FEAST DAYS AT THE ANCESTRAL HOME:
As I approached the ancient adobe house of Standing Deer’s parents Joe J. and Frances Suazo on pueblo feast days, I thought; “when I walk through that weathered door with its multi-layered crumbling paint, revealing layers of time, there will be people on the other side from many backgrounds and many places.” Some will be from foreign countries, some, will be famous, some new acquaintances, and some old timers. There will be artists, writers, actors, PQ’s friends including a few old girl friends, brand new residents of Taos, many well-seasoned friends and of course family relations from infancy to elderhood. My personal tradition is to assist Frances in the kitchen making chili and potato salad and washing pots and pans for the next round. A few days before the big day, I will ask her what she would like me to bring. “Cake would be nice,” was the customary response, but I would also bring paper plates, plastic ware, and napkins. I knew that Standing Deer would chop wood, carry water, and mind the fire. His father would sit at the head of the table and tell stories. Not only would there be guests who come to all feast days, but also people recently befriended and invited so that they could have a special experience that the Taos Visitor’s Center could never provide. The Suazo’s were a unique and elevated visitor experience.
I visited Taos for the first time in 1989. However, I had been drawn to the Southwest since I went on a road trip through New Mexico and Arizona with Uncle Bob and Aunt Ruth in my eleventh summer. I was enthralled by the powdery red dirt, aromatic pinon, and juniper trees. The pure air and clear blue sky affected me like a drug. It felt, not so much like home, as the way home should feel. My feet were quick and sure on the trails as if made of something even lighter than air. I still have the small San Ildefonso pot I bought in the Visitors Center of the Petrified Forest, my big splurge, and two archaeological books purchased at the Mesa Verde Museum. Even now, I can feel myself sitting on that adobe wall surrounding Spruce Tree House. While the guide talks, I am time travelling to a fascinating and mysterious past grinding corn and cooking beans in a clay pot, after a day of minding the fields of corn and squash under the hot but brilliantly clear sky. A part of my soul stayed there through the years until I finally found my way back home.
WHEN THE CALL CAME:
In 1989, I was working at the Tattered Cover, a four-story bookstore in Denver, Colorado. I used my first vacation time in years to visit New Mexico. It had been penetrating my dreams with increasing frequency. My first husband and I decided to use my vacation time to visit Taos. But how did Taos come to join my southwest fascination?
Curiosity about Taos began years earlier, when my mother worked as a supervisor in the Accessor’s office of the City and County of Denver. A young woman working under her was from Taos, New Mexico. They struck up something of a mother/daughter relationship while this young woman was going through some personal challenges. Mom introduced me to her because she thought since we were the same age, I might better understand her. I remember hearing the words Taos New Mexico and was immediately pulled into a curious fascination. At almost the same time, a lovely Hispanic family moved into the house next door. The man was from Chihuahua Mexico, but his wife was from Taos and sometimes did witching ceremonies in the back yard. They planted green chili’s near my bedroom window and shared homemade tortillas with beans. I knew then that I must find my Taos, because there was something more than beans and chili there.
The following year we visited Taos again. Then every three-day-holiday became a chance to go to New Mexico and especially Taos. Usually, we stayed in the cheapest motel we could find because we were poor and only needed a place to sleep. Sometimes we camped. Then in 1991, I attended an astrology workshop given by an English woman whose husband worked as a masseur at Ojo Caliente. On on my way home, I impulsively took a dirt road shortcut to Taos. I drove through the sagebrush as if floating on air. The sacred mountain lured me forward. After a few miles, I was suddenly confronted with a breathtaking drop into an abyss and screeched to a stop. What happened? Why was there no warning? When I inched forward, I saw a narrow dirt road plunging down the side of the gorge, across the river and up a sharp incline to the other side. It has now been closed for many years due to a landslide. Back then, I felt I’d discovered a new and dangerous entrance to the sacred land. During lunch at a restaurant on the plaza I imagined living this fantasy and yet it wasn’t long before Taos became the most tangible place I’ve ever known. Much to my amazement I ended up married to a native man, Blue Spruce Standing Deer, of Taos Pueblo. I would have never in my most inventive phantasy imagined how I arrived where I am now thirty years ago.
MY CONNECTION WITH STANDING DEER:
There was plenty of drama attached to my exit from Denver and arrival in Taos. I have written about that in other places, but my connection with Standing Deer is what I’m exploring now. I knew his family members and friends before I met him. Everyone had strong feelings about him. Those feelings were often intensely positive or negative and frequently both. Indifference didn’t happen. He was apparently a rascal but a likeable rascal.
As soon as I learned of it, I became seriously interested in his family’s connection with Mabel Dodge and Tony Lujan. I believed their attempt to bring America out of its blindness and arrogance toward life values still preserved in the Native culture to be even more important now than in their lifetime. It seemed curious and sad that their efforts had almost faded from history. Many people in Taos the place of Mabel’s revelation and convention breaking marriage to Tony didn’t know who they were.
However, there is no possibility of remaining impersonal or removed from the process of cultural karma just because one stands silently in the corner. I was drawn in to Standing Deer’s life by the same spirit that brought me so circuitously to Taos. Perhaps it’s the same force that brought Mabel to Taos and brought she and Tony together. It wasn’t uncomplicated and like tornadoes, earthquakes, and other natural forces, compensation for an unbalanced situation breaks through conventions and safety zones. Even now, the people of Taos Pueblo are more inclined to see Mabel and Tony as home wreakers than as “movers and shakers” (her words) bringing attention to the need for social healing and evolution.
Today I’m recalling our first meeting, it was just after PQ returned to Taos from Truckee California, drawn back home by a family crisis. By then I knew most of his family and enjoyed his father’s and mother’s songs and dances almost every night at our mutual friend Diane’s home. It was as if I’d already known him for a long time. I’d learned that he was an artist and singer but also a lady’s man and heavy drinker from those it affected. But that isn’t who I met when I walked through the door that day. I saw someone that I’d known a long time and hadn’t seen for a while. I wasn’t impressed either positively or negatively. In fact, I was quite comfortable with him.
In those days, the Taos Inn truly was the living room of Taos, much more so than it is now. I spent most evenings after work there, writing in my journal, sketching, watching the patrons, and connecting with friends. Virtually every night, Standing Deer would emerge from the back entrance, pause for a moment, then put on a brilliant, smile touched with mystery before stepping into the main room. He always wore his full regalia consisting of long braids with two colors of ties woven over them, a turquoise earing, his trademark silver turtle bolo (he was turtle clan), leather vest, large turquoise bracelet, colorful shirt, jeans neatly ironed with a crease and cowboy boots. To the end of his days, he wore only cowboy boots. Later, he discovered the advantage of paint splattered pants as a conversation starter.
There was some odd chemistry between he and I from the beginning. He avoided getting too near but never stayed very far away. He often visited me late at night after the Taos Inn closed. In those days, I frequently painted until 2:00 am. At first, he didn’t have a vehicle and walked to the Taos Inn each night, then would ask someone at the bar to drive him to my house. When he got a truck of his own, I could recognize the unique sound it made on my gravel drive. His parents often called me if they were trying to find him. Even when he was staying with a girlfriend in Santa Fe, I usually knew who and where. Although I was devastated for months when he finally married one of his girlfriends, he continued to visit me. We had a complex relationship that went far beyond romance.
ABOUT LIVING WITH HIS ABSENCE IN THE FLESH:
Now I talk to PQ (Pba-Quen-nee), Blue Spruce Standing Deer in Tiwa, as I drive around town. Yesterday I told him how beautiful the golden leaves are this autumn, and that it had been a beautiful summer that he missed, and oh! The roses shortly after he left us this summer were magnificent. He loved purple, so I’m pleased that our purple flowers were abundant while he was still on this dimension. I was very grateful he didn’t die in winter. Summer is open and the air on which he now rode moved in and out of our house. Then I talked to him about the progress (snail’s pace) of the road work on Paseo del Pueblo Sur and remembered that he would probably be cursing how the “stupid” Town of Taos went about such things, and the way people were driving. He once told me, when I accused him of being negative, that fussing at roads and drivers was his frustration release.
I watch film clips of him on Vimeo and YouTube in anticipation of his life story, Man of Many Colors, by producer Mark Gordon. But what I must admit is that much of my grief is not for him alone but for the part of me that dissolved in the wind when he left. Everything changed. Who am I now? I’ve known him for 27 years and we went through many ups, downs events and stages. While we were only ceremonially married 10 years ago, it was the culmination of a life’s direction. Counting the two years we lived together before our marriage, we were together 24/7 for 12 years. I can’t imagine ever having another marriage. I value above everything the freedom to continue what we began together. I am committed to fulfilling the final chapter of our story and evoking some understanding of how the pages come together. We each had our own life purpose, and yet we circled around a common star.
After he left, I cleaned up the garage, got rid of clothes I’ll never wear again. Perhaps it was preparation training for letting his favorite clothes find new closets. Then I reorganized the pantry, and while it was still green outside weeded, pruned, and cut up dead wood. He would have complimented me for that. He completely admired my way of working. I did it for myself to build the muscles of my soul, but wished he could enjoy the results with me. What is the next step? There is no one to discuss the news with, our traditional breakfast smoothy doesn’t taste so good anymore so I only have it occasionally, and I miss the sound of the TV through the open door as I trim shrubs or water flowers. He isn’t waiting for me in the car when I come out of the grocery store. It’s these simple mundane things that are the sharpest loss that penetrates my heart. Our whole house seems to be turned off most of the time and yet there are some new sounds. I never heard the annoying tick tock of the kitchen clock while his oxygen concentrator hummed. And yet I’m curiously enjoying the silence as a time to be quiet enough for memories and insights to rise to the surface, even though my identity is morphing. I’m grieving but I’m not sad. I’m on a new trail and its as if my old life ended with his earth life and I’m interested in what I’ll find around each curve. I feel that our excursions are still in sync.
What I know now, is that he is just fine. He left before his illness became an overwhelming burden. I admire his higher self for the wisdom of his timing. Yet now I must find a new way of being. I explore the memories of earlier times before we lived together, but I’m no longer that person and it doesn’t work. I’m now in unexplored territory.
I sometimes felt sorry for myself because by the time we got together he wasn’t physically able to do many things he did with earlier partners. I will never visit Italy or even Florida with him for instance. However, the truth is I received much more. He listened to wisdom and humbly allowed spirit to speak. He was far more tolerant of the weaknesses of others and of his own limitations. He loved to have me read my Blogs to him and commented thoughtfully. He overcame many prejudices and allowed compassion for other people to override judgement. He had struggled with his frenemy alcohol since adolescence, but in the last years finally let it go. He could always weep. That is one of his qualities that gave me hope at the beginning. His tears came from the heart and were without shame. He was intensely loyal to his friends, generous and sweet to those who made it into his heart.
While we lived together, I almost lost my driving skills, but they’re coming back quickly. This makes me a little sad, perhaps because he’s only been gone since June 12th. My car is getting old and yet the memory is sharp of going to the Santa Fe Subaru dealer twelve-and-a-half years ago with he and our friend Grandmother Jean to pick up my first new car and drive it back to Taos. Characteristically, he drove the new Subaru and I drove myself and Jeannie back in my old Mercury Tracer. That day seems so recent. He enjoyed driving, didn’t really trust anyone else to drive, and was good at it. I only drove the car on the occasions when he didn’t want to stop what he was doing at home to take his son to work or pick the grandkids up from school. Much later he had to trust my driving after he became very ill.
I dread telling his old contacts from out of town why he’s no longer taking calls, painting commissions, or practicing his ceremonies. I look at his paintings from the past two years and am amazed at how innovative and unique they are. I so wish he could have continued this amazing new trajectory for a few more years. However, as I explore the truth of his absence, I must admit that much of the pain is about me. He no longer needs me, but I feel at loose ends searching for the right macramé pattern to turn loose ends into beauty.
Now I’m grieving for the part of me that left with him while my remaining self is trying to identify the right opening to the future. It’s not that I need a new identity so much as opening the door for one that was closeted most of my life. However, I haven’t been draped passively on a clothes hanger but secretly slipping through the back end of the closet wall to my secret world. It conjures the image of C. S. Lewis’ The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Can I get through the visible closet door? Both he and I knew this was the reason our story’s last chapter took the style it did. He often told me this, though I didn’t want to believe it. It’s halfway his story, yet I am the storyteller. Nevertheless, we both loved what we had and didn’t want it to end.
At my age, I’ve lost many family members and friends. But this time I lost the central visible focus of my life. The remaining half has always functioned hidden behind the stage curtain. I recognize now that I used his powerful presence as a protective screen. It was intentional. In some ways his development and success, was my success and I had envisioned many of the things he and I became involved in at the beginning of our relationship. Grief in my case, is not triggered only by the loss of a beloved person, after all, we both believed that life continues on a higher dimensional vibration, but the big changeover is one’s personal identity as the actor in the cinematic drama in which one is invested. The revelation is that we survivors are grieving for ourselves.
The small griefs are possibly the hardest to quiet. I still feel guilty for trading both of our iPhones in for my new one. His phone was a part of his aura. My throat sometimes tightens when I don’t see his pretty red iPhone laying on the coffee table by his TV seat. This is where it waited ready for action as we watched our favorite programs. He would snatch it up and call a friend or relative spontaneously. It was never very far from him. He also used it to play his favorite music while he painted. Yes, it’s the loss of my married to PQ identity with all the physical props, habits and sensations that are imbued with his beloved essence that is giving me the most grief. I can still hear his voice, feel the warmth of his body, and the smell of his skin when we hug in the morning, ready to start another day. I felt grateful for each of these days. They are more precious when one knows they will run out. Old love has this advantage over the assuming confidence of youth.
He will be just fine. In fact, he is just fine. When I pray for him, I envision him getting reoriented, in anticipation of his next earthly endeavor. We were just learning to be a good team, so I hope we find each other again. I don’t think we’re finished.