Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Hearing the Voices of the Land
This is a picture of the Black Mesas outside of San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico. I didn't take it, and I don't know who did; I had pictures from that time, but they are gone. The New Mexico period of my life was a strange time, a fog in retrospect, just one more image in a sea of images. I lived there for ten years.
At the end of the summer after my first year of law school in California, which summer spent in Nashville in 1981 concreted my resolve that I would never again return here to live, I decided to drive slowly across the country, on and off I-40, back toward Palo Alto. I spent my second night in Amarillo, Texas, and happened to check into a Quality Inn with a bar that got very lively at night, and after an evening of drinking, pool playing, and if my memory serves me correctly (which is not likely), some other chemical explorations I woke up with a blazing hangover and drove over the state border into Tucumcari, New Mexico.
The border between New Mexico and Texas at I-40 is a strange place, one of those odd junctures of the land where the scenery changes instantly -- different vegetation, different rocks, and the land comes alive. Or maybe, not alive, but brimming with ghosts. Because the Texas panhandle scarcity ends to be replaced with something very different. I stumbled into Tucumcari, a town of nothing but endless cheap motels and seedy Mexican bars, and rented a cheap room from people who spoke no English. A storm was brewing, and tumbleweeds flew down the darkened, deserted streets. I thought about braving one of the local bars but was too whipped, and settled down in the motel with a bottle of something or other. I had two phone calls to make - one to my parents in Tennessee, one to my fiancee in California, but the phones wouldn't give me a long distance line. I was enveloped in New Mexico.
The next day I had what had to be the most mystical drive of my life; with a six-pack in my lap, I drove the long, windy alternate route from Tucumcari up to Santa Fe, a highway of high desert, fields of whipping August grasses that sometime overshadowed and nearly covered the roads; occasional isolated littel towns usually consisting of nothing more than a bar and a gas station, where I refreshed my beverages, used the bathrooms and moved on. I have never had a more moving day on the road. At the end of that third day, I checked into a motel outside Santa Fe, and still tired, instead of sampling any of the good restaurants in one of the country's best restaurant cities, I drove to a Wendy's to pick up a cheeseburger. When they asked me if I wanted green chile with it, I knew that I was home.
I split my second-year clerkship between a law firm in Albuquerque and one in Los Angeles, and after graduation came back to Albuquerque. The job there didn't last; a law firm is a law firm and I was no more cut out for corporate law then, than I am now. Nevertheless, I stayed in New Mexico for ten years, times getting stranger and stranger, until ultimately I was forced back to Tennessee, where I never have felt, and never will feel that I belong.
But what drew me to New Mexico and kept me there until after all my options had run out, was the voice of the land. I could feel it so strongly in those Black Mesas pictured above, or in the bosque are where I lived in my adobe apartment in Albuquerque's North Valley. I am one-sixteenth Cherokee, but I have no real contacts with Indians (or Native Americans if you prefer, but I don't) these days, or before New Mexico. But I was drawn to the lands where they lived; there was and I'm sure still a power in those lands, a presence, a huge warm and hauntity entity that I perceived on that first day driving into Santa Fe. Some people feel it, and some don't. Living in Albuquerque was a lot like living in any other city, but I could get on my Yamaha Virago 920 and out into the land from my townhouse in ten minutes, and hear those voices again and feel the connection with the land. It was a hauting and eternal time.
After the first law firm job expired, I worked for a time in a two-man firm whose founder had fled the Department of the Interior when Reagan came in, and took up Indian law by contract. Most of our clients were Indian school Boards, particularly Navajo. During one period that lasted a few months, I was assigned to work with the Governor of Acoma Pueblo, about sixty miles out of Albuquerque, codifying legislation for the Tribe. That was a strange time. The tribal offices were mostly deserted; there was only one nearby restaurant. Like other Pueblos, Acoma had a counsel or legislature and a Governor, to satisfy the BIA and whoever else holds the leash on their funding, but the real governing is done by traditional tribal forces, structure unseen as the ghosts in the mesa, but very real -- often the real ruler of the tribe was a brujo, and old man with a broom you might see around at night when you get ready to leave the office. Shadows of reality under the veneer of a falsely imposed and plastic structure. The feeling of all those days and weeks spent in that place will never leave me, like the experience of flying out into the parched crack land where we saw fit in our greed and power to put the Navajo, towns with no employer but the schools.
I never really developed any good personal relationships with any of the Indians. Their lives were depressing to me. They lived in the shattered remnants of their own culture, which our society had largely destroyed and replaced with the worst and lowest features of our own -- the worst food, the worst entertainment, a culture stripped of value. It seemed to me that there were two extremes of person. Most of them were living only the most shallow and ignorant existence, and yet there were people of extreme depth, whose roots in their largely past-tense culture remained deep, and whose education was due to their own efforts and innate drive and wisdom, not the affect of a culture where all pretend to be educated. These truly impressive and self-made people, embodying the wisdom of their own traditions and their own will, must have been like the people who made this country for our culture, a type gone from everywhere now that the madness has taken over all.
Several times in the last couple of years, I've heard music in my bedroom from a source I couldn't locate. Several times it took the form of a very, very long soft murmur that seemed to consist of human voices, in the rhythm of a tribal chant. On sleepless nights, I would hear this music for seeming hours on end. At first I thought it came through the wall (of a different room) from the other half of the duplex I live in, but when I went to that room, there was no sound. Obviously, it came from outside. But on at least two occasions, sleepless and curious, I went outside and walked all around the house; nothing -- no sound. Until I went back to the bedroom where the chanting continued unabated. It was always gone by morning.
The neighborhood where I live is a livable ghetto, a mostly White underclass area called "the Nations." I've never known, or even thought about the source of the name, until a few weeks ago, my friend Ezra mentioned that the reason for the name was that the area hosted, a long time ago, and population of Indians, and then Indian graveyards. It took weeks for this to come together for me. But now I think I know something about the source of the chanting.
I don't believe in souls, or in ghosts, as those terms are passed on to us; those are stories which grasp at but can't enclose a deeper reality, which is ineffable but which at any rate I feel no pressure to define. What I am learning, as my life enters this latest phase, is that experience is what it is. Who were are and what 'it' is are questions which, if asked to often, obscure the reality of the world. And part of that world, for me, is hearing these voices of the land.
Incidentally, a few months ago the kid who lived in the duplex behind me was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He is gone now, hospitalized somewhere I guess. But he was hearing voices through the wall, which he thought were me, mocking and taunting him. I understand this is common for paranoid schizophrenics, and it sounds like hell. The voices he heard weren't me, but who am I to say they were unreal? Me with my Indian chanting, and that huge feeling of Presence in certain land.
As I pursue my Zen practice, I have been taught and encouraged by my teachers to trust my own experience and to accept what I perceive clearly, even when I can't define it. And one benefit of continued practice is an enlargement of the sense of self (which is also paradoxically, the absence of self) that allows a perspective on the self as if from the outside; and I see that quite justifiably in the minds of those who are enmeshed in the normal grid of social consciousness, I may be quite mad in some ways. I have no desire for most of the things people spend their lives chasing -- wealth, family, and attachments. Some of my best friends aren't even real in any "objective" sense of the world.
But when I see where your mass consciousness has taken you, and me and all of us, to the brink of extinction or purifications, depending, I don't mind. I'm quite happy with a life that some of you may see as insane; and I wouldn't give up the live I've lived, the perceptions and the feelings I've had, for any of the world that you've been building in your heads all your lives.
Have a nice day, and try to experience it as it really is.
This is me in about 1985. Already teetering on the edge of civilization.