Listening and Light

Listening silences my inner noise. Running on a winter afternoon, I hear my feet. The sound- textures change from hard slapping on dried-mud clay to near-inaudible thudding on soft dust and sand to crunching on gravel and pebbles. A crow caws in flight. A flock of doves rises from the desert brush with alarm calls as fluttery as the rush of their wings. Hikers converse in amiable tones, too distant for me to make out their words. Rather, I receive their voices as part of the music, harmonizing with the cheep of a solitary bird, the hum of something mechanical at the New Mexico Veterans’ Home on the hill above the trails, and the crow of a rooster somewhere across the Rio Grande.

Listening seems to sharpen my vision, enhancing my inner stillness and conscious presence. The light behind cacti brings out gold in the thorns on tall green prickly pears and red in the thorns on little purple pancake cacti. Their flat purple pads soak up the light. A female desert cardinal is little more than silhouette in a mesquite tree. Each pebble stands out like a sculpture. Each crevice in the now-dry rain-cut earth is wrinkled with deep shadows.

Thoughts slip in, but I let them go and come back to listening and light.

 

The Rainbow of My Dream

I dreamed bright colors. Bands of yellow and green. No story, just colors and a feeling of joy. The following day was sunny and sixty-six degrees. Excited for such a perfect December day, I hit the trail in Elephant Butte Lake State Park. I knew it would be a little windy, but the sand was still damp from two days of steady rain, so it wouldn’t be flying in my face.

After I’d run less than a mile, the wind grew chilly and blew in clouds to cover the sun, and the temperature dropped. I wished I’d worn gloves. This was not the run I’d imagined. I persisted, though, knowing I’d feel like a wimp if I cut it short. The clouds were dramatic, and the weather kept the normal winter tourists off the trail. It was all mine.

Still, as I committed to the final mile, I asked myself, why is it so important to keep going in the cold? There’ll be plenty of warm, sunny, windless days all winter. As I finished the last stretch, the sun broke through in the west. Golden light flooded the sand and the desert junipers, and half a rainbow woke up in the clouds to the east. It set its jeweled foot softly on the ground and arced into the gray, its trajectory unfinished. My endurance was rewarded: the rainbow of my dream.

Spontaneous Serenity

When I finished a long run at Caballo Lake State Park, I was so reluctant to leave the bliss state of immersion in nature, I did my yoga practice on the small brick patio behind the visitor’s center. Its adobe-brown stucco walls and an L-shaped stone bench were my props. Balancing poses in the wind became open-skill activities, challenging and unpredictable. The views of the mountains and a cute little cactus with bright yellow thorns provided a change from the familiar views of my apartment and my outdoor teaching space, making my inner space feel different as well. Savasana on a hard stone bench, listening to the wind, was deep peace.

Then I took pictures. While I may never be much of an artist as photographer, the effort makes me appreciate even more the work of those who are, and helps me reconnect with the extraordinary serenity of that moment.

 

Whoo!

About once every two years, I encounter another runner on the trail. Mostly there are dog-walkers in the fall and winter, and no other humans in the spring and summer. Last week, the rare runner approached, and he didn’t just say hi and pass, he grinned and whooped.

He wasn’t a kid—there was gray in his beard. I guessed he was visiting from some snowy place. He wore a tank top while I wore long sleeves and gloves. Escaping to the sun and the desert, he had to be in a state of pure delight. We passed again on the next lap of the loop—at almost exactly the same spot, going in opposite directions at equal speed. He whooped again, raising his hand in a high-five. “Good job!” My cheering section. “You too,” I said.

His exuberance got me thinking about joy. About letting go into the moment. Not taking for granted this experience I have four times a week that was such an exhilarating treat for him. And he celebrated our mutual awesomeness as senior runners still at it. As I ran on, I slipped into my inner “whoo!” zone.

I’ve done it since even without his cheers. Yesterday, I spent two laps mentally fussing with my volunteer work’s to-do list and was about to stop early to deal with it. But then my inner whooper turned around and ran for another half hour, dumping the to-dos and choosing freedom. Then I went back to town and dealt with it all. Today after I taught my outdoor yoga class, I watered the plants (that’s how I pay rent for my “studio”) and instead of going home to get on with the endless list, I gave in to the urge to do my own practice before I even rolled up the hose. I’d only had time for a short warm-up before class. This long, spontaneous practice under the brilliant blue sky was bliss. More om than whoo, but a good bit of both.

Rain Runner

Sensation and perception reach my deepest inner places, massaging out creativity and awareness where I didn’t even know they’d been knotted up.  The first day of rain delivered a short thunderstorm. It cooled the air so much I opened my door and turned the air conditioner off, bringing in the special smell of desert rain. The burst of natural light through the screen door changed the look of the room, and the silence created space in which the familiar felt new.

In the prior weeks, the temperature was over 100 day after day. My body is acclimated to exercise in high heat, and I’ve come to enjoy the intensity of it. However, the sand on the trail got so hot my toes were blistering in my five-toed, flexible barefoot shoes. A pair of new, semi-minimalist shoes let me keep running, but instead of responding to subtle differences in the terrain that normally would make me vary my stride and speed, dancing around rocks and thorns, I just kept padding along. My feet felt nothing but shoe.

On the second day of rain, soft and steady, I ran in it, letting it bathe me in its blessings. The sand had cooled and firmed, the perfect running surface. Wearing my barefoot shoes again, I could feel the textures of thick sand, of thin sand over underlying rock, of the rounded bumps of a pebbly stretch of trail—getting reflexology from the ground. My feet were happy. Sole to soul.

Rain beaded on the tips of green needles and leaves, on desert plants that seldom wear such jewelry. The greens grew brighter and deeper under the diffuse gray-sky light.

To honor the rain gods, I cleaned the trail as best I could. With the reopening of tourism comes plastic litter. The discarded containers I carried to a trash can had no texture, no responsiveness to the weather, just impermeable smoothness. The dirt that stuck to them was alive, holding moisture, darkening with wetness. It struck me that my mind after too much time indoors is like plastic, while time in nature makes it more like dirt. Stuff can grow in it.

 

 

Surprising Myself

Multiple times in the past few months, I dropped my car key while running. My new Amphipod water bottle has a smaller pocket on the hand strap than the old one did, so I couldn’t fit the key with its great big head in the pocket anymore. It was either poking half-way out or dangling from my little finger. When I shifted the bottle from one hand to the other, it was easy to drop the key. After each drop, I told myself I would pay more attention. But I don’t run to pay attention to my key. I’m either brainstorming a scene in a book, admiring nature, or doing both.

I sometimes a route that doesn’t go in laps of a circular trail but along a stretch of sand above Elephant Butte Lake and back. I’ve never measured it, but it takes as long as five miles did on another trail. Not a great distance for marathoners, but it’s my usual. I changed the bottle from right hand to left at the turnaround point and didn’t notice my key was missing until I got back to my car. My phone and spare key were locked in the trunk.

No point in fretting or in objecting to reality. I had no choice but to run back. After a windstorm, the sand was freshly rearranged, and my tracks were easy to retrace. But the sand was soft in places where the key could have vanished. I could have dropped it into a lizard hole. Or a well-meaning person could have picked it up.

Seeing a park ranger’s truck on the dirt road above the beach, I pulled up my mask, waved, and ran to him. He loaned me his phone to call my roadside assistance club, and then I ran on, in case I could find the key.

It lay exactly where I’d turned around and switched hands on the water bottle. I ran back to my car, speeding up so I could get to my phone and cancel the lock-out service.

I did it! Success!

Almost. I was in the middle of the call when the ranger showed up, escorting the wrecker to my car.

Insights from this adventure:

  • I can make the same mistake five times before I learn from it.
  • I can be creative with what I have on hand: I crafted the world’s smallest fanny pack using the pocket from my old Amphipod bottle. My key will go in it.
  • And I can run double my usual miles.

You never know what you’re capable of until you do it.

A Writing Lesson

Those of you who’ve followed this blog for a while know that a certain trail in Elephant Butte Lake State Park is my sacred space, my refuge where I run in beauty. This fall, it began to lose some of its peacefulness to people who vented their feelings by writing. They could have done it in journals, blog posts, poems, or song lyrics—but they wrote in sand and on rocks.

Today, I decided to do something about it while in the park and later by writing a letter to the editor of the only local print paper. My original letter was 376 words. The paper allows 250. I had to find 125 excess words in what I thought was already perfect.

This was a fascinating process. The original version wasn’t perfect after all. It was wordy. I’d like it better with three of four more words. But I removed 120 I don’t even miss. Can I cut excess words in my fiction this ruthlessly? I’ll have to remember the lesson as I revise my works in progress.

The letter:

At first, I thought the wind would blow the words away. It didn’t. More appeared, political words, in the sand along Luchini Trail. Then words spelled out with pebbles. Then words scrawled on rocks in black marker. Not bad words—honor, respect, integrity etc. But it’s still graffiti. If one person starts defacing the rocks, what’s to stop others from doing it? (Except respect, honor, and integrity.) I turned those rocks over. The graffiti writer returned with yellow paint and rewrote the words. Every time I run, I stop to flip a heavy rock. The person responsible for the graffiti flips it back later. Dear scribbler, I don’t object to your words, but to the fact that you painted them on rocks.

Most of the sand writings were angry. When an f-bomb appeared, I couldn’t wait for wind erasure. With a fallen twig shaped like a broom, I swept away the rage, whether I agreed or disagreed with the writer. I tossed the political-opinion pebbles. One landed in sand so untouched it simply vanished.

The sand I swept was soft and warm. There were delicate little quail tracks in it. Peace. Beauty. It’s what people seek on this trail. But every time I passed those angry words, my mind snagged on inner noise and argument.

We benefit from a space that calms our spirits rather than aggravating our outrages. Perhaps the graffiti writer thinks they’re sending positive messages. But nature can do it better, without black marker or yellow paint.

Rock Watching

Trying new running routes, I have to be mindful, a rock watcher, even on a broad, sandy trail. I dare look up only for seconds at a time to admire the view—a cliff in the distance, blue water even further off—under the bluebird-blue sky. Little flying silhouettes might be bluebirds, but the light is so strong behind them, they have no color at all. The same slant of light does wonders for the view at my feet, though. The late afternoon sun makes them stand out in the sand and dirt, dull gray tricksters I might otherwise trip over. Strange formations like a giant’s petrified bubble-bath bulge from the sides of hills, scrubby junipers perched among them like the giant’s bonsai. (I know, that’s a clunky juxtaposition, bath and bonsai, but I did it anyway.) The bubble rocks may be lithophysae—meaning there could be geodes inside. But I’m not going to bring tools and attack them to find out. The mystery is part of their magic.

Thanks to observing the ground as I ran, I found a fine little metal toy truck of the kind I used to love a child, the kind that could whizz along the floor of the playroom with satisfying smoothness. The truck is weathered, its white paint marbled by sand-scrubbing so the black metal underneath shows. Its wheels are gone. Its windshield has turned dark. But it’s still an excellent little truck. It has a story. Somehow, it got half-buried in a road so seldom used, so totally abandoned, that a lizard I startled ducked into a large, well-established hole in smack the middle of it.  Another reason for rock watching.

Scaring the Bluebirds

I felt bad for alarming them. They’d settled into the tall junipers on either side of the trail. But if I let them sit, I’d have never finished my run. So, three times, making laps of my favorite trail, I scared the newly-arrived flock of bluebirds into flight. Once they were aloft, it was moving, magical, a soul-stretching experience. Thirty or forty bluebirds, the males’ wings flashing like fragments of the New Mexico blue sky.

I have to upend my characters’ lives. Make them fly. It brings out the beauty and strength in them. No one wants to read a book about an easy life. We’d all like to have one, I suppose, but according to the concept of Flow, doing something difficult that we can master makes life interesting, not doing what’s easy. The character arc in a book and in a series is like that. Characters have to struggle and face setbacks before finally they arrive at some version of their goals, changed by the effort. And then, as they get comfortable in a new stage of life, the author comes around the bend in the trail again. The bluebirds take flight.

*****

Bird notes: I have learned that the Western Bluebird lives in most parts of New Mexico year-round, but some from further north may migrate here. This flock arrived in Elephant Butte Lake Park about a week before the state parks shut down again due to the pandemic. The closure may only be for two weeks, or it may last a while, depending how things go. My alternate running route is beautiful, but without bluebirds. I hope they stay the winter, and I can see them again. If I do, I will probably scare them again. I miss them, but I doubt they miss me.

Hugging a Wasp and Other Encounters

I walked the road along the Rio Grande, going well past the areas where people fish or put in rafts, far enough to be alone with the cliffs, the cacti, and the red-winged blackbirds in the shrubs on the bank. A huge blue heron flew low over the center of the river, gliding upstream. A jackrabbit on the opposite bank crept down to drink. The shared silence felt special. I was at peace. The rabbit was at peace.

The rainbow-like greater earless lizards are one of the many beauties of Elephant Butte Lake State Park. There’s one who lives under a certain juniper at a bend in the trail where I run. She was pink-sided earlier, and now she isn’t, meaning she has laid her eggs. Now she’s just green and orange. I look forward to seeing her on her favorite rock when the temperature is in the eighties and low nineties, and she needs to warm up, holding still as I slow down to admire her.

I spotted another of this species standing upright on its hind legs near an empty campground, front feet on a flat-topped pink rock that was perfectly scaled to be a little bar for lizards. It looked so much like it was ordering a beer, I wished I had a camera. Not that I would go running with a camera, but it would have made a wonderful picture.

While picking figs outside my apartment, I accidentally cupped my hand around a small delicate body. A wasp. Not the kind that crawls inside a fig to lay eggs, but the kind that stops by to eat after the birds have carved holes in the fruit. They’re a stunning variation on the theme of wasp, adobe brown with yellow stripes and geometric designs on their backs. They remind me of some pottery ornaments I bought years ago at a Pueblo corn dance as gifts for my family. It didn’t react to my touch, and I let go, surprised by its gentleness.

All quail family encounters are aww-inspiring. The chicks are SO tiny and so numerous, running to keep up with their parents.

And then, there were the coyotes. One crossed my path in the desert, looking back at me. Then another, paying me no mind. The lack of people in the park may be making them feel free to roam their territory in ways they wouldn’t in a normal year. They’re such a rare sighting, especially in the middle of a summer day, I took them as a sign. Not that they were there for me, of course.

I perceive these various creatures—in my human way—as cute, beautiful, or meaningful. We’re connected in the web of life, and my spirit needs them. But none of them are there for me. That’s part of the magic of wild things.