Sunday, August 16, 2015

The New Mexico Sky and Why You Can't Go Home Again

All the thunderstorms of summer stood back and paused as I went back to New Mexico for the first time in many years - the land where I was born and came of age. On my way to my 20th high school reunion, I was thinking about the people I needed so much to see and the way they had become a part of me, and I was thinking about the land - the way it had always left its mark on my soul - the mountains, the bright blue skies, the way the clouds would lay down their heavy shadows on the ground. 

These images that I captured on my camera from the window of the plane as we flew toward Albuquerque were so familiar.  As a child, I would fly across the Southwest by myself, and the shadows would cover the ground, and patches of light would come through, and I would feel these sparks from within even the deepest of my sorrow - these shards of light of infinite peace in the most center part of myself - in spite of all the problems that I had left on the ground - even if just for a couple of hours. 

Looking down on the ground was where I was nearer to the clouds, in between time zones, even outside of time, was where I could merge with God.  

I had a lot of unfinished business to take care of on this recent trip, messages that  I needed to say to convey, reconnecting that need to happen, places I needed to visit, things that needed closure.... There were people I needed to embrace, people I needed to say thank you to, things that had been left unsaid that needed to be said. 

The shadow of our plane moved across the desert ground on this land where I was born as our plane descended.  I thought about how our souls come into our bodies when we first come into this world - if we come from some outer stretch of the universe and descend, then our soul merges with our cells, our bones, and our DNA in the way a plane merges with the earth when it touches down on a runway.  I wondered if maybe this is how my soul first descended toward earth - over this desert landscape, with the dark blue of mountains on the horizon, and the light blue of the sky.   

This was that quintessential epic journey for me - the one where you go out in the world and become who you were meant to be in spite of your upbringing, or maybe because of it, and then you go and stand where you once stood and choose to make peace with everything you were ever at war with when you were young. 

This land is rich with Native American culture, it permeated our lives in a way that we didn't always realize - in a way that was often implicit.  It was in the rhythms that we could feel below our feet when we walked barefoot on the desert sand.  It was in the movement of the brown swelling water of the Rio Grande. In the early mornings and late afternoons of my youth, the all covering Father Sky would stretch over me every day I was alive like it was the only thing always willing to embrace me.  

In the distance is the mountain line that will always be a part of my memories of my youth.  That distinct line has become part of the landscape of my own soul.  

There is a life that some people create for themselves in this city - a life of sipping wine and spending hours on the golf course, and living in the right neighborhood.  Meanwhile, there are parts of this city where poverty means dirt floors and not enough to eat, and moments or even lifetimes of hopelessness. 

In making some kind of peace with this place, there were a few roads I needed to travel on, a few places I needed to stop by.  Heading up this road makes me think of a birthday party I had in elementary school at a house I lived in that was up this road - and how I keep a photo of that party tucked away, out of the light, in a photo box in the room in which I now sit and write, and how half the girls at that party are no longer alive on this earth. To the right of this road is a sidewalk though it's hidden almost entirely by the green plants that sprung up from the rains of July monsoon season - this is where I at one time walked with each of those girls who I have since lost, to go to the nearby park, or to go buy magazines with our allowance money at a nearby store... This road holds so much sorrow for me.  Clouds began to build in the distance with the promise of more rain, just like they always did.  Just like I remember. 

It's a city where too many people die too young, a city full of secrets that get kept for far too long, and a city with far too many addictions.  There is a darkness that falls on the ground each night in a way that is relentless, in a way that makes you wonder if the light will even come again in the morning. Darkness fell on the city just like I remember

Pink and lavender light bounces off the clouds in the foreground, while yellow and orange light covers the sky in the distance. Captured in this shot in the light of dusk, are hospitals, and churches, and a vintage motels, and it's hard to say which of these buildings have held the most weight from the stories of the human situation.    

I don't know what it is about this city, but its edges spill over with dichotomy, with juxtaposition.  It holds within it a light-drenched hope on the horizon and an enormous overbearing sorrow in it's dark alleys. 

I took these sunset photos from a posh roof-top hotel bar as I sat next to a table of movie stars and crew working on a local film.  Even in the cool breezes of the evening and the flicker of city lights slowly emerging, it was hard to stop thinking about how this renovated building was originally a mental hospital and how I remember going in it to visit a distant relative when I was a child.  

Even if you spend the whole second half of your life trying to take care of unfinished business, it seems there will always be something left undone, something that cannot be repaired in this lifetime, and for those situations that I may never be able to fix, I can only hope for grace.  

More fluorescent pink bounces off the lavender clouds and a pale blue sky.  If you look close enough, you can see the shape of a flying dove in the middle of the sky in pink.  Maybe it was a fleeting image of the grace that hangs over this city.  When I was a child I would pretend that the ground was the ocean and the lights, as they began to come on, were the boats floating on the water.  In spite of wishing I was someplace far from the desert as I grew up, I also knew that a profound beauty existed all around me, and that this was only the beginning - that there were many more places I belonged, and that I would soon enough no longer belong here.

"Child, child, have patience and belief, for life is many days, and each present hour will pass away. Son, son, you have been...furious and wild, filled with hatred and despair, and all the dark confusions of the soul - but so have we...You have stumbled on in darkness, you have been pulled in opposite directions, you have faltered, you have missed the way, but, child, this is the chronicle of the earth. And will grow desperate again before you come to evening, we who have stormed the ramparts of the furious earth and been hurled back, we who have been maddened by the unknowable and bitter mystery of love, we who have hungered after fame and savored all of life, the tumult, pain, and frenzy, and now sit quietly by our windows watching all that henceforth never more shall touch us..."

-Thomas Wolfe You Can't Go Home Again

(c) 2015 Writing and photography by Chloe Koffas - all rights reserved 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

A Letter to My Teenage Self From 20 Years in the Future

Dear Teenage Self,

This letter is to be read by you the day after you graduate from high school.  It is being sent to you from your older self in the future after you have just gone to your 20th reunion. Today (in 1995) your friends will take you to the airport and you will leave the place where you were born and grew up. You will look down on the desert ground as your plane ascends and your life will change forever.

You didn't get into some prestigious university, but that would have actually stood in the way of your calling - so it all works out for the absolute best.  You will end up transferring around to different schools until you are done with college, and you will do exactly what you need to do, so don't worry.  You don't have to do what everyone else is doing.

You came of age in a city that was stunningly beautiful with July monsoon thunderstorms and fluorescent pink sunsets, yet it is full of a dark and haunting and relentless undertow.  You got pulled into that undertow, but you made your way back to the surface.  This will be part of the reason you will be able to overcome enormous adversity in your life.  All the things that happened led you to something better, they were for a reason, they were to help you become the next thing you needed to become each time you needed to become something else.  Even the darkest things of your life eventually find their way to a place of redemption.

Get used to the feeling that there are more questions than answers.  Get used to the feeling that you aren't completely at home in this world.  In all your years on this planet, something deep within will continue an echo that you were meant for a world beyond much better than this one.  In the meantime, through the decades, you'll have to make the most of your surroundings.  Through every Death Valley that you travel, always remember the way the New Mexico summer rain dotted the desert sand and each small cactus would drink up the water.  In your life there will be many droughts.

You were blessed with good friends in your growing up years who will find again even when you have lost touch for a while.  They will be there to help you when you de-rail, to bring you back to the real you when you get swayed by something out in the world that doesn't have your best interests in mind.

Work hard and try not to leave things unfinished with people - while growing up seemed to take an eternity, the years of adulthood, and of life, somehow are very short.

You will find that you are much braver than you thought you were.  You will find a way to use your voice.  You will rise beyond your circumstances.  You always did.  You will find a way to cut ties with people who do not respect you, and once you work through your anger, believe it or not, you will find ways to move on from all the disappointment you experienced in your youth.

Here is the most important thing: listening to your heart instead of your head.  The heart, the core of the heart, is where God speaks, the head is where ego speaks, and within your mind, your deepest anxieties are the echos of people telling you how to live your life even though they don't know how to live their own.

Eventually, people will stop telling you how to live your life.

You will find an extraordinary connection to your generation that you will not have enough context to see until you are much older.  You will realize that a lot of the suffering you endured in your younger years was not all that uncommon - all the things you went through were the things that many people went through - this will help you to no longer feel sorry for yourself, all of that energy will eventually go toward using your own story to help others.

It never gets easy, but it does get easier.  In every dusk that seems darker than it should, in every night that seems longer than it should, the sun will rise - it always did, it always does.

You find love, eventually.  You have a daughter who is just as strong-willed as you are and that is what will give you the confidence to know that she will also make it in this world.

Through long term relationships, and parenting, and by years of quiet observation, you will begin to see people differently.  You will start to see that people that you viewed as gods while you were young, were really just fragile and even broken, and that is why you will start out in life angry, and stay deeply angry for a long time, but eventually you will end up forgiving.  You will realize that even though there were people in your life that were monsters became that way because of the monsters in their own lives.

You are about to put your cap and gown into its storage box.  You are tired because you just walked out of your graduation party at 2am and felt like you are in free fall because everything that was ever familiar to you is now going away. But it is those moments of feeling completely lost, that if you reach to the depths, you will know what to do, and you will end up exactly where you are supposed to be.  So don't worry so much, and hold your ground, and tune in to the deepest parts of your heart.

U2 will still be your favorite band all these years later, and to quote lyrics from a song that you will not hear for twenty years,

"Every breaking wave on the shore tells the next one there'll be one more."

Leave your mark on the shore, with both hands.

 -From your Thirty-Something Self

(c) 2015 Writing and photography by Chloe Koffas - all rights reserved