July 31, 2022
With my time today, I’d like to tell you about my trip to New Mexico this spring. I graduated with my Master’s degree in May, and applied for a Growing Edge Fund grant to help me achieve some specific spiritual and creative goals through a trip to Santa Fe NM. When I applied for the Growing Edge Fund Grant, I said this in my application: “If I have four souls (intellectual, social, spiritual, and creative), the last two years have starved the spiritual and creative souls while the intellectual and social souls have feasted.” I felt like I needed to put these parts of myself back in balance after such a whirlwind of the last two years between grad school, running a business remotely and settling into a new city, before I jumped into entering a new career, which was sure to be its own whirlwind. In this moment of uncomfortable transition between grad school and career, I saw an opportunity to see who I am when no job title defined me, and I wanted to take a moment to explore that through creativity, solitude, and retreat in nature.
The creative objective of this trip was to experiment in my fiber arts practice of natural dyeing. Doing natural dyeing here in Takoma Park over the last few years, I noticed that the colors I get tend to be in the same color family. I realized that my color results are somewhat limited because I only use dye materials which I have saved from cooking or gathered on my daily run in the neighborhood. Using food scraps and foraged materials means that my work’s color profile is a direct result of my location and diet. I began to wonder– how would it change if I went somewhere new? I’d never been to the southwest, never seen the desert, but I theorized that its mineral and pH portfolio is different from our wet green home here.
I am not the first artist to travel to a new place and experience a shift in artistic output as a result. If this trip was a quest, one of my guides was Georgia O’Keeffe, who made a similar journey from New York to New Mexico in 1929 and discovered a new color palette, creative sensibility, and spiritual connection to her work as a result.
Of course, another guide for this trip was God. First of all, God plays a big part in natural dyeing. I can use science and math and measurements and history to write a recipe for a color, or to hypothesize what will happen if I dye with a certain material. Then, I chop it up, prepare it by simmering it at 180 degrees for hours on end, prepare my fabric by scouring and mordanting it, and put it all together, stirring occasionally, for a few more hours. But then I have to walk away. I leave it up to God (waiting for up to 24 hours for something to come out of the dye bath), only to be surprised and often delighted with the result! When I come back to my dye bath, it has transformed in a way I may or may not have predicted.
On this trip, I started to realize that this is a little bit like how God works for me in my life, too. What I mean is, he makes things happen– he makes the right things happen. But this doesn’t mean you should sit back and do nothing and wait for him to swoop down and puppet you around– you still have to make the hypothesis and put the ingredients in the pot and turn on the heat, and then! Then you put your trust in him that whatever comes out is the thing that’s supposed to come out.
As a visual person describing visual realizations as I continue to explore this idea with you, I’m going to use the colors that I discovered from my dyeing experiments in NM as a map throughout this sermon.
Before I even left for the trip, I prepared by learning a new skill at Rhizome Art Collective; how to make an indigo dye vat. Not a native plant to New Mexico, but one whose use for color has a long history there nonetheless ever since the European colonizers brought it, which they had taken from India. Making an indigo dye pot is a lot like kombucha; it’s a fermentation process that requires you to feed it and keep it in a safe, dark place. This color is a good one to start with because my mood was quite blue at the start of my trip as well..
I set out on my cross-country drive alone. I loaded the Jeep with my dye vats, materials, camping gear, and lots of reading material. I drove for four days, camping along the way, until I arrived at my air bnb in Santa Cruz NM. I knew I needed to stay in an air bnb, not camp or crash with a friend of a friend, because I thought I needed to be able to take over the entire stove for days on end for my work. I chose this one because it had a particularly attractive work of art in it– a large bas relief in the adobe wall.
The first few days there I was busy with preparations, catching up on emails, and also doing a lot of recovering, both from the drive but also from the stress of the last weeks defending my thesis and taking comprehensive exams. I felt guilty about not having started the creative work yet. It felt like people were counting on me to do something and here I was paralyzed and overwhelmed by possibilities. I had this picture in my head that what I was supposed to be doing was to sit in solitude in the sand creating feverishly until some kind of spiritual realization came upon me. But even on day three, that hadn’t happened yet.
On day three I was sitting under the portico, eating an orange, when I met my host who lived in the earthship across the street. I realized that once again God was working through serendipity with me because the host, Kata, was exactly who I needed to meet. I ended up spending most of my time with her during these three weeks. She invited me to go for a walk with her that evening. I thought about how tired I was and how much I had to do to get settled in and started on work, but out of my mouth came a “Yes”.
This became a theme for the trip– saying yes to Kata. In my grant application, I said I wanted to take this trip to have some time alone in nature. That’s where I thought I’d find God. But as the week went by, Kata taught me how to recognize the tracks of everything in the desert– beetles, roadrunners, even tumbleweed tracks. She taught me the names and uses of every native plant. She introduced me to her friends- the Mexican-American man next door who sang along to the Spanish opera radio, the Native Americans whose kids helped me collect clay from the ground behind her house, and her white American friends who worked at Los Alamos. These connections and these moments between me and others became the things that inspired me, not my time alone. And I recognized that for me– God was found in the space between people.
Kata started asking me if I would help her make dinner and we ate together in her rose garden behind the adobe walls. Some nights, a few of those friends of hers would join us for coconut cream pie or pomegranate and I found myself looking forward to the nightly hikes through the arroyo and to dinner in the walled garden with her.
Kata let me wander through the expansive, dry yet overgrown walled garden and take handfuls of plants I thought might dye well. Her rosemary plant was already dead and dried out, but I took some anyway.
In the first few days, I learned a new dyeing technique that didn’t take hours on the stove– solar dyeing. With solar dyeing, I could take a small sample of the plant material and chop it up and place it in a clear glass jar with my fabric swatches, leaving it in the sun for a few days instead of putting it on the stove for hours. It was a great option because when working with bigger fabric on the stove I had to save up large amounts of dyeing material, but this way I could take just a sample, like I was doing from Kata’s garden, which made me feel better about collecting samples from the desert. The method also was more flexible than simmer-dyeing because not only did it save tons of time, it didn’t denature the proteins in the samples, giving me flexibility to test flowers like this chamomile and other fragile items without immediately ruining them in a boil.
Another expression of God through serendipity was who moved in next door while I was there. One day, before the trip, I told my close friend who lives in Seattle that I was going to spend some time in NM this summer. He said “oh that’s cool, I love it there, in fact my partner and I will be there for a week this summer too!” I asked him when and the dates he gave me were my second week there. I asked him where and he gave an address. When I saw the address I said “No Colin, that’s where I’m staying– where are you staying!” but it was no mistake– he had booked the other unit in the same adobe as I had. And not for lack of choice, as there were lots of cheaper air bnbs closer to town. So when he arrived, I had even more people, connections, to be inspired by.
The first thing Colin and Jess and I did was drive through the narrow pass they call the “birth canal” to get to the top of the Rio Grande, where we hiked along a narrow bison path, looking down at the crevice where the water should be. In such a hot, dry summer it was barely there, and one waterfall was barely a shiny spot on the rock face. While we were up there, picking our way through the endless expanse of short scrubby sage bushes, I took a sprig.
I spent a lot of time with them during my second week, even introducing them to my new indigo vat, and it was re-balancing and re-energizing in its own way, since I lived with Colin for years in undergrad, it helped me feel grounded to have someone who knew me in this brand new place where I was a stranger. But there was one day that I felt I had to do alone– Ghost Ranch, Georgia O’keeffe’s mainstay; a ticket I would not have been able to afford without the Growing Edge Fund’s help.
I loved it there- I found the open expanse of rocky mountainous desert to be inviting, not hostile like the badlands that Kata had to guide me through, and the culture of the live-in staff reminded me of when I used to live on a yoga retreat center as a teenager. While I was there, I stumbled across a labyrinth. Not the kind with tall hedge walls, the kind that’s like a spiral made out of rocks on the ground. For anyone who doesn’t know, the concept is that you repeat a mantra to yourself as you walk the narrow, windy spiraling path, doing a walking meditation where you don’t need to think about where you’re going because there’s only one way through to the center, guided by rocks. I wasn’t prepared with a mantra, so I just started muttering to myself, praying random thoughts to God out loud. I ended up saying something from a song I remember learning at the yoga center– “the godliness in me sees the godliness in you therefore I lean as close to you as I can”. Then I realized that I really did see the godliness in all of the “you”s around me, so the song was coming true, which meant that I had to acknowledge that there was also godliness in me.
There in the labyrinth, under that big hot sky, I also told God “I trust you” and realized that if I didn’t want to be hypocritical about that, and if I was acknowledging the godliness in myself, I must also have to trust myself.
This is when my creative paralysis was broken a little. I still didn’t coop myself up alone in a painting frenzy the way I had imagined, but something switched inside me from feeling like a tourist traveler always looking for what I can take to thinking about what I can give? What can I do with my last week? I spent more time just listening to Kata, being a Mary Magdalene instead of a Martha, and I started sticking everything I could think of in a solar jar– my food scraps like avocado skin, onion skin, and used black tea leaves– and started gifting things to the people around me.
But here’s the other thing about naturally dyed items– they are volatile even when the part on the stove is finished. Even when you’ve rinsed all the bits of avocado skin off your silk and hung it to dry, it will never stop changing. One example is the hibiscus shirt I ceremoniously bestowed upon my new friend in NM because it was exactly her shade. She wore it constantly for a week, but when she washed it, it came out gray. I had washed it before giving it to her, of course, but there must have been something different in her soap or the water that made it change! My heart fell when she sent me the picture– I felt like I had boobytrapped her with my gift, but then the text came through. She said “look how beautiful! Why didn’t you tell me it was going to transform into this lovely color!”
And I was reminded– Natural Art is Alive. Delight in How it Changes. The moments of chance and serendipity don’t stop at the end of its production– it will never stop changing, and could surprise you at any moment. Earlier I spoke of how I imagine that God works in my life like He does in natural dyeing– that I can put together the elements and introduce drive to it, but that I must have faith in what comes out of it, and now I realized that I need to trust that nothing is permanent, and things can change. In my life at this moment I’m thinking about my career- that I am job searching and networking and trying to set myself up for a job offer, but that whatever job I get now does not need to be where I stay for the rest of my life! Maybe you can think of something in your life like this as well.
One last serendipitous thing was that I happened to be staying just a few minutes away from the New Mexico state fiber arts guild. One visit, I learned about red. Red in New Mexico dye history first came from the little red bugs on cactus leaves which the Mexican people brought, but madder root, originally used in Asia, was introduced to the area when the Spanish were colonizing it, and both are still used today. One woman gave me a pinch of ground amber-colored madder root to try in my solar jars.
This was one of the last experiments of the trip and I love that I’m ending on such a bright note because the trip did too. As I drove back to my life in DC, I recognized that I wasn’t really driving back to anything– everything was going to be different. I was no longer a grad student, I knew I had to break up with my partner upon my return, I was going to have to move apartments and find a new job. These things could be intimidating, but I was also heading into them with new tools.
The godliness in me sees the godliness in you, which acknowledges that there is indeed godliness in me… and I trust you God, so I must trust me. I trust that if I put my measured ingredients into the pot and turn up the heat beneath it (or put them into a jar and place it in the right way under the sun) that something beautiful will come out, full of potential to keep changing.