For the world is hollow, and I have touched the Sky (City)….

West of Albuquerque, New Mexico, is the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America: Acoma Pueblo. Sky_CityThe 367-foot sandstone bluff is visible from miles away, but ageless adobe houses nearly blend into the top of the mesa. The Acoma settled here in approximately 1150 A.D. – for defensive reasons as the story goes – and although the majority of the tribe now lives on the reservation land surrounding the mesa, 50 or so tribal members still live here in their sky city. There is no running water, no electricity, and no sewers. That’s the way they like it. Many of those who remain are elderly, we were told, or just don’t care for the hustle and noise of city life. Some of them are painters or weavers or potters who are maintaining their traditional arts. (And they do beautiful work – while some of them take credit cards – really, just take a bunch of cash with you – it’s easier.)

Because the people value their privacy, the pueblo is not open to visitors except for organized tours, led by a tribal guide. After stopping at the cultural center down below – which also houses a museum and gift shop – you are taken up in groups by shuttle bus driven along the road you have to thank Hollywood for. Until Hollywood fell in love with New Mexico, there was only a “staircase” of sorts carved into the cliff face. But to make movies, they need equipment, and equipment needs roads. So now the tribe uses the road as part of their tourist infrastructure. (We had the opportunity to take the, uh, “stairs” back down the mesa after the tour was over. Some of our group did, but I declined. Too close to the beginning of the trip for me to trash a knee or ankle.) Ladder_cropped

There is no wandering wherever you want, no walking into people’s homes. We saw few people besides our guide and the artists displaying their wares. And a dog.

The colors in Sky City are muted: shades of brown and white against the blue sky. It seemed somehow fitting, because the history of the Pueblo is not all pleasant. No, it wasn’t like a somber funeral procession or something, nor did we feel anger or bitterness. Our guide was funny, entertaining, and informative. She spoke of having “the best of two worlds” (of getting to choose which parts of Catholicism to blend with their native beliefs, or getting to choose whether she was in her world or in ours).

She showed us the traditional adobe ovens still in use, the patched-many-times-over walls of their homes (if you look closely you can see bits of old pots embedded in the mud).adobe_oven

Then there was the San Esteban del Rey Mission (1640). In the Spaniards bid to convert the natives, Acoma men were forced to build it. Some of them are still present we were told: buried in the walls. And that bell you see in the photo below. They didn’t want it. But they were made to pay for the bell anyway – with their children. It wasn’t the first time children had been taken from them (never to be seen again).

You won’t see photos of the inside of the church (beautifully restored!) – it is not permitted. church_bellNor will you see photos of the graveyard which sits between the church and the edge of the cliff. It not only represents yet another feat of architectural engineering they accomplished on top of this bluff (no road to haul up all that dirt), but another way in which they were forced to accept a foreign custom: burying their dead. There is little room left in the graveyard. From now on, only the elders can be buried there.

But that is not to say there will be no other arrivals. On the far wall, overlooking that abrupt drop-off to the valley floor, there is a hole. It is for the souls of their children. Those the Spanish took away, the ones they have no idea what ever happened to. There will always be room for those children’s spirits to return to their people. It may take a long time for the spirits to find their way home, but they will always be welcomed.

Next Exit: The Comfort Zone

There are many ways to test the boundaries of your comfort zone. Traveling is only one of them.  A more risky method, to some, is to put ourselves – our creativity – “out there” into the public eye. All writers, all artists, hope for accolades and sales, and fans. But first comes rejection.

We’ve all been there. Rejection letter after rejection letter. How many do you have tucked away in a drawer or shoebox? Or filed away electronically in your email inbox?  From magazine editors, to book publishers, to literary agents. From faded photocopies of impersonal form letters to scathing commentaries on your lack of creativity. It hurts, doesn’t it?

And in-person rejection? Even worse. Workshops with editors and fellow writers can be a wonderful place to find inspiration and make friends, but they can also be gut wrenchingly painful. But if you can survive being skewered by a professional book editor like the “evil Ginger” (as we referred to her afterward), you can survive anything. Even Hollywood.

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In 1996, I wrote a spec script titled “Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother,” for the television series “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” about Dr. Bashir’s efforts to save the same dying aliens who had murdered his parents. A few months later, in 1997, that script earned me the rare chance to pitch ideas to the series’ producers. I took those experiences I had at the writers workshops and steeled my nerves as I walked onto the lot at Paramount Studios. I told myself I would do better. And I did, though probably not my best. I was still nervous. I recall laughing at a non-funny comment. But I also remember a nodding head, and “interesting” while watching the producer scribble some notes on a yellow legal pad. The meeting ended cordially with a handshake and a “we’ll call you.”

I had a lot of hope that phone call would come, but it never did. That was disappointing, and depressing. But no writer can let that stop them. You have to keep trying. Keep writing. Write, re-write, edit, re-write.

Never dump an idea. I resurrected the title of that spec script for a fantasy short story published on the web. And I transformed the script into a science-fiction short story, “The Life of Words.” Dr. Bashir’s parents became the “brilliant but dead Bashins” and Dr. Bashir morphed into a linguistic anthropologist named August Goodloe. The aliens, and their terminal condition, remained the driving force of the story. Originally published in the journal of Anthropology and Humanism, “The Life of Words” is now found as part of my “Skin and Bones” anthology available on Amazon Kindle.

And all those rejection letters still tucked away in a drawer? Someday they’ll make nice kindling for a bonfire.