Saturday, March 30, 2013

Towards A Poor... (Life)


Living in New Mexico, one is confronted with the reality of poverty all the time. It is inescapable, a fundamental fact of life. This is poor country. It's a hard land for one thing. The persistence of the drought, and more federal government budget cuts, are making things harder -- among many other factors contributing to poverty in New Mexico.

Now and then, I feel a pang of guilt because we're not that bad off, all things considered, and some people around here think that because we came out from California, we must be ricos. Well, no. Far from it, but at least for now, we're not struggling financially. It's nearly the first time in our lives that that wasn't so.

Of course, one of the reasons we're not doing so badly now is that we tend to "live poor" -- because we've been poor. Oh, very poor indeed. We have known hunger and near-homelessness from time to time, sometimes with seemingly nowhere to turn for assistance. We can look back from our relative comfort today and easily think it is a damned miracle we've survived at all. It often wasn't easy.


This time of year, pilgrims are marching toward their various destinations, be it Tomé Hill or Chimayó or wherever else they are impelled to travel as a sign of their faith during Holy Week. There was a modest but very faithful procession yesterday passing by the cemeteries and cattle pastures near our place, headed out to the spare tin-roofed adobe Catholic church that serves this area. Periodic pilgrimage is a way of life.

Most of the pilgrims are poor people or the descendants of poor people, often Indios or Hispanos -- or as sometimes happens, they are not poor people at all but simply more well-off Anglo seekers of something that's missing from their material lives. The pilgrimage experience gives them an opportunity to be in touch with the Divine for a moment, or at least to sense the Spirit That Abides.

We have not gone on pilgrimages as such, though we have attended some of the solemn processions and the more cheerful Fiestas in various parts of New Mexico, and we have been to El Santuario and chatted with Father Roca -- who kindly blessed us and insisted we take with us a scoop of Holy Dirt and a vial of Holy Water for our travels.

The hike up Tomé Hill is one of the (many) destinations we've put on our bucket list. Unfortunately, we couldn't do it this year due to health issues, but maybe next year. Of course that could turn into something like our endlessly delayed plans to attend the Burning of Zozobra.


Despite the fact that Santa Fe is awash in ricos, there are lots of poor people, too, as there are everywhere else in New Mexico. In our area, there are a few very rich and prominent ranchers, an assortment of more or less middle class suburban pseudo-ranchers (most of them government drones), and lots of poor people getting by as best they can. It's not easy. Some may get benefits of one kind or another, but the amounts are typically so miserly, they must count every penny, and despite the existence of food pantries and a lot of generous charity through civic and religious institutions they may go hungry during the month or go without heat during at least part of the winter. I know of people who don't have electricity or running water in their self-built homes because they can't afford it, not because they are trying to live off the grid or aspire to recapture the essence of primitive living. We may live in a pioneer house, but it's on a paved street (in some areas a rarity).

There are people who have these luxuries, plus a car or maybe two and a connection to cable or satellite teevee and a cell phone, maybe even a computer, who are barely getting by just the same. One of them lives down the street from us. He was injured in an on-the-job accident years ago, hit on the head by a falling roll-up door, brain damaged, but he was not able to get disability until late last year. Once his minimal savings were gone, he had to rely on others to help him, and so they did. Neighbors and relations chipped in, took care of him, made sure he was fed and cleaned, paid the bills that had to be paid while letting other things go; they even took care of his dogs. He hated being a burden on others, but he didn't have a lot of choice. Finally, he was approved for disability after years of being denied, and he will now have enough (he thinks) to pay his own way. No one expects him to pay back what they spent and did on his behalf.

This sense of community and looking after one another is part of the reality of poor living, something that ricos are forever trying to thwart or interfere with. They hate the fact that poor folk are often far more willing to look after one another, without any expectation of reward or return, than are the ricos themselves. They don't understand it, and they are afraid of it.

We live in a community that is tightly bound to one another in many ways, and to an extent -- because we're from California -- we're still not fully a part of it. I suspect if we were from Texas, on the other hand...;-). Some of the locals are suspicious, some try to figure out an angle for profit, others think we're just so rich and uppity we wouldn't want anything to do with them. Some have become fast friends.


During the Papal Festivities, Francesco, Il Papa, expressed his wish to have a "poor church for the poor." Yes, well, I have my doubts about that, but the impulse is probably genuine, at least as genuine as anything gets at his level in the Church hierarchy. His insistence that he took the name Francesco from St. Francis of Assisi is interesting (I would have thought Francis Xavier, he being Jesuit and all...)  and quite charming, but... well... it's a little hard to imagine the princes of the Church, led by the Pope, actually following the Little Poor Man's path. No, I think they wouldn't. They've (Gosh Almighty!) worked way too hard to get where they are and have what they have (sucking up to Ratzinger, come on!) to go the Poor Man's route, but you never know.


Of course the Church is mostly theater, always has been, as is obvious in its Protestant evangelical kindred, though the Catholics are no slouches when it comes to Spectacle.

Theater can be accomplished on a fairly low budget though, and if the Church wants to, it can reflect on the Poor Theatre of Jerzy Grotowski -- as well as many others over the years -- as a means to explore what a Poor Church might be.

The pilgrimages and acts of the penitentes in New Mexico are examples of Poor Church theater, at least the way I look at it. We were at a Christmas event last year where a version of a penitente chapel (morada) was displayed. "Notice the bloodstains still on the doors?" Uh, yesss.... and the point would be...? What I was intrigued by was not the blood, it was the images, the retablos and bultos, that covered the walls of the shrine and decorated the altar. They were all native New Mexican made, some very old, though most probably dated from the 1950's or so. They were beautiful in their simplicity and naiveté, so much so I wanted to take some home -- though our own nicho does not lack for sacred images and statuettes. It's just that our nicho has so few actual New Mexican items. Most of them come from varied sources in California, though the pressed tin Our Lady of Lourdes is originally from France, and some of the santos and other images are from (Old) Mexico. 


We have a lot of New Mexican made pottery, however, mostly from Acoma Pueblo, so there is that! Of course most of it is still in boxes... somewhere... There are unopened moving boxes stacked in the house and out in the storage building beside it. There are more in the garage and the shed and the studio. There are some still in California, too. Sometimes I ask, "Where is... X or Y or Z?" And the answer is usually, "Oh, it's probably still in a box somewhere in storage." Any idea where, exactly? "Well, no. Not exactly. It might still be in California...;-)."

I've been meaning to go back to California since February but haven't done it. I figure three or possibly four trips in the van should empty the storage unit there, or I could rent a truck and do it in one trip though I'd have to figure out the logistics of getting there and back without flying. I would rather not fly again if it can be avoided. My last couple of experiences with airports and airlines were so annoying I swore off flying for good.

Of course the fact that I can even mention these sorts of conundrums and annoyances indicate how far from actual poverty we really are.

That could change at any minute though, due to the fact that I don't have health insurance (yet) and because of any number of uncertainties. You never know.


Jerzy Grotowski's "Towards A Poor Theatre" was a big influence on my thinking about and doing theater. And on living, too. I think it's telling that Grotowski's approach is still considered "experimental" or "radical."  But his ideas and methods came out of a long tradition of theatrical artists breaking free of convention, using what was at hand -- and particularly their own bodies and voices -- to create a living partnership with the audience. One of the keys to this approach is to dissolve the boundaries between the stage and the People, or if the boundaries must be maintained, to make them strict and obvious.

Breaking free of convention became the central idea of the kind of theater I wanted to do and eventually did do. But when you are fighting against convention and expectation in theater, you are almost by definition doing and living Poor Theatre.


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