Tuesday, September 29, 2015

In the City Different: Santa Fe, New Mexico

I'm not sure what to think of a place that seems so light-drenched and enchanting one day, then shadowed with mystery and history the next. It's not the first time this has happened to me in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  It seems to happen to me each time I visit, and it always takes me by surprise.  

audio file here


Santa Fe, New Mexico, was officially established in 1607 by European colonists. Only St. Augustine, Florida (founded 1568) is older. It became the principal city for a large region belonging to the Spain. It was important as a center of commerce, culture and general adjudication. Later, after Mexican Independence, the Mexican-American War, and more, it became a territory of the United States. It was important as a part of the Santa Fe Trail and center of commerce, but it is far from the mining towns of Colorado, and also far from secure sources of water. The system of managing irrigation ditches (acequias) worked for centuries, and water rights were critical for ranching and sheep-raising. But, things declined, and in the late 1800s, visitors commented that it would be hard to imagine a more dismal place than Santa Fe; the people who lived there subsisted on little more than red chilis, onions, and mutton.

Sometime around the construction of the railroad and expansion, wealthy city dwellers discovered Santa Fe, and it became something of an artist colony. In 1912, when the town had only 5,000 inhabitants, visionary planners determined a "City Different" concept, and decreed that all buildings had to maintain architectural consistency, which included adobe and brick, with an emphasis on incorporating native flora, including cottonwood trees, mesquite, sage, and lupine. Pueblo Indians along with the various other tribes in the area contributed culturally unique weaving, beadwork, rugs, pottery, and more.


The result is a charming admixture of influences from Pueblo Indian, colonial Spanish, Mexican, and Old West / cowboy culture, and it feels a lot like an illustration from a 1890s Western dime novel.

That's the part that always charms me. The first day, walking around, feeling the light breeze, the warm air, the smell of sage and mesquite, never fails to captivate me and make me think of myself in the U.S., circa 1910, with a magical sense of expansiveness and freedom.

But, something happens. I'm now convinced it must be physical, but I'm not sure what. In my ramblings, I start to feel the thin, dry air's impact on my skin, and my face starts to feel like a crumpling piece of paper, and the exclusive art galleries and purveyors of artisan items start to seem to fall into mysterious shadows.

Ceramics galleries that should, by rights, appeal to retirees and vacationers who would like to decorate their own ceramics, are filled with hand-painted and fired mugs, plates, and vases. They are quaint, and their Grandma Moses primitivism is charming, but their price tags are not: $120 for a mug; $75 for a plate.  I suppose that one could consider them to be collectibles, but the quirky DIY (do-it-yourself ) and vintage-cowboy vibe is eroded. I can't imagine why the workshop does not let people have classes and then potentially sell stuff on consignment in a gift store.

On Guadelupe Avenue, the oldest sanctuary in the U.S. to the Virgin of Guadelupe is a lovely mission-style church. Unfortunately, it's locked. The statue outside, which is wreathed with with bouquets of flowers, is serene and calming. Across the street, Mexican men gather to seek work for the day. I suppose they're paid cash and under the table. It's a hard life.


My sister believes there are restless spirits in New Mexico. I have to say that it could make sense if it is arising from a violated earth and environment. It's one of those dark edges, a "resource curse" - in Grants, lots of uranium ore, and then, north of Santa Fe in Los Alamos, figuring out what to do with it. We all know the story. Today, the Albuquerque baseball team is named the Albuquerque Isotopes.

For me, Santa Fe offers an icy plunge into wish fulfillment.

Do you think you like nature? A laid-back Bohemian life? Time to write, sculpt, paint? Welcome to Santa Fe. What happens to the flash drives you fill with digital manuscripts?  What happens to the canvases stacked unframed in your garage studio? Or the shelves of painted ceramic mugs, plates, bowls? What happens to your weavings, embroidered pillowcases, cross-stitched guest towels?

The future is unknowable. The midnight-blue shadows behind the pale yellow cottonwood leaves suggest that the present is likewise so.

Do you want to grab onto the American Dream?  In the park across the street from the oldest sanctuary (still locked) in the United States for the Virgin of Guadelupe, the group of Mexican men seeking work has swelled to 40 or 50.

"I'm lost," I say in Spanish. "I just arrived, and I'm looking for downtown."

It's a weak conversational gambit, but it works. I manage to have a nice conversation with a small group, and I learn that work is scarce, and they're worried about having enough earnings to eat and to pay rent.  I thank them for their efforts and tell them I admire their drive and hard work. Several thank me for speaking in Spanish, and I apologize for my accent. I suppose that having an Oklahoma accent makes it clearer that learning Spanish has been a matter of choice, of passion, and of years of dedication (although I've been intermittently dilatory, which I attribute to the fact I have not had the opportunity to travel very extensively, or to live in a Spanish-speaking country.)  Plus, although one might not believe it to see me now, I'm a bit shy about talking to people.

I wander around the church and try to find an open door. All are locked. I encounter younger males - -probably around 18 or 20. They are thin, appear to have a very hard life. One comes up to me later and speaks to me in a combination of Spanish and English, and tells me that he has just washed his shirt. Now he is hungry. I do not know quite what to say to that. His friend talks about the importance of having a stick and a blanket. I think the younger one has probably huffed a lot of glue in his life. Tears come to my eyes. I chat a bit. I do not have any money with me so cannot help them. I'm reminded of the homeless who spend time on the banks of the Arkansas River in Tulsa. They make quite a contrast to the Mexicans across the street who, on the whole, exude a much more positive "can do" attitude. I realize that with these homeless adolescent males, tragic stories abound. It is heart-rending.


It's close to 11 am. I'm feeling a deep gnawing that is partially hunger (I have only had water so far today) but the feeling also has something else. I slept rather late, lost in a world of disturbing dreams and persona from my past and in different time periods.

I want to explore the depths of the shadows behind the leaves.

I am fascinated by this place. Its beauty, pungent aroma, and the quality of light seduce me within the first few minutes of arriving. But, almost as quickly, I'm forced to listen to questions I can't block or eliminate from the voice in my head. What is happiness? That one is too cliché, and it is too easily silenced with endorphins from exercise or a high-pressure presentation. 

The dark, hard questions are the ones that creep in around the edges of consciousness. What happens when the things you've been working toward all your life turn out to be trivial and/or meaningless, or, you're simply not very good and your output is worse than forgettable, it's awkward and embarrassing? What do you do when, compelled by a sense of duty, you assume family roles that are extremely self-destructive? How and why does every goal or desire seem to contain built-in contradictions?

I look at the clock and am secretly relieved that I will need to head to the airport in a few hours. I can flee the light and the thin air before I've had to really probe my inner thoughts, and to hash over the same old turf of self-analysis. If I stayed for a few weeks or a month, perhaps I'd be able to work through the archeoliths of my unconscious.  I must leave, and so will not have time to do so. I have the option to continue to resist change and true transformation.


Perhaps I'm not quite ready to confront my own depths.  Perhaps transformation still gives me pause. Although I do not like to think so, transformation can cut both ways. Instead of ascending to a higher level of consciousness, I can always sink into an abyss; mire myself in a Slough of Despond of my own making.

In my heart of hearts, though, I do not want to stay at the same point. I want to journey between the inner and outer worlds, and I perceive Santa Fe as precisely the place that opens dimensions.

I contemplate a cottonwood branch with its light yellow leaves glistening in the pale yellow light. I see the shadows dancing on the cool white trunk of the tree.

I am ready.