The confessional smelled of pine tar soap. Or maybe it was the priest, or a combination of his holiness and the cramped quarters. I was having a difficult time differentiating between the two in the oddly suppressive light streaming in from I can’t remember where. It was my first time inside the booth, although my twelfth birthday loomed in the near and I was well past the typical age when a Catholic kid first makes a first confession. Instead of peering through the gaps in the screen to get a bead upon my confessor, I focused on the scent of pine tar soap. It afforded me a sense of reality where the priest and the sacrament could not.
Paul Horgan, in his Pulitzer Prize winning history, Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History, suggests that the Anasazi may have abandoned their cliff dwellings because their gods abandoned them. Imagine the feeling. They had no choice but to go looking for gods, new or old no matter. A North American götterdämmerung of sorts, marked, possibly, by catastrophic violence, depending on how particular groups or individuals reacted to the gods packing up and making tracks. Somebody, it seems, would had to have taken the blame. Retribution. Punishment for sin.
Götterdämmerung is an interesting concept, literally translated as “twilight of the gods”. It is not new. In the case of the cliff dwellers of the American Southwest, I cannot help but wonder if the history of those people, centuries of wandering through prehistory—a timeless landscape filled with spirits and ghosts, a place of repetition through cycle, season and daylight and the waxing and waning of the moon, heartbeats, menstruation—is marked by a pattern of catching up with old gods, or finding new ones, only to be abandoned once more. Tragedy leading to heartbreak transmogrifying into paranoia with a tendency toward ritual sacrifice. Oh, God, why have you forsaken us, again? At times I wonder if this is the story of humankind in general, for we are a species of wanderers, our ancestors, ourselves, our children. We seem to always be searching for ourselves.
I lived for a year in a Hogan, a wood stove designating its core, in the middle of the Navajo Nation. Built from heat capturing brick, the Hogan boasted (some traditional Navajos might say it was cursed by) a refrigerator, electric stove, satellite television and DSL Internet access. I had accepted a position teaching English at Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona. In danger of burning out too young teaching at a land grant university in New Mexico, one day blearing into another, too many words and not enough meaning, I, on a whim, applied for the open position, was granted the interview and offered the job. I negotiated with the administration of the state university for a leave of absence in case things went sour on the Rez. Leave granted, I packed up my bags.
My wife, Wendy, infected by a similar malaise, had encouraged me to apply for the job and climbed behind the wheel of our red Pontiac Vibe with a smile on her face the day we, along with our two dogs, a blue heeler and a blue tick hound, set forth on the adventure. I climbed into the driver’s seat of a 17’ U-Haul thinking a new scene might be the best medicine, battening our mental immune systems against the onslaught of familiarity.
My relationship with the Catholics began long before my mother remarried. Several years prior to her taking up with the man who would become my stepfather (I can’t remember exactly how old I was at the time, caught somewhere in the throes of innocence commingling with experience, a kind of dreamtime punctuated by intrusions of reality), she accepted an invitation from a newfound friend to visit a Catholic Church, St. Anthony’s, in downtown Casper, Wyoming. I remember the dandelion-infused lawn in the park across the street from the church, the cottonwood trees exploding green and the singing of morning birds as the light cascaded from the heavens to nourish the living. In honor of the occasion my mother dressed me in a pair of new, brown, bellbottom, corduroy pants and a button-down shirt mustard yellow. My sister preened in a white dress with a pink bow tied around her waist. Mother’s new friend had kids, a whole litter of them, and one boy named Ronnie happened to be near me in age. When the two families came together on the park grass, passersby dressed in Sunday’s best bombarding us with flash grins and nods, the day felt blessed, as if nothing could go wrong. We walked across the lawn toward the church, a big brick building exuding an almost tangible peace.
Inside, our troop took up an entire bench near the back of the building. I sat at the end of the pew next to the center aisle. My mother didn’t need to tell me to sit still or be quiet, as the enormity of the room, the highest ceilings I had ever witnessed, stained glass windows depicting the Stations of the Cross decorating the tall walls, commanded respect. Though I knew nothing of sacristies or transepts or chansels and was too naïve to know I sat in the nave of the church, I understood holy ground when I saw it and acted accordingly. My sister, as usual, felt the need to be center stage, so she chattered and twittered and pirouetted on the pew until the churchgoers occupying the bench in front of us turned around and took notice. My mother allowed the show, enabled it through non-action. The heat of embarrassment colored my cheeks.
The service started with the appearance of altar boys followed by prayer and song. Candles were lit. The priest, dressed in a white robe fastened at the waist by a linen rope, stood at the altar chanting in some unknown tongue. A slight scent of incense tinged the air. In short, the spectacle bewitched. I went through the motions as best I could, kneeling on the fold out kneelers when others did the same, finding my place in the hymnals with Ronnie’s help. The occasion felt like a rite of passage, as if we approached the brink and stood teetering, as if we were waiting for God. I guess we were. I guess we are. But miracles seemed so much more probable back then.
Nobody bothered to tell me that you have to be a real Catholic in order to partake in Holy Communion. When the time came and people rose from their seats to stream into the center aisle, row by row from the front of the church to the back, I continued to do what I had been doing all morning: mimicking those around me. As the people occupying the pew in front of us stood to join the stream, I had it all figured out. Once in the center aisle, you simply drifted to the front of the church where the priest and his cohort stuck something into your mouth and offered a swallow from a golden chalice. No problem. Once the deed was done, the celebrant simply made the way back to their respective seat by making use of the outer aisles. Music, produced from an invisible pipe organ somewhere in the balcony behind me, floated down onto the scene, lending rhythm to the procession.
When the last person from the pew in front of me stepped into the center aisle, an older man with a bent back and a gray ponytail braided tight to the crown of his skull, I followed suit and entered into the flow just behind him. He smelled of pine tar soap. I happened to be fond of the scent because I had wandered upon it at my grandparents’ house one day. My hands slimy from handling worms in their backyard, I marched into grandpa’s bathroom to wash up. From that moment forward, whenever visiting my grandparents, I chose to follow the rules of proper etiquette—made sure to wash my hands after using the toilet, before each meal and even when coming inside after playing outdoors—so much did I enjoy the smell of the brown bar of soap sitting in the dish on grandpa’s bathroom sink. The fact that the man in front of me had the good taste to wash with the stuff put me at ease. I liked the Catholic way more and more with each passing moment. A good fit. Like coming home.
I was three quarters of the way down the aisle, could see the priest placing round white wafers on the outstretched tongues of the faithful, when somebody grabbed me from behind, not a gentle gesture but a rough one, resolute, a hand glomming onto my shoulder with such force I felt the energy course through my shoulder down through the soles of my feet. I must have yapped in fright as the next thing I knew EVERYBODY was looking at ME. The old man in front whirled around and opened his toothless mouth in an ‘O’. A woman in a red dress, a silver crucifix resting on the white skin of her exposed bosom, stood from her pew and narrowed her dark eyes. A moment earlier I had been a nondescript participant in a grand happening, a welcome member of an ancient kin. In the space of a breath I was an outsider, and people from both sides of the nave glared at me as if I was unclean. They knew I did not belong. Shame.
It was my mother’s friend who had seized me. Aghast upon noticing a barbarian about to take part in Holy Communion, she rocketed down the aisle to save me from eternal damnation, a narrow escape to be sure.
According to Heidegger, humans now inhabit “a realm of in-between” in the space where “the No-more of the gods that have fled and the Not-yet of the god that is coming.” Paul Horgan’s theory concerning the cliff dwelling Anasazi, possibly the Mogollon and Mimbres cultures as well, who left the safety of their homes to venture into the unknown, the same feat their forbears undertook before them because their gods, too, had abandoned them, might be more universal than he suspected, a global phenomenon rather than a regional quirk. Instead of waiting for the Not-yet to arrive on its own, huddling between the pink cliffs of the Canyon de Chelly waiting, or listening to the murmuring headwaters of the Gila River for a signal, they packed up and went looking, a Grail quest to be sure, for the Holy Ones, for something greater than themselves. The problem today is we have run out of places to search.
We stopped at Gallup, New Mexico, on our move to the Navajo Nation. It was there that our U-Haul, containing the preponderance of our worldly possessions, was stolen in the middle of the night. As I stood at the second floor window of the La Quinta Inn, the early morning light pouring over the red hills to the north like honey over dried blood, the spot where I parked the U-Haul the previous night was just like my mind: empty.
After the initial shock wore off, we adjusted to our new reality. Tragedy, as it fades, breeds hope. We spent a couple of days in the La Quinta Inn, shopped at Wal-Mart for things we deemed we required right off the bat (having lived near the Mexican border in the Chihuahuan Desert for years, I purchased winter boots, rationalizing I would need them so far north), sipped beer and watched television. Wendy took the call that a New Mexico State Policeman had located our U-Haul on the Navajo Reservation near the border town of Thoreau (pronounced ‘tha-roo’). The news left me oddly perturbed. I didn’t want all the old crap back. It would be like asking a snake that had just shed its skin to put it back on. Luckily, the culprits had rifled through each and every box, extracting everything they found to be of the slightest value (we later discovered they pilfered such paltry items as our rice cooker and popcorn air popper). They left most of our clothes and some dilapidated furniture. Not much else. Took our birth certificates and marriage license and Social Security cards, all of the paper work that defined us.
I didn’t step into a Catholic church again until my mother married the Polish man. In fact, I don’t remember stepping into any church at all, Catholic or otherwise, and, with the burden of God lifted from my childish shoulders, the magic of the world, its horror and beauty, flowed seamlessly, time a trickling stream always seeking the lower, so that the natural world, not the manmade, aroused my spiritual salacity. The holy had no way of abandoning me in those years, unless the world itself were to disappear. I did not fear for my soul.
To this day, the scent of pine star soap causes me to twitch, just under the navel and a couple of inches inward. I don’t remember what I confessed to the priest. I’m fairly sure I had yet to commit a mortal sin up to that point in my life. But how can anyone be sure? The catechism teacher was vague on certain points, like if merely thinking something ‘evil’ constituted sin or if one had to actually do the deed in order to be allowed the legitimacy to confess it to the priest. It seemed to me that if everybody had to confess each and every unclean thought, the priests might die of boredom. But the prospect of hell did not sit well in my brain. Fear churned in my guts as I sat in the confessional. A spot under my belly button, a couple inches into my intestines, felt like an element on an electric stove glowing red.
The priest provided me with my punishment: ten Hail Marys and ten Lord’s Prayers or something of the like. Stepping out of the confessional, I found the lectern where the priest stood on Sunday mornings unmanned. Except for a few of the faithful kneeling in the pews, heads bowed, I was alone. I had managed to convince my mother to allow me the dignity of attending the hearing by myself, without the added insult of invited guests waiting to gawk at the newly forgiven boy. My older sister, for once, worked to my advantage in that her first confession, given the week prior, was more or less private (she was older than me by a couple of years and did not desire the spotlight shining on a freak far too old for a first confession). The pounding in my ears subsided. The ground stabilized under my feet. I walked to the exit and dipped a finger in holy water and touched it to my forehead. I stepped out into the sunlight. My mother waited for me in our car parked across the street.
If there is a God, where did He, She, or It come from? This question has been posed by children and philosophers throughout the ages. The only viable answer it seems: nothingness. But how can one get something from nothing? Aristotle argued for an unmoved mover, that there must be an immortal, unchanging being, ultimately responsible for all wholeness and orderliness in the sensible world, a concept that has pestered Western Civilization into the present. On the other hand, borrowing from the pre-Socratic Heraclitus and the Chinese I Ching, the only constant in the sensible world is change. How can there be, then, an unchanging being if, by the very definition of being, we mean change? For the Anasazi, one could speculate, the gods, instead of unchanging, evolved along with the rest of creation. How else could they pack up and abandon the very people who worshipped them, literally moving away from the region to who knows where, thus changing everything, even themselves?
The Crips graffiti tagged on road signs lining Indian Route 12 leading to Diné College shocked Wendy. And the signs were not the only objects hit. Sides of abandoned buildings, husks of rusting cars, empty water tanks, virtually anything manmade (a revolt against modernity?), proved to be fair game for the wannabe Navajo gangbangers. I never learned why the club of choice happened to be Crips rather than Bloods.
The preponderance of students in my classes at Diné College—much the same as college students I taught in the Appalachian Mountains or near the Mexican border or bordering the Alaskan wilderness—predominately Navajo, were addicted to technology. They carried smart phones and iPads, Kindles and Nooks, iPods and MP3s as if their lives depended on them. A significant portion of the students sported t-shirts boasting logos of bands from the bygone era of my own glory days: Black Flag, The Misfits, Black Sabbath, TSOL. I had stepped into a time warp and now served as the teacher of disaffected youth that was once me. Different in context but in essence the same. Strange. Not strange.
Caught in-between traditional Navajo practices and beliefs and the contemporary world of instant communication across the globe, the Age of Information, these young people looked to the rebels of the past to guide them. The problem: those would-be revolutionaries, the same ones I turned to in my high school days, radical punk rockers and heavy metal idols, were agitators whose creed was destruction. They were not creators. Something was wrong, they felt it in their souls, but they hadn’t a clue where to go or how to fix it, so they strove to tear it down. For far too many of those young Navajos, the future of the Navajo Nation, the old gods had flown and the new ones had not yet arrived. The act of abdication left them discombobulated and lost, holding the proverbial bag. The question: to go looking for them outside the Rez or wait and see if the old gods might return or some new ones might stumble upon the scene? In-between: distracted by the very technology they relied on for focus; betrayed by the seeming freedom of cyberspace; wholeheartedly embracing relativity (though most knew not the meaning of the term) in order to cope with the perpetual onslaught of information—everywhere, all the time—they teetered on the brink of nihilism. For if everything is relative, one view is as good as the next and all are ultimately meaningless, leaving the world without the cleansing powers of transcendence or the possibility thereof.
On the brink.
Our voices rolled through the Hogan—picking up momentum, like water plunging downward—partially due to its design—the circular structure partitioned into three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen and a living room—and because, for the most part, it was, even after we unloaded our meager belongings, vacant. The thieves didn’t bother taking our lumpy bed, the frame of the box spring mattress fractured in two places, or the loveseat, the tan leather upholstery worn thin and faded, but those items weren’t enough to make the place feel like home. A buzzing blankness stalked my being like something forgotten begging to be born.
In the ensuing months, I failed to elude the emptiness that shadowed my days. Both Wendy and I had grown up in the country, so the fact that we were twenty-five miles from the nearest grocery store in Chinle, AZ, failed to account for the feeling. Chinle also boasted a hardware store, a Holiday Inn that served mutton stew on Thursdays (an acquired taste to be sure, nothing like lamb, and at first I refused to believe the meat came from the same animal), and a pretty good cafeteria near the Canyon de Chelly where tourists congregated. I walked miles and miles with Wendy, hundreds of miles in the space of months, admiring sunsets igniting the red cliffs of the Chuska Mountains, pinion pine near the rippling waters of Tsaile Lake, white pelicans of spring and geese and ducks following the turn of seasons. We befriended a good number of roaming rez dogs and livestock—sheep and goats and horses and cattle and donkeys. Constantly reminded by the people at work that I was bilagáana (an outsider, roughly equivalent to the Greek term ‘barbarian’ from my understanding, a derogatory term to be sure) I felt grateful for the tolerance shown by the animals; it was among them I felt most at home . The months passed and I felt more and more isolated, a stranger in a strange land, and I savored the fact that I had bargained for a leave of absence at my old job. Lines had been drawn on the Rez. I would never fully fit in. But I had never fit in anywhere, not even with the Catholics after advancing to and going through the ritual of confirmation into their tribe.
In the first moments of realizing the U-Haul was gone, I experienced a strange sense of freedom. Standing at the window of the La Quinta Inn, the morning sun suffusing the rusty hills north of the town of Gallup with an almost palpable vibe of germinating potential, I forgot that I existed. In that forgetfulness, I remembered: we humans locate ourselves in time and space by naming ourselves this or that, by following this god or that science, but these, time and space, at the end of it all, are constructs as well, nothing more, tools with which to navigate. Tear it all down and what is left? Nothing. No abandoning gods. No need to go searching for them. No tribes. A deep loss in which freedom is found.
We had been back from the reservation for a couple of months when, upon returning from work at my job at the state university, I hurried to let the dogs out (our blue tick hound is old now and so is her bladder). After throwing a tennis ball for the blue heeler a couple of dozen times while the hound nosed seedpods fallen from the sky-reaching honey locust in our backyard, I decided to get a drink. Inside, a small, rectangular, black and forest-green box on the dining room table caught my attention. Lettering on the box announced that it contained a single bar of soap: “Grandpa’s Wonder Pine Tar Soap Since 1878,” to be exact. Wendy, just returned from the food co-op, said she bought it on a whim, thought I might like the smell and that, having an antiseptic quality, it might help control my stinking feet. I had never told her about the priest or the confessional or the old man with the gray ponytail, the ‘O’ of his mouth when he learned I was an imposter. And there was no need to do so then. I wasn’t the same person. I had moved on, leaving my old self behind.
I opened the box, took out the bar, and held it to my nose. I thanked Wendy and made tracks for the shower. Time to scrub off the old skin and allow the latest version to emerge. Rivulets of water ran serpentine down the shower curtain as I lathered the dark brown bar into white by rotating it between my palms. The spot just below my navel and a couple inches into my guts began to warm. Though I hadn’t stepped inside a church in a long, long while, it felt like a sacrament.
A becoming ritual.
An emptying prayer.
John M. Gist’s creative nonfiction and short stories have appeared or are forthcoming publications such as Superstition Review, Prick of the Spindle, The Fiddleback, Dark Matter, Left Curve, New Mexico Magazine and others. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2012. He has three published novels and is co-author of the philosophical work Angst and Evolution: The Struggle for Human Potential. He currently teaches Creative Writing and Literature at Western New Mexico University. He lives quietly with his wife and two dogs.