17 March 2009

Time passages

I was born in a sprawling metropolis, this nation's capital, but I spent my later childhood and adolescence in a small desert town. While I have connections to both, neither ever felt like home any more than the place I live now does. I have been told that I am a desert rat at heart, a true mid-Atlantic girl, a product of the West Coast. Ultimately, I am a creature of the disparate cultures that have shaped me, so it all fits while none of it does.

Traveling the beautiful old neighborhoods of my birthplace, avenues filled with overarching trees, I feel a part of that dense canopy and the surge of the strange life that informs that city. Under the hot open sky of the desert, I learned to find hidden life in out of the way places.

Born in sight of National Cathedral; came of age at a desert mission.

Ritual informs our lives whether we want it or not, and time is marked and measured these by events, those that are formal inductions into the ranks of our peers, and those less formal, rites of passage. When we are young, we squander time, kill time. Time is on our side. Time is all we have. Time is endless, infinite, as huge as we are small.

The sun was dropping toward the mountains in the west as the school bus rocked and rattled over the potholed roads crossing the desert on the south side of town that April Friday evening. The sun sets in the desert in a way I've never seen it set anywhere else, whether I've been near the North Pole, the Equator or out in the middle of the ocean. Darkness starts at the eastern edge of the sky, creating a near seamless horizon with the mountains, cerulean to indigo, and it slowly spreads west, the tiniest diamond-bright stars following the darkness, chips of sparkling light. Crep├║sculo, in Spanish. Twilight.

That spring evening, my best friend SCK and I chattered and giggled as we bounced in our seats, both of us in sixth grade, both of us just short of the age of 12. Because we'd been moved up to junior high early and were deemed suitably mature for this adventure, we were en route to the mission along with all the other junior high age girls the Diocese had been able to round up.

The instruction sheets we'd been given were mysterious. We were to wear dark skirts and white blouses with flat shoes, we were to meet at school in the late afternoon, and we'd be returned to the school by 10:30 pm.

The mission was a local fixture, a place to drag visiting relatives, and to occasionally attend Mass. It was far enough from town to require a special trip, part of that infinite time/space of childhood that made a nine-mile drive on uncertain pavement into the dusty sage and greasewood of that section of the Tohono O'odham reservation a real trek. We would wait, breathless, for the moment that the white church came into view, rising pure and sparkling from the desert floor.

To the east of the mission was a small hill that, again with the perspective of childhood, seemed a huge mountain. When we visited the mission, we'd always climb the path up the side of the hill, fine dust dirtying our sneakers, to the small re-creation of the Grotto of Lourdes, which stood in a fenced, shadowed recess, cool and dry and filled with photos, flowers, trinkets and requests for intercession.

Photo of San Xavier del Bac from the hill taken by Thelmadatter, who has licensed its use in the public domain.

As we got older, my brother and I would wander off the proper trail onto the tiny animal track that led to the three crosses at the top, a mini-Gethsemane, mindful of snakes and scorpions and slippery scree below the little cliffs.

This night was different, though. This night was a mystery. All the years that I'd lived in this area, all the times I'd visited the mission, I'd had no idea that a pageant was held one spring evening annually to commemorate the founding of the mission. And my friends and I were going to be in it.

Go back in your mind to that time of your life when you were 12, that in-between age when you stood with one foot in childhood, one foot in adulthood, both at the mercy of adults and expected to demonstrate the responsibility of one. Remember what it felt like to crave the security of childhood even while you yearned for self-determination?

The bus pulled into the unpaved parking lot of the mission, throwing up that fine brown dust behind it. We were herded off by the chaperones, mothers, if I remember--I don't think any of the nuns were along for the ride--and reminded of our bus number, and where we were to meet up if we became separated from our group. We gathered in the midst of other buses, other groups of girls our age with their own chaperones, shivering in the breeze as the warmth of the day left with the sun. Boxes filled with fluttering blue fabric sat in the lot, and we lined up to receive a cape and scarf, along with a wax taper with a paper ring to catch any drips. In later years, we would carry the ubiquitous Our Lady of Guadalupe glass candles which were infinitely safer than the congregational candles and a lot easier to keep lit.

Already, the mission looked different in the failing sun, not just sitting unaware of its own beauty, but regal, gorgeous in the flood of light washing its facade. Huge crowds were gathering in the area normally reserved for everyday parking, and gigantic teepees of wood stood at intervals with smaller stacks along the front wall.

We trudged up the hill in our good shoes and skirts and blouses, thin blue capes affording little protection from the light wind that tugged at us, raising goose bumps--the high desert is cold at night--and making it difficult to tie the cheap scarves over our hair. There was a momentary tussle over the scarves: we naturally tied them at the backs of our necks under our hair, attractively and fashionably, but the woman in charge of the school girls told us no, no, tie them under your chins. We balked, of course, not wanting to look like old ladies, but eventually capitulated sulkily.

The woman in charge, her instruction sheet crackling, pushed us all--and we were probably more than 50, fewer than 100--to the portion of the path at the back of the hill where we were to hide until we joined the procession down to the mission proper. We would walk in pairs behind the men on horseback representing the Spanish conquistadors, behind the monks. We were pilgrims, devoted to the Virgin in our blue. It would be dark, she warned us, but easier to see once we headed down toward the bonfires. And most importantly, she admonished, "don't scream if you fall over the side." Once the procession was done, we would return our capes and scarves, and we could join the fiesta, watch the dancing.

But we were still reeling from the injunction not to scream, looking at one another goggle-eyed and giggling, not having even considered the possibility of going over the side, more worried about a random rattlesnake. "She can't be serious," one of the mothers murmured.

Oh, but she was, and before she left us, one final instruction. "You may talk among yourselves, but I'd better not hear you!"

And there we were, a group of girls ages 12 to 14, left to our own devices on a chilly hillside until darkness fell. Time passed slowly, as it does when one is anticipating something. When darkness came, it was black dark, moonless, no distant light in that long ago completely undeveloped area. We were afraid to sit or lean against the rocks that jutted from the hillside since we couldn't see what else might be lurking there. The breeze had changed to a frank wind and we fussed over walking down the hill in our nice shoes with slick soles. Getting up here had been hard enough. We waited.

The wind carried the smell of woodsmoke to us, and suddenly the waiting was over. Capes and scarves were adjusted. Chaperones fiddled with matches as we tried to light the tapers, and keep them lit. We paired up, and SCK and I shivered next to each other, arguing over who would get to walk nearest the edge of the path and who would walk on the portion next to the rocks. Snakes and scorpions versus falling off. I chose falling off and she was happy.

"Don't forget we'll be behind the horses," I teased her.

"Oh yuck," she moaned.

We began to move, quivering with excitement. The wind brought us the sound of the mission's bells pealing.

"Don't scream," one of the mothers whispered, and we could hear the humor in her voice. It was a little consolation that they were wearing the capes and dumb scarves too.

The wind hit us with some force as we rounded the hill, causing our light capes to billow out behind us. Suddenly, our greatest concern wasn't falling, it was not setting the pair in front of us on fire. We carefully cupped our hands around the tapers, stumbling over rocks in the dark, sharp pebbles finding their way into our shoes, scarves slipping on our heads.

The world below us glowed orange through the acrid pinon smoke coming up the hill, and the cacophony of the crowd, the bells and the ancient sound system blaring a choir singing the Ave Maria was overwhelming. How to describe something that was at once so miraculously beautiful and simultaneously a vision of Hell? The men on horseback, carrying lances, their mounts prancing and arching their necks, silhouetted black against the spectacle of what seemed hundreds of blazing bonfires, were almost nightmarish.

We slipped and slid down the hillside, avoiding the horses' leavings as best we could, relighting our candles from one another when they invariably went out. My foot caught in one of the innumerable gullies created by water washing down the hill in rainstorms, but I didn't fall, I didn't scream.

We passed through the first pair of towering bonfires, the welcome heat offset by the smoke that burned our eyes. Fireworks erupted in the sky over our heads, adding to the light and noise, and behind us on the hill we'd just left, a fireworks representation of the Virgin of Guadalupe was lit, sizzling blue and white for just moments. We circled the front areas of the mission, walking along the low perimeter wall that separated the mission from the parking lot, and I looked up at the facade of the church itself, cat and mouse awaiting the end of the world, the towers, finished and unfinished, brilliant against the night sky. In the swirling smoke, in a procession of many, I felt completely alone, though very much a part of something huge, swept along on a human tide, walking through time and history, reenacting something very old.

It is my memory that the Tohono O'odham and Pascua Yaqui dancers were performing as we made the final circuit of the procession, though I'm not certain that's accurate. By that time, I was overwhelmed by the magnificent confusion of light and noise, and the faces of watching strangers, red in the firelight.

We returned to the boxes, removed and neatly folded our capes and hated scarves, no longer anonymous pilgrims, but schoolgirls ready to join the fiesta, prepared to buy the best frybread we'd ever tasted, drenched in honey, and washed down with icy soda. We watched the dancing and warmed our hands over the dying fires until it was time to once again pile onto the bus and set off for home, reeking of smoke and sticky with honey, tired and quieter.

No one had fallen over the side. No one had screamed. But we came away different for having walked through cultural history that night, a rite of passage for us that was a reflection of a passage for the entire area more than 200 years earlier. The history of the desert Southwest, often fought over, revisited, rewritten, was no longer just dust under our feet, but a part of us. Over time, the pageant itself became a part of history; it hasn't been performed for something close to two decades and now just lives on in the memories of those who once walked through that night.

Go listen to some good music: "Time Passages" from the album Time Passages by Al Stewart. I was in the pageant for several years and then was a chaperone when my younger sister was old enough to go. It was a truly amazing event. I was able to actually watch it once in the late 1980s, and the spectacle brought tears to my eyes.

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