Desert Teacher

Perhaps all of nature, in all her variety, teaches those who spend time with her. My chosen—and loved—environment is no exception. Every time I get to go into the desert, outside of town, the desert teaches me.

The first thing she teaches me is to LOOK. The colors of the desert are to be found in full variety, but one must look with curiosity. The backdrop is a tapestry of greens, from gray-green, to olive, to almost chartreuse. Its brightness varies with the rains, but the color range is the same. And yet—when one looks closely at, say, cactus spines, one finds reds and oranges and palest of yellows. When one gazes at the tiny leaves of the autumn ocotillo, they offer every color of fall foliage anywhere. Flowers bring bright colors that radiate as if lit from within. It is endless. But one must look.

The desert also teaches me to ATTEND TO MY BODY. It’s important to be deliberate about where one places hands and feet—and seat! For all its fascination, desert is not a gentle environment. Spines and thorns are everywhere, adaptations to the harshness of the climate. Then, too, there are venomous snakes. When I was a child and our family camped in deserts, we were taught unforgettably, “Do not put your hand or foot where you cannot see.” Such attention to the body is vital in this environment, but it’s useful elsewhere. Being conscious about how we move brings pleasure and it keeps us from stumbling.

The desert teaches me to BE SILENT. There is a moment when one has driven out beyond the city noise and parked, then turned off the engine. Immediate silence. Palpable silence. Even breezes are soundless unless the wind is strong enough to hiss through the cactus spines. Standing in that wide silence, the breath slows, relieved. The muscles gradually let go and rest. Best of all, the mind comes to silence. There is then only being, pulsing around oneself and through oneself as if in greeting. In this soundlessness, awareness expands to include all that is available to the senses: what one sees, hears, touches, smells. It is whole.

When I return to town, even after only a couple hours of listening to the desert’s teachings, I am more than taught. I am fed. I am promised. All is well.












































Vault or Not?

It was about 9:00 pm and the adult class I taught regularly was just over. As I picked up my materials, one of the participants asked me if I was driving home alone. He knew that I lived beyond the edge of town in the desert.

“Of course, what else?” I answered. And then came the lecture—about how dangerous it was, about how bad-intentioned people roam the dark roads, about how I could be pulled over and attacked, etc. etc.

I looked at him in shock. Was this supposed to help me? Well, in any case, I had no choice. There was no other way to get home and I told him so. He shook his head at what he surely thought was my foolhardiness.

On my way home, I did think about what he’d said. I realized that this was a bigger question than just a weekly drive. How did I want to live, seeing that I was single and responsible only for myself? Did I want calculated safety to drive all my decisions? So the next week, I shared my choice with him. “I live alone. I choose not to live in a vault.”

Today, the level of fear in our society has risen. I’m regretful about all the fear-mongering in the media. But the question remains for each of us: knowing that safety is hardly guaranteed, how do we want to live? Today, I still choose to let other qualities, other experiences and possibilities guide my decisions. I try not to be totally rash and yes, sometimes I get scared and am glad to close a familiar door behind me.

I know a few people who see the same conditions and do choose to live in a vault. They avoid anything they feel threatened by. Oh, their vault is usually well decorated, warm and cozy. It meets their need for “safety first.” But it’s still a vault and their life is much poorer than it could be.

Today, I know that there are no certainties in any case. Today I still choose not to live in a vault. I want all that life brings me, for beauty, for growth, for learning, even if it’s tough.

How about you? Do you choose to live in a vault?












































You know how it sometimes happens (or used to, before cell phones): you’re sitting in a waiting room and get to chatting with the person next to you. It’s usually small talk, but friendly.

I was in O’Hare airport. It was almost midnight and the gray haired woman next to me was clearly tired. But courteously, she told me that she was going to visit family in California and asked me where I was headed.

“I’m going to my parents’ fiftieth anniversary celebration,” I said.

She paused. Then, “We almost made it to our fiftieth, my husband and I. Forty nine years and nine months.” A big sigh. “He was such wonderful man. Kind and responsible and somehow always there for me and for the kids.” I waited as she paused again, looking into the distance across the gate’s waiting area. “But then he wasn’t so present. It all began to change when he got Alzheimer’s.”

“Oh, no,” I thought. “This could be tough to hear.”

She went on. “I took care of him at home until he died. It was a little over seven years from his diagnosis.”

“That must have been unbelievably hard,” I offered, somewhat tentatively.

“Yes. And the hardest was when he no longer recognized me. For four years, without his recognition, I used to watch him and wonder where he had gone inside himself.” She shook her head, still gazing at something in the distance that I couldn’t see.

“Then, just two weeks before he died, I came into the room where he sat during the day. As always, he looked up at me and his puzzled frown appeared. ‘Who are you?’ he asked me, as always. And, as always, I said, ‘I’m Lily, I’m your wife.’ He shook his head a little. Usually, he went silent after this.

“But on this day, he smiled a little and then held both his hands out to me and said, ‘Well, whoever you are, I love you.’”

She fingered the wedding ring she was still wearing. Then she turned to face me and looked directly into my eyes. Hers were calm. “It was enough,” she said. “It is enough.”












































One of the fascinating things we can notice about ourselves as humans, is that we want a place in our environment. A place that “feels right,” even if it’s short term and not actually our own. One of the more dramatic illustrations I’ve experienced was on an airplane. I was settled in “my” seat, 3 rows from the back of the plane. Shortly a woman came down the aisle and as she passed me, she began to complain loudly. It seemed her assigned seat was in the very last row.

“This is not for me,” she shouted. “I paid for my ticket in good faith and I will not sit in the noisy back seat. What’s the matter with this airline? This is not acceptable…” I’ll spare you the tirade, but it was vitriolic and at top volume. I also began to think it might go on for a long time. Jet engine roar was much easier to bear.

I had no idea if it would help, but I spoke to the frustrated flight attendant and offered to trade with the irate passenger. Mind you, I was only 2 rows ahead of her!

“Really?” the frustrated attendant was incredulous. “Are you sure?” (As if I had bought the seat itself!) So we switched—and it switched off the yelling, too.

This woman’s feeling was complex, but for sure her sense of personal place had been violated, then restored.

We do something similar in other places: think theater or stadium seats or restaurant tables. We do it even at parties. We come into the room and look immediately for a place to sit or to stand. We claim one. We do not expect it to be changed. If I mark the place, say, with a purse, woe to the one who moves that purse over a seat or two! But usually, this is so common a concern that we respect the unspoken social demand: we let the purse stay, and look for another place altogether. And waiting for a parade, don’t we claim a bit of the pavement?

What is this in us? How is it that we are so much more at ease when we’ve claimed a place? I don’t see any great message here, just an observation of one of the peculiarities of us humans. A good giggle follows.