Return to the Desert



If I ever commit suicide, it will be in March. I can handle December, January, and February. Snow is supposed to fall; it’s supposed to be cold. But during March—at least here in Maine— winter drags on, gray and cold and windy, except for the occasional sunny day that turns everything to mud.

March is when my soul is at low tide. The world situation is scariest, the national political scene is its most indigestible, and people on the street turn into assholes. Looking after grandchildren, volunteer activities, hobbies—all of which I usually enjoy—become burdens.

As March began this year, besides everything else, I was still depressed over the seventeen students gunned down at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, and the partisan politics blocking any kind of meaningful discussion over what to do about the bloodshed that threatens to drown this country. Closer to home, one of my oldest friends was dying of cancer, and watching one of the best athletes I ever played with struggle to get out of bed was a painful and foreboding glimpse of mortality.

Fortunately, this year, Mary Lee and were able to return to the desert, specifically to the Desert House of Prayer just outside Tucson, Arizona. Why there? What draws me, a geriatric who has spent almost his entire life in northern New England? What makes the desert a source of healing?

One reason, I suppose, is nostalgia. I have a picture of me at my birthday party—I’ve probably turned five or six—wearing a cowboy hat, chaps, shirt, and belt.


Every Saturday afternoon, I watched Buck Jones, Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, or Hopalong Cassidy chase bad guys through the sagebrush. I’d practice throwing my younger sister Jaye over my shoulder the way Gene Autry did when Black Bart tried to sneak up on him. After graduating from high school, I spent two summers working for the U.S. Forestry Department in the mountains of Idaho, where I wore a real cowboy hat and Frisco Jeans, fought forest fires, and picked up a little beer money throwing an axe into a tree from twenty-five feet away.

Maybe part of the appeal of the West, then, is recalling when l could tell the good guys from the bad guys by the color of their hats, and when I was as strong as I’ve ever been, and the world was new, and excitement was just over the next mountain. When the stars seemed so close at night that I knew I could grab one any time I wanted.

It was that sense of transcendence that I later found in contemplative prayer practices, which began in the deserts of Egypt in the early days of Christianity. I’ve always enjoyed reading about the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who went to the desert to escape the Roman Government’s appropriation of Christianity, who practiced what has become known as the “Apophatic” way to God, where the presence of God may, as often as not, be perceived as an absence. In the stark silence of the desert, these men and women found a setting for what they referred to as “Agnosia,” or “unknowing.” Casting aside all images of God, they made themselves deserts, stripped of everything but the spark of soul that they felt was God.

After my daughter Laurie died of cancer, when the world had become a barren landscape of pain and confusion, frustration and doubt of everything and everybody, especially anything to do with the Christian faith I’d grown up with, this apophatic or “Negative Way” was the one thing that made sense. And I’m still more comfortable talking about who God isn’t than who or what God may or may not be. I suppose it’s no accident that my favorite gospel is Mark, which has been called the “desert gospel,” both for its starkness of language—it’s the shortest of the four gospels—and the location of many of its major scenes.

Beldan Lane, in his book The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, thinks of the desert as being like a vaccination, in which we are given a small amount of whatever we need healing from. In my case this year, I needed healing from a violent and grotesque world that had begun to seem overwhelming: increasing economic injustice, ugly racism, obscene wealth, and a government of Barnum & Bailey clowns and would-be big game hunters trampling on the Constitution. I needed some kind of antidote for my fear that every stomach ache, every pain in my back, every new mole on my body was cancerous. For a New Englander like me, the desert, with its tall Saguaro growing out of volcanic rock, the cholla and prickly pear cacti that left their spikes in my arms and legs as I walked past, the desert sage, mesquite, and creosote bushes provided the right shot of the grotesque and the painful.

But at the same time, the desert is also a place of surprise and beauty. The silence is thundering. The sunrises and sunsets are often spectacular. This time of year, the cacti are blossoming bright yellow and red. Rabbits poke along under the creosote bushes. The songs of doves, cardinals, wrens, thrushes, and finches fill the air. On a morning hike last week, Mary Lee and I rounded a corner and met a coyote, who stared indifferently at me while I fumbled for my camera, and then, as if growing tired of my inability to get it out of my pocket, loped up a rocky hill toward a cave.

Later, thinking about the coyote, I remembered a quote by Andrew Harvey: “We are saved in the end by the things that ignore us.” I’m still not entirely sure why, but I think he’s right. In part, I guess, because the desert reminds me that I’m not the center of the universe. The coyote, the cacti, the rocks, the birds here exist independent of what I think or feel. The sun will rise and set no matter what condition my soul is in. Those volcanic red and gray rocks at my feet were here long before me and will remain long after I’m gone. I am but a small part of a fundamental creative force moving in all things. Bleak at times, but also breathtakingly beautiful.

So I’ve come home from the desert with a little more of “… the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” The political circus is still the same. The weather isn’t any better. (Two days after I got back, it snowed for three days.) My friend Scott died. Still, the desert has given me hope that even in desolation, even amidst the grotesque, even in death, life blooms. With or without me.


In memory of Scott Dunham: 1943-2018


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I can’t remember when or where I first heard this story, but I’ve heard it several times since. Here’s my version:

Once upon a time, there was a very poor shoemaker who lived in the city of Prague. Night after night, he dreamed that he should journey to Vienna, where, at the base of a great oak tree, he would find buried treasure. Finally, he left his family and after a long, arduous journey to Vienna, he found the tree.

As he started digging, a soldier demanded to know what the poor man was doing. When the man told the soldier about his dream, the soldier broke into laughter. “You idiot!” he said. “Why if I let myself be guided by dreams, I’d be headed for Prague, because I’ve been dreaming of a treasure chest buried in the cellar of some poor shoemaker there.”

The shoemaker hurried home. He dug in his cellar and yes, he found a chest filled with gold.

Later, as he reflected on his new wealth, he thought, “The treasure was always in my possession, but I had to travel to Vienna to find it.”


When I first moved to Mount Desert Island, considered by many one of the most beautiful places in the world, I was telling a long-time resident about the beautiful sunrise I’d seen over the ocean and the islands. “Oh, we get those all the time,” she said. “I don’t even notice them anymore.” I couldn’t understand how she could be so blind, and yet I admit now that it’s only after being on a pilgrimage or making a retreat that I become aware of some of the treasures I’ve had have in my possession but have never seen.

I remember falling in love with the clouds hovering over the water surrounding the Scottish island of Iona, and then returning to Maine and realizing that I could see those same puffy white clouds over Casco Bay. Walking through golden bracken along St. Cuthbert’s Way from Melrose Scotland to the island of Lindisfarne in England and then going back to Brunswick and seeing for the first time the bracken in woods behind my house. Spending thirty minutes or more at breakfast watching house finches and cardinals at the feeders outside the Desert House of Prayer in Arizona, and then realizing after I got back to Maine that I could put up a feeder and watch house finches and cardinals from my own breakfast table.

I don’t know why we have to go away in order to find the treasures that we already possess, but writers on pilgrimage all say that renewed awareness is one of the things a pilgrimage is for. And T.S. Eliot writes: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

So, while I wish I could discover my treasures by sitting with my feet up in front of a fire on a winter evening, I guess I can’t.


“In prayer we discover what we already have,” wrote Thomas Merton, one of my cherished teachers. A year and a half after my eighteen-year-old daughter Laurie died of cancer, I was introduced to Contemplative Prayer, a form of Christian meditation. The first time I tried it, I felt like a fool for sitting in a dimly lit church that must have been about the same temperature as a barn, trying to avoid what I’d spent over twenty-five years teaching kids to do: think. I heard my father muttering in my ear, “What kind of goddamned foolishness is this?” My old basketball teammates sneered at me for contemplating my navel. This isn’t me, I thought.

But then I thought of Saturdays at the First Congregational Church when I was a kid helping my father, who moonlighted as the church sexton, and the enjoyment of being alone in the empty sanctuary. I thought about all those solitary hours I played basketball in the back yard, and my sense of transcendence as the ball left my hand and rose into the air—as if I were the one soaring and leaving the secular world behind. I recalled when I worked for the U.S. Forest Service: the hours I sat on a rock in the middle of a burned-out forest, silently beholding the Grand Tetons. All the cathedrals I’d visited in England the previous summer—sitting on wooden pews surrounded by elaborately carved stones, never thinking about theology or God, most of the time just sitting, cradled by silence. I thought about the chapel at Eastern Maine Medical Center where I used to go after I’d been by Laurie’s bedside.

Maybe, I thought, I’ve been meditating all my life.


The silence and slow time of a pilgrimage, retreat, or sitting in contemplative prayer all help me become more aware of what I see, hear, touch, smell, and even taste. Focusing on my senses keeps me in the present moment and not in the past or in the future, where my mind so often wants to take me. Every spiritual tradition I know of says in one way or another that God is found not in past memories or some future “heaven,” but in the treasure that is the present moment.

“Wasting time conscientiously,” as the Buddhist Suzuki Roshi says—using my senses, focusing on the present moment—helps me experience what mystics have been saying for centuries and that modern science seems to be confirming: that all of life is connected in a fundamental way. As philosopher Brian Swimme and historian Mary Evelyn Tucker write,

“… our universe is a single immense energy event that began as a tiny speck that has unfolded over time to become galaxies and stars, palms and pelicans, the music of Bach, and each of us alive today.”

“The universe,” For a graphic representation of how the universe is connected, I recommend the video, “The Cosmic Eye”—


I have trouble with anthropomorphic descriptions of God—words that depict God as having human characteristics, even desirable characteristics such as love and compassion. Perhaps because I’ve lost a child to a rare, freaky cancer that had nothing to do with her having any bad habits, as did all the smokers who died in my family from the disease, I bristle when someone calls God “all-loving.” But when I can get out of my head and experience through my senses that everything connects, I sense a power that seems to hold even the universe, even death, in a kind of heavenly enfolding.


Time, silence, my senses, the present moment, my experiences with the unity of the universe (which, by the way, literally means “turned into one”): all treasures I’ve had to go to Vienna to discover I already possess. I’m guessing we all have treasures buried in our cellars. My problem is that I find these treasures and then bury them again (or, as is more likely these days, forget where I put them). Which means I have to keep going back to Vienna, keep going on pilgrimages and making retreats, to find once more what I’ve always had.


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