ULTIMA, I’ll (owl) choose you first

Under a waning moon crescent, four days before the New Moon (who shares her initials with New Mexico…), I heard an owl calling in the dark for the first time since I live here. I did not think of it as a bad omen, as some might because of the Mexican saying “Cuando el tecolote canta, el indio muere” (When the owl sings, the Indian dies). I consider myself a positive person, but I have also learned to appreciate both sides of the coin, flip and all, and both aspects of all beings, who need light AND shadow to be complete. Furthermore, I choose the Greek approach to owl, companion of the Goddess Athena / Minerva (and so many more since “all the Goddesses are one Goddess” according to Dion Fortune), therefore I see wisdom in the bird’s presence. And how can you bring light if there is no darkness, or bring life again if there’s no death? The owl is also associated with the Egyptian Goddess Isis, who brough Osiris back to life and gave him a son-bird associated with the Sun: hawk-Horus, while Osiris would reign from the Underworld. Some say that this aspect of Isis turns her into Black Isis, and also in an avatar of Lilith, or is it in reverse? The thing is, darkness is where a seed spends the most important part of her life, buried, preparing for the Spring when it is time to pierce the Earth and blossom… I am learning plant wisdom, bit by bit, seed by seed, still more metaphoric than organic for now, truth be told. Still, I am blessed to learn from some curanderos or curanderas (folk healers) and shamans, both “real and fictitious”.  Among the fictitious healers is  Última, whose spirit guide was the owl, a bird chosen by New Mexico’s acclaimed author Rudolfo Anaya. When he was writing about his childhood for what became his most famous coming-of-age novel, Última once came to him from the spirit realm, telling him that he should write about her if he wanted his literary endeavor to work. And boy, did it work! Rudolfo was born some time ago, on October 30th, when the veil between worlds becomes very thin. October 30th is also one of the dates of celebration of Isis… There is no such thing as “coincidence”, and so-called “chance” is Spirit tiptoeing in our lives and blowing on the dandelion seeds of our persona, for them to land softly on the soil of our soul’s slumbering  memories…

“My” owl was probably calling from the cottonwood tree that stands across the alleyway, by the “Washa” (Washington Middle School), where Rudy was a student in 1952. The quiet giant is “entre verde y seco“, maybe to remind me of always trying to search balance and “the middle field” in all things, or to see in its half-thirsty, half blooming self a metaphor for the beauty of water asking the glass that contains her if it feels either half empty or half full… Why do I use Spanish to describe the struggle of the old tree, torn between giving in to dry branches, or celebrating green sprouts? Because I pronounced this exact expression the first time I saw the dual tree peeking into my patio, when I was greeted by a hawk perching on my roof on the very first morning I woke up in this place. He flew toward the cottonwood, from where a raven had just called. This embodied for me the magical coming to life of the first lines I’ve ever read of Rudolfo Anaya’s literary world, in his detective series that describes the transformation of Sonny, the private eye, into a shaman who has to fight his “arch-nemesis” Raven. The latter, for me, is the shadow self of Sunny-Sonny playing with Tezcatlipoca’s mirror to show all sides of his archetypal story, his New Mexican hero’s journey…

The full moon was hanging over the valley like a holy wafer, bathing the dirt roads and potholed streets of the valley in a sheen of silvery light. The full moon after the solstice was a moon of magic, rich with portents the old people of the valley believed. Magic strong enough to bring life back into the dry, gnarled limbs of the tree. (…) The huge southern arm of the tree was greening. The pale green leaves shimmered in the moonlight.

“See,” don Eliseo whispered, pointing. “Entre verde y seco.”

Between green and dry, some old trees grew like that, one side would begin to dry out, but the spirit of life was too great to be denied, and they put out one green branch to show the roots were yet alive. Entre verde y seco, life on the Río Grande high Plateau was like that, dry and harsh as the summer that had baked the valley and then soft as love under a summer rain.

Dry and green, like people whose juices dry up momentarily, whose spirits wither, then they cast off the dread and the blood flows again, renewing body and soul. A man is like a tree, and his spirit was alive with life-giving light. He would live many more years. (Rudolfo Anaya, Zia Summer)

Don Eliseo was blessed to contemplate the miracle of life under a full moon after the summer solstice. He  “lived” in the North Valley, whereas Rudy lived in the barrio, aka Barelas, but I can feel the same spirit in both areas. During his teenage years in Barelas, Rudy’s first years in Albuquerque were led on Pacific Avenue SW, between the famous Rail Yard that employed so many Burqueños and that acequia where he once dove and broke his back, which would change his fate forever. I am writing from a ‘Burque’ spot at walking distance from all those important places in Rudy’s life story. I am writing from the edge of the barrio where a few weeks ago they held a velorio for a flesh and blood curandera who will no longer hold my hands while diving into my eyes to scan my soul. When I left Maclovia Zamora’s emblematic store after I paid my tribute to her, I noticed juniper all around the place. I felt connection, I felt sorrow, I felt Última’s strength and presence together with the comfort of a wizard’s whispers, and I felt love, and responsibility, like young Antonio, who had to bury Última’s owl under the forked juniper. Here, on the edge of the barrio, “my owl” called, 4 days before the new moon, 8 days before the spring equinox. Can you see the parallel, like a shadow taking shape on a scrying mirror, or a cat-and-mouse game on a Wheel divided into the four quadrants of Time, Seasons, “Reality” and Fiction?

I profoundly believe in the magic of letters, and also in the blurred boundaries between Literature and Life. Never in my (Spanish) life had any book, like Zia Summer and then all of Anaya’s books, taken me back, so powerfully, to this land that whispered my name and made me feel that I belonged. I was first drawn to the New Mexican detectives series thanks to its cover: a cow skull over a Zia sign glowing in the Sunrise. Maybe Isis was winking already, since the cow is another of her attributes… I could not put that book down, because I somehow felt that it told me about my future self, or selves, although sometimes it really felt like it was talking to and about my past self, or selves, as well…

antro del escritor

I see writers as brujos, aka wizards, because many stories actually do come true… So we’d better write beautiful ones, with happy endings! The collage above these lines was originally a slide from the presentation of my dissertation defense in Spain… But the story rewrote itself, to come up with better lines for my new role in this life, since I am writing from the very same New Mexico that had profoundly spoken to my soul the first time I visited it, and which was welcoming me time and again in the pages of Rudy’s books before I could be back in the flesh. When I was still in Granada, my attraction to Anaya’s world was so powerful that I had decided to analyze his universe for my dissertation, obliged step we are supposed to take if we want to become a “grown-up in Academia“. The only problem was that I “was not supposed” to work on any material in English since “I belonged” to the French department. However, this detail was not meant to stop me doing what I felt was my soul’s calling! I would compare the New Mexican literary world with that of my native Belgium through a comparison of works by Rudolfo Anaya and René Henoumont.

1111 pages (and thrice as many days) later, I have not “defended” the dissertation, and I never will, and it does not matter, because I was meant to defend something much more important: my life, and the search for the real me. I had to learn how to grow not only owl’s wings but also claws, to let go of my past self, navigate in darkness and tread on slippery rooves, and nevertheless show faith and trust in the journey toward a new me that felt very ancient. So I left the dissertation, I left the job, I left a house and a land I loved, and I dove into this adventure to start living in my third country, and by that I mean New Mexico, which I consider a country per se, and the land where my soul is meant to shine in its brightest colors…

I did not meet Última la curandera in a “chronological” manner. For me, she came “after” Rita, a younger curandera in Sonny’s adventures, but I am sure that she waited because she wanted me to learn how to trust Spirit ways and to patiently wait for the right time. Not always an easy task! But now that I know her well, since Última means “the last one”, and maybe to honor the mischievous spirit of some black-haired chifonete I know, I want to dedicate this first blog topic to her, also because this is what the owl whispered to my ear on that waning moon night…

i bless you

Because you see, here is the magic of las brujitas buenas when they are lucky or gifted enough as to silently talk to chifonetes and birds: they can appear in many traits and under many guises, in a whimsical manner sometimes, solemn at times too, to make sure they prove the saying mentioned in the introduction of this Me/WeBlog: we are all mirrors for each other… If you don’t believe me, I invite you to peek over my shoulder as I re-read an exchange of emails between Rudy and I:
ME: I went to Morocco for a conference on the One  Thousand and One Nights, but also as a cleansing process. I wanted to go and ask Lalla Shafia, the miraculous saint of a nearby mausoleum close to famous hot springs, to spiritually heal me. In Fez, the day before I had planned to go to Moulay Yacoub, where the hot springs are, an old woman appeared out of nowhere. She started speaking Arabic with me, touched my forehead and blessed me. She did that either the same day or just a day after your birthday, I can’t remember exactly. When this woman appeared, I knew I no longer needed to go to the tomb a few kilometers away, it was as if the spirit of the one who is buried there had come to me… I know you understand me. Now, when I saw  your interview (*) and a painting of  Última behind you, I was in awe, because these old ladies have exactly the same look in their eyes. 
RUDY: Nathalie, what a lovely, striking photo of you and the Moroccan woman  who blessed. She is Ultima! You are a curandera in training. Abrazos,  Rudy
ME: I don’t know if I am a curandera in training, but what I know is that I was lucky enough to meet one or two on my way… Take care, hasta very pronto, N
Yes, Rudy was right, that blesser who blessedBleser, Nathalie” aka me, WAS Última, at least she was an aspect of her, an avatar or archetype of all the strong old women who are there to remind us of the power we hold when we believe in our own magic. Now I have learned that there are many ways to heal, oneself and others, and that it is not always through magical formulas, plant tinctures or incantations. These sure are powerful and needed, but I think that we all have magic at our fingertips, which will grow stronger, like eager plants in spring, once we find our true purpose and dare to shine our light, like Última, although she did it from the necessary and authentic humility of true healers. The first appreciation I heard from Rudy when he saw the movie adaptation of his Bless Me, Última had to do with brilliance too, and with his second favorite character in the story: New Mexico. “New Mexico shines in the movie,” he had told me, and I had to agree, even though I missed the golden carp, and Jason’s Indian, and the hilarious scene of the Christmas pageant, and, and, and…
Oh well, maybe I know the story too well, which made me miss, in the movie, many aspects of the original plot from the book. However, this knowledge of the story is what “reconciled” me with a certain art form, when I was… blessed to see the world premiere of Bless Me, Última, the opera, a gracious gift from Rudy. I had never felt particularly attracted to Opera. The first time ever i had seen one, it was another gift. Although I was very grateful to the person who had invited me, I must admit that there were only three things that I loved: the amazing setting of the open-air structure of the Santa Fe Opera, a hummingbird flying over the singers in a stormy desert sunset, and traduction oblige, the subtitling device in several languages to help the audience somehow follow what was supposed to happen on stage. Don’t even ask me the title of that particular opera, because I fell asleep several times during the show…
But Héctor Armienta’s opera was quite another story! And I loved that story, maybe, precisely, because I knew the story so well, and because I loved what he made out of it. To add to the magic, I was sitting by the side of an elegant lady who had come from Kansas to see the world premiere. My horse pendant had checked out her owl pendant, and maybe through the channel, resting on our respective throat chakra, of two animals symbolically connected to Spirit and the realm of the deceased, we knew  with but a few words that we were meant to meet. Since childhood, Betty had been the best friend of Patricia, Rudolfo’s deceased wife, and in Betty’s tears reflected in her glittering owl, I saw Patricia winking at us from behind the veil.
me and betty
What a magical (non-)coincidence! Betty and I agreed to say that the show was breathtaking, and if I had to choose only one thing that I loved, I would say… the owl, through the several ways Héctor Armienta chose to represent Última’s spirit animal. The first appearance was a puppet owl operated by a master puppeteer from Albuquerque who learned his craft at UCLA and took part in the making of the Gremlins movie. From her 6-feet wingspan, the white owl was as present as her literary counterpart, and took both Antonio and the audience under her wings to make us feel the bond between woman and bird, between magic and love. The second appearance of the owl reminded me of my own staging of an excerpt of Bless Me, Última, the play, back in Spain with my students. Like in our adaptation, the opera version of the story gave our very prop to the owl: Isis wings! The Goddess had always been around! This second, singing owl explained all the spiritual aspects and dangers of a curandera‘s work, through direct dialogue with Última or in Antonio’s dreams or trance. A third owl may have gone unnoticed by many, but I was fascinated by her fleeting appearance that struck a chord in my symbolic world. The moon in one of the projected sceneries, instead of a rabbit, hid an owl in her craters, and she, la Luna, who named Antonio’s maternal side of the family,  would hide only to cede the stage to magnificent mustangs galloping in the background whenever Antonio’s father would lament over his lost llano, the sea of grass of the Márez. Finally, as if to close the fourth quadrant of an invisible Owl Wheel,  the poster of the opera depicts half of the owl’s face, which seems to find her  other half in the intertwined letters of the title, a subtle reminder of the intricate connection betwen the woman and the bird. The design of the poster focuses on the owl’s right eye, whose yellow iris looks like a moon crescent with, in the guise of a night sky, a pupil crossed by the white silhouette of Antonio, torn between the ways of his father and mother, Márez y Luna, Sea and Moon, Cow boy and Farmer, Nature and Church. The night bird watches over the best choice Armienta could come up with to illustrate a New Mexican church: San Gerónimo of Taos Pueblo, whose middle cross stretches from its white cloud design to reach out to Antonio, still trapped in his crucified motion in the middle of the owl’s pupil.
So much can be told in an owl’s eyes, be they opened or closed, because… Have you ever noticed that the initials of my “Me-We Gate” (**) actually draw the face of a sleeping owl? The “M” stands for her “ears”, the “W” for her closed eyes, and the “V” of the check sign (or Victory of Magic?) for her beak that sometimes open to whisper magic to one’s ears. Yes, I love those winks from the winged ones, I love reading signs, and maybe the Goddess (pick the one you prefer) is the one who whispered to Rudy’s ears that it was time for him to produce the equivalent of Horus in an owl form… So he came up with a baby owl, un tecolote in a straw hat, who saw the light through Rudy’s words and was given an appearance thanks to the quill of a man who draws from under a feather-covered hat: El Moisés. You can see one of his representations of the owl at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, where the opera was premiered, if you visit “La Última Exhibición” that features amazing works of art inspired from Bless Me, Última. Maybe you will be lucky enough as to be given a tour by Teresa Márquez, a good friend of Rudy who appears in Sonny’s adventures! When you see the painting of the owl by El Moisés, wink at it for me,  which would also be wise in case the owl mistakes you for Tenorio… When I saw the presentation of the children’s book, this beautiful collaboration between Rudy, El Moisés and Enrique Lamadrid at the Bookworks library, I noted the owl eyes made of those awe-struck “O”s from the word “book”, and I smiled at this constant presence of the owl, surrounded by books as to reassert her status of the wise one…. What would we do without books, what would we do without words, and without those letters that I love to twist and turn to try to uncover some of the Goddesses’ secrets…
As I walked the labyrinth of my soul, trying to climb the ladder of the ‘H’ that gives my first name its French fragrance, I saw in the spiraling whirlwind of mighty Isis wings that, while crossing my Me/We gate, an owl had decided to stop on top of that ladder, to teach me that “We+Me Works”… Owl was also kind enough as to share with me some of Isis tricks… The Goddess knew the power of words and how to activate their magic, and she whispered to my ear what it really means when the owl sings for you…
 works

However, for me to reveal this to you, you will have to practice your Spanish reading skills…

 Cuando el Tecolote canta,

Abre los Ojos la Luna,

Despierta la Curandera

y Renace la Magia Femenina

 

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~. ~

(*) The face in the painting seems to come to life if you look at Última’s gaze at 3:07

(**) See first blog post

 

 

 

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