Forty years ago today I arrived in the Phoenix desert, a physically fragile seventeen-year-old, to live with family friends. I’d just survived a near-death experience; and a second hospitalization that followed on its heels suggested there was little the Midwest medical community could do for me, a severe asthmatic. Our only real option remaining was to check me into Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, to see if the best minds in America couldn’t find a way to keep me alive. But then family friends unexpectedly stopped by for a visit, enroute to Phoenix for a new job at Arizona State, and invited me to come live with them. The desert was supposed to be good for people like me, and thus I arrived. Forty years ago today—October 26, 1969.
For me, there is much water under the bridge in this Arizona desert. To say that my year in Tempe, Arizona, was the best of my life is an understatement. Seventeen and finding myself suddenly healthy, away from home for the first time, and going to a high school that required nothing more of me than literature, sculpture, and music? Surrounded by new friends and, in today’s vernacular, stumbling onto a BFF? I wonder, do we ever recapture the intensity of being a teenager? A time of life when everything touches the soul so deeply? Is of such import? Perhaps this is why my concurring sexual molestation at the hands of the Christian doctor into whose care I’d been entrusted was so damaging, sliding my happy life sideways and then right off the road—though it was a long time before I ever came out of what feels to have been an emotional coma to the rubble I was in. Aware enough, though, that when I left the state five or six years later, I never spoke of Arizona again. Until my divorce at the age of twenty-nine. So much water under the bridge.
Two and a half years ago, though, nearly four decades of disassociation ended. How to describe this? Once, when cleaning out a closet, a dirty cast fell on my head. Whose broke arm had this been for? I’d wondered, thinking of my children. Blake’s? Phil’s? Heather had broken her leg; it wasn’t hers. Like the cast, my molestation fell out of a closet and hit me on the head. Not that I’d ever forgotten, far from it, but what was it doing back in my life? How did it get here after all this time? And why fall on my head now?
So after thirty-eight years of repressing Arizona I returned to the desert to reconnect with friends “who knew me then” and to face for the first time the trauma that subconsciously defined my life, now floundering on a bedrock of Self that had been smote and cracked, necessitating I live two lives of “then” and “now” with no real way forward. My BFF’s sister, the minister’s wife of the little church we all attended, and one of my youth group leaders took me over to the doctor’s office, now a parking lot for Scottsdale Hospital. Quite the crying jag. I’d never wept over this, but thirty-eight years of pain and confusion broke through some kind of emotional dam. My friends sat quietly with me, but in the murkiness of that gutting pain that caught me off guard and took my breath I sensed their love. How is it that in thirty-eight years of silence such love survives? I was amazed, and fortified, but still I felt I might drown and sink into some kind of emotional abyss, never to return. I could not stop crying, they could not help me—and then I remembered my BFF.
Wayne had been the one who’d begun taking me to the doctor all those years ago—never knowing, of course, what was really going on. I got through it all by picturing him in the waiting room, patiently waiting for me. I can see him still, sitting in a corner, opposite the receptionist’s window. I can see the pictures on the wall over his head, I can see the little table beside him full of magazines. He picks one up, takes a look, throws it back. He jiggles his knee. I only had to survive and he’d take me away. Is there a way to explain this man whose very presence evoked calm, whose smile and humor healed my soul? We certainly were not lovers, nor had we ever admitted any level of love for each other, yet it was evident enough to everyone around us that love was a living thing in our lives. And in all the years ever since? I’ve never heard or seen anyone with such an attachment. But it was by remembering this that I pulled myself together outside Scottsdale Hospital’s parking lot two years ago—remembering my old BFF who never failed to take me away from it all.
Back at home and all cried out, I was happy to have it out of my system at last and ready to begin the task of integrating my lost self with my real self, knitting together “then” and “now” into a cohesive trail forward into time. Not. Dr. Mattson continued to haunt me, as did my life after him—so full of anguish. For I’d I married badly in the Arizona desert, and immediately found myself trapped in a loveless and demeaning marriage. “Your body is not your own,” I was told, the Bible shoved under my nose to prove it. And indeed it was not. Nor was mind, my heart, or my soul. I only existed to be a Christian man’s domestic and sexual slave. Years later, still married, Oregon passed a law against marital rape. My husband was righteously indignant. I yearned to move to Oregon. Yes, a lot of water under the bridge in this Arizona desert.
So this September I found myself again planning a return to what had been the happiest time of my life and concurrently the most unhappy. Consciously it was to escape the rut I was in, an attempt to try and write, check out the job market, play with old friends—to put distance between my stagnant life where I could not find a job, could not focus long enough to write any one of a gazillion book ideas I had in my head…could not forget the desert of my life.
When Judith Couchman heard of my plans she wrote to remind me of the many Biblical stories involving deserts and exile…and forty days and forty nights and sometimes forty years. All were odysseys, she pointed out, taken by individuals, whole cities, entire nations. Always their journeys brought about transformation (http://www.judithcouchman.blogspot.com). I quickly added up the six weeks I planned to be gone. Forty-two days. Close enough. I added up the years. Forty. Right on the nose. Suddenly, my conscious decision to face the desert took on new meaning. This was a spiritual odyssey. Somehow, I think, I’d known it all along: I was desperately seeking transformation.
No one knows what Jesus suffered in his wilderness, or Moses on Mt. Sinai. Or Elijah in the cave at Mount Horeb. Joseph Campbell in his many books on mythology, religion, and psychology, writes that such wilderness journeys are life-threateningly tough. We can feel devoured, overcome, hopelessly lost. Such journeys require tasks to be completed, demons to be confronted, hurdles to be crossed. They’re journeys that require letting go of everything old to embrace everything new and unknown, and which exact self-examination that can border obsession. But not to worry, he writes, we’re all given “magical” help whenever we need it. Jesus received wisdom in the desert, Moses the Ten Commandments on Sinai, Elijah food at Mount Horeb. We too receive. The darkest hour is where we find the divine. All our stories, Campbell points out, tell us it is in the wilderness where we find new health and healing and hope.
Three days into my own journey and not yet at the desert, my faithful jeep of 220,000 miles died—leaving me stranded in San Jose, California, at the home of former friends. Do I go home? It was a viable question to ask. Retreat to safety and stagnation?
Or do I go on? Into the unknown?
Marilyn, upon whose doorstep I’d landed, said, “You need to go on. You can’t go back.” It was a little hard for both of us to miss the Biblical mandate or for me to miss Campbell’s “Call to Adventure.”
And thus I landed back in the Arizona desert just days before the fortieth anniversary of my initial arrival, no longer seventeen but fifty-seven—without a car and the house I’d rented dirty, no hot water, the toilets backing up. As my mother would say, a real fine how-do-you-do. Thank you very much God, thank you very much Joseph Campbell.
As with Marilyn in San Jose, I was at the mercy of former family and friends; as with Marilyn they rushed to help. The house I am renting is actually right next door to my former mother-in-law. In fact, it was Nelda who’d made all the arrangements. It was she who immediately lent me cleaning supplies, a radio, coffee maker, who brought over a Merry Maids mug ironically labeled “Savor your clean house,” and who just now brought over a microwave rice dinner she’d picked up for me at Costco. My old BFF Wayne jumped right in and lent me his car and agreed to help me find a new one. His little sister Carol had me over for supper and sent me on my way with more cleaning supplies and kitchen equipments: dishes, pots and pans, measuring cups, utensils. She came over the next day with a table and chairs and spent several hours cleaning windows and helping me settle in. Ten days into my wilderness venture I was unable to shake the loss of my jeep and the financial drain it was creating…but I was surrounded by love that overlooked decades of silence; in Nelda’s case, deep hurt. I, after all, had divorced her son.
When Elijah headed into the wilderness to seek the brook Cherith, God sent ravens to bring him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening. It wasn’t exactly a balanced meal but it’s a story that tells us there is provision in our desert experiences.
Yet on the thirteenth day of my exile I hit melt down, the many ironies and conflicts—and sheer weariness—catching up with me. My former mother-in-law and I went to church and afterward lunch (“You’re going to Baptist church?” my youngest son had asked the night before on the phone. “You’re going to a Southern Baptist church?), only to find Wayne on my doorstep when we got back. He’d left his cell phone in his car—which I of course had. He wanted the phone back. At the sight of him, hands in his pockets and patiently waiting, a stance I’d seen a hundred times when we were kids, tears stung.
“What’s wrong?” he wanted to know, his grown-up self greeting me at my door.
“Oh, Wayne, I’m having such a bad day.”
He sprawled onto one my couches, but not without laughing at the blankets I’d placed over them both. I amuse him with my leeriness of the dirt around here. His laughter made me laugh. “So what’s going on?” he asked, his summer-sky eyes seeking my face, the color and gaze a part of my past.
The car of course. That I was borrowing his, that I couldn’t work up much enthusiasm to find a new one, my awareness of taking so much of his time in looking. “I just want to buy a jar of peanut butter,” I said. “But there’s a whole row of peanut butter! So many different brands, different sizes, different ingredients. All I want is just a jar of peanut butter!”
But mostly, I told him, the whole molestation thing was hitting me hard. I didn’t tell him it had occupied my attention all morning while a Southern Baptist minister at times made my skin crawl with self-deprecating arrogance. I’d forgotten how some preachers can be this way, how some congregations can laugh, enjoy the comfort of their own superiority over the misguided and unenlightened world. I said instead, “Tomorrow will be the fortieth anniversary of my initial arrival here. Forty years. October 26.”
He expressed no surprise that I could be so anal about this. In reality I have both a calendar—which I remember keeping, and a journal—which I have no memory whatsoever of writing.
"And on November 11…” I had to look away. “I don’t know if I can talk about this,” I said.
“It’s up to you. I don’t know what you need. I don’t understand how this happens in the first place. I can’t tell you how to fix this.”
I slid my eyes sideways. He was watching me.
“November 11th,” I repeated, heart catching, fluttering like a butterfly in my throat, “will mark forty years to the day of his first assault.” I started to cry a little, and had to look away again. “It would have been better if he’d raped me,” I finally said. “I could have at least told someone about that. But…”
Everyone I know and everything I’ve ever read tells me the only way out of this kind of thing is to tell someone. Get the words out, put them somewhere else. Yet how, if I literally cannot talk about it? And truly, if it were that simple, I would have done it a long time ago. Joseph Campbell, I realized, was absolutely right when he said it could feel life threatening. “I can’t—literally I can’t—talk about this,” I explained to my old BFF, obviously with an emphasis now on the second F. “I try, but the words stick in my throat. So, on November 11th…”
“November 11th,” he said, thinking this all through. “That’s Veterans’ Day. There’s no trading. I don’t have to work.”
"This is what I’m thinking,” I told him, buoyed by his willing support with whatever and wherever I was going with this, and shared the plan I’d more or less come up with while sitting in Nelda’s church, the old Baptist hymns holding better memories than the preacher. How had I gotten through before? I’d asked myself. The answer was glaringly obvious. I’d gotten through because Wayne had been there. Waiting for me. Behind the closed door all I had to do was go away in my head and then come back when it was over, and he’d take me away, make me laugh again, plant me back in a world where life was good and wonderful and safe. I said, “I’m going to try and write this down, Really try. But then I think I’ll burn it all and make ashes, and put the ashes in a baggie. I don’t want anyone else burdened; it’s too terrible. But if I brought the ashes to your house? Will you take me up South Mountain? It’s pretty there. I like that part of the desert. I would feel good to just leave it all there. I can find a place to either bury it all or just let it all blow away in the wind.”
“I can do that.”
“But you can’t be there when I do it. I’ll cry. I don’t want you see me. But I need you close by so that if I start howling you’ll know to come get me. I need you to come get me. I’m scared of falling into an abyss and never finding my way out again.” With sudden clarity I knew this was my terrble fear. What if I reentered that place, one last time, disappearing deep into my mind in order to survive, what if this time I couldn’t find my way back out? For surely the River Styx runs through my psyche as dangerously and treacherously as it does in myth.
"I’ll come get you,” he promised.
Amazing how a plan can make all the difference! More amazing is how I can reach back in time and find my friend just as I remember him.
I actually slept well and in the morning, this morning, the fortieth anniversary of my initial arrival in the desert, I hurried over to Wayne’s house, driving freeways that never existed in our former life, actually looking forward to test-driving one of the cars we’d found the day before my melt down. He was waiting outside. “How are you today?” he asked when I jumped out of his Saturn, stretched, and all but jumped into his arms.
To the casual observer and perhaps even to Wayne the day was mundane enough. Test-driving one of two cars he thought reliable, taking it over to his mechanic, meeting Carol to celebrate and sign on the dotted line that made me the new owner of a 2005 Toyota Scion. But momentous, too, for all day long with Wayne—taking care of the car stuff, running errands, having lunch and laughing over the differences in our memories, making a date for him to come see me in the Pacific Northwest next year when the movie Eat, Pray, Love comes out—I couldn’t help but compare our “then” to “now” and think of all the water under the bridge. When all is said and done, it is my desert that forges our friendship. That's a good thing.
At one point in our running around and driving past something that astonished me, I asked, "What’s this called?”
He filled me in, then pointed out, “See the orange flowers, reaching up from the mounded foliage over there?”
"That’s Birds of Paradise.”
So that was Birds of Paradise. I fell in love.
He pointed out the sycamore trees.
They were like the eucalyptus.
"Do they smell?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
For forty years Arizona has been in my mind a barren landscape of sand and city concrete, blinding sunlight and unbearable heat, painted grass, plastic geraniums planted in artificial rows. Now? Today, I found myself suddenly planting a garden in my mind. I’d have Birds of Paradise alongside a lavender-like plant that I have growing in my own garden back home, but which also grows here. I’d put in some of that magenta bougainvillea—the torch kind, the kind Wayne really likes and which Sue Grafton writes about in her mstery series. The orange, the lavender with its silver foliage, the magenta…all back-dropped by an apricot adobe wall? How pretty is that? Add some prickly pear cactus off to the side, some saguaro strategically placed to add height.
"What are you doing?” he asked. “You thinking of taking some of that home with you?”
"Birds of Paradise.”
"No! I’m planting a garden here!” and I laughed, surprised at myself.
It’s evening now. I look around this house I’ve rented. Everywhere I look, I see Carol and Nelda my mother-in-law (we agreed to drop the “former as too precise and probably not all that accurate)—the coffee maker, the table, the dishes, the mugs on the kitchen windowsill.
If I get up and go look in the garage, I’ll find my new car. It’s metallic gray, same color as the pots and pans Carol has lent me, a car picked out by Wayne. Even though he doesn't like boxy cars.
Yes, a momentous day.
I can think of another very similar day.
Not long after my divorce, maybe twenty-five years ago, I was having lunch at Seattle’s Shilshoe Bay with my friend and editor Jerry Jones and some our friends in the publishing business. It was one of those perfect summer afternoons, sun glinting off the water, boats of all shapes and sizes bobbing on the bay, good food, happy company. Afterward everyone dispersed, leaving just Jerry and me—and the swooping, soaring gulls that populate the waterfront. I was suddenly quite overcome with happiness to be divorced, to having endured the pain, to now have these friends, to be amongst people who admired me, who valued me. I threw up my arms and spun around.
"Oh Jerry,” I told him, “I’m so happy to be alive!” and I hurtled into his arms, surprising him and beside myself with gratitude and love.
His snort is actually a delightful sound, one only he can make, a sound I still hear it in my mind whenever I think to listen. That day he snorted loud and laughed hard, and let me wallow in my happiness.
Today is kin. I’m not on the waterfront, no seagulls caw in my ears. I am in the desert. Where much water lies under the bridge.
But water, I'm finding, that can nonetheless nourish my soul.