Into the Desert
This week I talked Joe into a quick trip to the desert — the Mojave Desert and Joshua Tree National Park in particular.
I painted it this way: as a possibly romantic chance to step away together before he takes off for a month.
And before a machine gun of shit potentially hits the fan for me in that same 27 days: My disabled mother is coming to stay for four weeks; My best friend is coming and I worry I won't be able to spend the time I so want with her due to my mother's needs; two client’s are in the window in which they are likely to go into labor; I have to lead the weekly writing group that brings upwards of 20 people in my home every Saturday; I've got a day-long class to prep for and teach.
Did I mention, the epileptic cat, the elderly cat, my mother’s cat, a yappie Chihuahua and a very large rabbit that I'll need to feed, medicate and clean up after?
Lots of possible shit for the very small fan of my control.
When I woke up and stepped outside the super cool Airstream Land Yacht (Airbnb….) we booked in Joshua Tree on our second morning in the desert, I realized I had painted the trip all wrong.
This trip wasn't about romance. It was about facing my fear. Of the pressure. Of failing my clients or my mother or my partner. Of not coping with all those four-legged beasts. Of the cortisol impact that fear and stress have on a body. A body that’s already faced cancer down. Twice.
I realized that I needed to enter the metaphor of the solution to these fears: a place of wide open space, of light and solitude, of dark and cold, of barren and bursting, of beautiful and gnarly. A place where such opposites can and must cohabitate. A place that shows me it is possible to live in a dialectic, that is to feel and be opposing things — to feel fear and let go of fear at the same time, live in acceptance even if your heart wants to reject.
To know at a soul level, whatever is, is. Whatever happens, happens. All will be well.
It was a rough three days, these days in the desert. Joe taught me with his patience and with his listening. As we drove home, I understood only in hindsight how this trip met the deep need inside me for opening to whatever the next month (or year or years) bring.
If you haven’t been to Joshua Tree, you have missed one of this nation’s most incredible treasures. I shouldn't give advice to anyone, but I hope you get a chance to go. It is mystical, sacred, every inch alive.
Before I step into that magical place with you, I have to say this: It saddens me that you must pay ($12 per person or $25/car) to go into the national park. It is another sign of misaligned American values and politics. Our national parks should be accessible to everyone — for free. And yet, we continue to cut the budgets of the federal agencies meant to preserve them. Stepping off soapbox.
Joe and I took three different hikes in the park. We started with the 3-mile round-trip Ryan Mountain trail, a 1,000 -foot stairclimber with gorgeous views of Joshua Tree-filled desert range, cacti and brush, rocks and plants. Lucy made it about 100 of those feet before coping out, the lazy little lug. She rode the rest of the way in our camelback water bag. She's a beacon, Lucy. She got quite a lot of attention and a smile from just about every one who passed us.
Here was a lesson. Yes, Lucy can be yappie (which often causes a panic-like reaction in me). But she is also a powerful, generous dose of sweetness.
Too often I think of her as the cause of my stress. Marching, achingly up Ryan Mountain, I realized my stinking thinking and hair-trigger reaction is the root of my stress, not my dog. She is a solution — a living, breathing ball of love who invites me to get out of my head and play, rather than dig in and bury myself in painful navel gazing.
I did yoga under the moon on our first night in Joshua Tree, strengthened by the Star Trek-ian rock wall surrounding the Land Yacht and set aglow by candlelight and a luminous full moon. It was eerie, surreal, slightly cold. Right.
Early the next morning, on January 31 at 5:29 AM I got up to pay witness to a blue moon in the shade of red in total eclipse. The last time anyone saw this moon was 150 years ago. These skies, these moons are also a lesson: Wait for the good. Wait for release from fear. Trust that illumination will come through the dark. They reminded me of St. John of the Cross rising up out of The Dark Night of his Soul -- and his writings about that night. There is always light in darkness.
We took turns hiking the Barker Dam trail — no dogs allowed. Apparently the smell of canine sends the Bighorn Sheep running from the area which is one the few watering holes in the park. Neither of us saw sheep, but if I just had happened upon Barker Dam while traversing the desert I might have thought I was seeing a mirage. What with the ducks paddling across the water, the green along the edges and the massive rock formations surrounding a reflective pool. If you go to Joshua Tree, this is an easy 1-mile round-trip MUST SEE.
I sat on a rock above the pool and watched two ducks duck and paddle, duck and paddle, looking for bugs and other food. They lingered in a spot for a bit then paddled on. They looked at ease. I felt at ease watching them.
Lesson two in fighting fear: duck and paddle. In other words, all I need to do this month is look for the food I need to sustain myself today and if I don’t find it in one place, paddle on. Self care is the solution to fear. Feel it, care for it. Paddle on.
Note: The best time to visit the park — the most temperate weather and when most desert plants are in bloom is in Spring (March and April). Here in early February, the plants are just beginning to bud. You can see them just itching about busting out.
The Mormons who passed through this part of the Mojave in the 1800s were right. The tall free-form yuccas they encountered DO look like bearded holy men waving their arms in praise as Joshua is described as doing in the Bible (thus the name Joshua trees). But these wiry waving things could just as easily have been named Whirling Dervish trees or Gangly Teenage Boy trees had a band of Sufi’s or mothers happened on them way back when.
No matter what you see, these trees are mesmerizing in a way no other desert plant has ever captured my attention or imagination. Maybe that’s because they aren’t actually trees. In fact, they are the largest of the yuccas, a perennial shrub that is a member of the Agave family.
According the the National Park Service, Native Americans who lived in this area for thousands of years before the Mormons hiked through used all aspects of the plant, including “tough leaves were worked into baskets and sandals, and flower buds and raw or roasted seeds made a healthy addition to the diet.”
And here is the final healing lesson of this desert, the most important solution for my fears:
What I think is a tree — or a problem, or a crisis or a failure — may not be a tree at all.
It may, in fact, be a healing opportunity. If I stop, pause, open, it may be a chance to weave a new narrative of tough leaves or a healing food for my soul from the seeds of acceptance.
What I think is a tree may be a dancing, waving, dervish inviting me to let go. Then let go more.