When the path ignites a soul,
there’s no remaining in place.
The foot touches ground,
but not for long.
— Hakim Sanai
Beginning in the middle circles the heart of the story, it’s true. But that is just the shape of the spiral, the yellow brick road unwinding at my feet here in the middle of my life. I leave this country for Spain in two days’ time, swinging from plane to plane like swinging across the monkey bars as a child, trusting the rhythm of letting go and reaching out, grabbing hold with one hand as momentum carries me beyond myself.
I think it’s easier to pinpoint the center of the spiral once it has gone ’round the bend a few times. Quite possibly literally. I think of my life as a series of tangents that were wrenched and contorted into orbit around my divided heart, that yin-yang binary star of my dreams and demons. When binary stars are the same size, they can destroy each other, creating a black hole, an endless void. But if one is larger, it can absorb and use the energy of the other. So for all these years, I have been trying to absorb the lessons of my pain by changing its manifestations in my daily life – studying, counseling, practicing taking tea with my demons like Milarepa, transforming them from wounds into scars, into street smart life lessons, dedication, duty.
But I neglected to grow my dreams. Without making my dreams larger, they will never have more weight in my life than my sufferings. They will always orbit each other in my heart until I am destroyed by them both. Neglected dreams do not wither on the vine – they rot, and turn poisonous.
There are two paths of which one may choose in the walk of life;
one we are born with, and the one we consciously blaze.
— T.F. Hodge
When I am asked what I value most, I have long answered, “Freedom.” But what is freedom if not the opportunity to follow your dreams? So finally, at long last, I have created my opportunity. By prioritizing it. After three years of transition, I have left the job, given up the apartment, and am saying my goodbyes. I am blazing my own trail.
I don’t know whether you can look at your past and find, woven like the hidden symbols on a treasure map, the path that will point to your final destination.
— Jodi Picoult
I don’t know either. I don’t know how to prepare for a journey I’ve never taken. But I believe everything up to now somehow has been the preparation I needed, and it doesn’t really matter what I pack, or if I’m fluent in the language, or loose with my itinerary. I’m mulling all of this. Hoping that my history contains a hidden map to my future. Hoping it’s a star chart, where what once burned deeply will now burn brightly, lighting my way. Because I’m going.
Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path, and leave a trail.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
Gallup, New Mexico: in this small world of 22,000 people, you can hear the sacred heartbeat of the Southwest. All summer, the drums of the nightly Indian dances on the plaza pulse the thin desert air as it cools from the setting sun. Chanting voices give the songs and stories of the dances a deeply human rhythm and tone, so that Navajo, Zuni, and Hopi legends and prayers infuse the night sky like stars. Eagle Dance, Buffalo Dance, Deer, Butterfly, … Grass. Corn. Moon and Star. Everything has its dance and its story. History moves in circles here, stepping in toward each other, stepping back for perspective.
Perspective is needed in the daylight hours. After 9:00am, the morning chill has burned away, and the pulse you hear is the blood in your temples seeking relief from the sun as you walk these hilly streets. Tiny New Mexico whiptail lizards rustle beneath junipers in small yards and under alfalfa springing from cracks in the crumbly sidewalks. A warm breeze is welcome, blowing through my straw hat, because biting gnats have risen with the temperature. My sandaled feet are always dusty with the red dirt of the looming mesas. As I walk downtown, I am greeted by various homeless Indians sitting on a wall on a small plaza near Silver Stallion Coffee and Bread. Several have begun drinking already, which I accept readily; I remember all the homeless people I have talked with in Colorado, many drinking or using at all hours. Here, however, the stereotype is all about being drunk Indians, not about being homeless.
Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty. — Mother Teresa of Calcutta
I see the reservations that ring Gallup as desolate homeless shelters for tribes who long ago lost their way of living. Homeless people often self-medicate to numb the burning reality of their situation, and a homeless People will do this in the same way a homeless individual will. Generational poverty is the thistly root of homelessness, and it can be found growing in every ditch and trash dump and wasteland across America. Escaping that kind of poverty is not a simple matter of a strong work ethic or setting your mind to success. Success in our society – even just getting to the step above survival – requires not only talent and hard work, it requires opportunity, and ongoing support. It’s hard to seize your opportunity when reaching for it feels as impossible as reaching for those far away stars. The sacred heartbeat is hard to hear as you watch men and women, in baggy T-shirts and sagged jeans, hitchhiking down the highways, back to the rez, in the heat of a workday, their long black ponytails gleaming with the sweat of a legacy lost. Billboards along these highways advertise domestic violence call-lines, suicide prevention, and smashed pickups punctuating drunk driving warnings. You can pull thistles all you want, but they stubbornly grow back. You have to get the roots.
Blessed is the man who bears with his neighbor according to the frailty of his nature as much as he would wish to be borne with by him, if he should be in a like case. — Saint Francis of Assisi
Into the midst of all this comes the Sacred Heart Spanish Market. New Mexico has a complicated history of repeated invasions and conquests, made no easier by its Spanish Colonial period. The influence of Spanish Catholic mysticism is everywhere here, and for one weekend, it is on proud-but-humble display at Gallup’s Sacred Heart Cathedral on East Green Avenue, near Cliff, and Mesa, and Hill. Outside, the landscape is steep, dry and rocky; but Sacred Heart is an oasis of air-conditioned faith in human beings who have risen above their suffering to become a part of the divine. Santos, the likenesses of saints, are painted and carved into retablos (that hang on the wall) and bultos (freestanding). Saint Francis holds a bird or stands with a coyote. Guadalupe glows within her traditional golden scalloped rays of holiness, blue robe of stars draped above her roses. Dolores, Our Lady of Sorrows, implores with large sad eyes. Teresa of Avila of Spain is here too, once richly painted by Rubens and now also brought to life by Gallup artists. The saints’ images and moments from their stories are framed with elaborately pierced and stamped tinwork, ornamented with turquoise and coral, beads and glass, and intricately laid mosaic patterns made of straw.
One such straw work artist is Jimmy Trujillo, a thin older man with the weathered face and leather hands of a New Mexico native. Jimmy is a master of this folk art, known formally as “encrusted straw,” and was pleased to explain his craft. He studied under a master before him, and carries photos of the centuries-old black cross that first brought him to his life’s work. He begins by finding the right piece of wood – pine works well, or juniper, or even cedar, but not fir. He splits the wood by hand with an axe, and lets the split follow the grain of the wood. His crosses have a distinct ripple, the fluidity of the trees themselves. Both the upright and the crossbar are made from splits of the same piece of wood, pegged together on the back with a tiny handcarved pin, also from the same wood. He described one cross in which the natural ripples created a clear image of Christ on the Cross; that piece is now in the museum gallery of Regis University in Denver. Other pieces are at the Denver Art Museum, and museums throughout New Mexico. His work is collected and sells for thousands of dollars. Because he approaches it with a holy seriousness of purpose. He puts his heart and his faith into each piece, as all true santeros do. Holy artists.
Accustom yourself continually to make many acts of love, for they enkindle and melt the soul. — Saint Teresa of Avila
Jimmy collects dried sap from pinon pines. He melts it, not with heat, but with high-proof grain alcohol, watching the dissolving mixture after a few months to catch it at just the right consistency: a fluidity between maple syrup and corn syrup is just right for varnish, a thicker molasses-like consistency for adhesive. He strains it through cheesecloth, over and over, to remove the natural dirt, bark, bugs, and other debris caught in the oozing sap of the low-growing trees. He uses the natural straw stems of grains like oats, barley, or wheat to create designs on the crosses. No dyed straw for Jimmy, though other artists like the colors. He is a traditionalist, and works with only natural materials. With each straw, he must deknuckle it, which is removing the knotlike rings where the layers of grass joined. The straw is split lengthwise, again following natural splits in the fibers. Once split, each length is flipped over, and the white pith is scraped from the outer layer using a fine blade. The result is a grass ribbon of satin, which he then cuts into tinier and tinier lengths, triangles, diamonds. Grass. Butterflies. Using a dental tool, these tiny bits of straw are then applied one by one to the cross that is coated in pinon glue, in fantastically intricate but pleasingly simple designs. The results are stunning: at once uplifting and and quieting, as you move beyond the cross structure and begin to follow the meditative straw patterns.
It is love alone that gives worth to all things. — Saint Teresa of Avila
It’s so hard to reconcile his soulful work with the history of New Mexico. At an artists’ discussion the day before, an older man in the audience was called on to speak. He began slowly and thoughtfully, saying, “I am Din`e, Navajo. To me, you are all invaders.” As he continued describing his military service to a nation that marched his ancestors from Arizona to New Mexico and left the survivors of The Long Walk to die slowly, over generations, on the reservation, I watched the artists’ reactions. The graying descendant of Spaniards who had only minutes earlier noted with pride that he could trace generations of his family back across the sea, stated matter-of-factly, “Conquest is our history here.” Easy to say, if you are the conquerors, I thought. The middle aged white woman wearing turquoise jewelry of course thanked him for his service, which has become such a hollow act patronizing our veterans that I was embarrassed for her. The young Indian man at the table said of his heritage, “I’m part the conquerors, and part the conquered – that’s what my work is about.” And the complications of the Navajo displacing local Hopi and Zuni Puebloan people was never even touched on.
This feels like what Gallup’s work is about, now: reconciling the energies of the conquerors and the conquered. Maybe it can begin with young artists stepping in intricate patterns with veterans of lost wars, saints under halos chanting with drunk Indians sleeping under rabbitbrush and sage, all dancers under these same stars.