A couple days ago, we took a road trip.
Emily, Ronan, and me. Two-year-old Ronan, packed in the back, his small, floppy head propped up with stuffed animals and socks, his face reflected in a crooked, little mirror, so Emily, his mom, could look into it every so often as she drove in case he had a seizure or stopped breathing.
Tay Sachs has its hold on this little boy. This perfect little boy making cooing noises in the back seat as we marveled at trees and patterns of light and talked about what it means to be happy and how even when you are happy, you are still a little bit sad.
Or at least I am.
Our first stop after we left Santa Fe was the The Chimayo Sanctuario.
It was hot when we stepped out of the car, hotter than it has been in Santa Fe. Gusts of warm wind blowing my dress around in a way that would normally make me laugh and feel sexy and silly, but this day, I immediately felt tired and wanted to lie down in the little outdoor church area. Growing up as a Jew, at least until I was eight, I didn’t really know what to call that little area, but I knew I wanted to lay my head down on it and rest as people walked by and snapped pictures or prayed. Some smoked cigarettes, which felt somehow unholy given the heat.
Emily had told me as we walked that Chimayo was the meth capital of the world. I watched the smokers in front of us and wondered what meth felt like. I didn’t really want to know, but we were in the capital and the heat made me tired and curious.
Emily had said that she loved Chimayo and that it had holy dirt.
She had me at holy dirt.
My hearing had been especially horrendous during this trip. As if there are things here that mustn’t be heard. Things of loss and heat and dirt and dying babies. Most of the things she told me during this visit I only half-heard, so maybe when she said holy dirt, she didn’t say that at all.
But there is holy dirt here indeed!
We entered the church and sat in the back. The art on the walls somehow reminded me of my mother, so I kept whispering to Emily how my mom would love it here. It was vibrant and colorful, somehow simple in its poor beauty, and I knew my mom would love the folk art like Emily did. We traced our fingers over the woodcarvings and the blue of the pregnant bellies.
There were a few old women up front praying, their mouths repeating the same shapes over and over. Although I know now what they were saying, I knew that they were deep in reverie, deep in connection, somehow sitting on the bench and yet also floating somewhere with a dead relative or baby or Jesus himself. Who knows? They were in a trance but also somehow aware of us as we walked by, enough that they smiled with their eyes and part of their lips without stopping the flow of prayer. It was like a magic trick. I felt weird to stare, but I did, for just a moment.
I mean, I suppose I went in there to pray in some way, although I didn’t know it until we walked through the door.
I didn’t even know what Chimayo was until we got there. But these women were praying with every ounce of their bodies, like they were born to do this and had waited in a long line of life events that included births and deaths to get here. I was just hoping Ronan wouldn’t suffer and that Emily would be okay. I didn’t even have a real prayer. I just quietly looked over at them and then to the front of the jaw-dropping gorgeous New Mexican church and sent a wish out to the Jesus statue in whatever language I could muster. I think I put my hands together in prayer, like I do when I teach yoga, and asked him in sign language “Please let Ronan feel nothing. Please let Emily feel something.”
We went to the room where the holy dirt was, and it clearly said No Pictures, but, naturally, being me, I took a few. I am like a thief when it comes to inspiration. Whether words or images, if I see it and it touches that place where things are born, I must capture it.
I took some photos and then Emily went in and scooped up some holy dirt and put it on Ronan’s sweaty head and his little feet where she had painted his toenails a gold, glittery color. I went in and did the same. I also took a little baggy of it for my sister or anyone else who needed holy dirt. Who knows, maybe I needed it?
We went into the Vigil Shop where they sold popsicles and chile and souvenirs. (They even ship chile! The sign out front boasted.)
We agreed, as we stood under a tree for a moment of relief from the sun, that the land felt different here.
I felt much like I do in Ojai, California, where I lead many of my yoga retreats. More connected to the land, more inspired and awake, like there was a current running through me that had been asleep but, upon stepping in holy dirt, was reignited. Like I became a person again after a long time of forgetting how to be.
Chimayo felt sacred in the way that The Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris did in July, when I went to see where Jim Morrison was buried, not because I wanted to, but because I was dragged. I went with my childhood babysitter, with whom I had been reunited after her only son, age nineteen, was killed in a drunk driving accident last August. It was her greatest wish to see Jim Morrison’s grave. I was annoyed at having to go, especially because it was half-raining, I was sick, and we got lost, but once we got there, it was like nothing else. All the tombs like little houses, each different from the next in the most beautiful ways. I wanted to lie down on them and see what it felt like—not in morbid way, but rather to be connected to such beauty. Rarely have I seen such beauty associated with death.
I felt like that in Chimayo—far from Paris, Jim Morrison’s grave, and Ojai but with the vast knowledge that the holy dirt was the same. If I tasted it in Paris or California, or if I knelt down in that little room in Chimayo, it would all taste the same. I would be healed or I wouldn’t, but it would be the same. I wasn’t really far from beauty wherever I was in the world at any given moment.
We carried on to Taos, and I remembered the first time I had been there.
I drove across the country with my mother, sister, and best friend at the time. I remember eating tuna fish from a can in the back seat and alternating drivers. I remember the colors in New Mexico being so different from what I knew growing up in New Jersey and California. In Taos, I had a flood of memories, which is good because I am writing a book, but I had to shake them off to be present for Ronan. What if this is the last time I see him?
Emily says maybe it will be, or maybe not. No expectations is what she is working on. No expectations of what his death will be like, whether or not she should travel to Germany for a week in October (because it could as easily happen while she is teaching or at the store). No expectations of what life will be like after.
As we sat in the chapel, Emily told me of the pilgrimage people make to come to Chimayo, the last mile or two on their hands and knees so they arrive bloody to the church for their penance. I was in disbelief that people still did this sort of thing but also in awe at the sheer will and belief in what is possible, in miracles and magic and holy dirt.
There were children’s shoes and booties everywhere, left as offerings, which made me feel sad as I sat there with Ronan because he would never wear shoes to walk or run or to look cool for a girl on a first date.
He would never walk or crawl on his hands and knees to make a pilgrimage.
That’s when I decided that I would make one for him. That actually that is what we were doing out there in the hot New Mexican sun as we walked on bridges and stood in churches and sat in cars.
Here we were, eating holy dirt and driving through The Rio Grande Gorge as we listened to bad music. We sang out loud, and it was all for him. It was all so we could keep giving him these particular pieces of ourselves, these grains of holy dirt, to take with him wherever it was he was going.
Jennifer Pastiloff was recently featured on Good Morning America. She is a yoga teacher, writer, and advocate for children with special needs based in L.A. She is also the creator of Manifestation Yoga® and leads retreats and workshops all over the world. Jennifer is currently writing a book and has a popular daily blog called Manifestation Station. Find her on Facebook and Twitter and take one of her yoga classes online at Yogis Anonymous.
Jen will be leading a Manifestation Yoga® weekend retreat at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in the Berkshires, Massachusetts Feb 1-3, 2013.
*Photo by MarthaRiley.