all the books i read in new mexico

A photo posted by Justin Messina (@sirmessina) on

photo: justin

I went to the desert for six days to drive around with my boyfriend and go to my brother’s wedding—brother in love, not blood, but you know what I mean.

I haven’t been to the desert in a long time—different boyfriend, different life—and I forgot, I really did, how big the sky can be, how red the earth, how open the world.

The last time I was in the desert I wasn’t thinking much about its history. But on this trip the dirt smelled like blood. The desert stories that matter, that get under your skin, are about survival, resistance, secrets, love. On the Taos Pueblo, which you can tour with a guide—in our case, a thorn-sharp young woman who detailed hundreds of years of atrocities committed against her family in a calm and affectless monotone—I went into the chapel, where the Virgin is dressed in different colors according to the seasons, where the altar is heaped with corn, and where Jesus is largely incidental. My friend in New York went into surgery at the literal moment I knelt before the altar and lit a candle, thinking about grace. Of subverting colonization even while living under it; of taking the goddesses of the oppressor and making them over into your own. I am not the only one, it turns out, who sees witches and earth mothers everywhere in the religion I was raised in. All those fathers, oblivious to the fertile power of resistance. “Do your people have your own name for Taos Mountain?” another tour guest asked our guide, his skin, like mine, pinking from white to rose-flushed in the hot desert sun.

“Yes,” she said. And then she didn’t say anything else.

We drove to Taos and Santa Fe and the Very Large Array and Albuquerque; we drove to the Canyon de Chelly and up and down the Navajo Nation. We drove up a mountain and watched our friends get married on the groom’s uncle’s land, scrappy dogs eyeballing the picnic tables sagging under the weight of seven different kinds of meat (the kinds I ate: pork, venison, mutton, elk), the smoke from the ceremonial fire rising up into a bowl of blue sky upended over a field of wildflowers. I had been warned previously to introduce myself to the elders present but the elders present, resigned by this point to the well-meaning ineptitude of their white guests, introduced themselves to me first. We all ate ceremonial cornmeal mush out of a basket. The groom’s uncle, a medicine man, presided over the ceremony. “White people don’t know very much about surviving,” he said cheerfully to the bride. “But now you’re part of our family. We’ll teach you what to do.” After the ceremony, after we’d several of us cried discreetly, after we’d loaded our plates with green chile stew and meat and squash and cornmeal and frybread and salad and fruit and roasted chilies and potatoes with Spam and potatoes roasted with carrots and tortillas and gravy, after we’d settled under the tents the groom’s family had set up, a thunderstorm rolled in out of nowhere and the heavens split open—I mean really open, apocalypse open, lightning striking the earth five feet away and the cracking boom of thunder rending the sky asunder directly overhead open, sheets of rain turning to hailstones the size of gravel open, the meadow flooding, people shrieking and laughing and huddling under blankets and trying to rescue their food and making ponchos out of garbage bags. Twenty minutes later the storm was over and the sun came out and we had cake. After the storm, the children stopped being shy.

I’m not done writing for the internet but I’m done writing about pain. For a while, maybe for good. Not done living it, not done witnessing it, but done writing about it. I’m tired. I don’t want to burn alive in public anymore; I want to be funny and mean instead, funny and grumpy, funny and exasperated. Unassailable. More than the sum of my scars. I read A Little Life on this trip, which I couldn’t put down and now can’t really remember, other than that some of the suffering was so operatic I started laughing (“just how many pedophile priests can you really meet in one lifetime,” observed a friend), and I brought a bunch of other books but I was too busy driving around and tramping about in the desert and singing along to AM Christian radio in the middle of nowhere to read them. My body is back at work now but my heart’s still out there dreaming. Most nights it was too cloudy to see any stars. Which, if you ask me, is as good a reason as any to go back.