Vulnerability

After a run at Elephant Butte Lake State Park, I was using the multi-level play structure on the playground near the end of the trail as my stretching station. I soon realized there were children not only climbing and sliding on the structure, but under it, using one of its platforms as a sheltered, shady cave. Remembering how much my friends and I loved secret, cave-like spaces when were around eight or nine like these boys, I hoped my presence didn’t bother them.

“Are you mostly with your dad?” one asked.

Ah. New friends getting to know each other. I suspected the boy who asked had divorced parents and spent more time with one than the other.

“I hardly ever see my mom,” the second boy replied with quiet force. “My mom is the least person in my whole life.”

He went on to talk about his father’s parents, and how he saw them a lot, but his pained and frustrated description of his relationship with his mother was what struck me. So did his new friend’s reaction. He simply listened. No advice, no interruptions, just silence.

When the story was complete, the listener let it rest a while, then exclaimed that they should go on the “zip line,” adding, “I don’t care if I break a bone!” Perfect timing.

They charged off to the part of the play structure where child can grab a sliding bar and zip from one platform to the next. It’s not high enough off the ground that a fall would do more than skin their knees, but the fear element must have made it more exciting, and taking risks together helped grow their friendship. Emotional risks as well as physical ones.

Vulnerability, not just doing things, is what makes friendship possible. Otherwise, you’re just acquaintances.

I’m at a point in my work in progress where my protagonist is going through a deluge of stress and making major decisions about her relationships. She’ll form the strongest bond with the person who can listen and accept her vulnerability without judgment.

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The Cart

Whose life story did it tell? And how did it become their story? It didn’t begin that way, with a shopping cart full of garbage and drug paraphernalia parked in the unpaved alley behind my apartment. Parked next to the dumpster, with wads of trash and a small cardboard box containing a disassembled pink plastic item still in the cart.

It’s the windy season. If I didn’t do something, this stuff would soon be flying down the alley and getting snagged on cacti. I put on gloves and emptied the cart, aware that I was throwing away things that someone, for some reason, had hung onto. Someone I never see or hear, yet who lives in my town. Someone who hoards peculiar items and uses meth. No matter where their story started, to reach this point, it was a long way down.

I walked the cart to the grocery store and advised the customer service person that it ought to be cleaned, but by the time we got out the back door to where I’d left it , it had already been taken. A shopper was probably pushing it through the store, putting their groceries in it.

I’d like to imagine that whoever left the cart in the alley is getting help, but I’ll never know. Though I’ve tried to come up with an ending for this story, there isn’t one. I passed through the middle of it.

Music and Writing

I can’t have background music. Either I’m listening, or I’m writing. Music totally absorbs me. I attended a concert of the Southwest Chamber Winds in an art gallery, and the effect on my mind and energy was profound. Pattern itself has energy, and has emotional and intellectual effects. Through pace, implied directions, unexpected transitions that somehow flow, mood changes, and pauses, music can create humor or suspense, can make you  wonder with every note what will happen next, and it has to both surprise and satisfy by the end. If it was predictable, it would be dull, but if it had no pattern or resolution, it would be noise, not music.

The concert made me want to write with the complexity, fire, and subtlety of classical music.

 

Green Earth

Alone in a wild place, I gradually began to sense to earth as a living being, a relative. Like us, she breathes and has fluids and bones. We have our microbiome; she has us and our fellow creatures.

The wild place where I stood, the dirt dam road at Elephant Butte, isn’t entirely wild. The road is paved, though no vehicles have been allowed on it for years. You’re greeted by a sign that warns you to do no damage, because this is property of the United States. (It’s Bureau of Reclamation land.) People respect that sign. There’s no trash. Everywhere else around here, litter abounds, but those who walk the dirt dam road honor it. Maybe the sign reminds visitors that we the people are the owners. Or perhaps those who come there are a special breed, the seekers of silent, isolated places.

The earth along the road has a green tone, shifting from gray-green to yellow-green. The vegetation is sparse: tiny stubborn, ground-hugging white flowers, cacti with inch-long thorns, spiky shrubs, and brown grasses. The space between them looks alive because of the green dirt. Pink and purple rocks glow against it, pebbles that might look dull in another setting seeming as bright as jewels.

A New Mexico Mystery Review: Rio Grande Fall by Rudolfo Anaya

The second Sonny Baca novel is not just a sequel, but a continuation of a journey through the four seasons and the four sacred directions that began in book one, Zia Summer. Sonny, the great-grandson of legendary New Mexico lawman Elfego Baca, grows as heir to his bisabuelo’s role and also in his spirituality and capacity for love.

To recover from the soul sickness caused by a murder he dealt with in the first book, Sonny seeks healing from a curandera. The healing is his initiation into the spirit world and shamanic experiences, and it introduces the most compelling aspects of the story.

This private investigator character far from noir. Sonny is colorful, a flawed but basically virtuous young man strongly connected to his family, culture, and community. He’s realistic in many ways and yet also a larger-than-life hero who has mythic-scale adventures in his archetypal battle with Raven, the cult leader and domestic terrorist he pursued in the first book.

Sonny is hired by the Alburquerque International Balloon Fiesta when a balloonist who could have been a witness in a case involving Raven dies. (Get use to that extra r in Albuquerque as you read the series. It’s not a typo. Anaya restored it, though it fell off the city’s name a long time ago.) An intriguing aspect of the crime plot is the time period, in the aftermath of the Iran-Contra scandal and the arms-and-drugs deals of that era. One of the themes is corruption.

The balloon fiesta itself, the city’s diverse neighborhoods, and the glory of October in New Mexico, are as central to the story as the characters. The author is so passionate about them he gets carried away sometimes, re-describing them more often than necessary. He also restates his themes a bit too often. I guess his editor didn’t dare tell the master cut, but these repetitions slow the pace. A reflection on autumn in the Rio Grande valley isn’t needed when lives are at stake. The book overall is still powerful. I mean this as praise when I say it has an occasional comic book quality—a fight scene with a leap off a balcony, a mad scientist scene, the invocation of special powers—because myths, archetypes, and superheroes are closely related.

The most complex characters aren’t the good ones or the evil ones, but two women who are torn between: Madge, the balloon fiesta director, and Tamara, Raven’s former follower. The Good Women aren’t filled out as well. Though their roles in Sonny’s life differ, his lover, Rita, restaurateur and herbalist, and the curandera, Lorenza, are virtually identical. This may be due to Sonny’s idealization of them—or the author’s.

Lorenza is Sonny’s new spiritual teacher. His neighbor don Eliseo, a traditional elder, was his teacher in the first book and remains one in this. I’ll be interested to see if each book in the series adds another teacher and how these teachers balance his spiritual wholeness by the end. Despite some excess verbiage, I’ll follow the rest of the series. After all, it’s excess verbiage by Anaya.

 

Contrast

Tourists were cycling in shorts and sleeveless tank tops today. I could tell they were “from away” (a wonderful phrase I picked up in Maine) not only because they were clad for summer in January, but because they wore actual bike shorts—and helmets. A local cyclist is more likely to ride in jeans and have long gray hair flowing out from under a ball cap, while dangling a grocery bag from one hand or pulling some sort of wagon with his dog in it.

Another tourist I saw today, a man with cropped silver hair, was sunbathing shirtless outside his camper at the lake. No hat. No sunglasses. Getting a tan, of all things. I didn’t think anyone did that anymore, but if you’re from some snowbound Northern state, it might be hard to resist a sunny, fifty-seven degree day in the desert. Meanwhile, I was wearing long pants, two layers of shirts, gloves, a visor hat, wrap-around goggles, and sunscreen.

I enjoy winter here in southern New Mexico, but its beauty is familiar. If I imagine what this day would have felt like should I have been suddenly transported here the year I had a job in Maine, and the snowbanks were as tall as I was, I’d have thought I’d gone to heaven. Back then, I walked to work wrapped in a windproof snowsuit, taking cautious steps on perpetually icy sidewalks. I know I don’t live in paradise. Our community has its problems, and we need rain the way those half-naked Northerners need sun. It’s good to see them. They remind me to appreciate the ordinary and to realize it’s actually extraordinary.

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.