Truth . . . or Consequences?

I stop in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, for no other reason than the name.  I like how it sounds.  Strange, off beat, unusual.  The town, originally called Hot Springs, renamed itself in 1950 to win a television show contest.  On the show, contestants had two seconds to answer a “Truth,” hardly enough time to even think of a response, or play the “Consequences,” usually some zany stunt like ridging a unicycle or stacking household appliances atop one another using a crane.  It was a big hit in the 1950s and 60s.

Truth or Consequences Municipal Building

T or C, as it is commonly known, is located half way between Albuquerque, New Mexico, and El Paso, Texas, on Interstate 25.  There is not much around except desert, low-lying mountains and military installations.  The town itself is small, still has dirt streets in some areas and has a barren, wind-swept feeling.  As I drive into town, I get the sense that more than one tumbleweed have rolled through these parts.

When I book my room at the Sierra Grande Lodge & Spa, the woman on the other side of the phone says, “Forget coming here!  You should play the lottery.  We just had a cancellation – something that never happens – there are no other rooms available anywhere in town for this weekend or next.”  When I try to explain to her the odds of winning the lottery and how I will save that $1 (though not really), she repeats, “You should play the lottery – you’re clearly having a good luck day.”

I arrive and immediately book a mineral tub soak and massage appointment.  The masseuse and I hit it of famously, and we spend the hour bantering back and forth about health, spirituality, and other new age topics.  Joy, her name which seems to fit, also teaches yoga and tells me how she ended up here on a road trip in the 1980s.  “Watch out if a house suddenly falls on you; it’s how it happened for me.”  Images of Oz run though my mind as she works my back.

As we engage in deeper conversation, Joy pulls out a card from a woman who “reads shaman stones.”

“I hate how everyone puts ‘shaman‘ in front of anything vaguely spiritual these days,” I think to myself, but I am intrigued.

“She’ll read your stones and tell you if you are on the right path,” Joy says.

“I could use a little of that,” I respond.

I get over the “Shaman” bit and call to book an appointment with her the next day.

T or C Reflection

That night I dine at Cafe BellaLuca, a modern Italian eatery a few blocks – walking distance – from the Sierra Grande.  Every table is full and the wait is close to 45 minutes.  “For a table?” I inquire in disbelief.  As a single diner, I am offered a seat at the bar, which overlooks the kitchen.  At first I baulk, not wanting to be on display in the adult high-chair section, but the location grows on me.  The chef chats me up as he prepares dishes for a birthday party, a group which takes up a very large table behind me.

I don’t recall the owner/chef’s name (or his owner-wife’s), but I highly recommend this place if you happen to be in T or C.  He flies in fresh seafood daily and prepares some of the most amazing Italian food I’ve had outside of New York City.  I order calamari, but someone else secured his last portion just moments before.  I watch the Chef make those small fried rings of delight and look for something else on the menu.  I settle on pesto pasta with chicken.  It melts in my mouth.  For climax, I take homemade tiramisu back to the hotel in a biodegradable “to go” container.  I eat it with my hands in bed.  Saliva and chocolate run down my cheek as I doze off for the night.

The next morning I wake early, take another soak, enjoy a nice breakfast on the veranda, then prepare myself for the shaman/medium lady.  I have no idea what to expect, or what I am supposed to reveal in my time with this woman.  As I drive to the address provided, using my trusty GPS, I conjure ideas in my head of what she looks like.  I settle on Mrs. Roper from TV’s Three’s Company with flowing floral dresses and wild, curly, supernatural hair.

As I pull into a trailer park just off River Road, where several neighborhood dogs bark indicating they know a stranger is near, I am greeted by Linda.  She is a woman in her fifties who resembles a grandmother more than anything else.  She seems a little nervous and greets me with a wide smile.  No flowing floral dress, no wild hair.  She is in plain clothes, which makes me a little more comfortable.  Linda welcomes me inside and offers a glass of water, where her two pug children race over to check me out.  One has an asthma attack on my shoe and the other appears so overwhelmed it grunts and sneezes all over itself for nearly five minutes.

“They’ll calm down,” Linda says to me, then continues to them, “Or they will be locked outside.”  On hearing this threat, both dogs stop, lift their eyebrows in what appears to be concern, then go back to grunting and wheezing.  She and I sit and the dogs find something more interesting outside to cough and bark about . . . a bug or tumbleweed perhaps.

Building Art, T or C

Linda gathers up two handfuls of assorted rocks, gems, and crystals and places them in my hands.  “Set your intention with the stones and then just drop them.”  I think about my journey, the health and healing I seek and then let the stones fall through my fingers like large drops of water.  They spread over the black leather tablecloth Linda uses for this purpose, some almost leaving the table completely.

“Very interesting,” she says examining the stones.  “You are close with both your parents, who are, I think, both still living.”   “Yes, yes, but they’re not like regular parents,” I say.  “I see that,” Linda says pointing to a smooth lump of turquoise and another lump of something dark green.  “They were kids themselves when you were young.  You’ve come a long way with both of them.  Good work.”

Linda continues, “How do I say this nicely . . . You have done a tremendous amount of work in getting rid of the old, huh, CRAP in your life,” she says pointing at a small lump of fool’s gold.  “But sometimes that shit sticks around because you dealt with it, but haven’t tossed it out completely.”  “Yes, that’s true!” I exclaim.  It is as if she knows my therapist and all the work I have done over the years.  “Now, what do you want to do with that crap?” she asks tapping the fool’s gold with a pen.  I think about this, look at her, smile, then pick it up and throw it across the room.  Linda cheers and the pugs chase the lump, grunting and coughing.  We spend the next three hours reviewing my life, journey, and next steps.  I toss several stones off the table and move several others to different areas.  It feels good.

After a reading of tarot cards, where Linda tells me I will soon meet a brown-eyed man (I’m still waiting), I say goodbye and climb back into my Jeep.  I exit the mobile home neighborhood, River Road, and the town of T or C.  I hit the interstate and think about the past 24 hours.  I mull over the idea that I have known all along that I am on the right path, especially in taking this road trip, but it is nice to meet people along the way who are there to help me heal.  And in the case of Linda, it is sometimes nice to hear from an external source – one maybe more connected to the divine than myself – that I am heading in the correct direction.

About an hour later, I get a call from my mother.  “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she says.  “I just bought another five pairs of shoes.”  I laugh, glad to have her – and her shoe obsession – in my life.

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My Book of Mormon, Part 2: Baptism

Salt Lake City, Utah.  Saturday Afternoon.  Inside the Family History Library, I’m greeted by Sister Steigelmeier – Mormons call each other sister and brother, “because we are all children of God.”  She is a polite, yet direct, grey-haired woman dressed in a starched navy blue suit that looks uncomfortable.  Her husband is not far away – the pair volunteers here to help visitors find information on relatives in the heaps of historical records collected and managed by the church.

Temple Reflected

She sets me up on a computer with free access to ancestry.com and other databases, and provides a few family lineage worksheets to keep track of any new names or information I discover.  “Genealogy is the number one hobby in the world – practiced more than sports, scrapbooking or any other,” she says while showing me how to log into the church database.  She then leaves to greet a young Israeli couple who have come in search of family history.

I am amazed at the amount of information available with just a name, approximate birth date and location.  Old census records – 1910, 1920 – return household information for some of my ancestors in Minnesota and elsewhere.  I discover a few new names to discuss with my family.

Steigelmeier returns after some time to apologize for not paying me closer attention.  “I didn’t even notice,” I say noting that she – and most everyone else in Temple Square – has been extremely helpful.  She positions a chair to sit down facing me and asks about my journey.  I offer an abbreviated version.  After listening politely, she says, “there is a reason you and I are sitting together right now.  I think you might just find what you’re looking for in the Mormon church.”  I feel my body tense at what I think is coming next: an attempt to convert me.

Dancing in front of the Temple, SLC

Instead of trying to convert me, Sister S. shares her story of finding the Mormon church; she is a convert from the midwest, married and has two grown children who are LDS.  “We are THE church of Jesus Christ,” she says running through a brief church history, mirroring what I learned in the museum.  My body relaxes and I experience a feeling of compassion and connection in bearing witness to her story.  She is simply trying to help me in my journey . . . and she is.  I see that there are more similarities between us than differences.  We are both seekers.

Next she tells me why the church is so involved in the ‘hobby’ of genealogy – it’s a question that has been on my mind.  “We believe that, as human beings, we come into this reality from the spirit world to get our body and prepare for eternal life.”

“I agree with that,” I blurt out.

“Good,” she says.  Then continues: “In the history of the planet, not everyone had the chance to experience the saving grace of Jesus Christ.”

“What happens to those people,” I ask “do they go to hell?”

“We don’t believe in hell in the way that others do – it’s more like purgatory, where souls get trapped in between this world and heaven.”

“So they stay trapped forever?”

“No, the good news is that we have what’s called the ‘Baptism of the Dead,’ where we take names into our temple and baptize them posthumously.  So you can see why knowing your ancestors’ names is so important.”

“What if my dead relatives are not Christian and don’t want to be baptized?”

“God gave us free will, so the dead can either accept or reject the baptism.”

“If baptism is the only way into heaven, you would think that every soul would accept it,” I state.

“Yeah, you would think so,” Steigelmeier responds.

Church Office Building, SLC

The Sister is called away by someone seeking assistance on a computer in the opposite row; it gives me a few moments to digest what I have just heard.  I see that church’s involvement in genealogy comes down to a fundamental desire to help families heal their lineage.  This healing of ancestors is something we do in shamanic work as well – each one of us has the opportunity to help heal not only ourselves, but our entire family history.  It’s just a matter of whether we want to undertake such work.

Sister S., as I am now calling her, returns: “I hope I have given you something to think about,” she says sitting down next to me as if we have to finish an important conversation.

“Now, are you planning to attend a Sacrament Service?,” she asks.

“Yes, but I want to attend the best one in town.”  She chuckles and invites me to her ward.  I accept.

“What do you have to wear,” she inquires.

“I’m on a road trip, so the best I have are jeans and a button down shirt.”

“That’s just fine, everyone will know you are not from here anyway.  And if anyone looks you up and down, don’t pay them any attention – you’re welcome here.”

We shake hands and I thank her for her time and assistance.

Walking back to the hotel, the wall around Temple Square doesn’t seem quite as imposing.  I am starting to see that good spiritual work is happening all over the country in different ways.  I don’t agree with the assertion that any one path is the only or true way to God or healing.  Instead, I know there are many, equally true, paths.

Next, I want to see how this town functions after dark.

To be continued . . .

Dia de los Muertos

“It’s a San Francisco tradition, you really must go,” a friend says while talking about the Dia de los Muertos.  To be honest, I have only fuzzy recollection about the significance of the celebration.  A quick internet search reminds me: it’s about honoring ancestors and the recently deceased.  Given my study of shamanism, I’m excited to experience this cortege.

Face in the Crowd

It takes place in the Mission – the vibrant latin neighborhood – which is sandwiched between downtown, Bernal Heights and the Castro.  In it’s day, the Mission was a scary place.  Not so much any more – experimental restaurants and sheik bars butt elbows with kitschy corner markets and cheap clothiers.  Colorful wall murals dominate the sides of the brick buildings and metal security gates.  Old theaters invoke an earlier era  with names like ‘The Latin,’ ‘The New Mission,’ ‘The Valencia.‘  Some are still abandoned and decrepit, others restored.  It’s a fitting location for such an affair.

On the streets, I encounter skeletons riding bikes, boarding busses, hailing cabs and walking next to me.  They are dressed to the nines in black and white funeral outfits, reminiscent of prom dresses and rented tuxedos.  They carry candles and sepia photos of loved ones. The veil between this reality and the spirit world is thin tonight.

Some of the 13 Standards

At the processional area, decorated banners shoot up into the night air, which is thick with incense smoke.  Hummingbird, snake, rat, wolf.  The drumbeat starts.  Rat tat tat tat, tat tat tat tat.  Rat tat tat tat, tat tat tat tat.  Dancers stomp; beads and bulbs around their ankles rain down on the pavement: Schwoo, schwoo, schwoo.  Schwoo, schwoo, schwoo.  Feathers and totems create a dizzying display of color in the sterile streetlight.  A circle this way, then that.  In unison, then separately invoking the spirit; they honor those who have come before.

Absorbing the intersection of art & movement, life & death, I realize that life today is truly a gift, given by our predecessors.  They imagined and built this world.  They passed family stories and culture down through the generations.  They had the vision of a better life for their children and descendants.  They made it possible for me – for everyone next to me – to walk down this street tonight.  They connect me to the beginning of time and the end.  Through them, I have life.

Dia de los Muertos Dancer

It’s a good opportunity to contemplate death.  It was only nineteen months ago that I attempted to take my life for the second time.  I almost succeeded, then spent eight days in a psychiatric ward followed by another rehab.  Upon reflection, I don’t think I really wanted to die, I just no longer wanted to live being who I was.  My attitude has changed . . . dramatically.  Today I choose to live fully and participate in the creation of a new dream for myself and the planet.  I no longer sit on the bench and watch the world go by.  I can think of no greater honor to my lineage than that.

The procession makes its way up 24th Street then turns onto Mission.  It’s more crowed and the pictures I take now have other people’s cameras in them.  The crowd makes its way towards 22nd.  I leave them there, heading the opposite way into the Castro, where my car and then a good night’s sleep awaits.  Before the drumbeat fades, I set the intention to honor my ancestors – not only on this day, but often.

The Oak Worm Perspective

I ride my bike up to the Blue Sky Lodge pool, which is located in another building a couple streets over from where my mother and I are staying.  My goal: a quick dip in the pool and then relax in the hot tub.  It is a beautiful sunny summer day, although the fog is visible a few miles down the valley.  In an hour or so the sky will go from California blue to grey and white, and the temperature will drop dramatically.  Northern California is locked in a coastal battle between fog and sun.  Who wins each day is sometimes a coin toss, but the fog usually envelopes the valley by evening.

By the pool it looks like a few oak trees are dying; leaves shredded to their veins, they look sick.  I see thousands of webs in one tree and assume spiders have moved in on the dead branches.  The webs are, in a strange way, beautiful: they sparkle in the sun and shimmer in the wind.  After a dip in the salt-water pool, I dash over to the jacuzzi.  Sinking into the warm embrace of bubbles, my mind starts to chatter as it normally does.  I breathe, then notice one caterpillar suspended from a tree on a thin strand of silk.  It almost reaches the deck surrounding the hot tub.  I watch for several moments as the worm twists and turns like a trapeze artist in the light summer breeze.  It swings over the hot tub deck, then over the water and back.

Looking around I see hundreds, maybe thousands, of worms – oak worms – in and around the trees. They have reached infestation levels and are eating the California stock down to nubs.  Their silk strands attach everywhere and groups clump together in odd sexual cluster fucks.   There are no spiders, only worms.  Most trees will survive this onslaught, but it is not pretty to watch.

Oak Worm

I continue to observe the small worm as it contorts itself in a maddening dance above life (the deck) and certain death (the caldron of water in which I rest).  Of course, the worm cannot understand his situation – from his perspective, he cannot tell where he is.  He (or she) is simply driven by a primal urge to leave the tree above and find something (a mate? more food?) below.  How many times have I felt like that worm?  Barely hanging onto a thin strand of transparent silk  that leads up to a world I can no longer see while the wind and world has its way with me.

Sitting in the tub, my perspective is different, larger.  I can see the tree that is full of worms, the bubbling blueish water where dead brown specs float, and the deck where caterpillars inch away.  Not only can I see the situation, but with a slight nudge, I could move the bug one direction, towards life, or the other, towards death.  I wonder to myself if my perspective of the worm is similar to the one that god or the spirits have of us: able to see the bigger picture that we cannot given our limited sight.

I wont say what I do for the worm (if anything).  But it gives me a lot to think about, especially when I watch someone close to me go through tough times.  As I leave the pool and hot tub, I feel a certain amount of camaraderie with that tiny bug who has left the tree for adventures into the unknown.  From my perspective, whether he survives or not, it is well worth the journey!