About once every two years, I encounter another runner on the trail. Mostly there are dog-walkers in the fall and winter, and no other humans in the spring and summer. Last week, the rare runner approached, and he didn’t just say hi and pass, he grinned and whooped.
He wasn’t a kid—there was gray in his beard. I guessed he was visiting from some snowy place. He wore a tank top while I wore long sleeves and gloves. Escaping to the sun and the desert, he had to be in a state of pure delight. We passed again on the next lap of the loop—at almost exactly the same spot, going in opposite directions at equal speed. He whooped again, raising his hand in a high-five. “Good job!” My cheering section. “You too,” I said.
His exuberance got me thinking about joy. About letting go into the moment. Not taking for granted this experience I have four times a week that was such an exhilarating treat for him. And he celebrated our mutual awesomeness as senior runners still at it. As I ran on, I slipped into my inner “whoo!” zone.
I’ve done it since even without his cheers. Yesterday, I spent two laps mentally fussing with my volunteer work’s to-do list and was about to stop early to deal with it. But then my inner whooper turned around and ran for another half hour, dumping the to-dos and choosing freedom. Then I went back to town and dealt with it all. Today after I taught my outdoor yoga class, I watered the plants (that’s how I pay rent for my “studio”) and instead of going home to get on with the endless list, I gave in to the urge to do my own practice before I even rolled up the hose. I’d only had time for a short warm-up before class. This long, spontaneous practice under the brilliant blue sky was bliss. More om than whoo, but a good bit of both.
It was thirty-nine degrees today, with wind at fifteen miles per hour. In the spring, when it blows at twice that speed on a regular basis, I would call that a light wind. But it’s not cold in the spring. It’s normally not cold in the winter, either, for which I’m grateful. I have a low tolerance for low temperatures. Still, I had to get out and run. The weather had been even less inviting for the previous two days. A third day without prolonged outdoor time would have been far worse than wearing the winter running gear I’ve so seldom needed since moving to Truth or Consequences. My mind and body crave nature, light, and movement.
It would have been easier to stay indoors, but less rewarding. The sky was brilliant New Mexico blue, and no one else was out on the trail. No humans, that is. On my third loop, there were fresh deer tracks, signs they had been there just before me. By the end of my run, my face was cold, and my fingers and wrists deeply chilled through my gloves, but I’m glad I braved the weather. It was uncomfortable at times, but whenever I turned a curve that took me out of the wind, I cherished the reprieve and communed with the winter sun.
I have a list of unpleasant tasks I’ve been crossing off, one by one, but a few remain—and they’ve remained on that list a long time. I have to remind myself that the actual doing of the difficult thing is less stressful than thinking about doing it.
I’m learning to accept compliments, getting better at being gracious and grateful, but I’m not quite there yet. I received this compliment a few nights ago at the Truth or Consequences Brewing Company. “I love to watch you dance. You’re so joyful. You’re like an angel.”
I immediately said “I’m no angel,” and came up as with as many ways as possible to deflect the idea. But later, I reflected on it. A former professional choreographer with twenty years of dance training, I now dance out of pure in-the-moment delight in music, not for money or for an audience. Why can’t that be like an angel? A rockabilly-and-blues-band brew-pub angel?
After I resisted the startling compliment, I started seeing the angels all around me. Friends, neighbors, yoga students, classmates in the yoga class I take in Albuquerque, the woman who forgot her cane hanging on the grocery cart in Natural Grocers, the families on the street in Halloween costumes … all angels. All bearers of light.
It’s a little bit like the exercise Jack Kornfield gives in The Wise Heart for seeing the inner nobility in people, but more mysterious. I can do it with almost everyone. Almost. I can’t get there with a few people. So I’m no angel. But, y’know? In my own way, I kind of am.
The Wounded Angel painting is by Hugo Simberg, 1903. It’s the most thought-provoking and moving angel image I found.
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.
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.
The smell of rain in the desert is so special it has a name: petrichor. As moisture touches rocks and soil that have been hot and dry, they release a scent of minerals and plant oils and something else I can’t place. It’s the smell of life, I think.
When I crossed the state line from Texas into New Mexico last week it was pouring, with lightning so intense it flashed pale purple. At the same time, the last faint light of evening shifted through rain on the horizon like a pale gray aurora borealis. I parked at the rest area at Glen Rio and got out and danced in a backward spin, softly singing Michael Hearn’s lovely sweet song “New Mexico Rain,” not caring or noticing if anyone saw or heard me. It was that good to be back and to have my homecoming blessed with a storm.
Today we had a long, gentle rain, the kind the Navajos call female rain. I went running in it, on a favorite trail at Elephant Butte Lake State Park. Quails peeped, crickets chirped, and there were no other sounds but the rain, my steps and my breath. The sand was firm under my feet, the lake glowed silver-blue, and low puffs of clouds floated across the flat cone-top of an extinct volcano, making it look as if it had come back to life. The subtle greens of plants whose names I don’t know—feathery and blue-tinged, needle-like and yellow-green—glowed in the diffuse light. Wet lava rocks shone black or red as their pores soaked up the water. At each curve in the trail, the rain scent varied, mingling with juniper at times, stronger when the rain increased, fainter when it faded. Normally, I work on plot problems, writing scenes in my head as I run, but today my mind was quiet, my attention captured by sounds, textures colors and petrichor.
There’s not one special memory linked to this scent, just a sense of place. Of the earth itself within the borders that delineate New Mexico, a place where the Pueblo people are dancing for the rain. When that rain touches me, I feel as though something is released in me as well from the rocks. My heart knows who I am.
There are days that don’t promise much. Too busy. Too cold. And then there is the endless business of being human, being a body. It’s a resilient organism but it’s also vulnerable to the strangest injuries from the most random, unlikely sources. On a day like that, where will joy come from?
I was stuck having to run indoors today due to all of the above. One of my most reliable joy sources, nature, was only outside the windows. I decided to make up for it with music. Most people who like Krishna Das’s music use it for yoga, but I needed the uplift of his voice while I ran. His voice is a gift to the world, rich and warm, full of feeling. Because the songs are in Sanskrit, I don’t get lost in words, I simply respond in my heart.
The catharsis of joy mobilizes the chemistry of healing. It also broadens the spirit, touches the soul. Spirituality is hard to define, and yet when I hear this music, I know it, and sense that the singer lives it. It’s not solemn or rigorous, but full of melody and rhythm, love and life.
Listen at http://www.krishnadas.com
Have a joyful day.
I know life is made up of moments lived, not a series of goals and strivings, but I love how it feels when I get something done. Today I finished preparations for the course I’ll teach over the three-week January term. It’s hardly an adventure, more of a task, leading to a mere “phew” of satisfaction. The fun will come when I have students next week, new people with fresh ideas and thoughtful questions. I can’t have the fun, though, without the work.
With writing, the joys run backwards. Today I also finished the first satisfactory draft of the next Mae Martin mystery. I describe it that way because my writing process goes through so much ongoing revision and recycling that it’s hard to call anything a first draft. The moment of knowing that this is the plot that works and this is the ending is exhilarating, a big “yee-ha!” I dance quite a bit at this stage of writing, something I don’t do in my college office. I’m excited about revising the book, too, and sharing it with critique partners and revising it more. I even enjoy the picky details of word choice and sentence structure, of deciding what to cut and what to add, and experimenting with the best way to describe certain feelings and actions. It’s work that doesn’t feel like work, all the way to the final draft.
Getting sales and reviews is the work that feels like work. A book isn’t fully alive until it has readers, just as a planned-out college class is nothing until it has students. I have to do this work, but I look at Twitter and Facebook, trying to think of witty snippets of chat, and I shrivel. No, please, there has to be better way. My New Year’s resolution is stop whimpering and become a marketing genius without boring or annoying anyone. (That’s what would make me a genius.) I need to learn to dance with delight about filling out an advertising form, or at least look forward to the “phew” of having done it. Instead of just tweeting links, I will take up the challenge of composing something original and intriguing in 140 characters or less. Follow me on Twitter and see if I succeed. But don’t hold your breath. I’d rather be writing a hundred thousand words of fiction, or even next semester’s syllabus.