When the flame of awareness is burning steadily within me, it illuminates the act of perception, rather than just the object being perceived.

—Rabbi Shefa Gold

Purim is on Thursday. It’s the next major Jewish holiday, but then, as a friend told me today, they are all major holidays. It’s a monumental day for me because it marks the one-year anniversary of my decision to convert to Judaism. Actually, I don’t know the exact date, but I remember meeting with Rabbi Jan for the first time just a few days before Purim last year.

During one of our first meetings, I told her that converting wasn’t really a decision for me, that I felt “as if I’ve always been Jewish, or like I should’ve been born into a Jewish family.” She smiled with recognition and said, “I would guess that for you, converting is very much like coming out.”

Very much.

June, 2001

Viewfinder

The desert has no answers.

In this land of buttes and mesas,
all knowledge
is rock and sand,
juniper and pinon,
prickly pear & deserted highways,
and it’s a child—disguised as a young woman
playing solitaire,
writing poems in a dusk-lit room,
riding a mountain bike past
flowering cholla and sagebrush,
under the sun,
over her fears, and
racing for a sunset
she can fathom.

I wrote that poem the night before I told my boyfriend of almost two years that I loved him but couldn’t be with him. Those exact words were spoken to me just a few months ago, days after my birthday and the last time I made love to the woman who said them to me.

“Karma is real,” another, very wise woman told me just yesterday. Yes, and so is forgiveness in the light of karma. I never meant to hurt Ryan, just as I’m sure the woman who irreparably broke my heart never intended to do so. Then, as I’ve learned through writing for the heating and plumbing industry, sometimes it is better to replace than repair.

Yet I doubt Ryan felt that sentiment when he arrived at Ghost Ranch two weeks after I drove his car through the main gate with my mother in the passenger seat, snapping pictures all the way to the main building...

“What’s your name?”
“Ashley Watson,” I tell the woman at the front desk, who is sunburned and wearing a wide-brimmed hat. Immediately, I wonder how someone so practical could let her face get so burned.
“Oh, you’re one of the new lifeguards!”
“That’s correct,” I tell her, scanning the room and snapping a picture of it in my head.
“It’s so beautiful here,” my mother says in her friendly Southern way.
“Oh, yes! Is this your first time in New Mexico?”
“Yes, I drove out here with my daughter,” she places her hand on my shoulder, “She had to drive her boyfriend’s car because he won’t be here for a few more weeks, and she didn’t know how to drive a stick shift, so I taught her how during our trip out here.”

I cut my mother one of those, eyebrow-raising, “You are so full of shit,” looks, and she responds with one of her typical, shoulder-shrugging, “What? We’re here aren’t we?” looks.

“Oh, how nice!” the woman says, pulling out a folder with some paperwork.
“Yes,” I smirk, “it was quite the adventure.”
“Well, now, here are some forms for you to sign, you know, just the standard employment forms, and you can get those back to us any time in the next few days. And here’s your schedule, and a map of the ranch. The college staff is housed on top of the Mesa behind us,” she waves her arm ambiguously in the air, “and there’s parking up there, but I must warn you, there are a lot of bumps and potholes on the dirt road going up the hill.”

I must’ve tuned out at that, perhaps thinking it was a fitting metaphor, because I just remember hearing murmurs between her and my mother until I heard,

“Will you be staying here tonight, Ms. Watson?”
“No, Ashley is driving me back to Albequerque later today, and I have an early flight back tomorrow morning.”
“Oh, well, if you two want lunch, the cafeteria is just up the road, and actually, you can see it from here,” she gets up and walks with my mother to the door, “It’s that building just below Kitchen Mesa, and that fenced-in area is the pool where Ashley will be working this summer.”
“Wonderful, thank you so much!”

My mother has always had this genuine way of speaking to people that made everyone around her feel comfortable, so the woman continued to chat away about the history of the ranch, and how the cabin we passed on the way in was used in the move, City Slickers.

Meanwhile, I slowly walked over to the door and looked out at the landscape for the first time. Its beauty startled me in a way I had never experienced, and then I realized their conversation had ended. I looked over at my mother, who was putting on lipstick while looking in the gift shop mirror. It felt like the day she dropped me off at Davis Hall at Maryville College, even though I had been away from home four years.

We walked out of the main building down the sidewalk toward the gravel parking lot where Ryan’s car sat baking in the sun. My mother took a picture of the flower garden, and then asked a stranger to take a picture of the two of us sitting on the wooden bench near the front entrance.

We walked in silence across the lawn in front of the cafeteria, glancing up at Kitchen Mesa, slowly heading toward the picnic tables where I would eat many of my meals that summer, where I would sit in desert darkness, drinking Tecate and watching the mule deer eat alfalfa—studying them as they studied us.

We pause to look toward the highway and Paternal.

“Mom?”
“Yes?”
“What if I make a mistake?”
“A mistake? What do you mean, Ashley?”
“I mean, what if I’m distracted, or what if I’m not quick enough, and some kid drowns, or—”
“Honey, listen,” she nods her head toward the pool, “First of all, that pool isn’t much bigger than our living room.”

I look over the fence. She’s right. I start to grin and tear up at the same time.

“Secondly, didn’t you just go through months of training? Why would you be scared of not doing a good job? And lastly, you’re Marty Watson’s daughter,” she pauses and looks at me for emphasis, “You can’t fail.”

Tonight, I found my journal from that summer. I flipped through pages and pages of poems I’d written and forgotten, all of which had one basic premise:

I was ready. For what, I wasn’t quite sure…

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