Retreat

As a professor, I welcomed the holidays as time off. After the busyness of the fall the semester, what I wanted and needed most was a chance to go inward. When people would ask me, “What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” I’d answer “As little as possible,” and then explain that I used the day as a retreat. I gave the same answer for Christmas. My family long ago stopped buying gifts and switched to supporting each other’s favorite charities. I love visiting them, but not in the winter. That’s not the time to go to Maine. Spring or summer visits are our tradition, not holidays.

My personal tradition of using the major holidays as retreat days carries on in retirement. I’m normally busy, outgoing, and social, not at all the stereotype of the introverted writer, so I still need such days. Aside from walking to the yoga studio to teach a class on Thursday evening (yes, a couple of people chose to come), I didn’t go out. I did my own yoga and meditation practices, and I finished the first draft of a book. Perfect.

The only hard part of this is explaining it to people who think it’s sad or weird, when I’m actually happy not “doing” the holidays. When I do explain, I find quite a few people who like the idea, but others still seem to think it’s a bit pathological. We have Scrooge and the Grinch, after all, among our seasonal archetypes. One Thanksgiving in Virginia, some well-meaning neighbors anonymously left a huge aluminum pan full of turkey and stuffing on my doorstep, not knowing me well enough to realize I’m a vegetarian. I guess they saw that I didn’t go out and felt sorry for me. I never knew which neighbors did it. I wish they had known my day of inwardness wasn’t lonely or depressing, but liberating. Soul-nourishing.

I have friends who do the big family gatherings, and that nourishes their souls. I heard the community pot luck at the brewery was packed, and I imagine it was fun for everyone who went and gave them what they needed from the day, also.

Black Friday passed, and I didn’t shop. However, I hope my friends in T or C who run stores had good sales, and that those who did shop supported small businesses and found meaningful gifts.

My neighbor across the street put up her Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving. Though she intended to make herself wait, she couldn’t resist. She had creative fun, and the display is quite entertaining. (The pink flamingo is wearing a holiday bow.) I don’t own any ornaments and like it that way.

Today, I walked to the river, hoping to see water birds. The cormorants or coots—I still don’t know for sure what they are—have returned, and they were making their odd noises, peeping and croaking as they fished. On the opposite bank, where I’ve never seen any humans before, a man in a plaid shirt and denim shorts sat in a small, sunny clearing, perfectly still. Fishing or contemplating? I couldn’t tell. The sky was New Mexico Blue over Turtleback Mountain, and a blue heron perched on a for sale sign on a piece of land I hope no one ever buys, even though one of my yoga students is the realtor. The man on the bank moved just enough that I could see his fishing line catch the light as a fish stirred his meditation into new awareness, the present moment tugging on his hook.

His attire on a fifty-five degree day made me suspect he was a snowbird, one of the Mainers and Canadians who escape to T or C and think even our cool days are warm. If so, he has escaped to a town without a mall. What better place to spend the season? It was good bird day. Heron, cormorants (or coots), and snowbird.

 

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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.

 

Five More Things I Love About Truth or Consequences

Music. The quality and variety here is incredible, all within walking distance of my apartment. I’ve danced to blues and rockabilly at the T or C Brewery; listened to the Southwest Chamber Winds at Grapes Gallery, admiring the art during the concert; attended open mic night at Seba Gallery for original acoustic music by local singer-songwriters—again mingling music and art; was immersed in healing music in a church; and was surrounded by the vibrations of healing music again in an amazing sound-space designed especially for such events. This last concert, Matt Venuti’s, was like nothing I’d ever heard before. He plays a tuned drum, an instrument that is both melodic and percussive. I may have to incorporate that instrument into my books. Jamie would love it.

Full circle sunsets. Even with no clouds, there can be as much or more pink in the east over the Turtle as in the west. In the summer when there are storm clouds, the bowl of color effect is breathtaking and constantly changing. Orange, blue gray, rose pink, salmon pink, yellow-gold—all encircling the town.

Freedom to be yourself. Two of my neighbors happened to paint their houses blue and purple at the same time without consulting each other. (One house was previously pink paisley, the other solid lavender.) One of the purple-and-blue houses has a statue of an alien in saint’s robes on the porch. Self-expression in outdoor art is everywhere, and in the way people dress. I was at a meeting with my fellow yoga teachers, sitting outdoors at one of the downtown establishments, and I kept seeing various colorful folks pass by, such as a stout Santa-Claus-like man in red suspenders riding his bicycle with his dog on a long red leash trotting down the middle of Broadway. One of the other teachers, who was facing in toward the windows rather than out toward the street, would see that look cross my face and ask, “T or C?” And that would sum it up. Yep. T or C.

My outdoor “gym.” I take exercise tubing down to the Rotary Park on the Rio Grande and attach it to a pole of a picnic shelter for resistance training, and use the benches for various bodyweight exercises, while enjoying a view of the river, Turtleback Mountain, and wildlife ranging from ducks and herons to huge orange dragonflies. In keeping with T or C’s freedom to be oneself, no one has ever looked at my funny for doing this.

Too much to do. Especially at this time of year. The weather is perfect for running and hiking, and of course the end of October and early November are festive, too. First there was the costumed dance party at Grapes Gallery, a fundraiser for Friends of the Pool, with live blues music and the creative people of T or C dressing up and competing for the best costume award. (Artists do great Halloween outfits. My Gumby costume was pretty plain compared to the winners.) Then there was Day of the Dead in Mesilla, with all the beautiful shrines to loved ones on display in the old plaza under a classic New Mexico blue sky while musicians played from the bandstand. ( I know, this was not in T or C, but only an hour away.) On Halloween, the children’s costumed safe walk took place on Broadway, and I had to go around and admire everyone. The street was closed, business owners and employees were in costume on the sidewalks handing out treats, and families in Halloween finery were trick or treating. People here love to dress up. A man dressed as a baby doll stood in the doorway of his shop sucking on a lollipop. I even met a tiny dog in a Harley jacket and little black doggy jeans. Later, I went to a showing of Nosferatu, the black-and-white silent vampire movie, at Rio Bravo Fine Art. Three classically-trained musicians improvised an amazing, intense and spooky score live. (Surrounded by great art, once again.) Some of the audience members were masked or painted. One was, of course, entirely black and white. I stopped by another dance and costume event on my way home, but I didn’t stay. A writer has to go home and write. But last night, there was more good music to go out and dance to. I call it research. My protagonist likes to dance, too, after all.

Bat Medicine

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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.

Ten Things I Love about Truth or Consequences

Conversations. I’ve never been in a situation where anyone was at a loss for words. The line in Bullock’s grocery store, Art Hop, the pool, a drum circle by the Rio Grande at night … it doesn’t matter. People will talk to you anywhere. I met all my friends here through random conversations with strangers.

Passion Pie Café. The place has art on the walls, art on the tables, great tea and coffee, vegan date bars, a free book shelf, and plenty of the above-mentioned conversation.

Hot springs. Of course. That used to be the town’s name. A soak can restore mind and body and spirit.

A history of healing. Magnolia Elis was an important part of the town’s life as a healing destination in the middle of the twentieth century. Her capacities as a healer were reputed to be extraordinary. Her building is a historic landmark now, with her name glowing on the roof in blue neon at night.

Critters. Bats come out at dusk to hunt insects near the Rio Grande, swooping and dancing over the river and the wetlands. If I go to the right spot at the right time, they surround me. Sometimes I’ve seen them crossing the stars as I lay in a hot spring at night. If there’s been rain late in the day, tarantulas emerge from their burrow to seek mates. Lizards seem to be everywhere—scurrying from one patch of shade to the next by day, occasionally sticking to walls and windows in the evening. They look bland at first, but on closer inspection I’ve found that some are pearlescent gray with a subtle peachy glow and others have a delicate brown-and-white checkered pattern with hints of orange. There are hummingbirds, butterflies, and also few of the most impressively vile bugs I’ve ever met, such as big black ants that can bite through your socks and a few summers ago we had a bizarre inundation of skunk beetles. I don’t want them to visit again, but they were interesting.

Stars. Okay, everyone in the desert gets excited about stars. Anyone who has ever come from the humid East to the dry West has had the same dazzling discovery: there are a lot stars up there, and they are really bright.

Rain. It’s so special when it rains in the desert. A big black cloud is not threatening but promising.

Turtleback Mountain. The serene turtle draped gracefully on its crest really looks like a turtle. (I can’t see the elephant in Elephant Butte, can’t even tell which of those gray buttes is supposed to be the elephant)  The turtle is always relaxed, as if he has just done yoga and is now in an amphibian’s version of savasana. With the recent rain he’s looking a little like a chia pet as the red-brown rock fuzzes up with patches of green.

Color. Much I love adobe-brown-pink-beige Santa Fe, I like the way T or C mingles that esthetic with wilder décor (and a lot of trailers). There is a candy-cane striped law office on Main Street. Homes range from adobe-normal to pink, purple, yellow, turquoise, and covered with murals. A shop on Broadway has Lakota-style ledger art on its stucco walls. The next one is bright green with orange and blue turtles parading over the door. An old van drives around town wearing the word “whatever” on its collage-covered side.

This isn’t a rich town; in fact quite the opposite—it’s always struggling. And yet it never collapses in on itself. It’s vibrant, full of art and originality.

 Do you know and love T or C? What’s one of your favorite things about it?

The Ruler in the River

It was six feet deep today. At this time last summer I didn’t even want to look. The river was more empty space, dirt and algae than a Rio Grande. The powers that control its flow from the dam at Elephant Butte had shut it off early. This summer it’s wide, fast flowing and full, reflecting blue sky and the green of the narrow band of thick vegetation that clings to its banks. In the powerful heat, the trail smelled like sage, and butterflies and dragonflies floated by.

So did noise, and trash. I normally like my fellow humans, but I like nature better without them, except for the silent, contemplative fishermen standing on the banks. The rafters, with plastic water bottles and sunscreen bottles spilling out of their bobbing crafts, were such an obvious source of litter, even if unintentional, that I didn’t want them there. The rope swing crowd whooping, splashing, floating a ways downstream, and going back to the swing by land, scared away the wildlife. I didn’t see a single heron or even a lizard.

I found a spot halfway between the fishermen and the rope-swingers, and waded knee deep. The water isn’t very cold. But I could see how incredibly fast it was further out. Gazing at the stillness of the desert  hills on the other side, I had the dizzying feeling of being the one moving while the river held still, like being on a train and watching the land fly by.

In other parts of the country this wouldn’t be a grand river, even when it’s six feet deep. The ruler goes up to ten feet ten inches, at which point the trail would be partly submerged, making the river a little wider and no longer walkable. Still, it could only be a major body of water in the parched Southwest. I remember coming to the east and crossing the James River Bridge in Newport News and being stunned, almost terrified, that a river could be that enormous and deep and blue. It wasn’t that I thought I could fall off the bridge or anything like that, it was just the strangeness of such a river. In Snake Face Jamie gets lost and crosses that bridge by accident, and being prone to panic attacks, it troubles him far more. If there was ruler in that river, it would be a deity, some god of water, not a stick.

And then there’s the Santa Fe River, whose empty bed is a major location in Shaman’s Blues. Sometimes it has no water at all.  I get excited when I see water in it, especially when there’s enough to flow, not just trickle. Other times, I can walk in the riverbed as easily as on the trails along the banks. It’s a river of memory then, the path made by a river that once was deep enough to measure