September 2017

Only Story Will Save Us


Michelle Otero


When I was seven I dug a hole in our front yard. My plan was to dig until I could hear the screams of hell, until flames knocked against the shovel. A week earlier, Sister Rosalie had separated our catechism class into lambs and goats. She kept a tally on the chalkboard as she fired questions at us: Do you say bad words? Do you disobey your parents? Do you go to mass every Sunday? The wrong answer, or even hesitation, cast us into the fiery pit. In the end, all but three of us were condemned as goats, sentenced to an afterlife of eternal suffering—at least until our next confession.


I shoveled until my mom’s voice shot across the yard. “Michelle, what are you doing?” She stood in the front doorway, one hand holding open the screen, the other on her hip. “Digging,” I answered, not looking up from the caliche dusting the metal. “For what?” I think I said, “Until it gets really hot” or something about hell without actually saying hell (per Sister Rosalie’s quiz). I didn’t want to see the place. I just wanted to get close enough to feel it and know the devil I was supposed to avoid. “Get inside,” my mom said.


I’d like to think that if one of my children were digging her way to the dark underworld, we’d have a talk about her beliefs. I would tell her about the hole and how it was the first step in a long journey toward understanding that hell is not a physical place, but a state of being; that hell, for me, is separation from God. And just like communion with the Divine, the hell of separation can exist in this realm, on Earth.


2016 was Earth’s warmest year since record keeping began in the 1880s and the third year in a row to hold that distinction.


The monsoons in New Mexico came late this year and without the rhythm or the force I remember from childhood.


The Río Grande evaporates in patches, revealing sandy peninsulas. Across the river, on the West Mesa, a black plume of smoke rises.


I see climate change as the ultimate expression of our separation from the Divine — hell on Earth, if you will.


I’ve experienced connection and communion walking through the cottonwood bosque along the middle Río Grande. I have felt the presence of spirit when a character detail or an opening line whispers to me as the sun is rising and the house is asleep. As a teenager, my best friend and I watched lightning storms haunt the Mimbres Valley from the safety of my ’76 Buick Skylark (the year was 1989) parked at Rockhound State Park. The Divine was in the loving hands that hid Easter eggs in the nichos of Stonehenge-like formations at City of Rocks, in the murmur of grown-ups telling stories around Grandma China’s kitchen table while my cousins and I played hide-and-go-seek under a lean-to of stars.


Rain evaporates before it hits the ground.


The Río Grande is a puzzle of blue and brown. Across the river, on the west mesa, a black plume of smoke rises.


I sometimes feel helpless.


My mother-in-law opens the hot water valve on the kitchen sink and lets it run and run while she wipes counters, loads the dishwasher, takes a phone call.


My stepkids have a taste for bottled water. I imagine truckloads of plastic bottles glinting in a landfill. I imagine the courtyard of my adobe house is the landfill, labels yellowing then browning in the sun. Through the bottles I can see the sliding glass door to their rooms where she lies on the bed in broad daylight, communing with the world inside their iPhones.


My best friend in high school tossed paper napkins and PopTart wrappers to the ground as we walked to class each morning. I’d follow behind her, retrieving them, scolding, “One day you’re gonna be walking knee-deep in all the litter you’ve thrown.”


The thing is, it’s not just her walking knee deep in the crap. It’s all of us.


I’d pick up my friend’s trash. I don’t buy bottled water. As soon as my mother-in-law steps away from the sink, I shut the valve. I turn off lights when I leave the room. I unplug devices once they are charged. We subscribe to a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. Most of the vegetables are grown within three miles of our house. But then, big trucks deliver pineapples to our neighborhood grocery store, even in January. Bottled water still exists. I am not the EPA. I am not Paris.


If separation is our illness, then how do we heal?




And who are our healers?


Artists, the kind we find all over New Mexico, who commune with this place, who seem molded from the very earth beneath our feet, who couldn’t write or paint or sculpt or dance without being in relationship with the bosque, the lightning, the rocks, the stars, or the people. The people, those in my house, on my street, along this river we share, all of us squinting under the sun, waiting for rain, knowing it’s too hot for this time of year.


Story builds, connects. It re-members, puts us back together. The artists I love best help set the table where story can happen.


I am not the EPA. I am not Paris. But I am a writer. I am from this place. In my home, in my neighborhood, in my town, I have helped set a table, a poem on the menu, watercolor paper for a placemat, a paintbrush in place of a knife. Tell me your story. And in story, in place, we can see the Divine.



Michelle Otero is the author of Malinche’s Daughter, an essay collection based on her work with women survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in Oaxaca, México, as a Fulbright Fellow. Her work has appeared in New Mexico Magazine, Brevity, Puerto del Sol and Palabra. She is a member of the Macondo Writers Workshop and a founding member of the TIASO Artist Cooperative. As a community-engaged artist, she utilizes creative expression and storytelling as the basis for community healing, positive social change and organizational development. A 10th-generation New Mexican, she holds a B.A. in History from Harvard University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College. 




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