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I still savor that New Mexico blue.
There is a color of blue I’ve only ever seen in New Mexico. It’s the particular shade of the Sangre De Cristos in the distance. It’s darkened by juniper and pinon blending higher into ponderosa, and nearly black in the shadow, under dusk or summer monsoon rain clouds, and all along the thick line where the ridge meets the sky.
That blue color, bruised, like rain mixed with charcoal, slowed me as I drove south into New Mexico yesterday. Immediately, I wanted to compare it. Are the mountains the same blue in Nevada? No. It’s a similar blue, but not the same. In Nevada, the white playa sets off a more radical, nearly tropical shade in the ranges above. This particular blue is a melancholy color. Less dramatic, more sepulchral, with the dry saffron scrub desert beneath.
I was driving south to Sante Fe, carefully drinking water from a bottle I’d been nursing all day. I wasn’t worried, but I was cautious, having woken up dizzy that morning and disoriented in the hotel room in Colorado. All the previous night, I had been plagued by the feeling of rocking in turbulent waters. I got out of bed with exaggerated care, taking sips of water and resting my hand along the wall as I walked to the hotel room window. The sun was rising over the foothills. I stood at the window and drank from my water bottle until I felt fine enough to drive.
Just across the border, in the first long valleys of New Mexico, I recognized that blue in the distance. It’s a favorite sight-memory, even though—and maybe this isn’t odd as I grow older—I seem to be abandoning the need to have favorites. Favorite movies, favorite music, favorite colors. I still claim one occasionally, and then let it loose again. None of it seems to matter. I’ve enjoyed the loss of my old pointless fervencies. I don’t need to hate everyone my friends hate. I don’t need to learn the lyrics to all the songs I like or hold opinions on topics I only partly care about. It’s been a long time since I’ve considered whether anything is “cool” the way I would have as a teenager. All of that has fallen away with time.
I wouldn’t claim a favorite color now, but driving south across the border, I could still savor that New Mexico blue. I loved it the way we love once-familiar things we’ve forgotten. I did claim it quietly as my own favorite again, if only for that span of highway into the mountains. I savored that small favoritism, pleased to know I would easily leave it behind.
In the darkest hours of last night, I was awake. This was the second night of sickness, now anchored to the bed in Santa Fe. I kept my eyes screwed shut while everything spun around me in the dark. When I opened them, the room took its form in stages. I had carefully covered any lights around the room before going to bed. The display on the microwave. The face of the bedside alarm clock. Only the wan gray lamplight from the parking area seeped under the window curtain to outline the features of the furniture around me. As I glanced from the window to the wooden dresser to the closet, taking short breaths, the world gradually centered. I was comforted, though still woozy. I turned back to the pillow, closed my eyes, and felt the room tilt off its gravity again.
I dreamed of boats in the ocean. I dreamed of my own vertigo, and when I woke up again this morning to see light streaming across the hotel room, I believed for a moment that it had only been a dream.
I am writing from a bench outside the hotel room in Santa Fe. I have been here a while, drinking slowly from a bottle of Mexican Coke. I had been planning to leave an hour ago. I am running behind on the day’s drive, but I have accepted that. I can’t do anything about it.
I am looking at the light, that special New Mexico pale white sunlight. It is painting its way across the adobe facade of the hotel rooms in the courtyard. The morning is still cool, but the sun holds the promise of the day’s heat. Another hot high desert day, with the sun so close it makes you weak. I have been sitting here, slowly drinking from the Coke bottle, thinking about gratitude. The unexpected kind.
This summer is hotter than last summer. Last summer was hotter than the summer before. So, given that logic, I should be grateful. This may be the best summer sun of my future memories. Even though it’s the kind of August sun that bleaches the sidewalks. This afternoon, as I cross the state line, it will prickle my left shoulder through the car window and burn my jeans into my thigh. But this is the only sun we have this year, this blunt, angry instrument. It is better than next year’s sun. I know, by tonight in Kansas, I will be thinking of the flat plane of butter yellow, spread all over the hotel. I will already be missing it. I am beginning to miss it now. Each turquoise window frame shines in the light.
Another blue. As I woke up today in my private storm, I thought of Joni Mitchell. Not because of the window frames. Because of the pitching of the room.
“I’ve been to sea before.”
I held the sheets between my fingers and pressed my eyes shut while everything spun. I don’t know why I thought I should try to stand. It was a mistake. I took a step forward, then another. I leaned against the pink wallpaper. Then I thought with sudden clarity, I am going to throw up. It felt so strange to know it. How many years has it been since I've felt sick like this? A decade? I looked at my overnight bag across the room. I thought of how vast that space was, nearly eight feet across the carpet. I was never so aware that perception is a boat only thinly tethered to the shore. If I closed my eyes, the boat would spin off entirely into the waves.
I pushed away from the wall. I made it three steps into the room, three quick steps to the side wall with the long counter and the sink in the middle, and I vomited into the sink.
Knowing how sweet this feeling is, the patient, gradual relief from discomfort, taking slow sips from the Coke bottle, watching the sunlight move across the brick patio of the hotel… knowing that life is about this, how should I make my choices?
I have taken an hour, a rare pleasure, to recover in Santa Fe. I haven’t been able to do much but sit on the bench and let my thoughts clarify. I know that life comes down to the simplicity of pain. When it arrives, when it releases. The moment it departs is the kindest moment we’re given. That precious gift of awareness. Sunlight is never so comforting. A feeling of solidity against the bench. Knowing all this—about pain and about sunlight and how I have only so many hours in my one life—how do I live?
I have always been ruthless with myself. I know it. I am pitiless. You haven’t done enough. You haven’t done enough. I am in the flow of 8 billion bodies rushing forward, shoving past each other. How do I find my place in that wave of human ambition? I had meant to leave the hotel by 8am and drive onto the interstate to join the rush of the day.
Instead, an hour after I meant to leave, I am still savoring the sweet, slow recovery of my body. I felt so sharply this morning how my body could fail me. My face against the cold sink. I could only pass cold water through my mouth, run cold water over my face. I could only fall down to the floor. I sat and drank slow sips of water on the floor for a half hour before the discomfort lessened and I moved outside to this bench. It still feels like a miracle, the taste of Coke syrup and the touch of the cool air moving across the patio. I should always be this grateful. I should always be so kind to myself.
As I first sat down, I could feel my heart in my chest, the continuous pulse of blood in my shaky arm as I lifted the bottle for a drink. That sensation is fading as the systems of emergency in me return to normal. I can picture the current of blood slowing.
If I am honest, even with my grown-up knowledge of the world, I still imagine my whole circulatory system in blue. Even now, I’m holding on to that childish notion. I don’t know where I picked it up. I used to be absolutely certain of it. And, despite knowing otherwise now, some unlistening instinct still wants to believe that my blood is blue before it hits the air. A deep human shade of sapphire, or cerulean, or even lapis lazuli blue. Somewhere deep in the secrecy of my veins, a color that can never be witnessed, changing the instant it’s observed. I know it’s wrong. Blood is all red, all the way through. But in a lovelier world, we would discover it was blue this whole time.
I read something like that recently. An essay by a cosmologist, writing in the New York Times, suggesting the actual universe might be that way. Not blue, but unobservable. It might only exist in secret.
I don’t speak the language of quantum physics, so I’m sure I’m garbling his theory, but essentially the cosmologist said that, by observing the universe with our satellites and space probes, we may have altered the material of what exists out there. We are unable to witness any physical thing as itself because, as we observe, our observing eye changes the equation of what we see. I don’t fully grasp how that works, but it makes some kind of sense to me. The universe is like a story.
An untold story is always altered in the act of telling. And don’t our memories alter each time we revisit them? In describing what we see, we always end up describing ourselves. The closer we come to the edges of the universe—the closer we are to the edge of what can be known—the more our facts will continue to dissemble on us. Atoms shifting in and out of view. We ourselves are a product of this shaky universe, and our uncertainty finds its lineage far back in the black silence of the uncertain universe we come from. Given this, I suspect humans will always be better at stories than facts.
I’m not too troubled by my sickness this morning. I would be, maybe, if I hadn’t wobbled on these seas before. My mom had vertigo a few times when I was a child. I inherited her high arches and her soft voice along with the rare bouts of dizziness. There are worse inheritances. Three days of sniffling allergies, followed by a steep climb in altitude. What did I expect?
The universe would not be still for me this morning. I had to be still for it. And I am grateful, even for the loss of an hour. I am grateful for the enforced pause. I haven’t been looking forward to today’s drive, and even an unpleasant excuse to stay in Santa Fe a little longer is welcome. Soon, I need to gather my things and leave. I need to say goodbye to the west for a little while. I will wind down the highway from the blue mountains onto the prairie today. Those pale, featureless, blue-less skies ahead.
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