Thursday, October 28, 2010

Robin and Sundew

I’m writing this memoir in honor of Robin Simpson and her daughter Sundew, both of whom are now dead. I would like to offer this piece of writing as my small gift to their memory.

I first met Robin in the fall of 1974 at a craft show in the Loretto Mall in Las Cruces. She reminded me of a woman I once knew named Carol.

“Are you named Carol, by any chance?” I asked by way of introduction.

“No,” she replied.

With most women, the relationship would have ended right there, but Robin and I had some sort of instant connection. So we kept on talking.

It turns out she had just broken up with her boyfriend after travelling around the country in a bus. (A lot of hippie-types traveled around the country in buses back then.) She and her two-year-old daughter, Sundew, had moved into a little wooden house about a mile south of my microfarm, on the other side of the Rio Grande. There were a bunch of hippie-types living in that area, so she fit right in.

About a half mile down the river from her stood a two-story house, with a little hot spring bathhouse. Max and Dan lived there. They were marble miners. Mr. Preece, who owned the Broken Arrow Rock Shop in Radium Springs, had a mining claim about 5 miles west of the highway. Max and Dan would drive Mr. Preece’s truck up the bumpy dirt road back to the marble mine, blast big chunks of marble loose with dynamite, then winch the boulders onto the truck and drive them back to the marble processing area, where Mr. Preece had a big diamond saw. The diamond saw had a blade about six feet long, with a spray of water to keep things cool. The saw moved slowly back and forth and cut the marble into slabs. They cut the slabs to a saleable size and polished them until they glistened. I once swapped Dan and Max some dope for a couple of bookends that they cut and polished for me. Dan was Robin’s boyfriend; that’s why I’m saying all this.

We hip-oids all socialized quite a bit, soaking in the hot tub at Max and Dan’s house, making music, sharing meals, smoking dope. We were always smoking dope, it seemed like. We liked to get high.

One family came down for the winter from Wisconsin every year, living in a teepee behind Max and Dan’s house. People did stuff like that back then. Do they still?

This was the “countercultural era,” when a certain cohort of our age group believed that an alternative to the mainstream monoculture was actually possible. We had no way of knowing that our beloved “alternative lifestyle” was fading away even as we were living it. Judy and I had a lot of spare time during these years, which is another way of saying that we were very poor financially. But we were very rich in unstructured time at a young enough age to fully enjoy it. When our peers were already locked into the System and getting established in their careers, we were exploring the Goat Path and digging into Reality from the inside in. In an earlier post I called this era “a wild and wonderful time,” and Robin was an integral part of it for us.

I remember wading the river with Bob Clark and walking down the Santa Fe Railroad tracks to hang out with Robin. And driving up to see the Tonuco Peak petroglyphs with her and Dan; baking bread with her and Judy; driving to upper Broad Canyon to look for arrowheads (we found one); performing “Sympathy for the Devil” in her house with Dan and a bunch of friends one night; on and on. She was a bright spirit: friendly, intelligent, good vibes; a good person to hang out with; a good person to have as a friend.

I really don’t remember Sundew all that well. She had a gimpy eye, as I recall, but other than that was a typical two-year-old. There always seemed to be kids running around, and Sundew was one of them. From my perspective, she was just another element in the total hipoid package.

I remember one evening going over to Max and Dan’s house with my friend Dave, who was gay. Dave had learned to enjoy his marijuana when he served in Vietnam with the Army, so I figured he would enjoy going over there and partaking. So we went over there and partook, and then he went to the bathhouse to take a soak. A couple of minutes later, Robin went to join him. Dave was a sweet guy and safe in his gay way, so he was no doubt a very satisfactory bath partner. But I remember feeling very quite seriously jealous of him right about then.

One afternoon in the summer of 1975 -- June, as I recall -- Robin and Sundew paid us a visit. This involved walking up the tracks, crossing a floodplain covered with saltgrass and tornillo trees, and crawling through the saltcedar thicket at the edge of the river. We heard her calling to us from across the river, so I dragged my pontoon boat into the water and paddled over to meet them. A friend had loaned me a little aluminum boat made by cutting out the top of an aircraft wing tank, and attaching pontoons on either side so it wouldn’t tip over. We attached a cow skull onto the prow of our ship, and cut quite the mythic figure paddling across the Rio Grande.

I loaded Robin and Sundew into my trusty craft and paddled back across the river. Judy and Sue Ann met us as we climbed out of the boat. Sue Ann was 5 at the time, so she and Sundew started playing together at the edge of the river.

“Want to see our new goat?” Judy asked Robin.

“Sure,” Robin replied.

So we walked over to the goat pen and talked about goats for awhile until Sue Ann came up to us, alone.

“Sundew’s gone,” Sue said.

Oh. My. God.

We ran back to where the girls had been playing and there was the river, flowing quietly and relentlessly downstream like it always does. There was no sign of Sundew.

Robin freaked and dove into the river, calling for Sundew. My memory goes blank right about then. I think that particular memory circuit self-protectively fried itself out of existence. I’m sure she screamed and cried, but all I remember is hopping into my car and driving to Leasburg Dam to see if I could spot Sundew’s body going over the spillway. This involved driving a couple of miles downstream, crossing the river, hanging a left onto Fort Selden Road, then immediately turning left along the Leasburg Canal Road, and driving a mile up the river to the dam. There were several hippie-types there hanging out (in other words, smoking dope), including one guy I knew. I imperiously told them to keep a lookout for Sundew’s body floating past, and they immediately bristled with hostility. I can’t blame them. God, what a prick I was. But I was totally freaked out and not capable of my usual standard of social nuance.

Watching for Sundew’s probably-submerged body in such a vast expanse of water seemed pointless, so I drove back home. Somewhere along in there somebody went to the Clarks’ house down the road and called the sheriff (we had no phone at the time). The deputy came out, took his report, walked down to the edge of the river where Sundew had disappeared, and said they would send divers out in the morning. I don’t know about now, but this used to happen all the time back then... a couple of times a year, probably: a family would be picnicking along the river, and suddenly somebody would notice that Johnny or Suzie had disappeared, and a fun family outing would turn into a tragedy. The sheriff’s job was to find the body, so the survivors could perform the age-old human ritual over the mortal coil from which the spirit has departed. They usually found the body, sooner or later, and I’m sure there were many closed-coffin funerals.

Afternoon turned to evening. Dan arrived in his car and picked up Robin. The next morning, the Sheriff himself came out and sat on our dock for a couple of hours as a couple of scuba divers scoured the river downstream, checking to see if Sundew’s body had gotten snagged by overhanging saltcedar branches. (Saltcedars, seeking light, grow way out into the river.)

Drowning victims usually float to the surface after a few days. As the body decays it fills with gas, giving it buoyancy. They found Sundew’s body five days later, stranded on a sandbar several miles downstream.

In my perception, Robin always had a haunted depth to her after that. She had fallen into the abyss, and I don’t know if you ever quite emerge after that. She was forever changed. She was wise beyond her years. She moved away eventually, and I heard she became a park ranger, working at various New Mexico state parks.

I visited Robin a few times in 1981, after I had left Judy and hooked up with Ellanie, the woman who would become wife #2. By this time Dan and Robin were living together. Dan had built them a house way back in the hills near Truth or Consequences. Since Ellanie lived in T or C and I was spending a lot of time there, it was easy for me to visit Robin on my trips back to Radium Springs.

Robin and I were living two very different lives by then, so we had a few good conversations and that was that. As time went on I got pretty heavily caught up in my own drama, and never saw Robin again. I later heard that she and Dan had two little girls. From time to time the idea would pop into my mind to visit Robin, but I never did.

Then, in 1994, a mutual friend told me what had happened to Robin. She said that Robin had been suffering from endometriosis, and was experiencing intense, unremitting pain. They tried everything, and nothing helped. One evening, right before Dan was to come home from work, she wrote a note, said goodbye to her little daughters, walked out into the desert, and shot herself in the head with a pistol.

I will always miss you, Robin. There is nothing more to say.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Full Moon Drumming

I wrote this in January 1999. Someday I’ll have to write the full story: "The Rise and Fall of Full Moon Drumming."

I remember how frustrated I was during the 80s. Not only had the original "back to the land" movement become passé, but I couldn’t even find people willing to drum or make music for an adequate length of time. Fortunately, since then a nationwide drumming movement has emerged, and drumming circles are everywhere. We started ours four years ago in Radium Springs, and it’s been a dream come true.

Each time we do drumming is different, depending on who shows up and what kind of energy we bring together. It took us a good two years to develop any kind of consistency and tradition, but it seems to have finally become a habit.

At one recent drumming, we had a hug fest extravaganza that was a new development for us. In fact, we had three hug fests that evening. The first one consisted of a dozen people hugging each other in a circle. People would take turns entering the center of the circle, so that they could be hugged by everybody at once. Such nice energy! The second one, later in the evening, was an evenly-balanced group of 6 people — 3 men and 3 women — who formed a circle hug that must have lasted for at least an hour. We sang songs and had a grand time. It occurred to me that we (baby boomers in our 40s and early 50s) were the last generation to all hear the same songs as we were growing up. So we had dozens of songs (mostly pop and rock) which we dredged up from our collective memory bank and shared with each other. Later, a whole new pack of people unexpectedly showed up, so we had our third hug fest. First, we had them form a circle around our circle and hug us, and then we formed a circle around their circle and hugged them back. It was our way of saying, "Welcome to the hug!" A snuggly and huggly time was had by all.

There are altered states, and then there are altered states. The most common by far, I think, is getting "jazzed up" — you dance and drum and howl and sing and whatnot, and your heartbeat increases, and your brain speeds up. You’re vibrating at a higher rate, and it’s a stimulating, joyous space to be in.

[I need to point out that most of us are (as far as I know) stone-cold sober during all of this. One reason the original counterculture never amounted to much was its overuse of drugs, particularly marijuana, which deceived people into thinking that their fantasies were real. (I should also point out that the present younger generation’s totally retro emphasis on alcohol is a tragic evolutionary leap backward. Marijuana, at least, can stimulate creative fantasies. Alcohol just dumbs you down.)]

Ours is a social drumming, with no overtly religious overtones. We aren’t specifically seeking the sacred, but occasionally "something" happens. Once, a year or so ago, some of us entered what I would call "the creative flow," and lived there for awhile. Others might call this a "magical state of being," in which there is a tangible presence of what I would call "the holy spirit." What made this possible, I think, is that we had such a small group (the larger the group, the harder it is to maintain any kind of focus), and the fact that we had a stringed instrument.

A plucked musical note, in my experience, can penetrate to the center of one’s consciousness much more easily than the thump of a drum, and a continuous, yet constantly changing, series of notes can create a wondrous state of mind. I think it’s fascinating to notice that the pendulum has swung from a guitar emphasis (during the counterculture days) to the primitive, drum-only emphasis we have today. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see more music in the future, which will enhance the drumming.

Anyway, to continue with my story, there were 5 of us — a dulcimer player (me), a drummer, two dancers, and a fire tender. For whatever reason, all the energies were right that night. The experience lasted about an hour (but hey, who was keeping track of the time?) and was a very quiet, gentle happening — magical music, slow dancing, and a small fire. Afterwards some of us compared notes, and the feeling was, "Wow! That was really special!" What I particularly like is how the psychological effects of such an event can linger for days afterwards. You could build a life around this kind of stuff! Which is no doubt why "primitive" people do it so frequently.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Bonding with the Land

I wrote this in 1998. A friend once asked me about "memory bubbles." This is one:

A month ago, Laura, Neil and I were taking one of our favorite drives, between Nutt and Hillsboro, at the southern end of the Black Range. For sustainability and lifestyle reasons, we do a lot less driving than we used to, so there’s always a thrill and a feeling of expansiveness whenever we do hit the road. As we were driving along, I felt connected to the entire area, because I have made this drive so many times, during every season of the year, over a period of thirty years.

It was the prickly poppies that did it. Seeing those poppies triggered feelings that took me right back to 25 years ago, when I first made their acquaintance. It caused me to wonder: Feelings? Is the essence of life really something so evanescent as feelings? From the point of view of the beholder, it probably is. We will all agree (except for the most hardened mystics) that there is very much an objective reality, very hard and almost unbearably real. But as living creatures, what is really important to us is our subjective reactions to external events. Those prickly poppies are my friends. They give continuity to my life. They connect me to a vanished time, and they also remind me that they’ll still be there long after I’m gone.

When my wife of that era, Judy, and I moved to our first homestead in the Missouri Ozarks in 1970, I worked very hard at reprogramming my mind — calculus, differential equations, "university intellectual knowledge" of all kinds went out; trees, forest, garden, wind, snow, rain, silence (lots of silence), went in. That first year, we lived on $500 (in 1970 dollars). We didn’t have clocks. We hunted and fished, raised goats and rabbits for slaughter, had a big garden. We read the Euell Gibbons books and learned to forage for wild foods and herbs. We took long walks in the woods. We read dozens of books from the local library and expanded our minds. It was a fascinating lifestyle experiment. At an age when most of my contemporaries were locking themselves into their careers, I was burning my bridges as fast as I could. (I had already had a career as a planetary astronomer, albeit a very short one.)

When we moved back to our beloved New Mexico desert in 1973, my perceptions had changed. Before, when looking at the desert vegetation, I knew a few of the more obvious plants, like mesquite and creosote bush, but the rest of the plants were essentially a formless background mass. After I returned, every plant stood out in vivid detail. Such a zap it was to have literally every blade of grass saying (figuratively, of course), "Here I am!"

We climbed the highest hill next to our land and I felt frustrated. Surrounding me in a 360° arc was a bewildering jumble of hills, mountains, valleys and plains extending clear to the horizon. Many mountains were already familiar to me — the Organs, the Robledoes, the Doña Anas, the Black Range. But so many were strangers, and I wanted to know them all personally. How could I even begin?

We began by buying all the topographic maps for the surrounding area, and learning the names of all the mountains that have names. The mountains that didn’t have names, we named ourselves — Pyramid Peak, Lonely Mountain, Grape Mountain (because we once ate grapes at the top of it). We hiked all the country for miles around, from the joy of being back in the desert, and from sheer youthful exuberance (we were in our 20s at the time, and unemployed, with lots of energy to burn). We would climb every mountain we could, and from each new vantage point, we would see our familiar territory from a new angle, plus there would always be new mountains to learn. Before long, we had learned every mountain in our area. We became "trackers of mountains." Some people learn every nuance of animal tracks, but our specialty was mountains. In our travels we learned every mountain range to Tucson and beyond to the west, to Santa Fe to the north, and to the Great Plains to the east. (To the south was Mexico, and we never ventured any farther than Ciudad Juarez.)

We also made it a project to learn all the plants — trees, shrubs, herbs, cactus, wildflowers. This is when I made my first acquaintance with the prickly poppies in 1973. Driving along the higher elevation grassland areas on a cool, moist, cloudy day towards the end of monsoon season, we saw hundreds of tall plants, covered with vivid white flowers, growing on the shoulder of the highway. A quick scan through our plant books revealed them to be prickly poppies, and I have associated them with that magical drive ever since.

I want to say more in the future about developing a personal relationship, a private mythology, with the surrounding landscape. Every nook and cranny has a story to tell, and we can become part of that story.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Gift Comes Full Circle

1. The Gift Goes Out

One cold January evening (Jan. 13, 1988 to be exact), my neighbor Bob Clark and I were up in the Truth or Consequences area moving some beehives. It’s lonely in the desert at night. You can freeze to death out there if you’re dumb enough. The winter stars are so close, they glue themselves to your eyelids. Coyotes cry inside your skin and won’t let you go. Our bodies picked up on these subliminal vibrations as we loaded the hives into the truck during the last fading rays of twilight, and now even the lull of the truck and the warmth of the heater weren’t enough to overcome the message the penetrating stillness had programmed into those hungry centers at the centers of us which cried, “Fill me! And only a burrito will do! Hot! And with fries!” (Or in my case, onion rings.) So we decided to stop at Ray’s Drive-In on our way home for a couple of burritos to fill our guts with something thick and hot to drive away the chill from our souls.

There we were, sitting in Ray’s parking lot, chomping down on our burritos and talking about typical, or in Bob’s case, not-so-typical topics like God and prayer and prayers being answered when all of a sudden, with impeccably melodramatic timing, came a rap rap rapping on the window beside me. I turned, rolled down the window, and looked into the tired blue eyes of a man not too old but already gray by now, a man accustomed to the down side of life, a man just getting through his life the best way he knew how. I instantly knew that he was going to hit me up for money.

His spiel was straight and direct. He told me that he needed a couple of dollars to buy a little bottle of whiskey to get him through the night and would I be interested in buying a can of tuna and a can of vienna sausage from him for two dollars.

I was impressed by his honesty and directness. And yeah, I could relate to where he was coming from, having been in my version of the similar predicament earlier in my life: sometimes life seems very, very hard and sometimes only the sweet oblivion of unconsciousness will do. So I instantly seized my opportunity to bestow a little blessing upon him. Not just any blessing, mind you, but that one special blessing which would send him onward along life’s highway with a smile in his heart and whiskey breath on his lips.

“Tell ya what I’m gonna do, brother,” I told him theatrically. I’m gonna give you two dollars! What do you think about that?” Let me tell ya, his mind just blew as I pressed two dollar bills into his palm!

You could sure tell that he wasn’t used to having his prayers answered so directly like that! You readers out there would have laughed and laughed if you had seen the expression on that poor old boy’s face! His jaw dropped and he just couldn’t get it back up! He was a sight to see.

Then he started talking about the Baptists. (This being a Wednesday night, they were having their prayer meeting right across the street at that very moment.) “I just came from there,” he said, gesturing to the church. “The Baptists are always saying, ‘Jesus did this, Jesus did that, Jesus said this, Jesus said that.’”

“Yeah, but how about now?” I said, completing his thought for him.

“Yeah, how about now!” he agreed. Then he said, “The people in heaven must be like you.”

“Yep!” I agreed, having learned years ago to instantly accept all honest compliments.

After attempting to get me to at least take the can of tuna, he thanked me one last time and went on his merry-enough way, heading for the nearest liquor store at full warp speed.

Bob and I looked at each other with amazement. “Wow, we were just talking about prayers being answered and stuff like that, and look at what just happened: I answered this guy’s prayer,” I observed with evident amazement.

“I think you just passed a test,” Bob said.

It sure seemed that way. There was a particular vibration in the air.

2. The Gift Returns

After finishing our burritos, we drove six blocks to the Marshall Bath House to deliver 36 quarts of honey to a man who had called me unexpectedly several days before. Belching occasional burrito belches, Bob and I continued to discuss the “answered prayer” incident, bringing in related topics like gifts and blessings and good karma. We pulled up at the bath house and this bright-eyed old coot opened the door and stepped outside almost before I got the truck stopped.

Bob and I got out, introduced ourselves, and loaded the honey into the man’s truck. “I’m giving all this honey to the Indians,” the old man said.

GIVING all this honey to the Indians? Well, you could have knocked us down with a feather! Because Bob and I had just been talking, not only about gifts and blessings and good karma, but about how God can tailor-make any conceivable situation right there on the spot to teach us just the exact right lesson that we need to learn at that exact precise point in our lives. It’s downright uncanny, is what it is, and now here was a blatant example of just such a lesson being played out before our very eyes in “real time mode,” and we knew it while it was happening!

Then the old man and I went inside, leaving Bob alone with a cigarette.

“It’s good that there are people like you doing things like giving honey to the Indians,” I gushed, reinforcing him to the max. Being a capitalist, I hastened to continue, “It works out to $108, but you can have it for a flat $100.” Such a deal! Not only was I giving him a good karma discount, but I wasn’t charging him for delivery! Lucky for him I had been needing to come to T or C anyway to move those hives! (Yes, even angels of mercy have to pay sometimes, especially if they can afford it.)

Then the old codger and I flowed in deep tandem powerglide together for a few minutes as he waxed philosophical about love and marriage, and made some interesting but not necessarily accurate observations about my second ex-wife, who was quite a personage in T or C, being town librarian and all. But then the conversation quickly waned as he crashed into the shallows of superficiality and convention, and I lost interest.

“It’s a long drive back,” I said.

“It sure is,” he agreed.

Bob and I got back in the truck and started to leave. When we were already well-nigh underway, the old geezer yelled out the door for me to stop, so I aborted my motion initiation sequence and switched to “standby” mode as he came out the door with a bag in his hand.

“Would you like some walnuts?” he asked.

“You bet!” I replied, and at that moment I realized that my $2 gift to the wino at Ray’s Drive-In had already come full circle.

P.S. It was a lot more than $2 worth of walnuts.

Moral: God doesn’t keep count.