Listen to this story. Narrated by Ellen Petry Leanse.
My feet crunch on the icy path, muddy brown seeps filling tire tracks left by a delivery van as it descended the road. They would have gone cautiously, careful of hidden ravines and slippery corners masked in the sun’s bright glow, shining from pristine white. I’m cautious myself. I lengthen my stride, nesting snowboot-clad feet into the indents I left earlier, my steps interweaving with pawprints from rabbits, field mice – the trails of their tiny tails bisecting whispers of delicate tracks – hefty big-eared hares, what might be coyote, and the romping dogs who accompany their owners on this trail.
It’s March. Snow fell last night and lots of it. It’s very welcome here. We haven’t had much this year, and suddenly the world around my New Mexico home feels replenished, fresh and new.
It’s a year this week since I arrived here, since the patiently-waiting home of my heart finally became the home of my being. Unplugged from California city life, all the bustle and drive, I have, in this year, fallen away from patterns that filled my days and without my actual permission the decades when that place was “home.”
And home it was. Where I cooked and slept and welcomed friends, where I curated a garden. Where I nurtured a family. There, I woke most mornings to colourless blank light, fog blending seamlessly into the white of window shades and walls. Coffee, maybe, always in a hurry; hasty peeks at email or apps as I dressed for the day and checked the MUNI schedule to make sure I arrived right on time – not too early – for the next bus. Noisy traffic on crowded streets. Streams of commuters filing up one escalator or down another as they headed to whatever waited next, usually an office or yet another stage in a commute.
An office was where I headed, walking fast, eyes down, melting into the robotic flow over asphalt paths, sequenced lights and beeping horns and near-collisions with other destination-focused passersby as I walked there.
Wake up. Caffeinate. Shower, dress. Check schedules or email or some sort of habitual distraction that felt required. Enter the pace of the day as if that was what a day should be, surrendering thought and mind to the rhythms of conditioned demands, all of the things I’d arrived at and that everything before had pointed at, until it became the shape of my life and what, actually, I told myself a life should be.
And then this. The desert. The red dirt and all that grows from it. The history. The people, 26 Native tribes whose unceded ancestral land this state claims today. Their stories, their stewardship of this precious dry realm. Stately rock fortresses, witnesses to some 30 million years of ebb and flow. The aloneness. The quiet. The remembering of something I couldn’t possibly have ever learned, yet had somehow forgotten.
And today, the icy earth. A reawakening to a clarity, a vibrance as crisp and sharp as the cold biting at my wrists, finding the small stretch of bare pale skin between my coat sleeves and winter gloves.
Nothingness leads to nothingness out here, everythingness to everythingness. I wander. It’s a word that partners well with wonder, the thing I do, the thing I feel. Getting lost has become a deliberate practice, a path to getting found. On the ground before me tiny crystals of frozen magic sparkle like silver glitter on a canvas of white, their ever-changing dance a performance, an art. In summer months it’s quartz that glistens, reflecting the sky-filling force that shines from afar. It hits me that they’re all one and the same, the stone and the snow, and that solar force, all sourced from the same few elements, all cousins with each and every star. But for my footsteps, treading on that stuff of stars, all is silent.
Summer offered nothing of this quiet. Life spoke everywhere, a timeless conversation of mutuality and service, plants feeding insects feeding birds feeding various things that in their time fed the earth that feeds the plants.
Animals, totems of this place, staked their claims. Rabbits cautioned out from under piñon hideouts, sniffing the air for coyote or, in the early morning, perhaps fox. Peregrines perched patiently on high boughs, their still bearing masking the exquisite sensing of their eyes, their alertness for movement worthy of their determined swoop. Birds, all manner of them, gathered around the big broken flowerpot I filled each morning with water, fluttering in opportunistically, like the chickadees. Diving in territorially, like the jays. Or arriving all at once as the Spotted Towhees did, in a procession orchestrated to ensure all prior visitors took wing and moved on.
Yet it was the lizards that decorated the place, decorated it each day. They were soundless, or nearly so. Yet they were far from silent, adding presence and life that filled the place of noise. There they’d be, vertical and basking in a streak of sunlight painting my rough adobe wall, flitting off with the grace of a windblown feather the moment an unfamiliar motion – such as me – passed by. Borrowing heat from the darkest patches on the stone path by my patio, soaking in the sustenance of the warmest place.
Sometimes they snuck into my house. I have no idea how they entered yet there I’d find them, centred in the brightest rays of light shining in through my windows, refuelling for whatever the day invited next. What it invited to my visitor lizards was surely not what they expected. They tiptoed surely across my poured concrete floors, seeking what I can’t imagine, yet found themselves out of sorts when I entered the room and they attempted to scurry. Their hair-thin perfect claws, so suited to rocky and branchy pursuits, scrambled uselessly on my smooth floors. They’d panic, and why wouldn’t they. Stealthily, I’d approach them, dampened pillowcase held in outstretched arms, waiting for the moment. I’d toss it quickly upon them, covering them in coolness before gently pushing the edges together, bundling the squirming little life within. I’d speak as I did this, no, not actually speak but think what I wanted them to know: that they were safe, that I would be gentle as I lifted them, that all would be well again once they were back where they belonged.
I always returned to a favourite sunny rock to open the bundle and offer my little captives a return to freedom. They never darted off. First, they nestled for a moment in the cool folds of that pillowcase, sometimes motionless and sometimes tilting their exquisite little heads as if to show off their noble profiles and bright eyes. Sometimes it took a small shake from me before they would walk off, never quickly, transitioning from containment to sovereignty as if they’d rehearsed for the role and had no wish to overact.
I’d done this a few times, to lizards shorter than my index finger and one longer than my hand, in the early months of summer. And it seemed that as we interacted, often unwittingly, they became accustomed to my travels around their domain, lingering longer on the adobe walls when I approached and sometimes not moving at all. Praying Mantis did the same, tilting their triangular alien heads to track my movements, as if giving me permission to enter their realm, willing to share.
One morning I watched a very green one with long filamented limbs descend to my door mat, disappearing within seconds into the same shade of brown. Another day two pale green ones kept company with tiny white moths right by my front door, as interested in my scrutiny of them as was I in their noble regard of me.
Then there was the day, a very sunny one, when I carried an old bedspread out to my small deck, spreading it out and sitting down. Almost instantly I heard a small rustle and noticed a branch-like form fall from a nearby juniper: a lovely Whiptail lizard. No longer than my palm, she wriggled through the rocks and fallen needles, approaching. Three steps separate my deck from the dusty ground below. The lizard arrived at the first of them. After a moment’s hesitation she scuttled up, tiny claws perfectly suited to scaling the rough texture of wood. A pause, a nod of that elegant head. Another bold climb, and then another, and to my surprise, a small perfect lizard faced me, only a yard from my legs.
Then she reconsidered, disappearing much faster than she had arrived.
Yet in a moment she returned, peeking alertly over the top of that third stair and stepping towards me.
She first paused at the border of my shadow, the contour of my torso shaped in shade by the sun at my back. I stilled myself and thought thoughts of welcome and peace and openness to whatever this creature enacted. I told her I wouldn’t move. That I would wait.
As if on cue, she approached my right foot, bare to the sun, then up onto my ankle and then along my entire leg, stopping only when she reached the hem of my shorts. She paused, nodding her head as I’d seen others do, unfolding that pillowcase. And then in a scamper, she turned and was gone.
I looked to a resource on Native traditions to ask what such a visit might mean.
Renewal, it told me. Renewal and regeneration, the chance to begin again, the ability to welcome change, to learn from newness, to push new roots down ‘til they tapped into hope. To regenerate a new self from the memory of an old.
I think of that now as my feet crunch their way to my quiet and lonely home, to the solitude I have come to love. The snow is thick near the base of the trees and the earth below icy cold. It’s in there that the lizards sleep, dormant and still in their hidden homes, yet remembering somewhere deep in their bodies, deep in their cells, deep in all of the memories and lessons that have led to their being, who and what they are. In spring they will emerge again, remembering. They’ll once more seek the sunny patches, feeling as if for the first time the warmth that enlivens their senses and travels through scaled patterned skin into their tissues, their bones, their souls. Like me, they will reawaken, soaking in the power of this place and the earth it is part of. And as if for the first time we will know who we are.
I wait for that – for the first surges of chartreuse defying the white-caked earth, reminding winter that it, too, is temporal, yet that it, too, will in its time return.
Out of nowhere, my surroundings become familiar again. I look up, greeting the angled peak of my rooftop with an “Ah. There you are.” I soak in all around me before heading its way, footsteps crunching toward the walkway to my door. A big snowflake lands on my glove. I hold it to the light, watching it sparkle. I smile. It is shaped like a star.