Sonoma County, 1991
If I wanted to be a writer, I realized, I would have to go where the writers were.
I had to find these people.
I had to seek them out and be in their presence and inhale the air they exhaled.
I had to learn from them.
And here was my chance. I saw the ad in the local alternative weekly: An evening with Anne Lamott and Amy Tan. These were maybe the two most powerful thirty-something or forty-something women in the San Francisco literary scene. Anne Lamott and Amy Tan. They would be my foremothers, my teachers. If only I could share this evening with them. Yes.
I had to be there, obviously.
Fort Mason Center in San Francisco.
$150 per person.
I hardly ever drove into the city.
It meant getting Lance to watch the baby. He’d come to California now, too. He lived four blocks from us, was suing me for custody.
It meant the gas and the bridge toll.
It meant tapping the dashboard three times and praying that the Dodge would make it.
This time, it also meant $150.
$150. Just over a quarter of my monthly income.
But what was $150, really? What was a quarter tank of gas and a quarter of my monthly income and a $3 bridge toll when it would make me a writer?
I would meet these women and they would see me—they would see the writer in me and they would lean into me and they would whisper the secrets that writers whisper.
The ad—even seeing that ad—had been destiny. Clearly. I hardly ever read that weekly paper.
I had $21 in the cookie jar for my gas and electricity bill. I only needed another $129 for the ticket. The gas and electric company could wait. If we had to live in the dark for a week or three weeks—what did it matter? This evening was the thing that mattered. An evening with Anne Lamott and Amy Tan.
I showed the ad to Mary, the old woman who’d recently moved into my neighborhood in Petaluma. I bounced Maia on my knee as I opened the newspaper on Mary’s formica kitchen table. I pointed. “Anne Lamott and Amy Tan,” I hummed. I’d been helping Mary around her little government apartment, putting away groceries for her, pulling weeds in her tiny front garden. We’d shared Christmas dinner. I’d invited her over after the man from the food bank called to tell me I was eligible for a free turkey. When I went to pick it up, it turned out to be two chickens—they’d run out of turkeys. But I had some vegetables in the fridge, so I made chicken soup for Christmas dinner and I didn’t skim off the fat. Chicken soup for me and Mary and the baby. We sat in the little dining alcove in my apartment, and she told me this and that about her life. She was Athabaskan Indian, she said. Born up in Alaska but her mother died of tuberculosis and she was adopted out to a white family down in Seattle.
Mary. She had short, black hair and laughing eyes. She looked at the ad for the evening with the writers and said, “sounds like a lot of money.”
But what did Mary know?
She was poor, she was old.
I knew what I had to do.
It was a clear-sky day in Petaluma.
I got Lance to watch the baby.
I used my bill money for the gas and the bridge.
Tom Waits sang “Hang on St. Christopher” on my car radio.
I used the rent money for the ticket.
Amy Tan read something unpublished and showed slides of her grandparents.
Anne Lamott said she’d been a black-belt codependent and had just broken up with a man who wasn’t fit to drink her bath water.
Afterwards, the writers drank punch around a table and people approached them and told them they loved their work and told them they’d changed their lives and told them they liked the talks they’d just given.
I stood against a wall and watched.
I stood against a wall and watched the light change as the sun set over the bay.
I stood against a wall and bit my fingernails.
I cried at Mary’s kitchen table the next morning, cried at what an idiot I’d been. The rain poured outside, flooding the streets and walkways. I would never be a writer, it was true. That counselor in her drab brown office back at the junior college had been right. What was I thinking? I had to come down to earth. This wet earth. I had to figure out how to make a living. I had to figure out how to live. I had a child to take care of.
Mary just smiled at me, shook her head the way she did. “Ariel,” she said. “You are with the writers. Right now and right here you’re with the writers. And here we’re doing the things that writers do. We’re washing the dishes and we’re putting away the groceries. We’re helping each other. We’re paying attention, aren’t we?”
I thought she was sweet, old Athabaskan Mary, but obviously she was kind of doddery. Helping Mary around her apartment was all good and fine, but it was hardly where the writers were. And I wanted to be a writer. My mind wandered. I was back at Fort Mason. Back with the writers and thinking of all the things I might have said to them if I wasn’t so afraid. If they had looked at me.
“I have something for you,” Mary said, interrupting my writer-thought. She stood up, left me there to breathe in my self-pity.
A few minutes later she came back with a slim volume. A Quick Brush of Wings by Mary TallMountain. “My new book,” she said. “I’ve been meaning to give you a copy.”
I looked at the title and I looked at the author’s name for a long time before I let it sink in.
And with that she leaned into me and she whispered the secrets that writers whisper. And I breathed her in and I became one.