A Writing Lesson

Those of you who’ve followed this blog for a while know that a certain trail in Elephant Butte Lake State Park is my sacred space, my refuge where I run in beauty. This fall, it began to lose some of its peacefulness to people who vented their feelings by writing. They could have done it in journals, blog posts, poems, or song lyrics—but they wrote in sand and on rocks.

Today, I decided to do something about it while in the park and later by writing a letter to the editor of the only local print paper. My original letter was 376 words. The paper allows 250. I had to find 125 excess words in what I thought was already perfect.

This was a fascinating process. The original version wasn’t perfect after all. It was wordy. I’d like it better with three of four more words. But I removed 120 I don’t even miss. Can I cut excess words in my fiction this ruthlessly? I’ll have to remember the lesson as I revise my works in progress.

The letter:

At first, I thought the wind would blow the words away. It didn’t. More appeared, political words, in the sand along Luchini Trail. Then words spelled out with pebbles. Then words scrawled on rocks in black marker. Not bad words—honor, respect, integrity etc. But it’s still graffiti. If one person starts defacing the rocks, what’s to stop others from doing it? (Except respect, honor, and integrity.) I turned those rocks over. The graffiti writer returned with yellow paint and rewrote the words. Every time I run, I stop to flip a heavy rock. The person responsible for the graffiti flips it back later. Dear scribbler, I don’t object to your words, but to the fact that you painted them on rocks.

Most of the sand writings were angry. When an f-bomb appeared, I couldn’t wait for wind erasure. With a fallen twig shaped like a broom, I swept away the rage, whether I agreed or disagreed with the writer. I tossed the political-opinion pebbles. One landed in sand so untouched it simply vanished.

The sand I swept was soft and warm. There were delicate little quail tracks in it. Peace. Beauty. It’s what people seek on this trail. But every time I passed those angry words, my mind snagged on inner noise and argument.

We benefit from a space that calms our spirits rather than aggravating our outrages. Perhaps the graffiti writer thinks they’re sending positive messages. But nature can do it better, without black marker or yellow paint.

Not shutting the door

Though I’ll be glad to see 2020 end, I’m not slamming the door on it. And I’m not fantasizing going back to exactly the way things were before. I want the whole world to be wiser. More compassionate. More aware. More cooperative and creative.

Nightmares are our teachers

Like leaks from neglected infrastructure

Erupting into the sunny streets from below,

Bad dreams reveal the unseen we need to know.

2020 shocked us into vision.

We’re not who we thought we were.

Some of us became much more;

And some much less. The division

and distress won’t be over on the first of 2021.

It won’t be over ’til we learn the lessons

And live them for years to come.

*****

I hope you all have a safe and happy New Year. May 2021 be the Year of Healing.

Uncertainty

It’s Tuesday night as I write this, 11:30 p.m. Mountain time. I turned off the election updates over an hour ago and focused on critiquing a fellow author’s historical mystery. I didn’t listen to news all day, but did my every-three-week grocery run to Natural Grocers in Las Cruces. I did housework and yoga, took a brisk walk after dark, listened briefly to the election results trickling in, and let it go. Not that I don’t care how it turns out. I do. I did everything I could to assist the outcome I believe is best. But I can’t know it yet.

We humans are so attached to prognosticating. Augury has changed from the interpretation of entrails and other enigmatic patterns to a science that originated with 18th century gamblers. If 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that uncertainty is real, and if I can’t tolerate it, I have a hard time ahead. The questions keep coming. But all I have is the present moment. Within that moment, I’m aware of my home, my physical aliveness, the sensation of touching the keyboard, the tiny clicks and thunks of typing, the hum of the refrigerator, and the greater silence beyond. This is it.

As I walked home under the stars, the silhouettes of small animals appeared up ahead. Four skunks crossing the street. Above them Mars and Venus were bright. I crossed to the other side, just in case.

Charley’s Last Walk

I never appreciated dogs until I met Charley. She and Bob lived next door to me for a while, and as I became friends with him, I became friends with her. Charley and I truly bonded the day she crawled out from under the fence around his backyard during a thunderstorm when he wasn’t home. I found her flattened on the sidewalk with a foreleg stuck through her chain collar a result of her desperate scramble. Unable to move, terrified by the thunder, she gave me the most pleading, vulnerable look I’ve ever seen. After I extracted her leg from the collar, she still stuck to the ground in fear. Somehow, I persuaded her to get up, then gently led and nudged and prodded until I could put her inside Bob’s trailer.

She was medium sized and golden-red-brown, with a black spot on her tail and a matching black spot in the middle of her tongue. Her features were dingo-like, her body solid—and amazingly strong when she was being stubborn about where to walk. I used to try to convince her enjoy some variety, but when she didn’t want to do something, she would put on her brakes and just look at me, so we settled on a fixed route that made her happy and gave her a long enough walk. Once she won that argument, she kept up a brisk pace like she was on a mission, making me almost jog to stay with her. Sometimes I wondered if Charley thought she was walking me, and since Bob insisted that she take me out, she should be the boss. And why not? She was smart and responsible. She cooperated with a wide variety of verbal commands, if not suggestions about where to walk.

In her old age, she acquired new skills in avoiding dog-to-dog conflict. If a dog was on a leash in the distance, she paused to let it go past. If it was off-leash and coming toward her, she sped up to a trot and evaded the encounter, making me speed up with her. This impressed me, because even two years ago she would crouch and low-walk as if ready to spring when she saw a dog she didn’t like, and when she was young, she “got a ticket,” as Bob put it, for tearing the bandana off a pit bull. When it came to humans, though, she was a loving, sociable dog.

On what turned out to be her last walk, she chose the same route as always and did all the same things. Her key destination was the T or C Brewery and the people drinking on the patio. I made her keep her distance, though I could tell by those longing glances she really wanted to go up and put her nose in people’s hands and be petted, like she could in the old days before the pandemic. (Bob would ask her, “Want to go grab a beer, Charley?” And she would jump to attention.) She also liked to walk past a certain Akita and make him bark, and past her old home from before Bob moved. She took an interest in the smells along the bottoms of buildings without breaking her stride, only stopping to sniff at one specific corner where all the important canine information seemed to be, then headed home with me in tow.  Neither of us had an inkling it was her last walk.

The next afternoon, Bob called to ask if she’d acted normal on her walk, because she was sticking close to him nonstop and having some symptoms. I assured him she’d been fine. He made arrangements to get her to the vet the next day. She didn’t whine or make any fuss, but by night she had trouble standing. He lay beside her on the floor, and once in a while she laid her front paw on his arm. At six a.m., she quietly slipped away. After twelve good years of life, she had around twelve hours of knowing something was wrong. Love was her last moment. Her last walk was filled with the simple pleasure of her familiar neighborhood, and perhaps her memories of being the most popular dog on the Brewery patio.

She’s not taking me for walks anymore, but she guides me in spirit. Some of my most serene moments have been in her company, as we headed up Marr Street at sunset toward the church from which the bats emerge. Something about the sight of her sturdy back as she paced along and the bats in the sky framing my view of Turtleback Mountain silenced all the chatter in my head, as if I could enter Charley’s mind-state, immersed in the act of walking and the experience of my senses.

She taught me this: Live today with love and enthusiasm, fully present. Be yourself. Grow wiser with age. Thanks, Charley.

Figs

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.

Zero Percent Chance of Rain

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.

Exploring My New Normal

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.

Vacation Mind

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

The Bats are Back!

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.

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.