A New Mexico Mystery Review: Rio Grande Fall by Rudolfo Anaya

The second Sonny Baca novel is not just a sequel, but a continuation of a journey through the four seasons and the four sacred directions that began in book one, Zia Summer. Sonny, the great-grandson of legendary New Mexico lawman Elfego Baca, grows as heir to his bisabuelo’s role and also in his spirituality and capacity for love.

To recover from the soul sickness caused by a murder he dealt with in the first book, Sonny seeks healing from a curandera. The healing is his initiation into the spirit world and shamanic experiences, and it introduces the most compelling aspects of the story.

This private investigator character far from noir. Sonny is colorful, a flawed but basically virtuous young man strongly connected to his family, culture, and community. He’s realistic in many ways and yet also a larger-than-life hero who has mythic-scale adventures in his archetypal battle with Raven, the cult leader and domestic terrorist he pursued in the first book.

Sonny is hired by the Alburquerque International Balloon Fiesta when a balloonist who could have been a witness in a case involving Raven dies. (Get use to that extra r in Albuquerque as you read the series. It’s not a typo. Anaya restored it, though it fell off the city’s name a long time ago.) An intriguing aspect of the crime plot is the time period, in the aftermath of the Iran-Contra scandal and the arms-and-drugs deals of that era. One of the themes is corruption.

The balloon fiesta itself, the city’s diverse neighborhoods, and the glory of October in New Mexico, are as central to the story as the characters. The author is so passionate about them he gets carried away sometimes, re-describing them more often than necessary. He also restates his themes a bit too often. I guess his editor didn’t dare tell the master cut, but these repetitions slow the pace. A reflection on autumn in the Rio Grande valley isn’t needed when lives are at stake. The book overall is still powerful. I mean this as praise when I say it has an occasional comic book quality—a fight scene with a leap off a balcony, a mad scientist scene, the invocation of special powers—because myths, archetypes, and superheroes are closely related.

The most complex characters aren’t the good ones or the evil ones, but two women who are torn between: Madge, the balloon fiesta director, and Tamara, Raven’s former follower. The Good Women aren’t filled out as well. Though their roles in Sonny’s life differ, his lover, Rita, restaurateur and herbalist, and the curandera, Lorenza, are virtually identical. This may be due to Sonny’s idealization of them—or the author’s.

Lorenza is Sonny’s new spiritual teacher. His neighbor don Eliseo, a traditional elder, was his teacher in the first book and remains one in this. I’ll be interested to see if each book in the series adds another teacher and how these teachers balance his spiritual wholeness by the end. Despite some excess verbiage, I’ll follow the rest of the series. After all, it’s excess verbiage by Anaya.

 

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Crystals

 

Once in a while, I like to recycle an older post that new subscribers may not have seen. This post from the winter of 2015 is a short summary of what I’ve discovered so far, from both reading and experience,  as a novelist incorporating the use of crystals in my books.

*****

When I researched energy healing, I easily found twenty-six articles in the archives of just one peer-reviewed medical journal. In another, I found a meta-analysis of healing studies, including those done with subjects other than “whole humans”—healing done on animals, plants, and cell cultures, which are presumed not to experience placebo effects. A number of years ago, I read a study on Qi Gong done in China with pigs as the targets of healing by emitted chi. I can’t remember what their malady was, but I recall that they improved at a statistically significant level. Healers have measurably affected fungi, seeds, plants and mice. When researching the use of crystals in healing, I looked for a similar level of scientific investigation and couldn’t find it. However, I found anthropological literature on the subject as well as modern books on crystals. My reading gave me the impression that the primary use of crystals historically has been for strengthening psychic ability rather than for healing.

 In North and South America and in Australia, shamans have used quartz crystals to enhance their ability to see into spirit worlds and other places and times, as well as into a sick person’s body. For example, Navajo crystal gazers use quartz crystals perceive the nature of an illness. One crystal gazer I read about also used his visions to find lost sheep and lost children. In Australian Aboriginal traditions, quartz crystals were used to make ritual cuts as part of a shaman’s initiation and sometimes embedded into a finger or under the skin. The crystals also become spirit forms or energy centers in the shaman’s head or belly.

Quartz—sometimes called a “wild stone” or a “live stone” by indigenous people—has the most uses in shamanism, but other stones have been seen as powerful. In ancient Taoist alchemy, jade was considered to enable one to fly up to heaven, which sounds like a shamanic journey. In European folk magic, any clear surface like a mirror or water as well as a crystal could be used for scrying. The Druids are said to have used beryl crystals when seeking visions.

The present-day practice of crystal healing has grown up from a mixture of influences from the East and the West. In the American colonies, European folk healers met Native healers, and their practices began to cross cultures. This blend is the root from which my character Rhoda-Sue Outlaw Jackson’s idiosyncratic folk healing springs. With the introduction of yoga in the West, color symbolism from India relating to the chakra system was integrated with the shamanic use of crystals. In The Calling, when Mae starts working with crystals, a book on this contemporary East-West approach is her primary resource. She uses crystals in both the traditional shamanic way as a seer and in the modern way as a healer.

Practitioners of crystal healing ascribe specific influences to certain stones, referring to effects of their harmonious structures and their unique vibrations or frequencies. Crystals grow; they have a kind of vitality or life force, and yet they are also stable. An interaction is assumed to take place between the vibration of the person being healed and that of the crystal. Skeptics assume that any results are due to the placebo effect, or that hypnosis is somehow involved in healing with crystals. This latter guess makes sense to me. Trance states affecting both healer and patient are part of the shamanic tradition. **

I first encountered crystal healing at the home of some friends in Santa Fe. After running a five-K race, I’d been experiencing pain in my left ankle, which had developed a ganglion cyst. My friend Jon held an enormous clear quartz point and made circles with it over the painful part of my ankle for about twenty minutes. I was skeptical but open-minded, willing to test out his belief that he could help. That was in July 1999. My ankle didn’t hurt again until June 2013. When I went to the foot and ankle doctor in Santa Fe to have the cyst taken care of, I told him this story. We joked about my getting it treated again with another giant crystal, but I wasn’t sure I could get another fourteen years of relief from just any healer, and Jon and his giant crystal had moved away.

When I lived in Norfolk I met a young woman who used crystals in energy healing. I can’t say if they had an actual effect or contributed to a mutual trance, but the sense of lightness and peace I felt from her work was strong.

While preparing to write the Mae Martin series, in addition to reading about crystals I acquired a collection of them to experiment with. Sometimes I’d try leaving different ones next to my bed at night, in the space between the lamp’s curved legs on the bedside table, to see if they affected my dreams. One night I placed sodalite in that spot—it’s supposed to be good for perception and creative expression, among other things—and I dreamed that people were sitting at a bar playing a gambling game with crystals, shaking them like dice and throwing them. I woke up in the morning and reached to the table to get my glasses—and noticed that the blue-and-white stone, which had been a smooth solid oval the night before, was now broken as neatly as if the end had been sliced off with a saw. Sodalite does fracture easily. If any crystal was going to break, this was the one, but I doubt I picked it up and threw it in my sleep, acting out the dream. If I had, I probably would have knocked over the lamp, and I don’t have any history of parasomnias. The stone lay right where I’d left it. Maybe it already had a crack it in and quietly fell apart while I dreamed it was being thrown. This is one of those strange little things that I could explain away, but that’s different from actually explaining it.

Sources

Harner, Michael, The Way of the Shaman, Harper, 1990

Benz E and Luckert K, The Road of Life: Report of a Visit by a Navajo Seer, Ethnomedicine II 3/ 4, 1973

Cowan, J. Wild Stones: Spiritual Discipline and Psychic Power Among Aboriginal Clever Men,  Studies in Comparative Religion, V. 17 no. 1&2, Winter-Spring, 1985

Permutt, Philip, The Crystal Healer, Cico Books, 2007

Knight, S., Pocket Guide to Crystals and Gemstones, Crossing Press, 1998

* I use the male pronoun because my sources focused on male shamans. Female healers’ and seers’ roles in traditional societies often differ from the men’s.

**If I understand correctly, people in shamanic cultures who use crystals don’t feel the need to differentiate between placebo, trance, and spiritual effects, or between power objects and symbols of power, or between the crystals the shaman carries in his belly or forehead (spirit objects) and the ones in his medicine bundle (physical objects). Their world view is of a whole system, not separated by the veil modern people place between the spiritual and the material.

Bat Medicine

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On a recent evening, I walked to the wetland at the edge of the Rio Grande for the bat-rise at sunset, the silent dance of dark forms against the golden sky, and remembered that I’d written about it a few years ago. I let the bats swoop around me and silence my mind into clarity for a while, and then came back and found that old post. The bats are still sacred and healing to me, so here it is again.

*****

I began re-reading Linda Hogan’s book of essays Dwellings and Michael Harner’s The Way of the Shaman at the same time. This pairing of readings couldn’t be more dissimilar in style, content and purpose. I finished the latter book quickly, but took my time with the first. It’s too beautiful to hurry through.

Poet and novelist Hogan, a member of the Chickasaw tribe, writes of the spirituality inherent in the natural world. Her insights into the relationships between living creatures and our own souls is anchored in places and in specific experiences—going to hot springs in a cave, or working at a bird sanctuary. She doesn’t write about animals or the earth in general, but this piece of earth, this particular sunflower, this colony of mud-building bees. When she cites other writers, often scientists, she finds passages so beautiful they flow into her own essays like the breath of the same breeze. Her topics range from wolves, to the Amazon rainforest, to the life cycle of water and rock, to the deeper meaning of ape language experiments, and more.

These essays wake the reader up to the aliveness of every moment, as the author hears the song of corn, or discovers the liquid, graceful, wing-wrapped mating of two bats she rescued from their fall back into hibernation in a sudden spring chill. “I put them in a warm corner outside, nestled safe in dry leaves and straw. I looked at them several times a day. Their fur, in the springtime, was misted with dewy rain. They mated for three days in the moldering leaves and fertile earth, moving together … then apart, like reflections on a mirror, a four-chambered black heart beating inside the closed tissue of wings.”

In addition to this subtle observation of their beauty, she sees the bats from a Native spiritual perspective. “The bat people are said to live in the first circle of holiness. Thus, they are intermediaries between our world and the next. Hearing the chants of all life around them, they are listeners who pass on the language and songs of many things to human beings who need wisdom, healing and guidance in our lives, we who forget where we stand in the world.”

This forgetting where we stand is Hogan’s theme. We need to heal ourselves back into what she refers to in her novel Power as “the real human beings”. If you love language, you will love this book, and you may come away from it loving every living creature, every crack in a rock, every sound when the wind blows, as if you had never seen and heard and known them before. I hope you will, like I did, love this book so much you want to read it again and again.

Harner’s book is almost the opposite of Hogan’s. An anthropologist turned shamanic trainer, he does his best to distill the essence of shamanism into a kind of how-to book for modern people. After an introductory chapter in which he tells of his studies with the Jivaro tribe, he intentionally presents shamanism divested of culture, land, language and tradition. Even the animals are not real creatures that walk the earth and breathe and live their lives, but animal spirits, guardians and guides for humans, and plants are also their spirit essence, for use in healing humans.

His citations are dense and thickly strewn, sometimes without any background on the culture or lives of people he is citing. That, however, is his point. This is shamanism as modern medicine, a world-wide range of healing traditions pared down to their “active ingredients.” Shamans from Australia to North America use quartz crystals, drums, rattles and dances. Shamans all over the world take journeys to find knowledge, and have power relationships with animal spirits. He turns these elements into a kind of recipe for being a shaman. Maybe it works for some people, but for me the best parts of this book are the direct quotations from real shamans such as the “sucking doctor” Essie Parrish, rather than the parts about modern Americans “dancing their animals.”

Compared to my experience of traditional ceremonies, or even to running outdoors, or dreaming, neo-shamanism feels incomplete, but then I wasn’t reading with the intention of putting it into practice. I had read the book before and gone to a workshop with Harner at an alternative therapies conference years ago, and already knew I wasn’t going to use this for spiritual guidance. It was research for a novel, Soul Loss, in which one character is a teacher of neo-shamanism—not based on Harner himself, only on the kind of practice that he teaches—and I needed to refresh my recollections.

I dreamed once that I turned into a bat. In this form I flew though the dome of an art gallery and then descended to the bottom floor as the blue outline of bat, a bat made of twilight sky. In Truth or Consequences, I like to walk down to the Rio Grande at that low blue time of evening in the summer and let the bats surround me at the edge of the little wetland where redwing blackbirds sing by day. While the bats dance for bugs, I can stand in the midst of them, and they swoop close without ever touching me, perfectly aware in their busy flight, flawless pilots of their world of sound. To me the animals themselves feel more sacred than a journey to find my “power animal.” This bat immersion is the bat medicine I need.