Wednesday, January 30, 2013

I was working on my part to create a lovely day last Sunday. Earlier in the morning I had watched my favorite TV news show, CBS Sunday Morning, a 90-minute program which almost without exception leaves me with a sense of the potential of humankind to do good, in spite of our worst moments. On this day, one of the features was a story on the flower lei in Hawaiian culture, which is a symbol of love and respect—to many people an expression of the spirit. Another story concerned a contemporary Chinese artist, an older guy, whose brilliant work and activism inspire. Even though he is currently not allowed to travel outside his country, his work is being exhibited at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum now.

I was feeling like I had done something to nurture my own spirit, which prompted me to head to a retreat center in the Albuquerque South Valley, where a labyrinth is open to the public. I wanted to center myself, to get grounded as some of us say. When I got there, I discovered that retreat center is closed on Sunday. But as life will have it, one of the resident Sisters was waiting in her car for the automatic gate to open so that she could drive out of the grounds, and my good fortune was her permission to walk the labyrinth, even though it was Sunday. “If someone comes out and asks why you are here, just tell them Sister Kay gave you permission.”

My lovely day continued, and I headed south down historic Isleta Boulevard, which is part of old U.S. Route 66. I was bound for treasure—but the kind you can hold in your hand, put on a shelf, hang on your wall. I am a junker by genetic makeup, even though for the last several months I have practiced denying this by stepping back from the treasure hunting that once occupied a good bit of my leisure time. The hows and whys are another story. Part of my plan for this Sunday morning was to follow the walk on the labyrinth with a visit to a nearby trading post, where in the past I have lucked on to a few finds. As I drove, my lovely day was to be interrupted, however. I spotted a dead cat lying in my lane. “Oh,” I was repelled by the sight. I swerved to the left to avoid the cat, but I didn’t stop to take it out of the road. I never stop when I see what I usually assume to be someone’s pet. Not because I don’t care. I’m just squeamish. And frankly, I don't want to risk being run over by someone in one of his or her worst moments.

I continued toward my junking destination, where treasure lay waiting to be discovered on my Sunday morning search. In the first booth I walked into, a carving of the eagle and snake, the symbol on the Mexican flag, caught my eye. It was clearly the work of someone with talent, but not a professional carver. Naive such work is called. In another booth a small Navajo weaving was folded and laying on a primitive work bench, partially restricted under something else I don’t recall. Around the corner a piece of New Mexican religious folk art depicting the crucified Christ was in a lighted showcase, along with other pieces showcased as important.  The image on this piece was drawn, then lightly carved and colored. INRI—(Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews). The art was done on a foot-long section of a small cottonwood and was marked with a tag “NFS”—Not For Sale. My face showed disappointment, no doubt.

Having taken the weaving and the eagle and snake carving to the front desk and made my way through the small store, I asked the husband, one of the two owners, about the piece marked not for sale. He gave me a little history and then remarked, “Everything’s for sale. What would you offer?” “I can’t do that—it makes me uncomfortable,” I answered. We worked through the uncertainty, and then I carried the religious piece up front, hoping that his wife would agree and give me a price. I beamed when she said okay. Once my little stash was gathered on the front desk, both the weaving and the religious folk art caught the attention of another shopper who inquired separately about each piece. “I’m buying these,” I interrupted, the question not having been directed to me. What a jerk, I thought instantly, about myself and my possessive response to the woman’s attention to my stuff! Like a dog or cat, protecting it’s food dish, or its turf. Tuck that away for further consideration.

As life will have it, I wasn’t going to be let off the hook when it came to the large yellow tabby lying dead in the road. On the drive back north, the cat was still in the road, but now a man in a wheelchair sat on the side of the road looking at the cat. A woman stood nearby. I tried to keep driving, but something in my would-be lovely day told me to turn around and offer to render aid. So I did. I pulled up near the man and woman just as a car was about to exit the driveway to the right of where the cat lay. Parking and opening the door of my car, I asked the man and woman, “Do you need help?”. Of course, they needed help, even though I silently hoped they would say that everything was under control.

So I got out of my car and walked over to the scene of mishap. The woman told me that the man in the wheelchair—I don’t know if they were husband and wife, or neighbors, or if she was his caregiver—was upset because he thought the cat might be his cat. He couldn’t tell for sure. How is this possible, I thought. Except for a solid smear of blood covering the cat’s partially open mouth, its body was otherwise unmarked by the blow it had suffered. Apparently, the damage that had resulted in death was all on the inside. The woman asked if I could get it out of the road. Using the toe of my boot, I worked the body of what I assumed to be a tomcat to the side of the road. At about the same time the young woman driving the car about to exit its driveway caught my attention. I don’t remember what she said, but I asked if she had a plastic garbage bag that I could use for the body. First she brought me two plastic grocery bags. “These won’t do,” I said. “That’s a big cat,” she commented. So I asked again for a plastic garbage bag. Then I used the grocery bags to handle the cat while I worked its body into the garbage bag. A gaseous odor came from the cat’s mouth. I can smell it now, three days later.

After bagging the corpse, I realized that the man in the wheelchair and his woman companion were leaving the scene. “He’s too upset,” she told me, because he doesn’t know if it’s his cat. How is it possible, I thought again. “God bless you,” she added and turned to follow the man in the wheelchair, who was already rolling his way down the side of the road. I was left to finish this job. I asked the young woman if she had an outside faucet where I could rinse my hands. Instead, she invited me into her house and showed me to the bathroom. I heard her talking to someone in another room—her grandmother, it turned out. I walked to where they stood in the kitchen, and where they were still quietly discussing the events, and asked for a paper towel so that I could dry my hands. Then with the help of the grandmother, we managed to contact the non-emergency number of the City of Albuquerque, discovering in the process that their home is located outside the city in the County of Bernalillo. We reached Animal Welfare for the county and were assured by the operator that someone would come to take away the body of the cat. “Most people wouldn’t stop to help,” the granddaughter had commented during all of this. I replied that this might be the first time that I had ever stopped in such a circumstance. I don’t remember. It’s been a pretty long life, and maybe I have stopped at some point on this journey. I shook their hands and excused myself.

My day of loveliness had actually begun on Saturday, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I had started reading a book on the Penitentes of New Mexico, which I had found at an estate sale in the North Valley. This historic group in northern New Mexico is known in English as the Brotherhood of our Father Jesus of Nazareth and for its acts of asceticism and self flagellation, especially during the period of Lent. In his book on the Penitentes, Fray Angelico Chavez writes about Nazirite history. According to a popular Internet source, the proper noun Nazarite comes from the Hebrew word nazir, meaning “consecrated” or “separated”, someone who takes a vow. In modern Hebrew, the word nazir is commonly used for both Christian and Buddhist monks.

I haven’t connected the dots of my weekend, but I know for certain that there is a connection. Isn’t there always, if only we can see it? Some would say, “silly”, at the suggestion of finding a relationship between a book on the Penitentes of northern New Mexico, a man’s loss of his pet (or was it his pet?), and the circumstances leading to stewardship for a short time of a piece of local folk art depicting the crucifixion of the man we know as Jesus of Nazareth. I guess I’m just silly like that.

A Lovely Day—Albuquerque, New Mexico (January 30, 2013)
R. Harold Hollis

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