Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Getting Away

May 10, 2011

It has long been observed that we can travel just about anywhere in America and imagine that we are anywhere else. I remember the first time I went to a meeting in Dallas near a large shopping center not far from the airport. I might well have stayed in Northern Virginia, which apart from Alexandria and parts of Arlington always seemed to me to be one big suburban sprawl. Not terrible. Just not terribly distinctive. Those who work to conserve, preserve and restore historic buildings have my vote as do those who, like the Midtown Alliance in Atlanta, seek to develop livable areas of genuine character.

I found myself thinking about distinctive places to live during a recent visit to New Mexico. I stayed just outside Santa Fe at a place that was slightly run down in some respects called Bishop’s Lodge. (See here for a photograph of the chapel.)The Roman Catholic diocese of new Mexico was established officially in 1853 with Jean Baptiste Lamy as its bishop. Later he bought a plot of land outside Santa Fe where he had began building St. Francis’ Cathedral and built a small retreat chapel and dwelling. Those are still there in the midst of the severe, almost desert-like and inhospitable landscape.

I was able to drive to Bandelier national Monument, a park around the ancient ruins of people who lived in small communities and hillside dwellings that included caves and were often three stories high. The ruins have been preserved there and in one or two cases, restored. Apparently when Francisco Vasques de Coronado led an expedition from Mexico, all he found were these fortified Indian villages which he called ‘pueblos’ or town. These towns then gave their name to the Pueblo people who still live in various pueblos in the area and who honor the spirits of their ancestors who dwell in Bandelier and elsewhere.

It was really good to be ‘away’, dislocated, (with poor cell phone reception from any carrier). There is something about being in a place that is clearly ‘different’ from whatever is our norm that helps allow new perspective. Such a move need not be geographic, although that helps me. It could just as easily be a genuine place of retreat as it must have been for Bishop Lamy, a place with different rhythms of life from whatever is our norm and so a place in which we can begin to see ourselves and our world in anew way, remembering what is of true and ultimate importance.


Terry Johnson said...

A good observation. My friends and I have developed a term for the non-descript, ubiquitous suburban landscapes that seem to be overtaking so many communities with their cookie-cutter shopping centers anchored by the usual big-box retailers and peppered by franchise eateries and strip malls populated by nail salons: 'Generica.'

It reminds me of a chapter from a book I read as a child, A Wrinkle in Time, in which the protagonist and her friends must travel to a nightmarish planet ruled by a single giant, evil brain in order to rescue her father. It is a planet where individuality does not exist, and every neighborhood, town and city is indistinguishable from any other neighborhood, town or city.

Across our entire country our communities seem to be losing their uniqueness. It's a very gradual and insidious phenomenon, but very real, and we become numb and indifferent to it until we travel to a place that is still unique and different enough to jar our awareness.

Terry Johnson

Nell NZ said...

For the last few years my husband, sons and I have 'gotten away' to NZ's central plateau, a desert landscape, and our first house in a small town there. It is a place surrounded by three volcanic mountains, marked by walking trails and in winter, filled with ski people as well as everyday folk. Here especially, away from the city, I realise I am not a native; I exist in translation, a transplant from another place, or other places filled with people long gone, friends, monks, and distant family. What amalgam are we creating here? Our sons, girlfriends, young brother and a visiting cousin crossed one of these mountains just before Easter: a pilgrimmage, as all our years in New Zealand have been. Lately, the homestead has changed. The new house is larger, relocated from another town like us; settling in, a welcoming grey ghost. I drive in by moonlight, grateful, known.

Blessings, Geoffrey --
Nancy Barnard Starr+

Nell NZ said...

A thoughtful essay. Where we live, in the north island of New Zealand, there are certain landscapes that have a gravitational pull, that remind us of home or something even deeper. A place of belonging, of community, and the longing for connection. For eight years we have gone down to NZ's central plateau, home to three mountains and quiet, determined people. This is not like the hills of our WV and NJ childhoods, but it is unspoiled, a sacred place. Here we are creating memories out of the newness of our experience, and our walking. (The Maori have a word for the place that tugs at one's soul -- turangiwaiwai, a place to stand.) Just before Easter our three sons, two girlfriends and their young British-American cousin (also our godson), trekked up and safely down Mt Tongariro. They stayed overnight in a small hut, close to the canopy of heaven. We have been there, too. It is tempting to call on a cell phone from the mountaintop (no coverage). On one of these pilgrimmages, I've met folks engaged in morning prayer, and felt that tug toward God, our home, who seems so accessible up there. Blessings, all.