Desert Floors

As we pull off a highway near Phoenix, hazy Superstition Mountains looming over us just west of the horizon, I point out the car window off the road and ask, “Grandma, what’s that tree called?” It’s waxy bark the color of pea soup, it’s trunk curves slender and smooth and graceful.

“Palo Verde,” she answers. “It’s the Arizona state tree. Green stick.”

For the few days I’m able to spend with my grandmother for the weekend, I’m still amazed that this landscape has any vegetation at all. Arizona is a desert. Underneath rough shrubs is red dust, cracked and dry. In metropolitan areas, what they haven’t paved over, they’ve covered with similar colored rocks and gravel. Yet even through that something lives.

Large-pored fruit sags from locals’ fiercely green orange trees, the star-shaped blossoms  saturating the air with their sweetness. Bright fuchsia Bougainvillea flowers grow thick in brilliant clumps, tender, but capable of recovering from both frost and drought.

Even the cacti with their crisscrossed spines awe me, towering with thick limbs lifted up into the sky. Many plants have the means to preserve water in such a climate, but the cactus knows how to be more hydrated than the soil it’s growing in. When rain comes, new roots shoot out to absorb all they can hold, but when the soil runs dry, the roots break off. It has to disconnect itself from the soil in order to not lose its nourishment to it.

There is a quiet beauty to the desert. It’s full of subtle color–warm and always changing in every light and time of day. It’s here I’ve come to get away, to spend precious time with my grandmother, but also to be alone. Maybe to recover. To understand the wilderness I’m wandering in.

I echo the cacti’s version of survival. Looking for but also fighting solitude, I’m aware of how I’ve closed myself off. I struggle with the guilt of the relationships I’ve distanced myself from, mostly due to my own thirst, everything I can’t presently afford to give. I’ve broken myself off from the soil I’ve known because it’s proved too costly. And I’m bleeding myself dry.

But there is rainfall even in the desert. There is cleansing that is so much more treasured when I’m in the drought. For the people, the words, the blessings, the God that pours into me, I stretch out every palm and reach for every drop. My desert floor is cracked from cancer and death and failed friendships and suicide and broken families and too little time. But even on that barren dirt, the rain still comes. Through the cracks, plants grow, flowers bloom, and they suck in every ounce of life. I’m stretching along with them.

And I am alive.

 

The Eternal Heart

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance…”              ~ Ecclesiastes 3:1-4

It’s painful for me to say that this post, in addition to this last week in general, has held nothing that I would have even dared to expect, and somehow, though I would rather write about anything else, nothing else seems acceptable to address.

Over Christmas, my family experienced incredible tragedy in the form of my cousin’s death. For the sake of our family’s privacy, I will not go into details, and I’m here to say not only that this post is not that story, but also that it is not my story to tell. I can only tell my own. And this happens to be part of it.

Until Christmas morning, I had never had to face death in this degree of closeness. Never had to experience grief in those circumstances or to that level. I’m afraid I’ve even caught myself in the past saying that I doubted whether I had experienced enough, known enough darkness to pursue the world of writing. Was this what I was asking for?

Shock is an emotion (if you can call it an emotion) that dulls and blurs all others. My mind has been thick with it and has left little room for me to feel anything else. I feel pressure to mourn, to grieve, to undergo a process that acknowledges these things, but I am utterly lost in what such things look like, let alone how to go about them. It’s easier for me to act strong for others, whether siblings, parents, or friends, ask how they are, but not nearly as willing to seek an answer for myself. I’m not always sure how to respond, and as a result, I’m learning my own process for coping. And it turns out that all I know to do is what I’ve done for the majority of my life, and that is to write it down.

So here I am. Two poured-over journals, fifteen pages of handwritten scrawls, an open Bible, and four hours in the loft of the town coffee shop have gotten me to this point, though I’m still not sure exactly what that is.

The first few days proceeding the news, the same thoughts kept replaying in my head, over and over again.

My cousin’s dead.

My cousin’s dead.

My cousin’s dead.

I kept repeating them with some hope that they would tie me to reality, make the truth of it stop hovering in the air and sink beneath my skin, keep me from drifting off into the world inside my own mind. When I felt myself slipping into normalcy, and saw how easy it is to do even in the midst of such turmoil and tragedy, I kept snapping myself back, trying to force something I don’t understand.

But I’m beginning to realize that seasons run together even more than we expect. Not only do we have seasons of weeping and seasons of laughter, but we experience them together, despite how unnaturally they feel. I am learning to mourn death and loss, but also allowing myself to laugh at my sister dancing around our room in her Batman pajamas. I will give myself these opportunities to reflect and grieve, to spend hours journaling by myself, to cry with close friends, but also appreciate the moments of my family gathered around the living room, making fun of the old Star Wars special effects. Treasuring the life, the moments, the continual and constant support and empathy around me.

I’m witnessing first hand that our souls hold more than we can measure, and our hearts are capable of greater suffering and greater joy that could ever be imagined or contained. Even the depths of suffering tend to make room to hold an even deeper love and a greater degree of life. We are creatures with eternity placed in our hearts, and like death, like anything of great permanence, we do not know how to understand it, but the thing is that we don’t really need to.

I may not know how or what to feel at times such as this, but I am determined to continue feeling despite my lack of understanding. We continue to live in the presence of death. We continue to laugh in spite of tears. We allow ourselves sorrow, and we make room for joy. We love in a broken world because the broken does not take away from the beautiful. And it is the encounters with the beautiful that I keep my heart open for.