My annual January visit to Santa Fe to cavort with Sarah, my best friend from graduate school, carried more significance this year. Not just because the sepia-toned landscapes, crisp mountain air and crazy-blue-bright skies excite and relax me at the same time but also because, following a riotous autumn, I had some answers I needed to torture out of my own treacherous heart, and that traitor required nothing short of extraordinary rendition.
Allow me to explain. In September, I relinquished every lifelong notion I held about what kind of grownup I would be: I left my husband of five years and stumbled face-first into an intense, brief, painful affair. And now instead of stable adulthood in my early thirties, financially and socially I’ve landed unceremoniously in my twenties. Unlike my 20-year-old self, though, my heart and face bear exposure to significant amounts of passion, loss, fear and risk, and my mind bears the wisdom that comes from having purchased pleasure with pain.
I faced all these “What do I do now?” questions, and I hoped Santa Fe and Sarah had the answers.
Picture Santa Fe in January, its tiny Corazon Sagrado of a downtown surrounded by galleries, shops and trails that scatter and disappear into open desert laid bare beneath a broad sky. After making appropriate amounts of single-girl mischief and acquiescing to each gastronomical, choreographic and karaokic urge, Sarah and I left the city to tour the New Mexican countryside in my low-rent rental car.
A desertscape punctuated by alien plants, shadow-harbored snow and eerie rock formations beckoned us to the mountainous horizon.
Our first stop was El Santuario de Chimayo, an ancient sanctuary constructed from the earth’s detritus of wood, mud and vines.
Replete with the garish aesthetics of Southwestern religiosity, the site offered a pastiche of clashing cultures: native beliefs, na�ve art, strange repeated symbols, figurines, deep magic and the Catholicism of Conquistadors. Tiny crosses wrought of twigs and twine and rosaries of every description obliterated any available surface. Inside the tiny sanctuary, a life-sized wooden folk Christ wept blood, wearing an expression of deep suffering, extending clownishly oversized hands, begging for your burdens.
Lining the antechamber were relics of the desperate who made the pilgrimage to Chimayo bearing artifacts of suffering: crosses made from cigarettes, liquor bottles, crutches, canes, X-rays and mementos of the deceased, all proof of each idiosyncratic addiction, each deepening pain, each unique anxiety, each individualistic yearning in vain for a god that intervenes in human affairs.
A nod exchanged with shared eye contact is how Sarah and I acknowledged to each other the futility of god’s/magic’s battle against suffering, our losses passing between us in an unspoken moment.
I blinked as I drove the rental car through the blinding dazzle of the bare, sunlit hills. My tears obscured, then enhanced, the brilliance.
We continued driving northwest to Plaza blanca, the remote “White Place” recorded in paint by Georgia O’Keeffe. Cell signals faded to nonexistence. Analog maps were useless in the absence of landmarks and signage. Soon pavement gave way to gravel, which surrendered to dust made muddy and icy by winter. We broke through iced-over puddles to realize ours was the only vehicle to have passed this way in a long time.
No signs or guideposts, no tour maps, no gift shops, no miniatures, no postcards, no longestablished roadside diners provided assurance of our arrival — just a lonely, incongruous mosque and miles of rocky terrain.
Our path at last brought us to a sudden horizon and in the far distance eerie, glowing rock formations.
We climbed down the gulch, leaving snowy footprints in the arroyos.
No plaques told the history of this place. No railings restrained us from experimenting with gravity.
I realized I appreciated this completely uncurated experience. It felt exciting, risky.
Not only were we the only visitors that day, we also had to determine on our own how best to navigate the improvised paths we made from arroyos — and how to get back. We alone had to decide whether, outside the range of satellite reception and the reach of any human ear, we would take any risky steps to climb up or down, whether to stand close to the edge and how far to lean over.
Grave risks having been appropriately acknowledged with shared glances of thrill and terror, Sarah and I climbed on, turn by turn more aware of the meaning of risk-taking, of abandoning our artificial hardships to embrace nature’s.
(Thus the chronic over-thinker banishes analysis, clings to emotion, feeling her way through.)
The wind settled; the snow muted all rustling.
With the dirt road miles away, we found ourselves not embraced by silence but rather utterly abandoned by sound. Without white noise, without the pluralism of visual noise, Plaza blanca was Chimayo’s opposite.
This was a devoid silence, imbued with no resonance or vibration. The sun: perpetual and unmoving. The snow clinging to the cliffs: eternal.
Rather than seeking spiritual ground to surround myself in magic and in observance of the ineffable, in reverence for the great universal movement of all matter inside all infinity, I instead found a spiritual void.
No humbled sense of wonder surrounded me, imposing its greatness, asserting my tininess. Instead all wonder emanated from me, all epiphanies tumbled forth from my own heart, my mind itself revealed all meaning. Plaza blanca, indeed. This place was meditation manifest in earth.
Inside the austerity of this impoverished landscape, this void of voids, I found I harbor all the answers inside me, that I only need to listen. I can stop torturing my heart with questions and just listen.
I knew what to do.
CONTACT FRANCES L. HARP: firstname.lastname@example.org