That last night at Taos was confusing, painful and awkward for me. Thus far the trip had been utterly perfect, a remarkable convergence of spiritual and sensual richness, a perfect measure of comfort and of clarity. I wanted this final night to be just as perfect. Instead, the historic inn we dined at was filled with cacophany, my ears felt beseiged with superficial noise and meaningless chatter. I felt an urgency, an unrest, a palpable disatisfaction with everything and everybody. I think gravity was settling in , the gravity of grief. My time in the restorative land of enchantment was coming to a close and I felt swamped by imagined expectations. I’ll go back home, I’ll go back to work, back to school and all the rest and it’ll all be fine now. I’m supposed to be fine. This was my time to heal, time’s up – now get on with it! It should all be better. Silly me. And poor dear husband!
We went to bed early and in the darkness I awoke with a stomach ache. Restless, I checked my work email, thinking I’d get a jump on things, only to discover that our community had suffered still another death – one of our longstanding members had died while I was away. This news was like a thump to my heart. More death?
The aching in my stomach disappeared as suddenly, I knew what to do. I pulled out my seven day prayer candles, opened the window that faced the sacred mountain, got on my knees and lit them in the darkness. The bitter cold air rested about my face and my shoulders. The quiet of the night was like a blanket of ice. The stars glimmered as I looked towards the mountain and began to pray. I prayed for the young man who passed, I prayed for my colleague who had succumbed to recurrent breast cancer, I prayed for my friend’s brother, I prayed for Mom and Dad and Debbie. I prayed for healing, for myself and for our community.
My desire to connect to the strength of that sacred Pueblo mountain through my little ritual of spontaneity flew out through the darkness and the answer came back to me, as I knelt on the cold wooden floor.
Nothing to fix. No short cuts here, stop looking for the destination. Death is part of the path of life, and we are all on this road together. Healing IS the path and you are on it. Keep walking and be at peace.
I looked out at the mountain, imagining the eons of time it had weathered. Every storm, every fire, every quake and surge became a part of its strata, heightening and adding to its beauty and its mystery, just as these happenings, painful as they may be, were becoming layers of my very being. The mountain does not shrug off these insults, but bears them, integrating them with patient largesse. Maybe that’s what’s called Mountain Medicine.
When I returned to New Jersey, I gave one of the candles to my friend. I kept the remaining three to light for Mom, Dad and Debbie, holding a seven day vigil of my own at home. In my heart I felt that I brought some of that sacred mountain strength home with me through those burning flames.
I’ve wanted to visit Georgia O’Keefe’s home, museum and the surrounding areas since I was seventeen. When I discovered that the house tour during low season was $100 per person, after feeling sorry for myself for a few minutes, I chose to let go of that desire. Instead, my sensible artist husband encouraged me by saying that I could have more of a “core” experience by visiting Abiquiu and viewing first hand the landscape that inspired the paintings which moved me so. Sounded good to me. The best things i n life are free, as they say. So we went. I was enraptured by the changing foliage as we traveled up and down the mountains on the road from Taos, over the Rio Grande and towards Taos. The unfamiliar palette of rosy browns, purples, pinks, greys and blues, layered upon one another in an endless shift of variety. The sparse bushes were animalic and seemed filled with spirit. We drove up the hill past Georgia O’Keefe’s home and beyond, and found this church at the top of the mountain. Beneath our feet was the vibrantly hued mud and patches of snow. I saw a powdering of lavender beneath what I believe is a juniper bush?Retreating down a fork in the road, we found a small gathering of homes and some abandoned structures, like this empty beauty:The building most infused with vitality, not surprisingly, was the church.Other signs of life appeared as these feral cats jumped from the garbage cans and viewed us with mild disdain as they struck their elegant god like poses.
For our final night and day in Taos, we stayed in the glass surrounded eagle’s nest pictured above, the third floor Solarium at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House. The truth is, it is more of a magpie’s nest, as there were plenty of very active magpies flying about in the back of the house. The shower room addition sits in the southeast corner of the loft and its floor to ceiling window opens directly upon tribal land with a view of the sacred Taos Mountain. While I watched, a fat black crow flew by so closely that I could have reached out to touch his wing. This is the kind of room that you may not wish to leave on a cold winter day, not when the mountains, sun, sky and changing weather surround you with an intimate show of elements all the live long day. Very little is required from you apart from turning your head to take in the changing views. In the early morning, lacy flakes of snow danced by, yet by mid morning, the clouds swiftly moved to reveal the aquamarine colored sky pigmented to a brilliant clarity by the sun. Sitting in this sunwarmed room gave one the feeling of being at the beach, only with the mountains filling in for the ocean waves.A lazy day of reading, writing, sky watching and lounging with “a loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thou,” was the best possible way to spend our final day in Taos, especially as the sun began to set.
Our second day in Taos started out cloudy and cold, as we headed out on the road to Abiquiu. It had been my dream since high school to visit the landscape that had inspired the artist Georgia O’Keefe. Since it was low season, a tour of her home was out of the question, but my husband and I reasoned that a simple drive through Abiquiu would be satisfying in itself. On the way, we crossed the Rio Grande Gorge, where pedestrians can stroll along the walkway directly above a 650 foot drop straight down to the river.
We returned to the car. I felt defeated, the gorge was majestic and beautiful, but I was unable to push beyond the paralyzing fear that consumed me. I put it out of my head and focused on the ever changing, colorful landscape on the way to Abiquiu.
Hours later, our second pass at the Gorge was much like the first, but the difference was in the sun. It had miraculously emerged, warming the day, softening the landscape and giving me courage. This time I alternated my baby steps with deep breaths, determined to go as far as I could. Whenever a car passed, at 55 – 65 mph, I froze, waiting for the resultant vibrations of the bridge to dissipate before resuming my movements.
I allowed myself to go at a snail’s pace as other viewers walked past me. My husband called out encouragement over his shoulder, by this time he had gone to and fro a number of times, crossing from one side of the bridge to the other, snapping photographs. I fearfully barked at him when he tried to hold my hand, imagining that any miscellaneous touch could throw me off balance, grimacing as involuntary tears flowed. I felt so out of control and can’t recall if I have ever experienced such a physically paralyzing fear. About thirty feet along, I was rewarded by the silver sliver of the river, serpentine, cutting throught the dark earth, cliffs peppered with snowfall. I hadn’t made it anywhere close to the midpoint overlook, but I had gone as far as I could go and was happy.
As we made it safely back to the car, I thought of my more adventurous sister, Deborah, I wish she could have seen this, she would have loved it. I suddenly realized that it was eight weeks to the day since she had died. This was just the kind of experience she would dig.
In the car, Tim gave me a high five. You must be hungry. Yes, I thought, terror really gives you an appetite. When we sat down to order our meal at the bright and cozy Bent Street Cafe in Taos, the radio played Wild Horses by the Rolling Stones, the song I chose for my sister’s memorial service. Tim looked at me. Out of all the 3,000 or so songs they could have played, what are the odds they play this one? I swear it felt like Debbie was giving me a high five of her own.
Images of the gorge are by my brave husband, Tim Folzenlogen.
p.s. I recently read a moving post that calls to mind messages from lost loved ones, written by Kim Reynolds, called The Anniversary. You can read it here.
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.
I am sorry to say the only noble deed I might lay claim to on our first morning in Taos was to draw the hot water for a bath and to serve hubby a cup of hot coffee as he soaked. I am quite delighted to say that I did enjoy a hot bath of my own first!
“Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cures for depression.” Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture the Castle written by Dodie Smith.
Who would think that the aroma of bacon wafting up the wooden staircase into our room on a cold winter morning could be so spiritual. Am I mixing up my animal pleasures with heavenly bliss? In Taos it all felt one in the same. Sitting in the sun soaked bath with painted windows on all three sides – the mountain light streaming in – the antique claw footed tub filled with piping hot water – I soaked, reveling in the glorious heat and steam, healing water and sunshine.
Next I dressed and stepped out onto the sleeping porch, adjacent to our room. My body felt energized, heated from the interior, oblivious to the below freezing temperatures that belied the beaming sun. Blood coursed through my veins, pumping oxygen to every organ – what a sheer delightful moment in time. Exterior view of bathing room from sun porch. Windows painted by D.H. Lawrence.View of the wonderful sleeping porch, accessed from Tony’s Room at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House where I got my early morning oxygen fix daily.
After a home cooked breakfast that was an embarrassment of riches, we planned a stroll through Taos plaza followed by a visit to the Taos Pueblo. From the first rays of sun on that first morning in Taos, the trip became all about the earth, the air, the fire, the water, the mountains, the sky, the elements themselves which I perceived as living entities that vitally shaped our experience in an unforgettable manner. On the flight home, I read this from Chapter Three of Edge of Taos Desert, an escape to reality, by Mabel Dodge Luhan and found a deep affirmation of my first impressions:
“From the very first day I found out that the sunshine in New Mexico could do almost anything with one: make one well if one felt ill, or change a dark mood and lighten it. It entered into one’s deepest places and melted the thick, slow densities. It made one feel good. That is, alive. ”
all images are interior and exterior views of the Mabel Dodge Luhan House taken with my IPhone5 camera and the glorious natural New Mexican sunlight.