The Desert Pilgrim; En Route to Mysticism and Miracles
By Mary Swander
The Rio Grande flows south through Albuquerque, winding past the Isleta Pueblo and casino. The stark white walls of St. Augustine's, the mission church built around 1629, stand in contrast to the flashing neon casino signs advertising blackjack and slot machines. The river pushes beyond Albuquerque's sprawl into the open countryside, where the sky and desert slice the horizon into two equal halves. The Manzano Mountains provide a backdrop for Tome, where just beyond the small town three crosses sit on top of a sacred hill to commemorate the death of Christ. Farther south, the fertile farming valley near Belen with its green irrigated fields gives way to a drier, crustier topography near Socorro. The marshlands of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, with its great blue herons and migrating flocks of snow geese and sandhill cranes, provide a cool oasis in the midst of blowing sand and tumbleweed.
The Rio Grande proceeds north out of Albuquerque on an ear-popping ascent into the high desert country. Rolling hills punctuated with pion and juniper trees fold into the feet of mountains jutting their peaks up into the clear, bright blue sky. The vistas of the high desert narrow, the focal point shifting from an outward to an upward perspective. The Rocky Mountains humble humans, their presence large, looming, and encompassing. Past Santa Fe, the river carves out another fertile valley, a valley filled with red chili pepper plants, with grazing sheep, and with shops containing woolen rugs handwoven by fifth-generation weavers using Old World Spanish techniques and natural dyes. The region is also rich with healing sites. The best known is the Santuario de Chimayo, a Roman Catholic shrine built on the site of an old Tewa Indian hot spring.
The desert is at once inviting and threatening. Its landscape is varied with geological formations from plainslike terrain to rock cairns to ancient cliff cave dwellings. Its people are as multidimensional as the landscape, with a dominant blend of Native American and Spanish cultures. Its vast open ranges produce a leveling effect, its mountain passes a passage through adversity. Here, I am awed by the sweep of the desert's panorama, the absolute envelopment of its reach. Here, I can feel secure in a land that takes such command of its space. Here, I can also sense the danger of the hard, rocky mountain outcroppings and cliffs, and of the beds of volcanic rock and ash. I can grasp my own insignificance in the grand scheme of the earth and the universe. In that realization, in that sheer expanse of emptiness, I am forced to confront my deepest fears, my aloneness and individuality, and my relationship to the Divine. I am forced to intone my own chants of penitence, forgiveness, and gratitude.
'Kyri-e e-le-ison,' Father Sergei intones, and the monks fade from view again into the privacy of the sanctuary. The nave is ours now, the babe at our feet finding our shoes and scattering them across the carpet, the Down's syndrome man wiping his nose with his sleeve, the old woman in the lacy veil lowering her head and kissing the crucifix on her rosary, crossing herself again and again. The mid-May sun shines through the bars of the one window on the door. The bright desert sun forces you to squint even here in this dim room. Light spreads out from the window. Light spreads toward me like St. Francis's hands. The smell of roses encircles me: roses in bloom along the boulevard in front of this church, rosewater mixed into the Virgin's tears, rose hips sealed in a gallon Mason jar in the drugstore across the street. My hands warm. My feet warm. My whole body feels transported to another time and place, a place suspended in time. What is unsealing inside me? From where have I journeyed?
The year before my participation in Father Sergei's services, I'd awoken on an early February Saturday morning in Iowa, the temperature thirty-five degrees below zero and a howling wind driving snow against my windowpanes. I'd opened my eyes but was unable to move my limbs. Pain shot down my neck, through every vertebra in my back, and out my tailbone. Pain pulsated through my shoulders, elbows, and hips. My knees, swollen twice their size, throbbed with an excruciating rhythm of their own, and the nerves running down my calves to my big toes felt like piano wires tightening tauter and tauter. I tried to raise my legs, but couldn't. I tried to twist my torso, but couldn't. I'd been ill and alone before but had always been able to hop, stagger, or crawl to the bathroom. This was different. Overnight, I'd become a Kafkaesque cockroach, stuck on my back, incapable of righting myself.
The previous day I had felt a stabbing pain in my right knee. But what was new? I'd walked around in pain since age fifteen when I had suffered a severe neck injury in an automobile accident. During the next twenty years, I had been whiplashed three more times. I had tried various forms of physical therapy with varied results. When the injury finally manifested itself as post-traumatic fibromyalgia, a neuro-endrocrine condition, the doctors simply advised: Learn to live with it. A midwesterner to the core, I masked my daily discomfort, bullying my way through the days, trying to focus on other things, trying not to complain. The pain finally suppressed my immune system, and a reaction to an overdose of a vaccine sent me spinning into a world of multiple chemical and food sensitivities. In response to that illness, my life became restricted, controlled, and isolated.
Then when I was forty-five years old, I was in a fifth accident. On a cold December night, I was hit near the university campus. The driver, who had been drinking, had run a stop sign, the wheels of his pickup truck streaming across the ice.
I was taken to the hospital and released with a neck brace, an all-too-familiar appendage, and the diagnosis of 'cervical strain.' I remained in severe pain for weeks. Then I got the flu, coughing and sneezing into the night. Then I thought I was getting over the flu, my head and chest clearing, when suddenly I became a character in a Kafka story.
There I was at 6 a.m., unable to turn my head, wiggle my toes, or even reach up and scratch my nose. I was living in rural Iowa, fifteen miles from town, in the heart of the heart of the country, on the coldest night of the coldest month of the year, of the decade, of my lifetime. I lay in the darkness and tried to think, the pitch of the pain rising higher and higher. One hour passed, then another, the pain becoming more and more intense, hammering my spine, the keys rising up and falling down, resounding through my whole body with long, low, sustained notes, the piano wire underscoring a whole symphony orchestra.
Fortunately, the phone was right beside my bed, and I could bend my elbow just enough to get it up to my ear. I considered whom to call. Years before, through death and divorce, my family of origin had disintegrated. Both my parents were only children, so I had no aunts, uncles, or cousins. I had no spouse, no children of my own. I had my friends and neighbors, thank God, and good ones, too, but I didn't want to impose on anyone. With the extreme cold, many cars were dead. For some reason it didn't occur to me to call an ambulance.
Finally, I got hold of a couple of friends who jumped their car and drove me to the local emergency room, where I lay on a gurney and my socks were cut off my legs. I received a diagnosis of 'gout' and was sent home to my own devices. (Over the course of the next four months, the diagnosis progressed from gout to an exacerbation of my fibromyalgia, to rheumatoid arthritis or lupus. A full ten months later I would find out just how wrong these diagnoses were.) Home from the ER, I was bed-bound and forced again to turn to my neighbors and friends.
So in they came. Thirty-nine different people. Three or four a day for three weeks. From my closest chums to my students and colleagues. Even my electrician signed up for a shift. 'It looks like all your circuits blew,' he joked, sitting beside my bed. Every four or five hours a new pair of hands opened my kitchen drawers, rummaging for utensils. They opened my closet, hunting for clean clothes. Some steady, some hesitant, some downright shaky, they opened my robe and lifted my neck to change hot packs.
Whish, boom. When they first opened the door, each one of these men and women, old and new friends alike, entered wide-eyed, willing but unaccustomed to their new caretaker roles. Shedding their coats and hats, they stepped into my bedroom and no longer were just acquaintances and pals. Suddenly, they were my nurses, my guardians. I was their patient, their child.
'Welcome to the funhouse,' I quipped, trying to ease my nervousness.
To ease theirs, the women chopped onions and carrots, and stirred big pots of stew. They sat beside my bed and read me stories. They helped me hobble to the bathroom and turned away their faces until it was time to wipe. Whish, boom. Most of the men were back out the door as soon as they came in, feeding the cats and dog, running after groceries, renting a walker, a commode. Inside, they sat at the kitchen table and sharpened my knives.
'Hey, Mom,' I whispered to my friend Sarah who slept beside me on the sofa one morning. It was 7:30 a.m. I'd been awake since six, needing to urinate. Ashamed of my problem, I hadn't wanted to wake Sarah. I lay there in the darkness, the tick of the clock growing louder and louder, until I finally murmured, 'Can you get me up?'
Sarah roused herself and stood beside my bed, swallowing hard.
Tentatively, she put one hand under my neck and wrapped the other around my waist, as I had coached her. Then, cradling me in her arms, she pulled my body upward, and we abandoned ourselves to the primitive intimacy of the moment. Awkward though we were in our newfound tie, we were kin.
A few minutes later, she sat me down at the kitchen table. Immobile, I was like a child in a high chair, a voyeur at my own feeding. I directed her to the freezer compartment of the refrigerator in search of a bag of cherries. She pawed through cold packs and hunks of frozen meat until she found the fruit, which she began warming in a pan on the stove. My stomach growling, mouth watering, I watched her slowly stir the fruit, steam rising from the pan. Sarah tied a napkin around my chin. I opened my mouth wide.
'Coming in for a landing,' she said, buzzing the spoon through the air and dishing up a bright red cherry.
The fruit lodged on my tongue, the juice warm and sweet, pooling in my cheeks, trickling down my throat. Sarah reloaded the spoon, and I chewed again and again, one cherry at a time, my teeth breaking through each membrane, sinking down into the flesh. We had both given in.
Shortly, Sarah left for work. I thanked her, wished her a pleasant day, and held back my tears until I heard her car pull out of my drive. Then I let myself cry. I realized I forgot to ask her to put me back in bed, and I was stuck in the kitchen chair until early afternoon when someone else was due to arrive. Now, I was the baby in her crib, left with a sitter, bawling her head off when her mother steps out the door. Except there was no baby-sitter. Now, in the midst of the parade of these genuine caregivers, I'd never felt more alone.
Solitude had always been an important factor in my life. As a child, I was constantly thankful that I had two older brothers who had to share a room and that I was privileged enough to have my own. I would enter my space, an enclosed sleeping porch, shut the door, and play by myself for hours, the wind blowing the elm trees back and forth past my windows, the breeze cooling and slightly raising the hairs at the nape of my neck. Or I would curl up with a book in my bed and read while the squabbles and oversights of the rest of the family brewed all around me.
I devoured such books as The Secret Garden, Treasure Island, and Jane Eyre. Oliver Twist's orphanage made the household tensions around me seem manageable. I was the child who abhorred the thought of going away to summer camp, even if we had been able to afford it. Camp seemed like the ultimate orphanage, lacking any kind of privacy. Although I loved sports and the outdoors, the thought of sharing a cabin with ten or twelve other girls terrified me. That was way too much noise and togetherness.
At the same time, I sincerely liked people, liked to laugh, joke, and play team games with them. But at the end of the day, I craved alone time, to gather my thoughts, to be quiet and feel safe emotionally. I was extremely shy. People, although fascinating and fun, were scary, saying and doing unpredictable things that I found difficult to comprehend. I needed the time and space to regroup and reorganize before launching off on another morning.
In my adult life I have mostly lived alone, again happy to have my own space and time at the end of the day. Self-sufficient, I've always supported myself financially and grown almost all my own food. Self-entertaining, I have existed without a TV or a VCR. From this single lifestyle has come a paradoxical connection to a large number of people as well as an unblocked passionate outpouring of artistic work.
For several winters in a row I had been in the habit of getting up early every morning, pulling on my boots, hat, and down coat, and taking a walk to the local Amish General Store. On the way back I usually passed Gracie, an Amish girl of about fifteen who clerked behind the counter and stocked the shelves with flannel work gloves and wool socks. Babushka tied under her chin, Gracie walked to my house every morning, and when we crossed paths, the sky streaked magenta with the dawn, we often stopped for a few seconds and exchanged bits of information about the weather or our lives. Some days Gracie was the only other human being with whom I interacted, and that small exchange was enough to sustain me.
Yes, living alone, I did have my spooky nights and frustrations with having to cope with every event and decision myself. I did sometimes feel outside of 'normal' social circles, but it wasn't until I became chronically ill that the spooky nights became the 'dark nights of the soul.' It wasn't until I became chronically ill that I felt my cherished solitude slip away into the chill of loneliness.
I sat in the kitchen chair that day, and loneliness pushed all my 'stuff' to the surface as if I were clicking through the slide show of my life. Tray after tray of images beamed on my interior screen the good, the bad, the ugly from the thrill of my first airplane ride and the way the wings dipped and dived over the rolling green Loess Hills near my home, to the fright of my last car accident and the way the automobile spun uncontrollably on the winter ice. From the gift of my first pair of ice skates one Christmas morning, and later that afternoon my attempts to maneuver their blades across the lagoon, to my wiggling and wobbling attempts to maneuver in and out of relationships in my adult life. From my first splash in academe in second grade with a thoroughly researched A paper on milk, to my first failure and fall from grace weeks later when the teacher hung my artwork upside down.
Months, seasons, and years juxtaposed with one another, reversing and fast-forwarding, blurring and focusing and blurring again. Suddenly, I had to look at myself on the screen, with all my strengths and imperfections the little lines that had formed around my eyes, the extra pounds I'd gained. I could not back away. My own image was blown up larger than life in front of my face. The carousel clicked to my face at four years old, beaming, tongue out, licking the frosting from my fork, one big bite of birthday cake about to go into my mouth. The carousel whirled to the grimace on my lips, tongue out, when I was facing down my playground tormentors when I was eight. The carousel clicked to the powerful arms of the neighbor boy who tried to choke me when I was ten, then the arms of the college boy holding me down on the bed, trying to date-rape me when I was twenty. The carousel clicked to my mother's arms securing the sides of my crib when I was two, then my arms lifting the sides of her hospital bed when I was twenty-two. The carousel clicked and whirled. The carousel spun uncontrollably on thin ice.