18 May 2007

Life and how to live it

If I write a book
it will be called "Life and How to Live It"

Next week, I will celebrate a birthday. For many years now, birthdays have not been about the passage of time, but about birthday cake. I do love a good birthday cake, the more frosting roses, the better (real buttercream, thank you. None of that nasty shortening substitute stuff).

Long ago, when I was a young and impressionable girl, I believed the general consensus that if I hadn't published a novel or saved the world by the time I turned 21, I had failed all those who believed in my prodigy status. On the eve of my 21st birthday, it dawned on me that with luck and on average, I would live to 80-ish, and if I had done everything that everyone had told me I was supposed to do by the time I reached my majority, what the hell was I going to do with the next 60 years of my life? That was a substantial revelation, and so I turned 21 in the revolving bar on top of the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles with 3 of my closest friends, drinking champagne.

Now that I am an older and decidedly more guerrilla-ish girl, I understand that age really is just a number, and I don't rail against the passage of time. Yes, with each new birthday candle comes another wrinkle or five, but they are the story of my life, and I'm ok with the canvas on which they are drawn (age spots, however, need not apply).

May is a great month in which to be born, and it has always been one of my favorite months, even beyond the promise of birthday cake. It also carried the promise of summer, and vacation in the days when we were school kids. Winter rains had passed and the Sonoran desert was in full and glorious bloom, with only the first hint of the brutality of triple digit temperatures. Birds had chicks, and lizards had hatched their young. It was hard to hold a tiny baby horned lizard in the palm of your hand and not feel that the world was an amazing place. In May, we began to run barefoot in the backyard, the sand warm on our winter-tender feet. It was very important to build up some major calluses before the goathead burrs hardened and the blacktop became a burning sea of lava.

May meant May Day, which for us wasn't a pagan celebration involving dance around a pole and flower posies. The flowers went to the Virgin Mary, whose color is blue, and for two years in junior high when I somehow became the liason between the church and the school, it meant planning the May Day mass and procession for the school children.

Clear blue-skied days were longer, sunsets more spectacular and Venus burned like a diamond in the west. I remember a long ago May night, burning for the first boy on whom I ever had a crush, the warm evening breeze raising goose bumps on my arms as I wished on Venus. The breeze smelled of pink jasmine and mock orange, scents that still bring a smile in the spring.

It was the time of year when my parents cleaned up the old barbecue in the backyard and our thoughts drifted to what flavors of Shasta sodas we should buy to drink on a Saturday night with friends running wild through the house and yard, eating cupcakes and pork ribs.

Some nights were quieter, and one way or another, we ended up at old Mrs. H.'s house across the street. Mrs. H. and her late husband and late son had spent much time living in Mexico, and her tiny house was decorated accordingly with bright paper flowers, baskets and pottery. In her backyard, she had a lovely little orchard, filled with apricot, plum, peach and crabapple trees. Today, I can't look at an apricot or Santa Rosa plum without remembering the unbelievable taste of the fruit from her trees, hot from the sun, juice spilling down our chins. She was known among the neighborhood kids as a rather crotchety and irascible old lady, but I loved to listen to her stories while she puffed away on cigarette after cigarette. We sat on her screened porch late into the night, drinking sweetened iced tea, ensconced in leather chairs from Mexico that squeaked violently every time one shifted in them. I remember sitting paralyzed, afraid to make any noise while she spoke. It was from her garden that the smells of jasmine and mock orange most frequently came, heavy and seductive as she spoke in her rasping smoker's voice. I can see her even now, dressed in a sleeveless, patterned housedress, her face prune-wrinkled and lively, faded eyes alive with memory.

In high school, May was sitting under the stars having intense philosophical conversations with my best friend L., the sorts of conversations one can only have at 15 and 16, unselfconscious and touching on subjects only newly discovered. We looked back on childhood only recently left behind by singing silly songs and moved toward womanhood by looking at colleges and boys.

A song with only one note would be pretty boring, and for me, a single-note life would be unbearably tedious. While the Mays of my life are more recently filled with hikes, and school field trips, children's lunches and sticky jacaranda blossoms, early June gloom and unseasonable wildfires, there are still baby birds and the scents of pink jasmine and orange blossom. I've written and published, traveled, loved and lost, worked like a madwoman and given birth to my own young. One can not hold a tiny baby newly released from one's body and not see the world as an amazing place. I still sing silly songs, go to rock concerts and giggle with my friends like a schoolgirl with a crush over older boys...and these days, I mean really older boys.

The novel is still not written, though I suspect it will appear when the time is right, whenever that may be. I haven't saved the world, and never will, but I try to save others, one cause and one person at a time.

And there is birthday cake, because I want it and I will not count the cost even while I pay the price on the exercise bike. I'll only the count the roses made of real buttercream frosting, and the friends and family I love, and the time here that's been made a gift to me.