The Soul’s Geography
Marisa Guerin, PhD – September 28, 2021
I’m pretty sure my soul’s “home” geography is the high desert.
Why that would be true is a bit of a mystery. I am the daughter of people who grew up in cities, and my childhood was spent in an ordinary suburban neighborhood in William Penn’s “Greene Countrie Towne.” Trees, humidity, clouds, flowers, weeds and bugs… nothing remotely like a desert climate.
But the first time I found myself out in the rocky, hot, sunny terrain of Castilla, on the shoulders of the aged mountains between Madrid and Segovia, it was intoxicating. I was about eleven, visiting the summer house rented by my Spanish cousins that year, and we had the run of the village and the fields. The sky was bright blue and the sunshine blazed onto dry, gold grasses and the clusters of silent, fragrant pine trees, with blue-grey rocky outcroppings covered with lichens underfoot. I was completely enthralled. I remember just sitting there breathing it all in – seems like it was for hours, but probably not. Contemplative spirit or not, I only had a kid’s attention span. To this day, the smell of pine needles on a hot day sends me to that moment.
Jump forward to June after my junior year in college…coincidentally, immediately after returning from five months living in Spain with my relatives. I went off with the boyfriend to a summer job in New Mexico, and I found myself in “my” land again! Santa Fe is also high desert, with red earth and scrubby tough pinon shrubs that grow every so many feet apart, strictly in line with how much water they can reach. The flash of recognition was immediate. The sky, again blue; the sun, again bright; the air, again dry. I can’t tell you how much I love Northern New Mexico, especially in winter when the blue-sky-gold-sun shines on icy-bright snow. I am completely at home in that far away, magical land.
Over the years, I have gone back when I can to drink in the spirit of these kindred places that restore my soul: to El Caserio or Las Navillas near Segovia, where many of my cousins now own homes, and to
the Sangre de Cristo mountains outside of Santa Fe, where I would scramble up and down the bluffs and trails in Tsankewi (a little dis-contiguous piece of Bandelier national monument that you have to know to look for). They are thousands of miles apart and neither of them is near Philly, but there is no question in my mind when I am in either place: this is my native land.
Am I the only one? I can’t imagine so. Do you also have moments when you just smell the air or see the landscape, and you know you are in “your” place? I have friends who absolutely love being near the sea, or in the mountains, or in a garden. They are transported to safety, to a center place. It’s such a mystery and such a gift to find ourselves somewhere that might be simultaneously new, and also anciently-familiar.
I’m not about to have a theory on how this comes to be, but it makes sense to me, that our spirits are connected to a geography, not just symbolically, but literally. We are all of us creatures on a planet. Of course the land and sea and air have shaped our birthing and our growing. We are not just minds, or even just hearts. We are bodies, senses, real beings who live and move in the concrete world along with everyone and everything else. We respond to the natural world from deep within, its beauty, its mystery, its dangers and its resilience.
Perhaps we can be more healed and contained in these difficult times if we make sure to set foot on the earth (or the sidewalk), to be outdoors, to connect ourselves to Mother Earth. It has been one of the saving graces of the pandemic, that more of us get outside more often – not from building to car and back again, but actually using our feet to get around a bit.
And just as our souls may have a geography, our life journeys are grounded in places, too… maybe many interesting places, if we are fortunate. But in truth, no matter how many comings and going make up our busy days, I think that all of our journeys are actually routes to the same place. We are making our way to our own interiors, our own life and soul, sustained by the bit of land on which are living.
My Spanish cousin J. is currently walking the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. He has walked the different routes of the Camino twice before, and on this trip he has chosen the challenging, mountainous, original route. (He is in his mid 70’s! I’m in awe.) As I listen to his daily update recording on What’s App for his family and friends, I can imagine in my mind’s eye the mountains and landscapes that he is traversing, but I also know that he is actually walking into a deeper grounding in his own life. He is not religiously spiritual, but he knows exactly the meaning of the walking. I am inspired by his willingness to be with his spirit, his body, the path, and the companions he encounters, down to the basics, vividly alive.
I wish I could leave you not just with a picture, but with the actual aroma of pine needles, or the feeling of a breeze through dry air. But that would be my place; instead, perhaps you could pay a visit to your place, and let the strength and power of Mother Earth hold your feet steady today.