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.