Sunday, December 29, 2013


This evening the sky, just after sunset, looks too soft and too vibrantly red in places to be real, and must have been painted by some being with a huge paintbrush.

A week ago, about an hour before dawn, it began raining so softly I could not be quite sure what I heard. I knew only that as I lay listening to that muted sound, surrounded by silent darkness, I felt more relaxed than I had for weeks, perhaps months.

We live in Las Cruces, New Mexico. That's a gift life gave us, whether we deserved it or not. Familiarity doesn't breed contempt for this magnificent gift, but it sands the novelty off it. Striving to get a child to soccer, to pick up an aging friend's medication, to meet a column deadline or finish a report . . . who has the patience to recall our gifts?

Among those gifts are the stark Organ Mountains reddening in the last rays of sunset, the warm familiarity of my neighbor sitting outdoors having his last smoke of the evening, the insouciance of the coyote trotting down our road as we return from our walk, – and the rare scent of the desert after rain and the rarer sight of the Organs and Baylor Canyon Windmill white with fresh snow.

So are the desert's little miracles: the ocotillo that forms a perfect cross near top of one spine; the rattlesnake, severed with the blade of a pick, still wriggling until it somehow reattaches its two halves, so that a casual glance would reveal nothing wrong with the “sleeping” snake.

Too, the manageable size of our city, and its remoteness from anywhere the folks on either coast consider important, allows us to form and maintain friendships most city folks are denied, because of urban frenzy, modern mobility, and the practical problem that a sudden decision to get together with a co-worker can mean an hour's drive, not the ten minutes that'll get you from most anywhere to most anywhere else in Las Cruces.

You surely have many specific gifts to contemplate.

Some of mine these days:

-- the beauty and grace of rodeo practices I photograph, the proud youth of the riders, the elemental nature of the competition, and rodeo's ties to an endangered part of our national life and history;

-- the sudden upward rush of cranes and snow geese at the Bosque del Apache, each screaming its lungs out and loudly flapping its wings, as the full moon slips down behind the mountains in the background; 

the Tortugas danzas, the guests on our radio show, the three hummingbirds wintering over with us this year for the first time, the taste of chile at Chope's, the comedic genius of our cat, and the mixed wonders of Saturday's Farmers' Market, where people who are now old friends sell us (or insist on giving us) fresh and tasty food from our own quiet corner of the world. Chuck, with mushrooms and sprouts people get to the market ri buy when it opens, before he sells out; two of our favorite couples selling local honey; the Maynards selling free-range beef – the only kind I'd be tempted to try; Bakehouse, with a bigger line each week for good fresh bread and a variety of near bagel sandwiches; and Luis, a small farmer and friend who drives all the way up from Chaparral with his greens, and lays them out irresistibly on his small table.

Yeah, I know it's all transient, we're all transient. Years ago I was riding a train across North China reading the words, “At each moment, do not rely upon tomorrow. Think of this day and this day only, for the next moment is uncertain and unknown.” As I read Dogen's words, the train lurched, then stopped suddenly on a bridge. Just below my window a blue-clad peasant, struck by the train, breathed her last breaths, while a circular pool of blood widened from beneath her, and trainmen and locals exchanged cigarettes and smoked them.

This week I planned to see my doctor, but he was dead. A surgeon in his fifties, with an infectious smile and twinkling eyes – accidentally dead up at Elephant Butte. The titanium joint he put in my knee (one of several that day) has outlived him already.

So yeah, I know friends will die or lose their wits, Las Cruces will probably run out of water.

But that knowledge sets off life's beauty like a frame around a photograph. Death, not life, makes each moment we breathe a precious gift.

My wife calls to me. I abandon the keyboard and walk to the other end of our small home. A nearby peak makes a black triangle against the dusky blue sky. Beside it the full moon has suddenly appeared. Its whiteness in the dark reminds me of a white candle burning in a dark window at Christmas – thousands of miles and several decades from here – with that same ghostly pale circle glowing softly around it.

Thank you!

And Happy Christmas.

[The column above appeared today, Sunday, 29 December, 2013, in the Las Cruces Sun-News. 
It's a respite in a series of less gentle columns.  It just happened to be how I felt the evening I wrote it, and it seemed fitting that it would appear just before Christmas; but communications screw-up (my fault) caused it to be omitted last Sunday.  Otherwise I'd be back to my more usual mode, criticizing public officials and others.  Fact is, I'm a trouble-maker.  That's sort of how journalists kind of should be.  [Saint too; but I ain't one of them by anyone's count; and I lack their excuse of deep religious faith; I'm just a troublemaker because I always have been.  And because I have a low tolerance for bullshit (except, perhaps when it's completely insignificant and uttered in a particularly charming or amusing way).]  By next week I'll be back to pissing people off.]
[Since this is my first blog post since the New Mexico Supreme Court decision that forbidding same-sex marriage violates the N.M. Constitution's equal protection clause, I should mention, as we've discussed extensively on the radio show, I expected it and agree with the court's conclusion.  I also feel that the opinion was well-written.]

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