I am in the desert of Southern California, on a vision quest that culminates with four days of fasting and a three-day solo. I gazed up at this mountainside yesterday, enticed by a mysterious energy, a feeling that I didn’t understand but could not dismiss. I listened in the way that I had been taught, with my whole body and all my senses. I employed the rituals passed down to us from those who came before. There is a ritual for finding a solo spot, as there is for most everything on this quest. Ceremony, the elders say, is a way “to remember to remember” and that makes me wonder if there is some primal part of me that was attracted to this spot because, on the surface, it doesn’t appear to be a great place to spend three days alone.
My thinking mind would have chosen a tranquil, streamside location like the one I spotted yesterday as I wandered the land. Some other part of me allowed myself to be led to this remote place high on the side of a mountain south of our base camp.
To get to here, I bushwhacked through a dry wash, climbing over boulders the size of pickup trucks when I could find no way around them. There are no trails to follow, except the faint lines etched in the sand by the other-than-human creatures who wander these slopes. The saguaro cacti look like a troupe of court jesters loitering about, their arms outstretched as if frantically trying to point me in the right direction. One tall cactus gestures in a way that reminds me of one of those crazy, blowup characters the car dealerships use to draw attention to their latest sale. I take a side canyon and then veer left to ascend the mountain’s eastern slope, thinking it might provide more protection from the relentless winds. It appears less battered than the valley’s sun-baked western side. These higher reaches are steeper than the slopes below, but I come across an improbably level platform halfway up the mountain.
It is the perfect size for my tent, but there is something that doesn’t feel right about it so I move higher and make my camp in a jagged niche cut into the mountain’s face.
My pack is too heavy. I carry no food, only the bare essentials that I need to make camp, but I am also hauling three gallons of water. The creek where I draw my drinking water is in the valley far below me now, but I need to stay well hydrated at this elevation and in this arid environment.
It’s a good thing that I didn’t settle for one of the other campsites. The spots lower down were easier to get to but more exposed to the weather systems that roll through the canyon. The first night of solo there is an epic storm that puts my tent stakes to the test. My tent and I are like Dorothy and her little house when the tornado comes. If I had camped at one of the places that were closer but more exposed, I might have awakened in Oz myself. As it turned out, we held fast and I stayed dry.
My tent is my hero.
The weather system passes and the final night of the solo is calm. It’s cold, but there is no wind at all. I get up several times, including at the stroke of midnight, to go outside, do my ceremonies and have a conversation with the darkness. The night is completely calm, no wind at all, as quiet as a tomb and as still as midnight on Christmas Eve. Not a creature, nor anything else, is stirring. The stars above are magnificent, as if someone had spilled a box of white glitter across the inky dome of the sky. The new moon wears a wry smile above the ridge across from me. I stand up and turn to the east. In a cloak of darkness I speak out, full voice, to my people back home, thanking them for being here with me. It feels as though they are.
Living with germ
How is it that I could be so far away from the people I love and at the same time so close? The location of my solo spot was as remote as any that I could ever create for myself. Yet, I felt very close to friends and family that night. I was alone, but not lonely.
Can something be both far away and close by at the same time? Separate and connected? The questions I was asking myself that night we are all asking ourselves lately. These truths wrapped in contradiction—are they real? The pandemic is giving us a chance to find out. It’s a strange time. People say that nothing like this has ever happened before, but historians tell us that it actually has. But it’s never happened to us before. Everyone’s trying to figure it out. Nobody has, yet.
I was in Moab, Utah recently. Like everyone else, we had to change our travel plans when the pandemic hit. We had the week off from work anyway, so we decided to drive somewhere. The virus is contracted not by being outside your house but by being around other people, and we figured we could manage to keep our distance on the road as well as we do at the local grocery store.
In Moab there is a great independent bookstore named Back of Beyond. The best thing about bookstores is the time spent browsing, but at this one they were asking customers to come no further than the front door, stand behind a table, and remain six feet distant from anyone inside. I talked to the salesperson and thanked him for being open. He said they were doing it like this for now and would decide what to do next based on what happens. So true for all of us.
There were periods on the vision quest when we followed strict silence. When the lockdowns happened, the whole world went quiet. It has been a time to slow down and think about what is happening and what to do next.
It’s a time of uncertainty, when the world as we know it has been deconstructed. A wave of change is moving through the world, and we are caught up in it. We feel deconstructed and rearranged, ourselves. Many things are out of our control so we have little choice other than to accept, let go, and move on.
We are a nation of doers but are told that the best thing we can do is stay home. The recommendations about what precautions to follow are out there, but they frequently change and are followed inconsistently, and not at all by some people. Unfortunately, whether or not we a wear a mask correlates better with what cable news channel we watch (CNN – “I wear a mask, and if you don’t you’re irresponsible” vs FOX-“I don’t wear a mask, and if you do you’re an alarmist”) rather than with the science. Too often, our conversations gravitate to the “Us vs Them” framework that defines everything we talk about these days. We want to see ourselves as united, but too often we stay locked in our echo chambers and find reasons to divide ourselves into groups on one side or another.
We don’t start out that way, we are taught, which is too bad. We also learned that Frog and Toad are friends, and that we should try to be.
Hopefully, we can awake from this delusion of our separateness to the reality of a shared experience. The virus leaves no one behind. People say that we are in this together, so let it be an opportunity to understand our connectedness and move beyond our usual boundaries of separation. This is just too big for any of us to hold alone.
The world-wide medical crisis has become the backdrop to a long overdue reexamination of this nation’s race relations. For whatever reason, it seems different this time. A lot of people are hoping so. I’ve heard the word “crossroads” used a lot. “Threshold” might be the better, more hopeful, way of describing it, as if we have finally reached a critical mass of people who are paying attention. White people, that is.
The currents of change are running strong, so what are we to do? The only things we can control in our rapidly changing world are our own thoughts and behavior. To effect the change that we want to see in the world we must first look within and ask the right questions. Can I live with a degree of uncertainty and remain optimistic? Can I be courageous in difficult times? How can I use my voice, my gifts, in a way that creates positive impact? Is what I am doing today taking us closer to where we want to be tomorrow? For me, looking within starts by simply admitting that I don’t know what it’s like to be a person of color. I don’t, but I do know it’s different than being white.
I hope we find a path that everyone can fit though.
The air is cleaner than it has been in decades. Overworked tourist destinations are getting a much needed time. People deprived of physical contact are finding new ways to connect with others, and with themselves.
These times are hard, but there are moments of beauty and grace, too. My mother is in a care facility. They have been on lockdown for weeks, but we have arranged window visits with family. She sits inside and looks out through a closed window, talking on the cell speaker phone to family sitting outside. As a medical provider, I am allowed into the facility, so I am able to sit next to her and help out with the communication.
I saw my mother put her hand up to the window with the hand of her six-month- old great-granddaughter on the other side of glass. That kind of summed it up for me —the connection and the separation. It was a hand-off between the generations, a beginning and an ending, captured in a moment. Not so long ago my mother was a little girl, and for my granddaughter, it’s all in front of her, all possibility. It’s both bittersweet and beautiful, what Kahlil Gibran called, “Life longing for itself,” and it all happens too fast.
I like the desert. I’m beginning to think it’s my favorite ecosystem. The desert is a place where life can’t go unnoticed. When it appears, we can’t not see it. Terry Tempest Williams wrote about the red rock country of Utah that, “…every pilgrimage to the desert is a pilgrimage to the self. There is no place to hide and so we are found.” Grief and loss are a part of the desert experience, like they are of ours, but so is resilience and rebirth. In nature, it all just keeps moving steadily forward, despite everything. Behind my house we can watch the the Missouri River. It just keeps flowing, as it always has, whatever messes we humans make of things. The natural world proceeds at its own pace. Lao-Tsu said “Nature does not hurry, yet everything gets accomplished.”
In Utah’s canyon lands there are a lot of rocks. There is so much geology going on there, and it can serve to put things into perspective. I was reminded that a geologic time frame is much longer than the biologic one, and longer still when compared to a human life. There were times, though, when I could see patterns carved into the surfaces of stone that made me think everything was in motion right there in front of me, like when I watch clouds drifting by. The numerous layers of the canyon sidewalls looked like a giant slice of baklava and the spiral patterns in the slickrock could have been taking place on the surface of water instead of stone, like a freeze frame in a filmed life story of a turbulent stream. Huge boulders littered the sandy ground and chasm ledges as if a fairy tale giant had casually tossed them there in the same way a child might toss pebbles. Monoliths teetered on pencil-thin pillars as if the hand of God reached down yesterday to balance them there, just to see if he could. It’s hard to imagine they will still be there tomorrow. In geologic time, they won’t be.
The beloved poet Mary Oliver died recently. Her most popular work, “Wild Geese,” speaks to the same theme about the natural world being steadfast and how we can find solace in it.The poem is being shared and recited frequently these days. I think the reason is itsmessage of constancy and perspective that we can derive from our encounters with nature. That must be something we need to hear these days. She says,
“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile, the world goes on…
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again….”
Regardless of what is happening in our lives, time will not stop. The world keeps on turning and everything in nature continues just as it is, waiting for no one. While we are experiencing all these difficulties, the wild geese are flying back to their home, just as they alway have. They have endured, as we can.
There is no need to feel lonely, ever. All you need to do is walk outside and the world will “offer itself to your imagination” and announce “your place in the order of things.” The poem reminds us that there is an order in the world and that things are as they should be.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.