Two Sticks and a Saturday Evening Post

Sticks with the River in 'em.

Sticks with the River in ‘em.

My younger self would have balked. A beautiful late spring Saturday evening and what were my plans? Church and getting groceries? What kind of life is that?

But then my younger mind’s eye couldn’t have seen what I’d encounter along the way.  Everyday mysteries.  Inspirations unfold when you are present to receive them.

Earlier that day, I’d been reading Stephen King’s memoir-cum-manual On Writing. Again, my younger, pretentious self would have balked.  Why take writing advice from the pop horror king, when my own pretensions were of the literary ilk?  I was guilty, yet again, of contempt prior to investigation.  It turns out Stephen’s book is a classic for a reason. Amongst the gems, it stoked my imagination to find stories waiting to be told, the ‘fossil’ you unbury, as King terms it. Where do you dig? In the field of observation, not unlike a Sherlock Holmes, seeing the ordinary clue, hidden in plain view, and perceiving the extraordinary.   Just look around you and apply the primary question of the writer, the investigator and the scientist: what if…?

Just before turning left into the church parking lot, I saw three little women, resembling a mother and two girls, on the street.  All three brown-skinned, with long black hair, I could see only the mother’s round face, with high cheekbones. She looked Mexican, not unusual in New Mexico.  What’s so special there? Well, first, the littlest of the trio, a girl of about four, was hopping on one foot, stretching one hand up to the shoulder of the taller girl, about nine or ten, to her right, and the other hand up to her mom, a petite woman not five feet tall. The little one was missing a shoe, with a big bandage stretched across her left foot.  Aside from the injury, what inspired the possibility for a story was a furtive glance of the mother over her shoulder, her dark eyes scanning the street.  Why was she anxious? What was wrong? How had the injury happened?  Was she guilty? Was she afraid of someone? Or afraid that they’d get deported, so they didn’t go to the E.R.? I didn’t know, of course.  My imagination could only play “What if?” and run with it.

Late for church, I slipped into a pew.  Mass had just started.  It was pretty ordinary, except for a new seminarian visiting for the summer. The 22-year old philosophy graduate introduced himself, with a lot of ums, to the parish. He wasn’t the new Martin Luther King, but there was something earnest and brave about this young man.  Vocations to the priesthood in the US are exceedingly rare these days. (In 21st Century Catholicism, missionary priests now are imported to the US from Africa and Asia and not vice versa, as it was forty-plus years ago when my mother had worked for the Society of African Missions.  Generations of Western missionary nuns and priests had gone all over the world, to Africa, Asia and South America, to baptize and educate children who now, in the 21st Century, would grow up to lead the Church.  We now even have the first South American pope, Francis, toppling hierarchies and upsetting precedents.)  Also unusual, this youth in training for the priesthood was a New Mexico boy.  He’d come up in Cimarron, New Mexico, just over the canyon.

Where mountains meet the plains

Cimarron: Where the mountains meet the plains

Cimarron always tweaks my heart because it’s the headquarters of Philmont, a famous Boy Scout wilderness camp in New Mexico that my brother, Danny, now deceased for nearly nine years, had attended as a youth.  After I’d traveled the world and come home to Chicago to visit Danny in his sickbed and show him my pictures, he told me, “I haven’t seen much of the world, but New Mexico is really beautiful.” Today, the young man from Cimarron talked about how his seed of desire to become a priest had been visible to his mother since he was a toddler. That seed waited only for water and light to let it grow. He told of a priest visiting his school who’d said, “Just because no one from Cimarron has been called by God to be a priest yet, doesn’t mean that it can’t happen.” This resonated within the boy.  It could happen to him. He could be the trailblazer.

I sat there, lost in reverie. Earlier that day I’d compiled a document from websites that featured authors who’d first published after 40 and 50.  A round number birthday is on the horizon for me, so I needed inspiration. I’d once had a trusted spiritual teacher undermine my writing aspirations with this cut: “If it hasn’t happened already, it isn’t meant to.”  Yet like this boy’s burning desire to serve as a priest, the desire to serve as a writer was planted in me early, before the age of five, and hadn’t yet been extinguished by decades on the planet.   All the evidence was there: degrees in English, a career in publishing, thousands of books and hundreds of journals. I’d shipped them back and forth from continent to continent, while I got detoured following this pied piper who claimed to be the guru of creatives.   Only problem was that in tuning in so intently to the guru, I’d started to lose my own voice. It had only recently begun to return, here, in the high mountain desert, where it was quiet enough to listen.

The priest’s banter jolted me back to the present moment.  Mass was soon over, and I went for the groceries. One good thing about shopping on a Saturday night is no lines at the check-out.  As I packed my car, a man from Taos Pueblo asked me to buy fresh sage sticks. I’m not a smudger, but they looked and smelt beautiful.  He seemed honest, too. When I asked him how his day was, he said, “Today’s better than yesterday. Yesterday was no good.” I thought, I can do this.  I pulled out five bucks and took two sticks. Smudges may go for a lot more in a shop; I’m not sure, I was a virgin to buying smudge sticks.   Bringing them in, the fresh sage filled the car, overpowering the artificial mango-scented bar I’d picked up at a car wash two days prior.  In the parking lot, the man was saying something to me I couldn’t hear.  He motioned for me to roll down the window and said, “They’re so fresh because they have the Rio Grande in them. I picked them today by the Rio in Pilar.”  We smiled at each other.

Inhaling the tangy eucalyptus  scent on the way home, I felt far from ordinary.  Sure, I’d just gone through the mundane practice of attending a weekly Mass and I picked up groceries. But where do you get hit on to buy fresh sage sticks in the parking lot except Taos?  Where else do you get to bring the Rio Grande into your car?


Sun setting to the west

Sunset began to unfold as I drove home.  We’d sung “Morning Has Broken” at Mass tonight. It speaks of the dawn:  “God’s recreation of the new day.” I flash-backed to Cat Stevens’ version and his quest. This music I’d first heard as a young girl growing up in the seventies, one of the songs that stoked the spiritual flames of a generation. Tonight, the evening skies in Taos were celebrating the culmination of the old day.  To the west, rays of light beamed like a spotlight through a cloud-hole in the curtain closing on this seemingly ordinary day.  As I write this, I recalled the advice of writer John Banville at an Irish Writers’ Week I attended a few years ago in Listowel, County Kerry. He said that writers need a boring life. The drama needed to happen on the page. It struck me that I now had the perfect life, a hotbed of ordinary-extraordinary in small town, rural New Mexico.

Taos Mt. from Tune Drive

Taos Mt. to the east from Tune Drive

To the east, the scenery was subtle yet exquisite. The late spring snows and early monsoon rains have blessed us with verdant grass and delicate yellow-green weeds across the mesa. In past arid years since I’ve lived here, we’ve had just barren sagebrush for greenery.  This season’s lushness quenched like lemonade on a blistering afternoon.

So this is my Saturday evening post. Two sticks of sage with the river in ‘em. A couple or more stories to ponder.  A tribute to the ordinary, a song of gratitude.


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