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. 

 

Big Box Mind Walk

For a few days back to back last week, the wind was ranging from twenty-five to thirty-five miles per hour. The average human female runs six and half miles per hour, and this human female is a rather light object. Woman vs. wind? If I were to have gone for a run, it was clear who would win. But I needed to get out and move. My tiny apartment in perfect for everything except cardiovascular exercise. T or C lacks an indoor track for days like this. There’s a gym with treadmills, but I’m not a member. I like to move through space. So … off I went to walk in Walmart, the only large indoor space I could think of.

I expected this walk to be boring. I’m not a recreational shopper. In fact, I have an aversion to shopping. Normally, I run for an hour or longer, but my expectation was that I’d last twenty minutes, the minimum necessary for cardio benefits. The first few laps were almost oppressive, with all the consumer goods surrounding me, but then I got into a groove, keeping up a brisk pace, switching aisles if someone was browsing in my path. The sharp turns were fun, and the scenery began to amuse me. A packet of something called Dirt Cake. Day-of-the-Dead-themed exercise shorts with fancy, decorative skulls on one leg. A big poster for black lipstick. In April?

Once I got into the rhythm, I shifted into walking meditation of a sort as the visuals flowed in a stream of awareness, and it became like a walk through the contents of my mind. Automotive thought. Back to the sensation of moving, feet pushing and landing. Music thought. Back to breath and movement. Whoa, look at the great facial expression on that lady—can I describe it and use it for a character? Return to walking. Spacious aisle. Narrow aisle. Pivot and turn. Ah, good, people are eating veggies; look at the crowd in the produce section. Back to body and breath. Hula hoop thoughts. Return the mind to walking. Office supplies, cross-cut shredder. That’s my brain:  a cross-cut shredder. Walk. Breathe. A seven- or eight-year old girl is skating in her sneakers on the smooth cement floor of the meat section. Can I use that behavior for Mae’s stepdaughters? They would skate in a store. Resume body and breath.

After a while even those thoughts softened, and all I saw were words, signs, colors, shapes, fellow humans in the midst of their lives. The passing slices of their experience and my steps became all one flow.

I finally checked the time after I encountered a yoga student I hadn’t seen for a while, and we chatted briefly. I found I’d walked for forty surprisingly mindful minutes.

 

… flowers, grass, dancing …

I took a turn east while looking for something Irish to share for St. Patrick’s Day. Yeats took an interest in Eastern thought, and in Japanese Noh theater, writing poetic dramas based on Irish myths to be performed in a manner based on the formal, stylized simplicity of Noh. This poem struck me as a kind of awakening.

Imitated from the Japanese

 

A most astonishing thing—

Seventy years have I lived;

 

(Hurrah for the flowers of Spring,

For Spring is here again.)

 

Seventy years have I lived

No ragged beggar man,

Seventy years have I lived,

Seventy years man and boy,

And never have I danced for joy.

 

In Haruki Murakami’s short story collection, After the Quake, a man dances alone on a baseball mound in the middle of the night.

“Yoshiya took off his glasses and slipped them into their case. Dancing, huh? Not a bad idea. Not bad at all. He closed his eyes and, feeling the white light of the moon on his skin, began to dance all by himself … Unable to think of a song to match his mood, he danced in time with the stirring of the grass and the flowing of the clouds. Before long he began to feel that someone, somewhere was watching him. His whole body—his skin, his bones—told him with absolute certainty that he was in someone’s field of vision. So what? He thought. Let them look if they want to. All God’s children can dance.”

The Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats, Macmillan,  New York, 1974

All God’s Children Can Dance, short story in After the Quake, Haruki Murakami, Vintage International, 2003, translation by Jay Rubin