Friday, February 18, 2011

Terrible Firsts

"Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere."
- Anne Lamott

A few days ago I went walking along the Acequias, the sandy ditches that are filled with water from the Rio Grande during the summer to water the land in the valley. At this time of the year the acequias are empty and filled with tumbleweeds. On this particular day it was sunny and windy, but just warm enough to jog to the river with shorts on.

On my way home, I stared at the ground in thought as I walked, when I was interrupted by a rough mumbling sound. I looked up towards the enormous beautiful cottonwood tree that I am so fond of, and there before me was a stout man, with a long gray beard, his cowboy hat partially covering his face to conceal an eyepatch. He wore a leather jacket and sat hunched on a large tree root and supported himself with a cane.

I felt like it would be rude and to walk past him without saying anything, so I yelled, "Hello!"

"Heeeey, prrrettyy lady," he called back in a voice identical to an Apache woman I met who gave me acupunture. Diane? I thought.

Diane is a natural healer and a storyteller, the folksy burnt out hippie type, with a low voice and and an authortative and captivating presence.

Was this a fairy god-mother come disguised to teach me an important moral lesson?

"What's your name?" yelled the man..."Ammber!" I called back with some hesitation from the other side of the Acequia. "What's your name?"

And in a deep voice, that might have be preceded by a drum role he cried, "Thuundderrbiirrdd!"
I am constantly stumbling into quirky conversations and situations with the eccentric and interesting people that I live with, work with and meet around town.

And there is so much to behold in the land here itself: the squawking peacocks, the rotting furniture in our neighbor's backyards, the wild dogs, the ceramic statues of St. Francis and Lady Guadalupe, the thick vines growing up chain linked fences, cactus, agave ...

This experience has filled my imgination with so many beautiful and diffcult images that I want to put somewhere and share. I often think, "That would be perfect in a story!" but whenever I try to write something with meaning and synthesis I end up writing one or two lame sentences that I can barely stand, and so I give up entirely.

Yet, I still have this urge that I cannot quite supress, to show someone else the world the way I sometimes see it because it touched my heart, and it means so much to me, even when I don't quite understand why.

Saturday, Jen asked me to come with her to water the Center's plants in the greenhouse located behind the catholic church down the road. When we arrived, there was Thunderbird. He looked at us through the foggy glass with a leery eye and then let us in reluctantly. I could tell that after a few minutes he was glad to have company.

He talked about some of his woes, and then he sang us a few songs and told us a few jokes. Finally, as we were leaving, he left us with a kind and sad benediction that he has probably given to other visitors as well.

We walked back to the truck in the wind. The dark clouds had blown to the east over the mountains and cool yellow light streamed over the valley from the west. It's so windy in February and March in Albuquerque. The sand blows everywhere and gets in your clothes, your mouth and your eyes, but the air isn't biting, and the green leaves of the irises are popping out of the earth already as we draw closer to spring.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


"One must have chaos in oneself in order to give birth to a dancing star"

- Friedrich Nietzsche

I thought Autumn would last longer in Albuquerque, but the golden leaves of the cottonwoods have finally turned dull and most of the other trees were bare. In the mornings, geese can be heard overhead as they fly South for the winter. The blending of honking and batting wings make a burbling and murmuring noise that sounds peculiar. On Thanksgiving morning, our back gardens and prayer labrinth were lightly covered with snow and mysteriously, St. Francis's wooden head lay several feet away from his body on the white ground.

There are a few things that I have been occupying myself with here in New Mexico.

Though I work at the Center assisting with community events, a 9-day internship program, women's spirituality, and solidarity delegations with women across the border, I am only working part-time. I spend a fair amount of time mulling in my room, but I have made some effort to get out of the house by volunteering at the community art center and taking a few art classes.

I am also continuing where I left off when I was thirteen by joining an intermediate Irish Dancing course.

I showed up for the beginner's class first, which is made up entirely of kindergartners. This will not do, I thought, but I managed to swallow my pride for the intermediate course whose participant's range from six to sixteen years old. Actually there is one sixteen year old, and the other students are actually around six, seven, or eight.

One little girl in particular stared at me the entire class. We were dancing next to each other and whenever we paused for the teacher's instructions she turned to face me and just stared. At first I thought, maybe she wants to ask me to her birthday party? Occasionally, she yanked at the silly bands on her wrists to indicate her favorite ones. In the middle of the class she asked me how long I had been taking lessons for. I was slightly offended by this question. What was she trying to say? That I wasn't as good of a dancer as she was? Well, little miss, for your information I was taking classes before you were born.

I put on my babysitter guise and spoke slowly while nodding and smiling to make sure she understood,"Oh, I used to take classes a long time ago, and now I am taking them again. How long have you been taking lessons?"

"A long time," she said matter-of-factly and then turned to face the teacher again.

How long could that possibly be? I wanted to challenge her, "One or two years?" However, her mother sat in the corner watching the class with a gray face. Who knows what other sports or activities this girl is involved in? For all I knew, after this class she would be thrown into a silver mini van and dragged to jazz, soccer, tennis or a violin lesson she has been taking since she was two and a half. I decided to let it go.

At the end of almost every class she gets on her hind legs and hops around the floor like a frog. Often, other girls join in some kind of sporadic display pent-up emotion.

It is in these moments that I wonder what I am doing with my life.

While most of my friends are pursuing Graduate Studies or Careers in their field, I am piddling around in the wilderness trying to figure out who I am and what it is I really believe in. I'm traveling some and trying new things, but growth has been slow and I hardly feel like I am making progress.

While I'm working through my own doubts and darkness it feels fitting to finally be entering into the season of lighting candles and bringing our own unique gifts to the table. I have not arrived, yet something of goodness and grace is in the process of arriving. And maybe, at the most unlikely times and in the most unlikely places something can be born, begun, incarnated.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


"The dream was always running ahead of me. To catch up, to live for a moment of unison with it, that was the miracle."
Anais Nin

Autumn has come to the Southwest, though not with flashy bright colors or gloomy, gray rain, but with a sudden crispness. The days have become cooler and the mornings and the evenings are cold. The sun hangs lower in the sky, and the length of the day is much shorter. I wake up before the sunrises and dinner is just about the end of time. Though some of the cottonwood trees are beginning to yellow, there is still some green in the valley. There are vibrant pink flowers in the garden at the center that still haven't died.

A few nights ago it rained and looming dark clouds and big winds have lofted through the valley since then. In the morning mist the peacocks casually perch on our neighbor's chain-linked fence as I jog onto the acequias towards the road with the neighborhood watch sign. The mountains look blue in the moist air and partial sunlight. Huge puddles fill the sunken parts of the street pavement.

Earlier this month, Albuquerque held its annual International Balloon Fiesta. One morning before dawn, Heather, Diana and I hiked to the top of one of the several inactive volcanoes west of the city. We huddled on a slab of black rock with peaches and croissants. As soon as the sun rose and colorful round specks began to fill the valley, we popped open a bottle of champagne.

With the changing of seasons I am beginning to recognize the most subtle change of my perspective.

In the community that I am apart of we gather together on Wednesday nights to discuss Non-Violent Communication. Judy Bierbaum, who most recently leads our discussions, is a psychotherapist who works with children in the areas of trauma and abuse. She has been to India, Latin America and Asia to work with marginalized people and has served two prison sentences for protesting against the U.S. Army School of the Americas.

When I first heard about Judy my immediate thought was "she is one of those types." And by "those types" I mean those activists who make you feel bad about the war in Iraq, for owning things, or for eating meat.

However, upon meeting Judy my opinoin of her was completely altered.

Judy is a petite women with a huge energy. With brown hair held loosely in a long pony tail, flowing skirts, sky blue eyes and deep crows feet, she greeted us with animated gestures and excitement. At the beginning of our class, Judy seated herself and entered into a more contemplative mode. Calmly she looked around the room as if to register each of our faces, to clarify the wall color and make note of every book on the bookcase. She invited each of us to breath, to feel our feet firmly planted on the floor and to listen to the wind beating against the adobe house.

She began by reading a poem by Hafiz.

"I am a hole in a flute
that the Christ's breath moves through
listen to this music
I am the concert from the mouth of every creature
singing with the myriad chorus

I am a hole in a flute
that the Christ's breath moves through
listen to this

Judy closed the book and softly searched our faces again with great interest. "You all come with your own music," she said.

Then she told us her story. "When I was a teenager I decided that if I could learn how to love God and love others then I would be learning everything there was to know."

Judy went to Calcutta to work with Mother Teresa in the 1980's and later to Gauetmala during their civil war to advocate peace.

"You can ignore poverty if you want to, you can. But I knew that If I went [to India, Central America & etc,) I could never go back to not knowing what is going on. But here is the Good News - we all have to wrestle with this. That verse took me on this journey, but the conclusion you reach may be different. It may take you in a different direction."

During our third time together, Judy asked each of us where we were at with what we were learning. While everyone spoke eloquently about how they were grappling with non-violence, when the time came for me to speak I had little to say.

It wasn't until I was walking through downtown Albuquerque one evening last week that what I had been learning finally struck me.

Walking on my own, my anxious thoughts began to surface. Is this guy following me? Oh it's fine, I could most definitely take these three guys if I had to...when I ripped my cellphone out of my bag like a warning to all who would approach me, a lightbulb flickered above my head.

I live this way all the time. I am constantly ready to defend myself, to fight back or shout back at any threat that may come my way.

But what if I allowed the next harsh word aimed in my direction to end with me? What if I ended the cycle by refusing to dig up a sharp, cunning or sarcastic comeback?

Giving up "violent communication" may be a notion as ridiculous as that time I tried to give up chocolate because I thought it was made by child slaves. However, in all my yearning for Christ to walk through some kind of a wall in my life, I'm beginning to realize that I may need to meet him half way.

With all the changing leaves and new coolness, I can't help but notice the sky. Without the hazy humidity of the Midwest, the desert sky is bright and a clear in a way that seems unique to the West. It is almost always sunny here, and so it is this constant blue that guides us through the seasons, stretching across the valley and the mountains, so protective and suggesting so much potential.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


The flower you hold in your hands was born today and already it is as old as you are.
- Antonio Porchia

The Navajo medicine woman wore a long purple skirt, a black vest and a turquoise chain. Her gray hair was held in a tight bun, bangled braclets hung loosely around the wrinkled brown skin of her wrists, and she peered with dark eyes from behind her spectacles. With hunched shoulders, she moved slowly down the halls of the little ranch house that were covered with that seventies floral wall paper. In one hand she raised a gray feather, while her sons chanted and she sang.

Grace followed with blonde bob, blue eyes, and only eight years, looking very Swedish and wearing a brown cowgirl dress. She solemnly brought the bowl of ground white and yellow corn, and sprinkled it in the air, in the doorways and down the halls.

A Navajo grandson came last with another gray feather which he dipped into a bowl of water and also sprinkled throughout the ranch.

There is more than one way to bless a house, to bless the creatures and the land, to realize what is sacred and to begin again, but in honor of the feast of St. Francis, and in the land of Red Mesas, we were Navajo blessed.

With the arrival of a new herd of sheep that are so dear to the Navajo people, we moved outside to the yard, underneath the desert sun and the slow moving clouds of the west. Grandmother and sons, grandchildren and Grace came with smoke, hot coals and ancient pipe, for more songs, more ritual, feathers, and blessing. People took the corn dust and sprinkled it on each other, like Ash Wednesday.

One of the Navajo sons stood up at some point and told everyone that while he was in Vitenam, his mother walked the hills daily, and in every direction that the wind hit her she said a blessing on his behalf.

Later, we feasted. A traditional Native meal: flat bread, mutton, corn and chocolate cake.

I sat next to an older man who traveled North for this Celebration. He told me that he had retired in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, once called Hot Springs. It was renamed after a popular radio quiz show in the 1950's. He also told me that he had a few pilgrimages planned and seemed extremely insulted when I referred to them as "little journeys." "A little journey is a trip down the road to Dairy Queen," he said scornfully. There were a few other things he mentioned that I didn't quite pick up on: a vision of Mother Mary, a nun trying to save his soul, and something about writing sonnets about his cat.

Then the wind picked up, and it rained. The group huddled together beneath a tent until the storm blew further west, and then we wandered to the Red Mesa, following the friar, a hitchhiker and Gracie. On the red rock walls there are prehistoric etchings, bear's feet, spirals, a man and a drum. Pieces of old pottery lay near the base, someone found a ceramic bowl.

I found myself subtly detached from the day. Appreciative, but distant. And so, a message from a dear friend came:

The great thing about prayer is not to pray but to go directly to God. If saying your prayers is an obstacle to prayer, cut it out. Let Jesus pray.

- Thomas Merton

I don't often pray when the wind hits me, in fact, lately I haven't prayed much at all. But I hope, in spite of my own cluelessness, wandering and fear, something can still happen on my own little journey - that the song will keep on being sung, the smoke will billow, and clouds will rain.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


"What the hell is the Center for Action and Contemplation?"
This was the most popluar responce I received whenever I mentioned where I was interning this autumn.

I have been here for three weeks, and I am still puzzling over the same question.
However I can give you this blanket statement: The CAC promotes meditation, intentional community, environmental awareness and social justice.

What I do know is that I was running out of air to breath in the suburbs. I was drawn to the desert, because I wanted to approach something real, something raw, something that would expose me -- something unhidden from the sunlight.

I am encountering a diverse people, with diverse worldviews, but I am also encountering living things and life.


The clicking of beads, chickens clucking, chimes clinking, the stone fountain burbling, deep breathing and silence.

Within the white walls of the tiny Aids Memorial chapel in South Valley we take off our shoes, acknowledge the sacrament placed in a round ceramic jar in the center of the room, and sit.

Sometimes, it feels like I am being punished. Sometimes, it feels like a gift.


Russian sage and Mexican Hat Flowers grow by the doorway. In the backyard there are gardens: tomatoes, rosemary, basil, greens, peppers, marigolds. Mexican sunflowers grow tall and tangle by the vegetable beds. There is a stone labyrinth, a peace pole, a hermitage.

Dogs run freely down the street of Five Points Road: Pitt Bulls, Chiahuahua, black mutts. The neighbor's hens wander anxiously through our property. I wake up to the rooster's crow. Stray cats cry to be fed. Occasionally, peacocks strut through the yard, or perch on the neighbor's roof.

I hang my clothes on the line to dry, but carefully around the cactus.

On the way to the center, I walk on the side of the road, on sand, stones, and colorful broken glass. I walk past our neighbor's Llamas. The white Llama with the black spots wears a red mask on his face, flies buzz around his head while he sits in the dirt, detached and defeated.

In the valley, three inactive volcanos can be seen to the West, and the Sandia Mountains to the East.

I thought the desert would be bare, and the silence devastingly empty, but there is more life and light here than I thought. On the adobe houses people hang ceramic suns, and their mouths are always open, smiling.