I saw a shooting star tonight. It arced down across the dark Sandias, sparkling as it fell over the twinkling city below. Simple and profound, it seemed a fitting end to this evening.
I spent the night at the Launchpad, an Albuquerque bar a block away from the now-closed Gorilla Tango Theatre, a building which was my second home for almost two of my four years in this city. The last time I was at the Launchpad was 2003, a few months after I moved here. Then, I went to see Mistletoe, a band featuring a guy I was dating at the time. After their set, I sat with him at the merch table, losing myself in the familiarity of fan/band banter, a ritual I'd grown fond of while dating Nat – though, as I told Doug and Rory tonight, there are few fans more awkward and annoying (and, I must admit, sweet in their way) than worshipful, drunk sousaphone nerds. Sitting there while he chatted with fans, I recognized a familiar sticker on the table: an orange YoungBlood Brass Band logo, from their "Unlearn" tour. It was a moment of dizzying vertigo, of new life meeting old, a little of Oregon in New Mexico.
I had another such moment tonight. Doug (and later, Tony and Rory) and I went to the Launchpad to hear my friend Dave's band Cougar play. I sat up in the balcony, surrounded by my New Mexico friends, watching an old friend from high school play. Oregon meets New Mexico. Watching from above, I realized I've been listening to Dave's music for eleven years now, since those first One Lard Biskit shows at the tiny House of Sounds in Madison when so many of us would pack into the room that an open door would reveal clouds of steam into the frigid February night air. There is a comfort in this: touchstones, rituals, moments you return to throughout your life which serve to remind you that it's a continuous journey. That you're living the same life, still, that you're the same person, still, as you were as a spazzy, happy high school sophomore.
New Mexico captured my heart the second time I saw its low brown hills, its soft violet mountains in the first light of morning. My first time here, I was a baby – one, maybe, or two – visiting my grandparents who lived in Alamogordo. That visit, I don't remember at all; I know it only through photographs of one year old Molly petting a boa constrictor at a New Mexico zoo. The second time, in March of 1995, I came on tour with the Oregon High School orchestra. As our plane landed in Albuquerque, I looked out the window and saw a coyote keeping pace with us along the runway, and I remember in that moment feeling certain that I was the only person on the plane – the only person in the world – who saw it. On that trip, I fell in love with these modest mountains and this endless clear sky. I remember sitting next to the Taos River for what seemed like hours, letting the land make its imprint on my skin.
Tonight as I watched the band, I remembered that trip. Dave's parents were chaperones, and his mother took care of me when I fainted at a concert (Marcy Rosen, cellist). Later, Judy told me to give myself permission to follow my dreams, to give myself the luxury of a year to do exactly what my heart told me.
My heart told me to move to New Mexico.
When I was in Wisconsin over the holidays a few weeks ago, I sat in my childhood bedroom and flipped back through my senior yearbook. I almost didn't recognize the person it belonged to – there were pictures of me I couldn't remember posing for, and long, fondly written signatures with which I couldn't match faces. But then, in the senior index, I found myself: "Molly Backes: Moving to the mountains of New Mexico with my pet donkey and career as a writer."
Recently, my students wrote mid-term reflection papers, looking back over 2006 and ahead to 2007. One student, an 8th grader, said that the biggest accomplishment of 2006 was beginning to know herself, to figure out who she really was, a project she intended to pursue through 2007. I found this to be incredibly charming. Pausing by her desk, I said quietly, "I love this. I think it's extremely important. And believe me, it's a lifelong goal. I'm still figuring out who I am, to this day."
Lately, I've felt more like myself than I'd felt in a long time, as if I am once again rediscovering Molly Backes, who she is at the core. I am at once the person I am now, in this moment – teacher, writer, friend – and the person I was at 14, discovering New Mexico for the first time, and the person I was at 22, coming back to this familiar sloping horizon, wandering out in the desert at dawn.
Hearing Dave play tonight bookended my time here – in a sense, reassuring me that 15 year old Molly was here too, wandering through the Plaza in Santa Fe, talking to the Skogens, falling in love with this land. Oregon meets New Mexico; this is who I am today. Instead of a donkey, I have a fat, sleepy brown dog, and though it may not be a career, I have written three novels, a number of short stories and poems, and hundreds of journal pages, here, in the mountains of New Mexico.
Just as I said I would.