A Friend in the Desert

Having put away the class for the first good week, I need a weekend out of cell-phone touch, and I get my wish.  Tootling along the endless sandstone strip-mall sprawl out of Phoenix, onto smaller and smaller roads as the phone plinks off and the sunset flares, dies to embers and settles straight into creosote for our last crinkly washboard turns before we rinse our dusty tires in the few inches of Cave Creek and curl around into the house.

My friend has led a hard life with pluck and wit, but without the physical advantages of rude health.  To find her in the last fingernail hold of habitation before miles of national forest is a surprise; to me she’s a city girl.  In fact, she’s lived all over, but I knew her in NY and Seattle, not in Crested Butte, and even in that tiny frontier town, she was director of the local theater.  She’s been out here in this stage-free isolation for more than a year.

That open breath of yawning stillness from the surrounding hills absorbs all sounds and mixes easily with our companionable silence before the small firepot on the porch.  The clouds clear and the stars come out, and one falls.  “I wonder what civilization that was?” she asks, recalling to mind the Asimov short story of the solar system that burned to create the star of Bethlehem.

I start explaining that this is a meteorite, that the death of a solar system would be a supernova, essentially the explosion of a star, only visible… Until in the firelight I see her face of calm indulgence, and I realize I have my literalist hat on – still being the teacher – and let it fall for the dunce hat or the beret of the poet.  What civilization is dying here tonight, indeed?

This is the real desert, muse for D.H. and Georgia and Paul, harsh, sterile, thinly aromatic.

In the morning, a sliver of waning moon gives way to the sun and what was just dark shapes comes into view.  The house is nothing much on the outside, a box based around a trailer – about like a double-wide, though is solider than that.  Inside, she has wrested it away from the shag carpets and ill fitting windows to create an artist’s interior space, lined with soft colors, fabrics, the complete works of Shakespeare, and objets.

Just outside she has the garden she will have wherever she is, and the quail and road-runners and cardinals and goldfinches who feed on her sunflower seeds she raised and shook out there.

Around the house are a few other houses occupied by people I never met, but who are, she says, afraid Obama is going to take away their guns, so they are buying more and practicing a lot – kapow!  My friend, though not that way inclined, says they’re a good sort – living off the land and all.  “Get out here and you start talking to yourself,” she says, and the ranch hand who helps her has a pretty continuous stream of mumble going.  I don’t notice her falling into this, but then I am there for two-way conversation.

Tucked up behind the little houses hidden by the trees that line the creek is a ‘storage yard’ filled with rusting junk that somebody’s gonna use some day, including an old Ford F350 that has seen better days and is probably home to some snakes or scorpions.

This is real desert: people can die out here.  Already the ranch hand has killed one rattler who had wandered into the garage.  Threw a hammer at it and killed it on the spot.  And then there’s skunks under the house that must be trapped, covered, and dispensed.  By now, it’s down to mice, which most of us have to live with, though there are covers over the drains which are designed to keep the scorpions from coming up through them, rather than keeping debris from going down – a bit disconcerting when you eyes are full of shampoo in the shower.

No, neither the harshness of the environment nor the views of her neighbors will turn my friend reactionary.  She has John Stewart for a friend, Tivo’ed off the cable, though she cannot tolerate my new best friend Rachel Maddow, because she has a ‘point-of-view’.  “I don’t watch Fox and I don’t watch MSNBC.” John Stewart and Steven Colbert don’t have a point-of-view?

My friend does bodywork at an alternative cancer treatment clinic (anoasisofhealing.com), and has a lot to say on the theater of cancer, how bodywork works in the context of their family’s opposition, the weakness of the body vs the resolve of the spirit.  I counsel her on the simple power of touch, and how to approach the tumor sites themselves, though soon she will be teaching me.

These and other conversations ebb and flow as we come together for delicious raw-ish meals inspired by the diet at the center, and then periods of silence where we both work on our writing.

The father of her children came back form Vietnam a broken man, and his progressive disintegration into psychosis, culminating in his arranging her funeral without the usual prerequisite, was one of those Nietchzcheian trials that makes you stronger by almost killing you.  Between her travails in the VA with him, with her children and herself when they were on their own, and with the clinic, she has a real stake in the health care debate.

It is a deep pleasure to sit with a friend who is quick, opinionated, and has been so tested by life as to be unafraid.  I am sure she has her phantasms when the nights are lonely and the desert winds blow, but each day she aligns her unruly body and her unruly hair and her unruly mind (as long as we understand this last to be ‘anti-rule’ – I cried as I watched her jump out of a very comfortable airplane with no parachute some years ago rather than live by someone else’s rules).  And then she ventures forth to tilt at windmills, and she’s knocked a few down as well.  I will pray for you in the same whisper the desert makes – Parasam Gate, Bodhi Svaha.


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