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.”

 

 

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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.

Cold!

This is not a normal winter in T or C. It’s cold. So cold a few flakes of snow fell, enough to decorate Turtleback Mountain with white stripes way up near the Turtle. I thought I wouldn’t be able to stand running when the temperature was below forty, but I missed the beauty of the trail, the open space on all sides, and the effect on my creative flow, so I gave it a try, wearing so many layers a northerner would have laughed had one seen me. Not bad after all, thirty-seven degrees. Another day this week was windy, almost like spring. I went out anyway. Half-way through the four miles, I realized I felt good enduring the challenges, better than if I’d done something indoors instead. It was good to be reminded that thinking about doing something difficult is often more stressful than actually doing it.

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.

 

Launch

On June 1st 2017, I left my apartment in Virginia for the last time. With the help of an amazing friend, I had most of my belongings miraculously crammed into my very small car, and had already sold my furniture and excess books. I said my good byes and gave away my bed, my landlord inspected the place, and I hit the road. Bit by bit, plan by plan, I downsized to the minimum and retired early. I’d say more, but why? It was interesting to me, of course, but not because of any adventure or drama that would make a good story, but because it went so smoothly.

On June 1st 2018, I went for a walk to enjoy one of T or C’s amazing full-circle sunsets— pink clouds in the south and in the east, orange and purple mingling in the West—and to commune with the bats that emerge from an old warehouse in the middle of town, next door to the trailer I use as Mae’s house in my books. (I’ve not used the bats in my books yet, but Mae would like them.)

I watched the bats pour from a crack in the brick wall in a flow of perfectly sequenced flights, one bat right after another, and tried to imagine how they organized this exit. One squadron would take off, and then no one came out for a while, but after the pause there was a lot of squeaking high up in the old warehouse. Whenever the squeaking got loud and then stopped,  more bats came out. Sometimes a solo bat popped out of a small hole lower in the wall or shot out of a hole to the right of the main exit, while the main surge of fliers swept out from the big crack and headed for the river. Their orderly formations dispersed into every-which-way flutters, a few independent bats leaving the crowd altogether to stay and hunt bugs around the neighborhood.

One reason this multi-bat take-off is so amazing is they can’t run; they can only take off by dropping and launching like hang gliders. Imagine the launch sequence inside the old warehouse as one bat after another lets go of the ceiling and aims for the exit. Somehow, they organize it, and it works.

A year after my move, I have no regrets. It was the right decision, a successful launch. I can live happily as a writer and yoga teacher in a very small apartment in a wonderfully weird town. I’ve made new friends and no enemies (that I know of) and am still discovering the simple beauties of this place. I ran in the desert on June 1st 2018, aware that a year earlier I was in my car. On my way to the quail, the jackrabbits, the mule deer, and the checkered whiptails that made my run so beautiful. On my way home.

 

Smashing Clichés

Movies featuring things blowing up are popular. People like to watch demolitions, from buildings to demolition derbies. And then there is art-to-be burned, such as Burning Man and Zozobra. When I lived in Virginia, I used to clean the park where I ran and sometimes enlisted the help of several boys who played there. One day, they found a large toy firetruck in the stream and pulled it out—and proceeded to smash it to pieces with rocks. This was obviously more fun than playing with it.

Someone has been making faces on the trail where I run in the desert. Not walking along being silly, but arranging pebbles in smiley-faces on top of the rocks that mark the edge of the trail. The first one didn’t annoy me, but then they multiplied. I don’t mind intriguing, meaningful art made among the desert rocks. A labyrinth. A miniature Stonehenge-like creation. A rounded lava rock that looks like a fertility goddess surrounded by a little maze and an altar. A small rock nestled in a hollow in a large rock just because it fits so perfectly. Such arrangements fall over gradually or get covered with sand, and nature looks natural again. Someone left a small painted rock near the trail, red white and blue with the Texas flag’s star, the name of a soldier who died in combat, and few words of love and honor. It means something. No one moves it. Perhaps he used to love this trail and used to hike it with the person who left the rock. But smiley-faces? Twenty or more of them? That’s nineteen clichés too many.

On a lovely, sunny, seventy-degree winter day, I got tired of them and gave a swipe at one as I passed. No effect. The pebbles had been glued to the trail-marker rock. What the heck? Did the face-maker think this stuff should be permanent? I soon found that a quick kick could dislodge most features of the glued-on smiley-faces, and it felt good. Can I justify it? Maybe not, but to me, gluing all those faces along the trail was arrogant. If they’d been arranged lightly, without attachment, I might have knocked one aside and been content, had my fun like the boys smashing the toy firetruck, and forgotten about it. Nature would have blown them away eventually.

Writers are regularly advised to “kill your darlings,” those scenes we love that weigh down the pace, or those wonderful (to us) witty lines that don’t serve the story. We have to weed out clichés and our favorite over-used words. They can have an effect on readers like seeing twenty-plus smiley faces, an intrusion on the flow of enjoyment. Today I noticed that someone else had destroyed smiley-faces. There were face-pattern glue marks on some rocks with branches laid over them, as if my fellow self-appointed curator of trail art was saying, “Don’t even think about putting that back.”

Sometimes I store my cut scenes and lines for a while, in case I want to put them back, but ninety-percent of those darlings never return. Nothing in the first draft is glued in place. I have to destroy in order to create. Fortunately, I enjoy revision. It’s a lesson in non-attachment, and almost as much fun as smashing a smiley.