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.

 

After the Fact

On the aisle side of a middle pew, feeling small inside a breathtaking, originally Catholic church building, I am sitting with a open journal on my lap, not paying as much attention to the sermon as I should be. All around me, dark wooden beams scale white walls, curving into high domed ceilings, light suspended in lanterns, fixed on metal chains leading upward.

Chopin rings from the classical piano being played in the front of the church. Near the piano an original painting, a 7ft. canvas framed with the color of canyon red dirt, holding a depiction of the woman Jesus met at the well. She is crouching, low on her heels, back bent, her hair the same color as the dirt. But her arm is reaching upward. A delicate hand holding her clay jug like an offering, tilting it back until water rushes forward, nearly spilling over, ready to wash over this lowly figure in the dust.

~

The last month and a half since my cousin’s suicide have been some of the toughest weeks of my life. At this point in time, I can feel some of the heaviness, the pressure of it ease off me in ways that I couldn’t afford before. But there are also days, more like moments, when something just hits for no remarkable or explainable reason and all of a sudden I’m crying in class, at lunch, in the middle of my professor’s office.

And after these last few weeks of tears and writing and phone calls and prayers and frustrating, emotional conversations, this is what I’ve learned about grief. And that is that there is absolutely nothing that can quiet the pain and the sadness, and there is nothing to make it go away. There is no remedy, there is no treatment, there is no cure.

But there is healing.

The only, only thing that can heal what so thoroughly breaks us is the knowledge, the realization that we are not alone.

When the same professor that I break down into tears in front of takes the time nearly every day to ask how I’m actually doing, I am not alone.

When the school councilor I’ve been seeing goes out of his way on a Saturday to email me a blog post he found about grief, I am not alone.

When I read poetry, when I read others’ intimate experiences, when I can feel what I don’t have to sum up into coherent sentences, I am not alone.

When a dear friend takes me out to dinner at India Palace, and over curry chicken listens to everything I could possible say, willingly enters into my story without fear or hesitation, holds every jagged, broken piece of me, I am not alone.

And when I am sitting in church this morning, and the light is igniting the stained glass ivory and gold, producing warmth I can’t feel, I read among the azure and the ruby laced window, a scroll inscribed with Blessed are the poor in spirit.

When the people stand and pour out Aleluia, I actually have the breath to join them. And with those words, my skin feels lighter and less like my own, and again, I am crying, but I try not to get caught up in mopping them with my sleeve. When I just let them leak out of closed eyes, let them wash away all that I’ve been holding on to, let this warmth, this light, this voice wrap around me, there is healing.

There is the realization, the reminder. I am not alone.