ART ON FIRE...
How I Got to New Mexico

by jane davis jane@hope-howse.org

“We are short staffed at the North [super maximum prison],” the voice on the other end of the phone began. “Can you come to Santa Fe and work temporarily?” I answered without thinking, “Yes!” I was sitting in my home office in Atlanta, Georgia. The man calling me was the Bureau Chief of Mental Health for the State of New Mexico. He was familiar with my work through HOPE-HOWSE as well as the fact that I was a Masters level social worker. I began visiting New Mexico, in 1993, after witnessing an electric chair execution, as media. I was a contributing writer to Prison Life magazine. I never wrote about it. Instead, I had a vision called “HOPE-HOWSE” an acronym for Help Other People Evolve through Honest Open Willing Self Evaluation/Expression that includes the logo of an eye (honesty), a heart (faith) and a hand (service/action). HOPE-HOWSE International is now a 501c3 organization.

This vision, my life’s purpose, essentially guided me to New Mexico where it foreshadowed me overseeing 20-40 acres of land off the grid. I didn’t even know what “off-the-grid” was let alone much about New Mexico. Essentially the vision represented that we are all “One Heart,” all connected. It was about service as a path to peace. About giving of ourselves. About the world as community. About accountability. About volunteering. About rescuing animals. It was also about creating a space where the land could teach and heal. It became apparent why I was lead to New Mexico.

I was introduced to Jimmy Santiago Baca, an ex-con turned poet and screenwriter {Blood In, Blood Out], who exemplified those who committed crimes and could make changes in their lives. My first trip to New Mexico was to meet Jimmy. Walking off the plane at the Sunport my eyes darted all around trying to find him. I continued to baggage claim, and then stood, waiting. I had mentally prepared myself for the fact that he might not even show up. 5, 10, 15, 20 minutes passed. As ½ hour approached I decided to go into Albuquerque when a rush of energy came bursting through the door. Our eyes met. There was no question it was him. Those ten days were a whirlwind of activity from meeting his family to being introduced to others who had made changes in their lives. This included Bobby Dorado, one of the “three bad Mexicans” including Miranda and Escobeda in Burton Wolfe’s book “Pile-Up on Death Row” and Daniel Blea, a folk artist, who was released from prison just before the infamous riot at “The Main”.

I intuitively knew after this visit that I would one day live here. The scene that stands out most for me that sealed the intuition was driving down Highway 25 with a 360-degree view with rain over the Jemez, sunshine over the Sandia’s and a double rainbow over the Ortiz. It was more magnificent than any painting I had ever seen in any gallery around the world. In my 54 years, I have traveled all over the world including Africa, India, Israel, The Philippines, Egypt and Europe. New Mexico, to me, was art on fire. New Mexico had an unavoidable vibration that permeated my eyes, heart and soul. One saw and felt this in the landscape. It enveloped you, if you allowed it to. I used to tell people, “Being in New Mexico there is no question there is a G-d.”

When I returned to Atlanta I was under the spell of the Land of Enchantment. Since I was working for myself I had the luxury of time and travel. I began returning to New Mexico for 3-6 months each year. While here I would house sit, work on my book, “Letters To my Master … a woman’s sexual and spiritual journey”, do writing and meditation workshops in the community as well as visit prisons around the State where I would also conduct workshops and do readings from “Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul,” in which I have two stories.

I arrived (officially) in Santa Fe in April 2001 after driving across the country in my red 1989 Toyota Celica convertible. Since I was planning to live and work here for a few months I had left my home, my other half of thirteen years, my dogs, my cat assuming I would return soon. I had made arrangements to live in a 100-year-old adobe on the arroyo in Cerrillos. I was told it would be furnished. In typical New Mexico style, the casita was empty and the people renting it to me were gone for 3 weeks. This was Saturday and I was scheduled to begin work in a super maximum penitentiary on Monday morning at 8 AM. Fortunately my neighbor had a big piece of foam in her truck, which became my bed.

After a month working at the penitentiary, I was sitting in my office in the bowels of a dark, dingy prison where the way I controlled the temperature was how many pieces of paper I used on the vents. I learned this survival skill, among others, from the inmates. There were no windows to the outside but there was a door-sized pane of glass outside of which sat a correctional officer when I would see an inmate in a therapy session. He was there in case anyone got violent. No one ever did in my sessions. One time I knew we were close to an inmate really dealing with his feelings, which was going to entail him getting angry. I sent a letter to my supervisor and the Unit Management Team leader asking permission to continue with this treatment because I didn’t want the officer bursting in on the session when the inmate raised his voice. The next day when I came in the inmate was moved to another pod and I received my request back, “Denied.” My phone rang. It was my supervisor who was quite excited. “We just turned your position into a permanent one!” she practically shouted with glee. “Isn’t that great? You are now a permanent employee!” “Yes,” I replied softly not wanting to poison the moment. Frankly I was not sure if I was happy or not. Permanent? I felt like I had just been sentenced and she might as well have been the judge and jury. Did I want to be here in this dark place permanently? I felt a combination of excitement and disdain.

I loved the work with the inmates even when I would get called in at 1 or 2 AM to sit with a human being who was hearing voices or was so distraught that he wanted to kill himself. I often had to pull over on the side of the road and weep with an overwhelming feeling of blessedness that I was the one who got to go into these bowels to minister to a human being that most people could care less about. I was blessed that I got to meet the human beings behind unconscionable acts.

So, as I pondered “permanent” I knew that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Almost seven years later, I still work for Corrections (my “day job” as I call it) and have continued growing HOPE-HOWSE to the point where we bring in volunteers from the community to bring light to the darkness. We may even be contributing to lower recidivism rates.

The number of animals rescued has grown. Two of the dogs, Hogan and Magic are now therapy dogs and also come into the prison. The thirty acres of land is a recent reality with incredible potential.

The challenges and sacrifices have been plentiful but there are reasons why New Mexico is called “The Land of Enchantment” and suffice it say I am enchanted and planted.