Saturday, December 18, 2010

Revelations on a Tucson Saturday afternoon

Patio doors wide open today and the winter sun past its midpoint. The Gila Woodpeckers making a racket in the skinny palmtops just outside my 7th floor balcony, downtown. I should slide the screens shut on the patio doors--a fly has been harassing me--but I love too much the feeling of being outside. Traffic on I-10 whispers along, whooshing white noise.

Day before yesterday I closed the doors against the wind and rain, a blustery storm front having blown in from someplace. I was sitting at my desk and suddenly there was a red tailed hawk on my balcony railing, rusty tailfeathers backlit, astonishing wingspan.

My balcony is five feet wide. My narrow desk is pushed up directly to the the window. The hawk is eight feet from my face. He stares at me. I dare not move, not even to close my mouth. He tucks in his wings. He settles warily. For two minutes, a standoff. During which I convince myself he's not looking through the plate glass. The light must be such that he cannot see inside. This bird of prey attuned to the movement of a mouse from fifty feet above cannot see the wide blinking eyes of the awestruck human a wingbeat away. He shifts, he settles further, he seems to be looking directly at me still. Finally he turns away his gaze, rotates his head like an owl (they can do this?? I had no idea...) to check out the cityscape below him, and swivels his head back to look in the window some more.

Then he turns his back to me. He shifts his big yellow talons and he's looking at my view, the Arizona State Building and its parking garage in the foreground and beyond that the Federal Courthouse, the Greyhound Station, the interstate, the Santa Ritas in the distance and of course the huge open cloudy sky and the misty rain coming down.

Gingerly I go for the camera, moving in tiny increments when I believe he's not looking. Soon I realize he doesn't react when I stand up, move about the apartment, take pictures and even video from both windows, nor when I just sit there and watch him.

He stayed for 30 minutes. He finally left when I could not stand it anymore and human that I am, I pushed the boundary. I opened the patio door to poke my camera outside. He saw me, tolerated my presence on the balcony for a minute or so, and then he leaned forward and was gone.

Today on this beautiful Tucson Saturday I sit before my novel manuscript and consider what a reader told me about his first impressions of Virginia: that she didn't seem happy. It's true, Virginia is grumpy. She isn't, of course, grumpy throughout the whole novel. I know her as a fuller, more complicated character, but at this point the reader doesn't. Thank you to this particular reader, who happens to be affiliated with my favorite downtown pizza joint, for reminding me. And in turn for challenging me to think about Virginia's happiness. What brings her joy, anyway? Unlike Theo and Charlie, she doesn't have a passion. Theo is passionate about urban planning and Charlie is an artist.

I remind myself that we must give our characters' joys as much weight as their woes, otherwise the joys aren't joyful and the woes aren't woeful.

This realization collides with another: that all along I've been trying to get to a way to bring the desert more fully into the story. I keep thinking I've got to send Theo on some hikes other than those he takes up Tumamoc Hill. But for some reason I've resisted writing those scenes and I don't know why, exactly.

Today, a revelation. It's Virginia I need to send out into the desert. The desert is Virginia's passion. I didn't see it before because I've put her into a different mold. But she's offended by what's happening to Tucson ultimately because she sees what's been lost. She's been here all her life and she remembers. She's angry because she loves the desert. I've shown the anger, now I've got to show the love.

Because, really: that's the what's-at-stake of the novel, isn't it? The landscape, and the city we've put inside it. The conflict isn't anything new. It's humans versus nature, that uneasy relationship, that accommodation, that Red-Tailed Hawk who visits your urban balcony to say hey, Shannon: Don't forget about the desert.