Rachel’s flight from her California suburb home just outside of San Francisco, landed on an early September morning in Albuquerque. She easily stood out from the other passengers disembarking—a natural beauty with shoulder length black hair that framed her perfectly formed olive skinned face that lit up when she saw me wave.
“I can’t believe I’m here in New Mexico,” she said as we hugged, blocking some of the in-a-hurry passengers.
“I can’t believe you actually were able to get away,” I said. “I’ve planned a busy week ahead, I hope you like ruins, because that’s number one on our list of things to do.”
“Sounds fabulous. But we will have some time to just hang out and catch up?”
Funny thing was, that what she meant by do-nothing time: let’s talk about those things that aren’t easily shared in e-mails and phone calls. That talk took place while we hiked around Bandelier National Monument two days later.
September’s sun, warmed the main loop trail through the ruins of the village, Tyuonyi. We stopped to admire the ruins of the giant kiva—an underground circular structure likely used for ceremony and meetings.
“What I’ve learned about this society is that church and state were one in the same,” I said.
“So no diversity and choice about church?” Rachel said making air quotes around church.
“It’s not easy to imagine a homogenous society today,” I said as sarcasm colored my tone of voice.
“Sounds too easy,” Rachel said before adding,”What bothers me about us today is a need to identify to some religion. Quite frankly, even though my family is all about Judaism, I’m not so sure that’s the answer to making our lives, or me, to be exact, so great.”
“What do you mean? I always think of you as devout.”
“I’ve not been given a choice. How did you break away from being a Catholic? Did your family freak out?” Rachel asked.
“It’s a long story, but essentially I found more connection on Sunday mornings sitting with the trees, finding comfort in gazing at the sky above, or being near a running creek, and so on, than I did with Sunday mass. It was obvious to me that that is where God hung out—not inside a church where we were taught it to be a sin if Sunday mass was skipped.”
“You are such an Earth Mother!” Rachel exclaimed while pulling her hair into a pony tail as the heat intensified around that kiva.
“I’ve heard that name attached to me before.”
“Oh I didn’t mean it in a mocking way,” she said. “I get it. Nature really does give off a different type of vibe than any of the synagogues I’ve been in.”
Rachel took a swig from the bottled water we each carried, wiped her lips, took a deep breath as she stared into the ancient kiva, and confessed, “I’m having a hard time finding faith that I can believe in. Oh sure, I attend and participate in our holidays, bar mitzvahs, and so on, but it’s mostly just to be with family and friends: a commonality between us—not faith with hope and all those things.”
Unsure what to say, I stuck with what was before us. “I never said this to you before, but I’ve always had a tinge of jealousy when you have family gatherings centered on the Jewish faith. Yeah, we celebrated the big two, Easter and Christmas. But other than secular holidays, that was it for meaningful family gatherings. So, my sense is that more meaningful spirituality (which is all we might really want) is finding my place in nature. And I wonder if the people who lived here hundreds of years ago and went underground in kivas to connect with the Earth, were on to something.”
“It’s hard to imagine. I don’t think I’d like living in one of those caves over there,” Rachel said pointing to the caves built into the volcanic tuff. “I gotta say that I feel better and less conflicted as we’ve allowed ourselves to take time to think about religion. It’s given something for me to consider.”
We each took a swig from our bottles of water, and began the hike up the trail to view the cave dwellings above the Tyuonyi plaza. As we walked the long loop trail I shared the fascinating story of Jews in New Mexico: how they came here as converted Christians marching as conquistadors and hid their Judaism during the Spanish Inquisition.
Rachel and I hugged and teared up when I left her at the Southwest Airlines gate at Albuquerque International Sunport.
“This has been a wonderful visit. Tomorrow is Yom Kippur. I’m going to take that day and seek atonement. Maybe if my sins are cleansed, I’ll have a clearer view of my spiritual path.” Rachel gave me a tight hug and said, “Thanks for taking me to Bandelier. New Mexico is truly a land of enchantment. My vision is less clouded than it was when I landed here almost a week ago. Shalom, dear friend.”
Rachel stuck to her Jewish roots and appeared to have found her inner peace with her choice. I hope that the giant kiva we sat by on that sunny September afternoon, helped open Rachel’s spiritual center.
—From a work in progress, “Behind the Turquoise Gate–A California Girl’s New Mexico Memoir”