I CAME TO TALK OF DEATH or possibly life. Sometimes it is hard to know which. Yes, they are tired, old, worn, subjects and what more could one possibly have to add? Nothing probably. But at a certain age, it all seems to be more in your face. Funerals become more frequent. People you couldn't imagine not being in your life, are gone. And well, the statistics are there, right? So whether you want to or not, the subject of life and death will enter your lexicon. And even if you try to push it away, thinking foolishly, it doesn't pertain to me. Not yet, anyway. You will find yourself thinking about it, eventually.
So, I want to believe it is a continuum. A transition, to be sure, but things keep on going, just differently. And I hear you shouting, that's what religion is all about, dummy. Yes, but I find myself needing to take the dogma out of it and just look at the evidence. Everything is cyclical. Take a look at plants. They die back at winter to return in spring. Look at the progression of the seasons, or the movement of night into day. Our whole observable Universe is in a state of becoming. Becoming something else. You see, it's the way it is all designed. And we are part of that design. No different. Death is a part of the cycle. That's all.
Now, none of this is new information. Nothing earth shattering about it. But when you can start to take it in on a personal level, there is a real beauty, a real elegance to the design. And personally, I find great comfort in that design.
(a footnote) As I am writing this, I know of someone who is dying. Possibly very soon. So, as I am wrestling with that, I needed to state or restate some things in a public manner, for my own sake and maybe for anyone else who is facing this tonight.
Spring is well upon us and Easter is now behind us. An annual restlessness begins to settle in my bones. It comes with the spring winds. It comes with the tumbleweed season. When the winds pick up the tumbleweeds race, in numbers too many to count, across the desert floor stopping only when a fence line traps them. They pile up like a colony of other-worldly beings, jostling for position, forever quivering in the wind, and attaching to each other, creating an insurmountable mountain of dried thistle.
Recently, I discovered that the tumbleweed or Russian thistle, which is symbolic of the West and seems to appear in every western movie, is not native to the West. It originated on the tundra in the Ural Mountains of Russia and didn't appear in the US until the late 1870's. Apparently their seeds were imported here by mistake with some flax seed by immigrant Ukrainian farmers in South Dakota. By 1900, it was in almost every western state and had spread all the way to the Pacific ocean. Rolling in the wind is how they spread their seeds. How very efficient and how very invasive.
The news, the other night, showed thousands of them hugging a fence that runs parallel to Interstate 40 here in New Mexico for miles. I, myself, gathered three large trash bags of them just the other morning after a particularly windy night. There is something creepy about this annual migration of these dead, skeletal weeds, and yet, awesome at the same time.
Brief, intermittent rains cross the valley this morning. The slight moisture mixes with downed leaves to create a pungent leafy smell. Fall has draped the desert. There are not many trees here that change. Mostly, at this altitude, it is evergreens: junipers and piñons. The transplants who have settled here have brought in a few deciduous ones, though. It seems everyone is from somewhere else and has a need to carry along a few memories of once lived lives. Eastern trees and green lawns dot the West as a testament to this.
The two aspens out back are turning yellow. The locust, too. They are small trees, somewhat stunted, but they provide just enough of a visual change for the season to sink into one's bones. Leaves turning seems important for the soul. And the morning chill naturally pulls us inward.
Fall is no doubt a season for the senses. Probably the reason so many tout it as their favorite. It's the respite from summer's heat and the forewarner to winter's cold. It's a little stopping off place, a chance to reflect. It's a break.
Three incredibly orange pumpkins sit on the back porch and watch.
This is the first week back after a week at the beach. Re-entry was hard. The beach was at Cape May, New Jersey, to be specific. It's a part of the East coast I had never visited before. The ocean was beautiful and memorable. The weather was hot and humid, with an emphasis on the HUMID.
The contrast of the ocean environment to the desert is obvious, but what struck me was their similarities. They share an austere beauty. Both have the immense skies, with a sense of the infinite. Oddly, with all the expanse, in both cases, I often find myself pulled to the smallest details: the delicate color of a broken seashell washed up on the sand or a shard of bone on the desert floor. And both have the relentless winds that hint at the ever changing but constant moment. Different but the same.
I looked up at the sky last night. It was clear and star-filled, with the Milky Way so prominent and I thought how the word 'home' has a much broader meaning for me these days.
I ran this morning. I really didn't want to. I had to force myself out the door. But before I could get out that door, there was an internal battle I had to wage. My mind came up with all kinds of reasons why I shouldn't or couldn't run. Any one of them could have worked as an excuse. They all seemed so logical. Deep down though, a small part of me knew I was lying to myself. It was self-sabotage. There was no good reason not to do this run, on this morning, at this time. No good reason, at all.
So I ran.
Once my feet were moving, I felt good. The battle with myself now seemed ridiculous. I was actually running at a faster pace than is normally comfortable. I ended up having the fastest run of the month, so far. Along the way an interesting thing happened, it started to rain. It was a gentle, invigorating rain, backlit by a rising sun struggling through some broken clouds. And, as if on cue, I glanced over my right shoulder and there was a partial rainbow. It was a perfect moment. The kind of moment you know is going to stick with you for a while. The kind of moment you are going to want to recall when things aren't so perfect.
After my run, I wondered how many "perfect moments" I had missed because I convinced myself to do one thing over another. What will it take to remember this for the next battle with myself?
I walked outside a little after 6:00 trailing behind an overly eager dog. He insisted on starting the day. Myself, I could have slept a little longer. The air was still and oddly warm for this time of year. The stillness seemed to overtake the dog as he just stood and sniffed. I tried to follow his lead, but my nose picked up nothing. And then, as if by cue, a pack of coyotes, out of sight, over a hill to the southwest, started their chorus. Perhaps a celebratory song signifying their night's work was done. I have to admit, it was a welcome sound.
This spring has brought about a lot of rabbits. I mean, a lot of rabbits — cottontails, jackrabbits, all shapes and sizes. One morning I looked out the front window and counted eight. My wife was thrilled with all the bunnies, but I secretly thought this is not normal. Visions of rabbits introduced by the Europeans decimating parts of Australia came to mind. I know, a bit dramatic, right?
But seriously, what had caused this proliferation? Was the winter too mild? The spring too amorous? I am not certain. I do know the coyotes did not seem to be around much this past winter. Where did they go? Were way too many hunted last year? Again, I cannot say for certain, but things seem to be a bit out of balance. Is this waxing and waning of species a natural occurrence? Perhaps. I can't help but wonder though, what part we humans played in this particular ecological drama? We constantly hear of environmental impact, but it takes on a whole new meaning when you see it play out in your own front yard. Resources in the desert are few and probably nowhere is the interconnectedness more evident. Small changes have such a great impact. Am I being an alarmist? Have I been in the desert way too long? Again perhaps, but I saw the first snake of spring yesterday and he too, was a welcome sight.
Spring winds have come to the desert. Strong gusts push and pull at everything, including one's attention. It's as if they herald change itself. The desert is "greening". Looking across the expanse, there is a subtle green replacing the winter yellows and browns. Drop to your knees, for a closer look, and the stunted grasses are definitely turning; while no-name weeds pop everywhere. Of course, the green is short-lived. By June, the heat and lack of moisture will have pushed everything into a yellow dormancy again, to wait and hope for the late summer monsoons.
So, perhaps it is the combination of wind and changing color, but I find myself longing for change, as well. The words, "road trip" suddenly sound exciting and I'm paying more attention to sunrises than sunsets. Is it the call of the East, or more specifically, the South and home? Perhaps, Spring awakens the "green" of my childhood.
I started training this week for this year's Bolder Boulder. It's a 10k held in Boulder, Colorado every Memorial Day. It will be my tenth. Did my first in 1998. I walked it, then, but still it was a very big deal. And yes, I've missed a few in the years in between. Last year I ran it and I asked myself if it was my last, but here I am again this year, training. There will come a day, I assume, when I can't run anymore, but I'm not there yet. Still, I find myself battling with what being 61 should look like. This battle creeps into my art, as well. I tell myself, I should already be there. Even though, I'm not sure where there is. Besides, is there really a there? Isn't it really only here that we should be concerned with?
Another bird hit the window this morning. I watched him die. My wife heard of a friend who passed from breast cancer this week. So much death everywhere you look. I'm reading a book called Many Alarm Clocks, by Sy Safransky, the editor and publisher of The Sun magazine. He touches a lot on the subject of death, of impermanance, but he also talks of life in a reassuring way. We're all in the same boat. Even if we can't truly understand it, it's how it all works.
One morning this week, I finished Yoga just as the sun rose. It was a glorious moment.
'To enjoy life the adventurous state of mind must be grasped and maintained.
Two coyotes crossed the property this morning, followed shortly by a third. We don't see them in the daylight hours as much as we did when we first moved here. Although, they still make their presence known at night with their songs. Those that know, say they sing in celebration of the hunt. Personally, I don't know why they sing. The world they inhabit is quite foreign to my own, a mystery.
I turned another year older today and I realize there is so much I do not know. But therein lies the adventure. It is a glorious thing, this thing called life!
"Why did you get to see the reindeer?",she asked in the predawn. I pulled the blanket tighter against the chill and flatly said, "I needed it." And in the growing light, I knew that was the truth.
Thus far, the season had been a medley of homeowner calamities. With the coming of fall, mice had chewed through the gas lines of the Subaru. When the leaves began to die, so did the fridge. The dryer quit drying on Thanksgiving and a tub leak in one bathroom became a hole in the wall of another. Which, with the tutelage of YouTube, I decided to fix. (As of this writing, I've almost finished painting the entire bathroom.) When I plugged in the new little tree with multicolored lights on the porch, the GFI plug in the garage gave up it's ghost. Needless to say, the spirit of the holidays had grown somewhat dim.
Two weeks before Christmas, with the sun setting a little more to the south everyday, I walked out of the studio, completely self-absorbed, expecting an electrician to show any moment, because the little tree with multicolored lights was still just a darkened switch in the corner of the porch, and then, there it was: a reindeer.
To be honest, I knew it was an Odocoileus hemionus, commonly called a mule deer. But in that dusky light, he looked for all the world like a fictionalized reindeer, with the antlers and everything. All that was missing was the jingle bell harness.
Deer are in the area. I have seen them faltering just outside of my flashlight beam when I take the dog out. One recent winter, I saw a herd of five or six outside the window, while I was doing a bit of faltering myself on the treadmill at 5:30 in the morning.
But this guy was different. He was not hiding in the shadows. He was just a few feet from the house and having a nice long drink from the bird bath. He looked me straight in the eye and there was not a hint of fear, on his part or mine. He went about finishing his drink, while I snapped a couple of photos with my phone and then he moved to a small juniper tree and racked it good with his antlers. (I went over to that juniper later and the area smelled strongly of Christmas tree lot. Go figure.) Suddenly, he walked past me and off to the northwest disappearing into a juniper grove.
Now, as many of you know, 'A Christmas Carol', by Charles Dickens is one of my favorite books and throughout my life I feel I have played the parts of various of the characters in that tale. But far too often, I slip so easily into the role of Ebenezer. I find myself clinging to, but not learning from the ghosts of the past, and yet, still fearing the spirit of things to come.
So, reflecting on this encounter with the "reindeer", I realized it was none other than a sign. I have received so many signs this year: bold, blatant, life-affirming, hit-you-over-the-head sort of signs.
"Spirit!" he cried, tight clutching at its robe, " hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope!"
— says Scrooge to the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come— A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, 1843
These have been very clear signs saying it's never too late. Signs that speak of a goodness that is always within reach. I am convinced this goodness is part of the design.
May you see your signs of this season and all your seasons.
"And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!"
Happy Holidays and a Merry Christmas! - Pat Greenwell
Pat Greenwell is an artist. A painter and sometimes poet, he has been searching the New Mexico desert for a couple of years now, looking for lost possibilities and probable intentions.
"...mostly stream-of-consciousness stuff, you know...