Back with a new post after a brief hiatus. I got back from a trip to New Mexico & before that I had been in a bit of a funk. This was the first real vacation I had had in awhile & right before I left, the anticipation was actually getting me down instead of being a ray of hope. I felt like the break would never come & couldn’t really believe we were going.
There are plenty of stories I could tell, but I’ll only be posting one today. So here goes. The weekend before Kurt & I left, I finally got The Letter. 3 months before, I had written to the LDS Church headquarters in Salt Lake City & began the process of terminating my membership with the church. I didn’t have much hope that the request would actually go through but I felt satisfied that I had taken that step. As fate or coincidence would have it, I had now gotten the brief final letter stating the wait was over.
The Letter felt like it meant everything & nothing all at the same time. Kurt asked me how it felt to lose something I had rebelled against for a good portion of my life. My answer was that I felt curiously numb. There was no relief; there was no pain, only periods of time. Here I had been a Mormon; here I was not. A statement made more difficult if one considered my definition of those times & the Church’s.
So, as we arrived in New Mexico, in many ways I felt stripped. Not only did I no longer have a religion, this trip was a number of firsts for me: first time traveling on a plane, first time traveling to the West, first time on a reservation. I was out of my element with most everything familiar behind me. The food, the people, the land, the poverty & the spirituality were all different from anything I had previously experienced. I was frequently overwhelmed & disoriented, yet I was glad for it.
There is an element of pilgrimage to Santa Fe. The desert is an unforgiving landscape that inspires fierce faiths. They clash & merge here: the traditions of the Native Americans, the dominant influence of Catholicism, the newer layer of New Age practice that attempts to equalize diverse thought. There were markers of faith everywhere. Murals on an overpass bridge depicted the Corn Dance. The cross was present everywhere—in stones strategically arranged on a hill, hung from trees, tattooed on the throat of an old Indian woman on the reservation. You could find a Zen center, a Carmelite nunnery & a pueblo all within a short driving distance of one another, on a road that’s been adopted as a beautification project by a coven of Wiccans.
Despite these new opportunities of belief, I was not moved to seek them out. I merely absorbed what was around me, filling the notebook I had brought & slowly exposing each frame on a roll of film. I had grown up so starved for iconography, that it created a fascination of devotional items. I even collected a few in the past: a rosary, a few saints’ medals, tarot cards, a necklace strung with pictures of Hindu gods & goddesses. But my interest rarely went deeper than the surface. If anything, the signs of belief present in Santa Fe represented a new part of my “collection”.
On the last day we were in the city, Kurt & I split up to explore the city on our own. As I walked through town, I eventually found myself in front of St. Francis Cathedral. I joined the rest of the tourists milling in the small courtyard before the church, looking at the statues, taking pictures of the façade. Eventually, I noticed a labyrinth inlaid in marble off to the side near a statue of St. Francis with wings. Not angel wings, with his arms as wings, like in the fairytale The Six Swans.
I decided to take a minute & walk it. I set everything I had on a bench: purse, camera, jacket & small bag of Indian jewelry I had just bought. I stood at the beginning & fidgeted for a minute, pulling my hair from behind my ears, running my hands over my face. Five minutes before noon, I started on the path.
As I walked, I suddenly felt aware in action & in thought. I tried to keep one foot in front of the other without stepping outside the lines which often caused my knees to bend awkwardly. I took deep breaths & tried to quiet the buzz of disconnected thoughts: what time I had to meet Kurt, the people we had seen on the reservation, my friends back home & the pricks of my reason asking me just what exactly I thought I was doing.
I couldn’t completely overcome the distraction of my thoughts or the other people moving, talking & arguing around me. I kept moving forward, becoming anxious as the curves of the maze became tighter, growing calmer as the way became clearer. A man with a dog walked diagonally through the labyrinth, loudly confirming to his family what it was. I walked on. The bells chimed noon & singing began to echo from inside the church. I walked on.
I was so absorbed in moving forward that I didn’t know I had reached the end until I almost stepped on the seal in the center. I stopped & looked at it for a moment: it consisted of a brass cross with 4 smaller crosses in each quadrant. The seal was covered in petals from flowers in the nearby beds.
All week I had seen crosses everywhere I looked in Santa Fe & had felt that awkward fascination that I have always felt. To be raised as a believer in God without any conventional symbol is a difficult thing. It instill in you a false pride that your belief is strong enough to be outside depiction & a sense of failure when you feel you don’t live up to that expectation. Civil reverence that respects the symbols others find faith in. Shame from realizing that what inspires so many leaves you feeling empty. Fear that since traditional symbol has no meaning for you, one day the beliefs you are meant to hold fast in your heart will be rendered meaningless as well through your own weakness.
I knew that all of these things had hid behind my fascination. But now, here at the center, I felt a stillness moving through me, something that urged me to brush the petals away & kept me from doing so at the same time. Unsure of what the moment meant & suddenly embarrassed, I looked away & circled the seal, making sure to touch my toe in each of the seven chambers around it. I followed the path back out, forcing myself not to hurry.
I can’t end this story well. By that I mean I’m unable to say to you that as a result of walking the labyrinth, I suddenly had a great epiphany or that I now have some definitive answer. I don’t. But what I did leave Santa Fe with, along with the souvenirs & collected thoughts I complied, was a small measure of peace & the memory of an experience that I try not disturb with my rational thought too often. I remember the anxiety of not know which direction I was going, but feeling the ground beneath my feet, the air in my lungs & the determination to keep walking forward in the path set before me. I can do nothing else but trust that it is there.