Lessons from the World’s Smallest Butterfly

Have you ever seen a Western Pygmy Blue? They aren’t rare or endangered. In fact, they’re all over the map, north to south, wherever there’s desert habitat that suits them. But they’re hard to notice. It’s easy to walk past the flutter of such small wings and not realize whose wings they are unless they arrive in a flock.

The yard of my apartment building has been honored with a little flock. One of my neighbors and I get wrapped up in gazing at them, the exquisite patterns on the tiny wings, the mingled flight as all the butterflies rise and flutter and change flowers, as if a square dance caller had directed a new part of the dance.

They remind me not to overlook small wonders. The scent of purple sage in bloom. A baby greater earless lizard with perfect little orange forelegs. The silver fuzz on green creosote berries. Breath. Movement. Friendship. Another day of being alive, connected, and grateful.

Image source: https://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/sighting_details/1236172

Any Day Can Be a New Beginning

It doesn’t have to be a birthday, a new year, or an anniversary. It can be any random day. There’s no perfect time, so all times are good. A new beginning may be as simple as rediscovering how it feels to stand straighter, to move more mindfully, noticing the scents of desert flowers, the sounds of birds, and a breeze’s breath.

My past is truly past, including the part I imagined would also be my future. But my present life, if I let go of what I thought it would be, is beautiful. Change has found me, and that frees me to seek it more.

 

A Day Outside of Time

Tuesday July 21, as I was leaving Las Cruces, one of those big highway signs with electronic lettering said “7/21/21 Time Begins.” It looked ominous. Usually, they say things like “get vaccinated and you could win the lottery,” or “construction at exit such and such.” After that strange announcement, I was happy to get a Day Outside of Time. The opening prompt in my online writers’ group the following Sunday said July 25 is an extra day in the Mayan calendar. There are thirteen moons, so the 365th day is outside of time.

I literally ran with that idea, alone in the beauty of the desert, allowing my mind to be unconstrained by past or future, by any sense of time pressing on me from one side or the other. Nothing impending or demanding. To be free, I didn’t have to run off on some great adventure, because the moment was the adventure.

When I got home, I realized I hadn’t walked down to the Rio Grande lately. The river looked like a long, fast-flowing mud puddle after recent monsoons. I stood at the edge. Strands and wreaths of desert willow branches floated past, green and flexible, torn off by wind and water. Time and thought are the branches. The present moment is the river. Beyond that, the mountain. Steady. Tadasana.

I walked home past the “cat house,” a trailer that houses a cat colony—at least in the yard. (I don’t know if they have indoor access.) Someone feeds them. Among them are two unusual and beautiful cats I plan to use as feline characters in a future book. They were snuggling and sunbathing with their friends. Animals always have all days outside of time.

 

Checkered Present

Now that I have more social and community interactions, I have new kinds of noise in my head. Did I say something awkward? Did I listen well? Did I lose my social skills over a year of seeing only a few people, usually one at a time, outdoors?

I came through the front gate after a day of “peopling,” as I’ve heard it called, when movement on the far side of the yard snagged my attention. A lizard was heading my way. All the inner chatter stopped. So did my movement. The animal scurried to a spot of shade a few inches from my feet and angled its head up to examine me. And I examined it—a good-sized checkered whiptail with a dark-and light pattern on its legs and body fading into tiny, delicate squares on its tail. We held eye contact until I moved my head to get a better look, and the lizard sped off to another patch of shade. In our brief encounter, it had done me a service. Popping the thought bubble with present-moment awareness.

Reentering

I heard the term “post-traumatic growth” in a segment on NPR in which listeners asked questions of mental health experts, discussing lessons learned over a year of semi-isolation, loss, and change. Some were profound, others funny. One listener worried about getting back into social circulation after being fully vaccinated, afraid he had become unable to make small talk. One of the experts asked, do we need to get small talk back? I laughed, because I’d had the same concern—even though I’ve always been good at it.

Other thoughts on going back into the world:

Some friendships have stayed solid despite distance, while others faded. Those flowers were ready to drop their petals.

Hugging again was less of a big deal than I thought it would be. Good, meaningful, but not soul-shaking. Sort of like the rain today. It was refreshing and beautiful, but not a storm. I’m happy to resume real hugs with real friends, but I don’t want to receive exuberant but empty hugs from people I don’t feel close to, the contact equivalent of small talk. (Especially if they wear a lot of scent.) Touch means more than it used to, and so does my personal space.

Free time means more than it used to. I’ve had less of it during the pandemic, as I committed to more groups and more Zoom meetings. Today I declined to attend a meeting. I’ll still support that group, but I just couldn’t make them a priority today. I was out in the world, doing ordinary things I hadn’t done for so long they seemed special.

Like the rain. So rare, every drop is cherished miracle. Ordinary life is now a cherished miracle. And a changed one.

Green and Present

For a year, I’ve been making few plans and not giving much thought to what I was doing without. When I got my vaccine appointment, though, I began to think about the future. Then my appointment was rescheduled for a week and a half later, and this brought me back to the present. It’s better than leaning too far ahead. More peaceful. The future will still come.

On a typical spring day, I tried to squeeze in a run at Elephant Butte Lake before the wind kicked up. The lake was blue, the sand staying in place on the ground, the sun warm—and then the blowing started. At one point, the flying grit was so thick I had stop and turn my back to the wind. I couldn’t see, could hardly move forward, and the sand was stinging my skin. In a few minutes, it eased enough that I could proceed, grateful for a visor and for wrap-around sun goggles, and the view was stunning. The wind made the water appear bright green, whipped into miniature whitecaps. Thin clouds of white sand streaked over the surface. I was still being pelted, but even a dirt storm has its moments of beauty.

When I got home, I discovered new greening on the fig tree. Its first leaves had unfurled, tiny but thick and sturdy, and a few velvety, bead-sized green figs had popped out. Later, the fruits will flower inside their skins, and little wasps will somehow slip in and pollinate, unseen by human eyes.

A few weeks ago, my friend Bob loaned me his copy of Tales from the Tao: The Wisdom of Taoist Masters. As I walked home with it, honored by the surprise, I opened the book randomly and came across this passage from Lao Tzu.

Without going out your door,

You can know the whole world.

Without looking through your window,

You can see the Tao of Heaven.

 

Moments

In Jon Kabat-Zinn’s classic on mindfulness, Full Catastrophe Living, he quotes an elderly woman reminiscing. I can’t find my copy of it to cite the passage precisely, but she says something along the lines of, “Oh, I’ve had my moments. And if I had it to do over again, I’d have more of them. Because that’s all we have, really. Moments.”

Writing this made me stop and perceive my apartment in a new way. There’s no sound but the faint hum of the humidifier gently battling the total dehydration that is April in New Mexico. I look at my furniture, the quality of early evening light—all beautiful for being so ordinary.

Despite the shrivelingly-low humidity and frequent high winds, the desert smells like flowers. I can’t figure out which ones produce the scent, but I run through it in delight. Tiny yellow flowers grow wherever they can, in hard soil, in dust, in pavement, between rocks. Creosote bushes and claret cup cacti are blooming.

One day on my run, I noticed a peculiar shadow in motion near me and looked up to see a trio of huge black shiny bees flying in a sloppy little V. Another day, another trio. A bee-o. My inner Dr. Seuss can’t help rhyming this: Big black bees/ fly in threes.

I took my car out for her weekly workout to keep her battery charged. I drove her to a trail just outside of Elephant Butte Lake State Park, as close to my beloved park as I could get while it’s closed, and took a walk to see if it was a potential running trail. It wasn’t—too much lose gravel and then extremely soft sand—but it was a lovely walk. The deep soft sandy part of the trail was partially overgrown with flowers I’ve never seen before, purple clusters that sometimes curl over like fiddlehead ferns. The unique landscape of Elephant Butte is quite different from Truth or Consequences, just a few miles away. More gray rocks than red. More twisted, shaggy-barked junipers, fewer creosote bushes. Greater earless lizards rather than checkered whiptails. Sand rather than dust and dirt. The trail dropped off sharply into a dry arroyo, and I turned around, content with my exploration

On the days I would normally teach yoga, I’ve been doing my practice as if teaching, talking to myself with the cues I would give students, treating my own need for alignment , relaxation, and engagement as those of a student I was observing. It sounds crazy, but it makes me pay full attention. I can’t think about anything but the moment, as my body and my words meet in my focused awareness.

After today’s yoga immersion, I gazed out my screen door at the waving, rustling green leaves at the top of the tree that invaded our water line back in February. It’s a beautiful tree. And I have water.

*****

The entire Mae Martin Series is currently discounted. Book one, The Calling is free and will be through June 13. Shaman’s Blues is 99 cents through the end of April. The other books are $2.99, and when the promotions end, the first two books will be only $2.99 for the rest of the summer.

Exploring My New Normal

I’m grateful for so much open space and beauty around me. It means I can still get out and run while doing some extreme social distancing. One new trail I’ve tried is steeper and rockier than anything I’ve run in years. It reminds me of places I used to run decades ago. Since I’m decades older, I told myself I had to find a safer way up the hill, one that didn’t involve a narrow path of loose gravel on the edge of a cliff. The hospital doesn’t need some crazy old runner full of cactus thorns coming in with a broken leg. Nor do I need to be that person.
I never saw the better route until the day I determined I would find one. Then suddenly, it was in plain view. All I’d seen before was the marked trail, but this other one was always there. Still steep, but not on a cliff side, and not so unstable underfoot. Funny what we can perceive when we open our views to alternate options.

I’ve modified where I go once I climb the hill as well, deviating onto the trails used by off-highway vehicles—trails I also failed to perceive until I realized I needed them. I’ve never been a fan of OHVs, but for now, I’m grateful they made the tracks—softer and wider than the hiking trail, and utterly random. They don’t go from point A to point B like the marked trail. They zigzag, loop, meet in sharp Y intersections, or turn into dead ends, giving me the sense of being in a desert maze. I can run with no goal and no sense of time, on and off the OHV tracks and the hiking trail, avoiding the stretches that are potential ankle-sprainers. I found a kind of rough amphitheater where I think the OHV people may play in mud when it rains. For me it was liberating and unconfined, a place where I could sprint in circles.

With so many surprises and no familiarity with the terrain, I can’t get lost in thought. I can only be present to the act of running and the earth under my feet, dodging the little bonsai-like creosote bushes popping up in the track, daring to look up now and then at the view of Turtleback Mountain.

By the time I got home from my first no-destination run, everything seemed brighter and also quieter. I stretched in the courtyard of the apartment building and then sat on a bench, in awe of the sky, the cooing doves, and the wild mustard taking over the yard with its slender, swaying stalks and yellow flowers. It’s a weed. Doves are nuisance birds we try to chase away. But I was in a state of suspended judgment, aware and immersed, with no likes or dislikes, only life and light.

Vacation Mind

On a sunny, sixty-degree day, the kind that tourists from cold places come here to enjoy, I asked myself, how would I feel, think, and act if I was on vacation?

Truth or Consequences used to be my vacation destination. As a full-time resident, I do the same things I did as a summer visitor. I live in a smaller, simpler space than I did back in Virginia. I soak in hot springs, run in the desert at Elephant Butte Lake State Park, I write, I go to Albuquerque to study yoga, I hang out with friends … It’s the same life, only busier.

I have a schedule. Teaching yoga three days a week is not what anyone could call a full schedule, though it does limit my spontaneity. I’m more involved in the community. I know more people. But the biggest difference is my mindset. I don’t feel the looming return to the academic calendar reminding me to make the most of my freedom. So I don’t.

I let my head get cluttered. After I encountered a number of vacationers hiking the trail where I ran yesterday, I switched to vacation mind, appreciating the moment as if I might have to leave any day. Wow. Isn’t this amazing? It’s so warm. The sky is so bright. The lake is so still and blue. I noticed the light striking one of the bare, rocky hills on the shore making it look golden, though the land in Elephant Butte is basically gray, and how the dried blossoms atop a yucca stalk held their bell shapes months after their blooming ended.

While I stretched at the playground, a spider web glinting in the sun caught my attention, its near-invisible threads turning iridescent. The weaver, a tiny dirt-beige spider with red-striped legs and two rows of dots down its back, clung to a green metal ladder on the play structure.

Yellow stripey things—bees or wasps, I’m not sure which—nuzzled around my ankles and inspected me. I rolled my pants legs tight so the inspections wouldn’t go wrong. Their soft buzzing was the only sound.

Spaciousness. Present moment. Vacation mind

Disconnect

Snowbirds visiting southern New Mexico are showing up on the desert trails where I run. I’ve noticed some of them are still plugged in. Sitting on a bench staring down into a phone. Walking with earbuds in or with music playing aloud. Sitting on a rock under a juniper tree with talk radio crushing the silence.

Their avoidance of the unbroken experience of nature makes me pay more attention to it. On a cloudless blue day, it was so quiet I could detect the soft sound of the breeze across my ears and the flutter of a quail taking flight. After a wonderfully long and heavy rain, the sandscape was dramatically repainted in soft, curving streaks of beige and brown where new rivulets had run to the lake. There was even a little mud. Not to mention deer tracks, a roadrunner, and a jackrabbit.

On a warm day, I even spied a few snake tracks. They like the sun as much the human visitors do.

Given the choice to disconnect from something, I’d choose the phone.