Return to the Desert

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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.

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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.

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In memory of Scott Dunham: 1943-2018

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The Pattern of Exodus

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The Crossing of the Red Sea, 1634, by Nicholas Poussin. Wikipedia.

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The first time I ever heard the word “exodus” was probably in Mrs. Raynes’s Sunday school class back around 1950, when we learned about the miracle—Mrs. Raynes was big on miracles—of Moses parting the Red Sea and leading the children of Israel to the Promised Land. A few years later, like half the civilized world, I saw Cecil B. Demille’s The Ten Commandments, and learned that Moses looked like Charleton Heston, turned wooden staffs into snakes, and wandered around the desert for forty years.

I thought of the word last week while on my exercise bicycle, reading Margaret Gunther’s Walking Home: From Eden to Emmaus, meditations on famous walks in the Bible. Gunther reminded me that the Israelites had first come to Egypt from Canaan to seek sanctuary from a famine that was sweeping the area. Some of you may remember the story of Joseph, son of Jacob, whose brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt, but who rose to power, becoming Pharaoh’s right-hand man. In an act of forgiveness, Joseph invited his father and his eleven brothers to join him in relative comfort while the rest of the area was starving. Four hundred years later, however, the Egyptians had enslaved the descendants of Jacob until Charlton Heston—I mean, Moses—came to their rescue and led them to the land God had promised them.

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What intrigued me was Gunther’s observation that this pattern of exodus—from sanctuary to slavery to escape to arrival at the promised land—is an archetypal journey many of us take.

Peddling on, I thought of the sanctuary that was my home town, but which became, by the time I was seventeen, a prison I could hardly wait to escape. In college, I wandered a desert of unhappiness and confusion, until I found what seemed at the time, a promised land in Down East Maine. I recalled a marriage that began as a sanctuary from a hostile world’s assassinations, civil unrest, and a war that was killing off my friends, only to become a passive-aggressive battle with a woman I didn’t know, and skirmishes with addiction and self-flagellation, before an escape to the promised land of Mary Lee’s love and understanding.

Then my mind peddled on to my most recent exodus.

Most of you reading this blog know that my eighteen-year-old daughter Laurie died of a rare cancer. Seeking sanctuary, I bought my grandparent’s house back in the town in which I’d grown up—the one I couldn’t wait to leave thirty years earlier. At the time, I would have told you that buying the house was like the Israelites crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land after forty years of wandering.

Adrift in a sea of uncertainty and sorrow, the house became my anchor. Looking into its history, I discovered that it had been moved a quarter of a mile from Main Street, that it had been built up, added on to, partially torn down, and remodeled countless times: a mirror, I felt, of what had happened to me over the years. I researched many of the people who had owned my house, found their gravestones, and discovered that almost all of them had lost children, which gave me the comfort in not being alone in my grief. The large maple tree in my backyard became my family tree, complete with a large broken limb jutting from the top.

I assumed I would live in that house until I died.

I’m not sure when this promised land turned to prison. There might have been a foreboding as early as when Mary Lee and I first moved in and I was in the process of turning what had been my grandparents’ dining room into my office. In order to have more space for my books, I was taking off to door to what had been a china cabinet, when I heard my grandfather’s voice: “And what do you think you’re doing, young man?”

Whether because I was afraid of pissing him off even more, or because I found the memories I had of the house comforting (this was the first house I lived in with my mother and grandparents after coming home from the hospital in 1943 while my father served in the Army overseas, the house I came to for Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter dinners), I largely left the house the way I remembered it, which included drafty windows, worn linoleum, and a damp cellar that frequently flooded after storms. I never could call the house “my house,” without feeling as if I were lying. The house was always—and remains so in my mind—my grandparents’ house.

One day, shortly after the cellar had flooded again, I realized that I knew more people in the cemetery than I did in the local grocery store that had just completed its third expansion in twenty years. That I was spending almost every day driving to another town, because that’s where my job, my friends, and my church were. That my anchor had become a millstone.

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The house that will always be my grandparents’. Oh, and the roof leaked, too.

Still, it took retirement and the recognition that Mary Lee and I were going to have trouble keeping up the mortgage payments and the increasing taxes to spur us to move. Even then, leaving the house was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I remember walking through the empty house after the movers had left, listening to the echoes of footsteps and memories, wondering if I hadn’t made a terrible mistake.

But since then I’ve never regretted leaving. Have I found the promised land? It depends what “promised land” means, I guess. Certainly, compared to the thousands and thousands of people being forced these days into exoduses from their countries, I have. I’m happy where Mary Lee and I live. Still, I doubt if it’s permanent. We’re trying to budget our bucks so that, if necessary, we’ll be able to afford one of the assisted living facilities that have sprung up like mushrooms around here. But they’re not going to be any kind of promised land, either.

Growing older, I find myself thinking of the promised land as more of a frame of mind, a spiritual not a physical destination, not unlike pilgrimage, a place of freedom from bondage, a place of growth, and at the same time, a place of serenity—a word I’m coming to value more and more these days.

For now, I seem to have found it, but I expect that part of the archetypal pattern of exodus is that one never really gets to the promised land and stays there, at least not in this lifetime. (The Israelites were forced into exile in the 6th century BCE and again in 70 CE.) I expect that I’ve got one or two more exoduses ahead of me before the big one.

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