Listening silences my inner noise. Running on a winter afternoon, I hear my feet. The sound- textures change from hard slapping on dried-mud clay to near-inaudible thudding on soft dust and sand to crunching on gravel and pebbles. A crow caws in flight. A flock of doves rises from the desert brush with alarm calls as fluttery as the rush of their wings. Hikers converse in amiable tones, too distant for me to make out their words. Rather, I receive their voices as part of the music, harmonizing with the cheep of a solitary bird, the hum of something mechanical at the New Mexico Veterans’ Home on the hill above the trails, and the crow of a rooster somewhere across the Rio Grande.
Listening seems to sharpen my vision, enhancing my inner stillness and conscious presence. The light behind cacti brings out gold in the thorns on tall green prickly pears and red in the thorns on little purple pancake cacti. Their flat purple pads soak up the light. A female desert cardinal is little more than silhouette in a mesquite tree. Each pebble stands out like a sculpture. Each crevice in the now-dry rain-cut earth is wrinkled with deep shadows.
Thoughts slip in, but I let them go and come back to listening and light.
Someone rearranged the collapsed mini-Stonehenge at Elephant Butte Lake into a spiral. Each rock seemed mindfully chosen for its shape, its size, and its colors in relation to the other rocks. At the end of the spiral was a kind of temple, an arch of precisely balanced stones, and then a little offering of green juniper, old wood, and pebbles that reminded me of the flower arrangement at a tea ceremony. Simple, natural, inviting of contemplation.
When I walk the spiral, I am aware of other footprints, someone else’s slow, reverent steps arriving, stopping, and returning outward. I see the bubbles and tubes of the lava rocks, hear my steps on the sand. And nothing else. I arrive at the center and arrive at silence. I return outward, past the smaller and smaller stones tapering out into open space.
The arch fell. The offering blew away. I arranged the remains in a stable position. And walked the spiral again.
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.
Dark humor. Dark moods. Dark and stormy nights. As a night person, I feel that darkness is underestimated. There’s soothing, sacred darkness. Darkness that makes us see.
This week, we had one of those brief, random power outages that strikes Truth or Consequences a few times a year. No light from anything but the night sky crept through my windows. The neighborhood was perfectly silent. I found my one candle and a small LED flashlight. My old flip phone made a good flashlight, too. The lack of brightness was peaceful. I had to move slowly, paying attention. With less stimulation, my mind eased into a softer place. A shower by candlelight was calming. When I turned on my new smartphone to call in the outage (in case hundreds of other people hadn’t already done so), the light was glaring and disagreeable. I was glad to turn it off.
Darkness shone a light.
The purple asters in the yard of my apartment building are as tall as I am and full of pollinators. I invited a neighbor to admire the pollen party. The guests were four kinds of bees—big furry bumblebees, honeybees, tiny bright green bees, and one enormous black bee with iridescent wings—and three kinds of butterflies. Though I’ve seen other species, this day’s visitors were a Western Pygmy Blue (the world’s smallest), a green butterfly with yellow spots on its wings, and a black one with white trim. In a ceaseless and seemingly random dance of wings and petals vibrating, they changed flowers and sought nectar again.
My neighbor and I became entranced, neither of ready to move on. He said, “They’re so busy, I feel a sense of accomplishment just watching them.” I said I felt the opposite way, that I was doing nothing at all but watching bees.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.