Music for the Heart and Soul

It’s been stressful just to be a human and an American lately. Though my stresses are lower than many people’s—I’m Anglo; I can get by without my yoga teaching income; writing fiction is work I can do alone at home; I live in a state with a lower infection rate than its struggling neighbors; and I practice a lot of stress management skills—I feel the impact of what’s happening. You’d have to be numb not to. I’ve been feeling the grief of the whole country, the losses, the tragedies, and the outrages, as well as dealing with the necessary contraction of my social life. And then there was the stress of this Thursday’s errands: getting a mammogram during a pandemic, going grocery shopping during a pandemic. Getting ready to head home, I reached into the box in the back seat for music for the drive. My hand grasped the CD Walela from 1992. Beautiful choice by chance. Healing and uplifting.

Yes, this is another RAIN post. It’s the monsoon season. Rain is sacred in New Mexico. It’s a manifestation of spirit, not just the hydrologic cycle. One of those July magical moments appeared, rain in the distance as a curtain across the landscape, a few drops on my windshield, and then I was in it, smelling it, hearing it, my little car being washed with a blinding blast of it. Wind flung rain sideways across the road, and this song came on in the middle of the storm.  Circle of Light. There are no images with the video, so you can close your eyes and imagine a New Mexico monsoon while you listen.

I’ve been disappointed in my fellow humans at times lately, yet most of them are kind, patient, considerate, and loving. And the people who go to work so others can eat or have medical screenings are also brave. The occasional jerks I encounter stand out, but they too have souls and hearts and are capable of love, though their public behavior might make me think otherwise for a moment.

The song blew through me like the storm, cleansing and powerful. All of us, all of us, are in the circle of light.

Zero Percent Chance of Rain

The clouds were thick and gray, trailing shaggy beards of virga, usually a sign that it’s too hot to rain all the way to the ground. The forecast said zero-percent chance. I walked to the Rio Grande, avoiding the place I used to go to enjoy it—Rotary Park—because it was packed with vehicles, and we’ve had an influx of Texans. Instead, I walked the dirt road, listened to red-winged blackbirds, admired the cliff with cacti sprouting from its steep sides, and headed home. Too many trucks puffing dust on the road. Thunder began rumbling, and was I surprised to feel a soft mist of rain on my skin. Such a gift, when least expected.

Boredom? Free Time? What’s That?

Occasionally people have asked me—from six feet or more away, outdoors, of course—if I’m bored yet. My answer: I’m a writer. I’m never bored.

I’m wrapping up another major revision of the eighth Mae Martin Psychic Mystery, but I haven’t had as much time to work on it as I expected. With all “close contact” businesses in New Mexico still closed—and that includes fitness facilities like yoga studios—I should have free time. I’m not taking classes in Albuquerque or teaching classes here in Truth or Consequences. My new running route, a dirt road along the Rio Grande, is two tenths of a mile from my apartment. I don’t drive to Elephant Butte to run in the still-closed state park. I love this road—the river, blue herons, red-winged blackbirds, butterflies, a few blooming cacti, and some unknown plant that smells crisp and green. A dirt road in the windy season delivers occasional little dust storms, but I can’t complain. It’s flat, so I can run without reinjuring myself, and it couldn’t be more convenient.

The time suck is laundry. I live in a tiny apartment. I often rented places this size when I was a professor spending summer vacations in Truth or Consequences, and I realized all I actually needed was two rooms and a bath, not my two-story, two-bedroom townhouse, so when I retired and moved, I downsized. The lack of laundry hookups or space for machines was only a minor issue. After all, I could do a week’s laundry all at once at the laundromat, bring my exercise tubing, and go outside to work out while giant machines did their jobs.

Then, this spring, the laundromat became stressful. Sanitizing the machines and the laundry carts. Asking people to stay six feet away and getting dirty looks for it. I ordered two little gadgets that are life-savers. But they aren’t time savers. The hand-cranked Wonder Wash holds about five pounds of laundry. I have practically no counter space next to the sink, so I have to put it in the (very small) shower, kneel on a towel on the floor to crank right-handed, then get behind it in the shower and do a kind of half squat and crank left-handed to make it churn the other way. Two minutes for a wash, a minute per rinse. Two rinses. Sounds quick, but there’s the filling, the draining, and the wringing between rinses. Then I carry the wet clothes to the electric spin dryer in the living room. It whirls them at amazing speeds and flings the water out with centrifugal force to drain into a plastic tray under its spout. This takes two to four minutes, and again, that sounds quick. But I have to wipe the washer dry and store it behind the sofa, empty the spin dryer’s drain tray, and hang up my laundry without a clothes line. The whole process takes at least an hour per load. Small items drape on the edge of the clothes baskets. Larger items go on hangers on the shower rod. Sheets get folded in four lengthwise, clipped to pants hangers, dried with a fan, then folded with the other side out, fan-dried again, and then refolded yet again with yet another area on the outside. Towels the next day, clothing the next, a day off, and then I have to do more laundry. Five pounds at a time.

My thumb muscles are sore. My upper back and shoulder muscles are sore—and I’ve been doing yoga daily and lifting weights three times a week for decades. I’m still working out while I do my laundry, but it’s not as easy—the workout or the laundry. Amazing. Think how fit our great grandmothers must have been doing the wash for a whole household.

Every time I put away a set of clean, dry sheets and pillowcases, I feel a sense of accomplishment. I did it myself, at home, without sharing respiratory droplets in an enclosed space with other people.

And now, finally, I can sit down and write.

*****

Red-winged blackbird photo by Sarah Stierch

Note: I provided links to the products I discussed so you could see pictures, but they’ve been in such demand they’re sold out.

The Cactus Patch, Feral Furniture, and Patience

On a ninety-seven degree day with nineteen miles-per-hour wind, I had to run—well, jog, really—straight into the wind up the steep hill to reach my new favorite trail. And it was worth it. The rare little hedgehog cacti were displaying their last two blooms of the year. There are only three of these plants in the whole area where I’ve been running. Not a close family, they grow a foot or two apart. Their trunks are egg-shaped with starry thorn clusters, and they explode with big hot pink flowers that each stay open one day. The first time I rounded a bend and saw blossom number one, I gasped in awe and stopped. I looked deep in the cup of the flower to see something round and yellow bobbing and wriggling among the fluffy stamens. The hind end of a bee.

The rest of the desert is full of yellow flowers, the creosote bushes waving golden petals in the wind, and below them the low-growing purple prickly pear, also called a purple pancake cactus, is flowering as well. It looks like a mean little plant until it blooms. The pads can be purple, green with purple edges or green that looks as if it’s coated with purple, and sometimes the plant will sprout a single bright green pad. The thorns are long and sharp,  capable of penetrating the human toe quite efficiently. The buds are pink, but they open yellow with pink-orange centers or streaks. There were so many, when I closed my eyes in the shower after my run I kept seeing them, a sea of pale yellow flowers on a background of prickly purple.

I’m glad I saw so much beauty that day, because climbing the hill for weeks has reawakened an old injury which is quite literally a pain in the backside, so I have to stick to for flat ground for a while.

Unpaved flatness is hard to find. I tried a neighbor’s recommendation: the cemetery. It is flat, and has a dirt road and nice views of mountains in the distance, but the gate has huge signs on either side announcing that this is a Known Rattlesnake Area, warning visitors to use great care. I chose to run laps of an open green space where there are not yet any burials. I saw no snakes there, but ran over so many goatheads the soles of my shoes felt like Velcro on the grass. So I plucked them and switched to the dirt road on the side away from the main burial area. This offered windblown dust and flying goatheads—really—scratching my legs. I even got one stuck in my thigh. Easy to pull out, but still, this is not my favorite running spot so far. A few people visiting their loved ones’ graves must have thought me a bit weird, but surely, there’s at least one runner buried there. Someone whose spirit understood.

My next flat-ground attempt was a dirt road that goes from one of the residential streets in my neighborhood to the area behind (how lovely) the sewage treatment plant. I haven’t smelled the facility so far, and getting there is pleasant. I pass a friend’s house and see her positive-energy fence signs and window signs, such as “Mask your face, not your heart.” I even encountered her once for a distant air-hug and conversation.

Scenery along the dirt road is so-so. The scrabbly dirt side of hill I’m avoiding is at the end of the road. You have to be on top of it to see the cactus patch, so this view is not floral. On one side of the road are the backs of a few houses, including one with some huge prickly pears that have poppy-like orange flowers. On the other side is an area of brush, bare dirt, and weeds that looks as if it was cleared once and is now overgrown. Facing a patch of dirt sits a single off-white folding chair, suggesting someone chose to sit and contemplate this inhospitable spot. My friend Donna Catterick, the photographer whose work is on the covers of Death Omen, Shadow Family and Small Awakenings, calls such sightings feral furniture. The cover of Small Awakenings, my book of reflective essays, features a feral chair. (The feral recliner at the bottom of this post is another one of Donna’s photos.)

I met a birdwatcher on my second run on this route—from the recommended twelve feet apart while exercising—and wondered if that was his chair.

I also met a beautiful snake from an even greater distance. It was orange with black stripes that diminished to mere spots toward its rattle-less tail. I looked it up later and concluded it might have been a ground snake, possessed of mildly toxic saliva. Does anyone else think ground snake is an odd name? All the snakes I’ve ever seen were on the ground.

My third time down that road, I was pain-free and happy for many laps, and then I tripped on a rock. I didn’t fall. No, I caught my balance with an instinctive and intense effort of the injured muscles, and learned how much strength it takes to keep your balance, how hard you work in a fraction of a second of not falling down. Needless to say, the old injury revived with a vengeance.

Perhaps I will have to heal where I can’t even trip. Inactivity is its own kind of injury, though, and I need to see nature, so I guess I’ll be walking on pavement for a while. Dancing in my apartment when I need variety. Practicing yoga as if I were my own student with an injury. I can’t rush the process or I won’t heal at all. 

 

Moments

In Jon Kabat-Zinn’s classic on mindfulness, Full Catastrophe Living, he quotes an elderly woman reminiscing. I can’t find my copy of it to cite the passage precisely, but she says something along the lines of, “Oh, I’ve had my moments. And if I had it to do over again, I’d have more of them. Because that’s all we have, really. Moments.”

Writing this made me stop and perceive my apartment in a new way. There’s no sound but the faint hum of the humidifier gently battling the total dehydration that is April in New Mexico. I look at my furniture, the quality of early evening light—all beautiful for being so ordinary.

Despite the shrivelingly-low humidity and frequent high winds, the desert smells like flowers. I can’t figure out which ones produce the scent, but I run through it in delight. Tiny yellow flowers grow wherever they can, in hard soil, in dust, in pavement, between rocks. Creosote bushes and claret cup cacti are blooming.

One day on my run, I noticed a peculiar shadow in motion near me and looked up to see a trio of huge black shiny bees flying in a sloppy little V. Another day, another trio. A bee-o. My inner Dr. Seuss can’t help rhyming this: Big black bees/ fly in threes.

I took my car out for her weekly workout to keep her battery charged. I drove her to a trail just outside of Elephant Butte Lake State Park, as close to my beloved park as I could get while it’s closed, and took a walk to see if it was a potential running trail. It wasn’t—too much lose gravel and then extremely soft sand—but it was a lovely walk. The deep soft sandy part of the trail was partially overgrown with flowers I’ve never seen before, purple clusters that sometimes curl over like fiddlehead ferns. The unique landscape of Elephant Butte is quite different from Truth or Consequences, just a few miles away. More gray rocks than red. More twisted, shaggy-barked junipers, fewer creosote bushes. Greater earless lizards rather than checkered whiptails. Sand rather than dust and dirt. The trail dropped off sharply into a dry arroyo, and I turned around, content with my exploration

On the days I would normally teach yoga, I’ve been doing my practice as if teaching, talking to myself with the cues I would give students, treating my own need for alignment , relaxation, and engagement as those of a student I was observing. It sounds crazy, but it makes me pay full attention. I can’t think about anything but the moment, as my body and my words meet in my focused awareness.

After today’s yoga immersion, I gazed out my screen door at the waving, rustling green leaves at the top of the tree that invaded our water line back in February. It’s a beautiful tree. And I have water.

*****

The entire Mae Martin Series is currently discounted. Book one, The Calling is free and will be through June 13. Shaman’s Blues is 99 cents through the end of April. The other books are $2.99, and when the promotions end, the first two books will be only $2.99 for the rest of the summer.

Slices of April 7th 2020

It was a beautiful warm day, the rare April day without high winds. I made an early morning trip to Las Cruces for groceries. Driving through the dramatic near-empty land, I listened to music by friends who live right in Truth or Consequences but whom I haven’t seen for weeks. Uplifting. A reminder of them and of hearing them play live.

Programmable roadside signs on I-25 South as I approached Las Cruces read: Shop alone. Stop the spread alternating with Limit travel. Stop the spread of Covid-19. An acknowledgement that people in small towns often have so few choices at home, they have to shop in Las Cruces, the only large city in the southern part of the state.

Natural Grocers was clean, orderly, and fully stocked. (Except for TP, of course.) All employees, and all shoppers but one, wore masks. I bet she felt out of place. Social distancing was observed well, with markers at the checkouts to keep the six-foot distance, and customers doing their own bagging, so one less person breathes on you or your food. An employee was sanitizing the handles of the freezer and refrigerator cases. The only thing that was normal was that I got a month’s worth of food and personal care products. For years, I’ve been shopping that way to save gas and time, and now that planning habit comes in handy. When the masked man at the checkout gave me my very long receipt, he said, “Now you won’t need toilet paper.” I had to tell him I was smiling behind my mask.

On the drive home, puffy white clouds were shedding trails of virga, white virga like the wispy beards of ancient sages. You usually see dark gray virga in June, when it’s so hot the sky can only try to rain, desperate would-be storm clouds doing their best and failing just short of moistening the ground. Today, it was raining so far from the earth, you had to be looking up to notice. April is so dry, it was remarkable it even rained way up there.

After I unpacked (and yes, sanitized) my groceries, my phone beeped an alarm. This is the second time the New Mexico Department of Health has sent these text messages to everyone in the state who has a cell phone. They feature a big red triangle with an exclamation mark in it. Extreme emergency. Stay home.  Did I violate that order? We are allowed to buy food. If I’d shopped in T or C, much as I love my town, I would have felt less safe. I’d have encountered the same number of people in a store with fewer healthful options, and some of those shoppers would be ignoring social distancing and not wearing masks, because there are no detected cases in Sierra County. I assume there are covid-positive people here, asymptomatic young people who haven’t exhaled on their elders yet.

The stay-at-home order allows outdoor exercise, alone. I ran down the street toward the desert. As I passed a house where a man was working on his roof, I heard his radio blaring news about the situation in New York. About the health care workers’ challenges and how many people died there today. It was close to the same number as total cases in New Mexico.

In spite of the state of the world, I experienced joy as I ran. The zigzagging random trails liberated me. Checkered whiptails scurried around. A mule deer leaped past. I’m more appreciative than ever of strength and health, when none of us on any day knows how long we’ll have it.

On my return, I spotted a friend on the hiking trial as I ran on the OHV trail. We talked from about ten feet way. She’s a massage therapist and personal trainer, self-employed, and of course totally out of work. She asked me about the yoga studio being closed, and I said we’d closed even before we were told to. But I’ll be okay not working. At sixty-five, I have a safety net. At forty-something, she doesn’t. I urged her to apply for unemployment. It’s available to people like her now, though the process is probably slow as the system tries to cope with the load.

A neighbor texted me shortly after sunset. Out the door and to the right. We both stepped out and stood, far apart, in shared awe. The supermoon was rising, huge and golden, behind the slope of Turtleback Mountain.

 

Exploring My New Normal

I’m grateful for so much open space and beauty around me. It means I can still get out and run while doing some extreme social distancing. One new trail I’ve tried is steeper and rockier than anything I’ve run in years. It reminds me of places I used to run decades ago. Since I’m decades older, I told myself I had to find a safer way up the hill, one that didn’t involve a narrow path of loose gravel on the edge of a cliff. The hospital doesn’t need some crazy old runner full of cactus thorns coming in with a broken leg. Nor do I need to be that person.
I never saw the better route until the day I determined I would find one. Then suddenly, it was in plain view. All I’d seen before was the marked trail, but this other one was always there. Still steep, but not on a cliff side, and not so unstable underfoot. Funny what we can perceive when we open our views to alternate options.

I’ve modified where I go once I climb the hill as well, deviating onto the trails used by off-highway vehicles—trails I also failed to perceive until I realized I needed them. I’ve never been a fan of OHVs, but for now, I’m grateful they made the tracks—softer and wider than the hiking trail, and utterly random. They don’t go from point A to point B like the marked trail. They zigzag, loop, meet in sharp Y intersections, or turn into dead ends, giving me the sense of being in a desert maze. I can run with no goal and no sense of time, on and off the OHV tracks and the hiking trail, avoiding the stretches that are potential ankle-sprainers. I found a kind of rough amphitheater where I think the OHV people may play in mud when it rains. For me it was liberating and unconfined, a place where I could sprint in circles.

With so many surprises and no familiarity with the terrain, I can’t get lost in thought. I can only be present to the act of running and the earth under my feet, dodging the little bonsai-like creosote bushes popping up in the track, daring to look up now and then at the view of Turtleback Mountain.

By the time I got home from my first no-destination run, everything seemed brighter and also quieter. I stretched in the courtyard of the apartment building and then sat on a bench, in awe of the sky, the cooing doves, and the wild mustard taking over the yard with its slender, swaying stalks and yellow flowers. It’s a weed. Doves are nuisance birds we try to chase away. But I was in a state of suspended judgment, aware and immersed, with no likes or dislikes, only life and light.

A Small Dent

Since New Mexico State Parks are closed, I’ve changed my running route. One trail I’ve used is so short it takes five laps to do my usual distance, but it’s right beside the Rio Grande, a great place for seeing blue herons and other birds.

As I passed by on my cooldown walk at the end of this route, a woman parked near a picnic shelter announced, “I locked my keys in my car.” No “excuse me” or “could you please help.” She was a middle-aged blonde in jeans and a purple shirt, accompanied by a tiny, dachshund-mix dog in a purple collar. I offered to call her roadside assistance club, ran to my car, and came back with my phone.

That was when she told me she had no Triple-A or Better World Club membership, and no money. She lived in the car. No wonder she didn’t say anything other than to declare her situation. That was her whole world, her whole reality. She was from Arkansas, stuck in Truth or Consequences while waiting for a check she hoped would soon arrive at general delivery. I didn’t ask how she ended up in that situation, and she didn’t offer to tell me, perhaps because I was on the phone so much as well as social distancing.

I spent forty-five minutes on the phone with my roadside assistance club, mostly on hold, trying to see if they’d cover rescuing a stranger through my membership. I’m grateful that I have my basic retirement income while I’m not teaching yoga and people can’t afford books, but I admit I was trying not to spend money on my tightened budget. The club representative never told me if helping a stranger was covered, spending time instead trying to locate this trail with no address. I wondered if she was working from home or with a reduced staff.  The inefficiency was unusual. Meanwhile, my phone battery was running low.

The stranded woman finally suggested the police could help. I told my roadside service rep to call me back rather than leave me on hold, and called the local police. No, the officer said, liability doesn’t allow them to help with lockouts anymore. He recommended a towing/wrecker service they use. I called, and they came. My roadside club rep then called to say she’d finally found a service for me. It would take ninety minutes more. She never confirmed if it would be covered for someone else’s car, and the towing service she’d found had a Northern New Mexico phone number. Not a good sign. What if I had to pay after they’d traveled all that distance? At least I’d negotiated a discount with the local company.

All in all, it took two hours. And it wasn’t a heartwarming experience. I made a small dent in the woman’s troubles, but no real change. Honestly, the smell when the wrecker service guy opened her car was distressing. No one should have to live like that. The only upside was that she was stranded in a beautiful place. While I was on hold, we admired a heron.

*****

I debated with myself over sharing this story. It’s not about me being a hero, because I certainly wasn’t. I decided to post it, though, because it’s the truth. I promise something more uplifting soon.

Social Distancing, Reading, and Writing

Seriously, I want to hug someone. Not touching is strange, and it makes me feel a bit disoriented, not quite myself. I socialize by taking walks with friends rather than going to coffee shops, restaurants, or the brewery. No blues dancing on crowded dance floors for now. A friend I hadn’t seen for two years came to Truth or Consequences for a few days of camping and bird-watching. We met—and parted—with elbow-bumps.

I’ve been teaching yoga without using touch for guidance, and now the studio is going to close for the rest of the month. Art events, music events, the life-blood of my town … I’m not going. It’s difficult, but I can see the wisdom in doing things this way. Prevention.

Fortunately, running in the desert is still an option. And since I have less of a schedule and less of a social life, I can do more reading. E-books don’t even involve going to a store. I can’t run out of them.

And of course, I’ll get more writing done. I’ll probably be writing scenes in which people hug.

*****

The Calling is free on all e-book retailers though April 23rd