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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Wednesday was an insanely busy day. I moved back into my place over the Labor Day weekend. The bad neighbor is gone! But I’ve had a lot of catching up on my life to do. The last thing I felt like doing was laundry. It’s the one aspect of retiring and downsizing that’s been unsatisfactory, because I have no room in my otherwise perfect apartment for laundry machines. I’ve adapted to the laundromat as well as I can. I bring books and magazines and read outside, I take walks, or sometimes I bring my exercise tubing and work out, but I still don’t like it. On this super-busy day, the laundromat was also busy, full of people doing noisy things on their phones, and there were noisy activities outside too. I read, but it wasn’t peaceful. I ran an errand while my clothes were in the dryer. More busyness. When I got back, one of the dryers hadn’t started when I thought it had, so I had to restart it and wait longer.
Normally, I do a meditation practice with mudras late at night, to clear the day away and cleanse my energy. I did it there, in the laundromat. The only other remaining customer had gone outdoors. I didn’t care if she came back in and saw the mudras, though. This is T or C, after all. People here talk with strangers freely, and she’d already shared something pretty personal in our short conversation. I was free to be myself.
All the churning and spinning of machines echoed my state of mind. Then, five minutes of mudras in mountain pose in front of that misbehaving dryer changed everything. The washing was done. Inside me.
Enjoyed this post? You may also like Small Awakenings: Reflections on Mindful Living.
At the time of my writing this, my Bad Neighbor, the smoker, squatter, and apparent drug dealer (based on traffic in and out of the apartment he’s occupying) hasn’t left yet, despite the two eviction notices. It’s going take a court case. And since he won’t move out, I have—temporarily. There’s no safe level of second-hand smoke, and ventilation isn’t enough to get rid of it. The physical impact of the toxicity—headaches, sinus pain and congestion, light-headedness, and difficulty concentrating—was obvious. I didn’t fully realize the mental effect until I escaped. When your body is being poisoned, it’s hard to clear your head.
My landlord found me a place to stay until the problem is resolved. I am so grateful for this escape, and am amazed at how different I feel. I’m in, of all places, The Red Pelican. If you read Death Omen, I expect you remember it well—it’s so eccentrically beautiful. I’m in the room I gave to Kate and Bernadette in that book, and I don’t think I described it quite right, though I got the general ambience of Red Pelican rooms with their Asian art and bright colors. Some of them have purple walls and red trim, but my room has red floors and white walls and a wonderful collection of Japanese prints. Three festive porcelain Buddhas fling their arms up in delight on the shelf of the transom over the bedroom door. A huge sequined dragon festoons the bedroom wall.
And then there’s the courtyard, with the enormous rock framed by four benches and sheltered by a three-tiered pagoda roof, with gaps open to the sky between each tier. On the rock is perched a Buddha, a radiantly wise, alive-in-the-moment being, a happy traveler with a small sack slung over one shoulder and a fan resting against his round belly. Though I always felt drawn to him, I never knew what his props meant, so I looked them up. The fan is a wish-giving fan, while the sack is said to contain various things, depending on the legend. Treasure. Candy for children. The troubles of the world. The Hotei—or Laughing Buddha—with the fan and the sack is a wandering monk who takes away unhappiness.
On my first night free of being poisoned, a magnificent, long-overdue downpour arrived and stayed for hours. When it lightened to drizzle late at night, I went out into the courtyard, my steps on the gravel the only sound in the world. I visited all the deities and Fu dogs around the perimeter, circled my favorite Hotei on his rock, and then gazed up at him and at the moon through the shredded remains of the storm.
Cleansing. Wholeness. Fresh air. Stillness. Safety. We have no idea how toxic our world, our lives, our minds, our interactions—anything—has become, until we step away from it and breathe.
Thanks again to Donna Catterick for the picture of the traveling Buddha in the Red Pelican courtyard.
In my work in progress, the seventh Mae Martin mystery, Mae’s ex mother-in-law is running for office again, and Mae, on a visit to North Carolina, is going to end up knocking on doors for her as part of trying to solve the mystery. I didn’t become a campaign volunteer to do research, especially since I’m door-knocking in New Mexico, but I’ve gathered a few good stories which just may have a future in the book. FYI: Though this post does involve a political campaign, it’s non-partisan. If you suffer from political burnout, relax. I don’t even mention names or parties.
In a pleasant neighborhood of one-story stucco and adobe houses with a view of the open desert beyond, I walked up to the second-to-last house on my canvassing list. On the street where the incumbent representative in our NM house district lives, I was volunteering for the opposing candidate. I’ll call them Incumbent and Challenger. Incumbent’s neighbors tended to support her, even if they were members of my party and not hers, and even though Challenger might better represent their views. They like Incumbent. That’s local politics. In another neighborhood a few weeks earlier, I met a woman who had never heard of Challenger, but said, “Is she running against Incumbent?” I said yes. The woman replied vehemently, “Then she’s got my vote.” It was obviously personal. She added, “Am I awful?” I smiled and said we were happy to have her vote.
Back to today’s second-to-last house. I’d been through a thunderstorm earlier, was now walking in heat and sun, and was ready to wrap things up. A black pick-up truck with Harley-Davidson bumper stickers pulled into the driveway just as I approached. A man with a long shaggy white beard sat at the wheel.
“Hi,” I began my perky canvasser bit. “Are you Mr. X?”
He was. And my list of voters to contact said he was a member of my party. I went on with my introduction, telling him who I was and that I was volunteering for Challenger. I asked, as I always do, if he had heard of her. People are often unfamiliar with a new name at the bottom of the ticket.
“I don’t vote. All politicians are liars.” Still sitting in his truck with the door open, he nodded meaningfully toward Incumbent’s house. The politician her other neighbors liked so much they’d vote for her even when they generally disagreed with her party.
Not sure how to handle his blanket aversion, I offered him Challenger’s flyer. “In case you should decide to vote, you can read about what she stands for.”
He actually read it, right then and there. “Hm. Social work.” He’d noticed her career field. “I studied social work in Colorado.” He told me what jobs he’d had, working with youth and then with drug users, and then informed me that “My wife, who is not a citizen, made me vote in 2016. But that’s the only time I’ve voted in decades.”
“That’s a powerful woman, if she could get you to vote when you’re so turned off by it.”
“She is. A powerful woman.” But, he told me, he’d moved to New Mexico alone because his wife didn’t understand why he had to have his motorcycle.
His way of getting involved in the community wasn’t political, he continued, but rather volunteering at the new animal shelter. “I don’t have any animals.” With a half-smile, he inclined his head toward the pair of dogs barking behind his fence.
“We all have our ways of trying to make the world a better place. You’ll take care of the animals, and I’ll knock on doors for Challenger.”
I was about to say goodbye and wish him a good day when he got out of his truck, revealing long skinny legs in shorts and knee-high black socks. “Let me show the motorcycle. So you’ll understand.”
There was a black Harley in the driveway. Apparently this was not The Motorcycle. He opened the garage and revealed a bigger bike with ivory fenders. It looked like a vintage machine, and I sincerely admired it. He said, “That’s Rocinante,” then paused. “You know who that is?”
“Don Quixote’s horse.”
Mr. X beamed. “Not many people know that. I’m gonna vote for Challenger. She’s got good people working for her.”
I felt as if I’d just won Jeopardy as well as Incumbent’s neighbor’s vote.