08 July 2012

Borderlands: Storms at the Gates of Heaven, Santa Fe

Even setting aside my tenure in Chicago, I have never lived quite in the center of any place. My childhood home was an easy walk to the next town over, and at college, in Santa Fe, you ran out of road and city as soon as you walked out the door.

Or climbed out the window of your dorm. I did this a lot in the first dorm I lived in, making full use of the fact that the floor was sunk a couple of feet below the earth. Climbing back in once caused me a little trouble: a couple of security guards had been watching me, and there was a firm knock on my door a few moments later. I dug out my ID to prove I wasn't an intruder, and eventually they went away, eyebrows raised, writing something in their log book.

This seemed like maybe a bad sign for my task of presenting myself as well-adjusted and definitely not crazy. In my first weeks at school I often had the sense of being a trespasser in a realm that was too warm and naive to cast the proper suspicion my way. Though plenty of space opened up around me later, on first meeting the girls in my floor charitably assumed that we'd all be good friends. So the evenings were well-lit and full: gathering around as one of the guitarists played and sang earnestly (all of them quicker-fingered and sweeter-voiced than I; always I've been surrounded by more talented people but kept banging my drum anyway), drinking tea, watching movies.

I recall sitting down at my desk one evening and noting an inkling of distress at this wholesome good cheer that was subsuming me. Could I really feel anything like nostalgia for the mostly awful summer I'd just left behind—filling out one doomed job application after another, fighting with my family, taking long, heavy-hearted walks at evening to force my body into sleep?

I went out into the twilight and down into the red arroyo. The late-summer air had a broody weight. There was always a strange intensity to dusks in the stormy season there. Everything was dim, but somehow still sharply outlined, the sky a bright gray. It seemed that just beyond the semi-translucent dome of it was shining a powerful, cold silver light. The landscape was more austere than the woods I'd similarly wandered in Michigan; before I left, an older friend correctly predicted that I'd love the enormous skies but miss the deep forest. The number of native species seemed charmingly countable, set down with a Noah's Ark–like comprehensibility: piƱon, aspen, sage, pine, lavender, jackrabbit, mule deer, horned toad, whiptail lizard, rock squirrel, chipmunk, raven, scrub jay, western tanager, sparrow, canyon towhee. And coyotes, rarely seen but heard nearly every night, singing a song that was alternately otherworldly and mockingly familiar—some nights you couldn't tell at first whether the baying came from them or a group of guys playing beer pong across campus.

As I walked through scrub brush in the vivid dusk, I came up an incline and onto a dirt road. A large bank of loose earth sat nearby, preparation for or result from some building project. I scrambled to the top and stood. Lightning took the landscape soundlessly in its grip a couple of times; I began to feel charged. Potentiality accumulated. Not far away, one coyote came out of the bushes, stopped just long enough to be fully seen, and went on its way into cover again. I felt the itchy sense of safety slip from me, letting a rawer skin breathe.

The other day, in a string of hundred-degree afternoons, a storm suddenly sent its heralds running before it. Wind made the trees that are all we can see from the front windows in summer writhe; dark patches blossomed overhead. I went out right away with the dog, who stalked plastic bags creeping like groundhogs across the road and romped after a styrofoam cup caught in a cyclone of dead leaves.

Storms have always made me giddy, too. Something is breathed into me that feels like a little bit of extra intelligence and extra capacity for delight. Every city I've lived in has seen me practically skipping through a downpour, smiling foolishly, each breath an interrupted laugh. (A storm's a good way to produce this feeling, but not the only one; as a young and religious child I connected it with the presence of God and the words "in a state of grace," despite not knowing quite what anyone else meant by that.)

We went past St. Gertrude's, an enormous Gothic church I'd been angling to get a glance inside since moving to the neighborhood. Now it was finally open, the immense wooden doors and the bottom panes of the stained-glass windows propped open to let in the rush of cool air. The service must have let out a while before: only a couple of clergy stood talking together in a far corner. It was precisely as I would have hoped: all white with gilded edges and lacy bits of stonework, severe arches traversing vaulted ceilings.

All in all, a place to temper the warmth of community with the chill of the divine. I like a line in David Byrne's "The Gates of Heaven:" An angel's breath is like the desert wind.  Even when I was religious or still trying to be, I never had any use for the cozier side of churchgoing. You can socialize anywhere. Why distract from the rare presence of the one enormous thing?

The storm never touched down, that evening in Santa Fe or the other day here. Eventually I must have climbed back up the arroyo and into my window, speaking to no one, and kept reproducing the lightning and coyote in my mind as I lay down to sleep. By the time I rounded the block in Chicago, the few drops of rain I'd caught had already been sucked from my skin back into the air. The loan period was up. I went back in.


  1. I marvel at this micro-cluster of posts. Have you had a sudden burst of creative energy? My mind might self-destruct if I am given the pleasure of reading more than one of these a week!

  2. Aw thanks! Part extra creative energy, I suppose, but mostly just having the time to finish up a couple of pieces I'd had in the hopper.

  3. I really dig this one! chills!