Bless me, Rudy

You may think this an obvious opening sentence, but I had always wanted his blessing. Rudolfo Anaya was, after all, my most important teacher — the one who had helped me through grad school and became the chairman of my thesis committee. But now I wanted his blessing from the beyond, as I could no longer have it in person.

June 30 started like many others during the pandemic. Wake up, make coffee, eat something, water the garden, walk the pup, settle in to social media, correspondence; in the afternoon would come the writing.

I saw the top half of the photo first, on a scroll. Before his face was fully there, I thought: Oh, no. Not Rudy. And there it was. The dread confirmed in a few seconds. He had died at 82. The body goes into some shock — disbelief. The image of the deceased person quickly starts to crystallize around the edges. There will be no more interactions except in my mind.

People were commenting, saying how much he and his books meant to them. This post came out of me, abbreviated here:

New Mexico and the world would not be the same without his presence in it. I cannot, probably will not, believe he is gone. His presence in everything truly New Mexican is too strong. Descansa en paz y poder, maestro de maestros.

Rudy’s influence on my life is a lot. His book, Bless Me, Ultima, was one of the two main reasons I had moved to New Mexico over 30 years before — and stayed. The other reason was the place itself. I had been in Los Angeles for over a year, back from Spain, where I’d been homesick for two years, preceded by six wonderful years mostly in Mexico. Los Angeles, my hometown, was not it for me. There was no sense of community that I could recognize or tap into. The city planning, as L.A. grew, begat isolation and segregation, as it turned out, separating neighborhoods of color with freeway delineations.

So I finished up my bachelor’s degree in liberal arts, which was better than having just a high school diploma, but didn’t open many doors. I was lost, and looked into grad programs. The University of New Mexico. Anaya helped start the creative writing department not many years before. Here was the chance to study with someone whose work I admired. His was a book I had gotten out of the library and read in a studio apartment in Koreatown.

Rudy’s world of the llano, the plains of Eastern New Mexico, was a new place for my imagination. It was not Mexico or Spain, though it carried elements of both. It was a harsh existence, where a wise medicine woman showed the way. When I lifted my face out of the book, a few bird of paradise plants out the window were the only beauty, plus some very tall palms where a little higher helicopters whirled most nights, looking for criminals around our buildings.

So I traveled to New Mexico in the winter, got off the freeway in Albuquerque and my metallic green car cruised up Central Avenue. I was delighted at the funkiness I saw everywhere. No L.A. pretension here. Just funny little post-hippy storefronts, small dives, mechanics to keep the old cars going. This looked like a place I could be happy. It was 1987.

The next day, I sat in on a class Rudy was teaching. He was straightforward yet humorous in a kind way with the students. I wanted in, though I wouldn’t know if I’d been accepted to UNM until after I moved there a few months later. I didn’t care. New Mexico was a combination of everywhere I’d lived and something rugged all its own. During the weekdays I looked for work, and finally found it teaching English as a second language at the community college. On the weekends I roamed the landscape, dotted with piñon, where I found canyons where streams ran and old ruins built into the cliffs.

School started at UNM and I began teaching. Being a nonresident, I just took a couple of classes — one with Rudy. I was writing short pieces about living in Mexico, the Hopi mesas, and Rudy was intrigued. That didn’t stop him from what I referred to as his “slash and burn” editing. Just like the class I had sat in on in the spring, our group had a relaxed yet intense tone to it. When we got our first papers back, they all had little kids’ stickers on them. The ones I recall said, in fat lettering: “Muy bonito,” with a smiley face. It was an invitation not to take ourselves or our writing too seriously. Still, Rudy pushed us to do our best.

In one of our office meetings, Rudy found out I played some guitar and sang. He asked me if I’d give lessons to his granddaughter, who was only about 5 or 6 years old at the time. I said yes, though my guitar skills were minimal, I could follow the basic nursery rhymes we accompanied.

He and his wife Pat lived on Albuquerque’s West Side, and their view swept over the city to the mountains. After the guitar lesson and a little weekly performance we played for Rudy, he and his wife Patricia and I would sit looking over Albuquerque as the lights gradually came on and the Sandia Mountains turned their signature watermelon pink. The drink was tequila. It always felt good to sit up there with them and talk about life: Mexico, New Mexico, politics, literature, our lives and interests.

The New Mexico that Pat, Rudy and his books, plus my friends and international students introduced me to, was an egalitarian place, a place where even amid poverty, people could flourish. No one was trying to fit into a town like L.A., where money was king. Here it was La Virgen de Guadalupe and a cast of many others that did more than hint at a deep spiritualism.

One afternoon I entered Rudy’s office and he announced: “I just realized that the saints are like the Indians’ kachinas!” He was so happy about that discovery, was always trying to connect cultures. There were deeper forces at work here that were easier to get at than a place too driven by the materialistic.

Back then the creative writing program was only two years long (now it’s three). I started working on my thesis. One day the first sentence of my book came to me:

“My car was the only thing moving on the street, so slowly that the jacaranda blossoms fell onto the red upholstery.”

The vehicle of the story was a detective novel. The only problem was, at UNM most professors saw a detective novel as being in the lower category of “genre,” somewhere in a murky, swampy place next to science fiction and thrillers, perhaps only a rung up from romance novels.

Not Rudy, he came from the llano, knew the barrio, and didn’t judge things the way the city slicker profs did. In fact, a couple years after I graduated, his first detective novel, Albuquerque, came out. Rudy would go on to publish many detective novels. After that came his Chupacabra books, among other things. I was teaching women in the jail by then, and Rudy donated Chupacabra books to them. We’d read the book out loud in the small visitor’s room that served as our classroom, and they loved it. It had a theme of drugs corrupting the city, a reality most of them had lived, and some we knew had paid for with their lives. We had many a rich discussion while reading those books. Rudy had a way of tapping into the important issues of the day and exploring them via his wonderful characters.

I got my master’s, graduated with the extra collar over the gown and a very loose perm. Taking on more teaching, I saw Rudy and Pat less, and the classes with their granddaughter fell by the wayside in favor of my full schedule. Still, I’d go up there when I could, and always left with an armful of Rudy’s books.

Then Patricia died. I had seen them as individuals, with very distinct writing styles. After her death, I saw how fused together they had been. She was his muse and editor — the sky and earth for a writer. I was lucky enough to read some of Pat’s writing, which I always wanted more of. Soon after her passing, I went to visit Rudy, and it was like the floorboards had disappeared beneath him. Around this time, The Old Man’s Love Story came out. To me, here are the two bookends of his writing career: Bless Me Ultima, as the quintessential coming-of-age story, and this one, one of his last. It describes the pain and so many other emotions surrounding losing someone who is everything to you.

Over the last years, I asked him if he wanted to go to lunch, then if he simply wanted a visit. There was always a polite decline, and my visits became birthday cards. I knew, from my own parents, that the desire to go out diminishes, and then the circle closes to just a few. I did get to express to him over the years, in person and in cards, what he and his wonderful writing and mentoring meant to me.

One of the last times I saw him I was still trying to write within the margins of teaching — using some weekend time and my several-week breaks from teaching to write. It rarely worked for me. I simply couldn’t balance the two, and teaching always won out. I published many volumes of my students’ writing over decades, but my own languished. I had given him a couple of chapters of my Mexican memoir to read. We sat and sipped tequila. He said:

“It seems like you’re not quite settling into the writing.”

I tried to stop the tears as they fell down my cheeks. I had never cried around Rudy. I had taken on more teaching, late in my career at a new high school in the jail, where I first consulted and then was hired on as an art and writing instructor plus serving as a college counselor. It was exhausting. I knew I didn’t really have the time and energy to settle into my writing.

Once I retired, my writing started to flourish, although by that time I had so much I wanted to work on it was like a bunch of children clamoring to be fed. I’d wake up and be inspired by one or the other and work on that for the day or the week. It’s a race of turtles, but I finished a book this spring. It came out a few weeks after the pandemic hit, and house visits were not possible. I’d planned to bring it up to Rudy, to show him I finally had finished something, but never got the chance. I should have sent it via mail. This is a deep regret I’ll have to live with, another lesson to not put those things off.

Rudy’s world surrounded him since birth: the little house buffeted by strong winds, the magical river he swam in. To keep it all alive when he moved to Albuquerque, he wrote, and gave validation to so many others’ stories, especially Chicano writers. I was like a one-woman migration story. I left L.A. at 21 to live in Mexico, where I was always the other. After six years I grew tired of being a foreigner. Then I spent time in San Francisco, where, pre-AIDS, I felt like I was one of the last of the hetero breed. In Spain, I could pass, sometimes. In New Mexico, I was Anglo.

Yet steeping myself in New Mexico and in Rudy’s sense of place somehow helped give me roots here, as so much of it came from nature and from structures that mimicked the natural world. “This Land is Your Land,” I’d teach my immigrant students to sing. No one had an accent when they sang, even if they had a thick one while speaking. We were one while we sang that song, all wanting the same thing. Home. But not just any home, a vibrant home, a home that will give you a living and a full life. As seen from the path of my migration, this place, New Mexico, is it.

Now that Rudy’s gone, it seems like everything in the natural world is talking all the more. The winds, which usually die down from the spring to summer, are making the trees toss their hair, and not just when the rains come. Birds are chirping new sounds; the rooster, who crows at odd hours in my neighbor’s yard, seems to never stop now. Even the wood in the doors of my house seems alive again. Although we are vigilant to not keep the doors open, crickets get in the house and go at their one-note violin all night. Everything wants to live, unfettered, until we don’t or can’t.

Mine is just one story with many lived chapters over the years. Many others, from students to professional writers, were befriended by Rudy and his Patricia, and sipped tequila while looking at the stars and the city lights from just outside, where there’s always perspective and the encouraging word.

If spirits stay around, I hope his will visit me and other writers who need him as a muse, as a guide and a reminder to settle into the work, to fully live each moment, be it difficult or beautiful. There is no doubt in my mind that his memory will be a blessing.

Cynthia Wooley is a writer and photographer who lives in Albuquerque. Wooley’s book of poetry and photography, This Fleeting World, was published in spring.

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