Crossing Continental Divide(s)

by Carmela Delia Lanza

  Home  |  Contents  |  Authors  Wordrunner eChapbooks  | April 2021  |      

I am driving around a parking lot with an espresso pot full of coffee and two Italian espresso cups sitting on the front seat of my car. I am going very slowly, taking the corners as gently as I can, worried about spilling. There are no cars around because this campus is always semi-deserted. It is morning and I am on my way to surprise the campus librarian. He told me he likes espresso so I decided to make him some. In that moment I don't question what I am doing; I don't ask myself, "What the hell?" I don't wonder how I ended up here in Crownpoint, New Mexico, over the Continental Divide, on the Navajo reservation. I just want to surprise this guy who I like, who I am hoping will start to like me. I never consider the fact that love has a difficult time growing in this landscape of wind and rock. It is a place for hiding, for giving up, for losing one's way, not a place for kissing, for offering a poem to a stranger, not a place for a beginning.


I lived there with ghosts. Some of them shouted at me when I walked around this small campus that looked more like a prison than a school. I packed up my life and my son, and moved out there to teach because I had student loans and my teaching assistantship at the University of New Mexico was coming to an end. No more extensions. I was expected to finally complete my doctoral dissertation and get on with it. Find a tenure-track job somewhere. Become an academic who wrote about post-feminist theory or something like that. So I moved to Crownpoint to teach developmental English to adult students who were trying to become plumbers, nursing assistants, electricians, construction workers. I was trying to survive, piecing my writing as a poet to my attempts at joining academia.

Crownpoint had one post office, one supermarket, one video store and lots of starving, homeless dogs that often ran in packs and ate most of the cats. I was told I would not see any feral cats around, and I only saw one the entire time I lived there. The dogs would hang out in front of Basha's, the only grocery store, sniffing around, waiting, and sometimes a person would come out with a box of crackers or potato chips and feed them. The dogs died of neglect—starvation, lack of care. They would live short, brutal lives—sick, starving. Often dying from trying to cross the road and getting hit by a car, a car flying by on its way to Farmington (north) or Albuquerque (south). Dead dogs marked the spot. You don’t want to turn off the road here. You don’t want to go into that town. Just keep driving.

I had a large, walk-in closet in my portable classroom and that was where I found piles and piles of books—novels like Leslie Silko's Ceremony and James Welch's Winter in the Blood. I found out from the other English instructors, the teacher who used to have that portable, the one who died, had used those books with his students. How did he do it? Did he read to them every day? Did he stop and tell them a joke? Did they like hearing his stories about his hiking trips? He was an outsider from Upstate New York, and probably was attracted to the idea of living on a reservation, teaching Navajo students. He died falling off a mountain, somewhere in Colorado. I don't know if his parents transported his body back to New York. My colleagues said his expectations weren't realistic or even sensible. But they all missed him. I felt it every time they talked about him. They had pictures of him with his parents, pictures of his childhood home, pictures of him as a child. The students loved him. He died two years before I was hired. I wrote poems about him, poems about him being my ghost lover, my soul mate:

the dark covers our skin in uninvented lives, it is our cocoon
we stitch together with every word of every story.

I tell you about the woman in the Chinese take-out place in Albuquerque
who used to complain about her feet.

You made me dinner and we laughed about how lucky we were
to find each other here, where nothing grows and all people can do
is talk of loss, hearing their ancestors’ voices at night,
skin walkers throwing dirt in your face.
But here we are, we found love!

— Carmela Delia Lanza, “Memento (Crownpoint, New Mexico)”


I drove to Albuquerque to get away from living on the edge of the world. First I had to drive south from Crownpoint to Thoreau, New Mexico to meet I-40, heading east to Albuquerque. It took two hours. When I first moved to Crownpoint, I wrote in my journal that when I drove to Albuquerque, I felt like I was leaving a small, Italian village and arriving in Rome: that was hope, the belief that something wonderful was going to happen to me in Crownpoint.

I tried not to remember what one of my friends said when we first drove out there, when I was considering interviewing for the job. We looked at the parking lot with three cars, and she said, “You are never going to get laid out here.” A prophecy. But it wasn’t only that I did not get laid. I was also living on the margins of a tribe, facing the loss of my own tribe, facing the cold fact that even if I loved someone, that someone was not going to give me the future I so desperately wanted.

After a few more trips to Albuquerque, the drive felt longer than two hours, and I would find myself crying on my drives back to Crownpoint. I was going back to a small apartment—my son sitting in the back, staring at me from the car seat with his almost black eyes, binky in mouth. He was judging me along with everyone else. I knew it. “Mom, why are we living here?” he wanted to say, but instead he would throw his head back and cry or vomit in the car. I had become that woman alone raising a child, alone, driving on an interstate, going where?

Sometimes I drove past Thoreau to Grants, New Mexico, a larger town about an hour from Albuquerque, and I would meet my son’s father there. He would usually have one of his boyfriends in the car waiting, and I would hand my son over for a weekend visitation. We would meet in the Burger King parking lot or in front of a Chinese restaurant. I usually cried all the way back to Crownpoint, driving alone, hoping to see a skin walker, going into the small apartment alone, telling myself I would spend a lot of time that weekend writing my dissertation.

That was why I was there. I was going to finish my dissertation. And I needed a place like Crownpoint to complete that last piece, that piece that would say to the world that I was no longer an outsider; that I belonged in that privileged group of people with advanced degrees and parents who had personal accountants and who hosted dinner parties.

But even after I defended my dissertation, I did not change. I was still the child of an Italian immigrant family with a mother who had three years of education and who somehow survived the bombings of her small village in Italy, and a father who was a high school drop-out and who worked as a mechanic until he was able to retire. I worried about my grammar and my lack of intellectual polish and shine. Dirt under my fingernails, I spent too much time cleaning my kitchen or balancing my checkbook. I usually cooked chicken wings and chicken thighs, and I would always bring the body into all of my academic writing. Reading Gloria Anzaldúa saved my life. She was not writing about the Italian American woman, but it was comforting enough for me: “Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them . . .” (Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza)

At the end of a semester, one of my students came to class drunk. I was not shocked or upset. I only felt annoyed; his alcohol addiction was just an inconvenience for me. No colleague ever informed me I would start to feel that way. I wanted to tell him to take his problem someplace else, like the side of a road or on top of some mesa. In other words I wanted to say, “Who the hell cares about your problems? Your wife decided to leave you and your mother-in-law kicked you out, blah, blah, blah.” I thought I had learned years ago to just keep walking and not make any eye contact.

However, he lingered after class, wanting to talk to me, and I walked into my tiny office, mumbling about having things to do. Then he said, “You’re my teacher, you should care about what I’m doing.” I asked him what he wanted from me, and he wanted me to go to the school’s drug and alcohol counselor with him. So I did. I sat in the counselor’s office and listened to him go on about how unloved he was, how alone he was. How his wife and children had left him, and they were living in another state. How no one at the school cared about him. How no one cared if he lived or died.

As he mumbled on, I thought about how I had spent the weekend feeling unloved. Later that evening, another teacher said that student would probably be dead by spring, would probably end up dead in Gallup, New Mexico, probably in an alley or out in a deserted lot. One student’s body was found near a convenience store. The teacher knew all about it because she spent time going through the obituaries in the Gallup Independent. That was how she learned about students who did not make it through the winter. They were usually the older men who had been kicked out of their homes because they were drinking or cheating. They really had no place to go. They did not even have a car to sleep in.

That student wanted me to listen to his story. I was being asked to accommodate, to shift my perceptions of the world, and I felt uncomfortable, even anxious in that shifting. As the daughter of immigrants, I know I have asked others to accommodate my perceptions of the world, and that has often made others feel uncomfortable or disconnected from me. Often with that asking, compassion is not there. Most people did not offer me compassion; they just wanted to get on with whatever they were doing, begging to just be left alone. That day I failed to meet the student with any compassion. I was too involved with my own pain, my own day-to-day negotiation of making the sacrifices of living on a reservation, knowing I would never make a home there. The times I tried were small disasters as I sabotaged the small world I created there. Hiding the wooden snake creature, an artifact that gave me the courage I needed to face my life alone with my son, whenever a maintenance guy entered my apartment. Hiding my candles and my goddess statues. Not allowing anyone to see who I prayed to and how I sent my prayers to the wind around me. Feeling trapped at the top of a mesa. My voice would only join all the other voices that I heard at night. Waking up in the middle of the night in Chaco Canyon—the voices were too loud, surrounding me in that small tent. I was being consumed.


I walk into the library, hoping I will be able to have at least one interesting conversation with the librarian. I plant myself at the computer and immediately start complaining about the lousy Internet connection. I can’t get any connection at all, and he just smiles and tells me to be patient. The connection is there but when I go to check my email, the Internet is gone. I start to click harder on the keys and go on about this stupid place. I am hoping that my behavior will draw him in, but it does not seem to be working.

I tell him about the student who came to see me because he wanted someone’s Social Security number and he thought I would know how to do that. The student told me he had seen The Godfather movies and he thought my family was “connected.” I had to say, “My family is not in the Mafia” several times before he left the portable classroom.

The librarian finds the story funny, but I only get a slight smile from him. We are not laughing together as two people who share intimacy. He observes me as if I am some kind of insect that flew in the window and will soon die with the first frost. I am shouting at him across a canyon. Words are swallowed and only sounds can be heard, like a tambourine pounding. I would ask him to dance but no dancing is allowed in the library. That is a rule of this place, and everyone is quiet or whispering. My laugh is too loud. He turns away from me and answers his cell phone. I hear him softly laughing. He is making plans for his weekend in Farmington.


I came back from a business trip in Chicago and I told the librarian, “I want my students to learn about the world,” He gave me a frown, and yet I go on, “I don’t mean the natural world, I mean other cultures. They’re so isolated out here. They would never survive in a place like Chicago. I mean if they wanted to leave this place.”

“Why would they want to?” he asked, “To do what?”

To do what. I could have talked about the pages of music announcements, the museums, the films. I could have tried to describe the energy of being in an urban place. There was this kind of pulse I felt walking around a city. Maybe it was only feeling that I was living in some kind of fantasy, that life could have this instant possibility to it, this kind of intoxicating risk to it; you would breathe in the drug as you walked along a city street, feeling you were part of some dynamic plan even if you were just going to buy some new underwear.

The day after I returned from Chicago, I almost ran to my classroom, a little nervous because I had been away, and then we had spring break. Only one student showed up for my first class that afternoon. He asked me politely if we were still going to have class. I had all this energy and thought, “Dammit, we sure are going to have class. And I am giving a bunch of quizzes this week and if people miss class, they will fail.” The pedagogy was getting a little murky; I sounded more like the dictator of some insignificant country, my classroom; it was all slipping between the cracks of what I should have learned in some of those graduate courses on composition theories. I was never taught that someday I would be an angry educator.

Before I left for that Chicago trip, one of the maintenance guys gave me cedar to burn. He told me to burn it in all four directions so that I would be blessed while I wandered around that big city, Chicago. The city was so cold that I walked about a half-block from my hotel and stood near an alleyway and lit the cedar. I didn’t feel blessed or purified. I was freezing and wondered where will I eat that night. I watched the people in their business clothes enter the hotel elevator and I felt myself slipping away from that reality. There was no place to go but back to New Mexico, back to the Navajo Reservation, not exactly home but also not this place with all the white people laughing on an elevator.


The Crownpoint dogs are barking and I am lying in my bed wondering who is having sex tonight. Women surround me in this apartment complex—a math teacher who is a nun, another older woman who has only mentioned to me that in another life she lived in Washington, D.C. This is a place where we all can hide.


I knew one of the instructors had been having an affair with a married community member. She came over to my apartment one night and asked me to do a Tarot reading for her, but she would not tell me her question. She said her concern was about work, but all the cards pointed to love and relationship. Cup cards that had to do with sorrow, abandonment, and loss. The Tower. The Four of Cups. She kept insisting it was about work, but I could not help her.

She finally told me she was thinking about a man while she was shuffling the cards, and that she had found out he was sleeping around with other women, including his wife. She told me she would wake up early in the morning, take a shower, and wait for him. And usually he did not show up. Days and days of waiting and then he would be there one time, and she forgave him while she cried after he left.

I wanted her to leave my apartment, to take her passionate love story and get the hell away from me. She brought his photography book and showed it to me. She let me borrow it and I kept it even after she packed up and left the reservation. I secretly prayed that she would not find love in that place because I wanted to be the one who did. And I knew this place held on to love in a tight fist, rarely allowing fingers to touch. It was a mean and stingy place; when someone found another, someone else was left alone night after night.

I wanted to be the one who found my soul mate, and we would tell our children that I had to travel to edge of the world to find him. And we would travel to Italy together, and I would learn Navajo, and he would learn Italian. And we would listen to Billie Holiday or Van Morrison while we cooked dinner. And the poems, the poems would be a testimony to our lives. My son would learn how to be a gentle, patient man instead of spending time with a father who called me a “bitch.” My son would learn to love and respect horses and hunting. No need for me to head for that interstate. I would belong here:

The snow fell like whispers on your black hair,
and your face was familiar,
like me, you were a child who translated
between sorrow and knowing,
hybrid souls with two languages . . .

— “Memento (Crownpoint, New Mexico)”

Instead, I am standing in the Burger King parking lot screaming at my son’s father’s latest boyfriend, yelling at this young, gay man who tells me he is becoming my child’s mother. I am the woman screaming at her ex-lover’s new boyfriend in the middle of the street. My son’s father just stands there, watching us fight. He doesn’t step in until his boyfriend looks like he is going to hit me in the face, while our son sits in his car seat, in the back of my car, asking for me and looking at his runaway father.


On Sunday afternoons, I would look for the librarian’s truck to see if he had returned to campus, but I did not go to his apartment and knock on his door. We did not have that kind of friendship. But then one night we went to a concert together in Albuquerque, and we kissed and danced. After that night I did go to his apartment, and I had knocked on his door because I wanted to know what was next. I knocked on the door with a light heart, knowing Italian food was his favorite, and that he liked Van Morrison. I knocked feeling that everything I had gone through—the late nights waiting for my son’s father to come home, the fight in the living room, when he threw a full bottle of red wine into the air, where it splattered on the ceiling like drops of blood, the bonfire I made of all the crap he left behind after he left to start a new life with his boyfriend—all of that brought me there, to this door, for him. Then he told me, “It’s not going to work out.”

“Why? Is it because I have a son?”

“No, that’s not it. I want to marry a Navajo woman. I need that in my life. I want the mother of my children to be Navajo.”

I left his apartment and cried. But I also understood the need to stay in the tribe. I had left mine years ago, and that meant with every loss, with every brutal moment I had no one to turn to. I wanted one of my relatives—a brother or an uncle?—to show up at my ex-lover’s apartment, the place he was making a home with his new boyfriend (hardwood floors, new furniture, art work), and threaten him, “If you don’t stop with all your bullying and your lies, I am going to break your legs.” Like Tony Soprano would have done. But no one was there telling me to wait in the car. I had ex-communicated myself years ago. I was left to get out of the car and pound on the door, with empty threats about calling the police. The librarian knew better. He did not want to lose everything:

we have become the stunted people, bent to a side,
we long to stay upright for another day.

— “Memento (Crownpoint, New Mexico)”


I was in Crownpoint, in my portable classroom, writing a poem when my mother died. Now I don’t remember what poem I was working on, but were bones in it? Was the sharp line of the horizon as we cross Robert Moses Bridge to get to the ocean in the poem? Seeing that fragile strip of land, feeling like we were about to fall off the edge of the world? Was all that in the poem? Was I that embryonic whale, swimming in my mother language, going back, going way back? I have no idea.

I was sitting alone in that small office, and I did not know I was about to drown in so much sorrow, that it would take me years to reach the surface and breathe again. In that moment I lost my baby language; the umbilical cord was finally cut.

When my sister called, I was in that tiny, dark apartment with my tiny son, and I fell to the floor crying. What was I going to do? My son had no idea why I was crying. I had to figure it all out alone, on a desert mesa, at the Continental Divide. Both parents dead, and no one to call who would arrive at my door and hold me. No one was there to wipe my face and make me stand up. I went to my neighbor’s apartment, the math teacher who was also a nun, and I told her my mother had died.


I want your ghost to appear some night and talk to me. I don’t think I would be afraid if you called out my name. Perhaps we could have a long conversation about the students, about feeling that we are chipping away at some iceberg. I could tell you how much I have failed as a teacher. That I cannot get my students to really believe that writing can save your life. But then I have one student who has been meeting with me every week and we write together. I could tell you about her. That her loneliness brings me comfort because sometimes late at night I know she is alone in her dorm room, and I am alone, and we are both hearing that wind over us like a heavy beast inhaling and exhaling all night. Sometimes, before dawn, I know she is also watching, waiting, listening. And no one is there to brush her hair or hold her. And no one is here to touch my hair or hold me.

Maybe you will laugh and remind me you were alone on the side of that mountain; that your family was so far away and you died alone. And my mother might be there, and she will tell me that despite all the people in her life (her children, her step-children, her grandchildren, her sisters and brothers), she died alone in a hospital with strangers there, watching her take her last breath. You would say and my mother would say, “our prayers go through the walls, through the stones around us, to all those who are alone tonight, who are hungry tonight, who do not believe they will see another day. Our words go into the earth we are sitting on, the air we are breathing, the fire in front of us, and the water on our skin. Just sing and breathe all night.

But there are days I forget to breathe. There are days I want to scream at anyone (if I can find anyone) that there is a world out there. I stand outside my tiny, teacher apartment and I remember that I wanted a daughter and I think, “Now that will never happen. She will never be here for me.” There are Sunday evenings after I have unpacked the car and put my son to bed (after another long trip to Albuquerque), I hear the drum beating the chanting going on from another apartment, and I am not welcomed there. It is a drum circle for students and invited faculty. I watch another episode of “Law & Order” and go to bed.


When I was packing up, getting ready to leave that tiny apartment, taking my son to Albuquerque, finally accepting my place, the librarian did not come around to say good-bye. Even though only a year earlier he had named me the “woman who leads the raids,” he did not come around to say, “See ya.” Even though we had joked about having “Wopajo” children (half-Italian and half-Navajo), he did not come over and give me a hug, and say, “Remember you are strong.” I don’t remember the last words I said to him before I left. I don’t remember where we were. I do remember the locked up apartments, the silence, and the empty, deserted campus. I had imagined him walking up the hill to say good-bye, but that did not happen. He had vanished and that was probably for the best. His tribe was silently watching, noticing who was talking to me and who was not.

When I finally left Crownpoint, the librarian was no longer paying any attention to me, and my mother was dead. A friend of a friend was there with a truck and helped my son and me move back to Albuquerque. I had no place to go and no job. My son’s father had served me papers so I was spending a lot of time in court.

As I sat in the truck passing the small, deserted library on that campus, I thought about that weekend in Farmington. That weekend when he asked me to house-sit, to care for his plants, while he went to a conference. I wandered around that house and imagined him there, caring for the lawn, cleaning out the refrigerator. I thought at the time his request meant that possibly he really did love me, and that he would tell me after that weekend. But that, of course, did not happen.

Or the time he invited me to take a drive to Gallup, and I left the campus, left my son at the daycare and spent the day with him, laughing, running around in the city. As we walked crossed Coal Street, I wondered what it would be like to spend every day with him, making him espresso in our sunlit kitchen.

A few years later the nun from Crownpoint visited me in Albuquerque and reported the latest news from there. In the middle of her story, she mentioned that the librarian had fallen in love with a young, Navajo woman, and they were living together. She asked me if I remembered him.

in this slippery, falling world,
perhaps now you have a wife and a few children
and all of you speak three languages,
perhaps you sip on peyote or you carry a bible
and maybe you have finally cut your hair;
I lay in the dark with my aching right hip
and I remember the cold rain of Long Island
against the cracked window and
how my small circle of breath appeared and disappeared.

— “Memento (Crownpoint, New Mexico)”


end of story

© 2021, Carmela Delia Lanza Go to top