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.

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Outdoor Yoga and Bushy Neurons

I’m still exploring Hare Brain Tortoise Mind at a tortoise pace, and I came across this concept in it: Animals that live in highly stimulating environments grow bushier neurons in their brains. That is, the neurons develop more dendrites, make more connections with their neighbors, and become capable of new and varied patterns of interaction. They can get out of a rut.

I think of T or C as a bushy neuron kind of place. A friend who visited from Virginia tried to explain what she found so remarkable about it. She said I’d described it well in my books, and yet those descriptions hadn’t captured a certain aspect of its vibe, something she struggled name or explain. Then she finally realized what it was. “There’s no pattern.”

While she was here, she mentioned how odd it was to look down an alley and see not only a dirt alley with dumpsters, but also an explosion of murals—not graffiti, but murals. The town kept surprising her. And it can still surprise me.

She’s right; there’s no pattern, unless the two blue-and-purple houses on my block constitute a pattern. But one has a moon goddess on it and the other has a Kokopelli. On the same block are trailers and the stucco-and-stick-fence gated wall of a spa that will never be built. For some reason, someone bought the lot quite a few years back and began construction, although you can’t build anything that size in this location. It’s a nice wall, though.

Doing some volunteer work that takes me all over town, I recently discovered a section of Juniper Street I never knew existed. The street has three disconnected parts, and I’d only known about two of them. This third part is around a hidden curve. From there it suddenly drops down, becoming so steep no one could ever ride bike up it and so narrow you’d hate to meet another car on it. On one side is a great wall of wind-and-water-sculpted red dirt and on the other side, two residential streets, one with little houses, and below that, one with super-bright crayon-colored trailers. When I’ve looked down at the town from the water tower hill, I couldn’t figure out where the street with those trailers was and how one got to it. That third leg of Juniper was hidden by the wall of dirt.

In other neighborhoods, I’ve food an orange-and-blue building, stone buildings, a yellow house with Lady of Guadeloupe murals, little hidden cottages behind other houses, magical gardens, art gardens, hoarder yards, collapsing houses, yards with so much trash in them I worried how people could live that way, serene little adobe apartments with winding paths and desert gardens, and many of these coexist on the same streets. No pattern. The appeal of T or C to artists and musicians makes sense. It’s not neat, cute, or pretty, but it makes your neurons bushy.

The recent exposure to so many new off-beat places seems to have broken my habitual perceptual patterns. I discovered a perfect spot for outdoor yoga in the courtyard outside my apartment that I never noticed as such, though the small square of bricks was always there. Smooth and flat, partly shaded, it faces the autumn-yellow fig tree and a tall purple aster. Yoga feels more spiritual under the open sky with nature around me, even if it’s nature in the courtyard. And the shapes of the fig tree and the flowers reminded me what the novelty was doing for my neurons.

*****

Read more of Amber Foxx’s essays on this blog and in the collection Small Awakenings: Reflections on Mindful Living.

 

Undermind at Work

ladiesofmystery

That’s not a typo. I have not been undermined at work. I’m rereading Guy Claxton’s Hare Brain Tortoise Mind, and he refers to the slow processes of creativity and insight as the undermind—the part of the brain that’s working beneath the level of verbal expression and logic, the part that can detect patterns the conscious surface of the mind misses. The part that creates what the surface mind cannot. I read the book eighteen years ago when it first came out, but I wasn’t writing fiction back then, just academic research papers. I perceive its ideas differently now.

On this reading, I see in it an explanation of how pantsing a plot works. Those of us who write that way often marvel at how we laid clues we didn’t know were there and how we brought in characters whose purpose was unclear at the time, but who later revealed…

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Cut off and Connected

Last Sunday, a pleasant, sunny day in the mid-seventies, wasn’t a normal power outage sort of day—no storms, no wind. But around five-thirty p.m., a loud bang was followed by a loss of electrical power to a few blocks of T or C, just the stretch between my side of the street and the Rio Grande. No big deal, when you don’t need heat, lights, or air conditioning, and people right across the street do have power should you desperately need it for something. What the surprise outage did do was kick everyone it affected off their computers or TVs. Nice. I stopped reading a book review online, since the internet connection cut off, and wondered if my neighbor in Apartment 2 knew what was going on. When I arrived, the gentleman from the trailer next door was already there. My landlord soon joined us, and the four of us hung out and talked for a while. It’s not as if we never socialize with each other under normal circumstances, but the way we all went to one man’s apartment intrigued me. Sometimes, when we’re focused on screens, what we really want is a connection, and when the screen goes dark, we realize it. In this corner of T or C, we knew where to go for that human connection. My neighbor’s calm, humorous, welcoming nature made us gravitate toward him. His generosity gave us the assurance he wouldn’t object to our dropping in under the circumstances. He’s quiet, and I might not have met him if we weren’t neighbors, so I’m glad that we are. Simply being himself, at home in his true nature, he has the qualities of a spiritual teacher without claiming the title.

Opening to the Season

One day it was summer and the next day it was autumn. A deep silence heralded the change. Then, with a sudden wind, the new season flew in, bringing a day of dramatic skies—sunny patches, blue-gray clouds shedding thin sheets of rain, white clouds towering in wild wind-sculpted shapes. The only creatures I met in the desert were quail. The temperature had dropped twenty degrees, and everything that lives in a warm burrow was in it. Even after the weather began moving, my mind remained affected by the strange silence that preceded it, fascinated by sounds and the space between them. The tapping of rain. Nothing. The brushing of wind against rocks and trees. Nothing. A quail peep. Nothing.

I went to City of Rocks state park a week or so ago when friends visited from Virginia, and it was perfectly silent unless we spoke or walked. No cars. No other people. Nothing.

It’s hard for the human mind to sustain total silence. Openness to the arrival of pure experience can be overwhelming. My head is more at home filled with the chatter of its own products, from the turning point in a plot to my daily plans. But without stillness, none of the activity works as well.

At home, the silence embraces me. After nearly six months of running the air conditioner, I’ve been able to turn it off. On an evening walk, my neighbor and I fell into silence as the bats emerged from their new home, swirling into the sunset sky from behind a broken blue wall with a mural on it. They’ll only be with us for another week or two, and then they’ll migrate to Mexico. We humans, our heads full of words and the sense of time, are aware that when the bats leave, another season has changed. Something has ended. And yet it hasn’t. In the perfect, circular nature of real time, the cycle is eternal.

*****

Read more of Amber Foxx’s essays on this blog and in the collection in Small Awakenings: Reflections on Mindful Living.

 

Knowledge and Perception

During the month of August, there were so many events scrolling through the electronic sign over the entrance to Elephant Butte Lake State Park that someone decided to remove the time-temperature-and-welcome from the cycle of reminders and announcements. Once I got used to not seeing those numbers when I rounded a high point on the trail with a view of the sign, I realized how absurdly attached I’d gotten to noting exactly how many minutes it had taken  me to reach that spot and whether the temperature had gone up a degree. I enjoyed my runs more without this information snagging my mind.  Now that there’s less going in in September, “Welcome to Elephant Butte Lake State Park 1:36 p.m. 87 degrees” is back. It still takes me exactly twenty-four minutes to reach the point where I can see it, and I can tell how warm it is without looking. What is it about numbers and measurement? Or even the desire to know something just because it’s there to be known?

I don’t have anything against knowledge. Practical knowledge enhances life, and useless learning is fun.  I spied a large, almost squirrel-sized, New Mexico whiptail today. She did one pushup and disappeared under a bush. My useless knowledge informs me that she was a she because they all are—our state reptile is an all-female species.  Trying to identify a delicate purple flower I admired, I searched online in vain, but I learned that among New Mexico wildflowers there are plants called Water Wally, Hairy Five Eyes, Bastard Toadflax, Blue Dicks, Redwhisker Clammyweed, and Bonker Hedgehog. (The last one is a small cactus.) I still don’t know the name of the purple flower. I think its bright yellow companion is snakeweed, but it may be chamisa. Chamisa’s botanical name is Ericameria nauseosa, which makes me want to create an unpleasant character named Erica Maria in some future book. This plant, or its purple friend, smells wonderful, not nauseosa, and that perception is a greater joy than the satisfaction of acquiring a fact such as its name. Globes of yellow blossoms on green stems and taller stalks with tiny purple blooms glow against the pale brown sand, and a rare whiff of floral sweetness surprises me as I run past. At exactly the same speed whether or not I measure myself.

*****

Enjoyed this post? You may also like Small Awakenings: Reflections on Mindful Living.

Disappearing Words Come Back—Overnight

This short story appeared on my blog between sunset and sunrise on the autumn equinox last year, and is showing up and disappearing again this year, here and in my newsletter*. Last year, I explained its disappearance the day after. This year, I’m sharing the explanation again, but in advance. I’ve put it on a download link that expires.

Why does the story vanish?

When I was a teenager, I read a newspaper column about a myth related to the autumn equinox. After all these years, I can still see the kitchen table where I was sitting and see which side of which page the column was on. I remember that it was about a Germanic pagan goddess of second chances who opened a path that was only visible on the night of the autumn equinox, a path seekers could take to redo a mistake or regret in their pasts. I made an effort remember her name and wrote it down, although I was confused as to whether it was Llobrodga or Llobrogda. Having had a short story published in a teen magazine, I already thought of myself as a writer, and I knew I would have to create a story about this myth someday. An image of the goddess’s twilight path of golden leaves stayed with me. When I finally wrote the story decades later, she didn’t exist. I looked up everything I could think of about goddesses of second chances and pagan mythology and the autumn equinox and found nothing. I can’t explain this. But I hope you enjoy A Night in Betsy Gap.

The title came about a few years ago during a training session for professors who were teaching a first-year seminar class. One of the presenters was named Betsy, and she didn’t use all her allotted time, so someone referred to the open space in our schedule as the Betsy Gap. I said it sounded like some place out near Naked Creek (a real town in that part of Virginia). The name Betsy Gap stuck with me as perfect for an obscure place where a traveler could get stuck. Then I saw a prompt for a short fiction contest in which the theme was crossing a line, and it had to include the word six-pack and another which I’ve forgotten. The idea for a short story about Edie had been brewing in the back of my mind for a while, since her only role in the Mae Martin series is in Hubert’s past. I was surprised when Will Baca showed up in the story, but this other-world experience prepares him for the big changes he goes through about ten months later in Ghost Sickness. (Not that he remembers.)

When you read the short story, you’ll know something Mae and Hubert won’t know until book seven, since Edie cut off contact with everyone she knew in Cauwetska and Tylerton, intentionally making herself hard to find. Her fate won’t show up in the series until the work currently in progress comes out. But in the September before the events in Ghost Sickness, she spent a night in Betsy Gap.

* If you subscribe to my newsletter, pardon the repetition. For the most part, my blog followers and newsletter subscribers don’t overlap, and neither does the content they read.

*****

The Calling, book one in the Mae Martin series, is free on all e-book retail sites through the end of September.