Reversals

The obstacle isn’t necessarily in your path; perhaps it is your path. I took a New Year’s yoga class in which the teacher used this theme. We can’t always remove our obstacles. Sometimes we learn to work with them and learn from them.

During my run a few days back, I heard coyotes singing.  Then they started yipping and growling, as if there was some kind of scuffle going on. They weren’t far ahead of me, and I remembered that a friend had once been followed by a pack of coyotes when she was hiking alone. Though coyotes almost never attack humans, running past this pack, whatever they were doing, seemed like a bad idea. Maybe there were just two—it’s coyote mating season—but maybe it was a fight with an outsider to their territory.  The noise stopped, and through the gaps between shrubs, I spied them trotting silently toward the section of the trail I was headed for. When in the presence of predators, I told myself, don’t act like prey. I turned around.

Danger is exciting on the page, but even the smallest danger doesn’t appeal to me in real life. Reversals, however, are interesting in both cases. I saw the landscape from a different perspective, since I usually go up the long hill rather than down. The same place can look quite new from the other side. And I ran further, since I had to retrace my steps.

That evening, my work in progress was so stuck it was putting me to sleep. Not a good sign.  I wasn’t sure how to fix it, but I told myself I was going to push through and not go out dancing that night, though there was a musician I would have enjoyed hearing at the Brewery, and I can walk there in five minutes or less. Still stuck, I gave in and went. My favorite dancing partner was there, and an acquaintance who is a mystery fan. I danced a few songs with one, talked story structure with the other, and then headed home, ready to write.

The problem lay in being too linear, telling the story step by step. I need reversals, a surprise, and something as energizing for the reader as a wild dance with a strong partner.

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Knowledge and Perception

During the month of August, there were so many events scrolling through the electronic sign over the entrance to Elephant Butte Lake State Park that someone decided to remove the time-temperature-and-welcome from the cycle of reminders and announcements. Once I got used to not seeing those numbers when I rounded a high point on the trail with a view of the sign, I realized how absurdly attached I’d gotten to noting exactly how many minutes it had taken  me to reach that spot and whether the temperature had gone up a degree. I enjoyed my runs more without this information snagging my mind.  Now that there’s less going in in September, “Welcome to Elephant Butte Lake State Park 1:36 p.m. 87 degrees” is back. It still takes me exactly twenty-four minutes to reach the point where I can see it, and I can tell how warm it is without looking. What is it about numbers and measurement? Or even the desire to know something just because it’s there to be known?

I don’t have anything against knowledge. Practical knowledge enhances life, and useless learning is fun.  I spied a large, almost squirrel-sized, New Mexico whiptail today. She did one pushup and disappeared under a bush. My useless knowledge informs me that she was a she because they all are—our state reptile is an all-female species.  Trying to identify a delicate purple flower I admired, I searched online in vain, but I learned that among New Mexico wildflowers there are plants called Water Wally, Hairy Five Eyes, Bastard Toadflax, Blue Dicks, Redwhisker Clammyweed, and Bonker Hedgehog. (The last one is a small cactus.) I still don’t know the name of the purple flower. I think its bright yellow companion is snakeweed, but it may be chamisa. Chamisa’s botanical name is Ericameria nauseosa, which makes me want to create an unpleasant character named Erica Maria in some future book. This plant, or its purple friend, smells wonderful, not nauseosa, and that perception is a greater joy than the satisfaction of acquiring a fact such as its name. Globes of yellow blossoms on green stems and taller stalks with tiny purple blooms glow against the pale brown sand, and a rare whiff of floral sweetness surprises me as I run past. At exactly the same speed whether or not I measure myself.

*****

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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.

 

Coffee, Caution, and Thunder

I was puzzled when a stranger knocked on my door and asked if I had any coffee grounds. To my mind, coffee grounds are the wet, used-up stuff left in the filter. I asked if he needed them for his compost, but no, he had run out of coffee. My next question: Why he didn’t buy some? The grocery story is quite close, he had walked from wherever he lived, and he was apparently fit and healthy, a lean man in his late forties or early fifties, clean, sober and normal—or as normal as T or C residents get. “I’m poor,” he said, cheerful and unembarrassed. What could I say? In a neighborhood of retirees, artists, musicians, and low-wage workers, most people are kind of poor.

He’d tried neighbors he knew first, but no one was home, so he progressed further down the street. Since he knew my former landlady, he explained, he felt all right trying for coffee here. Deciding this made him reasonably okay, I ground some beans, and he hunkered down in the yard. At 2:20 in the afternoon, he was wearing a T-shirt and pajama pants and had only now discovered that he’d run out of both cash and coffee. Had he just woken up? I sleep pretty late, since I write until two or three a.m., but it is still morning when I get up. Perhaps he was an artist, so he might keep late hours, too, and occasionally run out money. I gave him a zip lock bag full of freshly ground coffee and told him to go get caffeinated, he thanked me and left, and that was that. But while I ground the coffee, I was aware of the presence of an unfamiliar man outside my door. Though he seemed safe, my guard stayed up.

The next day, I got caught in a thunderstorm. Weather is unpredictable here in the monsoon season. A big blue-gray cloud could hover and do nothing or explode with lightning, thunder and rain. Tiny storms sail through like one slender woman in a long gray dress sweeping through a crowd of larger women in short skirts, only hers touching the earth as she dances past. A tumultuous-looking sky isn’t a reason to stay in. But one patch of clouds got productive while I was running, and I was on the midpoint of the loop of the trail. There was no shorter route back unless I cut through the desert off-trail, dodging thorny plants and various critters’ holes. So, I sped up.

At first, I was fast and attuned to the storm. Then, on the last little uphill stretch, I realized I had gotten so used to the thunder that I’d relaxed my pace as if I couldn’t hear all that rumbling. Funny how the mind works.

Warnings are useful, yet we can get so accustomed to them we stop reacting. With a stranger at my door for five minutes, I stayed alert. With a storm all around me for a longer time, though, I got comfortable. When alarm signals begin to feel normal—alarms about public or private behavior, the state of the planet, or feedback from our own minds and bodies that we need to change—the situation gets more dangerous.

 

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?

 

Road Trip

I recently took a week and a few days to go back to Virginia and North Carolina to visit friends and collect some art I’d stored in one friend’s house. I enjoyed the reconnections with people, and the brief exposure to snow and cold and to architecture that was neither adobe nor trailer. T or C, with a population of a little over 6,000—it’s been shrinking—seems tiny next to Harrisonburg, Virginia (pop. 52,000), though it’s also considered a “small town” by some people. To me, Harrisonburg felt downright urban. So many ethnic restaurants with healthy choices, so many building over two stories tall, and so many traffic lights. (T or C has one.)

I dropped in on former colleagues, and due to snow, I was grateful that retired faculty have access to the college fitness facility. Running on an indoor track takes mental endurance, and if there hadn’t been so many students playing basketball to keep me amused, I wonder if I could have managed my usual distance. I taught a couple of yoga classes at the studio where I used to work in Harrisonburg, and it was a special and meaningful opportunity.

Part two of my road trip took me to Asheville, NC, where I found myself wondering what a trip to the mountains of North Carolina would be like for Mae Martin, my series’ protagonist.  (I was visiting the friend who inspired  the character.) Mae grew up in that area and she has connections in Asheville. What it would feel like for her to go back, after living in New Mexico? Asheville is a lot like Santa Fe and T or C in some ways, with its artists and yoga teachers and massage therapists, but in many ways it’s entirely different. The mountains are old and green. And the smaller towns beyond the city, such as the place where Mae’s grandparents lived, are another world, culturally and spiritually as well as physically, from the funky, eccentric town where she’s made a new home. (I moved her to T or C years before I made the permanent move myself.)

And what about a road trip itself as part of a story? Travel is inherently challenging. I drove through rain in the Blue Ridge on my way in, and on my way back through wind that started to peel the rubber rain-channel seal off my windshield, wind that made it hard to open the car door when I stopped for gas, wind that made big truckers struggle to open and close the doors of the truck stop. There were two wildfires on the outskirts of Amarillo and the flames and smoke mingled weirdly with the sunset. Any events in a story that I could set in weather like that would be doubly difficult for my characters, and it’s my job as a writer to make their lives difficult.

The outcome of all this? I’m glad to be home in this peculiar town with its colorful people and murals, its hot springs, and its art and music scenes. I was glad to see my T or C yoga students, to run in the desert again with the lizards and jackrabbits and roadrunners, and to go out dancing at the T or C Brewery. The art I brought back is either consigned for sale or on my walls, and I feel even more at home now with the pieces I chose to keep all around me. More complete, focused and inspired to create, with new ideas for the work in progress.

“Where’s Your Baby?”

As I charged up the last stretch of hill with a final burst of speed, I heard a shout of excitement from the playground at the end of the trail. A little boy, his dark face just visible above the stone wall, had spotted me. He must have been staring out into the landscape of cacti and junipers and sand, and been startled to see a human being—and one running, at that. I heard more happy shouts, and as I rounded the bend I saw four little heads flying along within the confines of the wall. The boy had an older sister, her hair in beaded braids that swung wildly as she ran. When I did a cooldown lap of the last little stretch, the children tracked me, and then they met me as I entered the parking lot. In an SUV parked nearby, I could see a young Hispanic woman with long hair and glasses, nursing a small baby in the back seat. Two of the kids looked like they were hers, and I wondered if the two black children were stepchildren in a blended family or if they were friends, perhaps out-of-town guests. In other words, what’s their story?

The boy who’d started the excitement of running with me was curious about me, too. I guessed him to be five at most, a handsome little guy with fine features and a runny nose. He asked me how far I ran and how often. He asked where I lived, and then followed up with questions that made me think he didn’t understand age yet.

“Where’s your mommy and daddy?”

“They passed away a long time ago.”

“Why did they pass away?”

I didn’t feel like telling a child at play about my parents’ end-of-life health problems, so I simply said, “They were very old.”

“My mommy’s still alive.”

“Of course. You’re young. That’s normal at your age, but not at my age.”

He followed me to my car as I got my water bottle. “Where’s your grandma and grandpa?”

“They passed away, too. They were even older.”

“Where’s your baby?”

“I don’t have one.”

This stumped him, and he asked again, saying everyone has a baby, and then added, “I have a baby.” He was carrying a toy in one fist, some kind of bristly green creature. Ah. His baby.

While I stretched at a picnic table, his sister, who was around eight or nine, joined us. They inquired about my age, which I gave as sixty-three. The girl told me their father is “six nine.” I asked, “Is that his height or his age?” She said, “He’s that tall and he’s that old. Do you know him?” I was sure I didn’t, if he’s really that tall. And was he really that old, with children so young? She had to be pulling my leg.

The two black kids and the Hispanic boy ran off to the swings, and the Hispanic girl, who was also about eight years old, stayed with me while I finished my stretches. Even while she’d been running and playing, she held onto a notebook with a pink cover that matched her pink sun dress. Perhaps she’s a future writer. Without my asking, she told me, “Those kids are from Arizona. They visit us every year. Usually once, but they came twice this year. The other one is my brother.” She intuited that people want to understand each other’s stories, but did not enlighten me as to whether her friends’ father really was sixty-nine years old and six-feet and nine inches tall.

It makes a better story if I’m left wondering.