Desert Encounters

 

The hind end of an animal I’d never seen before in this stretch of desert silenced my thoughts. Whatever it was, brown and furry and scurrying, stub-tailed and about the size of a rabbit, it made me aware. The novelty of birds with bright yellow feathers broke into my thought-cycle also as I ran—yellow warblers migrating through (at least I think so; I’m not a bird expert, just an admirer). A quail atop a bush, its crest profiled against the blue sky, brought another moment of surprised inner stillness. Quail are usually running on the ground. It’s the lizards who pose.

I stop for lizards. A lesser earless lizard, no bigger than my thumb, has little bright eyes and long golden toes, subtle gray-on-gray spotted markings, and tiny arms that enable it to do push-ups with flawless form. Its miniature legs run faster than I can. The greater earless lizards seem to be showing off their green hind legs, their side stripes, their green-and-orange forelegs, and the rose patches on the females’ flanks. I’m sure they’re displaying for each other, but I appreciate the show. Everything else on the ground blends in—brown or gray—but they glow. It seems odd for small, delicate, ground-dwelling creatures not to be camouflaged, but they flourish, maybe because they like the heat and nothing else does (except crazy runners). Their body ideal temperature for activity is 101 degrees. I observed a large one getting brighter the longer he baked. On my third lap of the trail, his orange stripes were radiant, as if he had to be heated properly to light up.

The prickly pear cacti are blossoming, bright yellow. Creosote bushes have small yellow buds. Ocotillo blooms shoot out like red-orange flames on the tips of slender, bare stalks. The yellow birds are posing on them, contrasting with the flowers, and perching among the creosote branches in a yellow-on-yellow match.

The birds-and-flowers encounters make me stop in awe. Yes, I’m running, but there are moments not to be hurried.

 

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Eight plus Eight Equals Awareness

The dread of being stuck with an inconsiderate neighbor plagued me while I ran, as my mind rehearsed all the ways the problem could get worse and all the steps I might have to take to get it resolved. After all, there was only one good scenario: him moving out. But the bad ones seemed endless, and my mind seemed compelled to explore all of them, including having to move to get away from him. For me, his worst disruption of our previously serene little community in our building has been smoking (and stinking up my apartment!) although smokers are required to go off the property, not even in the courtyard, to light up. Worry clings to the mind in pursuit of a solution, even if there’s none possible at the time. Granted, this can be a preparation for coping, but I don’t go out in nature to worry, so I started counting the negative thoughts. Once I notice a pattern, it’s an effective way to interrupt it and make a particular worry into a practice rather than a torment. It came back eight times in four miles. With each return, I was no further along in solving the problem, but I was more aware of clinging to it and could let it go more quickly, to return to awareness of my movement and my surroundings. After all, if I can focus that intently on a negative, I apparently have the capacity to focus equally on something else if I chose to do so.

It was the day after a big rain, a cool eighty-two degrees, and that brought out the lizards. I saw eight greater earless lizards, evenly distributed along the trail, one about every half mile, and I paused to admire each of them. Their sleek gray heads and necks. Their glowing orange sides with diagonal black stripes. Their orange upper arms and radiant blue-green forearms. Their green hind legs and tail that seem lit from inside like a stained glass lamp. (The pictures don’t do justice to their true colors.) Most of them posed or did push-ups, as if showing off their jewel-like skins. Normally, I feel lucky to see just one, so this was an extraordinary bounty.

When I got home, my landlord let me know he was giving the smoker a thirty-day notice to vacate the premises. I wish the guy would leave sooner, but the point is, I hadn’t needed to keep thinking about it. I’m glad I was able to pop the worry bubble often enough to enjoy the weather and the lizards.

 

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?

 

A Runner’s Rain Chant

Today, it finally rained. Real rain, hours of it. Enough to make puddles and breathe petrichor, the magical scent of desert rain. A friend took her infant daughter out in it after the thunder stopped and let the gentle rain bathe the baby. Her New Mexico baptism.

Earlier in the day, while I ran at Elephant Butte Lake State Park, the clouds gathered around the full circle of the horizon in tall white towers and thick gray sweeps, and yet I ran under a bubble of hot blue sky. As the wind picked up, the movement of juniper and creosote branches reminded me of the pine boughs carried in Pueblo corn dances. Dances that honor the oneness of humans, plants, animals, ancestors, and rain. I silenced all other thoughts in my mind and ran for rain, adding my inner voice to all the other rain-prayer songs in the desert.

Cloud People, for you,

My feet are a drum,

Pounding the rhythm of rain.

The grains of sand shushing under my feet

Softly rattle the sounds of rain.

My sweat is rain.

My blood is rain.

My thirst is the thirst of the dry earth,

For every fluid of my body

Is made of rain.

Even my breath as I push up this hill

Exhales the moisture of rain.

The plants are dancing for you,

Hopeful and eager.

Your grandchildren call,

And you come to us,

Singing thunder,

Trailing your soft gray hair over the mountains.

 

 

 

Images: Clouds by Child Hassam and Desert Rain by Edgar Payne

Curiosity and Openness

park

The boy braked his bicycle on the bridge over the creek and stood straddling the frame. “What are you doing here?”

As I adjusted out of the mildly altered consciousness that comes from a long, peaceful run, I continued stretching my calf muscles, listening to the stream’s soft burbling, the autumn trees rustling, and studied my interrogator. He was about ten years old, with a stocky build, short hair and wire-rimmed glasses. His question wasn’t unfriendly—not as if he owned the park, but more of an inquiry into what other people came here for.

“I just ran four miles,” I said, “and now I’m stretching my legs.”

Four miles?” His eyebrows shot up. “I can’t even run one.”

“It took me a while to build up to four. I didn’t run that far when I first started running.”

The boy asked what it felt like to run four miles and I said it was beautiful, being outdoors and quiet, moving through nature. It’s hard to describe the spirituality of running and I didn’t do a very good job of it. He said it must be a good workout. I agreed. He rode around a little while I finished stretching, and then pedaled beside me as I walked through the parking lot toward my neighborhood.

“What was it like the first time you ran?” he asked.

I told him a shortened version of the story that follows.

I’d been visiting the Apache reservation in Mescalero, New Mexico. A friend informed me that there would be a five-K and 10-K race the next morning, then looked me in the eyes and said “See you there.”

He and his girlfriend would be running, but I could tell he didn’t mean I would be there to cheer them on. He meant I would be running. I took the challenge and ran the five-K. At the time, I lived at sea level in the Tidewater region of Virginia, and Mescalero is 7,500 feet above that. Being an aerobics teacher, I was in good shape, but until that day I wasn’t a runner. I struggled uphill at that altitude, but the singer for the Navajo Nation Dancers kept cheering me on. His group had come for the powwow, and we had met briefly and chatted while waiting for the race to start. He couldn’t remember my name, only where I was from, so he shouted, “Go, Virginia! You can do it!”

I came in second for my age group, and I was hooked. Not on racing, but on the Apache concept of spiritual running. This race was not just any race, but a community event to promote health and traditional culture, timed to go with the four-day Dances of the Mountain Gods and the girls’ coming of age ceremony. My friend who convinced me to run had told me about spiritual running when we first met, and before the race started I got to know a number of other people who ran for cultural reasons. That was almost twenty years ago. and I never lost my love for running.running

The boy in the park listened to the short version of this story attentively. We chatted a little longer. He concluded that he would still prefer bicycling and then pumped his way up the steep hill, wishing me a good day and saying, “See ya.”

There was a synchronicity to this encounter. Back in 1998, I made friends with the man who got me to run that first race by striking up a conversation with a stranger. I was stuck in an airport due to a delayed flight, and as I walked to pass the time, I noticed him sitting cross-legged on the floor rather than in a chair in one of the gate areas, and was intrigued by the writing on his T-shirt. It read: All Apache Nations Run Against Substance Abuse. I was doing research in graduate school about using traditional culture to combat modern health problems in Native communities. The idea of people running all the way from the various Apache nations, from Oklahoma and Arizona and New Mexico, to gather at one chosen reservation, was inspiring. We talked a while, and he invited me to visit Mescalero later that year and put me in touch with a medicine woman who could help with my research.

On subsequent trips, I ran the five-K several more times. At the time, I was thinking about writing an ghost sickness ebookacademic paper, not fiction, but years later these races, the powwows, and the ceremonies inspired many of the scenes in Ghost Sickness. By the time I wrote the book, I had a lot of experiences to draw from.

My new young acquaintance’s friendly curiosity makes me think he has what it takes to be a writer. He has his own view—prefers biking to running—but he wanted to know what I thought and felt as a runner, and not because he planned to start running. He simply wanted to know. That’s a writers’ mind, or an actor’s or a psychologist’s. He asks: What’s it like to be someone who is not like me?