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Notes on Being a Newcomer

Moving to a place where life sometimes moves into the subjunctive mode

by Sara Boyett

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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.

town view

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.

roadrunner

And I couldn't ait 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.

The next time I went to Las Cruces, however, I was heart-scalded to find that the Big Roadrunner was gone. Gone. The space where he'd stood was so empty it should have been white instead of sky blue. I tracked down the rest-area attendant and asked her what happened. She sighed and said that the artist had taken it away; it was now on a lot in town. She went on to say that people were upset, that she had tourists from all over the country who stopped just to see that roadrunner. One family from Georgia, she said, took a group picture with it every year.

Well, I'm sure the artist had his reasons, but so did the fans of the Big Roadrunner who stopped to see it. I hope he brings it back. In any case, after my first roadrunner (whose full name, incidentally, is the "Greater Roadrunner") I began to see them everywhere, almost once a week. Clearly he's a bird worth waiting for and deserving of the office of New Mexico State Bird even if he is a cuckoo.

 

As a transplant from the north, where crawling insects are less numerous and flamboyant, I'm both fascinated and alarmed by the local bugs. I actually like spiders and let them live in my house as long as they don't pursue an expansionist territorial policy. Thankfully scorpions aren't interested in my piece of real estate. There's one bug, however, that could gain notoriety as most dangerous. Not because it is dangerous, but because its looks could make you injure yourself trying to get away from it.

The vinegaroon. Every hair stood on end and my heart pounded when I spied one on the dining room floor. It was crawling slowly toward me, waving oversize claws attached to an oversize body, looking like something that should be extinct. From its picture in a field guide I knew what it was, and although my brain was counseling, "It's harmless," my brain stem was shouting, "Run!" Straining to get a closer look at something you're backing away from is tricky.

I called Carol, who reported it to Tom, who gallantly came over and bore it to the outdoors, wriggling in a paper towel and trailing fumes of vinegar. You wouldn't think anything with looks like that would need a defense mechanism.

When it comes to the human fauna, things get more complex, if not hair-raising. Before I left Montana, I looked over the census data and other factoids about Silver City that the marketing people like to put in their promotional materials. Statistics make me sleepy so I could scarcely recall a fact when I began living here. But demographics reveal themselves in odd ways — at least to my eyes, which can make a meal of anecdotal data.

I've found that many businesses will not take checks, even local ones backed with solid ID. (It occurs to me now that revealing I still use checks shows me up as a newcomer to the 21st century.) Waiters, however, routinely ask "Separate checks?" — signaling a pool of students and retirees on fixed incomes. The fact that a town of 10,000 can support three Dollar Stores says more about income here than perhaps the promoters care to ponder.

Just like toddlers who instinctively recognize and head for each other at a gathering, I'm drawn to my fellow boomers at social events. Sometimes, though, there are so many interesting-looking strangers in the room that I become uncharacteristically shy. What I typically find, however, is that whoever I chat with is interested — in the world and in me — and not afraid of emotion. At a party, a woman I'd just met hugged me after I supplied her with the name of the poet whose poem she'd just recited perfectly but couldn't recall who'd written it. A place where poems prompt hugs is a fine thing to ponder.

One statistic that actually woke me up was that Silver City is 52% Hispanic. For one in love with Spanish, and who'd been linguistically malnourished from living so long in monolingual Montana, this was a big draw. Not that my Spanish was ever totally fluent (another elastic concept) but after a year living in Chile it was functional. To now hear Spanish spoken on the street and in the stores is a daily treat.

It's also envy-inducing to listen to truly bilingual people. Hearing them nimbly switch from English to Spanish and back again dazzles me. Many Hispanics I've met here insist they don't speak "good" Spanish. I disagree. I know what "book Spanish" sounds like, having spoken it myself before I lived in Chile and later, Mexico. No, my definition of "good" is language that communicates in its context. I was pleased to learn recently that I am a citizen of one of only two states in the US that are officially bilingual — Louisiana being the other, with French its second language.

 

The column in New Mexico Magazine called "One of Our 50 Is Missing" shares anecdotes about New Mexico being accused of being a foreign country. Those reader-supplied encounters with ignorance provoke our amused incredulity. But once you've been here awhile you wonder if you don't, in fact, live in a foreign time zone. Oh, I don't mean like Arizona, which refuses to observe Daylight Saving Time, confusing the rest of us when we travel there. Actually I don't blame them. Changing the clocks twice a year for a questionable improvement in the quality of life seems silly to me.

No, here it's as if time moves in the subjunctive rather than indicative mode. Now, for those who weren't paying attention in English class or who have grown fuzzy on the concept of mode, it's when we switch verb forms from the interrogative (questioning) to the indicative (just the facts, ma'm), to the subjunctive (the hypothetical, possible, and contrary-to-fact.) We use the subjunctive in English, but it's far more common in Spanish.

Writer Joseph Keenan explains: "In Spanish… the subjunctive is the Twilight Zone of the verb universe. It gets the job of describing the could-have-beens, might-bes and maybe-never-weres." He goes on to say, "Without the subjunctive, García Márquez would read like Hemingway." Between those two writers, I'd say that New Mexicans are temperamentally closer to the former than the latter, and perhaps nowhere more so than in Silver City.

Here many residents are flexible, elastic even, in how they define units of time — units like "a little while" or "a few days" or "next week." For those in a hurry to get a thing done, this is exasperating. It's easier on those of us who need fingers on both hands to count our decades. One of life's paradoxes is that the less time you have left on earth, the more you take your time actually living.

 

And living, done well, needs looking. Awhile back I listened to a radio interview with the poet Jane Hirshfield. She said that all the wisdom she has gained about living can be condensed to seven words: "Everything changes. Everything is connected. Pay attention." Then she said she thinks even the first five are superfluous. Just pay attention.

She's right, and yet carelessness can bear gifts. I should have been paying closer attention to the map, which AAA had given me before I left Montana for Silver City last summer, as I neared my destination. If so, I might have noticed something about a route that looked to be a shortcut — Highway 152. That something was, in tiny letters, "Emory Pass, 8,228 ft." And I might have noted, before I left the Interstate, how few and small the towns were and the whereabouts of the needle on my gas gauge.

But I didn't, nor did I heed the advice of an old man in Hillsboro, who looked to have been born before the automobile, to turn around and gas up in Truth or Consequences. I was too close to my new home to bear the thought of backtracking, so I pressed on to Kingston. There a kind man from Las Cruces, who had a cabin nearby, showed me a bigger map with many squiggles on both sides of a pass. He then looked at my gas gauge thoughtfully and said, "You should be OK," although without as much conviction as I would have liked.

I then entered a twilight zone of time and space. Time suspended itself as I leaned into curve after curve. I wanted to stop at every heart-stopping vista, but I didn't because the car was a headstrong horse nearing the barn, and the cat looked overdosed on kitty valium. Every time I thought it couldn't get any prettier, or the curves more exciting, it did and they did.

I thought of my brother and how he'd love to ride this road on his motorcycle. I wondered why I'd never heard of this supremely scenic route. I vowed not to tell everybody about it for fear it would get mobbed and ruined. But knowing how I inflict my enthusiasms on anyone willing to listen, I doubted I could keep the secret of Highway 152 over the Black Range.

No map would say so, but that road apparently crosses the Land of Magical Realism as well. My gas gauge refused to budge. Really. I had a quarter-tank in Kingston and a quarter-tank when I pulled into Silver City, 50 miles on. I couldn't believe it then, but think I can explain it now: The needle went into subjunctive mode.

 

It's been said that in all of literature there are really only two plots: a man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. But that statement applies to the time when only men went on journeys and women stayed home, hoping a stranger would come — preferably a single man in possession of a good fortune and in want of a wife. The plot lines have gotten tangled up in our time. Now we all go on journeys and we all meet strangers who come to town.

Being a newcomer means you have been on a journey. It means you are the stranger in town. It lets you walk down the middle of the street and look in windows of homes where dusk has turned on lights but not yet drawn the shades. It allows you to perch in life's tree house for a moment and feel the strange magic of being on the other side of things.

Holding on to magic is hard. Here people do it because they keep new eyes for this old land. I want to be one of them.

 

 

Sara Boyett is an historian with a background in preservation and museum work. She spent her childhood in the South, her adulthood in the West, and now enjoys retirement in the Southwest, living in Silver City.

 




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