I remember every landscape in which I have lived in painterly detail. The Indian pueblos carved from bricks molded of mud, sand and straw rising from the bosques of the Rio Grande River Valley in northern New Mexico where I rode Patches, my Indian Paint horse, as a girl.
Their ancient adobe walls shelter the sounds and sights of tribal dances I attended long ago with my mother, transfixed by Indian maidens, the same age as I, moving through the plaza as though in a trance, to the chanting of their village elders, the air scented with juniper and cedar, ornos intoxicating the sky with the aromas of bread baking and posole stewing.
In the high heat of summer, Whiptail lizards scurried up the terracotta stuccoed walls of my childhood home to hide in the shadows cast by vegas jutting out from the living room roof, Roadrunner mothers tended to nests in jagged tree branches felled by lightning strikes, and songbirds, drunk on the fermented orange ‘pomes’ of the Pyracantha bushes edging our red brick walkway, would stay for days and days and then still more drunken and song-filled days until not a single pome remained.
On lazy summer afternoons when there was nothing to do and no one to play with, I would take the flat-edged blade of a garden hoe and drag it through the thin top layer of dust in our dirt front yard, creating a grid of streets and boulevards and highways over which I rode my bike for hours, kicking our tricolor Collie, Dinah, and her dreadlock-covered suitor, Sam, out of my way as I tore through my make-believe cityscape like a motorcycle maniac.
On lazy summer afternoons when there was nothing to do and no one to play with, I would strip the currant bushes of every edible crimson berry, inspect for ripeness each of the figs and prickly pear fruits growing in the cactus garden, and suck the sweet meat from muscat and concord grapes grown fat and juicy with sugar in the hot sun, afraid an early frost might come during the night while I was sleeping and leave the arbor barren and waiting to be coated in winter’s first snow.
Lizard tracks freshly laid in sandy arroyo beds would be washed away in an instant by ozone-misted late afternoon rains, rushing water soothing New Mexico’s mile-high blistered plains for but a moment until the sun would emerge again, often bearing the gift of a double rainbow, only to crackle-glaze the surface of the desert all over again, smoothing the arroyo beds for yet another set of freshly laid lizard tracks and yet another afternoon thunderstorm.
Memories of burning piñon and mesquite plumes thermalling upward from wood-burning stoves into thin winter air, and of fresh green chiles roasting in metal bins by the roadside come Indian Summer, will forever be hunger-making, fire pit-craving, dream-inducing. The colors of the desert–in the early morning when wildflowers open and glisten with dew, and in the evening after the sun deepens their pigments, as a kiln would, into shades of ochre and burnt umber, cypress green, mustard, sienna, sage and red brick–are hues I surround myself with wherever I live.
In that Southwestern landscape, where the bold, the adventurous and the disenfranchised had migrated from all over the country, I studied modern dance on Saturday mornings with the silver-haired Elizabeth Waters in the gymnasium at the University of New Mexico, learning to move my body and bare feet to the beat of deerskin drums, praying I would get to dance in a professional performance with the adult troop. And I did.
Ms. Waters would lay out our leotards and tights in rows on the wood floor in the gymnasium–tangerine and fire engine red and chrome yellow and cerulean and lavender and sky blue and chocolate-brown, and every color in between–and, setting her gaze on each of her young dancers, she would choose for each of us a costume we would hold as though it were made of gold.
When my mother took me to the studios of her women friends who were artists, I shadowed them, watching them stretch canvases and sculpt stone and sand blast wood, impatient to grow up and Marcel my hair and paint my lips and nails red as they did. I studied how they arranged photographs and paintings on their walls, how they married colors and textures, how they turned the surfaces of bookshelves and coffee tables and chests-of-drawers into ever-changing tableaux, new fetishes and pieces of driftwood and river stones appearing every time I visited. Exotic and mysterious and expressive, these women almost always lived alone.
I adorned my wrists, neck and waist with her Navajo, Hopi and Mexican finery, and sat outside in the sun in one of her fancy handmade fiesta skirts, pretending I was an Indian maiden.
At our experimental girls’ school we held classes in drafty brick barracks flanking an old airplane hangar that was our gym, and we begged James O’Leary, our English teacher, to let us have class on the lawn when it was warm enough in the spring.
Once, Mr. O’Leary took our class on a trip to the ranch in Taos where D.H. Lawrence used to write, a trip no male teacher would ever in a million years be allowed to accompany female students on today. In the cabin where we stayed, I made a sour cherry pie and poured salt instead of sugar into the hot compote mix, having no plausible explanation for why I hadn’t tasted it first. But the pie, crusted over with a satiny white sheen when it came out of the oven looked perfect until the truth was revealed. Perhaps the magic of the trip washed away that memory for everyone but me.
We read Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time as the war in Viet Nam roiled and raged and called young American boys to fight far away in a land and culture we could not begin to fathom. Sometimes we would read about a local boy who wouldn’t be returning home, and Mr. O’Leary asked us to think and talk and write about everything we felt and everything we saw happening around us. He was the first teacher I had who cared what I thought about the books we were reading. He was the first teacher I had who told me that what was going on in my brain mattered and that in order to express it I had to understand it.
On weekends, I would put on earphones in a booth in the record store in Winrock Shopping Center and listen to The Doors, Cream, The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix without anyone throwing me out no matter how long I stayed. I would buy a single with an A side and a B side if that’s all the money I had, and I would hurry home and put it on my cheap plastic turntable and never tire of moving the little arm back to the beginning so I could play my new favorite song over and over and over again. Sometimes I would have enough money for an entire LP–Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, The Electric Flag’s A Long Time Comin’, Simon & Garfunkel’s The Graduate. Decades later I felt sad for teenagers I met who I knew would never get to experience listening to music the way I did when I was a teenager–with earphones, in a sound booth, in a record store–in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains in the New Mexican high desert.
I auditioned for plays staged at the fancy Albuquerque Boys Academy up on the mesa where all the rich kids lived, and once I got lucky and landed the part of the Pupil in Eugene Ionesco’s The Lesson. Our director, Robert Pickett, submitted the play to the Southwestern Drama Conference in Portales, New Mexico, and I got lucky again and won a little statuette for Best Supporting Actress in the competition. I fell in love with theatre and playwrights and being on stage in a made up story the way I had fallen in love with being on stage in a choreographed modern dance in an Elizabeth Waters production at the University of New Mexico.
The culture of the Southwest infused my being like the roots of the Aspen trees that bound together the Sandia and Manzano mountains, their silvery leaves flapping like butterflies in the breeze, catching the light so the entire mountain range shimmered like glitter when the sun set beneath the west mesa.
But life had not been easy for my mother after my father died when I was five, and so she sent me to live for a year with my half-sister in New Rochelle, New York, where I went to a public high school with hundreds of kids who seemed to speak English much faster than I did, who seemed to have visited every museum in New York City, who seemed much more experienced and worldly in every conceivable way than I would ever be. I felt every bit a country girl, and if I could have clicked my heels together and become a city girl I would have done it in an instant.
But in the end I had my fellow students beat, because my half-sister was a disciple of the Indian spiritual master, Sri Chinmoy, who counted among his other disciples the musicians Carlos Santana, Larry Coryell and John McLaughlin, and once a week on Tuesday nights we drove, always when it was raining it seemed, to some strange house in Connecticut to sit in the lotus position for hours and hours meditating in front of Guru and Alo Devi, his female spiritual partner. I was 15 and I could easily lotus my legs and close my eyes and slowly rock back and forth pretending to meditate, but I could feel and smell and sense everyone and everything around me.
Instructed to concentrate on nothing but my breath, on nothing but one of the many candles burning in the carpeted room, on nothing but the faces of Sri Chinmoy and Alo Devi, instead I was keenly aware of the sound in the back of the room of the baby suckling the breast of Larry Coryell’s young wife, keenly aware of the filmy see-through dress she wore like a pagan goddess, keenly aware that I hated every minute of pretending that sitting still meditating in the lotus position was a more spiritual endeavor than dancing with bare feet on unfurled legs in Ms. Water’s Saturday morning classes.
For it was the 60s and free love and sex oozed out of every pore of every would be spiritual disciple in that strange house up in Connecticut, where often when we sat to meditate on cushions the rain, alive and real, beat down upon the roof and windows, and the wind, itself raging against stillness, shook the trees and tried in vain to wake Sri Chinmoy’s disciples from their pretend spirituality.
One day in a ceremony in front of the congregation, with his soft-skinned hands wrapped around the crown of my head, Sri Chinmoy gave me an Indian spiritual name, Bithika, which I was told meant Path Between Trees and I imagined that if I didn’t discover its meaning during the time I had left in New Rochelle, then perhaps when I returned to New Mexico the Aspen trees would reveal its meaning.
One day after the ceremony my half-sister told me Bithika meant Arrow of Truth, which didn’t make any more sense than Path Between Trees, and as soon as she started calling me Bithika, I missed the sound of my given name, Giselle, and would lie in bed at night wondering who I was, by what name I wanted to be addressed, where I wanted to live, and whether I even believed in gurus and meditating and sitting still with my eyes closed. I wondered if every musician had a guru. I wondered if I was the type of girl who was meant to sit silently on a cushion. I wondered what it all meant.
Soon enough I was bound to return to New Mexico, my experiences and friendships and splintered spirituality shuttered inside my heart as I tried to re-enter the Southwestern atmosphere I had once known so well. Little did I understand that I had permanently left a piece of my heart on the East Coast and I would never fully belong to New Mexico again.
I graduated from Sandia School wearing a white lace dress I had made and carrying a bouquet of red roses wrapped with pink ribbon, the traditional graduation dress that sent Sandia’s graduates off on their maiden life’s voyage into a country torn by war and riff with civil rights indignities. I moved to Santa Fe to study the classics at St. John’s College. The war raged on. Watergate exploded. I comforted myself with ballet lessons in town before my early morning classes, and somehow I knew that life would always and forever be political, and that my own creativity would be the only thing that would ever save me from anything that could ever happen to me.
When I graduated from St. John’s, after a childhood spent mostly in the arid desert, the Pacific Ocean and the thought of bare feet on beach sand and the imagined taste of sea salt and sea-foam on my skin and in my hair beckoned like church bells ringing in Old Town Plaza on Sunday morning.
In the City by the Bay I spent weekends hiking among the redwoods in Muir Woods National Monument, and drove through the grapevine-dotted landscape of Napa and Sonoma Valleys. I drove across the Bay Bridge to Berkeley and got lost in the hills, imagining what it would be like to live in a house overlooking the bay. I drove the meandering coastal highway down to Santa Cruz and up to Mendocino, watched Tule elk graze on the hills rolling down to the sea’s edge, and whiled away whole Sunday afternoons foraging in the tide pools beneath the Pacific shore’s rocky cliffs.
I spent hours by myself staring out at the ocean, at cargo ships and fishing boats, at surfers hoping to catch one last wave on Ocean Beach before the sun disappeared into the blue, steeling myself against the winds howling at the Pt. Reyes Lighthouse, listening to the music of the surf and seagull caws and foghorns at Inverness and Bolinas, and Bodega and Drakes Bays.
The collective sound of the sea and the surf and the creatures that lived in harmony with them was a new symphony to my ears, wholly different from the one composed by the natural landscape of the Southwest where I was born. By the sea I felt unfettered and free for the first time in my life.
I had Sunday brunch at Doidges Kitchen on Union Street, and hamburgers and French fries at the bar at the original Hamburger Mary’s on Folsom Street, too many Ramos Gin Fizzes at the Buena Vista Bar after work on Friday night, but not nearly enough sourdough bread and fresh abalone with butter and lemon at the Tadich Grill. I cruised the city’s famous bookstores–City Lights and Modern Times–and waited on the sidewalk for what seemed like hours for a table for one at Caffe Trieste on Saturday mornings. I was becoming a California girl and had the blond hair and tanned skin almost required of young women by California law.
I got lucky again, and eased into a job in the music business, promoting the sounds of Boz Scaggs, Journey and Santana, and goosebumps rose on my arms from the energy oozing from English renegade musicians Elvis Costello and The Clash. And slowly the exterior day lit landscapes of my native New Mexican youth were replaced by the interior dimly lit late night landscapes of the San Francisco’s fabled music clubs–the Fillmore, Winterland, the Great American Music Hall, and Sweetwater in Mill Valley.
But then CBS Records named me the National Director of Customer Merchandising and moved me to New York, and my dream of living in the city where my father had been born finally became a reality. Looking out of the plane as it flew over the bay and headed east I knew I would never miss living in California no matter how beautiful it was, no matter how much I had loved it. I knew I wasn’t meant to be a California girl after all, in spite of my blond hair and skin that would happily drink up the sun.
Manhattan’s skyscape welcomed me in October, and by spring the city had entered my soul as though I had been assigned to write a modern version of E.B. White’s Here is New York. But that would have been absurd, for how could I possibly compete with that quintessential essay about the gravitational pull of New York City, the people who are born here, the people who intentionally move here, and the people who are just passing through? I knew all too well that I had not been born in New York, but I also knew in my bones that I wouldn’t just be passing through.
I took the Nikon camera I had won in a merchandising contest at CBS Records in San Francisco and explored the tangled pathways and ponds and meadows of Central Park, and the riverfront all the way from Battery Park City up and down the Hudson and East Rivers. I walked endless miles of streets and avenues, and in and out of neighborhoods and cafes and museums and art galleries until every toe was blistered and I could not walk one more step. And then I walked one more step, and then another and another and another until I had covered as much of the Island of Manhattan as I could on foot.
And when I tired of walking, I drove my little Toyota Celica to every corner of the five boroughs, unafraid of the dangerous parts, blind to the perils of getting lost, unhindered by maps or modern GPS and technology, not caring about words like ‘Harlem’ and ‘the South Bronx,’ my windows rolled down in summer, the am radio blaring hit songs when radio was still radio and the music business was still a business, snooping Soho when it wasn’t yet Soho and Tribeca long before it became Tribeca, when Little Italy was still home to New York’s Italians and hadn’t been taken over by Chinatown, when the Lower East Side had not yet been gentrified, and the folk music clubs of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary, and the Jazz Clubs of Gillespie and Miles and Monk and Coltrane were still integral to the city’s soul and clubscape.
I always knew where I was when I was above ground in New York City, but underground the subways spun me around sideways and upside down. I preferred to walk. I loved every minute of every day in New York, and as much as I had loved New Mexico and San Francisco and the northern California coast, I began to feel more like a New Yorker than a native New Yorker, and it mattered not that I had not been born here. New York City was in my blood, and I was meant to live here.
After work at CBS Records, I studied acting with Robert Modica in a studio upstairs at the back of Carnegie Hall overlooking 56th Street. We gathered in his darkened classroom on Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights, and sat on risers while he smoked cigarette after cigarette and told stories about being a Marine and what it meant to trust and be honorable and to make a commitment to art and craft, and it was from Modica that I first learned about the art of storytelling through plays.
Sort of a wild card acting coach, Modica wore half glasses and cowboy shirts and cowboy boots, and around 11:00pm, when I walked out onto Broadway to head home, I felt like I was part of a secret New York, the part of New York that artists and performers inhabited. The other New York. I was the only person in Modica’s class with a serious day job and sometimes he would ask “How you doin’?” and he would whisper, “When you’re here, you forget about all those people in that building,” and I’d avoid responding, not ready to confess that slowly, after eight years in the music business, I longed to return to my childhood love of theatre and a life other than endless meetings at Black Rock on Sixth Avenue, fending off the dirty jokes of the alcoholic repressed men I had the misfortune of working under.
When I left CBS I joined a fledgling company that produced new plays by unknown playwrights, and started to direct. There was no budget for a rehearsal hall, so I rehearsed my casts in my apartment until the night of the tech/dress rehearsal. I designed costumes and sewed them together on my living room floor with the sewing machine my mother had bought me when I was a young girl. I tried to remember all the tricks my father’s sister, Amabile–who had made costumes for Ethel Merman in New York–had taught me, but in the end her tricks didn’t matter because I wasn’t dealing in fancy. I was dealing in cheap and quick and clever and necessary.
I was innovative and I took chances and was more than a little bit crazy. I made cow costumes for my actors in Lee Wilhelm’s Cow Tales out of painters’ coveralls and cutouts of black and brown and rust-colored felt. I made the lady cows’ udders out of pink balloons, slightly filled with air, which I covered up with little fleece curtains they could draw back when they were flirting with the steers. It always got a big laugh from the audience. There is a special sense of satisfaction from hearing a laugh in your head when you are putting something together for the stage, and watching it unfold in real time.
The plays I directed were entered in festivals and competitions. Some, like UnBeatable HAROLD, by Randy Noojin, and Tour di Europa, by Jules Tasca, were published. Others, like Unseasonable Weather, by Deborah Ann Percy, were not.
I turned my apartment into my own version of an artist’s studio, with as much of a northern New Mexico desert feel as I could mange, incorporating the sensibility of the Southwest into my post-corporate Black Rock CBS life, washing away the meetings, washing away the fluorescent overhead lights, washing away the linoleum-tiled floors. I hand-painted my oak wood floors the colors of sand paintings my mother had given me, made folk art mirrors embellished with Milagros from Mexico and Peru, and made New Mexican enchiladas and posole for friends.
I poured over my father’s letters to and from relatives in Italy and learned his language, which I didn’t remember hearing from his lips before he died. I carried around photographs of him with the small plane he and my mother had owned, and I longed to learn to fly so I would know something that he had known, so that I could do something that he had done. I traveled to Italy and studied Italian in his homeland so I could do research in the Archivio Storico in Parma without sounding like a dilettante American woman pretending to speak Italian.
One summer I rented an apartment in Siena during the month of the famous Palio horse race, and met a man who belonged to the AeroClub. Mauro took me flying in his Piper over the hills and valleys of Tuscany, no control tower to report to, no flyover rules, no rush to land.
I promised myself when I returned to New York I would learn to fly. It took me many years but I did learn to fly a glider in Julian, Pennsylvania, then to fly power in Virginia and Kentucky. Flying over the country I got used to Touch & Gos at grass airfields, which had once knitted the United States together, capillaries that sent energy into distant landscapes explored only by those who had discovered the magic of flight.
To this day, whenever I drive cross-country and see a grass airfield beside the highway, I pull over and watch taildragger crop dusters take off and land. Sometimes pilots will come in just for Touch & Gos. Sometimes people will just be hanging out to the side of the runway.
I imagine my parents in their small Taylorcraft flying from Washington, D.C. to West Palm Beach, Florida to Nashville, Tennessee to New Mexico after the War, flying to a new life, to freedom, to beauty, to family, to their future together.
I remembered stories my mother had told me about all the things my architect and engineer father loved to do–fly, draw, cook, build things, travel, write–and I wondered why some people are attracted to focusing on just one thing they love while some of us are compelled to do many.
One afternoon last fall, after my apartment had received many coats of fresh paint, I sat on my living room floor with the sun pouring through the window blinds, facing my father’s old leather suitcase in which I kept all the letters and cards I had collected during my life, and the old Mexican tin trunk, in which I kept most of the envelopes of photographs I had also kept throughout my life. There were letters shared between my parents, old magazines and clippings my mother had sent me, and cards and notes and mementos I had received from all over the world.
I spread out the postcards I had printed to market the jewelry I started to design while I was acting and directing–because I couldn’t find anything in a store I wanted to wear–and remembered the inspiration behind every piece, most of them inspired by nature–Gloriosa, Brugmansia Sunray and Madonna Lily earrings in oxidized sterling silver with semi-precious stones, Chile Pepper and Okra Pod Earrings in18k Rose gold, a Lemon Peel Ring in 18k special yellow gold, mismatched Whorl Wedding Rings with diamonds in 18k Rose gold, and matching Tingari Pinky Rings in 18k Rose gold with Carnelian cabochons, inspired by Aboriginal paintings I had seen in an exhibition at Christie’s in Rockefeller Center.
And I remembered being in New York City on 9/11 and everything that happened that day and in the weeks and months afterward.
So many talented men and women who gave their talents to my business suddenly left the city to find stable work. Who could think about buying jewelry when so many people in New York City were hurting? I was proud to have made my jewelry with New York talent, and to have paid them with money I earned from commercial residuals. But life changed overnight, and when gold went from the $238 an ounce to over $280 and kept on rising, I realized it was time, once again, to make yet another change.
We are always evolving, if we allow ourselves to, like a garden, like the seasons. Unable to continue my business, I turned my attention to the book of literary nonfiction that had begun to take shape in my head when I was directing theatre. Just as I had worked at CBS to fund my study of theatre, I devoted myself to working in the art world to fund being a designer and a writer.
I learned Italian and went to Italy to research my father’s (and my) ancestors. Inspired by the difficult life my mother had after my father died, and by her friends who struggled to become artists with limited finances, I wrote essays about women and work and creativity for various journals and magazines. I longed for a publishing medium that would allow me to bring together the artistic disciplines and arts I had long practiced–dance, performance, design, photography, directing, literary nonfiction, my spoken voice–but such a medium does not exist.
Sitting in the sun on my apartment floor that afternoon, I thought there are no such things as transitions in life. A life is like a movie, one long connected strip of film, underscored by a soundtrack, perhaps in black and white, or color, or both, all sorts of characters entering and exiting the frame and the story, the plot unfolding in tandem with the day-to-day experiences of the protagonist, who cannot control or even begin to imagine how or why or when, or in what landscape, it will all come to an end.
Now I have returned to the disciplines of photography, videography and tableaux making, remembering those afternoons long ago in San Francisco spent foraging in the tide pools on the Northern California shore, gathering seashells and sea glass among sea-foam and seaweed, watching octopuses and sand terns, along with beach crabs and elephant seals, listening to the cry and call of the surf and the wind, each and every memory reminding me to scoop up into my heart all that I have ever done and offer it up to myself in celebration of being alive.
And as I have always done, I will invent and explore a new way to express what I discover.