Nearly twenty years ago I was an early twenty-something children’s librarian and occasional poet looking for a good graduate school at which to pursue my passion for writing. A former professor of mine told me I should give New Mexico a try. A native Iowan recently returned from a visiting professorship there, she said she’d never seen a place so diverse—hippies, commies, Native Americans, environmentalists, ranchers, foodies, survivalists somehow living side by side. You name it, she said, and New Mexico had it with a side of chiles.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Except that it isn’t, not purely.
I left Las Cruces, New Mexico, as an aspiring writer and return now as an author, but that’s not what’s so poignant about coming back, or so scary. You see, like many men, I’ve often been better and more artful at reimagining others’ pasts then at revisiting my own. When Facebook first hit the scene, for example, friends of mine reported breathless online encounters with friend and frenemies they’d lost track of decades ago. Hearing the giddy stories of their personal exhumations only reinforced in me a decided need to live in the present. I’d stayed in contact with my best friends from long ago, I told them, and if I hadn’t, then maybe they were destined to remain ghosts of the past.
Now, somewhere north of 40 (the age rather than the Interstate), I see that the ghosts return whether you will or you won’t, and that circles, rather than straight lines, describe how life moves, drawing us back in concentric loops while at the same time spinning us forward into the unknown. Life imitates literature that way: like a good whodunit you finish a chapter only to find yourself circling back to suss out the small yet crucial details and divinities you may have missed along the way.
Though it seems like the proverbial blink of an eye, twenty years is a full generation, and as I search online now for professors I had back then, I see that not a single one of them remains exactly where I left them; several have retired and became emeriti; others semi-retired and now teach online; others moved on to teach at other fine universities in the region. One who was especially kind to me tragically took her own life.
Returning to a place you loved at a time when you loved life and all its vicissitudes is like the Heraclitean River, I suppose; the river may be the same, but you who dip your toes in it have changed, and therefore you can never step into the same river twice. And even if you could revisit the places of your past perfectly preserved, as exactly the same person you were back then, would you want to?
For me Las Cruces, New Mexico, even beyond the time I spent there at the university, was a teacher; it taught me that rich didn’t necessarily mean happy; that it was possible for a dizzying variety of divergent people to productively share the same beautiful valley in addition to other lessons big and small. The ruins of the old tuberculosis sanatoriums in the foothills taught me that the desert was once a place to which Americans escaped en masse to heal, and that it will be so again; history, Mark Twain once said, doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
The switchback trails over the Organ Mountains taught me that it was sometimes a good idea to let others know where you were going, and to be mindful of scorpions en route; a greasy-spoon, desert café called the Golden Bull taught me that it’s good to be the kind of person who stays long enough in one place to find your coffee cup still hanging on its hook when you return. The high desert in springtime taught me to hang on, that the winds can play devil; the wet season, when it arrived, showed me that students in the Southwest sometimes need to take “rain days” the way Midwesterners take snow days. The snow on mountains, when it stuck, taught me that every place has a winter, and that every season, in a place as in a life, has a beauty all its own.
Society, it seems to me, pushes young (and younger) men away from circumspection into head-down, get ‘er done unsentimentalism. Remembrance, memorialization, open nostalgia… all these we tolerate (and sometimes celebrate) in men nearing old age or retirement, while simultaneously refusing or denying them to our “young guns” and warriors lest they threaten to unman them.
I for one am grateful this holiday season that I fell in love with a desert town all those many moons ago, and I am doubly grateful, these twenty years later, for the good, hard work of closing up circles—of planting my feet there once again.
The river, I am glad to say, still runs.
Photo: Getty Images