Change

The bats have relocated. It’s an unwelcome change for their fans, but it was inevitable. They couldn’t stay in a man-made structure forever.

The old warehouse where they resided has been sold and cleaned out, and repairs are in progress. The building was crumbling, and the bats, delicate and magical as they are, made it stink. The man working on the place said the bats were welcome to back if they wanted to for now, but of course they don’t want to. He had the doors wide open and daylight was pouring in. The building is going to be converted into several apartments. As one of my neighbors said, even bats have the sense not to like developers.

Years ago, the bats lived in the Methodist church, also known as the pink church. Then, after a fly-out, the church had wire mesh installed over the vents so the bats couldn’t come back in. They moved to the warehouse. Now they’ve moved again. Bat lovers in the T or C hot springs historic district have been watching the sky at sunset. Our little relatives are still around, though in smaller numbers, and we don’t know where they live now. We’ve checked various possible new bat homes. The Baptist Church. No bats. The ice house, an empty building between Rio Bravo Fine Art and the community youth club. No bats. Though I miss the clouds of them in the evening sky, I hope for the bat colony’s sake that they have moved to a nice private cave on protected land where they can stay for generations.

Several evenings ago, I took a sunset walk, and a few bats hunted bugs over the streets. I counted seven bats fluttering over the river and the wetlands, but I couldn’t stand by the water and be immersed in them. And gnats are gathering on my ceiling again, though only by the dozens, not swarming the way they do when the bats are entirely out of town.

A speckled and striped gecko, no more than an inch long, with a rosy patch on its tiny head, was attempting to sneak into my apartment when I got home from running today. I was tempted to allow it to move in. It was cute and it would eat gnats. But I caught it, admired it, and carried it across the courtyard to a rocky area under a tree. Better for all of us, in the long run.

Something for Real

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I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. January 1 is just another day. I decided to change my life for reasons that have nothing to do with the transition of numbers on a calendar. A plan I’ve been gestating for years is finally real. I made the commitment. I have a lease. My future landlady and I signed it on Main Street, Truth or Consequences, at an outdoor table in front of Passion Pie Café the morning of Wed. Dec. 28th. Friends in T or C have congratulated me, telling me it’s the best decision I ever made. The to-do list is growing. It’s hard not to keep thinking about it or imagining disasters that could intervene in my plan. I’m glad I have writing to focus my mind and yoga and meditation to quiet its hundreds of questions, or I’d be spinning inside. I’m focusing on the constructive work of getting ready and on trusting life’s unfolding process, trusting the flow of synchronicities that made this change possible. The process of winding down one phase of my life and beginning the next will be complicated even though the goal is simplicity. I hardly own anything but I’m going to own even less. Travel less, need less, and be more. Retire early and fully embrace T or C. Art. Hot springs. The Rio Grande. The desert. People who get me. I love the place. It’s been my heart’s home for years. At the end of this academic year it will be my full-time home. I may teach a college course or two online, teach a few yoga classes around town, but writing will be my full-time occupation.

“I’ve been a dreamer so long now. It’s time I did something for real.

There’s just no point in being alive if you don’t live the way you feel.”

    From the song “Something for Real” by T or C artist Don Hallock.

 

 

“Yes, and …”

How often do we say, “Yes, but …?” Sometimes, it’s how we decline unwanted advice, but it’s also what we say when we’d like to do something but automatically think we can’t. I heard Bob Harris, travel writer, microfinance lending enthusiast and author of The International Bank of Bob, as a convocation speaker at my college. He described how he came to embrace microfinance through some of the adventurous jobs he’s taken, experiences that broadened his world view.

The attitude of “Yes and…” got him there. It’s an approach he learned when doing improv comedy. Suppose a fellow actor suggests, “We’re in Spain.” If you say, “Yes but,” the scene is dead. If you say, “Yes and,” you can build on it. One of his examples was how he responded to a job offer asking if would write for a telenovela in Mexico. “Yes, but I don’t speak Spanish” would have closed the door. Instead, he dared to walk through it, answering: “Yes, and I can learn the language fast.”

A travel writing job reviewing the world’s top fifty luxury hotels brought Harris face to face with painfully glaring income inequality in a way that made him deeply uncomfortable. The contrast between the lifestyles of the guests and owners of these resorts and the lives of the people who built and maintained them led to his interest in micro-lending. Later, he visited microfinance recipients around the world, to see the impacts of the small no-interest loans he and others had made through Kiva, a microlending nonprofit. It took hard work on the part of the people who received the loans to grow their businesses—a chicken farm in Bosnia, a little shop in Rwanda, a barbershop in Beirut, and others—and little risk or effort on the part of people who each loaned them around $25.00. All it took was a “yes, and…”

I’m thinking of the various yes buts and yes ands in my life, such as letting new love or friendship in, or getting involved in a good cause. Turning it down would be a yes but. Yes and is more rewarding and yet it can be mentally difficult. It’s not just negative events that can be disruptive. Positive adjustments are disruptive, too.

In some ways, the world appears to be taking a dark turn right now. A backwards turn away from compassion, away from stewardship of the earth. When I look at the work to be done, it’s huge, overwhelming, urgent and complex. Can my small efforts make any difference? The answer is “yes, and…”

Dialogue and Discomfort

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This isn’t about writing dialogue in fiction, although it’s related in a way. In fiction, an author has to sustain conflict. In real life, we have to resolve it. Keeping the drama up can be engaging for readers, but it can be destructive when people actually need to hear each other. Contrived and exaggerated conflict is the meat of reality TV, but that’s not reality. And we’re not on TV.

My college, like many across the country, has a Dialogue Club. Students are trained to facilitate conversations on difficult topics. These conversations give students a method for expressing their experiences, opinions and feelings without attacking, blaming or accusing. The participants learn to listen without arguing back. The purpose is not to persuade anyone, but simply to understand each other.

I had already planned a Dialogue Club activity in my freshman seminar this week, and the timing was right. We talked about the topics my students had chosen in advance: Black Lives Matter, and athletes who kneel during the national anthem. And then, once we had practiced our skills in civil discourse, I asked if they would be willing to share their thoughts on the election in the same way. They did. It was amazing. My class found this dialogue process valuable enough that they want to do it every week. This is so promising, I’ve volunteered to part of an upcoming campus-wide dialogue about the election results.

The origin of dialogue clubs, to my knowledge, is with a group of women in Massachusetts who had pro-life and pro-choice views and were tired of the anger and even violence that had arisen in disagreements about abortion rights. Their purpose was to hear each other, and they found that there were not just two sides. If there were ten people in the room, there might be ten sides to the issue. Venting to our like-minded friends is a relief, of course, and we all need to do that. But then, we need to move out of our comfort zones, our echo chambers. Reducing our stress often begins with raising it—by doing what makes us uncomfortable. Getting involved in anything controversial (in a role other than audience) can make most people uncomfortable, unless they are the type that thrives on conflict. The rest of us need to be as engaged, or even more so, than the people who enjoy being angry.

Dialogue clubs have been used not only on college campuses. They have been effective working through national conflicts, in places like Rwanda. Talk doesn’t replace action, of course. What it does is do is give people the courage to become part of the public conversation, the first step toward peaceful, constructive action.

While We Hold Still, Time Doesn’t

I came across this phrase years ago in my fitness work: While we hold still, time doesn’t. When we procrastinate exercising, we don’t maintain the status quo but get into worse shape. The same is true of the planet. While world leaders and national leaders put off serious action on climate change for too many years, the process didn’t pause and wait for them to get around to something. I want to believe that the new agreement forged in Paris will lead to action, finally. While conscious pausing can be positive—taking time to deliberate and then choose an action—inaction can lead to negative consequences as powerfully as any unwise action might.

I’ve been thinking about my own areas of procrastination. I don’t wrestle with the behaviors people typically make New Year’s resolutions about, such as eating right and staying fit. However, there are plenty of things I put off as if they will take care of themselves—tedious paperwork chores that are much less fun than running. Choosing between what feels good today that will lead to something bad tomorrow and something that calls for discipline and discomfort today that will lead to a greater good tomorrow seems to be the key issue in procrastination—along with the delusion that time holds still with us. Meanwhile, the forces of physics, the marketplace, biology and karma keep moving.

The Risk of Enjoying Something New

Humans are attracted to familiarity and recognizable patterns. We like music with tunes: melodies have patterns. Routines and habits are patterns we don’t have to think about, and having them spares us from making millions of minute choices in a day. Rituals are patterns to which we pay deep, contemplative attention. Habit: tea at my desk while I grade papers. Ritual: a Japanese tea ceremony.

Novelty is nether habit nor ritual, and it can feel incredibly uncomfortable even when it’s trivial. I read an interview in a medical journal with a physician who included nutrition in his treatments. He said—using hyperbole, I hope—that people would rather change their religion than what they eat for breakfast.

I like to ask my college health classes, “How many of you think tofu tastes bad?”

Ten or twelve hands out of twenty-five usually go up.

“How many of you have tasted tofu?”

About half the hands go down. A few others go up. In other words, some have tried it and know they don’t like it. Some people have tried it and found it enjoyable. Others have decided in advance that it’s going to taste bad without ever trying it. On a zero-to-ten scale of risky behaviors, trying a new food is a one or a two. Nothing terrible happens if you don’t like it, and you might find that it’s delicious.

In my freshman seminar, I encounter a few students who resist unfamiliar books. “It’s too long—I don’t like long books.” “I never heard of the author.” “I don’t read non-fiction.” “I’ve never read any kind of philosophy.” Behind this resistance is often the dread of being bored. Some take the risk and read deeply and engage with the book whether or not they entirely like it. Others guarantee boredom by skimming, getting the result they dreaded in the first place.

My book club makes me venture beyond books I would choose for myself, and through them I’ve expanded my reading horizons. How big a risk is it, after all, to read a book I might not like, or to read outside my habitual patterns? If I truly dislike a book, I give myself permission to stop reading after forty or fifty pages, but that’s a decision I’ve only made once with a book club selection.

Over the years the club has chosen books some books we all loved, many we disagreed on, and a few we unanimously didn’t like. The nonfiction book Winged Obsession, about a collector and seller of illegal and endangered butterflies, sounded great in reviews and in blurbs from established authors, but every single one of us thought it was poorly written in spite of the solid research. (It was still worth reading. I learned a great deal about butterflies and about law enforcement in Fish and Wildlife.) The humorous indie novel The Scottish Movie delighted us all with its quirky insider’s look at the movie industry. The book isn’t famous nor is it blurbed by the famous, but it was fun.  It’s the only indie book we’ve read as a club and I remember how amazed the other members were when they saw the price. An e-book for $2.99? I read a lot of indie books, but they’re used to paying $7.99 or more. At that price, an unfamiliar author wasn’t much of a risk for them.

Expensive risks are the hardest. The decision to move. The decision to open a business. To travel to a new place. Some of my yoga teacher friends have been to India. One of them had a blissful experience, staying in an ashram where tiny tame deer came to the patio. The other got some kind of fungal infection and spent the whole trip sick—and yet, she didn’t regret the journey. Its lessons were profound.

Some of the risks people take on a daily basis are so comfortable they feel safe. The phone is familiar, and so is the car. I remember riding with a friend who took both hands off the wheel while driving on a curving road—one hand to shift gears and one hand on his phone. When I pointed out what he’d done, he acknowledged that he hadn’t even noticed. That’s what’s risky: not noticing. While we need some routines and habits, going through life without paying attention is dangerous. We risk our lives with distracted driving, risk boredom by skimming the surface of books or experiences, or risk missing a new experience altogether by not even realizing we could have it.

My last book club gathering included an off-topic discussion of the various unexpected new things members’ aging parents were doing. Making maple syrup. Taking water aerobics. Learning to paint. I have a seventy-nine-year-old man in my Gentle Yoga class who is learning this skill for the first time. Everyday novelties can open doors and break old patterns.

A few years ago I read a study done by a professor at Northern Arizona University on inducing happiness. His experiment involved having people do random acts of kindness, take on small achievable new goals and reach them, and make minor variations in their routines. Compared to a control group, the people who made these little changes became measurably happier.

Taking minor risks like trying new books, activities or foods can add up. When I try something new and different, not only do I feel the satisfaction of achievement but the quality of my attention changes. With awareness, even the familiar can become new and different.

 *****

The Scottish Movie

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/15841493-the-scottish-movie

 

 

Embracing Darkness

On an ordinary quiet night, I took a break from writing to make a cup of herbal tea. Suddenly, I was in the dark. Tea freshly brewed, and I couldn’t even see the mug. I had to feel the doorway to get out of the kitchen. Funny how the mind works. I have to find light, I have to find light. In the living room, my laptop had gone to sleep on the coffee table, and I found it by the tiny red dot on its rim. I woke it up and used it to see my way around, searching for things I knew I didn’t have. Matches. Flashlight.

Sudden change and loss are hard to accept. I’ve been reading two books that deal with this topic: Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior and Marc Ian Barasch’s The Healing Path. The first is a novel about both ecological and personal crises; the second is nonfiction, about facing life-threatening illness. My response to the simple lack of electricity confirmed what these writers say about how humans react to an unwelcome shift in circumstances. We want normal. I kept thinking I could go into another room and turn on a light. No. There’s no power. The whole town was dark. Then maybe, I thought, I could sleep through the outage. No. There’s no fan, no air conditioning. What was I going to do in the dark with my laptop battery running low? It was 11:30 p.m. and that’s when I do my best writing.

I shut off the laptop after I’d found my Nook, which had more charge, and took it and the mug of tea outside, using the Nook as kind of dim little flashlight. I thought, I can read.

No. Not once I’d seen the stars. Then, all I wanted was the stars. Even in the desert in a town with little night glare, the removal of all manmade light was … breathtaking? No. Awe-inspiring? Too weak. Sacred.

I didn’t do anything to pass the time in the powerless night. I just lay back and looked at it. Thoughts drifted in. How long will this last? Should I pack up and go to a hotel in another city? I didn’t move. Stars. The lingering craving for electricity grew weaker and weaker.

This is it. The dark still night, afire with diamonds in its endless depths. The ordinary and normal gone. Someday my power will go off, and that will be it. Maybe it will be like the kitchen was, blind nothingness. Maybe it will be like the brilliant, hidden, undiscovered sky. All I know is that I had that sacred moment under the stars, and that I chose not to miss it.