“Walk until you reach the color red.”
Last week, nine women writers were offered this quest during the A Room of Her Own (AROHO) retreat at Ghost Ranch as part of Bhanu Kapil’s master class, Write Yourself Out of One Life and Into Another. When offered the option, hers was top of my list, partly because of the title and a sense that it was time for my writing life to change, and partly from her photo. It sounds convenient to state this after the fact, but there was something about her visage that made me think she would guide me somewhere.
The thing is, I didn’t get into her class, which booked up instantly. It was only through a cancellation that I was able to join her and a cohort of eight women writers on a series of pilgrimages we shared throughout the week. When Tracey wrote to say that room had opened up in Bhanu’s class, it felt like something askew came into alignment.
What would you do if a stranger told you to walk until you reached the color red? Would you scoff? Would you take up the quest? Would you stop at the first bit of russet you found, perhaps a discarded potato chip bag? A flower? How would you know when you had arrived?
In the high desert of New Mexico, there is more natural red in the landscape than you can imagine—red clay, red dirt roads, red mesas, red canyons—and there is also gold. Bhanu pointed to the linkage between red and gold, which blend into each other and carry a similar magic; we explored this by bringing offerings to our second class in those hues. We made a collective pyre of found flowers, stones, sand, plastic. I contributed a red rock and a golden New Zealand coin that I was surprised to find, months later, still in my bag, like it had hung around for this purpose.
More and more, I’ve come to believe that one’s tools and experiences arise at the precise time they’re needed; we’re armed to meet challenges we cannot yet perceive, if only we can see the resources at hand—our elusive ruby slippers. (See? More red.) Sometimes, we miss the subtle connection between use and opportunity, or maybe what we want and what we need are two different things; we do not always have the perspective to understand the significance of people, events and coincidences at the time we encounter them. They are simply there, or we long for ones who aren’t, witless as to their true purpose in our lives.
Spending a week with 130 women in all stages of spiritual development, not to mention writing craft, is like standing in front of a brilliantly-lit backstage makeup mirror in which you compare yourself to them on every scale: talent, ingenuity, humor, grace, creativity, beauty, audacity, kindness. For every line of her work that someone reads, you might feel many things: utter awe at her genius, envy that it isn’t yours, shame that you’ll never be as good, joy at feeling a true chord struck in your heart, and extreme pride that such a kick-ass sentence came from a woman writer.
I hadn’t even known that I was searching for all this (or that it would be waiting for me) when I showed up, nervous and not knowing a soul, in the Albuquerque airport. That first night, there was a reception in the Agape Worship Center where I watched so many women greet each other with celebration and longing; these returning alumnae drew together like sisters. Would I really feel that way about anyone there, and would they feel it for me? After a few minutes of chatty din, I wondered if I should call it a night. It was overwhelming, all these voices. Just as I was about to set down my drink and leave, I struck up a conversation with two women who were also lingering at the edge of the open doors, Nancy and Sarah. We were each drawn there by the fresh air and the quiet of the night sky, a little pause from the bright exuberance, and that’s where another pilgrimage began.
Walk until you reach the color red.
That line holds magic for me now, something that I don’t know if I can or even want to fully unpack yet. Nine women walked alone to define it for ourselves and returned each day to write and talk about our journeys. Each of us took a different path to different places; each discovered and wrote something different in response to it. What held the pilgrimages together was our individual faith in intuition (“you’ll know when you’ve reached the red”) and our collective support of each other. In the course of a week, we pilgrims allowed ourselves to feel deeply in response to each person’s account and we trusted Bhanu to guide us. Together, we laughed. We cried. We created rituals. We sang. We played in the river. We made offerings. We shouted into the wind. Imagine a time in your life when you would do all of that with nine strangers.
My pilgrimage began in the labyrinth but I quickly diverted to the Kitchen Mesa trail. I was, after all, impelled by Clarice Lispector‘s passage from Água Viva, read aloud by Bhanu: “derangement” was to be my watchword as I searched for a “mad, mad harmony.” The concentric order of the labyrinth would not do, I realized, so I de-ranged across the river which had seen a flash flood only a week before. Once across, I found a dusty red clay path leading through cactus and scrub into a field of scattered white quartz—brilliant, glittering jewels against the red earth. Imagine the shards sewn haphazardly here and there, as if someone had clocked a giant in the mouth and he spat his broken teeth across the desert.
I squatted to pick up one of the craggy white rocks. When I stood, a little light-headed, the giant stone mesa, striped in gold and red, suddenly rose before me like a cathedral. As Bhanu had instructed, I raised my hands and made a pivoting motion, as if I was a human divining rod for red. It turns out, the field at the mesa’s feet was a mass burial ground for flocks of sleek, carnivorous Coelophysis dinosaurs.
The next day, as I recounted the details of this journey and read aloud what I had written in response it, Bhanu reminded us to compare what we found on our pilgrimages with the mandalas we had drawn during our first gathering. I shivered when I pulled mine out of the notebook. I had drawn a church-like structure very much like the mesa I walked to (I had called it a “stone cathedral” without thinking twice) topped with three winged creatures (“I don’t know what these are,” I said when asked to explain the three figures in my drawing that first day, “they’re not birds, but something like that”—they looked like the dinosaurs); the sun in my mandala was tucked behind a tree (which, in reality, stood inexplicably atop the mesa) and there was a path to the doorway of the structure that led into it, very much like the trail that leads into the large opening of the mesa’s rock face.
Practical magic? I did no research on Ghost Ranch prior to visiting, nor had I known about the dinosaurs, the mesas or the trails. (Silly, really, when you think about it, but busy-ness had me strapped.) I had done no research on Bhanu, either (also silly) but Sarah had taken a class with her in an MFA program. As she, Nancy and I chatted on that first night, Sarah remarked that Bhanu was the type of teacher who led her students to surprising places, pathways that she herself might not even be aware she was lighting, which proved true enough. Later that week, I bought a copy of Bhanu’s book, “A Vertical Interrogation of Strangers,” and surprised myself by weeping as I asked her to sign it, thanking her for our work together that had so changed my life.
Walk until you reach the color red.
On our last night at Ghost Ranch, I said to Sarah and Nancy that I wanted to do some sort of ritual to celebrate and mark our meeting. My mind reeled with ideas of a midnight desert walk or a ritual at the river, something meaningful and memorable—then I realized we were already there: we were standing at the edge of the Arts Center building as the music and conversation thumped inside. We stood in a trio just outside the door as the rain pitter-pattered down as we had that first night when we met. Somehow, knowing that we could always find each other there was enough.
The past week has gone by with very little magic (easy to miss all the wonderful coincidences day-to-day, isn’t it? They’re there, if only I’d look…) except for the connection I feel with Nancy in upstate New York and Sarah in Denver. Just knowing that they are out there, that all of the women of AROHO are out there—that this past week has given new direction to the writer I want to be, and that we as AROHO women, particularly my trio, will remain linked—that does feel magical. Transformative. Red.
This morning, I woke to the strangest Seattle air in memory. It was filled with fire-haze and summer clouds, a blanket of alien yellow-pink gray that reminded me of the heavy August skies of New Orleans after a thunderstorm—red skies in the morning, sailor take warning. The sun’s shape was perceptible beyond the cloud/haze layer, a red-gold burst that singed my rods and cones. It was like looking at a sanguine eclipse, so bright it made my eyes tear. Walk until you reach the color red, I thought. I had just learned only an hour before that a loved one of mine is dying. It was like the sunrise knew it, too. Tomorrow, I’ll follow the sun south to see him, drive until I reach the color red.
I couldn’t put into words until now that feeling when I looked up and saw the mesa looming before, a giant stone cathedral streaked with gold and red. I could feel the power of the experience—a throbbing in my throat like the moment before you’re about to kiss someone you’ve developed a mountainous crush on—but I couldn’t name what I felt. This morning, I realized that it’s the color of your heart as it’s breaking—that flowing red-gold, warm and awful and complicated, a sign that you have found love, that it has found you, that it, like everything else is temporary and permanent at the same time.
Walk until you reach the color red…
That’s the start of Bhanu’s inscription to me in her book, the beginning of the next leg of my journey to a destination that will only be revealed when I arrive. And tomorrow, I will go and honor my friend and everything he means to me, a love that no one else on this planet can duplicate, because that’s how love works, each one unique, each one red and gold. One day’s travel there and back and I’ll return changed, yet I’ll appear to others to be very much the same. And I will follow the red, the love, the trail, the mad, mad harmony into whatever happens next, and I hope, by god, that I learn to recognize the companions and resources that I carry with me when and as I need them.