The Full Circle Moon of Good Intentions

“Do you know anything about turtles?” the woman asked. She was a slim, big-eyed brunette in a sundress, carrying a large blue canvas bag. A silver-haired man carrying a plastic grocery bag stood nearby, poised to walk off, his shoulders turned away from her. She must have already asked him, and he obviously wanted to keep moving.

I was on my way to meet a friend for a sunset walk. The clouds promised great color effects. But when I discovered the woman was uncertain how to rescue a  turtle that was trying to cross the street, I had to stop. We were five blocks from the river. A long hike for a turtle, and a dangerous one. Hot pavement, traffic, and predators. Yes, predators. And not just cats. There was a gray fox trotting down the alley across from us. Unlike turtles, foxes come downtown quite often. (Plenty of bunnies, no competition from coyotes.)

I found a small flower pot lying on the street. The woman offered to sacrifice her towel—she was on her way to La Paloma for a hot spring soak—to wrap the turtle, and I cupped its sharp-beaked little head in the pot. First we just lifted the critter over the adobe wall into the yard of the nearest house. I knew the owners, and they wouldn’t mind. But the turtle took off running for the sidewalk. I never realized they could move that fast. It would be in the street again any minute.

I called my friend and explained that I was taking a turtle to the river, and he said he would meet us there. My new acquaintance and I headed toward the Rio Grande, with her cradling the turtle in a fluffy pink towel. She told me was in T or C on a long visit from Austin and was thinking about moving here. Since she was too young to retire, I asked what she would do here. “Thrive,” she replied.

We met my friend and his dog on the way and then released the turtle into a muddy spot on the riverbank, not too steep or bumpy, so it could have a safe slide into the water. It stared at the river and then hurried into the weeds.

Satisfied, we humans lingered to watch the full moon rise from behind Turtleback Mountain, and my new friend and my old friend told stories, getting acquainted. Bats dived after insects, swooping in close to us, and we gradually fell silent in the sacred space.

Later, at home, I looked up turtles. I’d never answered the question that started the evening’s adventure: Do you know anything about turtles? If I had, the answer would have been no.

I learned they lay eggs around this time of year and may walk up to a mile from the water to do so. Our rescue interrupted a turtle on a mission. I told myself we meant well, and that she came out the wrong side of the river. The other side is wild, but she was heading downtown. Even if she somehow found a spot to bury her eggs, the hatchlings would never make it home. Still, I have to wonder about the unintended consequences of our good intentions. Maybe she knew what she was doing. I hope she found a good, safe place to lay eggs, but after her heroic trek, we brought her right back to where she started.

 

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“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.

Conversations and Story-Telling

 

My eighty-two-year old neighbor hasn’t been able to walk his dog since he fell off his bike and injured his shoulder. His dog is strong and energetic, and his balance isn’t as good as it once was. We worked out an arrangement where I hold the leash, and the three of us walk together. He’s there to give his dog commands as needed and pull occasional thorns out of her paws, and I’m there for a steady grip and good balance. One reason I offered to do this is because I knew we’d have great conversations. In an hour-long walk, we never ran out of interesting topics. With eighty-two years of engaged, thoughtful life plus a great sense of humor, my neighbor is a delightful story-teller, and I was happy to prompt him to keep going.

At a popular fishing spot on the curve of the Rio Grande, we ran into another gentleman of advanced years with his dog, and the men immediately struck up a conversation about fishing, dogs, and various other things. Normal T or C behavior—talking to strangers.

Later in the day, I went out to dinner with a friend, and when the server came to check if we were okay, since our meals hadn’t arrived yet, we’d been so busy getting caught up with each other we hadn’t noticed the kitchen was a bit slow. A young couple came in and was seated across the room from us. I had a view of them in profile, each hunched over a phone, heads bowed, making no eye contact and no conversation. They looked like a satire on smart-phone addicts. I wondered about the state of their relationship. First date and painfully shy? Together too long and bored? Or was this, to them, normal?

Maybe they’ll stay in T or C a while and put the phones down. I’ve seen local young people doing things like skateboarding the wrong way down the middle of Broadway, earbuds hanging loose and blasting music to passersby (I can use that for one of my characters—Misty Chino would do that), but so far I’ve never seen them doing the blind-to-the world phone-walk my college students so often did. I imagine the young tourists, phone-walking, bumping up against a cluster of locals yakking on the sidewalk with someone who pulled a truck over to the curb to join the conversation. And the couple makes eye contact with the strangers. They answer friendly questions and tell their stories, and go on their way, talking with each other.

 

 

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?

Hug

I have a friend whose favorite saying is “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.” He’s a wonderfully eccentric and open man, the one who walked into the Little Sprout in his bathrobe on his way to water aerobics and struck up a conversation with me. (See post on Talking to Strangers, link below.) Some people have the gift of fearlessly being their true selves in public without any worry about what others will think.

I love it when people don’t try to be cool. Enthusiasm, eccentricity and honesty are all so much more appealing. I was walking with another professor today, about to cross a street through the middle of the campus, when I saw a student who’d been in my freshman seminar last semester running toward me from a block away with open arms and a glowing smile. Of course, I stopped. He hugged me and said he missed me. Wow. You don’t get that often when you teach a required first-year course. Faculty members don’t get a lot of hugs for teaching, period. It made my day. We talked about what he’s currently studying, hugged again, and I caught up with my colleague, who had been dealing with a disgruntled student who’s fighting a failing grade. We often hear more from the dissatisfied few than from the happy ones, so my day was set alight by this happily “uncool” young man. Now I feel like going around showing other people how much I appreciate them.

Anyone who takes the time to read anything I write—books, reviews, blog posts—thanks. Fellow bloggers that I follow—thanks. I appreciate you. Everyone who surprised someone with a hug today—thanks. Keep on hugging, reading and writing.

https://amberfoxxmysteries.wordpress.com/2014/09/11/talk-to-strangers/