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You all know how this sort of entry begins: I was poking around the Internet looking for a public domain book to read

..and I found the first few pages of The Professor’s House by Willa Cather. It grabbed my interest, but it was late at night, so I made a mental note to see if the library had it.

And yes, it did.

Last night I settled down with it, and revisited, for the first time in a long time, that wonderful – wonderful – feeling of having a real book in hand and thinking, I’m going to read this tonight.  As in: read from beginning to end, start and finish, and long after everyone has gone to sleep, I’ll be in dialogue with an intelligent companion, listening to her story.

It is not a long book, but even so, I almost didn’t finish it – I got quite tired at the end, but did manage it, although the next day (today) I did have to refresh my memory with the last "amy welborn"few pages as to how it all came out.

It’s a bit of an odd book. It seems a touch cobbled together, which, in a way, it was, considering one element of the story took shape in Cather’s mind long before the framing story. The description on the cover of the edition I got from the library says The story of a cloistered scholar’s discover of his own soul through contact with the world of reality.

Well, okay. Sort of.

I really hate summarizing plots, so I will let someone else do that part of it. From Goodreads:

On the eve of his move to a new, more desirable residence, Professor Godfrey St. Peter finds himself in the shabby study of his former home. Surrounded by the comforting, familiar sights of his past, he surveys his life and the people he has loved — his wife Lillian, his daughters, and Tom Outland, his most outstanding student and once, his son-in-law to be. Enigmatic and courageous—and a tragic victim of the Great War — Tom has remained a source of inspiration to the professor. But he has also left behind him a troubling legacy which has brought betrayal and fracture to the women he loves most.

I experienced this novel as a meditation – a meditation on the relationship between scientific understanding, technological development and the rest of life. A meditation on the purpose of our life’s activities. It has a touch of idealized romanticism that almost makes it veer off-course, but not quite. The characters do not quite work as one-hundred percent realized human beings – they all seem to stand for something more than exist in the real world, but I found Cather’s writing powerful enough, especially in descriptions of landscape and the tenacity with which she excavates the professor’s inner life  – to let it go.

What I saw here were characters who have lost touch with the spiritual, not in the sense that they have lost faith mediated by religious institutions, but simply in that they are materialists: they have forgotten that life on earth and the earth itself are more than what our senses tell us.  We know more about how it all works and we can manipulate it with great efficiency and profit from what we do with the things of the earth, but none of that connects us with what is most real.

And although Cather herself was not Catholic, it is, as it usually is for her, Catholicism that offers the alternative. The rather mysterious inspiration for much of what happens, whom we know died in the Great War before the events of the novel commence, is Tom Outland, orphaned as a young man in  the Southwest. He is taken care of by a kind family, works hard for a railroad company, then has a profound spiritual epiphany out in the wilderness, when he encounters the remnants of ancient civilizations in a fictional place that was inspired by the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. That initially inchoate sensibility is then helped along and given form by a Belgian missionary priests who takes Tom under his wing and teaches him, simply Latin, the knowledge of which – and the readings in Virgil and so on he has done – are all he takes with him when he shows up at the professor’s house.

Even more importantly, I think, is the character of Augusta. She is a German seamstress who shares the attic space in the professor’s old house. She sews for the family during the day, and her patterns and dress form keep the professor company at night while he works there, his preferred space to that more formal study down in the family home. She is a sensible, forthright woman, and a Catholic.

The two of them have an understanding. The novel begins with the two of them bantering, and ends with them in the same room, one having rescued the other. They have both done good work in that room, with all of its flaws, a room that was less than ideal for both of them. What happens in between the first chapter and the final is the end of one stage of life, a recognition of its goodness and its limitations and a hint of how to move forward. For the professor, the Catholic seamstress represents a way:

If he had thought of Augusta sooner, he would have got up from the couch sooner. Her image would have at once suggested the proper action.

It is a bit of a challenge to unpack that without revealing what incident precedes it, and I actually saw it coming from the beginning…call it Chekov’s gas heater…but I don’t want to spoil it too much, in case you are moved to read the novel. The point is that nothing else in his life, not his loving family, not his successful career, prompted him to dig down and keep living – except for Augusta, sitting there with her prayer book.

The professor has come to a point in his life in which nothing in the present really engages him. He’s done. But, that glimmer:

There was still Augusta, however; a world full of Augustas, with whom one was outward bound.

I hasten to add that this is not romantic – Augusta functions as a symbol of the spiritual reality of life, a reality that is not about dreams or phantasms, but about the spiritual dimension of life – any life, even one spent stitching drapes, tending to a home, and faithfully, quietly, going to Mass.

The professor is changed. He’s not in ecstasy, he’s not George in It’s a Wonderful Life. He just knows something, he knows something real, and “At least, he felt the ground under his feet.”

There are “plot points” that aren’t wrapped up. There’s not a lot of resolution here. But it’s a book that gave me quite a bit to think about as Cather roams through the professor’s consciousness, and then with him and the other characters through the upper Midwest, Europe and the Southwest. And there’s this, which you might appreciate – it’s from one of the professor’s lectures:

I don’t myself think much of science as a phase of human development. It has given us a lot of ingenious toys; they take our attention away from the real problems, of course, and since the problems are insoluble, I suppose we ought to be grateful for distraction. But the fact is, the human mind, the individual mind, has always been made more interesting by dwelling on the old riddles, even if it makes nothing of them. Science hasn’t given us any new amazements, except of the superficial kind we get from witnessing dexterity and sleight-of-hand. It hasn’t given us any richer pleasures, as the Renaissance did, nor any new sins-not one! Indeed, it takes our old ones away. It’s the laboratory, not the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world. You’ll agree there is not much thrill about a physiological sin. We were better off when even the prosaic matter of taking nourishment could have the magnificence of a sin. I don’t think you help people by making their conduct of no importance-you impoverish them. As long as every man and woman who crowded into the cathedrals on Easter Sunday was a principal in a gorgeous drama with God, glittering angels on one side and the shadows of evil coming and going on the other, life was a rich thing. The king and the beggar had the same chance at miracles and great temptations and revelations. And that’s what makes men happy, believing in the mystery and importance of their own little individual lives. It makes us happy to surround our creature needs and bodily instincts with as much pomp and circumstance as possible. Art and religion (they are the same thing, in the end, of course) have given man the only happiness he has ever had.

 

 

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I’ve been writing about our New Mexico trip over at Booked.

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Opera House in Cerrillos, New Mexico

and…here’s an interview I did for the “Waiting to Board” feature at the Cheap Flights website!

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As I mentioned below, one of the weird and stupid reasons New Mexico popped into my head as a vacation destination was Breaking Bad. 

(A 2-year old blog post from the midst of my initial immersion in the series.)

I had another link to New Mexico: my aunt – my father’s younger sister, lived most of her adult life there.  We had visited once, probably when we "amy welborn"lived in Lubbock, so when I was around 3 or 4.   I swear, the only thing I remember – and I do remember it – was the decorative concrete blocks that made their carport wall.  For some reason, the look and texture of that stuck , and up to this trip, if you said the word, “Albuquerque,”  that’s the background image that floated through my brain.

The blocks evoke more, too.  Mixed up there with Albuquerque, they evoke “hot,” “dry,” the early sixties, and going on trips in big, heavy cars.

Quite a bit.

But that was it.  They had moved to Clovis a while back, and then my uncle died, and then two years ago – a year before my dad, her brother, my aunt died.

So no family called me there any more. Just the landscape, the history and culture, the food, and, yeah, Breaking Bad. 

I didn’t take us out of our way to see any Breaking Bad sites.  Because this is the world of the Internet, and people are crazy, there are, of course, detailed maps of shooting locations – for every scene – of the show, which is completely shot in and around Albuquerque (one of the reasons it is one of the more expensive shows on television: it’s all shot on location.)

So, as we wandered the city last Thursday, I checked in at a few places that were on our routes.

The hotel where we stayed is near the airport (pardon me…Sunport) and hence, just a mile or so south of UNM – and this duplex is very close – it’s the duplex where Walt’s former student and current meth cooking partner lived, found his girlfriend Jane, and where…really bad things happened, one of which Jesse still doesn’t know about, and when he finds out…well.

Jesse's duplex from "Breaking Bad"

Jesse and Jane’s Duplex of Death

By the way, you may be wondering what Breaking Bad is about.  It’s about sin. It’s about why not do..whatever..if there are no apparent consequences.  It’s about those consequences, which are not so illusory after all.  And at the core of it, it’s about the perversion of the teacher-student relationship, about what Mr. White does to Jesse Pinkman. It’s an intense, fascinating and sobering hint of creative process to know that the original intention was to kill Jesse off during the first season – I can’t imagine what the show would be like without him.  Not just because Aaron Paul is superb and the character provides an odd sort of moral core, but because, as I said, that relationship reveals the most about the corrosion of Walter White’s soul – more than his relationship with his family, more than his relationship with his “customers” whose lives are destroyed by his “product,” whom he never seems to think twice about.  Jesse Pinkman is all of them, in one wiry, wide-eyed, nervous package.

Okay. Then it was east to the Sandia Crest Tram.  The Schrader’s house is right on the way, with the mountain in the background.  Very nice neighborhood.

Schrader's House

Hank and Marie’s Purple Palace, on the slopes of Sandia Mountains.

(Hank and Marie Shrader- Walter White’s brother and sister-in-law (his wife’s sister) – Hank is a DEA agent whose presence in Walt’s life was partially responsible for planting the notion of cooking meth in his head at the beginning…and who, we can be sure, will be part of the end of it.)

One the way back from the tram to the Old Town area, we could stop at the White’s house.

Walter White's House from Breaking Bad

The White’s house. No pizza on roof.

Saul Goodman’s office – where the Hooligan’s sign is – is in a strip mall, a little more than a half mile from the White’s, which surprised me.

Better call Saul!

Then, after Old Town, Tuco’s HQ.

Tuco's HQ

Tuco's HQ from Breaking BAd

Looking away from Tuco’s HQ to downtown. No junkies in sight.

I had wanted to go to the car wash and Los Pollos Hermanos (which is a branch of a local chain called Twister’s), but they were out of the way – well, I don’t think the car wash was, but by the time I figured that out, we were on the other side of town, and were going to to try to hit the Petroglyph National Monument (failed- dust and then rainstorm came up).

It was all quite fascinating to me, the chance to compare reality to the unreality of what ends up on the screen.  I’ve noticed before, when I’ve seen, for example, television sets in person, how smaller everything appears, how less shiny and perfect.  Same way with these Breaking Bad landmarks. Most startling was Tuco’s HQ, which is not, as it turns out, a ratty run-down office building in  a slum with junkies and hoods peopling the sidewalk, but rather a coffeeshop just a quiet block away from downtown.

The magic of television.

(These pics on my Pinterest board)

Something similar – but different – happened north of this, in Rancho de Taos.

This image is almost iconic.

Not by Ansel Adams

People come from far away to paint, draw, and photograph the back – not the front, just the back – of S. Francisco de Asis church.  Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keefe being the most well known, of course.  It is the lines, I’m told.  And they are striking.

So the day we took the High Road to Taos and were just wandering around up there, I made a point to look for this church, to see it for myself.  From all the various renderings of it, I had somehow come to think that the structure was located in an open space somewhere  – perhaps on a hill, just off a side road, with nothing else around.

Which is why, despite the GPS on my phone, I couldn’t find it at first.  It kept taking me to a rather congested area, and I kept thinking, “it’s not here. Can’t be. There are too many other buildings – I know it’s in open space.”

But it’s not at all.  Yes, there is a small plaza surrounding it, but it’s smack in the middle of a lot of other structures lining a busy state highway.

S. Francisco de Asis in Taos

What I have been thinking about since seeing all this has concerned the process of making art of any kind.  When I stand,  myself, in person, in front of Jesse’s Duplex of Death or the White’s house or Tuco’s lair, I see all sorts of things.  I see the buildings themselves, I see the houses next door, the streets behind and in front, I see the big metal neighborhood mailbox right up against the porch.  But when I see these same places on television or on a photographic print or canvas, all of those other things disappear, and not just because they’ve been edited out or covered up.  That is certainly part of it, but it’s also because they eye of the artist directs my eyes to what he wants me to see.  He is telling this story and he is using this setting to tell it in his way, and so at the moment, that’s what I see.

My greatest struggle as a writer is settling on a story to tell.  I start on anything, and my mind immediately starts traveling down other possible roads, because I can see all of them, they all appear interesting and suggestive, and I find it a huge challenge to settle on one moment in one spot and direct my energies to excavating the truth waiting to be revealed there, rather than being fearful that if I don’t take in all that’s in the periphery, I will miss something, leave something out.

One of the most surprising Breaking Bad-related points about Albuquerque was the landscape.   The visual perspective is (outside of the city)  overwhelmingly flat desert with mountains in the far distance.  It is where Walt and Jesse go to cook.  It is where they run, drive, escape – rattling around on dirt paths carved through scrubby desert plains.

I was amazed to see that the city of Albuquerque is dominated by a mountain.  The Sandia mountains loom to the east, and in fact, border the city.  There are enormous peaks which, especially on the other side, turn almost Alpine.  For decades, people have skied these mountains.  On the day we were there, it was misty, damp and sixty degrees on top.

I thought…now there’s a choice. 

The choice was to situate the show looking west and south, to place the story in the context of scrub, desert, rocks, dust and only distant dark mountains.  How would the narrative and sensibilities been different if, instead of the desert, the forested mountain, with its crags, recesses, rockfaces, bears and coolness, had provided the primary visual setting?

I’m not arguing – at all – with the decision to look east and south to the desert, to Mexico – but just as seeing those houses, so much dingier and smaller in real life, just as seeing S. Francisco, so hemmed in by business and noise – that mountain dominating the city in a way that I would never have known from just absorbing Vince Gilligan’s narrative of the story he’s telling in that place – it made clear to me that there’s nothing to be afraid of in clearing out the frame.  In the anxiety to take it all in, you end up taking in nothing.  You’ve got to choose what to see and tell, and be brave about it, or else no one ends up seeing anything at all.

After all, what is it I remembered about Albuquerque? Was it everything?
"amy welborn"

Maybe.

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The last night of what has been a fascinating vacation. (UPDATE: Actually, as I finish it …the last morning. Flight leaves in a couple of hours. UPDATE: Well, none of that worked. So finishing at home.) Random notes that won’t be fitting in over at Booked.

— 1 —

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Will probably end up in a frame.

There always seems to be a dog. One always shows up at our rentals. This one – the small beagle-type animal in the lower center-left – was named Dot and lived across the road. But every time she’d hear someone emerge from “our” house,across she would dart and scamper up the rocks with whoever was climbing. I can’t decide if it’s a sign that we should get one or assurance that it’s not necessary – one will be provided when the yearning seems unendurable.

— 2 —

I like New Mexican cuisine, I’ve discovered – and I came to a (probably superficial) understanding of what distinguishes it. I had green chile stew in a couple of places and will certainly make that one at home. Red Chile Posole and Carne Adovada will also be added to that particular Pinterest board. Brought home some Chimayo chile.

— 3 —

I had thought about driving out to New Mexico from Birmingham.  You know, Fun! Road Trip!

Very glad I didn’t.

— 4 —

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Me at Tuco’s lair – actually a coffee shop named “Java Joe’s.”

We had many reasons forgoing out there. I’ll admit to you that this was on the list. Far down, but yeah, it was on it. Gave it a little extra kick.

— 5 —

The trip gave me a lot to think about re: home/road schooling. Still happening, but I see how much organization and (self) discipline this is really going to take.  Duh. Might want to get cracking on that.

— 6 —

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On Saturday evening, we attended Mass at Cristo Rey parish – the history is here.  The enormous retablo is made of stone and had been in storage at the Cathedral until the parish was built in the 1940’s.  I snuck this photo in of a post-baptismal procession around the congregation, in which the two babies baptized that evening were taken around the church and signed with a cross by those at the end of the rows, while the entire congregation sang (something in Spanish). It was lovely and a moment bursting with promise and hope.

— 7 —

"amy welborn"

It was a marvelous week.  New Mexico was a revelation.  I found it historically and culturally fascinating, stimulating and simply gorgeous.  The weather was far better than it was here in Birmingham.  Hotter than normal, everyone told me, but still not uncomfortable at all – even climbing amid stones and desert in the afternoons. The boys enjoyed it too, as they had ample time to scramble over rocks every single day, and saw new things and places.  But I do think that one of their strongest and fun memories will be from the evening of July 4th, spending three hours alternating between swimming pool and basketball court at the Albuquerque Residence Inn, fireworks exploding in the background.

Mine, too, come to think of it.

For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

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