I am a reluctant blogger. But I do want to share with you the following excerpt from a current writing project, Her Shalom.
Beauty changes things.
In my upbringing, it was unexpected beauty which saved me countless times. And in my adult life, when beauty seeps out of my heart, words, touch, presence, it often comes as a slight shock. I'm caught off guard when I allow myself to be the way I was meant to be: open, vulnerable, settled, strong, fierce, playful, receiving of my husband's gaze. I somehow know these treasures are mysteriously unlocked from a place set in me, memorized by heart, in the land I love.
The stunning terrain of the high mountain desert, in which my heart was shaped, was balm to a bewildered and confused young girl. It allowed me to lean into something safe, steady, always there. It told me I could be open and vulnerable, playful - myself - at least in the presence of the God who gave it to me. I could count on the comfort it provided, and I needed comfort.
My mind wanders to the familiar trek our family would take to the little village of Chimayo, nestled in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains north of Santa Fe. We were a limping and bleeding family, but when we loaded up the car to head to Rancho de Chimayo for a special family dinner out, all was well for a while.
Coming to the crest of the meandering road, the fire of golden cottonwoods smoldered in the valley floor. Chimney smoke carried wafts of pungent pinon into the arroyos, weaving through juniper and sagebrush. Chamisa was blazing, adding dots of mustard to the perimeter of the village. Maple splashed red here and there. The sun was long over the creviced mesas, accentuating every eroded pocket in the hillsides, its finger stretching to the top of Truchas Peak. Even if I had never heard a word about the Spanish and Native American beliefs in the sacredness of this territory,I would have intuitively known that where we lived was holy. The land itself asked you to contend with God.
The land told me the truth. Its beauty allowed me no other conclusion but that goodness always exists, even when my heart sputtered for breath. No amount of internal struggle, rage, fear, bitterness, confusion or conflict could remain intact in the presence of this land’s sheer proclamation of something more.
We passed the old wood sign carved outside the church, ‘El Sanctuario de Chimayo.’ Tales of this place were passed around our world – how the holy water, or was it the ground itself, held special healing properties. Good Friday, every year, found thousands of present day pilgrims donning Gap or Banana Republic attire alongside piercings and tattoos or frilly dresses, walking the perimeter of the interstate or on country roads, trekking with minds set on Golgotha, a hope set on this little village under a new Spring sun. Together in sin and individual hope for healing. One year I was jolted to see some of these pilgrims – a small sect called the Penitentes – dragging themselves, bleeding into the dirt and rock, and flogging themselves and each other with leather straps along the way. I felt helpless and feeble as I watched. It was in moments like this that it seemed we lived a world away from most people, and I liked that feeling.
We pulled the Ford into the gravel parking lot. Wood shutters on adobe, red geraniums cascading against clay from window boxes – it took me someplace other. I anticipated the chatter of Spanish conversations spilling from the kitchen, mixing with our own very white conversation. I always loved coming here because a sampling of all of New Mexico showed up here – Hispanic, White and Pueblo Indian. But we were all New Mexicans. We blended and commingled and never gave it a thought. It was striking, though, how we could walk into this place and immediately know the families, like us, who had driven the forty minutes down from the hill, Los Alamos. There was a bologna sandwich quality to us when you threw us in that sea of color. We had a slightly stuffy, subtly stiff quality. Maybe it was the bolo ties our men tended to wear – it was almost like we were trying too hard. The ties may have been silver and turquoise, but they were donned on men who had spent the day with laser technology or plutonium processing, not out harvesting a field or laboring until sweat beaded on bronze skin. Maybe it was the way our women fretted over their food choices, or wore large brimmed hats to protect them from the harsh sun. Whatever it was, was unmistakable.
As we entered the ancient structure, we found warm, quiet conversations alongside tables filled with laughter were inside, and small fires lit the corners of the rooms. The earthen walls were splashed with intricately woven rugs, certainly from the Ortega family, who had done refined weavings in this valley for generations. The rugs looked like paintings, tightly woven and carrying the colors of the earth. Red chile ristras and wreathes packed with pinecones and sage and berries hung close by. I noted that these wreathes would look out of place in any other home, any other environ. Here, they celebrated the arid but robust land, and somehow joined the chant, “Sit down, have a drink, and eat something hot and flavorful.” The smell of a deep fryer filled with sopapaillas produced an instant anticipation of the fluffy pocket bread and honey alongside green chile enchiladas or chili rellenos.
As we were seated, I savored the moment because I knew the power of this place. Here we gained the ability to have kind conversation, a family bantering around the food we loved. A culinary salve holding our fractured family together for one more day.
Moments like this highlight what T.S. Eliott (quoting Julian of Norwich) said, ‘All is well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well.” At Rancho de Chimayo, all was well. There was Goodness – the table beckoned our family to sit across from each other regardless of tensions, to commune around food which exhilarated, to glimpse each other as we walked the foothill paths around the ranch property, as we stepped from shade to scorching sandy dirt. And there was Truth. I looked across at my mother, a woman tortured by the demons of her own body’s war with manic-depression and the unspoken shame in her own story, and I saw more than a woman in torment – I saw sweetness, I saw a light in her eye which soothed all of us, her children. I looked across at my father, a stoic man of few words, a man for whom I ached for connection, and as contentment softened the features of his face, I felt peace. This table intrinsically invited us away from our disappointments and the conclusions we made about the emptiness of our lives, and we were reminded again that there is something bigger, greater, more real, than the smaller stories in which we live.
So beauty finds us. It simply shows up. It shows up in the terrain around us, as it shows up inside our heart. The question we must ask ourselves is simple: will we allow ourselves to recognize it, and will we be changed by it, when it comes.