Sit Still

Permission given. You can sit perfectly still. You don’t have to do anything right now.

Ahh. A breath of relief.

This is what’s real. Being. Breathing. Seeing the patterns of light and colors, hearing the wind outside my windows, feeling my body release tension, letting the inner chatter fall away.

Yes, I have a to-do list. Appointments, commitments. Some are fun, some are just part of being a modern human in a somewhat inefficient society. But my first obligation is to my being. My stillness. My awareness.

The other day, I ran in this mind-state, attending to the sound of my steps and to the sights around me. Though I kept coming back to solving plot problems in my work in progress, I did spend more of my run noticing. As a jackrabbit ducked under a shrub, I saw the exact second that its big ears folded back to avoid the branches as it scampered. Life is full of those perfect moments, these ordinary wonders.

Without them, how can I write? Or enter all my busyness and commitments with an open heart?

 

April Dryers

What? Not April showers? Not here. Statistically, it’s driest the month in my part of New Mexico, and one of the windiest. Here’s my recipe for an April day in Sierra County, if you’d like to experience one:

Ingredients:

Grit and sand, fine enough to blow around

Pollen from elm and juniper, enough to reach an 11 or so on the 12-point pollen count scale

Add creosote bush for aroma

Mix and toss into dryer, turn heat on high, and let it blow.

Decorate with cacti and various subtly flowering spiky shrubs

It’s not a bad month. In fact, if you run a wind farm or solar installation, it may well be the best month of the year, but it’s not most people’s idea of April. Some folks would call this summer. The temperatures have hit ninety a few times, well above our normal April average of 78. On the plus side, that’s hot enough that the creosote bush smells good. The smell comes from volatile oils, primarily terpene (also found in pines), limonene (found in citrus), camphor (found in pines and rosemary), methanol (wood alcohol), and 2-undecanone (don’t ask me what that is, but it’s found spices). Creosote only breathes in the morning so it won’t lose water, but the smell comes off it in the hot afternoon. It smells better after rain, but that’s not due any time soon.

Nonetheless, things are growing. Agave plants are sending up the bizarre stalks that will eventually flower. Right now, they look like gargantuan asparagus tips. Claret cup cactus is in bloom. Green fronds are waving from the tips of mesquite branches, and a type of bush that has looked like a mass of dead black thorns all winter is covered with tiny white blossoms.

For some reason, the lizards are leaping. I’ve never noticed them doing this before. Tiny gray lizards are not only running around at their usual astounding speeds, but jumping onto rocks four or five times as high as the wee reptiles are long. It’s an impressive feat. And they have impressive feet, featuring long golden toes like little strands of straw, apparently good for clinging when they land. They seem to stop and pose so I can admire them, but they may be recovering from the leap. Springing is hard work. Pun intended.

How is spring in your part of the world?

Quack Gong

In an earlier post, I mentioned how much I love my “outdoor gym,’ the Rotary Park on the Rio Grande in T or C. Though the exercises I do there aren’t yoga but strength training with resistance bands, I still aim to bring a yogic sort of mindset to the movement, paying attention to my body and breath, and also to the world around me.

It’s amazing how busy my mind can get within a few reps of a single exercise. As a writer, I carry plots and characters in my head, and they show up and want attention. This is something I choose to invite while I run, setting a plot problem to solve in a free-flowing way, letting ideas bubble up while I turn my mind loose on the trail. With the trance-like drumbeat of running, I can get into a creative groove and stay aware of the beauty around me. There’s no steady flow during this strength workout, though, as I keep changing from one move to the next. I’m better off focusing on the scenery and on correct form in what I’m doing.

That’s where the cormorants come in. They winter here, fishing the river. Some gather on an island of matted reeds and twigs while others float. Their vocabulary is fascinating and full of surprises, from duck-like quacks to grunts, peeps, and croaks. The sounds were wild today when they announced that a blue heron had landed on their island, calling my attention to it along with each other’s. I’d been so busy inside my head that I had missed the arrival of this enormous bird.

As well as talking with each other, the cormorants dance noisily in brief arcs of foot-dragging, water-slapping flight, serving some purpose known to them but mysterious to me. I think of them as the gong in a Zen temple, interrupting my distracted mind and bringing it back to the present. The river. The mountains. A warm, sunny day and a swim of cormorants with sleek black feathers and bright yellow beaks. No need for my mind to be anywhere else.

 

Grateful for Beauty

The world we see through headlines seems to be falling apart, filled with violence and dysfunction, and ordinary life can be full of petty hassles. I need to get out in the natural world where life is more in balance than in the man-made one, and do it daily. Before the temperature goes over a hundred and after it goes down.

 The same conditions that make June in New Mexico so challenging during the day—no humidity, no clouds, hot winds clearing the sky—make it spectacular after dark. Even just standing in an alley, a short way from the streetlights, I can look up and see not only the bigger, closer stars, but the background billions and billions sparkling like a beach of diamond sand behind them.

 Heat and all, I still run, heading out while the temperature is only in the nineties. As I was about to start a run a few days ago, I encountered a grasshopper longer than my index finger. Yes, it held still and let me measure. Its head was marbled, its body striped and speckled, and it had golden antennae that looked like strands of broom straw. Beautiful, in its own buggy way. Along the trail, pearlescent gray lizards with radiant orange bands on their sides perched on rocks then ran away. Another species displayed glowing blue-green hind legs that appeared lit from within. I think it’s some kind of collared lizard or perhaps a type of earless lizard, but I couldn’t find one quite like it when I searched on web sites. Whatever it’s called, it’s a miracle. So is having vision to see to it and a mind to appreciate it. For all of this, I am grateful.

 

 

 

*****

Southwestern earless lizard photo courtesy of the New Mexico Herpetological Society.

Overfill Alarm

overfill

Taking my freshman seminar students for a mindful walking meditation excursion, I noticed things I’d never seen before. Most striking was a college van parked near the softball field, overgrown with vines. How fast did they take it over? Had the van been forgotten?

As always on such walks, I noticed the sounds: wind in leaves, the nearby river rolling softly over rocks, birds and crickets singing, and our footsteps. When we reached the park I was aiming for, one of my students found a friendly black cat and held him up. Part of the mindful condition is that we don’t talk or use phones for forty minutes. Her smile communicated all that was needed, and several of us gathered around her to pet the cat. Mindfully. Feeling the catness of the cat.felix

I watched carp in a lily pond, ducks on the river, and then crossed under a bridge to another part of the park. There, I saw a flock of birds reflected in gray water that was busy with a swarm of water-walking bugs, a moment of earth-sky-water symmetry that put my mind on pause. Pure perception uncluttered by the noise of thought.babyducks

A thin old tuxedo cat with a red collar trailed several students into a gazebo. He seemed to want human company, but unlike the black cat, he found no one to pay attention to him. When I went to pet him, the girls sitting in the gazebo were on their phones. Surrounded by nature’s beauty, free to enjoy silence, with a cat who wanted affection sitting at their feet, they were sucked into tiny screens.

On our return to campus, I stopped in front of another thing I’d never noticed before: a big yellow sign on the maintenance building that says OVERFILL ALARM. The class gathered in silence and looked at it. It was finally time to talk.

Does your brain have an overfill alarm? Do you override it and keep putting more in? What are the signs that it’s about to go off?

*****

Picture of black cat, Felix, courtesy of his owner, mystery author Sally Carpenter.

Music, Beauty, Wisdom, Bugs

Cricket_Drawing

On my last night in New Mexico for the summer, I listened to crickets as I left a Bandstand concert in Santa Fe. All of them kept the exact same beat throughout my fifteen minute walk to where I had parked my car, not single cricket out of sync with the rest. The bug music of the South is different. In Virginia at this time of year, cicadas ratchet away all day, and at night a polyphonic, polyrhythmic chorus begins. I meditate by going out on my deck, closing my eyes and deciding not to miss a note. It’s amazing how they produce this symphony by rubbing legs, or vibrating wings, or with specialized parts of their exoskeletons. Their bodies are musical instruments. (Did you know that Kokopelli, the flute player, was a bug? He’s identified with the musical cicadas but also with the stinging Robber Assassin Fly.)

The crickets here who are making all the noise are tiny, like miniaturized versions. The dragonflies are delicate creatures, too, needle thin, brilliant green, orange-red, and sky blue, sometimes flying united, two fragile bodies connected in a mating dance. When I was in Maine, on a run through the green hilly countryside, I came across a farm with a clay pit where enormous colorful dragonflies hovered over the standing water, ten times larger than their southwestern Virginia cousins, like trucks compared to motorcycles. Flame_skimmer_insect_dragonflyBlue Dragonfliy

I’m not sure why insects are so large in less hospitable climates. New Mexico bugs will surprise people who think nothing can live in the desert. Think again. There are beetles and cockroaches out there that could carry a couple of fifty-cent pieces on their backs and not break a sweat (figuratively speaking).

If you’ve read The Outlaw Women, the short story prequel to the Mae Martin series, you know that Mae is not least bit squeamish about crawly critters. When it comes to this topic, more readers may identify with her friend Jamie, who enters the series in Shaman’s Blues. He’s appalled by spiders in particular and by things with too many legs in general. Personally, I like the many-leggeds, but with a few exceptions: roaches, flies, mosquitoes, biting ants and skunk beetles. I think I’ve mentioned before that bees and wasps sometimes walk on me when I do yoga outdoors, their delicate almost weightless feet on my skin. On close inspection, they’re quite beautiful. Some of them have bright yellow legs, a classy touch like the hubcaps that match the paint job on 1950s cars.

At a yoga and meditation retreat a number of years ago, Goswami Kriyananda came in a minute or two late to give his talk. He had stopped to help a fly that was trapped between a window and the screen. He opened the window, and then the screen, and closed the glass so the fly could go outdoors. He said it kept walking around and around on the screen in the same pattern it had before he offered it its freedom. With his warm and gentle humor, he said it reminded him of humans.

Recompressing

Half-way between New Mexico and Virginia, my tire pressure goes down. It happens every year. Nothing is wrong with the tires. It’s just that I go to mechanics in Santa Fe and they make sure the pressure is normal for that altitude, and then I descend to the lowlands.

When I unpack in Virginia, I always find that my shampoo bottle and other plastic containers have collapsed inward, folding in around the empty spaces inside them. When I run, I feel the heaviness of the air—the dampness as well as the low altitude. It’s hard work, like plowing through used teabags. Talk about coming down!

It’s time to recompress. I’ll readapt to the climate, to the busyness of the academic year, and to the green campus, so conventional and normal. I’m in the transitional phase, now though. I miss the colors and textures of the desert, the people in T or C, the eccentric personality of the town itself, the spaciousness of my life there and all the open space around it—so delightfully situated in the middle of nowhere. The challenge now is stay spacious inside when my surroundings aren’t, and as external demands become like the air, an unseen weight leaning on me. I did yoga on my back deck today, and two tiny bees sat peacefully on my shoulder through several poses. I was grateful to have this practice of active mindfulness. It left me feeling whole and bright. My outer life has to recompress, but my soul doesn’t.

Bat Medicine

640px-Free-tailed_bats

On a recent evening, I walked to the wetland at the edge of the Rio Grande for the bat-rise at sunset, the silent dance of dark forms against the golden sky, and remembered that I’d written about it a few years ago. I let the bats swoop around me and silence my mind into clarity for a while, and then came back and found that old post. The bats are still sacred and healing to me, so here it is again.

*****

I began re-reading Linda Hogan’s book of essays Dwellings and Michael Harner’s The Way of the Shaman at the same time. This pairing of readings couldn’t be more dissimilar in style, content and purpose. I finished the latter book quickly, but took my time with the first. It’s too beautiful to hurry through.

Poet and novelist Hogan, a member of the Chickasaw tribe, writes of the spirituality inherent in the natural world. Her insights into the relationships between living creatures and our own souls is anchored in places and in specific experiences—going to hot springs in a cave, or working at a bird sanctuary. She doesn’t write about animals or the earth in general, but this piece of earth, this particular sunflower, this colony of mud-building bees. When she cites other writers, often scientists, she finds passages so beautiful they flow into her own essays like the breath of the same breeze. Her topics range from wolves, to the Amazon rainforest, to the life cycle of water and rock, to the deeper meaning of ape language experiments, and more.

These essays wake the reader up to the aliveness of every moment, as the author hears the song of corn, or discovers the liquid, graceful, wing-wrapped mating of two bats she rescued from their fall back into hibernation in a sudden spring chill. “I put them in a warm corner outside, nestled safe in dry leaves and straw. I looked at them several times a day. Their fur, in the springtime, was misted with dewy rain. They mated for three days in the moldering leaves and fertile earth, moving together … then apart, like reflections on a mirror, a four-chambered black heart beating inside the closed tissue of wings.”

In addition to this subtle observation of their beauty, she sees the bats from a Native spiritual perspective. “The bat people are said to live in the first circle of holiness. Thus, they are intermediaries between our world and the next. Hearing the chants of all life around them, they are listeners who pass on the language and songs of many things to human beings who need wisdom, healing and guidance in our lives, we who forget where we stand in the world.”

This forgetting where we stand is Hogan’s theme. We need to heal ourselves back into what she refers to in her novel Power as “the real human beings”. If you love language, you will love this book, and you may come away from it loving every living creature, every crack in a rock, every sound when the wind blows, as if you had never seen and heard and known them before. I hope you will, like I did, love this book so much you want to read it again and again.

Harner’s book is almost the opposite of Hogan’s. An anthropologist turned shamanic trainer, he does his best to distill the essence of shamanism into a kind of how-to book for modern people. After an introductory chapter in which he tells of his studies with the Jivaro tribe, he intentionally presents shamanism divested of culture, land, language and tradition. Even the animals are not real creatures that walk the earth and breathe and live their lives, but animal spirits, guardians and guides for humans, and plants are also their spirit essence, for use in healing humans.

His citations are dense and thickly strewn, sometimes without any background on the culture or lives of people he is citing. That, however, is his point. This is shamanism as modern medicine, a world-wide range of healing traditions pared down to their “active ingredients.” Shamans from Australia to North America use quartz crystals, drums, rattles and dances. Shamans all over the world take journeys to find knowledge, and have power relationships with animal spirits. He turns these elements into a kind of recipe for being a shaman. Maybe it works for some people, but for me the best parts of this book are the direct quotations from real shamans such as the “sucking doctor” Essie Parrish, rather than the parts about modern Americans “dancing their animals.”

Compared to my experience of traditional ceremonies, or even to running outdoors, or dreaming, neo-shamanism feels incomplete, but then I wasn’t reading with the intention of putting it into practice. I had read the book before and gone to a workshop with Harner at an alternative therapies conference years ago, and already knew I wasn’t going to use this for spiritual guidance. It was research for a novel, Soul Loss, in which one character is a teacher of neo-shamanism—not based on Harner himself, only on the kind of practice that he teaches—and I needed to refresh my recollections.

I dreamed once that I turned into a bat. In this form I flew though the dome of an art gallery and then descended to the bottom floor as the blue outline of bat, a bat made of twilight sky. In Truth or Consequences, I like to walk down to the Rio Grande at that low blue time of evening in the summer and let the bats surround me at the edge of the little wetland where redwing blackbirds sing by day. While the bats dance for bugs, I can stand in the midst of them, and they swoop close without ever touching me, perfectly aware in their busy flight, flawless pilots of their world of sound. To me the animals themselves feel more sacred than a journey to find my “power animal.” This bat immersion is the bat medicine I need.