HOLY DIRT

An artist date to Chimayo

April 2001

 I’ve been trying to figure out a way to escape my life and get down to Taos for months. It isn’t far, but I’m not much of a driver, and the spring roads in the mountains are not terribly reliable. This time, for the book in progress, I really need to get to the Santurario at Chimayo, and my usual method of taking a bus into Taos isn’t going to work. There’s no public transportation from Espanola to Chimayo, which is about seven miles away -further than I want to walk in unfamiliar territory. My son Miles always wants to come with me when I make my treks down there, so I wanted to be doubly sure we didn’t get stranded.

So I’d been putting it off, needing to go, not sure how to do it.

One morning, my friend Holli, who is an artist, called out of the blue to ask if I wanted to go down to Taos with her the next day. I started laughing because we’d both been so busy with children and pursuing our work that we hadn’t had a conversation in six months–and she called with exactly what I needed. The angels sent her. I told her my dilemma — would she mind if we also drove to Chimayo? She went quiet and said, “Oh, I paint Chimayo.”

We left before dawn, the morning icy and foggy most of the way into New Mexico — weather I love and good for our deep conversation. We had mugs of hot coffee and a huge truck so we were quite comfortable even going into the Sangre de Cristos (blood of Christ), where there was a lot of snow even in April. We saw lots of animal tracks and a herd of antelope in a big, snowy field. It looked like a calendar for winter in the Rockies.

Then, as we came down from the higher mountains to the bowl where Taos sits, we drove out of the clouds. Instantly. One moment, it was a wintery, moody day in the high country, and the next, it was spring, with colors and light as brilliant as cut glass, a kind of light you only find in the west, where both the oxygen and the water in the air are thin. The sky was a most improbable blue.

We passed through Taos with its adobe and sheep, narrow streets and fences made of sticks. Seeing it so freshly rendered, so full of promise under that spring sky, made it fairly difficult for us to keep going. If we’d had more time, we would have stopped to eat, but we wanted to be back in Pueblo that night, so we kept going.

Driving south along the upper Rio Grande, through sage and pinon-dotted desert, ending in a line of mountains on the horizon, we start to talk about that fabled river. I have never driven this stretch before, and I’m thinking of Mabel Dodge Luhan, who came from New York in the early 20th century and fell in love with both a man and the town of Taos, coming up this very road. I wonder if she had any inkling how her life was about to change. Holli mentions Georgia O’Keefe, who also came up this road (to see Mabel, actually) and ended up finding the defining characteristics of her work.

We arrive in Espanola at midmorning, and it’s an unappealing little town, sitting on the plain with no trees, the streets lined with weary-looking ranch houses and modulars with plastic geraniums in the yard, and junk cars tucked in alleyways. There’s a Lota Burger and a Sonic and a gas station where my friend tells me she once saw a boy pull a pistol on another. There are gang marks on the walls all around and the faces of the people are not friendly — they meet our gazes with flat eyes and unsmiling mouths and deep suspicion, and we have no credentials but the ones they suspect we carry: we’re going to Chimayo.

I’m relieved I didn’t come here by myself.

A tiny marker, resentfully placed, tells us where to turn to get to the Santuario. It’s nine miles of road winding through hills and a much kinder landscape — giant cottonwoods grow in every small depression, suggesting floods must come down from those hills, and I see the evidence in arroyos carved deep into the land. There is something about the small homes and spreading fields that shows people have been living here a very, very long time, growing the same crops, raising the same animals, living the same simple ways for hundreds of years. I can imagine that the simple rhythm of it extends backward even further, to pockets of land far away in Spain that must look a great deal like this.

Unlike Espanola, Chimayo has made peace with the pilgrims who travel to their little church–some 300,000 every year, from all around the world. The road is dotted with invitations to come see the weavings (Chimayo is famous, too, for an old style of Spanish weaving that has all but died out in many places) and the carvings or taste the special Chimayo chiles. The signs are not clever or polished the way they are in Taos, and the shops are often the front rooms of a home. But they’re welcoming and there’s a cheerful acceptance about them that I like.

The road loops through a tunnel of trees. We see plain white wooden crosses at the tops of some of the hills and I realize Jerusalem might look a lot like this, sere and austere above the trees, and that the hill of crucifixion might have looked like that one, right over there. It’s oddly startling.

The signs are now more generous and lead us easily to the church. After months of talking about it, thinking about it, hearing tales of people going there (the old women in my town still make pilgrimages to Chimayo to get holy dirt) I’m finally seeing it with my own eyes. Holli looks at me. “Is it what you thought it would be?”

Oh, yes. I get out of the truck and am greeted by a bowl of deep stillness. A tiny, unassuming Spanish-mission style church sits at the foot of a hill, set apart only by the two wooden towers at each front corner. A small walled courtyard in front of it holds graves. On the square before the church are small shops offering religious items, candles and statures and milagros — small silver charms — for the pilgrims to buy, but they’re low key, like camp stores. Not even commerce can change the air here.

Mass has just begun, and it’s been twenty years since I actually attended a whole mass that wasn’t a wedding. The greeter waves us in kindly, and I duck in with anticipation, sure the timing is not an accident. I’m not sure Holli is crazy about this part — she’s anxious to take photographs while the shadows are still good, and after a little while, she leaves to go do that, leaving me to sit alone in the pew and listen to the old priest give his sermon. I’m alight with with pleasure and peace and my little-girl muse, who was so religious she painted Jesus Wept in bright crimson with dripping blood for Christmas presents, is giddy with happiness.

The priest is very old, and small. His hair is white and he wears a hearing aid. But his vestments are spotless and exquisitely pressed and his face has that rare, shimmering light you sometimes see on the devoted. His accent is very thick, and I sometimes lose a little bit of something. I’m also sometimes charmed–“Satan in our midst” becomes “Satan ees in d’middle of us!”

It’s an ordinary mass, really. He exhorts Catholic mothers and fathers to let their children be open to a calling. There are not enough priests anymore. There haven’t been for a long time. But he had the most beautiful bell. Or maybe it was an ordinary bell and the acoustics of the room made it more than it is. Either way, each time he rung it over the sacraments, it pierced me like sunlight.

I remember refrains I thought I’d lost, and songs, and gestures. I look around at the others in the church, wondering who is a pilgrim or tourist and who is a local. A thin coyote of a man comes in, his hair mussed, his coat not entirely clean. He has the sinewy brown hands of a workman, and he slips into a pew and kneels with deep earnestness. A little girl is there with her grandmother, and has obviously been there a lot.

It’s cold inside. I’m glad of my coat. The floor is concrete, the walls adobe. The paintings on the wooden altar and the backdrop draw my eye, over and over. They’re faded red and blue, and I sketch some of them so I remember the style, which is very old. There are statues all over, but I don’t see the “dolls” one woman I know said frightened her, or Santo Nino, who wears out his shoes walking the community doing miracles. There is a beautiful, very traditional European version of the Virgin, in white and gold, and another of her with a bent head. No Guadalupe, whom I had expected.

When mass is over, I sit and wait for my friend so we can go into the other room where the dirt is.

And here are the dolls. Saint upon saint upon saint, an entire table full of them, and so many candles that a sign asks you to only light one per family to prevent fire danger. There are photos and crutches and pines–“I’m a cancer survivor!”–and plastic flowers and poems and letters tuck to the walls. There are drawings and fabric renditions of people. There are petitions and thanks. And finally, I find Santo Nino, who is a toddler in prince’s clothes. He lives in a wooden box that makes me think of a horse’s stall, open and lighted, and when I peek in, I notice that his feet are bare. But there are baby shoes on the floor around him, and I hope they don’t belong to babies who need miracles, but are just offerings for him to have footwear when he goes out to do his miracles. In the wood around him are hundreds and hundreds of names written or carved in tiny script, inside and out, and I can almost hear the whispers of them, hundreds of soft pleas.

Finally, the room empties and we duck into the tiny room that holds the miracle of Chimayo–a pit in the floor of holy dirt that never empties. The women in my town come here to get it to make charms against evil, and for hopes of various things. But mainly, it’s for healing, Chimayo dirt. Holli, a nurse tells me a story of a patient in the sterile world of intensive care who was covered all over his body with the dirt and the staff left it alone.

I don’t know why I want it, but I’ve brought a special heart-shaped box with me and I fill it from the hole that never empties. It’s very ordinary backyard dirt, cold, the texture of damp, sandy clay. Holli takes some, too, and we leave donations. I don’t want to think or analyze it all yet. Maybe not ever. Maybe I’m just offering it to the muses, raw material they can work with in whatever ways they see fit, a basket of light and color and experience. I’ve done my job. They can do the rest.

We do stop at one of the stores and I buy a big black El Dia de Los Muertos t-shirt for my son, to appease him for not bringing him with me this time, and a rosary and a tin cross with a heart hanging from it. And a silver heart with a bell in it to wear around my neck–which has, in the months since, been around my neck almost continually. A reminder that ordinary things are the fabric of holiness, and books, and life in general. Dirt, bells, drives, mass by an old priest. Cottonwoods and crosses on austere hills. A friend in a big, safe truck willing to drive.

Read more about the Santuario de Chimayo

To see Holli’s unique and exquisite southwestern art, go to her site hollibradish.com.

Till next time,

Barbara

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