Road Trip

I recently took a week and a few days to go back to Virginia and North Carolina to visit friends and collect some art I’d stored in one friend’s house. I enjoyed the reconnections with people, and the brief exposure to snow and cold and to architecture that was neither adobe nor trailer. T or C, with a population of a little over 6,000—it’s been shrinking—seems tiny next to Harrisonburg, Virginia (pop. 52,000), though it’s also considered a “small town” by some people. To me, Harrisonburg felt downright urban. So many ethnic restaurants with healthy choices, so many building over two stories tall, and so many traffic lights. (T or C has one.)

I dropped in on former colleagues, and due to snow, I was grateful that retired faculty have access to the college fitness facility. Running on an indoor track takes mental endurance, and if there hadn’t been so many students playing basketball to keep me amused, I wonder if I could have managed my usual distance. I taught a couple of yoga classes at the studio where I used to work in Harrisonburg, and it was a special and meaningful opportunity.

Part two of my road trip took me to Asheville, NC, where I found myself wondering what a trip to the mountains of North Carolina would be like for Mae Martin, my series’ protagonist.  (I was visiting the friend who inspired  the character.) Mae grew up in that area and she has connections in Asheville. What it would feel like for her to go back, after living in New Mexico? Asheville is a lot like Santa Fe and T or C in some ways, with its artists and yoga teachers and massage therapists, but in many ways it’s entirely different. The mountains are old and green. And the smaller towns beyond the city, such as the place where Mae’s grandparents lived, are another world, culturally and spiritually as well as physically, from the funky, eccentric town where she’s made a new home. (I moved her to T or C years before I made the permanent move myself.)

And what about a road trip itself as part of a story? Travel is inherently challenging. I drove through rain in the Blue Ridge on my way in, and on my way back through wind that started to peel the rubber rain-channel seal off my windshield, wind that made it hard to open the car door when I stopped for gas, wind that made big truckers struggle to open and close the doors of the truck stop. There were two wildfires on the outskirts of Amarillo and the flames and smoke mingled weirdly with the sunset. Any events in a story that I could set in weather like that would be doubly difficult for my characters, and it’s my job as a writer to make their lives difficult.

The outcome of all this? I’m glad to be home in this peculiar town with its colorful people and murals, its hot springs, and its art and music scenes. I was glad to see my T or C yoga students, to run in the desert again with the lizards and jackrabbits and roadrunners, and to go out dancing at the T or C Brewery. The art I brought back is either consigned for sale or on my walls, and I feel even more at home now with the pieces I chose to keep all around me. More complete, focused and inspired to create, with new ideas for the work in progress.

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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.

Continuing Education

I just finished a two-week intensive course on plot arcs. Writers aren’t required to get CECs the way health and fitness professionals are. I don’t have to renew a certification or have to take a certain number of courses per two-year period to prove to anyone that I’m keeping up my skills. But I have to keep learning.

People sometimes ask me why I go all the way to Albuquerque to take yoga classes every couple of weeks, classes I don’t get CECs for. The other teachers in T or C are good, after all. But they’re my peers. We’re equals. While I enjoy their classes, I also want to study with someone more advanced than I’ll ever be. I get excellent critiques from other writers, my peers, but I took a class with my editor’s editor.

It forced me to outline my work in progress before I completed the first draft, which I don’t usually do until I’ve improvised the whole plot, so it was challenging. I’m not sure my outlines made sense. But the ideas the instructor brought to the course did. Her structure for pacing and tension, for weaving in secondary storylines, and the key elements that need to take place in various portions of a book, will help me when I revise. She said she admired my bravery in staying with my “pantsing” (writer-talk for flying by the seat of your pants through the first draft) style while being required to outline. Maybe that was a diplomatic word for stubbornness. I don’t think I was brave. It’s just how I create. When I make plans, my characters seldom go along with them. I look forward to applying what I learned in the course when I do the major revisions in the second draft—once I know what everyone is up to.

 

Alternate Routes

While my car has been away on an extended health retreat, recovering its ability to recognize its own key, I haven’t been able to drive to the nearby state park where I like to run the trails, so I’ve been running on a dirt road along the Rio Grande instead. It has a flatter terrain, a harder surface, and not as much wildlife, but it offers a view of the river and of T or C’s magnificent landmark, the sleeping turtle formation atop Turtleback Mountain. For a second choice, it’s not bad.

On an unfamiliar route, though, I don’t know where all the lumps and soft spot and other hazards are, and I can get distracted by the scenery—and yet it totally surprised me that I tripped and found myself scraping my knees and elbows in the dirt and gravel before I’d even gone half a mile.

I jogged back home, cleaned up, bandaged my gashes, and decided to take a walk rather than sit around getting stiff from the fall or frustrated about not running. The route I chose took me to the highest point in town, the hill crowned by the water tank, where you can see to the edge of town in all directions. The tank features one of the town’s best murals, an image of Apaches on horseback coming to their traditional healing place, the hot springs along the Rio Grande. When I descended to downtown, I continued on to Ralph Edwards Park, one of our two riverfront parks. On the opposite bank, in the wild area across the river, a mule deer stood with her feet planted on the steep slope, her head lowered to the water, drinking in a position that would have caused a human to flop head first. She sustained her balance at such an angle it was like getting aerial view, revealing the subtle brown stripe on her back, a marking I’d never been able to see on a deer before. Four legs and hooves, I thought. It would be nice to have hooves. Her fine pointy feet enabled her to turn on a camber in a tight little clearing and angle herself uphill to browse the shrubs without a stumble. If my big ol’ size nines hadn’t stumbled, though, I wouldn’t have seen her. I’d have been somewhere else.

If my personal training business in Santa Fe hadn’t crashed, I wouldn’t have taken a job as health educator at a fitness center in Northeastern North Carolina. While I was working there, they needed a yoga teacher and none was available, but I had decades of yoga practice and offered to go to teacher training. It changed my life as well as serving their needs. Teaching has deepened my yoga practice profoundly and brought me in contact with some of my most valued friends. I found the setting for The Calling in that North Carolina town, and met the young woman who inspired the character of Mae Martin. If I’d stayed in Santa Fe, where there’s an excess rather than a shortage of yoga teachers, none of this would have happened. I can’t regret the alternate route. It was better than the one I’d planned on.

Observations on being a full-time writer

    • It doesn’t feel like a job.
    • I’m writing while it’s still light out, not just after nine at night the way I did when I had a structured day job.
    • I now live where my protagonist does. Result: Everything gives me ideas.
    • The town changes faster than my fictitious version of it can, but the essence stays the same.
    • I don’t need a job to structure my life or keep me busy. There’s so much to do, from music events to dancing at Sparky’s to Art Hop to teaching yoga to just getting out in nature, the challenge is telling myself no, stay in and write. I was more productive when it was 108 degrees in June. Less temptation to go out.
    • Depending on which of my friends is making the introductions, new acquaintances may be told that I’m a writer or that I’m a newly retired professor. If they hear the latter, it’s hard to redirect their first impression, and they tend to suggest things I could do to keep busy, including—I cringe at the thought—adjunct teaching. I think of myself as a writer and yoga teacher, not a retired professor—the person I am today, not the role I used to play. It’s an important distinction.

 

Kufwasa

I discovered this beautiful concept while researching Zambian culture for my work in progress. Kufwasa is a word in the Tumbuka language that means a blend of patience, mindfulness, flow, enjoyment, and something unique to the understanding of people who live in a traditional African culture which may be hard to put into English words. My goal in reading about Zambia was to understand more about a minor character, Mwizenge Chomba, who has been in my series since book two, Shaman’s Blues, but is about to play a larger role in the book I’m writing, the seventh in the series. I wanted to make sure I got his background right, his way of seeing the world. I’m not sure I’ll find a place for describing kufwasa in the book, but it should exist in the character himself, in the world view he grew up with.

Kufwasa implies doing one thing at a time, with full concentration and a kind of serenity, or it will be neither done well nor fully experienced. My character was raised in a remote village, so his family members would have planned one major activity a day. When you get around on foot, by bicycle, or in old and unreliable vehicles, travel and errands can’t be hurried. Cooking can’t be rushed, either, using traditional methods. A society without distractions enjoys taking time to talk and laugh and tell stories over these slowly prepared meals. In the twelve hours of equatorial darkness, married couples have plenty of time for kufwasa in their relationships. (I liked coming across this idea about marriage, because my Zambian character is married to an American woman who writes romance novels.) Love thrives on kufwasa.

It’s funny how I can discover something about a character that makes perfect sense even though I didn’t know it at the time I introduced him. Mwizenge appears in Shaman’s Blues as a singer and drummer in a world music trio. Live music of all kinds is a big part of Santa Fe life, and I’ve enjoyed African drumming and dance groups there, so he simply showed up the way characters do as someone likely to be in Santa Fe. I understand now why he feels at home there, so far from his village. He carved his own drum with kufwasa back in Zambia and grew up with music and dancing as community events. Compared to the high-pressure lifestyles of some parts of the country, the pace in New Mexico comes a little closer to kufwasa.

Next time I find myself trying to do too much too fast, I hope I can slow down and remind myself to practice kufwasa.

The Fascination of What’s Difficult

I memorized this poem years ago when I was working in theater and also pursuing a degree in a new field. It struck me as the perfect fit when I used it as the introduction to a research paper on stress and  health. To me, it describes the reaction of the human spirit to the demands of work—work we once chose with idealism and commitment but which now consumes us. William Butler Yeats, no doubt, rewrote the poem many times to achieve such simplicity and strength, yet the words seem to rush out in a flow of passion.

My father was my role model in many ways, the kind of person I aspire to be, with his gentleness, humor, open-mindedness, warmth, community engagement and enjoyment of the arts. He retired early from his management job to run his own small business selling specialized supplies to bird watchers. In many ways he was a cautious person, but he had the courage to risk a change when it was time. People tell me I’ve been glowing since I decided to retire early. Revisiting this poem after I’ve acted on the need it expresses, I get more out of it than ever.

How does it speak to you?

 

The Fascination of What’s Difficult

The fascination of what’s difficult

Has dried the sap out of my veins and rent

Spontaneous joy and natural content

Out of my heart. There’s something ails our colt

That must, as if it had not holy blood

Nor on Olympus leaped from cloud to cloud

Shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt

as though it dragged road metal. My curse on plays

That have to be set up in fifty ways,

On the day’s war with every knave and dolt,

Theater business, management of men.

I swear before the dawn comes round again

I’ll find the stable and pull out the bolt.