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Saturday, March 28, 2015

Blooming, Blossoming, and Generally Bursting with Life

The sky after sunset on Friday was the color of globemallow. Littleleaf globemallow is blooming now near the cabin. One of its common names is “sore-eye poppies,” which is a clear warning and evidently the reason the Mexicans in baja California call globemallows “plantas muy malas” (very bad plants). The color, however, is welcome after the brown and grey of winter, relieved only by the perennial bright green of creasote bush.

Also blooming in Dos Cabezas now are primroses, their happy faces brightening mornings and evenings. 

The second plant above, showing a spent blossom, I believe is the stemless primrose.

Also, down along the dry wash can be seen the bright magenta of Mexican vervain, and mixed in with grasses above the wash are the tiny but vivid blue flowers of desert hyacinth and blue toadflax.

I was somewhat dismayed to learn that in addition to plantas muy malas, another represented near the cabin is locoweed, which sounds muy mala to me. Before knowing what they were, I had found the clumps of astralagus muy bonitas, with their dark green, pinnately compound leaves against the winter dust and gravel and their purple, pea-like blossoms that remind me of cow-vetch back in Michigan. Now the seed pods, green and not completely “ripe,” crack underfoot when stepped on. One book says of one variety that it is “highly toxic to sheep,” another book of another variety, “dangerous ... to livestock.” Una planta muy mala, no?

Then there is corydalis, lots of corydalis, bright yellow, the first flower I saw here in Dos Cabezas. Wouldn’t you know it “contains poisonous alkaloid”? Made me almost afraid to look up the little pea-like blooms called Green’s lotus and wiry lotus, but the books I consulted didn’t say anything terrible about those yellow and yellow-orange flowers. Anyway, for what it’s worth, the cattle seem educated enough in the ways of their territory to avoid poisonous plants, for the most part, just as Sarah learned almost instantly to avoid cacti, thorny bushes, and barbed wire.

And here are flowering plants that remain a mystery to me. I include them here in case anyone can identify them for me.

While David has told me repeatedly that a “smart” phone would yield the identification instantly, I was encouraged in my old camera-and-books method by a recent article in the New York Review of Books, citing a study showing that instantaneous answers do not generally constitute long-term learning. Being able to identify an increasing number of plants on my own as we drive or walk along is very satisfying to me; other people might not want those names “cluttering up” their mental landscape. As with so many issues in life, it comes down to a question of values.

This past week we made an overnight trip, down to Patagonia (to see friends) and Nogales. On the way back north the next day, however, we left the highway to explore a road along another dry riverbed, where trees were exploding into green and the bright flowers of poppies and one of what botanist-author Janice Emily Bowers calls DYCs (“damn yellow composites,” because there are so many of them to distinguish among) formed rivers of bloom that made up for the lack of water.

Encouraged by the loveliness we’d found, a bit further along the highway we popped for the $10 day use fee to get into Patagonia Lake State Park and luxuriated for an hour or two in the presence of real water! The lake, of course, would be a trickling creek were it not for Man the Engineer. Does that surprise anyone? But how calming, how soothing to the spirit is water! Perhaps our spirits are as great a percentage of body as our bodies are of water?

And here is my mystery flower from Patagonia Lake --

We were very happy to spend time with old friends, and the charm of shady, tree-lined Patagonia was not lost on a couple of Midwesterners. In fact, I think David fell head over heels in love with the place, as do many people from Michigan. And I see it. I get it. Yet on our way home, when I caught my first glimpse of the playa, I couldn’t help a big smile and sigh. The playa! I was happy to shop for dinner at KT’s Market. The sight of the twin peaks of Dos Cabezas said “home” to me, and out among the mesquite with Sarah, before dark had fully enveloped the land, I was happy to see again the happy yellow primroses that had been blooming when we left only thirty-six hours before.

Then in the morning, the quiet of the ghost town, with only the occasional car or truck-and-horse-trailer passing on the highway, headed for Chiricahua, felt familiar, reassuring, and peaceful. Yes, I have bonded to my little ghost town winter hide-out.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Seriously, I Really Am Working: Progress Report from Dos Cabezas

Some of my friends must be wondering, after so many posts about horses and cattle and history and botany and day trips to exciting places, just how serious is my notion of a sabbatical? Aren’t I, really, just having a long, extended vacation? The short answer is: I really have been working -- steadily, every day. A longer answer follows, for those interested; whoever prefers pictures can switch to my other blog and see some of what’s blooming these days in baja Arizona, plus some fantastic rock formations in the Dragoon Mountains.


My focus for this winter’s sabbatical has been long fiction – not short stories (though I did manage to wrap up one that had been simmering a while, and that felt good) but a novel. I didn’t expect to have a finished book manuscript in three months but vowed to get as far as possible with a good, strong first draft. And so I’ve been getting up before the sun every morning here in Dos Cabezas, my quiet little ghost town, and sitting down and work. (Work: getting up and sitting down. Funny!) At first the morning program was coffee and writing. That has been expanded to include a bit of yoga, but the main thing is still the writing.

Around the beginning of March, out of curiosity, I did a word count. Output to that point was eleven chapters and over 17,000 words. It was a slower accumulation than I’d hoped for but steady progress.

Then, unexpectedly, I hit a wall. I was stuck only 48 hours (and tried not to take it out on the world, i.e., David and Sarah), but for two days I was silently fretful, disappointed, and irritable, stewing in self-doubt. Maybe the project was beyond my ability and doomed from the start?

Let me be clear. I had no problem generating words, which is what I think most people have in mind when they use the phrase “writer’s block.” Words kept coming. Unfortunately, I was not seeing value in my words, so I intentionally stopped writing.

There’s a passage in James Baldwin’s Another Country where the character Vivaldo is frustrated by the novel he’s trying to write. His characters seem wooden, and he feels like he’s pushing them around mechanically rather than bringing them to life. Vivaldo’s impasse came to my mind but didn’t exactly describe what I was feeling. My characters, as far as I was concerned then and still am now, are very much alive. I believe in them and even (for all their shortcomings) like them.

So what was the problem?

The answer woke me up in the middle of the night: I was fussing way too much -- fussing over the timeline, fussing over the scenery, fussing over every little logistical detail. Like a nervous, first-time playwright/director, trying to control everything, I was keeping my perfectly competent characters sitting around backstage on folding chairs instead of letting them get up and act! I needed to get out of their way!

It was such a relief to see the problem clearly that instead of jumping up to get to work I went back to sleep. In the morning, over coffee, having decided to take the day off, I talked over my epiphany with David, so he would know what was going on with me and wouldn’t worry. “It means I have to start all over at the beginning,” I told him, “but that’s okay.” Then the next day, clear about what needed doing, I got back to work and now, having started over, I’m three chapters into a new, much more satisfying version.

It may be slower going from now on – or maybe not, I really don’t know. Either way, though, it’s all right. Piling up words on a schedule is not the object. The story is the object. Telling it well.

The other day after asking David if he wanted to read my new first chapter, I realized that until then I’d let him read no more than the prologue. That told me that already, somewhere inside, without acknowledging the fact, I knew all along those words weren’t measuring up.

Now, having been introduced to one of the main characters in my new first chapter, David asked the next morning, after I’d worked for a couple of hours, “What’s the Wild Man up to now?”

Me: “He’s on his way to the U.P.”

David: “If he’s going to Canada, I hope he has a passport.”

Me: “He doesn’t.”

David: “I didn’t think he would.”

This is the kind of guy the Wild Man is. He doesn’t think ahead. And I’ve gotten him across. (“I didn’t think he would.”) Very satisfying!

Big question: were the last two months “lost” time? Wasted time? If what I wrote in that time isn’t going in the novel, after all? I say no.

When I reached dissertation stage in my graduate program, I wrote and rewrote my first chapter for a couple of years, then finally put it aside, plowed ahead, wrote all the other chapters, and in the end went back and wrote an entirely new first chapter, with maybe one sentence from all my previous drafts. (It might have been only a footnote.) But none of the time spent on all those unused versions of a first chapter was wasted, because it was all part of the process, or what one dear person in my life calls “the journey.” I got where I am now by going through everything that came before.

This is important. There are no shortcuts to the novel I want to write, because (and this is so Bergsonian!) the “endpoint,” the finished novel, has no pre-existing reality. Only by way of the working-through does it come into existence, and whatever that working-through involves and however long it takes will be what is necessary.

(I’m guessing what I’ve said here is even true for formulaic genre novels. What do you think?)

I’ll confess that I’m a little leery about my winter sabbatical coming to an end. I can’t help wondering how much room in my very busy, full Michigan life I’ll find to move ahead with this project that means so much to me. At the same time, I have to say that since starting over from page one, I have now have more faith (‘confidence,’ if you prefer) in how my story is unfolding and am not as nervous about the end of sabbatical as I was a month ago.

This morning David asked me, "What are they up to now, those people you're hanging out with?" I am hanging out with them: I wake up in the dark, and they are already there, in my mind, ready for me to pay attention to them.

Planning for Summer in Michigan

If you’ll look at the right-hand column for author events 2015, you’ll see that I have not entirely neglected my role as bookseller. Two authors have committed to dates in June, and I’m very excited about both, as I know my Northport customers and bookstore fans will be, too. There will be much more about Ellen Airgood and Holly Wren Spaulding as spring unfolds. By June I may even have firm dates in August for that month’s writer guests. As always, stayed tuned....

Friday, March 20, 2015

More Horses and Another Book

Here we are in the parking lot of the Willcox Livestock Auction on Thursday, seeking the perfect setting to showcase my new cap, an early birthday present from my sister.

A cowgirl over by the auction pens "lent" me her horse for a couple of shots.

Then we went to the corrals where working horses were waiting their turns to be ridden, where this one immediately took my eye. 

A beauty, no? Now here's a fact about horses: many (thought not all) of them are extremely curious, so approaching a horse is often best done by not approaching it at all. Instead, let the horse come to you. This morning (day after horse photo shoot) I reached the chapter in Jane Smiley's book, A Day at the Races, called "Five Senses and More." In this wonderful chapter of a book that has transported me more than once since David and I started reading it, Smiley comes up with four pairs of personality adjectives for horses, parallel to the four pairs of personality adjectives in the Meyer-Briggs test. This beautiful horse was friendly (rather than aloof) and curious (rather than fearful), to peg him to only two of the eight possible adjective choices. 

In the photo directly below, I am facing away from the horse, seeming not to pay it any attention. 

In the next frame, note that while I have not yet turned around to look at or touch the horse, he has come over to investigate me. Can you see that soft nose touching me, smelling me? I felt it, so gently sniffing and snuffling, like little nose kisses on the back of my hand. Hence my happy smile. 

I really think we made a connection. I would have been in complete horse love in five more minutes, and I like to think that in less than half an hour the horse would have returned my love. 
For doubters and true believers both among my readers, I highly recommend the Smiley book.

P.S. If you missed the junior rodeo post, catch it here. Great little riders!!!

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Rodeo Imperative

Maybe somewhere in the West there’s someone (most likely a transplant from the Midwest) who utters the words “I wasn’t born yesterday,” but I have yet to hear our familiar Michigan phrase out here. Instead, from goofy celebrity talk show through serious political discussion to a couple of guys out on a sidewalk or standing around a pickup truck, whenever one person states the obvious or starts to give unnecessary advice or asks if the second person knows something that of course anyone around here would know, the laconic response is, invariably, “This isn’t my first rodeo.”

When we read a bare-bones announcement in the local newspaper – surprisingly, no times or schedule were given, no list of events or enticing photograph from last year – about a junior rodeo to be held March 14 and 15 out at Quail Park on the north side of Willcox, I put it on my calendar immediately.

“Don’t expect much,” David warned. The word “Junior,” to him, meant there would be no professional bull-riding, his favorite rodeo event. 

I didn’t care. “There’ll be plenty of horses,” I said confidently.

(There was to be a huge book fair in Tucson the same weekend, on the University of Arizona campus. Books in the city vs. horses in the country? I have books every day of my life! But I do have a kind of professional obligation.... Okay, a compromise: rodeo on Saturday, book fair on Sunday. My argument was that city traffic would not be as crazy on Sunday, and besides, David thought we might stay overnight near Tucson and ride up to Oracle the next day.)

There were horses and horse trailers everywhere. Every size and color and look of horse, and every make and size and age of trailer. We were surrounded by horsiness, immersed in an equine world. Immediately, before we got out of the car, the event had already surpassed my expectations.

(Look at background: Dos Cabezas!)

There were calves, too, ready for the roping.

There were a few dogs of appropriate cowdog appearance among the spectators, one almost as cute as Sarah. (Which one below do you think I mean?)

We arrived for the end of the “flags” event and the beginning of “poles,” the first poles competition for the “Six and under” age group, with older age groups following. I couldn’t help suspecting that for a few of the youngest competitors, this might indeed be their first rodeo.

The announcer was clear and encouraging. Here’s how she would periodically remind riders of their turns in the arena, after beginning by reading the complete lineup of competitors: “Next is So-and-So One, followed by So-and-So Two, and So-and-So Three, be thinkin’ about it.”

(Yes, there were young cowboys, too, but it was the girls who were living my girlhood dream.)

It was a very windy day -- consequently very dusty. Back behind the entrance gate, where horses stood waiting to be ridden and young cowboys and cowgirls warmed up horses for upcoming events or simply socialized on horseback, the dust was fierce, but the horsiness was intense.

We didn’t stay all day. The next morning, though, before getting on I-10 to Tucson, we stopped in again briefly for the beginning of the rodeo day. Again we were surrounded by horses, and again I heard the announcer’s voice pronouncing the names of kids I’d seen ride the day before, the same formula making the order of competition clear. “Next... followed by... and ... be thinkin’ about it.”

The rodeo imperative: “Be thinkin’ about it.” I was still thinkin’ about it halfway to Tucson.

Ride‘m, cowgirl! Live my dream!

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful! Dare I confess that it was -- my first rodeo?!