I pick figs daily in the front yard of my apartment building. The treasure hunt of foraging for ripe fruit, the embrace of greenness, pawing my way through the tree, getting deep into its leafy arms—I take as much pleasure in this as in fresh figs. I give half of them away. Birds, wasps, and ants nibble their share of figs, and I often emerge from a dive into the tree with a tiny spider in my hair. Immersion in the branches reminds me of being a child climbing trees, and gives me an odd sense of being one of my distant ancestors. A hunter-gatherer living in a forest.
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.
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.
On a sunny, sixty-degree day, the kind that tourists from cold places come here to enjoy, I asked myself, how would I feel, think, and act if I was on vacation?
Truth or Consequences used to be my vacation destination. As a full-time resident, I do the same things I did as a summer visitor. I live in a smaller, simpler space than I did back in Virginia. I soak in hot springs, run in the desert at Elephant Butte Lake State Park, I write, I go to Albuquerque to study yoga, I hang out with friends … It’s the same life, only busier.
I have a schedule. Teaching yoga three days a week is not what anyone could call a full schedule, though it does limit my spontaneity. I’m more involved in the community. I know more people. But the biggest difference is my mindset. I don’t feel the looming return to the academic calendar reminding me to make the most of my freedom. So I don’t.
I let my head get cluttered. After I encountered a number of vacationers hiking the trail where I ran yesterday, I switched to vacation mind, appreciating the moment as if I might have to leave any day. Wow. Isn’t this amazing? It’s so warm. The sky is so bright. The lake is so still and blue. I noticed the light striking one of the bare, rocky hills on the shore making it look golden, though the land in Elephant Butte is basically gray, and how the dried blossoms atop a yucca stalk held their bell shapes months after their blooming ended.
While I stretched at the playground, a spider web glinting in the sun caught my attention, its near-invisible threads turning iridescent. The weaver, a tiny dirt-beige spider with red-striped legs and two rows of dots down its back, clung to a green metal ladder on the play structure.
Yellow stripey things—bees or wasps, I’m not sure which—nuzzled around my ankles and inspected me. I rolled my pants legs tight so the inspections wouldn’t go wrong. Their soft buzzing was the only sound.
Spaciousness. Present moment. Vacation mind
On Sunday last week, my eighty-three-year-old neighbor said, “If I was a bat, I’d be thinking about heading north about now.” We walked down to the icehouse, the roofless building with the mural on the back, where the bats reside most of the year. We were a day early. I could tell our little friends arrived Monday. Not because I went to see them that evening, but because there were no gnats falling onto my keyboard or crawling over my laptop screen.
As of today, it’s been a week since the T or C bat colony came home from their winter trip to Mexico, and I’ve watched them three times already. Their delicate wings are translucent as they flutter out in groups of ten or twenty, emerging into the evening sky from the blue sky of the mural, and then dispersing toward Turtleback Mountain and the Rio Grande. The joy that surges in me with each flight of bats is pure and wordless. Transcendent. My neighbor feels the same way. When bats take off, he sounds like a kid in his delight. On a windy night, he was disappointed to see only a few. Tonight, I was thrilled to witness flight after flight, a seeming infinity of bats.
An out-of-state tourist staying at the Riverbend RV park, right behind the mural, saw me standing and staring at the wall, and I explained I was watching bats. He stopped and watched briefly and said it was good the owner of the icehouse let them live there, but I don’t think he shared the mind-clearing flash of happiness these creatures give me. Nor can I explain it. Perhaps their silent sounds are penetrating my consciousness, sonar bouncing off my inner landscape and attuning me to the present moment in which they, my honored relations, always live.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.