so there I was on the beach at San Quentin last week with the flu.
The viral cloud of autumn has descended and Sam is back in school which
means he is a portable petri dish of filth and pestilence, and we have
caught everything that has come down the pike. To make everything
worse, there's a truly wonderful writer named Rick Fields who lives down the
street, who is in the process of living with metastatic lung cancer. He
drives by our house a couple of times a day and -- I consider this so
aggressive -- he seems to be in a really good mood most of the time. I
hate that: I worry that he's out to get me. Several weeks ago, when I
had a head cold, I pounded on his windshield when he attempted to drive
by, and said, "Why are you doing this to me? Look at me -- I'm sick as a
dog! I'm conGESted."
He smiled. He loves me, loves my emotional drag-queeny self. He's
about my age, and he looks a little bit like Spielberg, especially
because he wears a baseball cap most of the time now and does not shave
I saw a recent interview he did for a Buddhist quarterly, in which
he said that he's savoring the moments of his life so intently right now
that he no longer feels that he has a life-threatening disease, he has a
disease-threatening life. I am really trying to get there, but I've
got to say, it isn't going quite as well as I had hoped.
When I got the flu, the head-achy flu, I limped downstairs in the
morning to get my paper, gripping my lower back like Grandpa Walton.
And of course right then Rick drove by. He looked grizzled, and
radiant, which is a fabulous mix. I stepped in front of his car to make
him stop, which he did. Then I pounded on his windshield.
"Do you do this just to mess with me?" I asked. "Drive around
looking content? Because now I have the flu."
"I'm sorry," he said. "Sometimes colds and flus are harder to
handle than cancer."
"Especially for an extremely sensitive person like myself."
"Yes," he said, and patted the back of my hand. "But did you
notice what an incredibly beautiful day it is?" he asked. "The air has
gotten so sharp with autumn, even though it's sunny, and blue."
"Oh, STOP," I said.
In his interview in the Buddhist magazine, he said, "I'm going to live until
I die. And the doctor is going to live until he dies. He thinks he
knows when I'M going to die, but he doesn't even know when he's going to
So that it is why I came to the beach at San Quentin -- because all
of a sudden I began to wonder how I might play out the day if it was going
to be my last day on earth. And I do not want to spend my last day on
earth doing either Big I, or Poor Me. I just want to be here, on
board. Rick said in the interview, "I'll live -- and here I'll add, as
well, as deeply, as madly as I can -- until I die." So I decided to go to
the beach and practice being in it as if it were my last day of my
i stopped on the way and bought the new People magazine, and -- talk
about throwing caution to the wind! -- a bottle of real Coca-Cola; on my
last day, I will not be drinking diet Coke. That's about all I know for
Driving to the beach, I realized that my nose felt too activated.
It made me miss my head cold. The car smelled of dog, and of Sam's
school lunch that was on the floor of the back seat, and when I rolled
the window down, the air was filled with the smells of a road being
repaired -- jackhammer smells, gravel and a nearby tar cart. I had a
friend, though, a doctor, who quit smoking and then started up again
because she found that the world smelled too intense for her. She
thought her lawn smelled too strong, too green, too grassy, and so she
started smoking again, and eventually died of a drug overdose.
I pulled into the parking lot of a 7-Eleven and threw away Sam's old
lunch bag. It gave me a new lease on life. Then I drove on to San
Quentin. I'm drawn to the beach there because my dad taught English at
the prison when I was a little kid, and I feel like there is a little
bit of him in the sand there. He published a number of short stories in
the New Yorker about teaching English to the prisoners, and he wrote a
beautiful biography of the prison that came out when I was 7, and
when I was a teenager, I got to stand outside late at night in vigils
with him and his friends to protest death penalties and inhumane
conditions. I can remember almost exactly how he smelled -- of L.L. Bean
chamois shirts, beer, cigarettes. He smelled like a tall male, and he
smelled of hiking, and of books and blue jeans.
His friends would pass around flasks of whiskey, and because it was
always late and cold, they would pass the flask to me. And I would have
a sip with the men outside the walls of San Quentin; and the moon would
be out, and the stars.
I secretly believe that it is the safest beach in the world.
It's also, beach-wise, about as basic as it gets, the Platonic
essence of beach. Sand, water, sky, eucalyptus trees jutting over the
sand from the bordering hillside. There are no accommodations -- no
public bathrooms, no places to buy food. Compared to the grandeur and
scope of Marin County beaches like Stinson or Bolinas, it's a simple cloth-coat beach; but
sometimes the more luscious and robust a place is, the more you forget
about the comfort of quiet, of slow.
Now normally I like heavy luscious. I like a lot of distraction,
a lot of physical comfort. I like festive beach umbrellas and chaise
longues. I like long white stretches of sand. I like a lot of people
around who have been paid to help me, and a small medical staff for any
tropics-related incidents that may crop up, like blood blisters, say, or
shark-bite. Also, I like to nurse virgin blender drinks with pineapple
chunks, and cocktail toothpicks with frilly plastic panties.
But I also love the beach at San Quentin. So on this one particular
day, I was sitting on my butt in the sand, reading my People magazine.
A little voice inside whispered for me to look up, to pay attention, to
breathe in the world, and I said to myself that as soon as I finished
the article on Gwyneth Paltrow, I would. That was when I put down my
magazine, and began to laugh in a quiet yet somehow hysterical way. I
covered my mouth and tittered into my hand. I must have looked crazy,
but there were only a few other people around. There was a mother with
soggy twin 1-year-olds, just barely walking, lurching about like
little 20-pound drug addicts, rolling around in the sand. And
there was a guy sleeping on a beach towel who looked exactly like the
husband in "Breaking the Waves" -- big and sweaty and snorey. You could
almost imagine his small band of horrible sniggery mates. I watched him
After awhile I began to notice a bad smell mingling with the scent
of eucalyptus. Both wafted in from the direction of the driftwood that
blankets the back part of the beach. But I couldn't put my finger on
what the new smell was. It wasn't fishy, or salty or sweet: it was sort
of bodily. I could hear the sleeping man snore, the twins grunting with
wonder and effort. The mother watched them, smiling. She was in her
early 20s, blonde and plain.
My automatic response was to pick up my magazine, check out for
awhile. But I didn't. I let the smell draw me back to the beach.
It was something very familiar, very bodily, but not the usual
suspects, not feet or crotch or armpits. It smelled like a wild animal
who was letting itself go, who had developed fatty crevices and not
groomed properly. The husband from "Breaking the Waves" slept. The
babies were still rolling around in the sand. They had begun to look
like little breaded veal cutlets.
I sniffed the air. The smell reminded me a little bit of the old
people at the convalescent home my church visits once a month, like age
and decay, like something going a little bad; like inside smells that
have inadvertently gotten out.
The waves broke loudly on the shore. The tide was coming in. The
sleeping man slept and the breaded babies played. My friend Pammy
always had an earthy smell about her until she got sick. Then as she
did less -- less ballet, less flute and fewer errands and acts of
kindness for her friends, her smells grew milder. She smelled soapier
toward the end, which is to say, less like life. But at the same time,
the essential part, the part of her that was beautiful and sacred and
whole, was set off more, like a gem. And it grew more and more distinct
as her achievements fell away.
The smell on the beach grew stronger, and then out of the blue I
realized what it reminded me of. It reminded me of the inside of my
belly button. I hate to sound like the late great Roseanne
Roseannadanna. It's just that we've all done the occasional spot check,
right? And everything smells a little funky if you go in at all
deeply. It's life snuggled together way down deep inside, like flug
after a little moisture has crept in. Let's face it: It's the grave.
I couldn't for the life of me figure out what, on the beach, could
be giving off this smell. But I remembered the first time I noticed it,
on my own tiny personal self. Maybe I had too much time on my hands;
maybe I'm just trying to find out who I am, but I remember being sort of
shocked and vaguely ashamed, as if everyone else had been dealing with
this situation all along. As if everyone else knew to tend to this, that
all of your fresher women, like Dinah Shore and the Nixon girls, were
using something sold in the back of magazines between the teeth
whiteners and the itch-control products.
I read my magazine, and drank my Coca-Cola. I got up to go pee
behind a boulder at the far end of the beach, and although the sun had
made my muscles ache less, I still felt a little arthritic. I thought
of the creaky old people at the convalescent home. They smell pretty
terrible sometimes, like the inside of a thousand belly buttons. A lot
of them are deeply in decay, in flug meets moisture. But here's the
thing: They sit there in their wheelchairs, day after day, and often no
one comes to visit, and yet when we show up and lead them in worship,
they still know the words of the hymns, and they sing. They sit there
so lonely, often in pain, smelling not so great, and still singing.
The waves rolled in and out. The menthol fragrance of the
eucalpytus trees laced itself up with the odor from the big doggy piles
of driftwood. The snoring man awoke and sat up, sat there in the sand
looking out at the sea, and not long after, the breaded veal cutlets
fell asleep. I went over to the mother and handed her my magazine.
She was really surprised and pleased. We smiled at each other; the
babies snored. I thought of the message on Rick's answering machine,
which is that the road to enlightenment is long and difficult, and that
you should try not to forget snacks, and magazines. And I don't know
what had happened, but I went back to my spot on the beach, where I sat
in the sand and finished my soda, sniffing the air, lost in an ecstasy