How She Got Back on Her Bike and Why It Matters: A Bike’s Story

Hello. This is Heather’s bike. Not the big burly teal one; I’m the slick Cannondale at the bottom of the picture. Shiny. That’s what people used to say when they saw me coming. Slick. That’s another thing they used to say.

Teal and the Cannondale perched on their rack.
I’m the cute one on the bottom.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that Heather used to take me out of the garage fairly often. She wrote about the things we’d see on the trail or how she nearly broke my spokes when she tried to learn to ride with clipless pedals. She even rode me in a few sprint triathlons. I remember cruising down that hill in Rio Rancho…

Then the summer of 2o15 happened, and she quit riding me. I heard her tell people that no matter how much she stretched, her body kept getting stiffer. Then her hands and fingers swelled up, and it was just a quick hop, skip, and a jump (or a stumble, droop, and a nap) into her new life with an autoimmune disease.

As she and her rheumatologist experimented with medications, she had to dial everything back. I, her fancy new bike,

A close-up of the Cannondale Quick
That’s me again.

spent my days leaning against the wall in the garage. Even when she got settled into a good treatment plan, she didn’t want to hang out with me. I’d see her leave the house with a gym bag and come home with wet hair. I didn’t know if I’d ever get out of the garage again.

Then, one day she opened the garage door and the wind felt fresh around my tires. She walked up to me and squeezed the brakes; it was as though she was trying to see if her fingers were still working. I tried to encourage her by helping a little, but there’s only so much a bike can do.

Months passed. Everyone now and then she’d squeeze my brakes again, but I knew not to get my hopes up. It was as though she had stopped being a person who couldn’t ride a bike and become a person who wasn’t riding a bike, but she hadn’t figured that out yet.

I started keeping notes in order not to drive myself crazy from the loneliness and boredom. Sure, I had Tealy-bike to keep me company, but she wasn’t going on any rides either. What else are a couple of bikes going to talk about?

Anyway, I heard that I’m not the only one who had a rough  year in 2017, and the idea of Oprah running for president (what, you don’t think bikes follow politics?) has gotten me hopeful again, so here’s the story of how I finally made it out of the garage.

January, 2017

Yippee! She has pulled me out of the garage and into the driveway. She’s got the bike pump out. WE ARE GOING FOR A RIDE! My spokes are tingling and my gears are feeling loose.

Wait, what’s happening? OW!–something doesn’t feel right. She’s working up a sweat pumping, but the air is just whooshing around and my tires still feel all limp and saggy. I’ve been sitting on the cold garage floor for  years months. It looks like I’ve got a hernia in my back valve stem.

She half-rolls, half-drags me back into the garage and leans me against the wall. She’s just going to leave me here? When the door closes, Teal Bike feels so bad for me she doesn’t even gloat.

Worst of all, Heather looked tired and discouraged after all that pumping and I think her hands and wrists were aching. She went inside and called it a day.

March-ish, 2017

For two months, I was back to my bored self, leaning against the wall. Nothing to read, nothing to look at.

Then in March, my neglectful owner remembered that standing on the cold garage floor wasn’t good for me. One boring Saturday she lifted me gently into the car and took me to the bike doctors. They repaired my hernia, gave me new valve stems, and pumped me full of air and confidence. They also chastised Heather. They explained  that if she hung me on a bike rack instead of leaving me on the cold floor, I’d survive the winters better.

She bought the bike rack, but I still had problems. Apparently it looked like it was going to be complicated to install, so she decided to wait for her son-in-law to visit. Teal and I rolled our pedals at her, but she didn’t notice.

June, 2017

The days are long, and sunlight seeps in through the crack under the garage door. Son-in-law finally showed up, and Teal and I love our new digs! Tealy got the top bunk, which I was happy about because I don’t really like heights. I also thought that the bike on the bottom was much more likely to get ridden, and (spoiler alert!) I was right.

July, 2017

Disaster. They got home from vacation. The man she lives with takes a big dog blanket out of the car and throws it on me. Out of sight out of mind.

The Cannondale under a blanket.
Transformed from a proud bike into a poor imitation of a linen closet.

Every now and then I hear her complain to the man that the blanket he has piled on top of her bike is keeping her from riding. I’m a little skeptical, but what do I know. I’ve never been married.

October, 2017

It’s scratchy and dark under the blanket, and I’m having trouble maintaining my self-esteem. How can a light, slick, bike like me feel good about myself when I’ve been reduced to living as a shelf?

Every day when she comes into the garage I concentrate the energy in my spokes and try to communicate with her telepathically. “Move the damn blanket yourself,” I whisper.

November, 2017

The days are growing shorter again. Tealy’s joints are drying out. I hear Heather tell a friend she has given herself a deadline. She says she has “written it down” and “told her friends” which is supposed to make a resolution stick.

Rumor has it her deadline is December 31, 2017. On December 24, I watch her line the driveway with candles and imagine us riding out between them, paparazzi cheering and snapping photos as we go.

On December 31st I stay up late, not wanting to believe she’ll miss the deadline.

When I hear the fireworks at midnight, I understand why people say the holidays can be hard.

January 1, 2018

10:00 AM. The new year dawns without me noticing. I’m in a deep, dejected sleep when she appears. She rolls me out of the garage, puts some air in my tires. My tubes feel good. My valves feel good. This is it.

Then she starts rubbing her hands. She’s cold. She goes inside. Damn; I hate hope.

2:00 PM. She’s back. My gears sing when I notice she’s wearing her bike shoes and her neon yellow jacket. She tosses me in the back of the Subaru. I’m not sick, so I don’t think we’re going to the hospital.

2:05 PM. Are you kidding me? I’m lying on my back, cramped up at a funny angle in the Subaru when she notices that her helmet is missing. She blames her husband for misplacing it.

2:25 PM. She finds her helmet. I hear her say, “What is it doing on a shelf in the hot water heater closet?!”

Messy closet with bike helmet on shelf
Can you spot the bike helmet?

2:30 PM. She pulls her Subaru into  the gravel lot at the west end of the Montano Bridge. I’m so excited my pedals are spinning. She straps on her helmet, takes a swig from her water bottle, and swings her leg over my back.

2:49 PM: She’s on the Bike!

I only have a few more things to tell you. It feels so good to be out on the trail that I’m gulping in air, shifting more smoothly than I’ve ever shifted, dancing around like one of those Arabian ponies we saw practicing their moves on the ditch bank last time we were out.

I can tell she’s feeling it, too, and regretting all that time we spent apart. I know that because we ride too long. The mountains are on our right and the river is just over there through the cottonwoods. I can hear the cranes and geese and we’re even picking up speed and passing a few people. At one point, she gets brave and clicks into my pedals. We’ve never been closer.

Then a whole flock of crows gathers right above her head. She laughs and takes her hands off my handlebars and for a minute we are drafting, until the crows speed up and pull away.

Later we saw them sitting all pretty in a tree like Christmas ornaments (hey, bikes can appreciate beauty) and then something got them all excited and they started flapping and squawking. We both looked around for an eagle or a coyote, but the trail kept its secrets.

4:00 pm

Back in the parking lot, she’s tired and she leans me way down to get her leg over my back. Her hips are stiff and she’s shaking her wrists like they might be hurting, but we’re both smiling as she lifts me back into the Subaru and gives me a little pat on my seat.

So, this is Heather’s bike, and that’s my story. I heard it was a hard year outside of the garage, too. I just wanted to let you know, if you have been hanging on the wall in a cold garage for months on end, that the cranes are still making wide Vs over the river.

The planet is still swinging wide, making slow, graceful loops around the sun.  I’m here to tell you that those long months in the cold garage can end. Tealy says it’s because hope with action gets rewarded.

I’m no philosopher. I just know that when she got back on, we both remembered how to ride.

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Craning My Neck

I recently changed my Facebook profile picture to a photo of my house on Christmas Eve, decked out in lights and luminaria. It’s a peaceful picture, but it already feels so last year. Soon I’ll take the tree down and head back to work for another semester. I was trying to imagine a new photo, and I thought I might take a picture of my piano with a novel (currently Everything is Illuminated—finally!), my laptop, my violin and mandolin, and my running shoes sitting on the bench. If I were just starting my blog today, I think, I might call it “Read-Write-Run-Play.” (Or maybe that’s in the small print after “Live”—it doesn’t quite capture Love and Leave. Or maybe it just means I have too many hobbies, or that I still haven’t learned to resist the lure of resolutions. I have long loved Rilke, but I would forget the line “You must change your life” if I could.)

Last night showing a few friends around my house I took them to the deck off the upstairs loft. From where I live on the west mesa, you can see most of Albuquerque stretching below; lights shimmer thickly north and south from downtown to Placitas, east all the way up to Tramway; the tram blinks a solitary light at the crest, and a dark trail runs horizontally through it all, imagining the bosque and the river trickling through the trees.

Vantage points matter. My husband and I have been spending the past few months standing on lots for the second time in our marriage. We are trying to downsize, and we are determined to land on a lot with a view. I don’t know why it matters what I can see from my home, but it does. A number of years ago forest fires across the West hid the city and the mountains from my view. For weeks, looking to the northeast, all I could see was gray. It didn’t matter that I knew that the mountains were there inside the smoke, that I could imagine their outline and the way the clouds move against them; I found it surprisingly hard to be happy. Where you stand changes what you see.

High up in the wall in my family room, three tall windows loom like living landscape paintings in Hogwarts. Some nights, if you look up at the right time, you’ll see a plane fly by. Other times, clouds drift from one window to the next. Sometimes, the moon fills a window like a familiar song or an old memory and grabs my breath as I’m doing the dishes.

IMG_2029About a week ago I woke up one morning needing to see cranes. I dragged my husband to the open space off Montano Road where I knew we’d find them. Late in the afternoon, I felt them tugging at me again. I pulled on my running shoes and headed back to Los Poblanos and spent about forty-five minutes running on dirt roads and ditch banks while cranes meandered through the fields around me. At one point, two cranes crossed the road no more than five feet in front of me. To my back stood the Sandias, framing the city. Straight ahead to the southwest waited the volcanos. And everywhere, like water, blue sky poured itself out and lapped around me.

I’m mapping my coordinates, I think, imagining what’s behind, taking in what’s ahead, aware of my breathing and my feet, each step pressing firmly into easy ground. Some magic days the planet presses back, and every step is easy. A plane flies silently overhead, chalking contrails in the sky.

There is something peaceful about watching cranes walk. Their knees bend backwards while their forelegs stretch forward—it’s as though every step is past, future, and present at the same time. N. Scott Momaday in The Way to Rainy Mountain describes tortoises as “going nowhere in the plenty of time.” I’d like to have written that line. Every spring the cranes fly away from Albuquerque, and late every fall as the light leans away, they come back.

I have no eyes for the small birds when the cranes come. I hear them whistling overhead and notice them thickening the telephone wires, but I don’t crane my head to study them; I don’t wonder what that flash of yellow moving in the cottonwood might be. Later when I look at the photos I took while I ran, I’ll see two cranes edging away from me, one leaning just slightly toward the other, and two girls on horseback in the background. I never knew the girls or the horses were there.

When I drive back over the bridge at dusk, all the water birds are gone from the river. The sky is just starting to turn that dusky mauve pink that will forever be the color of Albuquerque to me. A hot air balloon is deflating in a field to the south just by my school, where so far there isn’t a Walmart. The top is open, so I’m looking through the balloon where silhouettes of people seem stamped on the far side.

Mary Oliver, in Winter Hours, writes, “All narrative is metaphor.” A few weeks ago, my husband and I stood on a lot to judge the quality of the view. Before we could get back in the car, we had to spend ten minutes picking goatheads from our shoes and pant legs. We decided that wasn’t our lot.

The light was something like the light tonight, though, and for some reason I found myself thinking about my neighbor’s dog. One night last March our neighbors were out of town and their dog was alone. Late into the night he barked and howled and called. Finally, on a whim, my husband took our golden retriever Rusty next door, let him in the neighbor’s gate, and left him there to play. Surprised, distracted, no longer alone in the night, Jax stopped barking. Even after Fred brought our dog back home a half hour later, Jax stayed quiet. Now we do this regularly when the neighbors are away. Just that little bit of contact, someone to run with in the night, drives despair away; sleep comes.

It’s the beginning of the year again, and humans are still running laps on a spinning planet. I love that the cranes bend in both directions and hover in the present with each step, but tonight with no moon in the window, I’m thinking more about what happens when they fly. They rise above the world, changing their vantage point. They see the fields fall away, stretch their necks  into clear blue, and watch the world grow small below them. Huge delicate wings agitate the air.

Once in a while, I like to imagine, when the sky is pink and the earth is spinning slowly, they capture a sweet current, lean into it, and soar.

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Clicking In

A few weeks ago I bought clipless pedals for my bike. I had already bought shoes with a space on the bottom where a cleat can screw in, and that hollow spot kept calling me. So, back I went to the sports store to buy the pedals. Then off I went to borrow the right sized wrench from a friend who knows her way around a bike. Then off I went to the bike shop to get help loosening my old pedals, and finally, I cranked on the new pedals on Sunday afternoon. Then it started raining.

It rained Monday. Then it rained Tuesday. Then it rained Wednesday…Then it rained Friday. I live in a desert in drought, so this sort of week doesn’t happen here. I just kept looking at my bike shoes sitting patiently on the piano bench. They looked happy, eager. They looked ready for a ride.

The point of clipless pedals is to lock your feet to the bike, without using any straps or toe cages. When you want to free your foot, a quick twist of your ankle releases the cleat. My pedals are flat on one side, so I figured I could click one foot in while keeping the other free, thus easing in to this learning curve and reducing my chances of falling, which my friend had guaranteed would happen.

Saturday afternoon, while all the usual clouds convene to decide if they will rain on us today, I head out. I want to see what changes all this water has made in the world. I ride east where the bike trail skirts the Piedras Marcadas Dam, not quite a mile from my house.  My first near miss happens just before I get to the dam, before I’ve even gotten my courage up to click one foot in. A jogger stops me for information about where the trail goes, and as I stop to answer her, I push down on the pedal and hear my left foot click in. I panic and yank hard, skinning my knee on my handlebar, while talking casually to the runner. (If you are having trouble picturing the geometry of this moment, it’s not you. I’m certain I couldn’t recreate this move intentionally.) Her question answered, I ride on.

The dam flanks a flood control zone tucked between neighborhoods just west of Eagle Ranch, so if you don’t walk or ride your bike around here, you’ve probably never seen it. Most days, it’s a large dry bowl, a strangely lovely open space where clumps of trees grow bucolically and an abandoned shopping cart announces that someone calls this landscape home.

I’ve always laughed at the hopeful, stucco-colored pillar at the far end painted with the numbers one through twelve, every one of which has been visible every other time I’ve been here. Saturday afternoon when I ride by, though, water has covered one through five and is lapping at the six. Six feet of water has shortened the trees and turned this hollow basin into a lake. As if to emphasize this fact, a group of adventurers in a green rowboat is dipping their oars in last night’s rain.

An hour and a half into my ride, when I’ve looped most of the way back and I’m approaching our new lake from the south, I’m feeling cocky. I’ve had a few other near misses, like when I stopped at a light on Coors and clicked out with just my left foot, leaving my right connected to my bike. This worked fine until I leaned to the right to hit the crosswalk button, but another hard yank of an ankle kept me upright. I’ve got this, I’m telling myself as I slow down at the bottom of the hill to walk my bike through a turnstile.

Seeing all this water pooling in drought land has me thinking about abundance, about how things go empty and are refilled. Recently at a faculty meeting, I watched a Ted Talk. (Note to future anthropologists: This is what private school teachers do at faculty meetings in the early twenty-first century.) Benjamin Zander, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, was teaching the audience that everyone loves classical music.  Before playing a Chopin prelude, Zander asked us to think of someone we loved and had lost.

I didn’t do that. I was at work, in a room in which I’ve already spent too much time thinking about loss. I didn’t want to begin the new school year weeping with my colleagues. Been there, done that, would rather not this time.

I opted not to engage.

The school year has started out beautifully, though. I’ve felt confident, competent, and joyful. I’ve been getting enough sleep, finding time to write, playing my violin. That’s why I was so surprised last week at another faculty meeting when I found myself paralyzed in the face of a simple decision. Two meetings were happening simultaneously, and I couldn’t decide which one to attend. I asked clarifying questions about information I already knew; I expressed concern about the plan, and then I changed my mind after the meeting I had chosen started, left it abruptly, and spent fifteen minutes roaming around campus trying to find the other meeting, which, it turned out, was happening just across the hall from where I’d begun.

It took me another half of a meeting and a few more moments of panicky indecision to realize that something other than having to choose between two meetings was bothering me. It all came flooding back: the sadness, the fear, the knowledge that to love children is to skip along the edge of a beautiful chasm. Somehow I’d managed to get a good month into the school year without tripping into that old fear.

Saturday afternoon, though, I’m standing astride my bike at the bottom of a hill looking at a lake where a field used to be and thinking about the fact that cool water rains on us from a generous sky. I’m wondering if the drought is over. I’m thinking about everything I know about loss and abundance. My left foot is safely planted on the ground when I turn my head to the right to gaze at the mountains.

This is the moment, as I’m falling into the bushes by the side of the trail, when I remember that my right foot is still clicked in to my pedal. There’s nothing I can do. I ride gravity down to the ground.

On one of his first visits to Albuquerque, my father remarked that everything in the desert looks like it wants to hurt you. (At the time, he might have been picking a goathead from his golf shoe, but I can’t be certain.) Today, an innocuous looking bushy plant with leaves like razor blades slices into my calf to prove him right. As I free my foot and climb out of the weeds, long streaks of blood stream down my leg.  I don’t see the other thing in the desert that wants to hurt me, but I can tell you that it was hard and pointy, and it left a two-inch mark just southeast of my tailbone that looks like one of those pictures of deep space nebulae on NASA’s website.

Weeks before I bought my new pedals, I came home from work and dug through my sheet music.  I found my old book of Chopin preludes and sat down at the piano. Before I started playing, I thought about someone I had loved deeply and lost. I played that prelude over and over and over. I let it hurt me and soothe me; I let it empty me out. I let it refill me.

Saturday afternoon after I laughed and lumbered out of the bushes with my bike, I did what there was to do. I clicked in and pedaled home.

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Walnut

If you follow the Bosque Trail along the Rio Grande south past the Nature Center, you’ll eventually come to an intersection with a cute little mini-street sign. Here you will have to make a decision. You can continue south toward Tingley Beach all the way past Rio Bravo if you’re in the mood for an out and back ride. Or, if you are a teacher, and it’s June, and you want to satisfy your curiosity about whether this trail links with Unser, you can turn right, take the I-40 trail to the west, and see what happens.

I feel like a human roller coaster as soon as I make the turn. Here the trail, its own mini-road, rises parallel to the highway. An orange metal rail swoops playfully alongside all the way across the river. My new light bike says click click click click click as I pedal up the narrow track. It’s a smaller version of the sound the Thunderbolt makes at Kennywood Park as it begins its long ascent to the top of the first hill. The ground falls away as I look up and up and up toward the cliff on the other side of the river.

As I pump into the sky, I feel a little bit like ET pedaling into the clouds. First the bosque drops away beneath me, the Rio Grande reveals its muddy bottom, and then I soar over the top branches of cottonwoods on the west bank.  Finally, I chug alongside the cliff, rising to the top where I can almost look into the windows of that house with the big Christmas light display every December.

No one passes me on this roller coaster; I’m the only one with a ticket today.

Now might be a good time to mention that I don’t particularly care for roller coasters. I’m terrified of heights. I don’t see any good reason to be up in the air if I could be down on the ground.

Rather than getting more reasonable as I’ve gotten older, my fear has grown to encompass more things. I used to be afraid only when a situation was out of my control. I could climb a ladder, for instance, or traipse along a mountain ledge, or walk out and peer over the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge near Taos without any trouble.

It wasn’t until bridges started collapsing on CNN that it occurred to me to be afraid of bad engineering in every day structures. Now I don’t pull into a parking garage or drive through a tunnel without, at least for a moment, wondering if they will collapse. Likewise, I prefer upper decks of sports stadiums, assuming that it would be better to be on top than underneath if a structure came crashing to the ground.

Fortunately, these fears aren’t debilitating. For the most part, I park where I have to, drive across bridges, ride the tram when I have company in town, and live alongside these fears with little impact on my daily life.

Nevertheless, as I start up the I-40 trail, I feel the familiar wobbliness kick in.

In “The Neurobiology of Fear,” Laurel Duphiney Edmundson (whom I quote in part because I find her name delightful) notes that “the animal fear response,” which she describes as an “unspecific physiological response” is just the beginning of what happens when our bodies perceive danger. It precedes a “slower, more detailed psychological assessment of the situation, during which the individual [that would be me, on my bike on a bridge] becomes conscious of feeling afraid.”

Almost simultaneous with the wobbly feeling, I do exactly what science predicts. I think, “Huh, I am getting higher and higher above the river,” which is really cool, and “I’m terrified,” which I think I would like not to be.

For some reason, I find it comforting to know that something like my fear of heights exists in animals. Duphiney Edmundson explains that my physical response comes from “the walnut-sized structure in the forebrain called the amygdala.” I also find it comforting that she describes my amygdala as “walnut-sized,” rather than golf-ball or hailstone or brussels sprout-sized.

When I look down from that bridge, my amygdala gets busy. First, it “stimulates the hypothalamus to produce corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH).” This release “triggers the pituitary gland’s discharge of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which in turn stimulates the adrenal gland to secrete cortisol. Cortisol in the bloodstream causes an increase in glucose production, providing the necessary fuel for the brain and muscles to deal with stress.”

Cool, isn’t it?

Finally, “After passing through the amygdala, sensory information is sent on to the cortex” where “the frightening stimulus is examined in detail to determine whether or not a real threat exists.” I recognize this final stage. This is when I look down at the ground from the bridge and wonder if this web of concrete might actually fall into the river. My cortex being my cortex, not that of a more reasonable version of the species, gathers every image of a collapsing highway I’ve ever seen and decides that, yes, this bridge might fall down while I’m riding across it.

This morning (spoiler alert: the bridge still stands) I was reading an essay on a blog I follow, (zenhabits), in which Leo Babauta was explaining how to deal with a different anxiety. He advises, “Don’t fear it, don’t try to kill it. Instead, give it a hug. Embrace it. Accept it. Get used to it. You’re together for the long haul.”

He didn’t add, “Be grateful for it,” but he might have.  When I reach the top of the hill, I am exuberant. I am proud of my lumpy body for pedaling me up that trail. As I think about it further, though, it occurs to me that riding up that long hill was easy, and I mean easy in a way it had no business being for a minimally fit person who didn’t bring enough water twelve miles into a bike ride on a hot day with a headwind.

I realize now that it was my little walnut-sized amygdala, flooding my bloodstream with cortisol and increasing my glucose production, that propelled me up that hill. It was my fear that powered my legs and kept them pedaling. I hope I remember, the next time I feel that wobbly sensation or need to outrun a wooly mammoth, to be grateful.

I’ll have a chance soon. My friend Tammy suggested we bike up the bridge and then whoosh back down the next time we ride together.

You know, down, where you pick up speed and can see the ground rushing up at you the whole time. My cortex is already afraid.

I’ll let you know if the little walnut cracks.

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Read more about “The Neurobiology of Fear”  

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Summer

Every night before we go to bed, my husband tries to convince our dog to sleep in later the next morning. “Rusty,” he’ll say to the ninety pounds of fur that makes his bed beside ours, “Don’t wake us up until 7:30 tomorrow.” Rusty wags and nuzzles as if he agrees, curls himself up like a giant snail, and falls fast asleep. Most nights he doesn’t run to the window in the middle of the night to bark at Jax, the neighbor’s dog, but sometimes he does. Most nights, I sleep through it.

Every morning since school ended and summer began, Rusty wakes up at 6:15. By 6:30, the dog can no longer contain himself. He bats at the bed, turns in circles, and, if we ignore him for more than a few moments, lies back down with a dramatic, drawn-out sigh, the sort of sound a child makes when he’s letting the air escape from a balloon as slowly as possible.

It is a sigh that says, “Hello, the birds have been singing for an hour already,” and “Seriously? You are going to sleep through all this daylight?” It is a sigh that never fails to make us laugh. It is a sigh that is heavy in its finality, yet is followed within seconds by a leap to his feet and a renewed round of pawing the bed. If we show signs of moving, he’ll stretch his long nose toward whosever pillow he’s closer to and stare lovingly into sleepy eyes.

It’s hard to resist such a persistent call to play. He sniffs me on my way into the bathroom, as if to make sure I haven’t changed too much overnight, and he turns in circles while he waits as patiently as he can (which isn’t very patiently) for me to do all the things humans have to do before they leave the house in the morning. It’s clear he thinks I’m overdoing it. Clothes? Shoes? Brushing your teeth? Aren’t you ready yet?

The biggest thing I’ve learned since having this dog who drags us out of the house at least four times a day for walks is that bunnies are terrible at hiding. We inadvertently terrorize them every morning as we bound by. The rabbits, and there are thousands of them in my neighborhood, come to a dead stop as we approach. Their stillness, they seem to believe, renders us blind.

Rusty has gotten pretty good at not lunging toward them each time, but still, I gather the slack of his leash into my fist as we pass, just a few feet away from a rabbit that is standing stock still in front of a bush he might more wisely have chosen to hide behind.

After we pass, we lumbering animals who could not possibly outrun those springs with fur, the bunnies bolt across the street. I can only surmise that evolution gave them such prolific reproductive systems to counteract their poor survival instincts.

One time on a walk like this one, Rusty found half a bunny under a bush and had it in his mouth before I knew what was happening. I couldn’t get him to drop it, so I ran the rest of the way home, one rabbit paw hanging out of each side of the dog’s mouth like a giant cartoon mustache. I stuck my head in the front door to get Fred’s attention, hoping he’d agree that extracting a dead rabbit from the dog’s jaws was more his job than mine. While I was distracted, Rusty happily ate his dead half rabbit for breakfast.

Another time, our neighbor’s little yappy dog got beat up by a rabbit in their back yard. Half of the dog’s jaw was chewed away and for weeks he wore a bandage that looked like an old cartoon of a person with a toothache.

This is the moment in the essay where, when I show up faithfully to write each day, some muse floats into my fingers, and, wham! epiphany! explains to me why I’m writing about rabbits.

While we all wait for that to happen, I’ll tell you that after I walked and fed the dog this morning, I got on my bike and set out for a rambling ten-mile ride. The sky was blessedly overcast, the clouds heavy with ash rising from fires in the Jemez and Pecos mountains. Seeing me approach on wheels this time, not alongside a wild animal on a string, more bunnies demonstrate a new set of bad survival skills. They dash at me out of the ditch, and I find myself braking repeatedly to avoid hitting them, as if they were deer on Pennsylvania highways.

I had been thinking I’d write about abundance this morning, not a bunny, but it appears that today’s muse is a comedian. I’m grateful to my dog for wagging me out of bed before the light grows old each morning.

Do me a favor, don’t tell my husband.

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Spring

Riding my bike home from work yesterday into a thirty mile per hour headwind (with gusts to 44, according to the National Weather Service), I realized that no combination of my fitness level and my bike’s gears were going to get me all the way up the hill between Coors Boulevard and home. I also realized that you don’t really need spring in Albuquerque. Winter here is not an endurance test. The sky stays clear blue, cranes fly in to fill the fields, and snow doesn’t stay long enough to slush into puddles. Even the lessening light feels more like a respite than a reason for despair.

That wasn’t true growing up in Pittsburgh. I was reminded of this fact recently when my sister came to visit. (Note to regular readers: you can relax; Judy and I are both happy to report that there’s no surprise ending here!) On a rare, overcast New Mexico day, Judy looked at the sky and said something like, “Oh, good, the sun’s out.”

I had forgotten that for the first twenty years of my life, a day where the sky stays a light milky gray could have felt sunny. In Pittsburgh, once winter comes and the days go short, the sky steels itself, untinted by any hint of blue. Ash Wednesday there was redundant. By February, anyone who didn’t know that they were dust and that to dust they would return just wasn’t paying attention.

On one of those short days, long before we were using words like dementia, I was standing with my mother in the kitchen of the house she’d lived in since 1967. We were looking out the window at the woods beyond the back yard. The trees with their empty branches scrawled on dull sky looked like charcoal sketches on a dingy tea towel.

“They’re all dead now,” she surprised me by saying. “They aren’t going to bloom this year.”

My mother doesn’t easily change her mind, so after a few minor protests I didn’t really argue on the trees’ behalf. The words felt sad, and portentous, and I was glad when a blue jay landed on the birdfeeder and brought some color back into the afternoon.

It’s easy to feel like the trees will never bloom again in March in Pittsburgh.

I remember those childhood winters as a series of annual illnesses. All the color fell from the trees, long nights usurped the light, and cold mornings woke you in silence.  My friends and I stopped collecting bright leaves and ironing them into wax paper placemats, stopped playing kickball and flashlight tag, and started moving quickly from house to car to school bus, bundled tightly against the earth’s cold breathing. Every single year, the whole world grew quiet and died.

Sometime in late March or April, just when you were sure it was going to be winter forever this time, you’d come home from school, drop your book bag in the hall, and see a vase on the kitchen table full of pussy willow branches your mother had cut in the backyard. They were as gray as the sky, but a light-fuzzy-dawn-gray that hinted at life. The next morning waking up, you’d hear finches singing in the locust outside your bedroom window. You’d still scuff through slush on your way to the bus stop, but you could feel it coming now.

And here’s the thing. Every single year, no matter how long or bleak the winter had been, it came. The dogwood bloomed, forsythia lit up the driveway, azaleas flanked the front porch, and walnuts ripened in bright green hulls. Even the tadpoles could be counted on to swim around in creeks and jelly jars, as long as there was someone in the neighborhood young enough to remember to catch them.

In his sumptuous poem, “A Color of the Sky,” Tony Hoagland writes, “Windy today and I feel less than brilliant,” which is precisely how I felt when I got off my bike at last yesterday afternoon. “Windy today” in Albuquerque means fifty mile an hour gusts and dust suspended like fish food in the air. It means trees so flustered they throw pollen at you, and air so brown you can’t see the mountains at the edge of town. In Albuquerque, the earth in spring tells a different story than the one I learned as a child, and even living here almost twenty-five years, I’m still not sure what to make of it.

As I write tonight, I’m in out of the wind. My throat is raw, my eyes are itching, and I’m still feeling “less than brilliant.” I really don’t know much about the world, but growing up in Pittsburgh taught me this one important thing: Spring comes.

Every single year, the earth makes a promise and keeps it.

My mother was wrong about the trees that year. I’m here like Thomas to tell you: I slid my hand into the wound in the earth’s side, and I saw the woods go green.

(Click here to read “A Color of the World” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171303)

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Signs

I’m not really much of a cyclist. Take one look at my teal ten-speed and you’ll notice at least three dead giveaways. No toe clips. Two big metal baskets on the back. A peeling purple bumper sticker that says “So many books, so little time.” Clearly, putting my feet on the pedals isn’t my primary passion.

The fact that I’m not a real cyclist also shows when I’m meandering down the river trail. I tend to spend most of my time looking up, wobbling into the other lane, watching for porcupines and bald eagles in the still bare cottonwoods. Frequently, I see them.

A few Sundays ago I was about six miles in without spotting as much as a scrub jay. Riding the river trail is a little like driving toward The World’s Biggest Cross somewhere in the middle of Texas. A straight line of pavement peels away clear to the horizon.

So I was surprised to see something big and black change the shape of the line ahead. I was even more surprised when I saw the empty ribs arcing gracefully up into clear air. It looked like a picture I might have seen in my brother’s Boy Scout book of a canoe before you put its skin on. It looked like a moment Georgia O’Keefe might have captured and called “Rib Bones on Trail.”

Just south of the bones, at the point where the tail connected to where the body used to be, a brilliant spot of fresh red marked some still uneaten bits. I have to point out that I’m not talking about a squirrel or a rabbit. This animal is big.

The trail along the river is ninety-five parts urban, five parts nature. It’s where city people like me go to be outside without worrying that we won’t find our way home. It’s not really supposed to be wild, in the “animals are eating each other in the middle of the bike trail” sort of way.

A few hours later I rode back and he was gone. He hadn’t left a mark, no blood or crime scene chalk recorded the spot where he died. I tried to imagine a city Open Space employee out clearing carcasses at seven o’clock on a Sunday morning. It seems more likely that whoever’s meal I’d interrupted came back to finish the job.

All week I kept thinking about those ribs. I saw their shape in the way the trees arched over the bridge. I thought of them when I went for a run and felt my own torso, breathing. I talked to a biologist friend who convinced me to call him a beaver. I googled “beaver size” and learned that they can weigh as much as seventy-five pounds, and that they are most vulnerable when they travel on land. I googled “beaver predators” and learned a coyote, fox, eagle, mountain lion, or even a large hawk could have been eating breakfast just before I rode by.

As I rode home that morning I kept thinking about the scene in Kundun where they dismember the body of the Dalai Lama’s father, and offer it to be eaten by the birds. Vultures flock in and carry bits of the body away, much as I imagine a bald eagle might have fed on this beaver. I had never heard of Tibetan sky burials before. In an article in the Orange County Register, Nawang Phuntson, a professor and Tibetan native, takes Scorsese to task for failing to provide the “sacred philosophy” behind the sky burial. He explains that the practice is grounded in the belief that “nothing should be wasted, that death should be used to sustain life.”

I’m thinking about those sky burials and about using death to sustain life when I see the Canada Goose perched high in a cottonwood, keeping an eye on the trail. I wonder if she has been sitting here all morning, if she witnessed the moment when the bald eagle tugged at the beaver’s heart, and carried it, still warm from beating, into the sky.

 

 

 

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