Reversals

The obstacle isn’t necessarily in your path; perhaps it is your path. I took a New Year’s yoga class in which the teacher used this theme. We can’t always remove our obstacles. Sometimes we learn to work with them and learn from them.

During my run a few days back, I heard coyotes singing.  Then they started yipping and growling, as if there was some kind of scuffle going on. They weren’t far ahead of me, and I remembered that a friend had once been followed by a pack of coyotes when she was hiking alone. Though coyotes almost never attack humans, running past this pack, whatever they were doing, seemed like a bad idea. Maybe there were just two—it’s coyote mating season—but maybe it was a fight with an outsider to their territory.  The noise stopped, and through the gaps between shrubs, I spied them trotting silently toward the section of the trail I was headed for. When in the presence of predators, I told myself, don’t act like prey. I turned around.

Danger is exciting on the page, but even the smallest danger doesn’t appeal to me in real life. Reversals, however, are interesting in both cases. I saw the landscape from a different perspective, since I usually go up the long hill rather than down. The same place can look quite new from the other side. And I ran further, since I had to retrace my steps.

That evening, my work in progress was so stuck it was putting me to sleep. Not a good sign.  I wasn’t sure how to fix it, but I told myself I was going to push through and not go out dancing that night, though there was a musician I would have enjoyed hearing at the Brewery, and I can walk there in five minutes or less. Still stuck, I gave in and went. My favorite dancing partner was there, and an acquaintance who is a mystery fan. I danced a few songs with one, talked story structure with the other, and then headed home, ready to write.

The problem lay in being too linear, telling the story step by step. I need reversals, a surprise, and something as energizing for the reader as a wild dance with a strong partner.

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Cold!

This is not a normal winter in T or C. It’s cold. So cold a few flakes of snow fell, enough to decorate Turtleback Mountain with white stripes way up near the Turtle. I thought I wouldn’t be able to stand running when the temperature was below forty, but I missed the beauty of the trail, the open space on all sides, and the effect on my creative flow, so I gave it a try, wearing so many layers a northerner would have laughed had one seen me. Not bad after all, thirty-seven degrees. Another day this week was windy, almost like spring. I went out anyway. Half-way through the four miles, I realized I felt good enduring the challenges, better than if I’d done something indoors instead. It was good to be reminded that thinking about doing something difficult is often more stressful than actually doing it.

Shorter Days

The sunset was pink, blue, and purple over my neighbors’ blue-and-purple houses as I walked to the yoga studio to teach tonight.  One of those odd T or C sunsets where the color was not in the west, but somewhere else. Tonight, the northeast. It was beautiful, but daylight was ending already at five-fifteen.

 Waiting until I’ve done all my chores and errands before I do what’s most rewarding is no longer an option. It could be dark by then. I’ve always been the work-first play-later type, the anti-procrastinator, but if I want to walk, run, or do outdoor yoga, I have to take advantage of the sunny hours, the warmest part of the day.

Sometimes I make myself do every tedious task before I free myself to write. Life is short. My days are shorter. I feel young, but I’m not. What am I waiting for? Along with teaching yoga, this is my work and my art. I give myself permission, right this minute, to drop everything else and do it.

A New Mexico Mystery Review: The Pot Thief Who Studied Edward Abbey

As always in this series, the opening is brilliant, followed by a colorful and intriguingly circuitous journey. If you’ve not yet discovered the pot thief books, think of them as off-beat cozies with an intellectual bent: nonviolent, humorous, character-centered, with a lot of cooking (some of it very funny—yes, recipes can be funny), and a romantic subplot. Unusual in the cozy mystery genre  are the male protagonist and the illegal nature of some of his activities.

In this book, for once Hubie is not stealing ancient pots (rescuing them, in his opinion) but teaching students how to make copies of them, and he’s doing it at the college that kicked him out of graduate school for digging up pots where he wasn’t supposed to be digging.

The portrayal of students, faculty, and administrators is satirical but rings true. Hubie, long out of touch with academic life, has a lot to learn to get back into it. He’s kind, but he’s also a tad opinionated and not a stickler for rules, so he gets off on the wrong foot with a few people—something Edward Abbey would understand.

The department meeting is hilarious (and made me glad I no longer have to attend them), but the best comic scene is the culmination of one of the romance subplots. A few of the discussions over drinks ramble on a bit, but they’re still entertaining.

Hubie’s reading of Edward Abbey assists his thinking, as the pot thief’s topic of study in each book does. I especially liked how his friend Susannah’s background in art history plays a key role in solving the murder. The mystery plot keeps turning. Each time I thought it had wrapped up, another twist came around.

Although this is basically a humorous book, it has some serious moments, and they’re handled with grace, in both the subplots and the mystery plot. The victim of the crime is given a place of honor in the story.

A new reader of the series could start here and not feel lost, but I recommend beginning with The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras and getting to know Hubie and his friends from the beginning.

*****

Click here for my 2016 interview with the author.

 

Walking to the Lake

Once in a while I need a literal change of pace and take a very long walk instead of a run. Variety is good for the body, mind, and soul, so I explored several miles of Elephant Butte Lake State Park where the surfaces are either too hard (paved roads) or too soft (the beach) for running. Pavement is a great surface for vehicles. Tires don’t tear it up. But walking on it is noisy compared to walking on the natural bare earth, so I started veering off into the desert. To my dismay, it was so churned up by tires that it was hard to find an undisturbed place except in shallow arroyos, firm sandy paths made by October’s heavy rains. It puzzles me why people take their vehicles off the road. The roads are right there, designed for driving. If they want to get out and experience nature—I had an Edward Abbey Desert Solitaire moment—they should get out and experience nature. I can understand using a vehicle if one can’t walk, but otherwise, it doesn’t make sense. And it ruins the landscape. Instead of road runner and quail tracks, deer and coyote tracks, I kept seeing tire tracks. So I went back on the pavement.

I finally reached a dirt road, and when I got to the end of it, I found a patch of undamaged land, too steep for vehicles to intrude upon, with a  deep arroyo running through it. It seemed to be guarded by a low-crouching creosote bush that resembled a giant tarantula. Welcome to the wild.

Eventually, I walked down to the water. The lake was stunningly blue under the clear sky, and a few sailboats were gliding across it, none of the noisy motorized craft of summer. The beach has grown due to the reservoir being so low, and the islands look as if they have bathtub rings from the mineral stains marking how high the water once was. The shoreline is a stark landscape, beautiful in its bare way—nothing but sand, rocks, and water, like an alien planet with no plant life. Then it got more alien-looking, and not in a scenic way. I began to notice unnatural shimmers in the sand caught by the low, late-afternoon sun. Half-buried plastic. Snack food wrappers, foam cups, remnants of bags, fishing line, all on their way to the water.

My collection in hand, I reached a small spit of red dirt and dark gravel jutting out into the blue water. On one side of the curve of the spit perched a huge raven. On the far tip, a blue heron huddled with its neck tucked in so much that its beak seemed to poke out from its wing joints. It looked gray again the brighter colors around it. The only sound was the plop of a jumping fish. Then the raven croaked and flew west across the shining lake, a good direction for a raven.

I hiked back to the paved road, collecting more plastic for the dumpster at the top of the hill. Not far at all. Not difficult to do. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure that on the rest of the vast beach, there’s more plastic slowly traveling down the slope toward the fish and the birds.

What would make people stop and see it? Walking?

Retreat

As a professor, I welcomed the holidays as time off. After the busyness of the fall the semester, what I wanted and needed most was a chance to go inward. When people would ask me, “What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” I’d answer “As little as possible,” and then explain that I used the day as a retreat. I gave the same answer for Christmas. My family long ago stopped buying gifts and switched to supporting each other’s favorite charities. I love visiting them, but not in the winter. That’s not the time to go to Maine. Spring or summer visits are our tradition, not holidays.

My personal tradition of using the major holidays as retreat days carries on in retirement. I’m normally busy, outgoing, and social, not at all the stereotype of the introverted writer, so I still need such days. Aside from walking to the yoga studio to teach a class on Thursday evening (yes, a couple of people chose to come), I didn’t go out. I did my own yoga and meditation practices, and I finished the first draft of a book. Perfect.

The only hard part of this is explaining it to people who think it’s sad or weird, when I’m actually happy not “doing” the holidays. When I do explain, I find quite a few people who like the idea, but others still seem to think it’s a bit pathological. We have Scrooge and the Grinch, after all, among our seasonal archetypes. One Thanksgiving in Virginia, some well-meaning neighbors anonymously left a huge aluminum pan full of turkey and stuffing on my doorstep, not knowing me well enough to realize I’m a vegetarian. I guess they saw that I didn’t go out and felt sorry for me. I never knew which neighbors did it. I wish they had known my day of inwardness wasn’t lonely or depressing, but liberating. Soul-nourishing.

I have friends who do the big family gatherings, and that nourishes their souls. I heard the community pot luck at the brewery was packed, and I imagine it was fun for everyone who went and gave them what they needed from the day, also.

Black Friday passed, and I didn’t shop. However, I hope my friends in T or C who run stores had good sales, and that those who did shop supported small businesses and found meaningful gifts.

My neighbor across the street put up her Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving. Though she intended to make herself wait, she couldn’t resist. She had creative fun, and the display is quite entertaining. (The pink flamingo is wearing a holiday bow.) I don’t own any ornaments and like it that way.

Today, I walked to the river, hoping to see water birds. The cormorants or coots—I still don’t know for sure what they are—have returned, and they were making their odd noises, peeping and croaking as they fished. On the opposite bank, where I’ve never seen any humans before, a man in a plaid shirt and denim shorts sat in a small, sunny clearing, perfectly still. Fishing or contemplating? I couldn’t tell. The sky was New Mexico Blue over Turtleback Mountain, and a blue heron perched on a for sale sign on a piece of land I hope no one ever buys, even though one of my yoga students is the realtor. The man on the bank moved just enough that I could see his fishing line catch the light as a fish stirred his meditation into new awareness, the present moment tugging on his hook.

His attire on a fifty-five degree day made me suspect he was a snowbird, one of the Mainers and Canadians who escape to T or C and think even our cool days are warm. If so, he has escaped to a town without a mall. What better place to spend the season? It was good bird day. Heron, cormorants (or coots), and snowbird.

 

Pilot Car

My inner voice told me to drop in on a friend who’d been sick recently. Her shop being open was a good sign, so I went in. While we were chatting at her desk near the front door, a man walked in, making a beeline across the store.

“That’s a man on a mission,” I said. “He knows what he wants.” My friend agreed. A minute or so later, he brought my nonfiction book, Small Awakenings, to the desk, and asked my friend, “Do you know when she’s bringing out the seventh book in the series?” He’d probably come in for another Mae Martin mystery and settled for essays on mindfulness instead.

I was in my running gear, including purple five-finger shoes that clashed with my red pants and my Mescalero T-shirt featuring the Ga’an dancers in bright yellow. I don’t dress to impress the lizards. I’d rather look better for a reader, but he met the real me. I explained that the first draft of book eight was written. It was supposed to be book seven, but my critique partner had so many questions about what happened in between its events and the end of Death Omen, I needed to write the story that covered everything I’d planned to skip. If you’re asking the same question he was: Sorry it took so long. Yes, it’s been a year since Death Omen came out, but that’s why the delay.

He shared his relationship with the series and the characters. Like a lot of my male readers, he’s attached to Mae and has doubts about Jamie, and hopes she may move on in a new direction. Many female readers, on the other hand, love Jamie. They like him better than Mae, in fact. He’s sincere and caring, but troubled. Kind of annoying. A mess with a good heart. The gentleman in the shop acknowledged that Jamie had made progress, but he relapses.

I told him Mae has to decide about her love life, not me. I’m working on the next-to-last chapter of book seven, and she doesn’t know her choice yet, so neither do I. Though I wrap up the mystery plot in each book, the protagonist’s personal life is an ongoing arc. The friend I based her on is a strong woman, both athletically and emotionally, and yet she makes unwise romantic decisions. It’s her blind spot, her weakness.

On my way to Elephant Butte to run in the state park, I was stopped by road work and had to wait for the pilot car. As I finally drove up the hill behind it, gazing at its sign, I sensed it was a sign. Pilot Car Follow Me.

My inner pilot car drove to the shop and put me where I’d meet the next guidance. Talking with my reader made me see how the final chapter will work out in a way that’s true to the characters and their development over time. It will flow perfectly into book eight. And it just might satisfy readers on both sides of the Jamie divide. I’m honored that they care so much about my characters.