The Sunset Was Free

I just sent a book to my beta readers, the third or fourth or maybe fifth revision of Shadow Family, the seventh Mae Martin Mystery.  There are a couple of characters in it who feel good about themselves as thieves. They smile a lot, acting the role of good guys. The theme in the book is self- justification. How we dig in and commit more and more deeply to our mistakes and bad judgments to justify our behavior to ourselves, and how people who are doing something ethically wrong convince themselves it’s actually right.

After a yoga workshop in Albuquerque Sunday, I stopped by Whole Foods to pick up some organic groceries. While I was in the bulk foods section filling a bag with pecans, a fit, cheerful-looking bearded man of about thirty, carrying a plastic bag of produce, pulled the lever on the bulk bin of chocolate covered peanuts, dumping a large serving into his hand. He flashed me a bright smile and ate from his handful as I stared at him, giving him the “WTF?” look, too startled to speak. We made eye contact. He smiled again and swaggered on up the aisle toward frozen foods, munching away. I put my bag of pecans in my cart and proceeded to get walnuts. A skinny teenaged boy with stylishly eccentric glasses walked up and grabbed a yogurt-coated pretzel from a bin and began to eat. This time I found my voice.

“Does everyone do this? You’re the second person in five minutes to just take stuff and eat it.”

He smiled and walked away. I once saw a little girl furtively sneak one raisin from a bulk bin at the same store. She realized I saw her, and she ducked her head, apparently feeling guilty.

The guys’ smiles bothered me more than the petty theft. I told myself it must have been a study with actors playing the role of thieves, and someone was watching, observing how others reacted. I didn’t want this to be normal. They looked right at me and assumed my complicity and approval. It reminded me of the way colleagues at a job I had way back in the early eighties would look around, see that all the employees in the break room were white—you can tell the look—and then make a racist joke. I would get up and walk out, telling them it was not okay with me. Racism is a huge wrong. Stealing a pretzel, pretty small. Assuming everyone agrees with you is troubling in both cases, because you think you’re not violating moral norms.

While I was on my way home Sunday, I stopped for gas in Socorro at exactly the moment the sunset was at its most spectacular. Orange and purple in the west, pink in the east, and pink and orange in the north layered with thin, swirly, magenta wisps. Above was a ceiling of pink clouds. A woman in the parking lot of the gas station was taking pictures. I walked all over the lot and into the space next to the adjoining business, seeking the best view of the clouds and the mountains. When I finally went in to pay for gas,  it was hard to let go of the beauty for even a few minutes. The picture-taker urged the young woman minding the store to come out and look at the miracle. She did, but she couldn’t linger. After all, sad to say, someone might go in and steal something.

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Snake Tracks

What was going on that night? Are they always out in such numbers, and the conditions simply revealed their traces? Or was it a special event?

A light evening rainstorm, isolated in Elephant Butte, cleared all other imprints from the sand on the trail, so only the tiny dots of rain pocked the otherwise smooth surface. It was so hot the next day, no humans had set foot there until I went for a run. Every few feet, a snake track crossed the trail. Thin snakes, thick snakes, straight-line travelers, undulating travelers. Travels to bushes, to rocks, to holes. I had wondered what lived in that hole. Now I know.

I also know how a snake can travel in a straight line. If it’s in no hurry, it can propel itself along on the scales in its belly, almost like walking. I watched a video. Amazing. Now back to writing the book in progress. As long as it’s been taking, I seem as slow as a scale-walking snake after a rain, but I’ve been busy. Every night. Apparently, so have the snakes.

 

Snake Appreciation Day

My first sighting, finally, after years of running in the New Mexico desert. A sunny day turned suddenly cool and cloudy, which must be what made this normally nocturnal creature stir.* I slowed down to let the snake cross the trail and go wherever it was going. What an amazing design. Such graceful motion. It was plain gray, not a speckle (or a rattle) to decorate its slender form. Perfectly silent, it disappeared under a bush with its gentle undulations. I crept past the bush, sneaking a look under it. No snake. I didn’t expect it would have stayed. They’re shy, after all.

As I resumed my run, I marveled at the snakeness of the snake, its directness and simplicity. There I was with how many bones in each foot, moving from one set of tarsals, metatarsals and phalanges to the other, using how many muscles in each leg and hip, with hinge joints and ball-and-socket joints in motion, postural muscles at work … I had to ask myself …

Whose locomotion shows more art?

I have so many moving parts.

But Snake can get along just fine

While being nothing but a spine.

*****

*I looked it up and concluded it was a ringneck snake. They are colored like a gray suit with a bow-tie and are rarely seen during the day. Wikipedia describes them as “dainty and inoffensive.”

 

 

Desert Encounters

 

The hind end of an animal I’d never seen before in this stretch of desert silenced my thoughts. Whatever it was, brown and furry and scurrying, stub-tailed and about the size of a rabbit, it made me aware. The novelty of birds with bright yellow feathers broke into my thought-cycle also as I ran—yellow warblers migrating through (at least I think so; I’m not a bird expert, just an admirer). A quail atop a bush, its crest profiled against the blue sky, brought another moment of surprised inner stillness. Quail are usually running on the ground. It’s the lizards who pose.

I stop for lizards. A lesser earless lizard, no bigger than my thumb, has little bright eyes and long golden toes, subtle gray-on-gray spotted markings, and tiny arms that enable it to do push-ups with flawless form. Its miniature legs run faster than I can. The greater earless lizards seem to be showing off their green hind legs, their side stripes, their green-and-orange forelegs, and the rose patches on the females’ flanks. I’m sure they’re displaying for each other, but I appreciate the show. Everything else on the ground blends in—brown or gray—but they glow. It seems odd for small, delicate, ground-dwelling creatures not to be camouflaged, but they flourish, maybe because they like the heat and nothing else does (except crazy runners). Their body ideal temperature for activity is 101 degrees. I observed a large one getting brighter the longer he baked. On my third lap of the trail, his orange stripes were radiant, as if he had to be heated properly to light up.

The prickly pear cacti are blossoming, bright yellow. Creosote bushes have small yellow buds. Ocotillo blooms shoot out like red-orange flames on the tips of slender, bare stalks. The yellow birds are posing on them, contrasting with the flowers, and perching among the creosote branches in a yellow-on-yellow match.

The birds-and-flowers encounters make me stop in awe. Yes, I’m running, but there are moments not to be hurried.

 

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.

Cold!

This is not a normal winter in T or C. It’s cold. So cold a few flakes of snow fell, enough to decorate Turtleback Mountain with white stripes way up near the Turtle. I thought I wouldn’t be able to stand running when the temperature was below forty, but I missed the beauty of the trail, the open space on all sides, and the effect on my creative flow, so I gave it a try, wearing so many layers a northerner would have laughed had one seen me. Not bad after all, thirty-seven degrees. Another day this week was windy, almost like spring. I went out anyway. Half-way through the four miles, I realized I felt good enduring the challenges, better than if I’d done something indoors instead. It was good to be reminded that thinking about doing something difficult is often more stressful than actually doing it.

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.