Home at Last
Brimming with culture and logic-defying beauty, New Mexico shows generations of newcomers the light.
This article first appeared in Autumn 2010 Su Casa
So, what brings you to New Mexico? No one has ever asked me that, though I have lived here for more than 35 years, most of my adult life. Rather the question I’ve heard countless times is, “How did you get to New Mexico?” It begs the big life story of the emotional and physical details, the personal experience that led to the upending of one way of life for the Land of Enchantment. If you ask this way, be prepared to hear about a stultifying epiphany you might mistake for a religious awakening. New Mexico maintains status as a veritable quote machine for those transformed. Take D. H. Lawrence, who came to the Taos area in the 1920s: “I think New Mexico was the greatest experience from the outside world that I have ever had. It certainly changed me forever. . . . In the magnificent fierce morning of New Mexico one sprang awake, a new part of the soul woke up suddenly, and the old world gave way to a new.”
For people from literary heavyweights to a pip-squeak like myself, New Mexico has been an experience—sometimes the experience—that changed a course, flummoxed a career, and made life an adventure rather than a charted journey. While I have always tried to position myself as making a rational decision about our arrival in New Mexico, my adult mind knows that something outside the bounds of reason drove my husband, Dave, and me here from Michigan with highways closing behind us on a miserable February day. Perhaps it was the fact that we had no possible prospects, or was it the total of $88 we then possessed?
This brave and foolish adventure had been preceded by a summer camping at Hyde Park in Santa Fe, when we would venture out during the day to meet with folk artists, all courtesy of my university’s art history department. How could we not try to make this place our own after seeing Santa Fe in the summer, after Dave’s experience as best man at a magical wedding in Chimayó, after poking into the homes and lives of humble saint carvers, and after driving across the Plains of San Agustin (pre-Very Large Array) in full bloom? Going back and forth through Santa Fe and across New Mexico was never going to cut it. Since we had nothing, we had nothing to lose and everything ahead of us. Now that much of life is moving behind us, it seems like a staggeringly brilliant decision.
Evangelically speaking, this bolt of recognition has been brought on in no small part by the landscape, the climate and air, the flora, fauna, and quality of light. Almost all are trotted out as prime movers in the cathartic litany of what changed things forever for some. For example, when I walk out in my garden in the early morning, immediately I am blasted by a group of insanely large Icelandic poppies waving at me like cartoon creatures about to burst into song, so bright and big in the eastern light of morning. The flowers and the light upon them are an extension of the robust physicality of being here that makes the thought of leaving, while sometimes tempting, quite impossible.
My Santa Fe home is also not to be ignored. This is my woman cave, cozy, simple, comforting, sculptural, malleable, and always dusty. The original outsiders to the town invariably would refer to a home such as mine as a “mud hovel.” As early as 1560, a member of the Coronado expedition while at Pecos noted that the “houses are all alike.” Happily, and thanks to the city’s historic design ordinance, we continue to strive for that mud-hut anonymity so charming we must struggle to preserve it for the generations to come.
Much like the place itself, the nature of home in New Mexico is not for the faint of heart. Unique demands require the newcomer to learn a special homegrown vocabulary—viga, plaza, portal, and so forth. (Using beam, square, and porch would be a stain upon your family’s honor or worse.) Our dwellings are no less demanding for the native sons and daughters whose ancestral homes require the patience of a saint and the bank account of a sinner to keep alive and well.
What goes on within these dwellings again might be a stretch for those not committed to the place. You have to consider bancos and nichos to say nothing of the peeling of chiles, the fireplaces huddling in corners, the dusting of the vigas, the posole, the nicks in the hard-trowel plaster walls, the leaks by the canales—did I mention the dust? All of these things, so effortlessly part of the New Mexican’s world, must be absorbed by the freshly awakened newcomer. For those transformed, many of these aspects of home life can be as thrilling as that first smack of recognition brought on by an evening of golden light upon the hills and walls.
Those born here have equally compelling reasons to stay on forever. A many-centuries-old genealogy tied to these lands and people, a full-on addiction to the humble chile pod, or the love of the diversity of cultures can be prime nonmovers for those who call this place their ancestral spot—home of the few and the proud. Woe to those who have moved away and then spend years, or decades, plotting their return. For some, even the best career in the world cannot make up for the loss they feel away from New Mexico.
What brings us to New Mexico or keeps us in its maternal clutches is very much like family, tethering us to this place with emotional and physical bonds. For me, like the love of family, there is simply no explaining it. It just seemed like the place I was meant to be, raise a family, and study the culture, hunkered down in my mud hut by the acequia.
When I walk through the neighborhood on a summer’s evening, thankful that the sun’s furnace effect is beginning to fade, I am transfixed by the luminous adobe walls and astounded that I never noticed some elusive detail before—an old window, a charming mailbox, a special gate. I watch the coming night sky for the possible approach of rain clouds and wonder when I might harvest the seeds of a deep-purple hollyhock. I am not alone in gathering these simple pleasures. The streets are alive with evening walkers, all drinking in their own memories here, sucking in the sweet night air, and hoping to live in this special place forever.