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.

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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.

Shorter Days

The sunset was pink, blue, and purple over my neighbors’ blue-and-purple houses as I walked to the yoga studio to teach tonight.  One of those odd T or C sunsets where the color was not in the west, but somewhere else. Tonight, the northeast. It was beautiful, but daylight was ending already at five-fifteen.

 Waiting until I’ve done all my chores and errands before I do what’s most rewarding is no longer an option. It could be dark by then. I’ve always been the work-first play-later type, the anti-procrastinator, but if I want to walk, run, or do outdoor yoga, I have to take advantage of the sunny hours, the warmest part of the day.

Sometimes I make myself do every tedious task before I free myself to write. Life is short. My days are shorter. I feel young, but I’m not. What am I waiting for? Along with teaching yoga, this is my work and my art. I give myself permission, right this minute, to drop everything else and do it.

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.

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Enjoyed this post? You may also like Small Awakenings: Reflections on Mindful Living.

Small Awakenings

Although I’ve made numerous changes in my life over decades of yoga and meditation practice, I’ve never felt astounded, enlightened, amazed, or shaken. I’ve processed some deep emotions and I’ve had moments of quiet clarity, but I’ve never had a dramatic spiritual experience. Instead, I’ve had aftereffects from my practice. Not flashes of divine light but little soft lights that I might miss if I weren’t paying attention.

  • Natural beauty turns off the static in my mind.
  • My pause-to-check reflex is better. I catch myself when I’m about to act or react, and I and stop, realizing I don’t have to say that, do that, or feel that.
  • My awareness of little nagging thoughts that need attention is better.
  • My awareness psychological discomfort and how it can be based on false perceptions as well as accurate perceptions is more sensitive, motivating me to think differently or let go. It’s like being aware of my body in yoga. If there’s discomfort, how can I address it to create a healthier version of the pose? Or of the thinking?

Each of these changes is barely a ripple on the surface—or under the surface—of a day, and I can credit aging with much of it. Statistically, older people are happier than young people, and though there are exceptions, we often age out of certain anxieties and into better impulse control. Life itself is a series of small awakenings.

Water’s Colors

Shortly after I posted about the early spring and the warm dry winds, it finally rained. Cool as well as wet, it was practically our first winter day all winter. The rain smell was so welcome, so magical, I had to go out in it. With a large umbrella, of course. The sound of raindrops on it was the best music I’d heard in months.

There’s a beautiful walking route in Elephant Butte known as “the dirt dam.” It’s a road that’s been closed to traffic and takes you over the dirt dam to the big dam, the one that really makes the lake. It’s not the dams that make it scenic, though—to me, anyway. It’s the subtle colors and dramatic shapes of the desert. On a sunny blue-skied day, I’m drawn to notice the grand-scale sculptures of rocks and mountains. I seldom see this place soaking wet. It was a different world, where fat, silvery raindrops hovered on the tips of pale brown thorns. Many years ago, a friend told me he liked cloudy days because the colors of nature were revealed better, the way they were in classic Japanese watercolors. He was right. The rocks and soil were darker, and the bare thorny bushes looked black. Against this backdrop, dried-out straw-colored flower-stalks surrounded suddenly bright green stems. A red hue streaked up clumps of pale yellow grass, the same coral red as some crystals I’ve collected in the area. The flat, spiky pads of the purple cacti seemed more intensely purple and the green ones more vividly green. One full day of water and winter. I’m grateful.

Quack Gong

In an earlier post, I mentioned how much I love my “outdoor gym,’ the Rotary Park on the Rio Grande in T or C. Though the exercises I do there aren’t yoga but strength training with resistance bands, I still aim to bring a yogic sort of mindset to the movement, paying attention to my body and breath, and also to the world around me.

It’s amazing how busy my mind can get within a few reps of a single exercise. As a writer, I carry plots and characters in my head, and they show up and want attention. This is something I choose to invite while I run, setting a plot problem to solve in a free-flowing way, letting ideas bubble up while I turn my mind loose on the trail. With the trance-like drumbeat of running, I can get into a creative groove and stay aware of the beauty around me. There’s no steady flow during this strength workout, though, as I keep changing from one move to the next. I’m better off focusing on the scenery and on correct form in what I’m doing.

That’s where the cormorants come in. They winter here, fishing the river. Some gather on an island of matted reeds and twigs while others float. Their vocabulary is fascinating and full of surprises, from duck-like quacks to grunts, peeps, and croaks. The sounds were wild today when they announced that a blue heron had landed on their island, calling my attention to it along with each other’s. I’d been so busy inside my head that I had missed the arrival of this enormous bird.

As well as talking with each other, the cormorants dance noisily in brief arcs of foot-dragging, water-slapping flight, serving some purpose known to them but mysterious to me. I think of them as the gong in a Zen temple, interrupting my distracted mind and bringing it back to the present. The river. The mountains. A warm, sunny day and a swim of cormorants with sleek black feathers and bright yellow beaks. No need for my mind to be anywhere else.