In the 1994 Broadway musical “Rent,” the character Tom Collins sings about leaving the rough life of New York City and opening up a restaurant in idyllic Santa Fe. As I clapped my thigh in tune with his upbeat performance, the whole time I thought he was singing about Arizona.
I may have considered myself a smart New Yorker but in reality, I was highly provincial –– and therefore superbly ignorant. I didn’t know anything about the state of New Mexico because quite frankly, the desert state hadn’t factored into my daily life. In my experience, it hadn’t appeared as an answer or a clue in a Times’ crossword and Trebek hadn’t asked: “What state is nicknamed the Land of Enchantment?” (Answer: New Mexico.)
Yet a bloom of New Mexico consciousness was being planted in my mind.
My first mental sketch of living in the desert came from the writings of Natalie Goldberg. The former New Yorker had written large parts of her seminal bestseller, “Writing Down the Bones,” while living in Taos.
Not too long after, I studied Julia Cameron’s highly instructional, “The Artist’s Way.” I was stunned by the coincidence: Cameron too had left New York and was inspired to write her landmark book in Taos.
If you’re familiar with The Artist’s Way,” you’ll know Cameron advises taking yourself on a weekly Artist Date to feed your imagination. So one day I did just that and visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I can’t recall if I saw Georgia O’Keeffe’s elk skull painting (“From the Faraway, Nearby”) hung on the wall or as just a boxed set of cards in the gift shop. The whole point is, I really saw it. The juxtapositions of life/death and emptiness/beauty really spoke to me.
It was the Nineties; the economy was booming, my marketing career was in full swing and I was a popular woman in my late twenties. On the outside, it looked like I had everything going for me. But on the inside, I lived in a swirling storm of hurt. My father had recently died from a messy, decades-long battle with alcoholism.
At the Met, I learned that O’Keeffe had left behind her fabulous life in New York and moved to the New Mexico desert. Her husband Alfred Stieglitz was having a long-term affair and she needed to get away. Far away. In fact, she always referred to New Mexico as “The Faraway.”
It took me many years and a circuitous path, but I eventually found myself living in the New Mexico desert –– far away from a confusing family past.
For almost ten years now, I have lived in New Mexico. Based on O’Keeffe’s biography and my own experience, here are my top three tips for reinventing yourself in the desert: awareness, action and acceptance.
- Use the materials at hand. When O’Keeffe lived in New York, she painted skyscrapers. When she moved out to desert, she switched to cow, elk and ram skulls. You don’t have to abandon your trade in the desert, but train yourself to be aware of the surrounding environment. Cow skulls had littered the desert for centuries. Yet O’Keeffe helped us to see them as objets d’art for the first time.
- Get out on the road – a lot. O’Keeffe had a sizable ranch, big painting studio and rotating house guests, yet she never stopped traveling. She bounced around the Southwest region, including rafting down the Colorado River. And she enjoyed taking trips back East and overseas to Europe. The lesson here is simple: You appreciate the quietude and the stillness of the desert so much when you lose it. That’s what compels you to return.
- Don’t be afraid to be with yourself. Plenty of rich and famous friends, a handsome, younger man –– good ol’ Georgia had it all! Yet she regularly showed up in the solitude of her studio and was prolific. The wide, open space of the desert reflects back to you who you really are. The choice then is yours: You can despise what you see inside of yourself and be driven away in search of external remediation. Or, you can love and accept yourself and share what you have to offer, your unique gifts, with the world.