Back Home? by Esther Nelson

It’s between semesters and as I’ve done for the past three or four years, I’m back in Las Cruces, New Mexico, for the winter break.  I only spend a month here at this time of year and find myself thinking about the time I’ll move here permanently if things go according to plan.

I don’t feel at home in Las Cruces—at least, not yet.  I attend many of the local functions and gatherings advertised in “The Las Cruces Bulletin” such as plays, music programs, art openings at various galleries, the popular Mercado (outdoor market) every Saturday morning, and the public library’s book club.

Every time I’m out here, I plan a couple of trips to nearby attractions—White Sands National Park, The Gila Wilderness, Santa Fe, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and the hot springs in Truth or Consequences.  I’ve also explored the nearby cities of Deming and Silver City.  On this visit, I drove to Columbus, New Mexico, and walked across the border to Palomas, Mexico.  (This is not a busy border crossing.)  Tourists can have lunch at The Pink Store and browse the shop for Mexican crafts.  There are several dental clinics and optometry offices in the area where some Americans go to have dental work and eye examinations for approximately half the cost of those services in the U.S.

I also spent a couple of days in Saguaro National Park near Tucson, Arizona, walking among the cacti—an interesting experience.  I learned that Saguaro cacti only grow in the Sonoran Desert—Arizona, California, and Mexico.  The cacti, if they develop arms at all, don’t do so until they’re at least 75 years old.

There is so much natural beauty, in addition to a wide array of cultural events, in New Mexico and surrounding areas.  One of the difficulties is the great distances one needs to travel to get in on much of it.  I’m reminded of the move I made from New Jersey to Richmond, Virginia, several decades ago.  Many people said to me, “Richmond is a great place to live.  You are just two hours from Washington DC, two hours from the mountains, and two hours from the beach.”  I wondered at the time, “What’s great about Richmond itself?”

I’m trying to figure out these days, as I live intermittently in Las Cruces, if I want to settle down in a place that’s “great” because of its proximity (or distance) to other places?   As it is, I’m two hours from White Sands National Park, three hours from the edge of the Gila Wilderness, four hours from Santa Fe, four hours from Carlsbad Caverns, and two hours from Truth or Consequences’ hot springs.

While in Las Cruces, I’ve been attending the Unitarian Universalist Church fairly regularly. The parishioners welcome me and the coffee is hot, however, I leave the service each time wondering just what it was that I had participated in.

This is a niche I prepared in my Las Cruces home using a variety of symbols that represent aspects of several religions.

Reaching into the world’s various wisdom traditions as the Unitarian Universalist church does in order to find meaning and direction for living is attractive to me.  But I wonder if doing so may be sacrificing depth for breadth, skimming across the surface of several religious landscapes, never landing on any one tradition long enough to mine its depths.  (Perhaps this is a topic for a future essay.)

The adult education classes usually focus on contemporary social issues such as animal welfare, immigration, income tax (living off the grid), and liberal versus conservative values—all great topics.  I thought (and still think) that church might be a way to get to know a diverse group of people.  That hasn’t happened—at least, not yet.  Perhaps I’m still too much of a nomad, never having lived in this city for a very long stretch at a time.

I also belong to Senior Amigos, a place that offers people 50 years old (and above) a place to socialize, exercise, attend Spanish classes, watch movies, do crafts, and hear lectures—usually concerning health issues that plague people as they age.  I only participate in the yoga classes.  I’ve discovered it’s important to arrive at the yoga space early in order to insure a place next to the wall.  (Balance issues.)  The yogis greet me politely before we settle onto our mats.  I do overhear conversations among the regular members before class.  I’ve yet to hear anybody talk about a book they’ve been reading or ideas they’ve been thinking about.  Conversation generally revolves around the mundane—“Did the recycle truck come by your house today?  They missed mine.”

Richmond, Virginia, eventually felt like home to me in spite of being two hours south of Washington DC, two hours east of the mountains, and two hours west of the beach.  While living in Richmond for over 30 years, I’d often visit DC, the Appalachian Mountains, and Virginia Beach.  Yet, slowly (almost imperceptibly), I found myself becoming comfortable within the geographic space where I had landed.  I’ve not experienced any of that comfort in Las Cruces—at least, not yet.

It was easy for me to fall in love with southern New Mexico’s landscape with its wide open spaces framed by lofty mountain ranges.  When I’m not traveling around the area, I enjoy a stunning view of the Organ Mountains from the street in front of my house.


The Dutch painter, Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) wrote:  “It is looking at things for a long time that ripens you and gives you a deeper meaning.”  So perhaps I’d do well to focus on and contemplate what is right before me for a long time.  See where it takes me.  I may eventually, as happened to me in Richmond, Virginia, grow comfortable as I find “deeper meaning” in my new landscape.  Time will tell.


Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.

Author: Esther Nelson

Esther Nelson teaches courses in Religious Studies (Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Religions of the World, and Women in Islam) at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. She has published two books. VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM was written in close collaboration with Nasr Abu Zaid, an Egyptian, Islamic Studies scholar who fled Egypt (1995) when he was labeled an apostate by the Cairo court of appeals. She co-authored WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY with Kristin Swenson, a former colleague. When not teaching, Esther travels to various places throughout the world.

15 thoughts on “Back Home? by Esther Nelson”

  1. “Reaching into the world’s various wisdom traditions as the Unitarian Universalist church does in order to find meaning and direction for living is attractive to me. But I wonder if doing so may be sacrificing depth for breadth, skimming across the surface of several religious landscapes, never landing on any one tradition long enough to mine its depths.” Excellent point – do write that post up? Would like to read it!


    1. Thanks, Carol. I thought of you and your recent housing upheavals while writing this piece. You ask a good question. Why not stay in Richmond? The answer isn’t clear–even to me. Need for adventure? Perhaps a false sensibility that “things” will be better in another geographic space with that “clean slate” feeling? My daughter now lives in Las Cruces so there’s that pull–if you will. At this point, not sure where I’m headed!


  2. Very interesting. I think Virginia is one of the most beautiful states. It’s so green. But I think if I lived there, I’d build some sort of barrier between me and D.C. so I’d feel safer from the chaos happening there. Might proximity to D.C. and the so-called government be part of the reason you’re considering moving clear across the country?

    I was a Unitarian Universalist while I was working on my Ph.D. The first time I went into that church I felt more love than I have ever felt in any other church or other religious site I’ve ever gone to, before or after, and I’ve gone to a lot of houses of worship. I think your wall is terrific.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for commenting, Barbara. I get what you’re saying about DC, however, I rather enjoy traveling by Amtrak up there to spend time at the museums along the Mall area. I think there really is no escape from our “so-called” government these days. It reaches throughout the world. And yes, regarding the UUs and their acceptance of people. I’ve also felt the love there.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love hearing about your story and your perceptions – one point that I have found to be equally true is that no matter where I go the conversation is superficial – I am idea driven and want so much to engage in conversation with depth – I used to think it was Maine – but I see much the same attitude here living among diverse peoples… so I wonder…

    Esther, like you I have been something of a nomad these past few years traveling back and forth from Maine to New Mexico… at first I was quite sure I would move here – easier in the winter – but 4 years into this experiment is leading me back to Maine. I too loved the open skies but now find too much moon – too much light even at night to suit me. I miss midnight black skies and a white moon…. but most of all I miss GREEN and really fresh air. Pollution is a real issue here that no one talks about which I find scary especially since I have developed breathing issues…

    One thing I am learning – “home” has to be inside me wherever I go. I am working to claim that space for myself.

    After spending so much time exploring other places in this area I find that I get the most pleasure from walking to the river and into the Bosque – the familiar meander allows me to sink into a meditative state that helps me say close to me. Your words ““It is looking at things for a long time that ripens you and gives you a deeper meaning” seem to be key to my relationship with self… we do so much traveling and spend so little time in natural contemplation.

    Thanks for this provocative and moving post.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Thank you, Sara, for your thoughts and insight. I’ve visited the Bosque a couple of times as I traipsed through New Mexico. It’s an amazing place which I enjoy superficially–to be sure. And I love what you note about “home” when you write: “’home’ has to be inside me wherever I go. I am working to claim that space for myself.” This is probably key. Also difficult.


  5. Esther, it’s a question I asked myself throughout my adult life. Where are the “think for yourself” women? Living between Florida and Colorado, I’ve found a few and what treasures they are—willing to challenge me, share, and listen. And thank goodness for blogs, distant kindred spirits to connect with.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. As I am a Richmond/Petersburg native, I always enjoy reading about your experiences going back and forth. My family is mostly still in that area (so I visit at least twice a year), but I now live in the Pacific Northwest. I love the lack of heat, humidity, and easy access to wide open spaces.

    I have moved quite a bit in my adult life, for various reasons, and I always connect with the Unitarian Universalist churches as a way of finding my tribe. I find the common thread of our search for truth and meaning to be powerful, but it’s not very “churchy” which is a turnoff for some people. My sister says when she goes to a UU church she doesn’t feel like she’s been to church, which is of course part of the appeal for me. Finding a spiritual path is such a personal thing . . .

    I empathize with finding the right “fit” for this point in our lives . . . I’m still a few years from retirement, but it’s something I’m already contemplating.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Interesting post. I too am in the middle of a geographic “jump” from Mexico to the PNW. Time will tell if it leads to a deeper place connection. As a long-time UU I would note that UU communities are a supportive framework for an individual search for truth and meaning. Hence the light touch on many spiritual faith traditions including, among others, Paganism, Atheism, Wiccans and others. UUs tend to be quite self-guided in their deep dives into their own belief systems. They are also some of the most well-read and travelled folks I have ever met. When I read this site I often find parallel thinking and diversity.

    But the loving communities at UU congregations creates a truly meaningful home for us all. Imagine how astonished I was to find a large and thriving UU congregation here in Ajijic, Mexico! I will be driving 40 minutes across the border from Point Roberts, Washington to attend at the Vancouver BC congregation. Good luck on your search.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I, too, would like to hear a fuller description of your thoughts on the UU church and skimming the surface. I have found depth to be increasingly important in my own spiritual/religious journey, and I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts about the topic. Best wishes in your new home!


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