After a very vexing and annoying process, I finally managed to purchase (from Powell's books) the ebook of Soul Wilderness: A desert Spirituality, by Kerry Walters. Since the book isn't available through Amazon as a kindle book, I was forced to deal with Google. The version I downloaded for my desktop Mac created a mishmash so unreadable I trashed it, downloaded (grudgingly) the Google app and now have it on my ipad. I do resent that I have to be logged into gmail to read the book. (And I thought Microsoft was too intrusive back in the day!)
I exchanged a series of PMs with a member of this site. Very kind and supportive and I am grateful. In that exchange I wrote about what the draw of the desert is for me. So I'll go into it here.
I was in the deserts of Africa for some time. I was a volunteer who went to help dying people, or so I thought. Nothing was what it appeared as on CNN. They were very hate-filled places for me, peopled with traumatic memories and death. The last place I ever wanted to be, after surviving them, was the desert.
When I was re-deployed back home, against all odds, cruising along at 38,000', with my filthy face leaning aginst the icy glass and looking at Egypt rolling out below me, I was trapped. In that exact moment I understood how broken I was. I understood I would never be the same person again, and probably never be whole again. It was the final still photo, in my mind, of the death of my old self and the transitioning into this cold gray where everything was strange and new to me.
I stared at the desert, at the pocked hills below me. For some odd reason I thought about the Desert fathers and how they had sickened of everything and walked out of their lives, out into the death and life of the desert. This is not a romantic memory. It happened exactly as I have written it. I have avoided sand and deserts since then. For years they have held the agonizing memories of death and blood for me.
Four years ago I helped an elderly friend. I drove her, in December, from my home to California. And the only way to get from here to there were the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona. At first it was like salt on fresh wounds. The faint salt scent. The heat. The hint of death on every breeze. By the time we got to Tucson and, later, Palm Springs, I was a little in love with the desert. First the colors were different, ours a brown-red and white, the part of Africa I was in had faintly pink and green sand. In the deserts I was in here, it was sand stone, either buff colored or deepest blood reds. Very different.
And one of the things I had read years ago, I think maybe in Black Elk Speaks, was about the trees the Souix used in ceremonies. Tall cottonwoods. The roots were wide and sometimes deep, and the crown pierced the sky. The tree was holy because it pieced both ground and sky, and could function as a conduit of intentions, prayers and requests. In the desert a human is often the tallest thing, barring mountains. We pierce both earth and sky. I think that is so much of the sense of emptiness in the desert, it's mainly us and earth and sky. We stand at the center of all creation, and -- as long as you walk in the desert -- the center of that sphere continues to be the crown of your head.
There is life in the desert, if we know where to seek. What is so unnerving is the emptiness and silence, when we are so accustomed to filling up every void with drink, drugs, sex, shopping... anything to not have to bear the solitude of empty spaces or peer into the poverty of our souls.
I still don't understand why I feel so currently compelled to explore the desert as place and as metaphor. I know there are a real multiplicity of meanings and metaphors that can be found in it for me, particularly given my history in both war and in peace. I don't understand the journey I am on, I just know I am on it.