Another Reason to Read the Classics

In my work in progress, the seventh Mae Martin mystery, Mae’s ex mother-in-law is running for office again, and Mae, on a visit to North Carolina, is going to end up knocking on doors for her as part of trying to solve the mystery. I didn’t become a campaign volunteer to do research, especially since I’m door-knocking in New Mexico, but I’ve gathered a few good stories which just may have a future in the book. FYI: Though this post does involve a political campaign, it’s non-partisan. If you suffer from political burnout, relax. I don’t even mention names or parties.

Today’s story:

In a pleasant neighborhood of one-story stucco and adobe houses with a view of the open desert beyond, I walked up to the second-to-last house on my canvassing list. On the street where the incumbent representative in our NM house district lives, I was volunteering for the opposing candidate. I’ll call them Incumbent and Challenger. Incumbent’s neighbors tended to support her, even if they were members of my party and not hers, and even though Challenger might better represent their views. They like Incumbent. That’s local politics. In another neighborhood a few weeks earlier, I met a woman who had never heard of Challenger, but said, “Is she running against Incumbent?” I said yes. The woman replied vehemently, “Then she’s got my vote.” It was obviously personal. She added, “Am I awful?” I smiled and said we were happy to have her vote.

Back to today’s second-to-last house. I’d been through a thunderstorm earlier, was now walking in heat and sun, and was ready to wrap things up. A black pick-up truck with Harley-Davidson bumper stickers pulled into the driveway just as I approached. A man with a long shaggy white beard sat at the wheel.

“Hi,” I began my perky canvasser bit. “Are you Mr. X?”

He was. And my list of voters to contact said he was a member of my party. I went on with my introduction, telling him who I was and that I was volunteering for Challenger. I asked, as I always do, if he had heard of her. People are often unfamiliar with a new name at the bottom of the ticket.

“I don’t vote. All politicians are liars.” Still sitting in his truck with the door open, he nodded meaningfully toward Incumbent’s house. The politician her other neighbors liked so much they’d vote for her even when they generally disagreed with her party.

Not sure how to handle his blanket aversion, I offered him Challenger’s flyer. “In case you should decide to vote, you can read about what she stands for.”

He actually read it, right then and there. “Hm. Social work.” He’d noticed her career field. “I studied social work in Colorado.” He told me what jobs he’d had, working with youth and then with drug users, and then informed me that “My wife, who is not a citizen, made me vote in 2016. But that’s the only time I’ve voted in decades.”

“That’s a powerful woman, if she could get you to vote when you’re so turned off by it.”

“She is. A powerful woman.” But, he told me, he’d moved to New Mexico alone because his wife didn’t understand why he had to have his motorcycle.

His way of getting involved in the community wasn’t political, he continued, but rather volunteering at the new animal shelter. “I don’t have any animals.” With a half-smile, he inclined his head toward the pair of dogs barking behind his fence.

“We all have our ways of trying to make the world a better place. You’ll take care of the animals, and I’ll knock on doors for Challenger.”

I was about to say goodbye and wish him a good day when he got out of his truck, revealing long skinny legs in shorts and knee-high black socks. “Let me show the motorcycle. So you’ll understand.”

There was a black Harley in the driveway. Apparently this was not The Motorcycle. He opened the garage and revealed a bigger bike with ivory fenders. It looked like a vintage machine, and I sincerely admired it. He said, “That’s Rocinante,” then paused. “You know who that is?”

“Don Quixote’s horse.”

Mr. X beamed. “Not many people know that. I’m gonna vote for Challenger. She’s got good people working for her.”

I felt as if I’d just won Jeopardy as well as Incumbent’s neighbor’s vote.

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“Where’s Your Baby?”

As I charged up the last stretch of hill with a final burst of speed, I heard a shout of excitement from the playground at the end of the trail. A little boy, his dark face just visible above the stone wall, had spotted me. He must have been staring out into the landscape of cacti and junipers and sand, and been startled to see a human being—and one running, at that. I heard more happy shouts, and as I rounded the bend I saw four little heads flying along within the confines of the wall. The boy had an older sister, her hair in beaded braids that swung wildly as she ran. When I did a cooldown lap of the last little stretch, the children tracked me, and then they met me as I entered the parking lot. In an SUV parked nearby, I could see a young Hispanic woman with long hair and glasses, nursing a small baby in the back seat. Two of the kids looked like they were hers, and I wondered if the two black children were stepchildren in a blended family or if they were friends, perhaps out-of-town guests. In other words, what’s their story?

The boy who’d started the excitement of running with me was curious about me, too. I guessed him to be five at most, a handsome little guy with fine features and a runny nose. He asked me how far I ran and how often. He asked where I lived, and then followed up with questions that made me think he didn’t understand age yet.

“Where’s your mommy and daddy?”

“They passed away a long time ago.”

“Why did they pass away?”

I didn’t feel like telling a child at play about my parents’ end-of-life health problems, so I simply said, “They were very old.”

“My mommy’s still alive.”

“Of course. You’re young. That’s normal at your age, but not at my age.”

He followed me to my car as I got my water bottle. “Where’s your grandma and grandpa?”

“They passed away, too. They were even older.”

“Where’s your baby?”

“I don’t have one.”

This stumped him, and he asked again, saying everyone has a baby, and then added, “I have a baby.” He was carrying a toy in one fist, some kind of bristly green creature. Ah. His baby.

While I stretched at a picnic table, his sister, who was around eight or nine, joined us. They inquired about my age, which I gave as sixty-three. The girl told me their father is “six nine.” I asked, “Is that his height or his age?” She said, “He’s that tall and he’s that old. Do you know him?” I was sure I didn’t, if he’s really that tall. And was he really that old, with children so young? She had to be pulling my leg.

The two black kids and the Hispanic boy ran off to the swings, and the Hispanic girl, who was also about eight years old, stayed with me while I finished my stretches. Even while she’d been running and playing, she held onto a notebook with a pink cover that matched her pink sun dress. Perhaps she’s a future writer. Without my asking, she told me, “Those kids are from Arizona. They visit us every year. Usually once, but they came twice this year. The other one is my brother.” She intuited that people want to understand each other’s stories, but did not enlighten me as to whether her friends’ father really was sixty-nine years old and six-feet and nine inches tall.

It makes a better story if I’m left wondering.

Karma and Creativity

I woke up with an attitude today. Tuesday I had to start the day with a divisional meeting and today I had to start the day with a faculty assembly. It wasn’t the event that was the problem, but my reaction to it: a negative thought.

Goswami Kriyananda’s book, The Laws of Karma, says that karma isn’t punishment or retribution, but cause and effect. The subtle aspects of the causes often get overlooked. I keep contemplating this line from the book: “If a negative thought enters your head, know the first law of freedom: Don’t feed it.” On the next page, he says, “Knowledge is greatest eradicator of negative karma.”

To me, this means that when I have a negative thought, I need to notice and transform it, not smother it. If I suppress and ignore it I could still feed it—dig a hole for it and plant it and water it with my other unsolved problems and cranky attitudes. Talking about it can go two ways: I can vent to a friend and transform the negative, or I can vent to friend and magnify the negative. Writing about it can go in various directions, too, from pointless rumination to logical, problem-solving analysis to creative transformation.

In one of his talks, Kriyananda said something along these lines: “If I’m meditating in a cave, I have no problems. But as soon as I have a student, I have a problem.” This made me laugh—it’s so true.

Humor is one way of transforming the negative. Some professors have little pottery jars in their offices labeled, “Ashes of Problem Students.” The meeting this morning suddenly became amusing when I saw it through the filter of my critique partner’s work in progress, a comic paranormal mystery in which life after death has not fire and brimstone but meetings—bureaucracy and rules and meetings. I listened to the speech about new committees for assessment being formed and could see it as a scene in that book. With that shift in perspective, I stopped feeding the negative thought and started to smile.

I know writers who transform annoying people into murder victims in their stories. That’s not a choice for me, since I write murder-less mysteries. However, I have used people who troubled me as the inspiration for oppositional characters—and a funny thing happened when I did it. I developed compassion for them. Though the characters’ roles are antagonistic in the stories, I have to understand these difficult people and feel my shared humanity with them or they’ll be cardboard villains. The process gives my protagonist some complicated and interesting enemies, while it changes my resentment into insight. One of my students told me he transforms his stress into poetry, and that it’s the best therapy he’s ever experienced. It’s working. I’ve known him for a year and seen him change to become gentler and more open-minded. He used to rant on and on about things that bothered him. Now he makes poetry with them, understands himself more, and complains less.

I suspect we’re so attentive to our negative thoughts because they are alarms going off, telling us that something needs to change. That’s also what makes them so uncomfortable, and such fertile material for art and humor.

*****

The give-away posted last week is still open for entries.

https://amberfoxxmysteries.wordpress.com/2015/09/11/win-four-books-a-gift-to-thank-you-for-reading-my-blog

 

Old and Gray: Joy Grows Deeper Day by Day

 

During my Southeast months, I teach yoga for a fitness and recreation program called “Fifty and Wiser.”  The name has always struck me as comical. At fifty and older, I hope we’re wiser than at twenty or thirty, but that’s not why there’s a whole set of exercise programs for that age group. Apparently it was not good marketing to say fifty and older, though.

In one of my online writing groups, a member asked for feedback on her new web site. Most people talked about the design and content in comparison to her old one. One person, however, addressed her sunny, smiling, middle-aged picture. He was adamant that an author should not post a picture unless he or she looked like a professional model, and said he wasn’t about to post his own picture, because he didn’t want his readers to know he was old but to think he was as young as the characters he writes about.

In honor of that comment, I’m updating my picture. In the one I’ve been using, taken indoors in black and white, my salt-and pepper hair looks only half gray. In bright sunlight, the gray shines and it looks totally silver. I like it—I’m like a little bitty silver-back gorilla. In humans, females get that honor as well as the males.IMG_7667

At the present progress of the Mae Martin Series, she hasn’t turned thirty yet. Starting with a young character allows me to keep the series going for decades if I choose, and the tumult and challenge of that stage of life make for good stories, but at that age I didn’t have either the patience or the perspective to write them.

Yeats published this poem in 1893, a young man imagining his beloved’s aging.

When You Are Old

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,

And nodding by the fire, take down this book,

And slowly read, and dream of the soft look

Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

 

How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with a love false or true,

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

 

And bending down beside the glowing bars,

Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled

And paced upon the mountains overhead

And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

 ***

 When he was old, he wrote The Apparitions.

(I’m only including the final verse; you can read the rest at http://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/william-butler-yeats/the-apparitions/ )

When a man grows old his joy

Grows more deep day after day,

His empty heart is full at length

But he has need of all that strength

Because of the increasing Night

That opens her mystery and fright.

Fifteen apparitions have I seen;

The worst a coat upon a coat hanger.

 

***

Who will we become when our empty coat is left behind? Aging. The heart grows full, while the hair grows hollow, light passing through it like a halo.

Random Unearned Happiness

A random collection of encounters that have made me smile:

 Smile 1: Today the college where I teach had a special event for which the faculty was required to wear full academic regalia. We lined up outside one of the buildings in our black robes and caps, assembling for the formal procession. On the railing of the building’s ramp, an equally impressive assembly of flies gathered, matching or exceeding our numbers. I’d never seen so many in one place with no apparent attraction—no food, no late unfortunate animals—just a black iron railing. They looked like an alternate version of us, pompous little goggle-eyed professors from some insect university, preparing for their own convocation.

Smile 2: I remember sitting at an outdoor table at the Cerrillos Whole Foods, getting directions to a hiking place from a stranger I was sharing a table with, and a young man walked by, saying aloud to all who could hear, “Another beautiful day in Santa Fe! Can you stand it?”

Smile 3: I overheard this line during an outdoor concert at the Railyard, spoken a lean, intense, green-eyed man with a little straw hat that turned up at the front: “It hit me—I’m almost fifty. The second half of my life is going to be about exercise and stress reduction.” He seemed elated as he told his friends this profound discovery, and shared the even more amazing fact that he’d talked to other people who’d had the same revelation. What I liked was that he called it the second half of his life. Now that’s an optimist.

Smile 4: The following graffiti were all on the same stall wall (in Santa Fe, of course, where else):

(An Om symbol) Just Breathe

            Think—while it’s still legal

            A good deed brightens a dark world.

            Walk as if your feet were kissing the earth.

Sometimes I walk around with a huge smile on my face just because I’m alive and seeing the sky and breathing the air. My feet are kissing the earth. Sometimes I get bogged down in my to-do list and have to do something to remind myself to smile. Today, being satirized by the flies did the trick. I won’t brighten a dark world by taking myself too seriously.