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Good Letters

20110603-sun-and-shade-in-santa-feLast summer we revisited Santa Fe and the Glen Workshop, an annual pilgrimage of sorts, searching for renewal of body and soul. In pondering my faith, I sometimes ask myself, “Am I building on a rock, or on a slippery beach that reconfigures itself every time the tide changes?”

Maybe something in between—sandstone, friable and beautifully inscribed by water and weather, yet ground away under my restless feet and the sculpting of centuries, eons.

A free day. On the drive John and I took to the Bandelier National Monument, I couldn’t escape the overpowering sense of time and its work on the aged New Mexican landscape. So many layers of sedimentation, like fossilized club sandwiches, with contrasting strata laid down eons ago at odd angles.

Some of the rocks, the remnants of volcanic tuff, pitted with holes like Swiss cheese, natural dwelling places that the ancient peoples took advantage of for warmth or refuge. Strange, uplifted red rocks that rise from the bluffs, icons like ancient animals scrubbed to their elemental shapes by erosion.

And we, tiny sparks, shivering stars in the long night of history, casually cruising along highways that follow the tracks of those ancients, themselves momentary, sparks in that same long darkness.

Our little flashing eyes absorb these evidences and move on with barely a thought except to comment on the strangeness of the ancient landscape. We are small animals whose uniqueness comes from mobility and the ability to reflect on our own insignificance.

Again and again I’m reminded of my own brevity, my peripheral value to the universe. We think the human race has power to change the world, but we have little compared to the volcanic eruptions and the mighty heaves of a hidden giant who can lift a mountain like a chunk of cheese in the hand.

And the sky! The clouds, such colossal, melodramatic structures of moisture carved by wind and rising draughts of air. Here in New Mexico they start around mid-day as small and innocent wisps, or lenticular shapes like caps on the hills, or develop into cirrus, before they begin to gain authority in brilliant white cumuli and nimbi.

Never the same configurations, they seem endlessly creative, the shadings of white and grey and the rounded, billowing outlines of their ascent, like the sails of great ships, astound me as they build to blackness until their fingers of dark rain swoop down in shafts and drown the land, blotting out the shapes of the mountains with angled grey veils (Georgia O’Keeffe painted it so vividly).

All the little dry gullies respond with liquid gurgles, and then suddenly the sun strikes through and gilds everything—the sagebrush achieves a neon green, the cottonwood trees breathe fire.

And later that night, the enormous clarity of dark, the resolute whiteness of stars, and the whole universe holding its breath. I’m exhausted from prolonged astonishment.

Yet this is so good for the human soul. This reduces us to what we are—mere insects or grains of sand in the scope of our ancient earth, with only a morsel of intelligence and comprehension, yet capable of wonder and a kind of ecstasy at such phenomena.

How to retain this bliss, this euphoria? It has evaporated almost as soon as it has overwhelmed us.

In our arrogance, we like to think in terms of control and invention and power. But we are at the mercy of elements above and beyond us that can flick us and our belongings into oblivion in a tornado of violence beyond our control. And we are conscious of the brevity of life.

Forgetfulness—the throbbing fear of the elderly. We develop our little systems to deal with it: Always leave your car keys hanging on the hook beside the door into the garage. Always put your sunglasses in the same pocket in your purse. Always take your pills, all fifteen of them, first thing when you get up. And all the other meds, when you go to bed.

Remember to answer that e-mail. Remember to pay the bills before the due date. Make that return phone call. Take your prayer book to church. Wash and dry those jeans that you plan to wear tomorrow on your trip. Put your boarding pass where you can get at it easily.

This morning, in the St. John’s College dorm, named after Euterpe, one of the Greek muses (her name means delight, and she’s the goddess of music, song and dance, in stunning contrast to my utilitarian dorm room) I went down the hall to shower, fully equipped (I thought) to get dressed for the day.

After showering I found I’d forgotten my towel, and had to streak, naked, back to my little cell, a trail of drops pooling on the linoleum, and leaving my clothes behind on the bathroom hook so I had to go back again. With events like these, castigating one’s self doesn’t help. It just leads to anxiety about the next time!

The knife edge between shade and blaze, I feel it on my skin as I step from the porch onto the gravelly trail, here in Santa Fe, especially on a cloudless blue day like today. We’re closer to the sun, at 7500 feet. I can be chilled or burned with no intermediate sensation.

I sense the shadow of perceived inadequacy coloring its darkest corners. Yet I can step into the sun of a good day, a tested friendship, the idea for a new poem, with exhilaration. I am a victim of volatility, not truly bi-polar, yet subject to highs and lows.

I’m a reactive chemical, quick to respond to flux, to the ups and downs, the darks and brights of the personality sensitive to changes. In company with most artists.

I’m energized by multiple friends, yet right now I am peopled-out, hungry for quiet. So many thoughts to sort out, like the fibers in a tangled tassel. There are a lot of intense people here at The Glen.

Intensity often seems to go with great giftedness. The level of intellectual and professional conversation is high, and one feels an obligation to always respond in kind.

It’s a relief to return to my little monastic cell of a dorm room and close the door and talk to my lap top, or just sit and breathe. The window is open. I smell the tang of the pine trees outside. A silky shawl of air flows in. It is the blessing of Grace.

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Written by: Luci Shaw

Luci Shaw, a poet and essayist, is author of over 30 books. Her most recent book of poems is Harvesting Fog (Pinyon Press, 2010). For further information, visit

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