Scaring the Bluebirds

I felt bad for alarming them. They’d settled into the tall junipers on either side of the trail. But if I let them sit, I’d have never finished my run. So, three times, making laps of my favorite trail, I scared the newly-arrived flock of bluebirds into flight. Once they were aloft, it was moving, magical, a soul-stretching experience. Thirty or forty bluebirds, the males’ wings flashing like fragments of the New Mexico blue sky.

I have to upend my characters’ lives. Make them fly. It brings out the beauty and strength in them. No one wants to read a book about an easy life. We’d all like to have one, I suppose, but according to the concept of Flow, doing something difficult that we can master makes life interesting, not doing what’s easy. The character arc in a book and in a series is like that. Characters have to struggle and face setbacks before finally they arrive at some version of their goals, changed by the effort. And then, as they get comfortable in a new stage of life, the author comes around the bend in the trail again. The bluebirds take flight.

*****

Bird notes: I have learned that the Western Bluebird lives in most parts of New Mexico year-round, but some from further north may migrate here. This flock arrived in Elephant Butte Lake Park about a week before the state parks shut down again due to the pandemic. The closure may only be for two weeks, or it may last a while, depending how things go. My alternate running route is beautiful, but without bluebirds. I hope they stay the winter, and I can see them again. If I do, I will probably scare them again. I miss them, but I doubt they miss me.

Whole Series Sale

In the mood to curl up with a good book? How about seven? The entire Mae Martin Series is on sale through December 16th. The Calling is free, Shaman’s Blues is $2.99, and the rest of the books in the series are $3.99 each. If you haven’t caught up with all seven, this is a great time to do it.

Uncertainty

It’s Tuesday night as I write this, 11:30 p.m. Mountain time. I turned off the election updates over an hour ago and focused on critiquing a fellow author’s historical mystery. I didn’t listen to news all day, but did my every-three-week grocery run to Natural Grocers in Las Cruces. I did housework and yoga, took a brisk walk after dark, listened briefly to the election results trickling in, and let it go. Not that I don’t care how it turns out. I do. I did everything I could to assist the outcome I believe is best. But I can’t know it yet.

We humans are so attached to prognosticating. Augury has changed from the interpretation of entrails and other enigmatic patterns to a science that originated with 18th century gamblers. If 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that uncertainty is real, and if I can’t tolerate it, I have a hard time ahead. The questions keep coming. But all I have is the present moment. Within that moment, I’m aware of my home, my physical aliveness, the sensation of touching the keyboard, the tiny clicks and thunks of typing, the hum of the refrigerator, and the greater silence beyond. This is it.

As I walked home under the stars, the silhouettes of small animals appeared up ahead. Four skunks crossing the street. Above them Mars and Venus were bright. I crossed to the other side, just in case.

How Plotting a Novel is like Planning a Yoga Class

For me, teaching yoga and writing fiction are about the deeper aspects of being human, not simply about executing poses or providing entertainment. The asana practice or the entertainment is the container for the inner process.

There are two main ways I approach my work in both cases: structure and improvisation. For example, I have general sense a story is about a certain theme and a certain problem affecting a set of characters in a specific setting. There’s interaction among these elements, and sometimes it can surprise me. A yoga class also tends to have a theme, such as a class focused primarily on hip stability and mobility or a class building up to a new asana. How I teach it is affected by the student or group of students.

A story has a beginning, in which the protagonist is in her normal world, in a situation where her strengths and her shortcomings feel comfortable and familiar. But then something changes, making it necessary not only to take action, but to do things she’s not comfortable doing, things that stretch her creativity and courage in confronting a problem that has high stakes for her and for people she cares about yet. The pace increases and the demands become greater as the story progresses.

I start a yoga class with awareness of posture and breath, meeting the students as they are, letting them find where the knots, restrictions, and imbalances are. I observe them and consider what they might need in their asana practice to release some of the habits that tighten their necks, backs, or shoulders. I also take requests, because the students may have concerns and needs I can’t otherwise assess. The first portion of the class focuses the mind, warms up the muscles, and lubricates the joints prior to any significant physical demands. The middle portion of the class is the hardest, with poses that challenge strength, balance, and flexibility.

I respond to my students’ questions and to what I see in their practice with further explorations and modifications. I may need to change direction in midstream, depending on how they respond to my instruction and on how they’re feeling that day.

Similarly, I improvise in writing my books as I discover how my characters respond to what I’ve given them so far. They have as much say in the plot as I do. But if any key elements in the course of a mystery or of a balanced yoga class are missing, my readers or my students will end up feeling unfinished in some way. So, even as I invent, I rely on structure.

Beyond the midpoint is the peak of the experience. The crisis in the plot. Or the asana we’ve been building toward. Everything that comes before leads up to this. Nothing is extraneous. The challenge is equal to the student/protagonist’s ability, though at times it may feel to them as if it’s beyond their reach. That’s where growth takes place. And both are solving a puzzle, whether it’s a mystery or how to organize ardra chandrasana or how to quiet the mind and be fully present.

Then there’s the denouement of the plot or the cool-down and relaxation portion of the class, as everything that came before is integrated and resolved.

*****

A number of my characters practice yoga, though so far my protagonist, Mae Martin, doesn’t. Her friend and mentor, Dr. Bernadette Pena, introduced in The Calling, is an advanced yoga student. Mae’s young neighbors in Truth or Consequences in Shaman’s Blues are devoted to yoga as part of their recovery from addiction. Jamie Ellerbee is one of the most complex characters in the series. Yoga plays an important role in his healing journey, especially as he first begins his studies in Soul Loss.

Charley’s Last Walk

I never appreciated dogs until I met Charley. She and Bob lived next door to me for a while, and as I became friends with him, I became friends with her. Charley and I truly bonded the day she crawled out from under the fence around his backyard during a thunderstorm when he wasn’t home. I found her flattened on the sidewalk with a foreleg stuck through her chain collar a result of her desperate scramble. Unable to move, terrified by the thunder, she gave me the most pleading, vulnerable look I’ve ever seen. After I extracted her leg from the collar, she still stuck to the ground in fear. Somehow, I persuaded her to get up, then gently led and nudged and prodded until I could put her inside Bob’s trailer.

She was medium sized and golden-red-brown, with a black spot on her tail and a matching black spot in the middle of her tongue. Her features were dingo-like, her body solid—and amazingly strong when she was being stubborn about where to walk. I used to try to convince her enjoy some variety, but when she didn’t want to do something, she would put on her brakes and just look at me, so we settled on a fixed route that made her happy and gave her a long enough walk. Once she won that argument, she kept up a brisk pace like she was on a mission, making me almost jog to stay with her. Sometimes I wondered if Charley thought she was walking me, and since Bob insisted that she take me out, she should be the boss. And why not? She was smart and responsible. She cooperated with a wide variety of verbal commands, if not suggestions about where to walk.

In her old age, she acquired new skills in avoiding dog-to-dog conflict. If a dog was on a leash in the distance, she paused to let it go past. If it was off-leash and coming toward her, she sped up to a trot and evaded the encounter, making me speed up with her. This impressed me, because even two years ago she would crouch and low-walk as if ready to spring when she saw a dog she didn’t like, and when she was young, she “got a ticket,” as Bob put it, for tearing the bandana off a pit bull. When it came to humans, though, she was a loving, sociable dog.

On what turned out to be her last walk, she chose the same route as always and did all the same things. Her key destination was the T or C Brewery and the people drinking on the patio. I made her keep her distance, though I could tell by those longing glances she really wanted to go up and put her nose in people’s hands and be petted, like she could in the old days before the pandemic. (Bob would ask her, “Want to go grab a beer, Charley?” And she would jump to attention.) She also liked to walk past a certain Akita and make him bark, and past her old home from before Bob moved. She took an interest in the smells along the bottoms of buildings without breaking her stride, only stopping to sniff at one specific corner where all the important canine information seemed to be, then headed home with me in tow.  Neither of us had an inkling it was her last walk.

The next afternoon, Bob called to ask if she’d acted normal on her walk, because she was sticking close to him nonstop and having some symptoms. I assured him she’d been fine. He made arrangements to get her to the vet the next day. She didn’t whine or make any fuss, but by night she had trouble standing. He lay beside her on the floor, and once in a while she laid her front paw on his arm. At six a.m., she quietly slipped away. After twelve good years of life, she had around twelve hours of knowing something was wrong. Love was her last moment. Her last walk was filled with the simple pleasure of her familiar neighborhood, and perhaps her memories of being the most popular dog on the Brewery patio.

She’s not taking me for walks anymore, but she guides me in spirit. Some of my most serene moments have been in her company, as we headed up Marr Street at sunset toward the church from which the bats emerge. Something about the sight of her sturdy back as she paced along and the bats in the sky framing my view of Turtleback Mountain silenced all the chatter in my head, as if I could enter Charley’s mind-state, immersed in the act of walking and the experience of my senses.

She taught me this: Live today with love and enthusiasm, fully present. Be yourself. Grow wiser with age. Thanks, Charley.

Works in Progress

I set myself a goal to complete five short stories and get them revised and sent out for critique by November. I’ve somewhat polished three, finished a very rough first draft of the fourth, and have the outline for the fifth.

Writing these stories is forcing me to examine emotional depths within the tight plots of short fiction. It’s my job as a fiction writer to make my characters’ lives difficult. To test them and to explore how they can come out stronger. In some ways, doing this in short works is harder than developing a character arc over the expanse of a long, complex novel. I’m enjoying the work, though. It’s been a chance to reunite with characters I haven’t seen for a while and integrate their personal journeys with those of my protagonists.

Will Baca and Letitia Westover-Brown from Ghost Sickness are featured in the first story. They’re trying to make a go of honest work and an honest relationship, but then someone sends Will a strange gift, and they need Jamie as a healer and Mae as a psychic to solve to mystery.

The next story takes place at the college fitness center where Mae works. No visits with “old” characters here. She finds herself with a new enemy, one who could undermine her future career.

The third story brings back Kyle and Vaughan from Shadow Family and Rex from Death Omen as well as Mae’s stepdaughters. I loved working on it, a project that made me rediscover pre-pandemic Truth or Consequences, as the twins attempt to plant a trivia mystery for Vaughan to solve. Another mystery emerges as a consequence, and the girls want Mae to find out the truth.

The fourth story centers around Montana Chino, a character from Ghost Sickness. She and her sisters, Melody and Misty, have planned a thirtieth birthday surprise for Mae, and then Montana, a hotel housekeeper, gets a much bigger surprise in a tip envelope at work. A tip that could change her life in more ways than one when Mae’s psychic inquiry brings up answers Montana wasn’t looking for.

I haven’t decided if the fifth story is more of romance or a mystery, as Mae and Jamie attend two weddings almost back to back, one in T or C and one in Santa Fe. (Trivia question: What happened in New Mexico in 2013 that would cause this to happen?)

Yes, it’s still 2012 and 2013 in these stories. (The Calling is set in 2009-2010.) I’m moving along. But so far, I can’t skip any part of my characters’ lives. They want me know what they’ve lived through, so I’ll understand them better for the next book.

“I’ve got nothing better to do. Might as well turn eighty-five.”

Last year, when Bob turned eighty-four, another friend and I took him for a float trip on the Rio Grande. With a very old friend, each birthday is a special occasion, even if he says things like the title of this post. When I stopped by Sunday to give him a book for his eighty-fifth, he was sitting on the cement porch of his apartment—a cheddar-yellow, purple, and red building in true T or C style. With him was a friend who had brought a cake, and they were having a quiet celebration in 2020 mode. The chairs on his porch are a little over six feet apart. His mask hangs on the knob of a large, heavy bureau he somehow hauled out from his living room along with his armchairs, a lamp, a clock, a table, and little potted plants. He’s pretty much established his pandemic parlor outside.

Every other day at sunset, I walk his dog. She’s old, too, but she’s a faster walker than he is, so I’m in charge of her cardio workouts, while he takes her for leisurely, companionable strolls to the river.

The bats have relocated yet again. Now they live in the Baptist church. The sky is alive with their dances as the dog and I finish our walk. I deliver her back to Bob, and we talk and watch the sunset. A ceremony of cherishing the day and our friendship.

 

Surfacing

As I said in my last post, when coyotes crossed my path, I chose to see them as a sign. Disconnect more was my interpretation of the message. More wildlife was showing up when I ran because there were so few other humans. Animals were reclaiming their space, and I needed to reclaim mine. My inner space.

Looking through the aquarium glass of a computer screen at a version of the world skewed by what people choose to share or make important was getting oppressive. So, I declared a timeout from Facebook, even though I knew I would miss friends’ pictures of their kids and cats and gardens, and links to their art and music. I needed a break from the mix of news and trivia that makes up the rest of Facebook. This freed up writing time. Freed my mind from the urge to scroll, too.

Then my laptop crashed. Like the coyote-powered universe was saying, “Hey, you like your time out?  Here’s more.”

And it was good. No news at all. No e-mail. My days out from under the internet allowed me not only to surface from the info-pond but to have a breakthrough.  Writing by hand, I outlined my main characters’ life events during the year and six months between the end of the seventh Mae Martin Mystery, Shadow Family, and the beginning of the eighth one. Then I chose five events in that timeline and sketched the plots of short stories.  Already, I can already see the effect this insight into the “skipped” time will have on my revisions to book eight.

When FedEx delivered the new laptop, after my four serene and productive days, I had mixed feelings about it, especially once I was swamped with the hassles of getting various setups completed. Everything was about the computer.

Now I’m adapted to it and doing my best to have a different relationship with it than with its predecessor. When I venture onto Facebook, it’s only to get in touch with a few close friends and a group of fellow writers, and then I’m outta there. I do follow the news again, but I limit it to listening while I’m lifting weights or doing housework. I’ve finished a fairly polished version of one short story, completed the first draft of the next, and improvised the opening paragraphs of the third. Writing short fiction is great discipline for tightening scenes in full-length novels. And my time without a computer made me keep flowing as I wrote, no stopping to fix and tinker. I’m applying that process to my first drafts now:  keep going to the end. It’s all going to get revised anyway.

Though I’m still one of the world’s slowest writers, I’ve learned how to speed up a little.

Hugging a Wasp and Other Encounters

I walked the road along the Rio Grande, going well past the areas where people fish or put in rafts, far enough to be alone with the cliffs, the cacti, and the red-winged blackbirds in the shrubs on the bank. A huge blue heron flew low over the center of the river, gliding upstream. A jackrabbit on the opposite bank crept down to drink. The shared silence felt special. I was at peace. The rabbit was at peace.

The rainbow-like greater earless lizards are one of the many beauties of Elephant Butte Lake State Park. There’s one who lives under a certain juniper at a bend in the trail where I run. She was pink-sided earlier, and now she isn’t, meaning she has laid her eggs. Now she’s just green and orange. I look forward to seeing her on her favorite rock when the temperature is in the eighties and low nineties, and she needs to warm up, holding still as I slow down to admire her.

I spotted another of this species standing upright on its hind legs near an empty campground, front feet on a flat-topped pink rock that was perfectly scaled to be a little bar for lizards. It looked so much like it was ordering a beer, I wished I had a camera. Not that I would go running with a camera, but it would have made a wonderful picture.

While picking figs outside my apartment, I accidentally cupped my hand around a small delicate body. A wasp. Not the kind that crawls inside a fig to lay eggs, but the kind that stops by to eat after the birds have carved holes in the fruit. They’re a stunning variation on the theme of wasp, adobe brown with yellow stripes and geometric designs on their backs. They remind me of some pottery ornaments I bought years ago at a Pueblo corn dance as gifts for my family. It didn’t react to my touch, and I let go, surprised by its gentleness.

All quail family encounters are aww-inspiring. The chicks are SO tiny and so numerous, running to keep up with their parents.

And then, there were the coyotes. One crossed my path in the desert, looking back at me. Then another, paying me no mind. The lack of people in the park may be making them feel free to roam their territory in ways they wouldn’t in a normal year. They’re such a rare sighting, especially in the middle of a summer day, I took them as a sign. Not that they were there for me, of course.

I perceive these various creatures—in my human way—as cute, beautiful, or meaningful. We’re connected in the web of life, and my spirit needs them. But none of them are there for me. That’s part of the magic of wild things.

Schedule and a Sale

Once upon a time, I used to post every Thursday. Then it became every other Thursday or whenever I was inspired. I’m not sure it matters to readers of this blog if I keep to a schedule, but I decided it matters to me. For years, I had a schedule with the group blog, Ladies of Mystery. This summer, I decided it was time to leave. If you followed me on Ladies of Mystery, you got used to seeing my posts about writing on the fourth Thursday of every month, and I benefited from the discipline of reflecting on my craft. I’ll be keeping that schedule here, while posting on the second Thursday of every month on the other topics you’ve come to expect from me. Mindfulness, running, yoga, nature, occasional book reviews, and life in New Mexico.  In a way, there’s no boundary between reflecting on these things and on the work of writing. It’s all connected. A process of awareness and deep attention.

Anyway, the “real” post is next week. This is just my public commitment to the schedule. And an announcement that the boxed set of the Mae Martin Mysteries Books 1-3 is on sale for $2.99.

I hope all my readers are doing as well as possible in difficult times, staying safe and healthy. You’re welcome to use the comments to say hello, even if you have no actual comments on my post.