman who keeps his distance, because the temperatures inside the house have reached 82 degrees. I chat with Henry about our desert heat.

For a while it was believed that the heat of our desert would conquer the coronavirus, and there was talk of bringing all the major league baseball teams here with the hope of preserving their playing season. Henry wanted this to happen, but it didn’t. We chuckle together about an idea which now seems ludicrous. Our governor, true to his business roots, opened the state up in May as abruptly as he had closed it in March. He thought we needed to get back to work, and as I have learned from my Zoom writing classes many people no longer have jobs. Many people are fighting to find a new center. A new meaning.

About four miles from my house is a hip strip of fooderies—Joyride, Liberty Market, Postinos and a dozen more charming places. I drove through this strip in late April just to marvel as it sat empty and silent. The stillness of this people-hub was eerie. In May it was resurrected from a ghost town to a rock-and-rolling hub of pent-up, done-with-coronavirus young people. But we weren’t done.

Now the stats are pouring in. Our hospital ICUs in Phoenix are at near capacity. We have increased over 100% in new COVID-19 cases every day for several days. A new study out of California shows people under 35 now make up about 44% of new infections, compared to 29% last month.  Shocked by the lack of federal or state government guidance, all the towns in my area are mandating masks. Henry and I agree the situation is out-of-hand.

As Henry begins to tinker with my ac, I write a few more lines about my beloved desert. It is hot and unforgiving, but each spring it bursts forth in the brightest yellow, red, and orange blooms atop the cacti. If you listen, it speaks to you in soft murmurs, clicks, and hundreds of bird songs and sounds. I am spending more time outside. If you listen, the desert teaches about quiet and calm and offers up its wisdom. Every morning and every evening I pause to listen. Midday I go outside to check my tippo tree that is bursting in yellow blooms and healing from a bad dry spell. Then I refill the hummingbird feeder.

It takes time to scrub down the counters, prepare the fish for dinner, and read with my granddaughter on Zoom. In this time Henry has reconfigured a complicated wiring problem in my air conditioner, and as I pay him, we conclude our earlier conversation by agreeing the desert heat is not killing this novel virus. This myth has died a hard death here amid the sunflowers and an abundance of sunshine. Henry and I both know we now live in an epicenter.

It is late in the day, but I return to my booth and the few paragraphs that have sputtered onto this page. As I sip my iced tea, I wonder how to give this new time-consuming, COVID-living a better framework. How to hold it and feel comfortable with it. I want to move forward, not simply feel like I am holding on. Then my husband calls to inform me that a young man who fixed his computer yesterday tested positive. “I will need to get tested and keep my distance from work—and you.” After the call, I sit stunned for few moments.

Then a hummingbird parks herself right outside the sliding glass doors where I was trying to write. She flutters seamlessly in midair as if she is looking for me and has a message. I sit up and listen. Maybe the visit is no more than a thank you for filling her feeder, but I marvel as her wings flutter like the propellers of a helicopter holding her steady and strong for a long time. Then my friend darts upward about three feet and holds in the air. Then she darts downward toward me, eye level and only three feet outside the window from me. I marvel at her strength and I sense her intention. She stays her course. I understand. Then she shoots upward and diagonally darts skyward.

For now I will listen to my purple-throated friend. Holding on will be enough.