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Spiritual Obligation and the Practice of Right Relationship

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Naomi Ortiz in conversation with Julia Watts Belser

July 1, 2022
Naomi Ortiz, a light-skinned mestizx, with dark hair and silver hoop earrings, sits in their scooter in front of an ocotillo in the Sonoran desert. They are wearing a fedora hat, hoop earrings, black dress with cacti print, textured tights, silver bracelet, and pink boots. In the distance is a mountain and cacti.

Naomi Ortiz (they/she) is a disabled Mestize writer and visual artist living in the Arizona US/Mexico borderlands whose intersectional work focuses on disability justice, eco-justice, and relationship with place.  Their book, Sustaining Spirit: Self-Care for Social Justice, draws on decades of experience in self-advocacy and social justice work to help activists tap into spiritual tools for responding to exhaustion, grief, and burnout.  In 2021, Ortiz was awarded a Border Narrative Grant from the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures for her multidisciplinary project, Complicating Conversations between Disability Justice and Eco-justice in the Arizona Borderlands.

Julia:  Naomi, over the course of these conversations, we’ve been talking about the spiritual and political importance of helping people develop a deeper sense of connection with place.  I’m wondering if you can tell us more about what that looks like, in your own life and practice?

Naomi:  I’m really invested in developing a love affair with place, wherever I am.  Right now, I’m a couple hours away from some of my ancestral lands, but those are not the lands where I live.  

I have been grappling with how to have a spiritual relationship with land where I don’t have an ancestral tie.  I feel like I’ve been asking myself, “Is that permitted?” I think a lot of people struggle with that question, as we should.

I don’t know if I have the answer, but what I’ve come to for myself is this: If I don’t have a spiritual relationship with the place I live, day to day, then I’m disrespecting the land I’m on. 

For me, not having a relationship with the land is worse than taking the risk of making a mistake in that relationship. 

Julia:  I’m wondering what that relationship with land looks like for you?  How do you build that connection?  

Naomi:  A lot of my spiritual relationship with the land is based on listening.  I think that’s a hard place to go wrong, if you’re listening from your heart. 

Listening is a slow process.  When I go out to the land, I’m usually emotional.  My head is spinning with my own thoughts, my own desires.  I show up with my own agenda, asking the land to offer me specific insights, or to tell me what to do.  It takes a long time to let that go.

The land has graciously witnessed a lot of my complaining.  It’s not until I get that cleared out that I can really listen.   When I have such a strong agenda, it can take a very long time for me to get to a place of listening.

Julia:  That’s really beautiful to me, the way you describe the long, slow process of emptying out the thoughts and desires that you come with.  That resonates deeply with my own experience.  Sometimes, when I’m able to quiet myself and my own wants, I’m able to be present with the land in a different way.  To listen for a presence that isn’t my own.  My sense is that this kind of listening unfolds in many different ways.  Would you be willing to say more about what that looks like, in your own practice?

Naomi:  I’ll share a story about a time I went camping on my ancestral land.  I brought oils for offering, a blend I had mixed myself.   I had been meditating on the question of what to bring, and that felt right.  

When we arrived, I smudged the oil in all four directions around my campsite. I greeted the ancestors, took time to say hello, and took a little walk by myself.  There’s a short paved path that goes up through a group of huge boulders.  It’s a beautiful place.

At the time, I was feeling discouraged.  I wasn’t sure about my own artistic practice, and I wanted to know if I was doing the right thing, if I was on the right path.  It meant a lot to have this time alone with the land, when there weren’t a bunch of people around.

I sat down on a little wall and looked up into the boulders.  And I started to see all these beautiful spider webs.  There was a web trailing down from a mesquite branch into a yucca, into some pencil cholla.  Everything was connected.  And the only reason I saw it was the sun had started to set and the light was glinting off all these beautiful strands. 

I felt my ancestors tell me, “You’re doing the right thing.  You’re a web weaver.  That’s what you do.  You make these connections.”

Julia:  That’s such a powerful story.  I think there’s something profound about that sense of kinship you have with the spiders.  It feels like a deep acknowledgment of your work, a recognition of your own place in the family of things.

Naomi:  It feels so profound to recognize my own work as no better and no worse than the work of the spiders who weave these webs in the world.  My place is the same as the spiders who I’m sitting next to, on this bouldery corner of the earth.  

The spiders’ artistry might not always be seen or acknowledged.  But it is really beautiful.  It matters that it’s in the world. 

I carry that with me as a token of encouragement from my ancestors.

Julia:  I’d love to hear more about your relationship with your ancestors and some of the practices you use to nourish and deepen that sense of connection. 

I honor many different kinds of spiritual presences: my own ancestors, the ancestral spirits of those indigenous to the land, and the spirits of the land itself. 

Part of that involves recognizing the displacement embedded in the history of this land.  It’s important to me to introduce myself to the ancestors of the land through my own lineages.  I do that by greeting the land, by bringing offerings for the land.

Our ancestors are hungry for acknowledgment.  Many communities of color hold deep trauma, in terms of not being seen.  So I always acknowledge the lineages that are known to me.  I recognize that I am squatting on land that is not mine.

Julia:  You write really beautifully about the significance of keeping an altar and how that you use that altar to deepen your connection with the land and with your ancestors.  Could you tell us more about the significance of altars in your practice?   

Naomi:  I feel very fortunate to come from a culture where altars are part of the tradition. I grew up laying altars for Dias de los Muertos, and altars are a significant part of my practice at other times as well.  I like the symbolic power of an altar.  An altar can be a place to lay out my fears, to set the things I find beautiful, to offer up visual representations of my hopes and my dreams.  

When I’m at my altar, I’m thinking a lot about relationships.  I’m tending my relationships with spirit and with the land.  I’m honoring the expectations that come with those relationships.  Relationships require attention and respect.  Sometimes you have to remember that the hard way. 

Julia:  It sounds like there’s a story there.

Naomi:  A while back, I convinced my partner and a friend of mine to go to a mountain range about three hours from home, on my ancestral land.  Once we arrived, we stopped to eat, and I kept dropping food on the ground.  My blueberries kept rolling off the bench and onto the earth.  Looking back, I feel like my ancestors were trying to help me out.  It was almost like they were saying, “Give me some fruit.  Give me something.”

Julia:  Almost like an inadvertent offering, right? 

Naomi:  Exactly.  I was sitting there thinking I should pour some water on the tree.  I should do something to greet my ancestors, to acknowledge that I’m here.  

But I didn’t.  I was with people, and I allowed myself to be distracted. 

Later, we drive up the mountain and find a place near the river bed.  It’s the dry season, and there are these beautiful exposed rocks.  Because they’ve been under the water, they’re smooth and they’re huge, the size of a car.  They’re mostly buried in the sand.  I decide to crawl down to sit on them.  I’m like, “I’m going to do this.”  I crawl down to one.  It’s maybe 15 feet away, but crip-wise, it’s a big extravaganza. 

I actually lay down on the stones, and I have this incredible experience of feeling so fulfilled.  I’m looking up at the sky, at the scrub oak trees and the mountains, and I can sense so deeply the energy of the land. 

When I feel ready to go, I trip and I fall on the ground.  I cut myself really bad. I was bleeding everywhere, and my friend helps me crawl back to the car.  I’m bleeding all over them. 

When we left, I was so upset.  Reflecting on it later, I realize that the ancestors took blood.  I was not giving the offering I knew I was meant to do, and so they took it.  I think that happened because I did not do my duty.

Julia:  That’s really powerful.  It speaks to the significance of reciprocity, to the recognition that you’re in relationship with the land and with your ancestors.  Relationships come with expectations.  And in this case, if I’m understanding you right, you felt you didn’t live up to your ancestors’ expectations.  

Naomi:  These relationships with the land, with spiritual entities, and with ancestors – these are real relationships.  Sometimes, if you mess up, you’ll get called on it.  That’s what happens in a relationship.

Julia:  In Jewish culture, there’s a concept of obligation that I find really significant.  It’s rooted in the idea of the commandments.  In a lot of communities today, when people talk about “doing a mitzvah,” they use it to mean “doing a good deed.”  But the traditional understanding of a mitzvah (commandment) isn’t really about niceness.  A mitzvah is an obligation.  Sometimes it’s an obligation to God, sometimes it’s an obligation to other human beings.  When we’re in relationship, we have obligations.  

Naomi:  I love that word. I think obligation is a perfect way to describe this.  Sometimes it turns people off, because they associate obligation with a sense of rigidity.  For those of us who grew up in rigid, abusive, or dysfunctional relationships, we often don’t have an understanding of what it looks like when a relationship feels good.  I think about that a lot in my spiritual work.  Part of my altar practice is about understanding and growing in relationships with beings that are incredibly gracious.

Developing a relationship with land has given me a chance to really grow in my understanding of how dynamic and flexible and fluid relationships can be… how reciprocal and beautiful.  It’s given me a safe place to understand how to have a functional relationship. 

As a child, the desert was a place of refuge for me.  I grew up in unsafe environments, both in the home and the neighborhoods where I lived.  The desert was a place I didn’t ever have to worry about.  It was a place where I went to find solace.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was also creating relationship.

In my teens and twenties, I was often feeling left out, excluded, or oppressed. The desert was a place to go where I could be accepted and whole as myself. 

After all this time of going from a place of need, I was also steadily listening and observing and taking things in.  That built a real relationship.  Over time, I realized that I had actually learned a lot about human relationships from the desert.

Now, as I witness the reality of environmental harm, I think about what it means to lose this sense of refuge.  And I’ve come to understand that the desert needs me in a way that it’s never needed me before. 

Credits:

Naomi Ortiz and Julia Watts Belser, “Spiritual Obligation and the Practice of Right Relationship – Naomi Ortiz in conversation with  Julia Watts Belser.” Disability and Climate Change: A Public Archive Project. July 1, 2022. 

Curated and edited by Julia Jackson and Julia Watts Belser

Bio photo by Jade Beall. Naomi Ortiz, a light-skinned mestizx, with dark hair and silver hoop earrings, sits in their scooter in front of an ocotillo in the Sonoran desert. They are wearing a fedora hat, hoop earrings, black dress with cacti print, textured tights, silver bracelet, and pink boots. In the distance is a mountain and cacti.

Boulder photo by Naomi Ortiz. Mostly bare mesquite limbs drape down in front of a large group of lichen-covered boulders. Sunlight glints off traces of spiderwebs hanging from and connecting the tree limbs. In the distance is a hill with scrub oak trees.

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