Into Desert, Into Mist

It’s late afternoon, a rainy autumn day. Chill mist clings to the corners of the alleyways. A full moon only a few hours from rising over the eastern horizon. I keep the flame of my goddess. And I find myself crying again.

What struck me was the absence, how it stretched out in all directions. Indistinguishable. The trees were stunted and small, scraggly things, as flimsy as old paper dried up and twisted and left to the dust of the endless desert landscape. From the ridge, they spotted the ravine’s slope here and there all the way down to where it met the empty, mud-cracked stream bed. Out here, they called that a river. They had the nerve to mark it on a map.

When I looked down into the ravine from the top of the ridge where I was standing, a sense of vertigo swept through me. The unfamiliar shrunken size of the trees tricked the eye, so that even shrubs which I knew were only a few feet down seemed to stretch the landscape into an odd but persistent sensation of distance. A gradual slope dropped away in an optical illusion of dizzying depth. I blinked. I thought, this was what the Discworld Witches called “gnarly ground.”

I kept wondering why anyone would want to live out here.

There was nothing. For miles and miles in all directions, nothing but empty landscape. And of course, that in itself was a reason, I guess.

I found myself understanding why folks in the midwest eat animals — same reason animals eat cacti, I guess. Inside that tough leathery skin, you know there’s water in the blood. Maybe the only water you’re really going to get. In the east, the trees lean close whispering their seductive stories of plump, ripe fruit heavy with water, heavy with sweet flesh folded close around the seed. The earth is soft and everything is lush, at least for a time. Summer’s fecundity is astounding. Outside our front stoop, the neighbor’s mulberry tree hangs low, spilling purple berry clusters all over our yard, more than we could ever eat, more even than the birds can carry off. Autumn’s decay is rich and dark and damp. The berries rot. The flies buzz lazily from this one to that one. Life and death exchange sloppy kisses in the grass. The earth is forever giving herself away. Why would anyone bother to slaughter, skin and gut a beast with the trees looking on that way?

But out here, the trees were short and angry, barbed and tough. The grasses were all brown and sharp. The mud was hard and red and unforgiving. How else could you survive?

I was brought up short again by that same question: why would anyone live out here, given the choice? The desert landscape stretched away in all directions. Indistinguishable. And if you were going to live out here somewhere, I asked myself, how would you decide? Here, but not there. In the shadow of this ridge, but not that one. Dirt roads splintered off from the highway at random intervals, peeling in straight lines out towards the horizon. Where did they go, what did they lead to? Vertigo again as I imagined the land unrolled beneath me, roads scratched into the dust, all straight lines and hard angles like mysterious, unfathomable runes, saying nothing, leading nowhere.

Who am I talking to? We saw a psychic in Santa Fe, kind of a lark, because we’d never seen one before, not a professional anyway. A short, fiery red-head with tarot cards too big for her small hands, all their corners bent and their edges worn down and rubbed soft with use. One autumn leaf dropped onto the table between us. She picked it up and twirled it between her fingers. “Who are you talking to?” she asked again. “Don’t think of your writing career as a series of assignments. What will keep you writing is not the question, what do you want to talk about? The question that will keep you writing is, Who are you talking to?” And again I shook my head, shrugged, no answer. I worried she would think I was being deliberately unhelpful, but all I could say over and over was, “I don’t know anymore. I don’t know.”

And it was a question I struggled with all week — why? Why? In a landscape that seemed so hostile, where existence seemed so precarious and hard like something squeezed out between stone and sky — why live here? And the folks who did, how did they decide? What made one place better than another, when all was equally desert and dust?

After a few days, the question seemed to lighten, slowly, like a sunset gently coming into focus. It began with small things. The blue-mint color of juniper fronds against the rust-ribboned color of sandstone. Two gray snakes intertwined on a rock warmed by the unrelenting sun, slipping one over the other away into the brush at the sound of my footsteps. The soft curve and bend of tall grasses in the wind at the foot of unbending cliffs standing straight-backed all the way to midheaven. A mule deer doe and her two fawns wandering through the campsite two evenings in a row, nibbling the lower branches of stiff-limbed trees. All these small things that make a world, that transform empty space into a living, livable place — that reassure the staggered mind, perhaps not answering why but at least if you will, you may….

And just as slowly, it seemed to me the question changed. How should I make my living, how should I make my way in this culture so hostile to poetry and solitude and contemplation? A million possibilities stretched before me, a million tiny ways to scheme and strive and struggle to offer something people wanted, something they might value or cherish or need. No long, meandering essays full of mule deer and juniper, that wouldn’t do at all. Quick flippant bits of humor, snark or wit were in demand. Maybe I could sell photographs, or the prayer beads I designed. Or survive on donations from grateful readers — like a pilgrim drinking dew.

But still the question hung like an infinity of stars clamped down over the desert like a lid: why? This, but not that. Here, but not there. Why settle down on this career, when that one was no worse, no better? All equally hard and precarious, like trying to squeeze out a living between the sky and a stone.

When we finally rolled into the foothills of my mountains, small and green and so much older than the porous young sandstone towers of the west, I couldn’t keep the tears from my eyes. Almost like laughter, the question rolled out of me into the mist and rain and rolling hills and rolling thunder, all of it rounded and rolling like the world, “My gods! Why would anyone want to live anywhere else?” Every curve and dip was precious, every valley and river bend, every wooded hillside, every patchworked farm. You could live anywhere here and be happy. You could live anywhere here and be blessed.

As we were leaving New Mexico, Jeff bought a book on tape, Tony Hillerman’s Hunting Badger, a detective novel about the Navajo policeman Jim Chee. By disc three, his godfather and mentor was dying of cancer, telling him the secret to the healing songs his people had tried to teach him. “The last lesson is the one that matters…

Know that it is hard for the people to trust outside their own family. Even harder when they are sick. They have pain. They are out of harmony. They see no beauty anywhere. All their connections are broken.

That is who you are talking to.

You tell them the power that made us made all this above us and around us, and we are part of the power. And if we do as we are taught, we can bring ourselves back into harmony. Then they will again know beauty all around them.

That is hard to believe. Do you understand that? To be restored, they must believe you.

Who am I talking to?

Who am I talking to? Not you. You who are my friends, who talk with me about the world being broken, and the injustice of it. Who see with the same pain and longing as I do, who crave the poetry and solitude and contemplation of the mountains and the rainstorms and the dim days of autumn. How can I talk to you? How can you hear me above the noise of vertigo? How can you hear me when we are all so busy just trying to survive?

I keep the flame. My goddess says, “It’s not about whether or not they will listen. It’s about whether you are listening.” But some days, that’s not enough. I listen deep, I listen long. The world whispers that we are all made of the same slow powers that carve the hills and move the rains, those powers that beat in the heart of the oceans and sing high with the sunlit winds. And we can bring ourselves back into harmony, and we will again know beauty all around us.

But some days, that is hard to believe.

So I am crying. And I am writing. Who am I talking to? In my long, meandering essays full of mule deer and juniper — some things just take forever to say. There is no rushing it. There is no quick and witty way through. I am talking to the ones who are broken. I am talking to the ones who will listen. But mostly, I am talking to the world, and to my gods. And what I’m saying is: I’m not angry, even though living is harder than I expected, even though I want so much to give something of value to a society whose values are all upside-down, even though I’m not sure that I can. What I’m saying is: the small things are what save me, moment to moment, the smell of desert sage, the texture of stone, the sound of rain slipping in between the cracks in the sidewalk and swelling underground.

What I’m saying is: thank you.

Alison Leigh Lilly
Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

1 Comment

  1. Diane
    Apr 3, 2016

    I am a Christian mystic, and I appreciate your wisdom and your Celtic heritage. Thank you for this post. I am listening.

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