There is a quote from T. S. Eliot that includes this line, “…to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”. These words come to mind as I collect my thoughts about New Mexico. We returned this week to the place where we had come in 1989, on our wedding trip, and now know it for the first time.
Up until 1989, neither of us had been to New Mexico and we had heard wonderful things about it. We were here for just ten days back then, but the impact of the trip was significant. It was the inspiration for the start of a couple of our early business ventures (Due West Furniture and selling Hopi jewelry) both of which were instrumental in opening the paths we have since walked. The 1989 trip had re-kindled my high school devotion to Georgia O’Keeffe when I personally experienced the landscapes that she painted; it honed Peter’s fascination with Tony Hillerman; it introduced me to Frank Waters, who wrote about the Native Americans of the Southwest; and to the photos of Edward Curtis. I even re-read Willa Cather’s, Death comes for the Archbishop, with completely new eyes.
This time we started with a trip to Ghost Ranch, in Abiquiu, north of our campsite and at the eastern edge of the Colorado Plateau. I knew of the place from Georgia O’Keeffe’s bio, learning that in 1934, she drove herself out here from New York, rented a casita on what was then a dude ranch, and fell in love with the area. This led to her lifetime connection to New Mexico, revealed in the multitude of paintings of the famous mesa here, Cerro Pedernal. She so loved the mesa that her ashes were scattered there upon her death in 1986. She owned two homes in the area, neither on Ghost Ranch, but her tie to the place began here. Ghost Ranch is now an education and retreat center, given by a previous owner to the Presbyterian Church, and worth consideration by any one looking for a spiritually healing place.
We re-visited Ojo Caliente, north of Santa Fe, the hot springs that we first discovered 26 years ago when it was a sleepier version of itself. All the bathhouses have been remodeled and upgraded and are lovely, but it is the four different sulfur-free mineral waters (that have been healing mind, body and spirit for thousands of years) that we came for and three hours later, we left refreshed and renewed.
I was looking forward to re-visiting the Sanctuario de Chimayo. The little adobe church, built in 1820, had touched me deeply decades ago. Its simple, rustically painted retablos (painted sacred images on wood or tin and usually behind the altar) and bultos (sculptures of saints) stayed in my memory. It is a place of pilgrimage where the faithful have been coming for the healing red dirt. One side of the hall is lined with crutches and photos of people healed by the intercessions made here. When we entered the tiny little adobe room housing the healing dirt, one woman was weeping silently. A young father, holding his infant, reached down to the dirt, and brought it up and gently dusted the baby’s hands and forehead, whispering prayers. Witnessing this faith and devotion, for the first time after all these years, was deeply moving.
When we went into the church, there were about 100 people there for we had arrived in time for the daily mass. A couple of young families, many older women clad in widow’s black, and a collection of women and men of various ages with canes and walkers, filled the spare wooden benches tucked against the beautiful screens of painted retablos. The Mass unfolded, most in English, some in Spanish. In his homily, the priest welcomed the “visitors and pilgrims”. We could have been in a small village in Castille, Spain.
After the Mass, parishioners walked outside in the glorious New Mexico sunshine and greeted the priest. Accompanying him was an elderly little wisp of a priest, balancing with a walker and a wearing a black cap. I watched as a young family, baby in arms, rushed up to him and asked for a blessing for the baby. The elderly priest was the beloved Father Casimiro Roca, now 97 years old, who was born in Spain and after a life of hardship there, ended up in Chimayo in 1955. He found the old church in terrible disrepair and the congregation had dwindled to 10. He is revered for his calling to rebuild both. We stopped nearby at Leona’s café and purchased a package of the famous biscochitos and went on our way to re-visit Trujillos Weaving Shop. For decades now, we have treasured the weavings we purchased from the Trujillos who have been weaving here in Chimayo for over 300 years, a remarkable legacy in this country.
I want to comment next on our visit to the Indian Cultural Center in downtown Albuquerque, noting two points. First, the Center featured an exhibit of the Albuquerque Indian School and I braced myself. On a trip to Phoenix with a close friend years ago, we visited a museum which had a comprehensive exhibit on the Indian schools of the southwest. These schools were modeled after the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania whose founder, Richard Henry Pratt, had coined the phrase that reflected the Anglo-centric belief of the late nineteenth century that Indian culture needed to be obliterated. For years that phrase, “kill the Indian, save the man” haunted me.
This current Center’s exhibit traced the history of the Albuquerque school, which was founded in the template of the Carlisle Indian School, and was told in the oral history of some of the graduates. The stories were moving but the most inspiring part of the story is that while the school has since closed, it has spawned a new free public charter school, the Native American Community Academy. The school is focused on educating middle and high school students to “be academically prepared, self-assured, and healthy community leaders of tomorrow”. Seeing this exhibit, I was moved by the survival, the faith, the resources, and integrity of the Native American people in the face of such a respressive history.
The second note is around the vitality of the native community here. A troupe of young dancers performed three traditional dances at the Center, explaining the story of each. Several different Native Americans told me, when I asked, that the younger generation is interested in keeping these dances, the indigenous languages, and the traditional arts of pottery and jewelry making alive. It was hopeful to hear that.
Being back in Albuquerque allowed us to visit the Center for Action and Contemplation, started by Fr. Richard Rohr, one of the spiritual teachers whose writings we both follow. Peter and I dropped in at the modest visitor center, the reading room, the chapel and walked the labyrinth. It felt like coming home in many deeply personal ways. We had read that Fr. Richard was officiating at the 8:00am Mother’s Day mass at the neighborhood church. The synchronicity was not lost on us.
I will release the attempt to find words to describe what occurred that morning except to write that the Holy Spirit was much in evidence in the church as 300 people joined in prayer, in both English and Spanish; in song in both languages; in community that was so warmly welcoming that we were both deeply touched. His homily on the day’s gospel (John 4:7-10) and the message to “let us love one another because love is of God” will nourish us as we near the conclusion of this first chapter of our pilgrimage, each moment in awe of arriving where we started and knowing it for the first time. Peace to you all…