Taos: A Way of Life

By: Bill Whaley
4 November, 2017

Elegies and Encomiums

To me Taos is not the Third Best Place in the World to spend a Christmas Vacation: it is the best place. After all I have spent more time at Christmas here than anywhere else. One must occasionally confront the reality of one’s life. Twice, I spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in my apartment upstairs in the Plaza Theatre reading books, just published, in their entirety.

The first time I read in 1979, J.P. Donleavy’s just published novel Schultz, a second time with an autobiography by Lee Iacocca in 1984. The two books offered escape from holiday dinners and freed me confronting family and friends at events fraught with emotional angst. If memory serves I purchased both from Brodsky’s bookstore. I considered both of them timely gifts and was grateful to our local bookseller.

From my apartment high above Taos Plaza I could see the farolitos lighting up the ridges of the rooftops and portals surrounding Taos Plaza. I don’t remember if it snowed that Christmas but it’s the snow for which we can be grateful; the way it transforms our ordinary views of the buildings and landscape as it fills in the gaps and crevasses and covers up man made blotches in the landscape. One can’t escape at Christmas, no matter how cynical one grows about commercialization, the Christian-Catholic tradition represented by the bells of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the pastoral processions, representing hope and love in the birth of Christ.

Today we must put up with the dreadful green electrical boxes that scar the trees year round in the Plaza due to the Mayor’s obsession with Walmart Christmas Tree lights, an extension of the mindless commercial and directional signs that dot the roadsides and the Plaza itself. Perhaps the Town has forgotten that Taos Pueblo gave the community a single tall conifer as a gesture of friendship that should be celebrated as the symbol of community.

More than any other entity in Taos, Walmart killed the Plaza as the central Mercado beginning in 1984-1985. More than any other entity, Taos Pueblo has kept the spirit and traditions of northern New Mexico alive. Though it may be a private grievance, I believe we in the community should honor the gift from our neighbors on the other side of the cattle guard because the culture of Taos would be unthinkable without Taos Pueblo. Similarly I believe the farolitos and luminarias honor the Hispanic Catholic community, ditto above, and should not be forced to compete with the glare of electric Walmart lights at Christmas.

At the Old County Courthouse on Monday night, the Town’s community initiative, called “Strong at Heart,” was remarkable for an absence of representation from Taos Pueblo (expected) and a mere smattering of Hispanic neighbors, a very few from traditional families in the Town of Taos. The occasion occurred during Los Dias del Muertos, which celebrates the departed but present spirits so I guess there was a certain poetic irony in the event.

While the organizers of “Strong at Heart” may have good intentions, one cannot help but remark on the absence of two-thirds of the community at meetings. For those who can see and hear, despite the seeming lack of “political” representation for those of us who actually live in a place where the culture of the community is an end in itself, the politics of commercialization matters less than the continuing relations among the denizens of the neighborhoods and villages. Regardless of “Public Participation,” the local culture survives in all its complex “doings” and “customs” as an increasingly “Private Matter.”

Of course I lament the passing of the public political spectacle, whether my political acquaintances and activist friends were allies or enemies during the Horse Fly years (1999—2009). Further I feel the angst of losing much of what I enjoyed during the first fifty years. Now I know how my Native neighbors feel. I can hear them say, “Well, I told you so.”

But then, I am also lamenting the passing of the American Dream, too, a dream aimed at a “hopeful” and “progressive” country, willing to confront the better angels. Today our country is driven by the bitter fallen angels, the ones inhabiting the dark side, whether in denial of despoiling the planet or the polis.

This morning I read two analyses of the country, the first by novelist  Jonathan Franzen in the Guardian, the second by Chris Hedges on Truthdig. I am all for confronting reality, whether above in Taos or below in America. The Franzen quote refers directly to the Taos lesson mentioned above. Ironically, the hellfire and damnation preacher-like pundit Hedges offers “hope”: if we know how to seize it here in Taos.

Because of our historic geographical, cultural isolation, and difference, we have an opportunity to offer ourselves and mainstream refugees an antidote to the abuse promoted by social media “lies” that are creating the “American Psychosis.”

If you study the art and artifacts of Taos as an archaeologist might and include the more than 1000 years of empirically verified history that gains credence in parallel oral tales, just as the local culture gains recognition in the literature and legends, the anecdotes and El Mitote, so we can see Taos’s historic place as retreat and homeland for Taos Pueblo, Hispanic settlers, the waves of hippies and second homers.

For in my own lifetime I have seen myself and friends, native and newcomer seduced by the place and people, where self-determination and psychological sovereignty flourish as sub-cultures in a community of qualified tolerance that can be neither quantified nor sold but only earned by enduring and living in the Taos way.

Jonathan Franzen on One year of Trump’s America

“Every one of us is now in the position of the indigenous Americans when the Europeans arrived with guns and smallpox: our world is poised to change vastly, unpredictably, and mostly for the worse. I don’t have any hope that we can stop the change from coming. My only hope is that we can accept the reality in time to prepare for it humanely, and my only faith is that facing it honestly, however painful this may be, is better than denying it.”

link: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/nov/04/jonathan-franzen-too-late-to-save-world-donald-trump-environment

Chris Hedges on American Psychosis

“To recover our mental balance we must respond to Trump the way victims of trauma respond to abuse. We must build communities where we can find understanding and solidarity. We must allow ourselves to mourn. We must name the psychosis that afflicts us. We must carry out acts of civil disobedience and steadfast defiance to re-empower others and ourselves. We must fend off the madness and engage in dialogues based on truth, literacy, empathy and reality. We must invest more time in activities such as finding solace in nature, or focusing on music, theater, literature, art and even worship—activities that hold the capacity for renewal and transcendence. This is the only way we will remain psychologically whole. Building an outer shell or attempting to hide will exacerbate our psychological distress and depression. We may not win, but we will have, if we create small, like-minded cells of defiance, the capacity not to go insane.”

Link: https://www.truthdig.com/articles/american-psychosis-3/

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