Opening The Door
“…all arguments are meaningless until we gain personal experience. One must win one’s own place in the spiritual world painfully and alone. There is no other way of salvation. The Promised Land always lies on the other side of a wilderness.”
Havelock Ellis, The Dance of Life
I am one of the vanquished half-listening to the news which paves the floors of countless houses. Almost nine years have passed since I found myself claustrophobic on a small square in Washington, D.C. protesting the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. A few thousand demonstrators were confronted by a few thousand police, snipers on the roofs of surrounding government buildings. Men in dark suits and bad haircuts wore mirrors for sunglasses. Wires dangled and coiled from their ears. A month before Pete Zawoski and I agreed we were trapped between dark poetry and villains. Our lives had taken another turn in the steady drift to diminishment. The warm soothing September afternoon sun bathed us on the street corner upon which we spoke. I told Pete to keep painting. He said he was too old to stop. Pete is now out of the world.
August and September, the light begins to soften with the summer rains. We found three dead grosbeaks in as many days. Sunflowers, buffalo grass, blue grama, penstemons, columbine, russian sage, indian paintbrush grow in wild profusion around the house, in the village, throughout the valley. The cottonwood behind the house is healthy after last year’s pruning. When it rains or a sudden wind blows through I still think of this tree so out of place in these woods, as being able to collapse under its own weight. In the morning when the sky is almost blue behind the mountains you can smell the fertile intermingling of horses, pinon, cool night air flowing into the new day. I hope there is enough firewood for winter. The rose bushes, under which the cats’ ashes are mixed with the earth, are thriving. There is no traffic from the highway, almost everyone is still asleep. The hummingbirds continue to devour the nectar. The western tanagers have had their day. Magpies and crows linger along the road, in the wires. Bullock’s orioles are gone, the jays still taunt Boxcar Red, our cat with a thousand lives, mourning doves flap onto a pinon branch, hummingbirds dart from feeder to flower to tree.
After five years it appears little has changed. Some years more rain and snow. Some years colder winters. Some years warmer summers. This year, everything looks greener, though I cannot say with certainty. Up La Cueva there is trouble with bears. A few years back it was mountain lions. A few years from now I am not sure I will be able to speak with people with the ease I used to just a few years ago. I am not sure I have much to say anymore. When someone says they are a strong believer in “connectivity” I believe them. I believe in it too, if it means an attempt at kindness, an attempt at listening, a sharing of curiosity about the world with a person who is in the same room with you. If connectivity means “an unbiased transport of packets between endpoints” I hope I am not one of these “endpoints” unless you are delivering me a packet with perspiration in the palm of your hand. Maybe connectivity is just Homer beaming Odysseus to us in our cybership, strapped to our updated images, as we travel together trying to get home. In any case, we are six degrees from oblivion.
Wooden wind chimes provide the hollow clunky rhythm outside my window. Stealth coyotes call from a thousand years ago across the valley. It is said, by those who know, that the fishing is good this year. The river either is high or low, but the river is. Goose’s Elvis shrine is intact down by the reeds and rushes, Pancho’s veggie burrito is being ordered right now as I speak. I still don’t know where the pink house in Rowe is. We won’t be seeing Wes Studi at Kathleen’s party this year because Kathleen is not having a party. An adobe house in East Pecos that was falling apart last year is gone this year.
The desert is thirty minutes away; the mountains are thirty minutes away. We live between chamisa and aspen. Many people live in trailers. Many of the trailers are falling apart. Many of the people who live in trailers are falling apart. A t-shirt found in Adelo’s country store says Pecos, Resisting Change for Four-Hundred Years. In the evening when the mountains are blue and the sky leans toward turquoise and rose and gold and silver and a lick of cool alpine air swipes your face you find it hard to think of anything but this heartbreaking beauty of which you are only a passing witness. The Milky Way will soon reveal its vast presence. Time passes and everyone asks, looking around as if they could see it, where did it go. The last of the mosquitoes puncture the twilight, reminding you that enchantment has its limits, too.
Two and half miles south of here red pueblo ruins slowly erode into the ridge above Glorieta Creek. Perhaps, two-thousand people lived here seven hundred years ago. Signs say stay on the path, beware of rattlesnakes. Spaniards rebuilt their mission church burned down during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. Now, on cold December nights bonfires are lit on the stone floor of this shell open to starry skies. You can have cold cuts and cider in the community room after you’ve traced the shadows of your footfalls between farolitos. Civilization is never too far away even in past-tense.
As if one could, in order to uncover the meaning of a place, one has to take one’s time to discover the layers and folds which carry the signs and symbols, the subtle topography, the architecture which grows out of the earth as if it were an extension of rock, soil, rain, and wind. One brings one’s memoires into a vast dead sea, one’s clothes hang on one like a rumpled layer of skin which fits your body like a worn glove. A lifetime of images fills your pockets. You drag every landscape you’ve lived in with you. I am wary of the silence which disguises despair, dissatisfaction, and disdain. I relax into the silence which holds up ponderosa pines as I walk in the forest with friends. The man who fired my wife from her job for being “too East Coast” is from Ohio. The economic Depression of the early 21st century rang our doorbell and we were home. The village is growing “For Sale” signs along the county roads, the trailer at the top of our lane is boarded up. Campers are headed up the canyon. The rodeo finished two weeks ago. I still hear pop music drifting through the thin air. Two rider-less horses once galloped past me on a very still midsummer afternoon. I still hear their hoof beats on the hot asphalt. I chase the moon setting behind the Jemez. I watch a crack expand across my windshield. My arms are cold against the morning air rushing into the open window.
New Mexicans thrive on their own dysfunction. A person’s sense of self-worth is derived from how much distance one can keep from another and manage to survive the effort under the illusion one has really come out whole and intact on the other side of isolation. But, at some point one needs other people in order to have a meaningful life. How lonely you can be, how far inward you can go, how marginalized you are. Some people keep these things near them as if they were precious objects worn around the heart by a stranger. A stranger who happens to be oneself.
There are people who have lived here thirty years and they do not know why they came. There are people attracted to this place and they do not know why or cannot say. Some people are born here and never leave. People came and headed for the hills and there are not hills enough to get away to. The big sky comforts some people, some people are overwhelmed and have to leave. I receive much news of a world that cannot be avoided. While my inclination is to trouble-make, appreciate a lopsided laugh, ask questions that will never be answered, and identify with those who insist on not belonging for the sake of belonging, I hold my feelings in check as if my brain were being audited by a misfit who lives on the right side of the tracks. I marginalize myself in order to keep myself alive to humble places where others see nothing, in order to remain human. The community of isolationists is alive and well. At work I wear an expressionless mask with slits for eyes and nose. My lips are sealed. People disappear with lonely ease. You will go years not seeing your neighbor across the river. Adobe walls hide a special brutality invented and perfected in the American dream. I’m opening the door to my studio. I open the windows looking out through the trees across the overgrown pasture where the pinto was born this past Spring. I hear the voices of kids playing over at the public housing. Autumn is not that far away. Here I am never more alive or alone. I take a deep breath and I begin to write.