I’ve been looking for this picture for years. I knew that I had stuck it in a book at some point in my various moves, but I didn’t know which book, although I’d searched through many. The picture was taken in Taos and I knew the book had something to do with that region, so occasionally I’d think I’d remembered the title and searched through the pages of that book. For fifteen years, I hadn’t been right.
And then, when I wasn’t looking for this photo at all, I found it, tucked not inside a book but between two books by Linda Hogan, one of my favorite authors. Recently I’ve been purging my book collection to make room on my shelves for books brought home from my office and for artifacts I’d like to look at from time to time. I was rearranging books by Native American authors when I picked up Hogan’s Dwellings, a book I use in teaching, to place it with Hogan’s other works on the shelf—and there was the envelope between two of her novels. I knew immediately that the picture was there, even though I had forgotten that I’d put it in the envelope at all with others from that trip.
It’s not surprising to me now that the picture was with Hogan’s works. Not only is she a favorite author of mine—I’ve taught her novel Solar Storms in my coming-of-age in women’s lit course for years—but she even writes about losing and finding objects in an essay in Dwellings called “The Feathers.” Here she details discovering that her granddaughter’s umbilical cord was missing from the black pot where it was kept. She searched her entire house, looking several times in a cedar box where she kept other important items, but the cord wasn’t there. After performing a ceremony to call the cord back, she returned to look again in the box, only to find that the feather she kept there was now missing too. Getting down on her hands and knees to look for the feather, she found it pointing toward the umbilical cord on the floor she had already searched.
So here’s the picture, found again, of me in 1996 standing in my blanket coat in front of the adobe church in the Old Taos plaza. Over the last fifteen years, I had remembered the picture differently: in my remembered picture, I could see the colors of the coat (navy, purple, and tan) as my body cast a long shadow across the adobe, and the look on my face wasn’t so severe. I had made the picture in my mind more vivid and stylized than the picture actually was. Call it the O’Keefe effect.
Even though the photograph doesn’t quite live up to my memory of it, I still like this picture of me. This was my first—and for now, only—trip to Taos and Santa Fe, and I loved the area, especially the church I’m standing against. I had never been that close to something that old, that sacred, built out of the earth itself as if it had grown there from the very mud of which it was created. I felt—as the picture depicts—very small standing against the back of the church but safe at the same time, perhaps because the wall seemed so solid and so warm on that early spring day. I’m not casting a shadow because, in the photo, I am the shadow, the only darkness against the light of the adobe, absorbing rather than reflecting the power of that place. I imagined why artists like O’Keefe had been so drawn to the Southwest—the textures, the heat, and the severity of light that draws our eyes to the shadows in relief like the pattern of a Hopi design.
When this picture was taken, I was just starting my career at the university and was about to buy the home where I would raise my daughter. I wasn’t young, but I was starting out once again on a new phase of my life. Now, fifteen years later, that career is finished, my daughter is raised, the home sold, and I’m once again facing new and exciting changes in my life.
This picture reminds me that we sometimes find ourselves in unexpected places that we don’t even realize we’ll remember years hence. Sometimes our days seem so settled, so sedentary or even senseless, that only looking back across our lives tracks how far we’ve come. Perhaps I’ve searched for this picture from time to time because I needed that reminder. Perhaps I’ve found it now because I’m ready for another change.