The girls and I are in Santa Fe visiting with our ghosts.
I’ve said it before—a very specific thing occurs when you live somewhere for a period of time that is not too long, and then leave it. That place itself becomes a time capsule, a museum of who you were in those days. Santa Fe is a highly defined chapter in our lives, a peaceful rest starkly demarcated by turmoil on either end. We lived here from December of 2015 to October of 2017. The girls were 9 and 11 when we arrived, and 11 and 13 when we left. For those two years I loved it here, and I was married to a man who didn’t. I have heard it said that Santa Fe either pulls you in or spits you out. It pulled me in. Magical things happened to me here, things I wanted but never thought could occur—I worked on three movies, something I had long wished I could do but never had any idea of how to accomplish. One of those movies took me to some of the most stunning landscapes I have ever seen, and brought me some of the most intense experiences I have ever known. It seems a charmed thing that I was a part of it, proof that there is some wise machination working in the universe, some hidden clockwork, that strikes to our advantage from time to time.
When we neared Santa Fe, my daughters and I on our journey here, winding through the canyon that stretches for about the space of an hour on the approach, a particular feeling came over us all. We grew quiet. Privately, I started to cry. I realized that what my body thought was happening was that I was going to drive the girls home. To our own home on Colores Del Sol, our little adobe, where the girls once played with the neighbor children in the street, where we walked the dogs in the evenings in the development’s many wending hills and arroyos left untouched so that people could walk through them and teenagers could get up to mischief in them and the coyotes could have somewhere to dwell. Although wildlife does not appear to be short on habitats here, to my untrained eye. The empty land stretches for miles in every direction. You can see where the city ends from almost any place you go, and after that there is nothing but land and sky. This is my land. This is the space of my heart. I knew it on my first trip here, when I was a teenager and some part of me said, I will live here one day. And I know it now.
I forgot the way even the air feels different here. It is nearly alpine, at 7,000 feet. It is cooler and clearer and the wind sparkles a bit with a winking something. On our first night here, we arrived later than we’d intended, because that morning I had somehow slept until 11 am. I had told the girls we’d leave by 11 at the latest and then had gone to sleep without setting an alarm, confident that I’d wake up by 8 or 9, as I always do. Instead I awoke to Ayla knocking on my door, pushing it open, and saying “Mom are we going to go?? It’s eleven!” By the time we got on the road it was about 12:30. In the space of that 90 minutes I showered and dressed and curled my hair and packed and gathered the things that needed to be gathered, and we were off. It was easy to pack for this trip because we have done it so many times before, on our road together. Less a setting out than a return. By the time we got to our motel, it was something like 7, and we were tired. I asked the girls if they wanted to go out, but they didn’t, they wanted to stay in and watch cable. So I went out to get a pizza. On a Sunday night in Santa Fe, by 7:30 the city is pretty quiet. It has mostly shut down. There is a hush in the air, and as I drove to downtown I thought, oh, I’d forgotten this. How could I have forgotten? The magic of this place. The spirit or presence of sense of something—sense of knowing, sense of possibility, sense of spirit—that hangs just in the air here. I picked up the pizza and drove home as the sun was setting—a beautiful sunset already, on our first night. I passed a few Santa Fe types, walking along the side walks as I drove, and felt offended that the city had just gone on without me. So rude. So heartbreaking, really. Back at our little 50’s era motel, all redone for the southwestern hipsters, the girls and I ate pizza on our beds while watching the Kardashians and thumbing at our phones. Then I asked them if they wanted to go to the hot tub. They did. We put on our bathing suits and made our way to the spa, a pool of still, heated water set amidst stucco and adobe and a dry white fountain. We were thrilled to find it empty. We slid into that warm water and the breeze of Santa Fe on a cool night in early June hushed around us. On the wind here is the Spirit. The Great Mystery. The Something. I have traveled enough to learn that what the native people of this land knew was, of course, correct. Some places have more presence than others. Maybe it varies from person to person. Maybe you have been lucky enough to find yours. This is mine.
The thing that had hit me and made me cry on the drive into town, through the arroyos, was the ghost of their dad. We passed under the bridge that was the exit for the place we went camping and picnicking and wandering a few times, the four of us, when we lived here. One summer day we took that exit and drove through six or seven campsites before we found an empty spot. We listened to Hamilton the whole way, singing along together. Another day we packed up drinks and hot dogs and s’mores and set out for the woods. We built a fire and spent the day eating and drinking and exploring along the river, before heading home. When we drove past that exit, the presence of his absence—the shape of it, the weight, someone’s sudden absence is such a solid thing—hit me like a boulder thrown from the overpass and I started to cry, lowered my sunglasses so the girls wouldn’t see my eyes watering. I had been feeling better, lately. Optimistic, even. But like any grief, this hit me out of nowhere and threatened to overwhelm me and there on the highway, I was very, very sad. It felt as if he should have been there—our fourth, our man. Their father. My husband. It was incomplete, without him, and that could not be helped. I still don’t understand how this person has rent himself away from me. The rending leaves so brutal a wound. A raw and gaping gash that runs all along my left side, very specifically-- that I am learning and must keep learning to fill myself, as so many women before me have. This is what women do. We pack the wound with honey and healing herbs. We learn to mother ourselves. We learn to partner ourselves. We learn that we must be for ourselves the thing we thought and wanted our partner to be for us. And we keep going.
There is more to it all than this. The wound at time feels like a wild freedom. Feels like a lightness. Feels like a peace existing between a mother and her children that somehow never could exist when the father was there. A male partner requires so much tending to, so much dancing around of the ego, it sometimes interferes with the river that runs between mother and child. We are asked to root the river of resources that we need for our children off toward our husbands instead. Sometimes I look at the life that lies ahead of me and think, my god, I can do whatever the fuck I want, and no one can fuck it up for me but me, and that feels wild and liberating and good.
And sometimes the wound feels like a wound, and it hurts. For everything we say yes to, we are saying no to something else.
What I mean is: there are things a male partner brings to a woman’s life, good things. And there are things the absence of a male partner brings to a woman’s life, also good things. No one can hold both at the same time. Sometimes we will choose one over the other. Sometimes life will choose for us. We have to just take it as it comes. As we can.
Before we were divorced, I sometimes looked at divorced women with a kind of envy. They seemed so free. After my divorce, a few women told me they now looked at me that way. An envy. A wondering, of what things might be like without the man. And there it is, laid out. It is good and bad, better and worse, harder and easier. Maybe you are in a position to choose. Maybe you have no choice. I don’t know which is easier.
(I do. Having no choice is easier).
The life of a woman untethered to a man, with her two girls, is not the thing I chose, most of the time, but it’s the thing I have. I will take what I’ve been given and do what women have always done: Keep going. Care for the children, as best I can. Love them, as wildly as I can. Show them, as much as I can, that life is ever-shifting—that even when it’s calm, the waters are a mystery, sometimes a wild hurricane or rocky river, rushing us toward a bend we don’t want to take, and that all we have in our lives are the things we choose to make of the waters. The things we bring to it. The story we tell ourselves about what happened to us. This has always been what matters most.
We stayed awhile in that still, quiet spa on a night in early June in a breezy New Mexico. The wind brought us the scent of sage and roses, from the bushes growing all along a nearby walkway. The night before, back in Colorado, we had driven home from my sister’s house late at night, a summer night in a warmer clime, the windows all down, music blasting on the radio. A song about Summer Love. Ayla knew all the words. I sang along when I could. It reminded me of being a teenager, those times when the wind in a car and music on a summer night was all I lived for. I was grateful to the girls for bringing this into my life again. I have spent my whole life running from connection due to a deep fear of having my inner self and resources intruded upon, and now—and it pains me to say this—I see that connection is what life is worth living for. Someday I want to move back to Santa Fe and work in the movies again. I want to re-submerge myself in this enchanted place where good things just seem to happen to me (as long as I took whatever steps I could toward making them happen). Right now I need to get my daughters through their high school years—all four years at the same school is what I want most for them, something they have never had, though they once had four schools in one year. It is my birthday today. I am 38. So far, I have had a wild and rocky and deeply beautiful life. Beautiful and terrible things have come, and will continue to come. I can’t hold the goodness of life with a husband and the goodness of life without one both at the same time. Those two things cannot exist together. But these two things can: sometimes your drive is a mourning and a celebration, sometimes your night is a mercy and a wound, sometimes you are leaving home and coming home at the same time. There are warm waters and fierce griefs, the wind that gentles you will also roar, my life and your life have spun and spun and spun and it has been painful, yes, and terrible, to be sure, and the beauty we have found at times has been so wild and so true and we are lucky to have experienced all of it, every bit of it, any of it at all.