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.

 

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.