Boredom? Free Time? What’s That?

Occasionally people have asked me—from six feet or more away, outdoors, of course—if I’m bored yet. My answer: I’m a writer. I’m never bored.

I’m wrapping up another major revision of the eighth Mae Martin Psychic Mystery, but I haven’t had as much time to work on it as I expected. With all “close contact” businesses in New Mexico still closed—and that includes fitness facilities like yoga studios—I should have free time. I’m not taking classes in Albuquerque or teaching classes here in Truth or Consequences. My new running route, a dirt road along the Rio Grande, is two tenths of a mile from my apartment. I don’t drive to Elephant Butte to run in the still-closed state park. I love this road—the river, blue herons, red-winged blackbirds, butterflies, a few blooming cacti, and some unknown plant that smells crisp and green. A dirt road in the windy season delivers occasional little dust storms, but I can’t complain. It’s flat, so I can run without reinjuring myself, and it couldn’t be more convenient.

The time suck is laundry. I live in a tiny apartment. I often rented places this size when I was a professor spending summer vacations in Truth or Consequences, and I realized all I actually needed was two rooms and a bath, not my two-story, two-bedroom townhouse, so when I retired and moved, I downsized. The lack of laundry hookups or space for machines was only a minor issue. After all, I could do a week’s laundry all at once at the laundromat, bring my exercise tubing, and go outside to work out while giant machines did their jobs.

Then, this spring, the laundromat became stressful. Sanitizing the machines and the laundry carts. Asking people to stay six feet away and getting dirty looks for it. I ordered two little gadgets that are life-savers. But they aren’t time savers. The hand-cranked Wonder Wash holds about five pounds of laundry. I have practically no counter space next to the sink, so I have to put it in the (very small) shower, kneel on a towel on the floor to crank right-handed, then get behind it in the shower and do a kind of half squat and crank left-handed to make it churn the other way. Two minutes for a wash, a minute per rinse. Two rinses. Sounds quick, but there’s the filling, the draining, and the wringing between rinses. Then I carry the wet clothes to the electric spin dryer in the living room. It whirls them at amazing speeds and flings the water out with centrifugal force to drain into a plastic tray under its spout. This takes two to four minutes, and again, that sounds quick. But I have to wipe the washer dry and store it behind the sofa, empty the spin dryer’s drain tray, and hang up my laundry without a clothes line. The whole process takes at least an hour per load. Small items drape on the edge of the clothes baskets. Larger items go on hangers on the shower rod. Sheets get folded in four lengthwise, clipped to pants hangers, dried with a fan, then folded with the other side out, fan-dried again, and then refolded yet again with yet another area on the outside. Towels the next day, clothing the next, a day off, and then I have to do more laundry. Five pounds at a time.

My thumb muscles are sore. My upper back and shoulder muscles are sore—and I’ve been doing yoga daily and lifting weights three times a week for decades. I’m still working out while I do my laundry, but it’s not as easy—the workout or the laundry. Amazing. Think how fit our great grandmothers must have been doing the wash for a whole household.

Every time I put away a set of clean, dry sheets and pillowcases, I feel a sense of accomplishment. I did it myself, at home, without sharing respiratory droplets in an enclosed space with other people.

And now, finally, I can sit down and write.

*****

Red-winged blackbird photo by Sarah Stierch

Note: I provided links to the products I discussed so you could see pictures, but they’ve been in such demand they’re sold out.

The Cactus Patch, Feral Furniture, and Patience

On a ninety-seven degree day with nineteen miles-per-hour wind, I had to run—well, jog, really—straight into the wind up the steep hill to reach my new favorite trail. And it was worth it. The rare little hedgehog cacti were displaying their last two blooms of the year. There are only three of these plants in the whole area where I’ve been running. Not a close family, they grow a foot or two apart. Their trunks are egg-shaped with starry thorn clusters, and they explode with big hot pink flowers that each stay open one day. The first time I rounded a bend and saw blossom number one, I gasped in awe and stopped. I looked deep in the cup of the flower to see something round and yellow bobbing and wriggling among the fluffy stamens. The hind end of a bee.

The rest of the desert is full of yellow flowers, the creosote bushes waving golden petals in the wind, and below them the low-growing purple prickly pear, also called a purple pancake cactus, is flowering as well. It looks like a mean little plant until it blooms. The pads can be purple, green with purple edges or green that looks as if it’s coated with purple, and sometimes the plant will sprout a single bright green pad. The thorns are long and sharp,  capable of penetrating the human toe quite efficiently. The buds are pink, but they open yellow with pink-orange centers or streaks. There were so many, when I closed my eyes in the shower after my run I kept seeing them, a sea of pale yellow flowers on a background of prickly purple.

I’m glad I saw so much beauty that day, because climbing the hill for weeks has reawakened an old injury which is quite literally a pain in the backside, so I have to stick to for flat ground for a while.

Unpaved flatness is hard to find. I tried a neighbor’s recommendation: the cemetery. It is flat, and has a dirt road and nice views of mountains in the distance, but the gate has huge signs on either side announcing that this is a Known Rattlesnake Area, warning visitors to use great care. I chose to run laps of an open green space where there are not yet any burials. I saw no snakes there, but ran over so many goatheads the soles of my shoes felt like Velcro on the grass. So I plucked them and switched to the dirt road on the side away from the main burial area. This offered windblown dust and flying goatheads—really—scratching my legs. I even got one stuck in my thigh. Easy to pull out, but still, this is not my favorite running spot so far. A few people visiting their loved ones’ graves must have thought me a bit weird, but surely, there’s at least one runner buried there. Someone whose spirit understood.

My next flat-ground attempt was a dirt road that goes from one of the residential streets in my neighborhood to the area behind (how lovely) the sewage treatment plant. I haven’t smelled the facility so far, and getting there is pleasant. I pass a friend’s house and see her positive-energy fence signs and window signs, such as “Mask your face, not your heart.” I even encountered her once for a distant air-hug and conversation.

Scenery along the dirt road is so-so. The scrabbly dirt side of hill I’m avoiding is at the end of the road. You have to be on top of it to see the cactus patch, so this view is not floral. On one side of the road are the backs of a few houses, including one with some huge prickly pears that have poppy-like orange flowers. On the other side is an area of brush, bare dirt, and weeds that looks as if it was cleared once and is now overgrown. Facing a patch of dirt sits a single off-white folding chair, suggesting someone chose to sit and contemplate this inhospitable spot. My friend Donna Catterick, the photographer whose work is on the covers of Death Omen, Shadow Family and Small Awakenings, calls such sightings feral furniture. The cover of Small Awakenings, my book of reflective essays, features a feral chair. (The feral recliner at the bottom of this post is another one of Donna’s photos.)

I met a birdwatcher on my second run on this route—from the recommended twelve feet apart while exercising—and wondered if that was his chair.

I also met a beautiful snake from an even greater distance. It was orange with black stripes that diminished to mere spots toward its rattle-less tail. I looked it up later and concluded it might have been a ground snake, possessed of mildly toxic saliva. Does anyone else think ground snake is an odd name? All the snakes I’ve ever seen were on the ground.

My third time down that road, I was pain-free and happy for many laps, and then I tripped on a rock. I didn’t fall. No, I caught my balance with an instinctive and intense effort of the injured muscles, and learned how much strength it takes to keep your balance, how hard you work in a fraction of a second of not falling down. Needless to say, the old injury revived with a vengeance.

Perhaps I will have to heal where I can’t even trip. Inactivity is its own kind of injury, though, and I need to see nature, so I guess I’ll be walking on pavement for a while. Dancing in my apartment when I need variety. Practicing yoga as if I were my own student with an injury. I can’t rush the process or I won’t heal at all. 

 

Slices of April 7th 2020

It was a beautiful warm day, the rare April day without high winds. I made an early morning trip to Las Cruces for groceries. Driving through the dramatic near-empty land, I listened to music by friends who live right in Truth or Consequences but whom I haven’t seen for weeks. Uplifting. A reminder of them and of hearing them play live.

Programmable roadside signs on I-25 South as I approached Las Cruces read: Shop alone. Stop the spread alternating with Limit travel. Stop the spread of Covid-19. An acknowledgement that people in small towns often have so few choices at home, they have to shop in Las Cruces, the only large city in the southern part of the state.

Natural Grocers was clean, orderly, and fully stocked. (Except for TP, of course.) All employees, and all shoppers but one, wore masks. I bet she felt out of place. Social distancing was observed well, with markers at the checkouts to keep the six-foot distance, and customers doing their own bagging, so one less person breathes on you or your food. An employee was sanitizing the handles of the freezer and refrigerator cases. The only thing that was normal was that I got a month’s worth of food and personal care products. For years, I’ve been shopping that way to save gas and time, and now that planning habit comes in handy. When the masked man at the checkout gave me my very long receipt, he said, “Now you won’t need toilet paper.” I had to tell him I was smiling behind my mask.

On the drive home, puffy white clouds were shedding trails of virga, white virga like the wispy beards of ancient sages. You usually see dark gray virga in June, when it’s so hot the sky can only try to rain, desperate would-be storm clouds doing their best and failing just short of moistening the ground. Today, it was raining so far from the earth, you had to be looking up to notice. April is so dry, it was remarkable it even rained way up there.

After I unpacked (and yes, sanitized) my groceries, my phone beeped an alarm. This is the second time the New Mexico Department of Health has sent these text messages to everyone in the state who has a cell phone. They feature a big red triangle with an exclamation mark in it. Extreme emergency. Stay home.  Did I violate that order? We are allowed to buy food. If I’d shopped in T or C, much as I love my town, I would have felt less safe. I’d have encountered the same number of people in a store with fewer healthful options, and some of those shoppers would be ignoring social distancing and not wearing masks, because there are no detected cases in Sierra County. I assume there are covid-positive people here, asymptomatic young people who haven’t exhaled on their elders yet.

The stay-at-home order allows outdoor exercise, alone. I ran down the street toward the desert. As I passed a house where a man was working on his roof, I heard his radio blaring news about the situation in New York. About the health care workers’ challenges and how many people died there today. It was close to the same number as total cases in New Mexico.

In spite of the state of the world, I experienced joy as I ran. The zigzagging random trails liberated me. Checkered whiptails scurried around. A mule deer leaped past. I’m more appreciative than ever of strength and health, when none of us on any day knows how long we’ll have it.

On my return, I spotted a friend on the hiking trial as I ran on the OHV trail. We talked from about ten feet way. She’s a massage therapist and personal trainer, self-employed, and of course totally out of work. She asked me about the yoga studio being closed, and I said we’d closed even before we were told to. But I’ll be okay not working. At sixty-five, I have a safety net. At forty-something, she doesn’t. I urged her to apply for unemployment. It’s available to people like her now, though the process is probably slow as the system tries to cope with the load.

A neighbor texted me shortly after sunset. Out the door and to the right. We both stepped out and stood, far apart, in shared awe. The supermoon was rising, huge and golden, behind the slope of Turtleback Mountain.

 

Social Distancing, Reading, and Writing

Seriously, I want to hug someone. Not touching is strange, and it makes me feel a bit disoriented, not quite myself. I socialize by taking walks with friends rather than going to coffee shops, restaurants, or the brewery. No blues dancing on crowded dance floors for now. A friend I hadn’t seen for two years came to Truth or Consequences for a few days of camping and bird-watching. We met—and parted—with elbow-bumps.

I’ve been teaching yoga without using touch for guidance, and now the studio is going to close for the rest of the month. Art events, music events, the life-blood of my town … I’m not going. It’s difficult, but I can see the wisdom in doing things this way. Prevention.

Fortunately, running in the desert is still an option. And since I have less of a schedule and less of a social life, I can do more reading. E-books don’t even involve going to a store. I can’t run out of them.

And of course, I’ll get more writing done. I’ll probably be writing scenes in which people hug.

*****

The Calling is free on all e-book retailers though April 23rd

Slowness

In honor of the Turtle, the local deity of Truth or Consequences who rests atop Turtleback Mountain, I contemplate the virtues of going slowly.

A friend who came in next-to-last in a marathon told me with pride that it took a special kind of endurance to keep on going for such a long time at her slow pace, especially mental endurance. It was a good insight. After all, she had no illusion she could win. Her motivation was personal and internal. She wasn’t competing, just completing.

I’m a slow writer. I write daily and have no shortage of inspirations. What takes time is depth.  I have to know what every character is thinking and feeling, discover the subterranean aspects of my lead characters’ minds, the emotions they themselves might not be touch with, and become aware of potential interactions at that level as well as in the mystery plot.

The style of yoga I study and teach is slow, not flow. The psychological state of flow occurs, but the asanas are explored in depth rather than in a fast-flowing sequence. I’m taking a twelve-week workshop with the teacher who first trained me to teach. In each weekly session, we study two or three asanas that have similar patterns in the body, attending to the subtle organization, the inner details. Seventy-five minutes on just utkatasana, warrior one, and warrior three was fascinating.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy anything fast. I love dancing to fast-paced music and reading fast-paced novels. Sometimes, in my personal yoga practice, I do a vigorous vinyasa. Speed is energizing. To achieve it with skill, though, the writer, dancer, or yogi first has to master slowness.

I look at the mountain and realize there’s more. The Turtle has mastered stillness.

*****

Turtleback image by Donna Catterick, whose photography graces the covers of Death Omen and Small Awakenings.

Snake Appreciation Day

My first sighting, finally, after years of running in the New Mexico desert. A sunny day turned suddenly cool and cloudy, which must be what made this normally nocturnal creature stir.* I slowed down to let the snake cross the trail and go wherever it was going. What an amazing design. Such graceful motion. It was plain gray, not a speckle (or a rattle) to decorate its slender form. Perfectly silent, it disappeared under a bush with its gentle undulations. I crept past the bush, sneaking a look under it. No snake. I didn’t expect it would have stayed. They’re shy, after all.

As I resumed my run, I marveled at the snakeness of the snake, its directness and simplicity. There I was with how many bones in each foot, moving from one set of tarsals, metatarsals and phalanges to the other, using how many muscles in each leg and hip, with hinge joints and ball-and-socket joints in motion, postural muscles at work … I had to ask myself …

Whose locomotion shows more art?

I have so many moving parts.

But Snake can get along just fine

While being nothing but a spine.

*****

*I looked it up and concluded it was a ringneck snake. They are colored like a gray suit with a bow-tie and are rarely seen during the day. Wikipedia describes them as “dainty and inoffensive.”

 

 

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.

 

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.

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.

*****

Enjoyed this post? You may also like Small Awakenings: Reflections on Mindful Living.

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.