Felt like Fiction

The doctor took my arm and studied it, then examined the other. Still holding my forearms lightly, without making eye contact, he asked, “How do you respond to quartz?”

This was a dermatological exam. I’d driven all the way to Silver City because there were no dermatologists in my insurance network in my vicinity. The choice was either a two-and-a-quarter hour drive to Albuquerque or the same length trip to Silver City. I picked the latter because it would be more of an adventure. I hadn’t been to Silver City for a couple of years, and my nurse practitioner in T or C had recommended the doctor there. Maybe it was that recommendation, or spaciness from getting up early and driving (I’m not a morning person), that made me react with less puzzlement to the question than a dermatologist’s patient normally would. Instead, I simply answered.

“It helps me sleep. Makes me feel grounded.”

“And amethyst?” the doctor asked.

“Intuition,” I replied.

“That makes sense.” He regarded me though his glasses. He was a Hispanic man I guessed to be in his early sixties, though his smooth brown skin—appropriately for his profession—looked youthful compared to his thick silvery hair. “We use those for the direction of the North. The ancestors. You feel protection and guidance.”

We use them? My morning brain fog somehow didn’t clear enough to let me ask who “we” were. He said something about the South being the direction of children and family, and resumed the exam, occasionally mentioning things other than the usual dermatological inquiries and slipping into Spanish a few times as if I should understand it, though he spoke English without any accent. He was into holistic health—nutrition, exercise, meditation—and I was already following a healthy lifestyle along those lines, so he had little need to give me advice. Most of his observations about my skin were identical to those my dermatologist in Virginia had made. Perfectly normal medical conversation. He discussed a new study on a nutrition-and-disease link, and then went on to ask me about having premonitions. “Yes,” I said, “I dream the future.”

He examined my hand. “You have the signs of being a sensitive.”

I knew I was. The surprise was that a medical doctor would bring these things up as if it were as normal as explaining the importance of eating right and using sunscreen. He mentioned what he’d found to be a few other indications of a sensitive and completed the exam. Nothing was wrong, and I should come back in a year.

On my way out, I noticed an intriguing work of art propped on a table, a crucifix with the Christ figure on it crafted from forks and spoons. The circle above the figure’s bowed spoon-bowl head was made from a small ponytail holder, containing a pinch of pink-red dirt under a clear cover, and the word Chimayo was engraved into the wood, following the shape of the circle. This was healing dirt from the chapel in northern New Mexico, the Lourdes of the Southwest.

“That was a gift from a patient,” said the doctor, noticing my pause to admire the artwork. “He was complaining to me about his ‘crazy aunt’ and how she claimed she could tell what was wrong with people just by …” He mimed running a hand over a human aura. “She was curandera and she had people lining up for her limpias.” This was the first time he’d slipped into Spanish that I knew what he was saying. A limpia is a healing and cleansing ritual. The doctor continued, “I explained to him about her gifts, and then told him he too had this gift. He had the signs of a sensitive. An hour later, he came back to give me this. The fork is meaningful. On those special occasions when we had dessert, Grandma would say, ‘keep your fork, the best is yet to come.’ Some people ask to be buried with a fork, because the best is yet to come. The spoon means ‘I will feed my people.’ ”

The patient had been so relieved to understand and accept his gift of healing, he had brought the doctor the gift of the fork-spoon-and-healing-dirt crucifix. I didn’t ask if the patient has made it, still too dazed by the strangeness of the whole encounter to ask questions I later wished I had.

I kept thinking about it, though, as I played tourist in Silver City, passing a sign in a window that said “Dog Grooming and Healing Center.” (You know you’re in New Mexico when you see something like that.) After strolling in a shady park, shopping at a second-hand store, and admiring murals, I followed a series of little purple pig-like outlines stenciled on the sidewalk to the most excellent and badly needed Javelina Coffee shop. After a dose of their light roast, I finally felt awake and clear-headed. And yet, still confused. Had I walked into a Mae Martin mystery or a Selkie Moon mystery? It felt like a bit of both. The doctor’s crystal questions were like something that would happen to Mae in my books, but the way he told me I was a sensitive and that his patient who gave him the unusual crucifix was also one struck as the sort of thing that happens to Virginia King’s synchronicity-prone protagonist, Selkie.

I wonder if I’ll create a curandero-dermatologist character. And what he’ll say during my check-up next year. I know I’ll be more awake and ask more questions.

Road Trip

I recently took a week and a few days to go back to Virginia and North Carolina to visit friends and collect some art I’d stored in one friend’s house. I enjoyed the reconnections with people, and the brief exposure to snow and cold and to architecture that was neither adobe nor trailer. T or C, with a population of a little over 6,000—it’s been shrinking—seems tiny next to Harrisonburg, Virginia (pop. 52,000), though it’s also considered a “small town” by some people. To me, Harrisonburg felt downright urban. So many ethnic restaurants with healthy choices, so many building over two stories tall, and so many traffic lights. (T or C has one.)

I dropped in on former colleagues, and due to snow, I was grateful that retired faculty have access to the college fitness facility. Running on an indoor track takes mental endurance, and if there hadn’t been so many students playing basketball to keep me amused, I wonder if I could have managed my usual distance. I taught a couple of yoga classes at the studio where I used to work in Harrisonburg, and it was a special and meaningful opportunity.

Part two of my road trip took me to Asheville, NC, where I found myself wondering what a trip to the mountains of North Carolina would be like for Mae Martin, my series’ protagonist.  (I was visiting the friend who inspired  the character.) Mae grew up in that area and she has connections in Asheville. What it would feel like for her to go back, after living in New Mexico? Asheville is a lot like Santa Fe and T or C in some ways, with its artists and yoga teachers and massage therapists, but in many ways it’s entirely different. The mountains are old and green. And the smaller towns beyond the city, such as the place where Mae’s grandparents lived, are another world, culturally and spiritually as well as physically, from the funky, eccentric town where she’s made a new home. (I moved her to T or C years before I made the permanent move myself.)

And what about a road trip itself as part of a story? Travel is inherently challenging. I drove through rain in the Blue Ridge on my way in, and on my way back through wind that started to peel the rubber rain-channel seal off my windshield, wind that made it hard to open the car door when I stopped for gas, wind that made big truckers struggle to open and close the doors of the truck stop. There were two wildfires on the outskirts of Amarillo and the flames and smoke mingled weirdly with the sunset. Any events in a story that I could set in weather like that would be doubly difficult for my characters, and it’s my job as a writer to make their lives difficult.

The outcome of all this? I’m glad to be home in this peculiar town with its colorful people and murals, its hot springs, and its art and music scenes. I was glad to see my T or C yoga students, to run in the desert again with the lizards and jackrabbits and roadrunners, and to go out dancing at the T or C Brewery. The art I brought back is either consigned for sale or on my walls, and I feel even more at home now with the pieces I chose to keep all around me. More complete, focused and inspired to create, with new ideas for the work in progress.

Flawed

At first, she didn’t show them to anyone. But she admitted to fellow artists and creative people who would understand, “I’ve been making devils.” An art therapist, she trusted her muse and followed it. The devils finally came out on gallery walls months later, small blue or red ceramic masks with a wild variety of expressions. I especially like a red one with curved horns and a crooked grin full of sharp teeth that remind me of red chiles. It’s so gleefully wicked. The little devils sell, and I can see why. We all have our shadow side, our mischievous side, our tired-of-being-perfect side. Even the weather gets devilish. I’m not talking about the New Mexico’s summer heat and monsoons—we love the storms. I’m talking about the wind. It’s already started, a couple of weeks too early, and it’s going to be blowing for months. To live with it, you learn to wear goggle-type sunglasses, even on a cloudy day, to keep the grit out of your eyes, and the constant blowing sound either gets as normal as an air conditioner in the summer—or drives you crazy. E. Christina Herr, a gifted New Mexico songwriter, sums it up in her song “Devil Wind.”  If you love New Mexico, though, you take it as it is, wind and all. It’s not perfect. Tourist images of our state don’t show visitors chasing their fly-away hats or sneezing with a face full of dust and juniper pollen, but the cowboy’s bandana was, among many other things, a dust mask. Imperfection has its charms.

In my work in progress, I’m developing an antagonist character who’s obsessed with being smarter and more capable than anyone else, which of course, makes her anything but perfect; and the antagonist character in Shaman’s Blues likes to give bizarre advice, with the assurance, “ I’m always right.” My favorite fortune cookie message: The greatest of all faults is to be conscious of none.”

I’ve been pleasantly surprised how many readers love Jamie Ellerbee, the flawed and troubled character I first introduced in Shaman’s Blues four years ago. When I wrote the book, I was experimenting with turning as many conventions of romance around as I could, while still writing about love. He’s a mess, though he struggles not to be. Not exactly a conventional romantic lead. The book’s original title as a work on progress was Samskaras, the Sanskrit word for the residue of our actions and emotions that creates new cycles of karma. One of my spiritual teachers said a good English translation for it was “Some scars.” Jamie has a lot, and he’s not skilled at hiding them. But then, hiding doesn’t bring people closer to each other. Kindness does.

Happy Valentine’s day.

*****

 

Shaman’s Blues is on sale for 99 cents .

Smashing Clichés

Movies featuring things blowing up are popular. People like to watch demolitions, from buildings to demolition derbies. And then there is art-to-be burned, such as Burning Man and Zozobra. When I lived in Virginia, I used to clean the park where I ran and sometimes enlisted the help of several boys who played there. One day, they found a large toy firetruck in the stream and pulled it out—and proceeded to smash it to pieces with rocks. This was obviously more fun than playing with it.

Someone has been making faces on the trail where I run in the desert. Not walking along being silly, but arranging pebbles in smiley-faces on top of the rocks that mark the edge of the trail. The first one didn’t annoy me, but then they multiplied. I don’t mind intriguing, meaningful art made among the desert rocks. A labyrinth. A miniature Stonehenge-like creation. A rounded lava rock that looks like a fertility goddess surrounded by a little maze and an altar. A small rock nestled in a hollow in a large rock just because it fits so perfectly. Such arrangements fall over gradually or get covered with sand, and nature looks natural again. Someone left a small painted rock near the trail, red white and blue with the Texas flag’s star, the name of a soldier who died in combat, and few words of love and honor. It means something. No one moves it. Perhaps he used to love this trail and used to hike it with the person who left the rock. But smiley-faces? Twenty or more of them? That’s nineteen clichés too many.

On a lovely, sunny, seventy-degree winter day, I got tired of them and gave a swipe at one as I passed. No effect. The pebbles had been glued to the trail-marker rock. What the heck? Did the face-maker think this stuff should be permanent? I soon found that a quick kick could dislodge most features of the glued-on smiley-faces, and it felt good. Can I justify it? Maybe not, but to me, gluing all those faces along the trail was arrogant. If they’d been arranged lightly, without attachment, I might have knocked one aside and been content, had my fun like the boys smashing the toy firetruck, and forgotten about it. Nature would have blown them away eventually.

Writers are regularly advised to “kill your darlings,” those scenes we love that weigh down the pace, or those wonderful (to us) witty lines that don’t serve the story. We have to weed out clichés and our favorite over-used words. They can have an effect on readers like seeing twenty-plus smiley faces, an intrusion on the flow of enjoyment. Today I noticed that someone else had destroyed smiley-faces. There were face-pattern glue marks on some rocks with branches laid over them, as if my fellow self-appointed curator of trail art was saying, “Don’t even think about putting that back.”

Sometimes I store my cut scenes and lines for a while, in case I want to put them back, but ninety-percent of those darlings never return. Nothing in the first draft is glued in place. I have to destroy in order to create. Fortunately, I enjoy revision. It’s a lesson in non-attachment, and almost as much fun as smashing a smiley.

Messages in Bottles—With or Without Bottles

I have a slightly foggy memory from my childhood of standing on a beach in Maine with my father, setting afloat a message in a bottle. We had no expectation of knowing if anyone read it. The open-ended feeling of the outreach was part of the wonder of doing it. I could imagine the bottle landing in Ireland, where my father’s ancestors came from, though it may have ended up in Portugal, or Newfoundland, or the bottom of the ocean.

Lately, I’ve been finding the landlocked version of these cast-adrift messages, most of them with an expectation of being tracked. I’ve gotten several “where’s George” stamped dollar bills with the motto “Hot Springs, Cool Town,” originating in Truth or Consequences. The person who stamps the bill is curious to know of its travels, and probably hopes it will circulate all over the country eventually. Also, I’ve found a number of painted rocks with messages on them, something I never saw before moving to T or C. Some of the rocks have web addresses to visit. I found a beautiful one painted gold with a yellow, liquid-looking sun in the center, and a Facebook address that had something to do with a place in Arizona. Rather than go online, I relocated it to one of the fountain-bubbling rocks in Healing Waters Plaza and the next time I passed through, it was gone. Perhaps the Arizona rock-painter heard from that finder.

The two most recent rocks I found were lovely, one painted white with a purple butterfly and the other red and yellow with the Zia sun symbol seen on the New Mexico state flag. On the back, they said “T or C rocks. Keep me or re-hide me.”

I loved that. There was no expectation of feedback. These little works of art were gifts left on the wall bordering the parking lot of the Charles Motel and Spa, near its fruit-heavy pomegranate bush. I carried them on my walk, happier than when I’d found rocks that asked me go online and log the find. I was inclined to keep them to add to the rock garden in front of my apartment, but then I saw some green succulents with red and yellow flowers growing around a bench in front of the old post office on Main Street, and there was a dent in the foliage, a nest exactly the right size for Zia rock. I placed it there. Public art. Across the street, the elaborate multi-colored ceramic sculpture next to the Geronimo Springs Museum has some deep purple areas in its walls. I found a spot for the butterfly rock and walked home lighter.

Out-of-nowhere random gifts provide as much joy for the giver as the receiver. I know a man who loves to bake, and at any public event, he shows up with bags of fresh, home-made cookies to give away. Back when a local coffee shop had a give-and-take bookshelf, I used to slip signed copies of my new releases onto the shelf. I liked the mystery of not knowing who took them home and read them.

In a way, writing a blog is a message in a bottle or a painted rock left in a plaza. There’s no obligation for the reader to respond. However, if any of you have stories about random gifts or messages in bottles, I’d love to hear them.

*****

 BARKING SANDS, Hawaii (Sept. 15, 2011) Electrician’s Mate 2nd Class Jon Moore removes a message from a bottle sent from Kagoshima, Japan more than five years ago. More than 40 Sailors and volunteers teamed up with 16 students and faculty of Ke Kula Ni`ihau O Kekaha School to collect trash along the shore at the Pacific Missile Range Facility. The beach cleanup effort was in observance of International Coastal Cleanup Day sponsored by the Ocean Conservancy. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jay C. Pugh/Released) This Image was released by the United States Navy with the ID 110915-N-YU572-080  (Wikimedia Commons)

 

Namaste, Y’all

I have a file called Blog Posts Yet to Post where I store drafts of ideas and eventually find some worth revising and using. Today, in search of this week’s post, I found three rough drafts about moving, and I since I’m getting to the end of that topic, I didn’t need three posts. One was about sorting through my books and deciding which to keep and why, one was about parting with some of my art, and one was about no longer working as a professor. I’m so happy about the latter, there’s not much else to say. I went into my office this afternoon just to use a desk with a proper chair (I’ve sold almost all of my furniture) and that felt good, but I won’t miss sitting there for hours reading student papers. Or emails. I will stay in touch with some special people I got to know through the job, but it’s easy to let go of the work itself.

A friend who is going to open a used bookstore bought about eighty books. Those were easy to let go of, too. Parting with a piece of art is harder, sort of like cutting scenes when revising a book, but I decided not to challenge certain fragile things to make a trip to New Mexico. The Santa Clara Pueblo buffalo dancer, a small statuette made of black pottery, broke a hand, a foot, and a leg on his way to North Carolina from Santa Fe many years ago. I repaired him as well as I could. The powerful energy I felt at a buffalo dance was unforgettable, a force that swept through my whole body to the bones. He holds that sacred feeling in his glued-together form. I was happy when a neighbor who teaches history in the public schools and loves Native American history wanted him and several other items. When she came to get them, she asked which piece was made by which tribe, and appreciated the buffalo dancer for what he means, cracks and all, not for collectible value. I packed him carefully, wrapped the tiny Acoma cats so they wouldn’t break, and sent the collection off with someone who will feel the spirit of New Mexico in it.

Friends value us that way—for our spirits, flaws and all, not expecting or needing perfection. Letting go of people is harder. My closest friends in Virginia (and North Carolina and Georgia) will come out to see me eventually, but I won’t see them as often anymore. One who has helped me with the multitudinous hassles of the moving-out process has grown even closer as we’ve worked on things like my moving sale, and I will miss her all the more. I’ve said most of my goodbyes on campus, but I still have two more yoga classes to teach, to students who have been with me for years. I have friends to rejoin in T or C, and I’ll find new yoga students there, but it will still be hard to say the last “namaste” in Virginia.

A New Mexico Mystery Review: The Painter

While this is a novel about crime at one level, a nerve-stretching, page-turning suspense story, it’s also the story of a man’s soul, his deepest loves, his darkest corners, his inner light, his passions, and his art. Heller gets inside the process of Jim Stegner’s whole being. When you read this book, you, feel as if you are Jim. You wade into his favorite fishing streams with him, experience his blinding rages with him, fall into the flow of creative inspiration with him, and feel every twist and turn in the road with him, as he navigates his grief over his teenaged daughter’s death, his fame, and his conflict with a dangerous man whose family doesn’t forgive or forget. Ever.

Jim is no saint, but he stands up for the weak, and he does it with fists. When he sees a man beating a horse, Jim fights with him in front of witnesses, breaks the man’s nose and liberates the horse. And so begins Jim’s trip to hell. There are stops in brief but intense heavens of love, painting and fishing, but this time Jim’s inner demons have pulled in some real ones, and they won’t leave him alone.

The landscape of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado is so alive as seen through this painter and fisherman’s eyes that it’s virtually a character in the book. The people in Jim’s life—his model Sofia, his friends, his oft-remembered late daughter, the police who question him—are vivid and multi-dimensional, and even the passing minor characters are so finely portrayed they seem to have lives beyond the story. The scenes revolving around art in Santa Fe are drawn from life: the wealthy collectors, the galleries, and the lionizing of the famous man. As scandal and suspicion grow around Jim, so does the value of his art. The confluence of the public pressure for pictures and interviews with the inner pressure from his emotions and the sense of being hunted like prey come together in an explosive and unexpected conclusion.

For an interview with the author about this book, go to

http://www.peterheller.net/media/peter-in-the-media/

and click on the video for The Painter. The story behind the book is as fascinating as the book itself.

About the artist who inspired the author to create Jim Stegner:

Article

Images