Notes on Being a Newcomer
Moving to a place where life sometimes moves into the subjunctive mode
by Sara Boyett
Over the years we've had a writing contest, we've received many an essay on "why I moved here" or "my new home in New Mexico." We've resolutely resisted them, sometimes with a snarling, "Who cares?" So the fact that Sara Boyett's account of being a newcomer earned a spot as a finalist in this year's contest tells you it must be extraordinary. Her elegant writing and distinctive voice made us care, as it will you.
Being a newcomer is like being a toddler. You're buoyed by wonder at everything, including your own self and any vestigial streams of glory you may be trailing. It's hard to say at what point one leaves "newcomerhood" and walks into the light of common day. It's an elastic concept, stretchy enough to make a honeymoon last a lifetime. After almost a year in Silver City, I'm still a toddler, taking in my new hometown with the eyes of a child rather than those of a woman on the western slope of middle age — also an elastic concept.
Some of the towns where I've lived are forgettable, especially those that had already surrendered to the advance troops of globalization before they or I had ever heard that word. But a few untamable ones live on for me, guarded by love and memory — fiercer opponents than even the passing of years. Those places had something special about them, something that made them unforgettable.
What makes this place special to me? People don't seem to outgrow the honeymoon, or if they do, they embrace a second one later. Some whom I've met are returnees, back after trying to live elsewhere. Natives and transplants alike remain enchanted, looking with new eyes, even after decades in residence. Maybe those who didn't love it self-deported.
Those who came and stayed tell stories, good ones, of how the universe moved so they could move here. In my case I had no intention of ever leaving the beautiful valley in western Montana that had been my home for years. But an invitation from a friend to explore some of the Southwest stretched me out on a bank of the Gila one mild January day in 2011. If you say a river's name enough, baptize your heart in its water, sometimes it will say yours back. Everyone should have a river to love.
Once back in Montana, I fell for a little adobe house in Silver City as hard as I'd fallen for the Gila. I began an Internet affair with it — visiting multiple times a day via the virtual tour on the Realtor's website. After a month I couldn't stand it. I booked a flight and made an appointment to meet the house in person. Within 30 seconds of walking in, my heart and head began a duet of "I'm home, I'm home." I signed a purchase agreement 24 hours later — an agreement contingent on selling my Montana home.
The universe, when it leaps to your heart's bidding, can leave you pleasantly whiplashed. I hadn't even gotten home, had stopped by the post office to pick up my held mail, when I ran into someone who wanted to buy my house. Two weeks later we signed a purchase agreement, and two months after that I drove, in a packed car with a drugged cat, into Silver City.
As a transplant from a cold place, I sometimes just sit, grinning at this gift-wrapped climate. I've never wanted to live in the true desert. I would go mad living where the sun shines all day every day. In Silver City I've found what I call "lace-curtain winter." My next-door neighbors, Carol and Tom, have been here 22 years. Last fall he told me, "You can see spring right through winter." In February, when their bare almond tree slipped on a lacy white prom dress, I understood what he meant.
I've found that the sun at this elevation and latitude isn't entirely your friend. In fact, it can be a bully. When I arrived I was annoyed by all the cars with darkened windows. I want to see if other drivers see me. I assumed they were just trying to be cool, in the figurative sense, "to see but not be seen." Now I know how sun eats upholstery and dashboards wholesale, not to mention unhatted heads. The point was reinforced recently in a small but telling way: When I went to sip coffee from the brown mug I'd left sitting in the sun as I read in the shade, I was astonished to find that it hadn't grown colder but hotter!
With a different climate came different flora and fauna. I've learned that here a bush can explode, hurling volleys of seed amazing distances, like school-boy-lobbed spitballs. The cat and I both spooked as we rocked on the porch. The threads of scar on my legs attest to the power of a cat's startle reflex as well as the reproductive drive of a Mexican Bird of Paradise. And after backing into an agave that pierced my Achilles' tendon and left me hobbling for two days, I've concluded that plants here are more dangerous than the large carnivores in Montana, none of which ever attacked me.
Another cactus conspired to prick my pride when I brought it home from the nursery not long after moving into the house, which sits in the lee of Boston Hill. It was a handsome barrel cactus that I planned to re-pot and keep on my sunny front porch. Tom and his son were helping me unload the trunk when they saw the bag of potting soil labeled "for cactus." They looked at each other and started laughing. "What's so funny?" I asked. "Uh, Sara, look around. Cactus grow just fine in plain old local dirt. How much did you pay for that bag?" When I told them, they laughed even harder.
When I knew I was moving here, the first person I consulted was Sibley — that is, his Field Guide to Birds of Western North America. I wanted to learn about my new avian neighbors. I spent hours poring over each species' color-coded range map, rejoicing in purple (year round), blue (winter), yellow (migrating) and, best of all, orange (summer), which means breeding birds — birds in their flashiest clothes.
But for all the tantalizing new birds I might see, there were grievous losses. White means you're not going to see that bird unless you're lucky and the bird is unlucky because it's lost. It made me sad to learn that the black-capped chickadee doesn't come anywhere near here. For Western Montanans its cheerful call makes cabin fever endurable. They're often the only bird enlivening gray winter skies.
My neighborhood here hosts a variety of bird concerts. Three kinds of dove, in contrapuntal cooing, perform as a triple trio all day long. The Eurasian collared-dove, a closet hysteric and the loudest, has an edge of goofy panic in its "coo coo, cup." The white-winged dove insists on knowing "who cooks for you?" and the sorrowing mourning dove weeps an endless "ooaah coo, coo coo." It could get downright operatic if the Inca dove (a possibility) ever joins in with his "no hope, no hope." There's also the rock dove, aka pigeon, but they mostly hang out downtown looking for a handout and fertilizing the sidewalk.
And I couldn't wait to see a roadrunner! I was amused to learn, thanks to Sibley, that the roadrunner is a member of the cuckoo family. I went around for half a day singing out at random moments, "Who knew, who knew, the roadrunner is a cuckoo?" But wait I did, for a good long while, to see one. Months went by and no matter where I looked, that bird refused to show itself. I was ready to call the State of New Mexico to ask where the hell is our state bird.
Then one January day, as I was pulling out of the rest area just west of Las Cruces, he appeared — high-stepping, no less, out from under that enormous roadrunner sculpture — pointing back at it, I swear, cackling, "That's my daddy, don't mess with me!" The rest of the day I'd let out a small cackle whenever I thought of where that bird finally showed up.
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