Deirdre Mendoza is a Los Angeles-based journalist, screenwriter, and fiction writer. Her non-fiction has been published in Ms. Magazine, Miami New Times, and the Los Angeles Times. Her short story collection, Real Lives of Married People will be published by Eightfold Press (2020).
She currently teaches Writing at Woodbury University and Glendale College. She is a nature enthusiast, dog lover, trail walker, and activist.
Photo Credit: Deirdre Mendoza
Pippa, my King Charles Spaniel mix, and I walked a favorite neighborhood trail yesterday. Friends who enjoy this particular path keep it on the down low because it somehow remains a special trail, one less traveled than the ones that feature the city’s landmarks, or get promoted in Los Angeles guidebooks. This path begins nonchalantly at the end of a residential street and opens as a grand ascension into Griffith Park.
Wide enough for two to pass, and anchored by ample sycamores and sage scrub, the trail offers stunning views of tiled-roof homes in quiet East Side communities while framing distant white-capped mountains.
When I reach the top, I always have the feeling that I’ve accomplished so much by doing so little. Perhaps that’s because I aspire only to walking and thinking and noticing the rhythm of the trail. Yesterday, for example, I won the battle against all the unsettling thoughts and emotions attached to this pandemic, the anxiety and sadness for those who may not make it through, and the fear of what may happen to me or to you if we should have a brief encounter with the wrong person or doorknob.
While on the trail, these grey thoughts fell away, replaced by workplace strategies, or mental notes on how to shape something I’m writing. Eventually, though, I started to think about nothing, distracted only by the excitement of spotting a Downy Woodpecker or the joy of brushing against miles of glistening mustard weeds. The rangers warn that these yellow weeds may become fodder for California wildfires, but for now, these plants light the trail signaling that despite the world’s suffering, a brilliant spring has arrived in Los Angeles.
Eventually, as I rounded a turn, I met a father wearing one child on his back while holding another’s tiny hand, all three of them masked and seemingly eager to be outside. Now that my own kids are grown, I can only conjure the challenge of balancing work while taking on the role of teacher, playmate, and guardian, holed up with restless young ones and little respite.
My two adult kids have moved back in during this quarantine and I am grateful to have them, along with Pippa as constant companions. Their passion for how to change the world and their belief that we can is a powerful inspiration. Their shared links to left-leaning news stories, memes, and Tic-Toks, keeping me informed – and laughing.
My daughter, 24, stays committed to her job at a non-profit by attending daily meetings on Zoom while mulling over the idea of graduate school. After work, she sets up her ceramics wheel in the backyard, immersing her hands in clay until the sun disappears. By the weekend, I notice a growing collection of bowls, vases, candleholders, and unnamed vessels drying on the picnic table.
In March, my younger one believed he was coming home for the spring break of his final semester in college, but he’s now finishing up courses in history, theory, and film at the dining room table. He spends his evening hours editing his short film, or meeting a friend while walking the dog. He reads on the front porch, and reports to us about what’s really going on. Along with our evening dinner preparations, our routine includes the 8 PM shout out. That’s when, along with the rest of the world’s city dwellers, we bang our pots and howl at the moon. This shared ritual is a meager if heartfelt gesture of thanks to the folks who serve on the battlefield of the pandemic – and a moment to voice our gratitude that those of us still shouting have made it through another day.
Here in L.A., we’re so lucky to have legendary weather, and, in some neighborhoods, easy access to the natural world. We can turn it off, as they say, and just head for the hills. During quarantine, we can take breaks from our online jobs and communities to hike in the hills and canyons, or along the riverbanks, seaside, or in the park.
We now have time to contemplate life in The After in the same way we might envision the final chapters of a dark epic narrative. We wonder how we’ll work and how we’ll play. We wonder how we’ll take care of our elderly and those of us living in the margins. We wonder how we’ll manage to distance ourselves from one another without losing the remnants of precious human connection. We imagine ways to lessen our impact, our collective footprint, seeing perhaps more clearly than ever that things are dire, that we’ve lost our way.
It was on a walk that I considered the idea that everything has changed because we’ve been forced to halt and be still. We have no choice but to slow down, to think more intentionally about our choices, and to feel our breath fill our lungs. In this new era, we notice our world in smaller detail: in footsteps, in conversations with loved ones and strangers, in the way the light shifts from day to night. For this brief moment, we are no longer on the locomotive perpetually in motion.
I don’t claim to be at ease with uncertainty, but I know it is the one thing that is certain. This too shall pass, I think in darker moments. And I’m encouraged by my kids and my college students to imagine a promising future that actively examines injustice. My energetic worries are more about forgetting how we lived during this time, the adjustments we made, the vulnerability we felt, and the connections we shared with family and friends around the world. I worry that we will fill in the spaces too quickly, reverting back to old familiar paradigms, speeding up when we should be slowing down, and wanting things we’ve already agreed to relinquish.
We’ve been shown what happens when we pause, when we take notice, when we’re in place. Some of us have been comforted by simplicity and reduction. Haven’t we? So I hope to remember the truths revealed within the stillness. I won’t forget the time spent watching my daughter build a vessel out of clay, nor will I forget the millions in need who weren’t considered or protected in this crisis. Even when I cannot find answers, I can make a lazy afternoon remarkable by walking to the top of the Down Low trail.