Green Earth

Alone in a wild place, I gradually began to sense to earth as a living being, a relative. Like us, she breathes and has fluids and bones. We have our microbiome; she has us and our fellow creatures.

The wild place where I stood, the dirt dam road at Elephant Butte, isn’t entirely wild. The road is paved, though no vehicles have been allowed on it for years. You’re greeted by a sign that warns you to do no damage, because this is property of the United States. (It’s Bureau of Reclamation land.) People respect that sign. There’s no trash. Everywhere else around here, litter abounds, but those who walk the dirt dam road honor it. Maybe the sign reminds visitors that we the people are the owners. Or perhaps those who come there are a special breed, the seekers of silent, isolated places.

The earth along the road has a green tone, shifting from gray-green to yellow-green. The vegetation is sparse: tiny stubborn, ground-hugging white flowers, cacti with inch-long thorns, spiky shrubs, and brown grasses. The space between them looks alive because of the green dirt. Pink and purple rocks glow against it, pebbles that might look dull in another setting seeming as bright as jewels.

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Contrast

Tourists were cycling in shorts and sleeveless tank tops today. I could tell they were “from away” (a wonderful phrase I picked up in Maine) not only because they were clad for summer in January, but because they wore actual bike shorts—and helmets. A local cyclist is more likely to ride in jeans and have long gray hair flowing out from under a ball cap, while dangling a grocery bag from one hand or pulling some sort of wagon with his dog in it.

Another tourist I saw today, a man with cropped silver hair, was sunbathing shirtless outside his camper at the lake. No hat. No sunglasses. Getting a tan, of all things. I didn’t think anyone did that anymore, but if you’re from some snowbound Northern state, it might be hard to resist a sunny, fifty-seven degree day in the desert. Meanwhile, I was wearing long pants, two layers of shirts, gloves, a visor hat, wrap-around goggles, and sunscreen.

I enjoy winter here in southern New Mexico, but its beauty is familiar. If I imagine what this day would have felt like should I have been suddenly transported here the year I had a job in Maine, and the snowbanks were as tall as I was, I’d have thought I’d gone to heaven. Back then, I walked to work wrapped in a windproof snowsuit, taking cautious steps on perpetually icy sidewalks. I know I don’t live in paradise. Our community has its problems, and we need rain the way those half-naked Northerners need sun. It’s good to see them. They remind me to appreciate the ordinary and to realize it’s actually extraordinary.

A New Mexico Mystery Review: Zia Summer by Rudolfo Anaya

A mystery with many layers, the first of Anaya’s Sonny Baca novels is crime fiction and also literary fiction with mythical depths. At one level, it’s the story of a young private detective’s search for his cousin’s killer; at the other level, it’s the story of his spiritual development and reconnection with his traditional culture and his ancestors. The story also reflects on the ecological and ethical challenges facing New Mexico as some seek to develop it and others to preserve and protect it. The sacredness of earth, sun and water, and their spiritual place in human hearts, is as important as the question of who committed the crime, and even inseparable from it.

Sonny Baca, great grandson of the famous Elefgo Baca, is—like his bisabuelo—a flawed hero. Sonny is still maturing as a man and in his profession, learning from his mistakes, but at the same time he’s smart, perceptive, and courageous, and he thinks a lot about both the world around him and the struggles within him. For a reader used to the pace of most crime fiction, this occasional descent into deep wells of thought may feel digressive, but Sonny’s insights are part of the story. Most of the time, the pace is intense and the story flies along.

One way Anaya sustains the flow is that he never translates or explains the Spanish words and phrases his characters sprinkle throughout their conversation. This not only kept the pace and the authenticity, but taught me. I began to understand them as I read. (If you’re not a Spanish speaker, notice how you figured out bisabuelo already.)

Though they have full personalities, there’s an archetypal quality to the characters. Sonny’s neighbor don Eliseo is the Wise Old Man, human and believable, not idealized. His spirituality is both transcendent and earth-bound. Rita, Sonny’s girlfriend, comes close to seeming too perfect, a strong, loving, nurturing goddess, but she’s written as seen by a man in love with her. The villains of the story are the inversions of these benevolent archetypes, making them some of the most disturbing criminals I’ve come across in a mystery.

The writing is engaging, as one would expect from a literary master like Anaya. The first chapter, however, is the weakest, heavy with backstory. Don’t let the slow start deter you. After that, the story comes alive. While the crime is horrific, the fullness of Sonny’s life and circle of friends balance this element with humor, love, and mystical wisdom.

*****

New Mexico Magazine recently profiled Anaya in a wonderful and thorough article, linked here.

 

An Evening Out in T or C

The Austin Art Factory, an outdoor performance venue accessed through an alley, is attached to a warehouse used by the New Mexico Film Office, full of lighting equipment and props ranging from ratty old chairs to enormous books and a variety of weathered signs, including a wall-sized one for the New Mexico State Prison that served as the backdrop on Sunday July 2nd for a traveling circus (all humans, no animals) from New Orleans. The audience was seated on rows of blue plastic chairs and a few wooden benches under a corrugated metal roof. Behind us was a stack of trunks about eight to ten feet high. To the right was the warehouse, where the performers had their backstage area and the audience could find rest rooms. To the left was a gravel-paved yard whose chain-link fence is decorated with art made from New Mexico license plates (the yellow ones). My favorite is a Volkswagen Beetle. An old tow truck sits in the yard, full of random objects, perhaps as a work of art, perhaps as storage.

The show opened at 6:00 p.m. with a guest performance by local acoustic duo Desert Milk. After that beautiful, mellow music came circus side-show acts such as knife-throwing, dancing barefoot on broken glass, and breaking a cinderblock on a man’s chest while he lay shirtless on a bed of nails. An acrobat squirmed her way in and out of a birdcage. The weirdest act was done by a woman who drove a long sharp nail up her nose with a sequined hammer and had an audience member pull it out with her teeth. A cowboy performer did rope tricks and pistol-twirling and whip-cracking, cutting a rose in half with a whip while he held the flower between his teeth. The emcee talked too much and used “exciting” and “excited” so many times she could have killed the excitement she was trying to rouse, but I had to forgive her because, after all, she did drive that nail up her nose.

The best part of the evening: the aerialists.

T or C’s Jeannie Ortiz floated with dancelike grace and power in fluid, seamless weavings of her body and supporting drapes of fabric. Without a break in her flow, she wrapped a limb or her pelvis in the silks and moved from backbends to splits to side arcs and inversions in perfect concentration. Her art was ethereal and meditative and yet awe-inspiring at the same time. As I watched her suspend herself with the silks attached only at the feet and ankles in a split, I knew what this was asking of her at the muscular and biomechanical level, probably her most impressive feat when it came to strength, though the audience expressed more enthusiasm for the aesthetically stunning moves. And there were many. This was not just athleticism but visual art, dreamlike and magical.

The circus aerialist was equally strong but performed at a higher speed in a spinning hoop. She did the near-impossible, hanging upside-down only from the edge of her heels or from the curve of her buttocks and then transitioning to a new pose without any loss of control or use of her hands. The style of her performance was showy, smiling and making eye contact and striking applaud-me poses. And applaud we did. She earned it. But I think the audience applauded Jeannie even more. Not only because she’s local, but because she never once demanded that we appreciate her. She simply gave her art with quiet grace.

This being T or C, the audience, of course, was almost as colorful as the show. And the sky, as I walked home, was filled with brush-stroke clouds in all directions, remnants of a failed attempt at a thunderstorm, streaking the horizon with gray silks of aerial rain.

*****

Follow this link to a New Mexico Magazine feature on Twenty Things to Love About Truth or Consequences. The slide show at the end of the article includes, among other images, Jeannie Ortiz on aerial silks and some of license plate art.

Something for Real

t-or-c

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. January 1 is just another day. I decided to change my life for reasons that have nothing to do with the transition of numbers on a calendar. A plan I’ve been gestating for years is finally real. I made the commitment. I have a lease. My future landlady and I signed it on Main Street, Truth or Consequences, at an outdoor table in front of Passion Pie Café the morning of Wed. Dec. 28th. Friends in T or C have congratulated me, telling me it’s the best decision I ever made. The to-do list is growing. It’s hard not to keep thinking about it or imagining disasters that could intervene in my plan. I’m glad I have writing to focus my mind and yoga and meditation to quiet its hundreds of questions, or I’d be spinning inside. I’m focusing on the constructive work of getting ready and on trusting life’s unfolding process, trusting the flow of synchronicities that made this change possible. The process of winding down one phase of my life and beginning the next will be complicated even though the goal is simplicity. I hardly own anything but I’m going to own even less. Travel less, need less, and be more. Retire early and fully embrace T or C. Art. Hot springs. The Rio Grande. The desert. People who get me. I love the place. It’s been my heart’s home for years. At the end of this academic year it will be my full-time home. I may teach a college course or two online, teach a few yoga classes around town, but writing will be my full-time occupation.

“I’ve been a dreamer so long now. It’s time I did something for real.

There’s just no point in being alive if you don’t live the way you feel.”

    From the song “Something for Real” by T or C artist Don Hallock.

 

 

A New Mexico Mystery Review: Feliz Navidead

feliznavidead-cover

This third installment in the Santa Fe Café mystery series is tightly plotted, funny, and as full of local color and eccentric characters as the others. Ann Myers does a great job with the flow of the series—neither too much nor too little backstory. It’s a delicate balance that not all series authors have mastered. A new reader could pick this up and not be lost, and someone who has followed the series can enjoy it without any sense of interruption.

Protagonist Rita Lafitte’s rather conventional mother is visiting her in the City Different, encountering Rita’s eccentric friends and colleagues, hot chiles, devils in a Christmas pageant, and of course, Rita’s odd luck—if one can call it that—of running into murder scenes. There is some dark humor in the choice to set a murder in the middle of Christmas festivities, but it works. There’s also plenty of light humor, character-based and authentic.

The mystery revolves in part around the process of repatriating an old family collection of Native artifacts to their tribes. The conflicts in the wealthy heiress’s family—which includes Rita’s ultra-Santa-Fe-spacey-spiritual neighbor Dalia—and between the experts hired to help with the collection lead down some twisting paths, while several intriguing side plots make for more suspects and more motives. I was right in step with Rita in trying to solve the mystery, which to me means it was set up well.

Rita and café owner Flori’s amateur sleuthing is written to effectively make the reader suspend disbelief, an important aspect of this genre of mystery. Their interaction with Rita’s ex, Manny, who is so often the cop on the case when she’s investigating on her own, is well done. Manny isn’t all bad, and neither is his police work. He comes across as a competent if sometimes annoying officer, and a caring father as well as the kind of man you wouldn’t want for a husband. Celia, Rita’s artistic teenaged daughter, gets involved in the sleuthing this time, a fun change of pace. I love the relationships in this series, so it was great to meet another member of Rita’s family with her mother’s visit. It was also good to see how her romance with criminal defense lawyer Jake Strong develops. Jake’s character is given more depth and flair in this story. I got to know him better and therefore liked him better.

One thing I especially enjoyed about this book is that it gets outside of the downtown area into some other neighborhoods of Santa Fe, while still giving a view of holiday events around the Plaza and Canyon Road. (I expect it will make quite a few readers want to schedule a Christmas vacation there.) The diverse characters include one of Flori’s old schoolmates—another peculiar octogenarian—and her grandson. To avoid spoilers, I will say no more about them, but they were my favorite new additions to the cast of this series. And Flori’s latest weird hobby is her best yet. As always, there are recipes for some of the foods that are served up during the course of the story. I enjoyed the plot so much I tended to forget the culinary theme, but readers who love to cook will not. (Actually, the fact that I hate to cook and still enjoy these books so much says a lot.)

Other books in the series include Bread of the Dead and Cinco de Mayhem. Click on the titles to see my reviews, and on the author’s name for my interview with Ann Myers.

 

Wobbly

I had to share this wonderful image of Truth or Consequences. There’s a scene in Ghost Sickness that takes place right here, on this sidewalk in front of Passion Pie Café. And I wanted readers who haven’t been to T or C to get a glimpse of my town. I highly recommend the photography blog this came from, Always Backroads.

Always Backroads

wobblyMain Street, Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, USA.

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