Knowledge and Perception

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.

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Coffee, Caution, and Thunder

I was puzzled when a stranger knocked on my door and asked if I had any coffee grounds. To my mind, coffee grounds are the wet, used-up stuff left in the filter. I asked if he needed them for his compost, but no, he had run out of coffee. My next question: Why he didn’t buy some? The grocery story is quite close, he had walked from wherever he lived, and he was apparently fit and healthy, a lean man in his late forties or early fifties, clean, sober and normal—or as normal as T or C residents get. “I’m poor,” he said, cheerful and unembarrassed. What could I say? In a neighborhood of retirees, artists, musicians, and low-wage workers, most people are kind of poor.

He’d tried neighbors he knew first, but no one was home, so he progressed further down the street. Since he knew my former landlady, he explained, he felt all right trying for coffee here. Deciding this made him reasonably okay, I ground some beans, and he hunkered down in the yard. At 2:20 in the afternoon, he was wearing a T-shirt and pajama pants and had only now discovered that he’d run out of both cash and coffee. Had he just woken up? I sleep pretty late, since I write until two or three a.m., but it is still morning when I get up. Perhaps he was an artist, so he might keep late hours, too, and occasionally run out money. I gave him a zip lock bag full of freshly ground coffee and told him to go get caffeinated, he thanked me and left, and that was that. But while I ground the coffee, I was aware of the presence of an unfamiliar man outside my door. Though he seemed safe, my guard stayed up.

The next day, I got caught in a thunderstorm. Weather is unpredictable here in the monsoon season. A big blue-gray cloud could hover and do nothing or explode with lightning, thunder and rain. Tiny storms sail through like one slender woman in a long gray dress sweeping through a crowd of larger women in short skirts, only hers touching the earth as she dances past. A tumultuous-looking sky isn’t a reason to stay in. But one patch of clouds got productive while I was running, and I was on the midpoint of the loop of the trail. There was no shorter route back unless I cut through the desert off-trail, dodging thorny plants and various critters’ holes. So, I sped up.

At first, I was fast and attuned to the storm. Then, on the last little uphill stretch, I realized I had gotten so used to the thunder that I’d relaxed my pace as if I couldn’t hear all that rumbling. Funny how the mind works.

Warnings are useful, yet we can get so accustomed to them we stop reacting. With a stranger at my door for five minutes, I stayed alert. With a storm all around me for a longer time, though, I got comfortable. When alarm signals begin to feel normal—alarms about public or private behavior, the state of the planet, or feedback from our own minds and bodies that we need to change—the situation gets more dangerous.

 

Attention Span

It’s been said that we teach what we most need to learn. Many of my classes involve critical thinking and information literacy skills. While I’m still teaching, I want to pay attention to the lessons I learn from my work.

Back in November, I asked my first year seminar students to write down topics they felt were important and challenging to discuss. We then used the randomly drawn slips of paper like the talking stick in a talking circle. The person holding it got to say whatever he or she needed to say while others listened, and then that person handed the paper along. Anyone could pass who was not ready to talk. We got through three topics that day and I saved the rest for when we had time to do this again. Two weeks later, the first topic someone drew from the heap was “Politics.” Most of the students said they had cared about it before the election and right after, but now they didn’t pay much attention to it. One young woman said the election had been so unpleasant that she changed her major from political science. It drove a thoughtful, moderate Republican who understands that conservative includes conserve out of wanting to engage in politics. That’s a loss to her community. Every time a young person with a good mind gets disillusioned, we lose their years of future leadership. I hope she’ll get involved again in the future. Her burnout is deep, though.

Her classmates’ loss of interest in something they felt passionate about two weeks before is alarming. As a culture, we may be getting trained to the media’s attention span and the media’s focal point, forgetting that our personal lives’ deep needs interact with issues that take prolonged, thoughtful, patient engagement, regardless of the headlines.

The lack of information they had was also troubling. Not because they’re not smart—they are, but the only student who knew recent world history well was from Palestine. He was the only one able to knowledgeably talk about the Cuban revolution and who Fidel Castro really was and why people felt so strongly about his death. And of course, he was well-informed on the complexities of the Middle East, and the pros and cons and unintended consequences of American presence there, something his classmates barely understood. I was relieved that the majority do understand climate change and that only one person in two classes of nineteen didn’t. Even the most politically conservative of them comprehended the reality of climate science. They don’t see it as a political issue so much as a scientific one with an impact they’ll have to live with.

Today in my January term health class, students shared and discussed articles on their chosen research topic for this half of the week, public health issues and the environment. This discussion was encouraging. I think the young adult attention span is only short for things they don’t fully understand, which for some includes politics, but it’s steady for the concepts they grasp. I hope this understanding ultimately translates into engagement. The earth needs them.

Writing about this motivates me to stay engaged as well, and to pay attention to issues in depth after the headlines fade.