April 2007. “You need to go on a spiritual journey.” Those were my then girlfriend’s (now my wife) words before that year’s spring break from teaching junior high school. She explained how I needed to “find” myself and begin the process of writing the novel I kept yammering on about, without ever fully committing to set word to page. I decided to drive to New Mexico, the land of Georgia O’Keefe, D.H. Lawrence and countless other artists, writers and spiritual seekers. Surrounded by low adobe houses and the distant snow-capped peaks, I discovered spiritual places charged with the energy of that ancient landscape. I also found myself again through the act of writing.
East of O’Keefe’s beloved home in Abiquiu, nestled in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, is the Sanctuaria de Chimayo; “the Lourdes of America.” Here pilgrims arrive from all over New Mexico and the Southwest to find succor for all manner of illnesses and afflictions. As I knelt in the chapel and watched the steady stream of pre-Easter believers come and go, I was struck by their deep faith and abiding devotion to the shrine. Chimayo’s sacred red earth is exposed in a hole in the floor where pilgrims can load up on the healing dirt. I lit a candle, filled a cup with the umber soil and left the devout to their prayers. Then I headed off toward Taos and beyond.
A meandering drive into the mountainous country north of Taos brought me to Lawrence’s Kiowa Ranch. Here is where the tubercular writer lived for several years, enjoying the brisk air and the majestic scenery of the surrounding mountains. There’s a feeling of timelessness here, as the cabin Lawrence shared with his wife is much the same as it was when he left the area. The vintage typewriter still sits dusty on the table, and the buffalo mural painted onto the shack by Trinidad Archuleta, the Pueblo artist, fades with each passing day. Yet there is stillness and a soaring beauty to the site that touches the soul of the writer in me.
Spirit of the self
Perhaps it was the embers of my Catholic faith being stirred, but I decided to journey out into the wilderness of the Chama Canyon and visit the Monastery of Christ in the Desert. My little car bounced and bumped along thirteen miles of dirt track, along the course of the Chama River, through some of the most splendid red rock landscape I saw during my travels in the area. In the midst of this national forest wilderness is an adobe chapel, built by the architect and woodworker, George Nakashima, that squats below soaring cliffs topped by wooden white crosses, and the air is fairly filled with a calm sense of rightness. Sitting in the chapel and watching the deep genuflecting of the monks, listening and chanting along to the afternoon ritual of None, my mind cleared completely, and in the moment I felt a profound respect for the world.
And yet my most spiritual moments arrived late in the evenings back at the small circular adobe house I was renting. Sitting in the quiet New Mexican night, the cicadas sending their echoing chirruping into the night, I typed page after page on my old Remington Rand No. 5 typewriter. There was something about the purity of keys striking paper, while the moon cast its yellow light through the glass skylight, that made me like a modern-day monk bent over his parchment, lost in the act of creating something more than the sum of myself.