The Accidental Pilgrim – Part 1

New Mexico cast a spell on me thirty years ago, though I hadn’t visited in more than two decades. Waiting at the Austin Bergstrom airport bound for Santa Fe and Taos, I was looking forward to spending a week on vacation – with no agenda and good friends to see. In a sign of things to come, two days earlier a butterfly circled my head as I came home from work and landed next to me on a leaf. It crawled onto my hand when I invited it aboard and stretched the length of its humming, vibrating body onto my index finger. What a buzz, invigorating and meaningful in a way that had yet to unfold; these things are not always obvious at the time. Butterflies have come to me in times of transformation, signaling death or rebirth, both within and without.

As I waited to take off, I noticed something unusual; there were five albino children on my flight. If this were a dream I would look up albino and expect something innocent, pure and childlike to come my way, perhaps a spiritual experience of some kind. Audrianna, one of the delicately pale children of eleven, sat next to me clutching a soft, cream-colored teddy bear named Washington (after the city where they met). Our conversation was lively and we kept each other entertained until she and her companions left for Minneapolis, while I flew on to Albuquerque. Audrianna helped me to remember how much fun summer vacations are when you’re young and heading into the tingly unknown.

Driving through Santa Fe on my way to Taos, I enjoyed the bright blue skies and the wrinkled mountains rimming the horizon, but did not feel the enchantment fully until I got closer to Taos. For the next five days I crushed on the beauty of Taos, leaving many pictorial mementos on Facebook and gushing to my friends, while scanning MLS listings to see how feasible it might be to move there one day. My friends Lucky and Becky are a magical duo; we’ve had great fun in Canada, New Orleans and Port Aransas, but we all experienced Taos at another level. We went to the Pow Wow and visited Taos Pueblo where I found a beautiful butterfly kachina figure carved out of the root of an old cottonwood tree. The colorful carving portrayed the protective, guiding spirit of the butterfly arched over its human companion, both figures connected at the root. Like my guardian angel, I felt the butterfly’s touch signal the start of a new chapter in my aesthetic life, in the process of realizing myself as an artist. The monarch butterfly’s epic annual pilgrimage exemplifies this journey of (anything but) fragile beauty, led by spirit through fields and mountains of hardship, over every horizon and home to a land it knew but had not yet seen.

Taos was alive with the bright energy of the Sangre de Christo Mountains. Nurturing monsoon rains refreshed the air and the desert, bringing flowers in its wake, greening the trees and keeping the streams and brooks babbling along. The land, Taos’ friendly citizens, the healthy food and the curved, clean lines of adobe dwellings made me feel at home. Always nearby were the footprints of the Pueblo people. Georgia O’Keefe, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Dorothy Brett, DH Lawrence, and Millicent Rogers brought many artists to New Mexico, pulled by the spirit of the mountains, entranced by native art and the harmony of nature and spirit. Millicent Rogers captures her journey of spirit in a letter to her son Paul written toward the end of her life:

Did I ever tell you about the feeling I had a little while ago? Suddenly passing Taos Mountain I felt that I was part of the Earth, so that I felt the Sun on my Surface and the rain. I felt the Stars and the growth of the Moon; under me, rivers ran. And against me were the tides. The waters of rain sank into me. And I thought if I stretched out my hands they would be Earth and green would grow from me. And I knew that there was no reason to be lonely that one was everything, and Death was as easy as the rising sun and as calm and natural-that to be enfolded in Earth was not an end but part of oneself, part of every day and night that we lived, so that Being part of the Earth one was never alone. And all the fear went out of me- with a great, good stillness and strength.

As the Navajo say, “In beauty it is finished.” Perhaps I left a part of my heart in Taos, but I know I will soon return to its bright mountains and good people.

I took the high road from Taos to Chimayo, relishing the mountains rolling into the desert, the villages sprinkled along the way, the peace and light. Bright white light shines from the spine of the red earth into the hills and mountains of New Mexico. I’ve been to the Sierra Blanca and the Sandia Mountains but this was my first visit to the Sangre de Cristo range in northern NM. I talked a little about Chimayo in my dining post but the experience of visiting the sanctuary, seeing the little shoes left by pilgrims for the baby Jesus, the crutches wired to chain link fences – that’s a horse of a different color. I am open to mysteries, embracing of whiffs, feather light touches and glimmers of the divine. Poems are born of those moments of connection. I enjoyed a centering meditation in the chapel and had fun picking grass for a horse living in the complex, whose lips were a fence away from some juicy tufts. A small family took over as I left, the horse reaping the benefit of our Franciscan kindness. I came away with some healing earth to share with friends who might need a blessing in times of trouble and set out to visit Ralph and Danny in Santa Fe. In spite of a lovely day in the mountains of Chimayo, my mind struggled with the tortured image of Christ center stage in the Old Spanish chapel.

I was raised Catholic, yet the grisly image of crucified Christ (hereafter known as Barbecued Jesus) still sets me on my heels. I once heard a record in Catechism that detailed minute by hour the suffering of Christ on the cross. It was morbid in a way that the bleeding, wax figure of Jesus at the San Jose Catholic Church in South Austin exalts. The primal need to kill God; to know that we, as humans, did not suffer alone and unheard is something I understand. The hate side of love bears our burden of ignorance, desolation, hunger. Can we offer ourselves fully without it? Perhaps some of the vitriol we see on the world stage – one religion attacking another in the name of God- is an expression of the hatred we cannot acknowledge. Despite my cynical response to the tortured savior I did collect some of the sacred earth from the sanctuary to give to friends and family. I can appreciate miracles, divine intervention and the triumph of compassion over suffering. All faiths bear testament to these extraordinary events and states of being.

Still, when I got to Santa Fe to see my friends Danny and Ralph, talk turned to barbecued Jesus. How could people who were forced into Christianity turn to the very image of their oppression? Give me the resurrection and help me to understand forgiveness for the barbarism of human kind, please. Once upon a time the three of us shared a multicultural approach to spirit, spoiled citizens of a time and place that advocated compassion and inclusiveness. This may become a relic of “the good old days” given the rise of religious intolerance and extremism worldwide. It was sad to confront my cynicism in the harsh light of religion and the politics that buzzed like flies around a tired old mule.

I have described myself not as a seeker, but as a finder. There are times of abeyance, of low ebb when nothing comes or goes. Just before a prayer, a movement of a focused will to be. These are the hinges that open or close the doors of past and future realizations. Part II: behind the blue door . . .

One Reply to “The Accidental Pilgrim – Part 1”

  1. I remember Eve’s first encounter with a very bloody Mexican Christ on the Cross, in the parish church in Real de Catorce when she was not quite six years old. All the statues in the church had been taken down for renovation, including Jesus, and were stored in the back room. The sacristano was taking us on a tour of the old church and he took us into the dim back room full of ornate statuary. All the statues were painted and very life-like, and Eve looked solemnly at the larger than life-size figure of Jesus on the cross in agony (as only a Mexican statue can depict him) and said “Daddy, is that man dead?” Seemed like the most natural of questions. I don’t remember how I answered her question.

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