Holy Ghosts at the Taos Pueblo
Entering Taos Pueblo, the first thing you notice is the deep red earth beneath your feet. The next thing you notice is the old cemetery, at the site of the original church built in 1619, that was later destroyed during political upheaval in the 1800’s. It attracted me like a magnet and I stood looking there for a long while, feeling very moved. I couldn’t help notice that some of the dates on the crosses placed those buried there in a similar generation as my parents and felt an immediate connection with their loved ones.
I stopped to speak to one of the women who was making and selling beaded jewelry from one of the open shops. She was warm, exuding a natural kindness, and our conversation drew us closer. After some minutes, wearing my heart on my sleeve, I told her that what drew me to Taos was a desire to heal from the death of my parents and sister. I managed to ask her about Pueblo death rituals before I began to sob.
Well, of course, that is why you are here. Many healers gather here. You know, your family is around you, the dead walk among us, even sitting down to dinner with you. They will stay near until they know you are at peace. It can take months, it can take a year. It takes time, that is just how it is.
We talked awhile, I dried my tears, we embraced, I thanked her.
Where were you? My husband had been waiting outside all this time. I told him we were talking about death and that I had been crying again. He looked at me with soft, thoughtful eyes and said nothing. I think he realized by now that it was useless to prevent me from going through this tearful, emotional vale and was quite willing to simply be in that space with me.
We made our way slowly through the village, spoke with some Pueblos who were ice fishing, gazed out at the mountainous land that stretched out beyond the small circle of homes. The still, peaceful silence creeped in and filled every nook and cranny of my being. Nature abhors a vacuum. No such thing as a void.
We stand somewhere between the mountain and the ant.
You can’t stand there and not be humbled, be put in your place. The striving feelings of urban competition, the musts and the shoulds, have no place there, and become instantly ridiculous. Its the bigness of it all. It’s a terror and a comfort wrapped in one. I wanted to surrender, to submit. You win, giant mountain. You win, red earth under my feet. You win, ice, and snow and air and water. I need you more than you need me. You will be here long after I am gone. No wonder we say the words Mother Earth, and Great Spirit. No one teaches the baby to cry, mama! It was like that.
I stepped inside, and since there were no photos allowed, I will try to describe it. The altar holds a statue of the virgin Mary, dressed in fine clothing. The background is painted in vivid colors and imagery with various saints and angels and elements of nature, like the sun, moon, wind and stars. The effect is glorious, primal, like a fairy tale, glorious like a legend, shining like childhood imaginings of heavenly beings, interspersed with the earth and cosmos. There was holy water, and, notwithstanding my rift with Catholicism, immediately, involuntarily, I dipped my fingers into the bowl and crossed myself. Then I fell to one knee, searching a better vantage point from which to take in all the details of the little church, with only my old eyes and mind as a camera. Tim looked at me. Are you kneeling down to pray, now? He exited and left me alone.
Feeling a bit awkward, I turned to leave and found that the door would not open. I knocked, I jiggled, I pushed – to no avail. Huh. The church won’t let me leave until I pray for real, I thought. Blame the elevation. I felt that I was in an otherworld. The dead walking among me, the buried Pueblos, resting in the cold red earth a stone’s throw away, the Pueblo woman who counseled me about honoring my departed loved ones in my daily life, the darkened church with its painted saints cavorting amidst the brightly pigmented sun, moon and stars.
Again, I surrendered, and facing the altar, I wept. I prayed. My prayer went something like this:
I don’t know how to pray for what I need, but only that I have need. I pray that you help me to know it and to find it.
I knew that I sought a healing, an assuage to my grief for the loss of my family. At the same time, I could not see a way out of it, what was the answer to those feelings of loss? In a way, the tears keep my departed ones close. Maybe I am not ready to say goodbye. Maybe I wish that there is no final goodbye. In any case, I wiped the tears off my face, turned and opened the door.
Back at Mabel’s House, we stopped to freshen up for dinner. Wanting to catch the late afternoon light, I sat on the sun porch, and pulled out my camera to review some of the photos I had taken. As the touch screen of my IPhone popped open, I was stunned to see this image:
the final kiss that my father gave to my mother on the morning she died, Holy Saturday, of 2012.
You tell me, was it my awkward fingers, was it a coincidence or random chance? I have 1,200 photos on my phone. What are the odds that in January, a photo from April would, at this moment, make its way to the top of the album? Was it a message? Is it, like the Pueblo believe, that the boundary between the dead and the living is much more flimsy than we realize? That maybe part of the answer to my prayer is to simply be in my grief? To look at those photos, to study those faces that I miss. To not avert my eyes. Don’t turn away from the wounded place, that is where the light enters you, wrote Rumi.
How many tears are enough? 1,000? 10,000? 10,523? And then will it stop? I think not. On that afternoon in Taos, it seemed to be endless.
And again, there is this: Don’t be afraid to cry, it releases you of sorrowful feelings.