Hugging a Wasp and Other Encounters

I walked the road along the Rio Grande, going well past the areas where people fish or put in rafts, far enough to be alone with the cliffs, the cacti, and the red-winged blackbirds in the shrubs on the bank. A huge blue heron flew low over the center of the river, gliding upstream. A jackrabbit on the opposite bank crept down to drink. The shared silence felt special. I was at peace. The rabbit was at peace.

The rainbow-like greater earless lizards are one of the many beauties of Elephant Butte Lake State Park. There’s one who lives under a certain juniper at a bend in the trail where I run. She was pink-sided earlier, and now she isn’t, meaning she has laid her eggs. Now she’s just green and orange. I look forward to seeing her on her favorite rock when the temperature is in the eighties and low nineties, and she needs to warm up, holding still as I slow down to admire her.

I spotted another of this species standing upright on its hind legs near an empty campground, front feet on a flat-topped pink rock that was perfectly scaled to be a little bar for lizards. It looked so much like it was ordering a beer, I wished I had a camera. Not that I would go running with a camera, but it would have made a wonderful picture.

While picking figs outside my apartment, I accidentally cupped my hand around a small delicate body. A wasp. Not the kind that crawls inside a fig to lay eggs, but the kind that stops by to eat after the birds have carved holes in the fruit. They’re a stunning variation on the theme of wasp, adobe brown with yellow stripes and geometric designs on their backs. They remind me of some pottery ornaments I bought years ago at a Pueblo corn dance as gifts for my family. It didn’t react to my touch, and I let go, surprised by its gentleness.

All quail family encounters are aww-inspiring. The chicks are SO tiny and so numerous, running to keep up with their parents.

And then, there were the coyotes. One crossed my path in the desert, looking back at me. Then another, paying me no mind. The lack of people in the park may be making them feel free to roam their territory in ways they wouldn’t in a normal year. They’re such a rare sighting, especially in the middle of a summer day, I took them as a sign. Not that they were there for me, of course.

I perceive these various creatures—in my human way—as cute, beautiful, or meaningful. We’re connected in the web of life, and my spirit needs them. But none of them are there for me. That’s part of the magic of wild things.

Boredom? Free Time? What’s That?

Occasionally people have asked me—from six feet or more away, outdoors, of course—if I’m bored yet. My answer: I’m a writer. I’m never bored.

I’m wrapping up another major revision of the eighth Mae Martin Psychic Mystery, but I haven’t had as much time to work on it as I expected. With all “close contact” businesses in New Mexico still closed—and that includes fitness facilities like yoga studios—I should have free time. I’m not taking classes in Albuquerque or teaching classes here in Truth or Consequences. My new running route, a dirt road along the Rio Grande, is two tenths of a mile from my apartment. I don’t drive to Elephant Butte to run in the still-closed state park. I love this road—the river, blue herons, red-winged blackbirds, butterflies, a few blooming cacti, and some unknown plant that smells crisp and green. A dirt road in the windy season delivers occasional little dust storms, but I can’t complain. It’s flat, so I can run without reinjuring myself, and it couldn’t be more convenient.

The time suck is laundry. I live in a tiny apartment. I often rented places this size when I was a professor spending summer vacations in Truth or Consequences, and I realized all I actually needed was two rooms and a bath, not my two-story, two-bedroom townhouse, so when I retired and moved, I downsized. The lack of laundry hookups or space for machines was only a minor issue. After all, I could do a week’s laundry all at once at the laundromat, bring my exercise tubing, and go outside to work out while giant machines did their jobs.

Then, this spring, the laundromat became stressful. Sanitizing the machines and the laundry carts. Asking people to stay six feet away and getting dirty looks for it. I ordered two little gadgets that are life-savers. But they aren’t time savers. The hand-cranked Wonder Wash holds about five pounds of laundry. I have practically no counter space next to the sink, so I have to put it in the (very small) shower, kneel on a towel on the floor to crank right-handed, then get behind it in the shower and do a kind of half squat and crank left-handed to make it churn the other way. Two minutes for a wash, a minute per rinse. Two rinses. Sounds quick, but there’s the filling, the draining, and the wringing between rinses. Then I carry the wet clothes to the electric spin dryer in the living room. It whirls them at amazing speeds and flings the water out with centrifugal force to drain into a plastic tray under its spout. This takes two to four minutes, and again, that sounds quick. But I have to wipe the washer dry and store it behind the sofa, empty the spin dryer’s drain tray, and hang up my laundry without a clothes line. The whole process takes at least an hour per load. Small items drape on the edge of the clothes baskets. Larger items go on hangers on the shower rod. Sheets get folded in four lengthwise, clipped to pants hangers, dried with a fan, then folded with the other side out, fan-dried again, and then refolded yet again with yet another area on the outside. Towels the next day, clothing the next, a day off, and then I have to do more laundry. Five pounds at a time.

My thumb muscles are sore. My upper back and shoulder muscles are sore—and I’ve been doing yoga daily and lifting weights three times a week for decades. I’m still working out while I do my laundry, but it’s not as easy—the workout or the laundry. Amazing. Think how fit our great grandmothers must have been doing the wash for a whole household.

Every time I put away a set of clean, dry sheets and pillowcases, I feel a sense of accomplishment. I did it myself, at home, without sharing respiratory droplets in an enclosed space with other people.

And now, finally, I can sit down and write.

*****

Red-winged blackbird photo by Sarah Stierch

Note: I provided links to the products I discussed so you could see pictures, but they’ve been in such demand they’re sold out.

The Cactus Patch, Feral Furniture, and Patience

On a ninety-seven degree day with nineteen miles-per-hour wind, I had to run—well, jog, really—straight into the wind up the steep hill to reach my new favorite trail. And it was worth it. The rare little hedgehog cacti were displaying their last two blooms of the year. There are only three of these plants in the whole area where I’ve been running. Not a close family, they grow a foot or two apart. Their trunks are egg-shaped with starry thorn clusters, and they explode with big hot pink flowers that each stay open one day. The first time I rounded a bend and saw blossom number one, I gasped in awe and stopped. I looked deep in the cup of the flower to see something round and yellow bobbing and wriggling among the fluffy stamens. The hind end of a bee.

The rest of the desert is full of yellow flowers, the creosote bushes waving golden petals in the wind, and below them the low-growing purple prickly pear, also called a purple pancake cactus, is flowering as well. It looks like a mean little plant until it blooms. The pads can be purple, green with purple edges or green that looks as if it’s coated with purple, and sometimes the plant will sprout a single bright green pad. The thorns are long and sharp,  capable of penetrating the human toe quite efficiently. The buds are pink, but they open yellow with pink-orange centers or streaks. There were so many, when I closed my eyes in the shower after my run I kept seeing them, a sea of pale yellow flowers on a background of prickly purple.

I’m glad I saw so much beauty that day, because climbing the hill for weeks has reawakened an old injury which is quite literally a pain in the backside, so I have to stick to for flat ground for a while.

Unpaved flatness is hard to find. I tried a neighbor’s recommendation: the cemetery. It is flat, and has a dirt road and nice views of mountains in the distance, but the gate has huge signs on either side announcing that this is a Known Rattlesnake Area, warning visitors to use great care. I chose to run laps of an open green space where there are not yet any burials. I saw no snakes there, but ran over so many goatheads the soles of my shoes felt like Velcro on the grass. So I plucked them and switched to the dirt road on the side away from the main burial area. This offered windblown dust and flying goatheads—really—scratching my legs. I even got one stuck in my thigh. Easy to pull out, but still, this is not my favorite running spot so far. A few people visiting their loved ones’ graves must have thought me a bit weird, but surely, there’s at least one runner buried there. Someone whose spirit understood.

My next flat-ground attempt was a dirt road that goes from one of the residential streets in my neighborhood to the area behind (how lovely) the sewage treatment plant. I haven’t smelled the facility so far, and getting there is pleasant. I pass a friend’s house and see her positive-energy fence signs and window signs, such as “Mask your face, not your heart.” I even encountered her once for a distant air-hug and conversation.

Scenery along the dirt road is so-so. The scrabbly dirt side of hill I’m avoiding is at the end of the road. You have to be on top of it to see the cactus patch, so this view is not floral. On one side of the road are the backs of a few houses, including one with some huge prickly pears that have poppy-like orange flowers. On the other side is an area of brush, bare dirt, and weeds that looks as if it was cleared once and is now overgrown. Facing a patch of dirt sits a single off-white folding chair, suggesting someone chose to sit and contemplate this inhospitable spot. My friend Donna Catterick, the photographer whose work is on the covers of Death Omen, Shadow Family and Small Awakenings, calls such sightings feral furniture. The cover of Small Awakenings, my book of reflective essays, features a feral chair. (The feral recliner at the bottom of this post is another one of Donna’s photos.)

I met a birdwatcher on my second run on this route—from the recommended twelve feet apart while exercising—and wondered if that was his chair.

I also met a beautiful snake from an even greater distance. It was orange with black stripes that diminished to mere spots toward its rattle-less tail. I looked it up later and concluded it might have been a ground snake, possessed of mildly toxic saliva. Does anyone else think ground snake is an odd name? All the snakes I’ve ever seen were on the ground.

My third time down that road, I was pain-free and happy for many laps, and then I tripped on a rock. I didn’t fall. No, I caught my balance with an instinctive and intense effort of the injured muscles, and learned how much strength it takes to keep your balance, how hard you work in a fraction of a second of not falling down. Needless to say, the old injury revived with a vengeance.

Perhaps I will have to heal where I can’t even trip. Inactivity is its own kind of injury, though, and I need to see nature, so I guess I’ll be walking on pavement for a while. Dancing in my apartment when I need variety. Practicing yoga as if I were my own student with an injury. I can’t rush the process or I won’t heal at all. 

 

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

Cold Day Run

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.

 

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.

Relief and other updates

The relief feels wonderful and yet disorienting. It’s hard to adapt. I have my life back. Book seven in the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series, Shadow Family, is with my editor now. I sent it off last night—actually, at around 3:30 in the morning. I know my editor will be sending me sections to revise, but today, I can think about the next book. I can even write a blog post.

Relief came with rain as well. September is still summer, the grand finale of the monsoon season, with temperatures in the eighties, cooler than August by a long shot. It’s rained three times—one drizzle, one thunderstorm with hail and two inches of rain in two hours, and one nice steady all-night rain. Wow! The jewel-colored greater earless lizards need to sunbathe and get warm. When it’s cloudy, they hug the rocks with their wee limbs, seeking every last bit of sunbaked heat from the surface. The baby lizards are out, flawless miniatures of the adults, no bigger than a bug with a tail. I marvel at their toes, and at their orange stripes and green legs, their little eyes blinking up at me. Desert plants are in bloom, yellow chamisa and something purple—maybe some kind of sage. And with all the rain, Turtleback Mountain is more green than red.

The other night I went for a walk with a friend and his dog, hoping to see bats over the wetland by the river, but it was too windy for them. As we were leaving Rotary Park, which is right on the Rio Grande, a coyote started yipping and singing on the bank directly below where we’d been standing a minute earlier while my friend took a dead bird away from his dog. The dog, strangely, wasn’t interested in the coyote, only the dead bird. A whole coyote chorus started across the river as the one on our side would sing and the others would answer. The dog still didn’t care.

White rabbit update. First, her former owner said he only had females, so I’m now calling her “she.” Second, she’s been chased by dogs and by a cat, and someone sprayed weed killer on all the plants she used to nibble on in the yard of the empty trailer across the alley. Fortunately, she finds shelter in our yard. I decided to feed her nightly after all, because I’m going to try a new way to catch her. Her future owners brought a live trap, and we baited it with sliced pears and fresh greens. It may be shocking for her to go to her usual buffet and have a door close behind her, but she’ll escape predators and poisons to be loved and petted. And then it’ll be her turn be relieved. If all goes well, her new owner will show her in the county fair. Because she is so beautiful.

 

Snake Appreciation Day

My first sighting, finally, after years of running in the New Mexico desert. A sunny day turned suddenly cool and cloudy, which must be what made this normally nocturnal creature stir.* I slowed down to let the snake cross the trail and go wherever it was going. What an amazing design. Such graceful motion. It was plain gray, not a speckle (or a rattle) to decorate its slender form. Perfectly silent, it disappeared under a bush with its gentle undulations. I crept past the bush, sneaking a look under it. No snake. I didn’t expect it would have stayed. They’re shy, after all.

As I resumed my run, I marveled at the snakeness of the snake, its directness and simplicity. There I was with how many bones in each foot, moving from one set of tarsals, metatarsals and phalanges to the other, using how many muscles in each leg and hip, with hinge joints and ball-and-socket joints in motion, postural muscles at work … I had to ask myself …

Whose locomotion shows more art?

I have so many moving parts.

But Snake can get along just fine

While being nothing but a spine.

*****

*I looked it up and concluded it was a ringneck snake. They are colored like a gray suit with a bow-tie and are rarely seen during the day. Wikipedia describes them as “dainty and inoffensive.”