I cried when it was time to leave. I didn't want to go. It felt tragic, like a broken promise, like a birthday cake smashed on the kitchen floor.
For the past four days I'd been here, on this plot of dry red land, and I'd come to know it intimately. The forgotten tricycle underneath the only tree, the modest home whose walls I'd helped to pound into dust, the shed I'd helped to nail into life, the trash-strewn desert wash, the cars parked for eternity. It was my first time on reservation land, here in the Navajo nation of northwestern New Mexico.
At first it appeared sparse and quiet, the workmen shy and unorganized. I'd looked at my students (four girls, four boys) and at M (fiancé, co-teacher, co-chaperone) and sighed: this is going to be one of those community service project trips that benefits us more than them, I'd thought. We're the white burden. They don't even want us here, there doesn't seem to be enough to do, and if there is one thing I really can't stand, it's not having enough to do.
Shows what I know. The spirit of a place takes time to emerge. When I silence my mind is when the life around me has the chance to wiggle into being.
Our second day on the rez threw things into sharp relief. I saw the shy workmen smiling, appreciating our eager teenage boys doing the man dance. I looked into the great grandmother's eyes (the owner of the house that we were helping to remodel) and saw the fear of her home being torn apart, her vital energy as she instructed me with hand gestures how to box her numerous nonstick pans. I couldn't understand why she had me sweeping the dirt outside until her sister explained, we are cleaning it, getting rid of the old dirt. I smelled the wood-stove and felt the wind nag at my sunburn. I dug and smashed and hauled and packed and nailed and devoured a turkey and cheese sandwich at lunchtime. I spotted a giant black beetle crawling through the wash.
On the third day we met Kaylee, great granddaughter, infused with the playful exuberance of a three year-old life. Her cheeks were soft and spongy, black curls and sporadic teeth and fierce eyes and her whole being sent a postcard straight to my heart. When she saw what we had done to the house, she exclaimed, Grandma's house is broken! She hated the sound of the saw cutting up wood, loved the stray puppy tied to an old truck-bed.
On our final day I sat inside with her, munching fresh hot fry-bread dusted with salt. She peacefully nursed her bottle of milk and I took stock of the house I'd been sweating in, the house I'd never see again: magazine cut-outs of Twilight on the wall, buckets of lard on the counter, an old metal school locker tucked into the corner.
Some weeks roll by with nothing much to distinguish them from the next. Our week in New Mexico caught sparks that cling to me like tumbleweeds:
There were the trains, graffiti-bitten and noiseless, dutiful veins pumping America's consumerist blood.
There was the sun-bleached Cafe sign on the side of the highway, eerily familiar.
There was the sage-sprinkled desert floor.
There was Pancho, aka "the stare master," always laughing, always looking, hardly working.
There was the broken pottery (probably from Wal-Mart, we joked), sole survivor of the charred remnants of a night bruised with alcohol.
There was Sylvia, who hid beer in her jacket and said I love you guys, I love you, as M and I dropped her off halfway to town.
There was the sound of nothing.
There was the night we all stayed up talking, about everything, opinions bumping elbows with emotions, tiredness forgotten.
There were the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic charity, housing us in their cottages, stocked with plenty of soda and butterscotch pudding.
There was Sister Andrea with the small body and big eyes, who took her vows 55 years ago, a reminder to the kids that religion isn't all bad.
There were the prairie dogs sniffing the air and guarding their holes.
There was the pool in Needles, perfectly cool after a nine hour car ride (that included a dash into the Grand Canyon).
There was reality TV in the hotel room to remind me why TV makes us dumb, and why I still crave its absurdity.
And there was Kaylee, who clung to me and said you stay here, as I hugged her good-bye, not sad for her but sad for me, for my own return to life as I know it.