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Red Willow Spirit: Drawing Inward

If, as we noted yesterday, this is a time of looking outward, it is equally a time of drawing inward.

Such a concept is open to many interpretations and many meanings. It’s not a label, nothing with any official status, not a meme or local manner of speaking; it’s simply a way of describing that which is observable now in both the natural world and in human behavior at this season.

It’s also a phenomenon that, at least here at Red Willow, may be illustrated by one of Wings’s series of images from six or eight years ago: a sequential series of images of the village’s plaza’s symbolic center. I no longer recall the order in which he shot them, although I suspect it was the reverse of how they appear here today. But there is a logic to this particular presentation, especially now.

At the moment, the village is readying itself for a drawing inward of a very specific sort: what our peoples call, among other names for it, a gathering. All summer long, the fiscales will have been working on the resurfacing of the church, repairing cracks and erosion and other other structural issues that may have arisen in the last year, replacing stained glass and gutters alike if needed, remudding and mortaring, replacing bricks and plastering outer walls, floating the entire facade and whitewashing in the places so designated. The last changes periodically; a cursory review of photos of the Church of San Geronimo from one year to the next usually shows at least light differences in whitewashed accents or lack thereof.

Some years, the bell towers or the balcony need extra work, or the crosses or the crenellated center. The crosses themselves are unusual compared to the other local Catholic churches, although they fit perfectly here: four virtually equidistant spokes evoking ancient imagery of the Four Sacred Directions, rather than a European-styled cross with a single longer base spoke. They have always seemed, to me, to command the forces of the sacred directions and of the winds, particularly the one at the center, at the peak of a parapet wrought in a pattern that resembles the old kiva-steps design found in pottery and other art, a geometry also present in traditional dancers’ tablita headdresses. Slightly higher and at the center, it seems to draw all such forces inward to concentrate their powers at this symbolic center — atop a Spanish-installed church, an assertion of indigeneity in its existence, function, and works.

The two flanking crosses sit atop the bell towers, still in use today. A little over six weeks from now, on the Day of All Souls’, the bell will toll repeatedly across the plaza. As our whole small world here draws inward against the rising cold, its notes will echo on the autumn winds, a way of letting those who have walked on know that they are remembered, respected, missed, honored.

It is a different kind of drawing inward, one of culture and community and clan, but one also of the spirit in ways universal. Grief, loss, mourning, sorrow — all are eminently human. So, too, perhaps, is the urge to remember, to memorialize, to honor, even as we seek to forget the pain of loss, to turn that latter into that which midwifes the former into being from deep within our spirits and selves.

A tolling bell is not, perhaps, precisely music, at least not in the sense of notes strung together in a precise and variable pattern. Nor is it a song, at least in the ordinary sense of that word. But here, it is both in the sense that it is a voice upon the wind, one that, like the song and dance and drum that are the soundtrack of feast days, spirit and feeling and emotion drawn inward and sent back out into the world as articulation of loss and love and life, of past and present and future.

The last image contains both of those above, with the perspective that accompanies distance. It is also, perhaps, the most outward-looking of the three, one that manifests a drawing inward of people and place and even that which remains mostly outside its walls.

The courtyard wall is low and long; it connects to the sides of the church near the front, rising to a crenellated gateway arch in the center opposite. It holds the feel of enclosure and curtilage simultaneously, a place to gather people safely within even as it marks the boundaries without.

But at a few select times throughout the year, it opens itself to the general public in ways that go beyond Sunday mass: in the event of funeral services opened by the family to outside mourners, of specific celebratory events, of vespers on Christmas Eve. In such situations, its practice of drawing inward functions in two ways, gathering those among the people themselves, and likewise opening the [decidedly noncircular] circle to outsiders for a brief moment.

In a little over two weeks, the broader circle of the village will similarly open itself to the outside world, drawing inward tourists and visitors arrived to see the pageantry of the patron saint’s feast day. Here at Red Willow, such events are relatively rare, making this, with its annual regularity, the largest and most widely-attended feast of the year. And the feast, despite its temporary embrace of piece of of the world beyond the village walls, serves as its own kind of drawing inward, as well: a gathering for harvest, a getting ready for the long cold winter to come; a time of gathering relatives who spend the rest of the year in far-flung directions, and of keeping children and culture both close to inculcate ways as old as time.

Meanwhile, the calendar draws inexorably downward; summer is coming fast now to its own close, ceding space to autumn and eventually, to winter. The land is drawing inward, too, plants and trees already exchanging green robes for those of dormancy, wildlife on the move or preparing for the long sleep of the cold season.

And we are drawing inward, too, even though to the outside world it appears that we are looking outward: readying land and animals, home and hearth.

It is time to embrace autumn.

~ Aji











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