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  • Loren Niemi

Arrival


My arrival in Albuquerque coincided with the fall Equinox. It is fitting, I suppose, to begin a new season in a “new” place though this being the fourth time I have spent between one and four months here, housesitting, performing, teaching and exploring the Land of Enchantment it is not entirely new.


What do I do or will I do after my arrival?


Before I get to that let me muse a little on the notion of arrival itself starting with a poem:


Even after you unpack the bag

You are not there -

Truly there, or here for that matter –

Until you see something you remember

Fondly is gone.

Now the world welcomes you.

Now you have arrived.


For the record I went to grade school here and can say that I am “returning” to my roots though even a cursory glance tells me that the Albuquerque of childhood is long gone. In many cases, as physically gone as the little tourist motels along Route 66/Central avenue or the open expanse of foothills of the Sandia mountains now filled with tract houses. The Sunday afternoon drives in the old Ford station wagon along dusty cow paths are a distant memory as is the thought that the city ended at the State Fair grounds.


Some of what I knew has been remodeled as is the house on Monte Vista I grew up in. The open carport enclosed and the attic space above it converted into a full fledged room. Perhaps the casita nestled against the alley wall where the model train set was has not been demolished, the cherry tree cut down, the koi pond filled in or paved over. If I have the opportunity to meet the current owners I’ll see how far the past actually is.


Plenty of franchise nothing, plenty of modern something, has and is being built. The university, the hospitals expanded, new museums and hotels built to accommodate tourists and the business folks come to make deals with Netflix or Intel. Interstate 40 and 25 bisect the city and having run out of room on the mountain side of the valley, housing development is marching westward to the extinct volcanoes and beyond.


Some things have not changed. The Rio Grande flows through a green swath of trees and scrub brush and is lined with the old adobe houses and fields irrigated by those waters. Adobe style still dominates and many of the newer houses use the characteristic beamed ceilings and tiles floors, The Sandia crest is still hidden in low lying clouds in the morning, still turns watermelon pink at sunset. Green or red chili comes with eggs, burgers, pretty much anything if you ask for it. The Frontier (Café) still stands across from the University as a cheap eats joint where students line up to order burgers and tacos, then sit flirting or arguing sports and politics into the night.


The essence of arrival is to enter. A space, a time, a way of seeing or thinking. It is the reorienting oneself to the world. Sometimes eagerly, sometimes jarred by accident or tragedy, and to often unconsciously until the expectation of what is meets our changed circumstance.


The trip here was spread over three days with my poetry pal, Diego Vazquez along for the ride.


Day one was Minneapolis to Lincoln, NE. I had not been to Lincoln in 40 years so with the exception of the tower of the State Capitol, it was for all intents a new city. One which offered an excellent Indian meal of spiced lamb and rice at a Haymarket bistro, the Oven. After as we walked off our fullness we came to the tiny M&H bar where all the not beer or wine drinks are named after Nebraska personalities. I had a Warren Buffet which was basically whiskey and coke a cola served in a glass with square ice cubes hand cut by the owner. The bartender was from Rice Lake, WI, the guy on the next stool Chicago, both having arrived for the University and stayed.


For some reason, Diego never arrived in Lincoln, as he kept calling it Omaha, even after I pointed out the geographical error.


Day two was Lincoln to Denver, CO. Most of Nebraska as seen from Interstate 80 was prairie transformed into farmland and studded with trees that edged what water there was. When we made the turn towards Colorado, the landscape changed, giving over to the barrenness of arid high plains. Once checked in to our Denver hotel, there were two things on the agenda: Diego stopping at a dispensary to get a THC/CBN salve and our having a lovely dinner with Yvonne Healey and her husband, Robin, in their 12th floor condo with a view of new development. On the walk to dinner and back, Diego, who had had trouble with his card, stopped at ever ATM we saw to try to get cash and to call his bank/credit card help line to untangle the fraud alert that his trying to use it at the dispensary had initiated.


Ultimately he was successful but the trials of trying reminded me how we take both the ease of access and the security of systems for granted. When they work, we don’t think about it. When they fail, we are jarred into understanding of how tenuous those assumptions are. I read about how we are moving to a cashless / digital culture and I say, it is only as good as the systems that facilitate it. When the vagaries of state legalized marijuana dictate cash only transactions at the dispensary, us old school money in the pocket guys are still appreciated if the ATM won’t take your card.


OK, that was digression. Now back to the arrival narrative.


Day three was Denver to Albuquerque down I-25. It starts with the crush of morning rush hour cars and somewhere around Colorado Springs or Pueblo thins out to a procession of 18-wheelers and folks towing trailers towards the Raton pass. We stopped in Trinidad which is as much a charming tourist trap with murals as the last “big” town before you leave Colorado for lunch and gas. As with the previous days, there was an wide-ranging commentary between Diego and myself about travel, literature, autobiography and relationships. If I think of myself as wholly Midwestern, Diego claims El Paso roots but Alaska as his happy place.


Elaine and Mauny are dropped off at the airport at 4 AM for flights to Dallas, NYC and Milan. They sent me a note upon arrival. Diego is dropped off for an 11:30 AM train for Chicago. He sends me a note from the dining car. I stop at the co-op to get a few items and then a haircut at the barber shop at Lomas and Juan Tabo. Mike the old barber I had seen on every previous trip is retired and a multiple tattooed young guy, Dick, has taken over the shop. Like Mike, he gives a good military grade flat-top while telling me what the pandemic has taught him.


What it has taught him is Covid is just as likely to kill your friends as heroin or meth. In every case, he says, “if they had the sense God gave a lizard, they would have run the other way.” I say nothing but observe that neither of us are wearing a mask but then again, we are the only people in a large shop with the back door propped open. I’m vaccinated, is he? He comes around to that topic saying, “my mother insisted, and I am not going to disappoint my mother.”


I settle in. I’m here till mid-October then fly back to the Twin Cities for the book festival at the State Fair grounds on the 15th where I hope to sell a few books. By that same token I have a box with 10 copies of each of my books in the trunk for New Mexico marketing. Then back here for a November 5 and 6th in-person “Difficult Stories” workshop with Elizabeth Ellis. Limited to twelve vaccinated participants and subsidized by the Storytellers of New Mexico, I am really looking forward to “being in the room” with folks working on their hard to tell stories. After that, performances at Tellabration! on the 21st and Chatter (Sunday services without religion but with classical music and spoken word) on 28th.


In the background of my residency, there is consideration of the question I have been flirting with for the later part of the pandemic: is it time to actually “retire”? My experience of performing on-line has been less than satisfactory. I recognize that my storytelling and even my poetry is best with folks in the room. As we go through wave after wave of Covid resurgence (no thanks to those who will not vaccinate or mask for political/ideological reasons) I wonder if it is even possible to tour anymore? How many festivals or venue / series are going to be able to put folks in the room? If they can, indoors or out, who is willing to have me on their stage? I wonder if my particular repertoire and style of performance is wanted?


I’ve joked that I will make my “first retirement” tour whenever and wherever I can in 2022 and then at age 75 turn my attention to other things. Mostly writing. But that joke aside, what form of storytelling is meaningful and economically practical remains a question. In the depths of Pandemic depression, I think that my time has passed, that there is a generation or two of younger tellers that are adept at on-line performance and have stories that are more in tune with the culture and times.


I have not arrived at a conclusion and if you reading this want to weigh in, I’m happy to have that conversation. Maybe it will help clarify my thoughts. Maybe it will push me one direction or another.


Such is my precarious balance of light and dark, depression and joy in this Equinox moment. The heat of summer wanes, the air shifts, the sun warms the golden leaves on the mountainside but frost appears in the morning, and the shadows chill. In this transitional moment, I wish you balance and health, Be well. Let your heart be open to love fiercely if for no other reason than the joy of loving,