Here I possessed nothing in the world. I was no more than a mortal strayed between sand and stars, conscious of the single blessing of breathing. And yet I discovered myself filled with dreams. ~Antoine de Saint-Exupery
It’s summer in the desert.
The intense silence on a hazy afternoon broken only by the soft whisper of a breeze among the pinyon pines, the wing beats of a passing raven or the chirp of an insect.
Blue sky extending forever.
The knowledge—the near certainty—that no other human will intrude.
Too hot to do much other than sit in the shade and stare into the distance, take short walks, savor each sip of cool water.
The yearning for rain—it’s a visceral sensation permeating the body. Not today. Maybe tomorrow.
In this profound peace thoughts arise with a sharpness and clarity that I never experience elsewhere.
I try my best to not make a sound, appreciating that this calm quietude is what this place sounds and feels like the majority of the time, when humans are not here.
I walk among the small dunes, crushing leaves of purple sage between my fingers and holding them to my nose. A prolonged illness has taken a toll on my mood. The perfume of the sage pierces deep, to my living core, reminding me of pleasurable sensations and affirming life.
I see an ancient husk of juniper barely sticking its head above the sand. It died perhaps centuries ago, when the human world was vastly different, before the age of industry and mechanization. Soon the sands will win, the tree’s delicate structure never to see light again as it continues to erode beneath the surface back into the grand tapestry. It will later to be recycled into any of an endless variety of forms that are unimaginable to me, and none of which will ever again be the living tree that occupied this place for so many decades, witnessing its slice of the grand story and giving way to what eons are yet ahead. And the same will one day be true of me.
And just so my imagination is not limited to mere centuries or to just one planet in trillions, I occasionally pick up a rock and contemplate its history and the journey of the particles that make it, even if I can never hope to perceive them with my senses. This is an exercise of the intellect and not of the senses. My life becomes more meaningful the more of the grand story I learn, and I take great comfort and hope in knowing that fantastic and unexpected plot twists seem to always be in good supply.
The desert to me is more alive than anywhere. Life can be assessed by its abundance or by its intensity, and although other places are more abundant, in the desert life is at its most intense. Here, life asserts itself more vigorously and decisively than elsewhere. In my own life I always favored intensity over abundance, too.
A plane passes overhead. In my younger years the sight of a plane would make me wish for other, faraway, places. Nowadays I’m grateful to not be on it, in a cramped seat, headed to some urban airport, shuttle busses, parking lots, traffic, office buildings. But I appreciate the importance of cities. In an overpopulated world, they are vital in keeping the majority who enjoys urban life away from what wild still remains. Without cities there would be no wild.
Some artists channel their entire being into their art, making it not just their occupation but also their primary preoccupation. All else in life, whether they admit it or not, is aligned so as to facilitate the making of art. Indeed, the same can be said of those who relentlessly pursue careers, travel, or other singular goals. I have long wanted to be such an artist, and it caused me some frustration to repeatedly find that, try as I might, I am unable to set aside living in favor of producing or for the sake of popularity.
My most elevated moments are those in which I am free to witness the world in peace, in some remote natural place, alert and aware and mindful and grateful; and to think deep thoughts. All else—art, career, socializing, etc.—for me ultimately leads to, and arises from, such times. But without such times, all else, no matter how beautiful, successful or popular, never quite satisfies. Such an approach to life and work is never without a degree of risk, doubt, anxiety and uncertainty. And so I discovered that happiness for me, like creativity, is not an enduring state, not a “level” to rise to and forever rest in, not a yes/no or success/failure condition. Rather, it is the constant affirmation that life still has many opportunities and surprises ahead, many discoveries and epiphanies to be had, and much beauty that I am unable to predict and that I may stumble into without expecting; and that those things are separated by chasms of unknowing that at times may be difficult to endure. But once above the chasms, to look at the grand vista of the past from some lofty present, is a quenching experience like no other. It is like hearing the voice of the universe whisper in my ear: “keep going!”
Evening will set soon. I can’t wait to see the stars.