Outdoor Yoga and Bushy Neurons

I’m still exploring Hare Brain Tortoise Mind at a tortoise pace, and I came across this concept in it: Animals that live in highly stimulating environments grow bushier neurons in their brains. That is, the neurons develop more dendrites, make more connections with their neighbors, and become capable of new and varied patterns of interaction. They can get out of a rut.

I think of T or C as a bushy neuron kind of place. A friend who visited from Virginia tried to explain what she found so remarkable about it. She said I’d described it well in my books, and yet those descriptions hadn’t captured a certain aspect of its vibe, something she struggled name or explain. Then she finally realized what it was. “There’s no pattern.”

While she was here, she mentioned how odd it was to look down an alley and see not only a dirt alley with dumpsters, but also an explosion of murals—not graffiti, but murals. The town kept surprising her. And it can still surprise me.

She’s right; there’s no pattern, unless the two blue-and-purple houses on my block constitute a pattern. But one has a moon goddess on it and the other has a Kokopelli. On the same block are trailers and the stucco-and-stick-fence gated wall of a spa that will never be built. For some reason, someone bought the lot quite a few years back and began construction, although you can’t build anything that size in this location. It’s a nice wall, though.

Doing some volunteer work that takes me all over town, I recently discovered a section of Juniper Street I never knew existed. The street has three disconnected parts, and I’d only known about two of them. This third part is around a hidden curve. From there it suddenly drops down, becoming so steep no one could ever ride bike up it and so narrow you’d hate to meet another car on it. On one side is a great wall of wind-and-water-sculpted red dirt and on the other side, two residential streets, one with little houses, and below that, one with super-bright crayon-colored trailers. When I’ve looked down at the town from the water tower hill, I couldn’t figure out where the street with those trailers was and how one got to it. That third leg of Juniper was hidden by the wall of dirt.

In other neighborhoods, I’ve food an orange-and-blue building, stone buildings, a yellow house with Lady of Guadeloupe murals, little hidden cottages behind other houses, magical gardens, art gardens, hoarder yards, collapsing houses, yards with so much trash in them I worried how people could live that way, serene little adobe apartments with winding paths and desert gardens, and many of these coexist on the same streets. No pattern. The appeal of T or C to artists and musicians makes sense. It’s not neat, cute, or pretty, but it makes your neurons bushy.

The recent exposure to so many new off-beat places seems to have broken my habitual perceptual patterns. I discovered a perfect spot for outdoor yoga in the courtyard outside my apartment that I never noticed as such, though the small square of bricks was always there. Smooth and flat, partly shaded, it faces the autumn-yellow fig tree and a tall purple aster. Yoga feels more spiritual under the open sky with nature around me, even if it’s nature in the courtyard. And the shapes of the fig tree and the flowers reminded me what the novelty was doing for my neurons.

*****

Read more of Amber Foxx’s essays on this blog and in the collection Small Awakenings: Reflections on Mindful Living.

 

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Walking into a Story in Santa Fe

Inside an old bowling alley in Santa Fe lives a multi-dimensional work of art. The House of Eternal Return blends written word, video, sculpture, paintings, textiles, and architectural space to immerse visitors in a mysterious story. When you go through the doors of a Victorian house built inside the former bowling alley, you find evidence of a family’s seemingly ordinary life, but as you explore you find that something strange has happened to the people, and to nature of time and space and reality. The characters and their story have to be discovered through the artifacts in the house, ranging from photographs to drawings to journals. For example, if you open the pages of a diary in a child’s room, you learn more about the mystery. If you don’t, you find clues elsewhere.

Behind the refrigerator is another world. If you open the fridge, you leave ordinary reality. Or you might exit another way. The upstairs goes in and out of altered worlds. Some are serene, some adventurous, some disturbing though not terrifying, just intensely strange. The psychedelic nature of this art installation is hard to describe. There’s so much to explore, so many aspects to the story—moving, transcendent, bizarre—that I can see why people buy a year’s pass. One visit isn’t enough for a full discovery. I crawled through a hole in a closet to find a piano under a glass ceiling like a starry sky. I clambered down a winding narrow staircase to a mystical cave full of music and crystal-like forms. Much of the art is interactive. You can play pianos and unique percussion instruments built into the sculptural walls; you can turn pages and decide if you’ll leave that journal open or closed; and you can press buttons to get sound and light effects. There are hidden nooks with video screens showing episodes of the residents’ past. Some videos only start if you choose to sit in the chair in front of them, and they seem to react when you get up to leave.

I recommend this art space to anyone who loves to play with reality, and who will not be overwhelmed by occasional flashing lights, moments of chaotic sound, tight narrow spaces, spiral staircases, and a general sense of being unmoored, floating in a sea of dreams. After spending a few hours in it, I found that meditation after my yoga practice was deep and blissfully silent. The chains of thought-to-thought busyness had been broken and my inner space was open wide.

Later, when my left brain came back online, I reflected on the story-telling genius of The House of Eternal Return. The objects in the normal-time-and-space rooms hint at the inner life of the characters and at the events that happened to them, and visitors end up collaborating at uncovering clues. One person notices a document and reads it. Another discovers a crawl space. Another emerges from an unexpected place—like the refrigerator. It’s like sharing a 3-D novel—part science fiction, part mystery—with other readers.

When I write a book, I can improvise the plot as I go. More often, I know where it ends and then try out different routes to get there. Free-flowing as the initial process is, however, the end product is a linear narrative, with a beginning, a middle and an end. The story in The House of Eternal Return is told in a nonlinear way, with multiple options for how visitors experience it, but the process of creating this vast, multi-chambered work of art had to be as precise as the design of an aircraft. If you’re a story-teller, this aspect of it may intrigue you as much as the interactive masterpiece itself.

The Road Not Noticed

Last week I mentioned that one of the delightful digressions in Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras is Hubie’s reflection on the superior merits of walking compared to driving. Some of my favorite passages in Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire are his rants about tourists who never get out of their vehicles when they visit a national park, and somehow think they have seen it that way. I thought about all this on a recent trip to cold wet rainy Maine, when I discovered a road I’d never noticed before. My sister, who lives there, had never noticed it either. We drove past it.

Sunday, after hours and hours of steady rain, I accepted that I couldn’t go running and did a lot of intense sun salutations instead. And then the sun came out. I’m not taking credit, and it didn’t stay out long, but at least the rain stopped. Since I wear barefoot shoes, I don’t run on pavement, but on grass and dirt, and my usual Maine-visit running route was swamped. So I took off down the verge of Route 1, traffic and all, and immediately spotted a road I’d never noticed before. Left turn into new territory.

It was beautiful, a hilly route through green deep woods, with a few houses set back among the trees. I ran in the narrow strip of dirt between the pavement and the vegetation, and crossed a little bridge over a gleaming silvery wetland that turned into a flowing stream. The road then led to an intersection with a spectacular view of a farm with open fields, well-kept old buildings painted the classic farm red, and a flock of freshly shorn sheep, a dozen white and one black. Their wet skins glistened in the soft light.

Driving, I don’t explore. I go somewhere. Running, I found a place of great beauty I doubt I could have enjoyed so much from the window of a car even if I were inclined toward idle Sunday drives. The sensory experience came from immersion in the outdoors as well as the unexpected. Frogs were bellowing and chirping, calling back and forth with songs as varied as those of the birds, making the Maine woods sound like a jungle.