November 09, 2009

Oases in the Desert

My desert sojourn is proving not to be the one of arid stones and poisonous cacti that I’d envisioned and remembered but has instead come to revolve around the unexpected and very vibrant plant life that defines Arizona—life that for whatever reason I’d not appreciated when I lived here lo these forty years ago. A lesson that is taking too long to learn.

First there is the oasis of Glendale’s Public Library just 1.5 miles from the house I am renting. Botanical gardens, sculpture, peacocks, chickens, cooing doves—these greet me each day, the highlight of my hours. My soul often feeds in silence, and so I drive solo into the parking lot two minutes from my house and find myself a shady place beneath a giant date palm and wander all by myself through the slightly pink and wandering flagstone walkways that mosey people into the library. I pause to teach myself another form of cactus, Golden Barrel for instance, or to memorize the name of a tree so different from the Pacific Northwest. I stoop to smell a new flower, and pass chickens busy in the Lantana, a low green shrubbery that explodes yellow or orange flowers. Sometimes a rooster struts along beside me. Sometimes a trio of peacocks might lift their heads from the grassy lawn, or a male might lift and fan his tail, and preen in the sunlight. Sometimes, when inside and busy checking my e-mail or doing my job searches or looking for yet another Steinbeck book to reinforce the writing I am ostensibly here to do, I can hear them, the peacocks and the roosters. I bow my head over whatever it is I am doing and just “am.” A moment. A sound. A place. A peace that travels inward, burrows in, and seems to restore what I lost here when I was just seventeen—and could not find again in the misery that my life became because of it.

But I don’t have to be alone to gain the tranquility. My friend Wayne last week took me out to the botanical gardens in Scottsdale where I kept him busy identifying everything. A veteran mountain climber, desert hiker, with a lifetime of knowledge stored in his head like the gallons of water store inside Arizona’s giant saguaro, he is my walking encyclopedia. Plants, stones, birds. He knows everything. “What’s this?” I ask. “What’s that? So how does the Senora Desert differ from the Great Basin? Hey, what’s this little guy?” I’ve spotted a plain little brown bird hopping about on the ground, camouflaged by the dappled shade of a Giraffe Tree. “We call them LBBs,” he says and laughs when I look up puzzled. “Little brown birds,” he explains, smiling. “LBBs are any bird we can’t identify,” he tells me. Now I laugh. We, too, have LBBs in the Northwest.

It’s November 2, this day we are at the botanical gardens, and a sign tells me it’s a Mexican/Catholic holiday when the dead come back—Día de los Muertos.

“Did I tell you the story of my father and the Rufus Hummingbird?” I ask Wayne. He nods. “Let’s look for hummingbirds,” I either think to myself or actually say. “Perhaps my father will come back to me again and say hi.”

We find them in the butterfly and hummingbird garden—and though the hummingbirds are not like the ones back home, they are beautiful and busy. Lime green, wings a blur, bright color that flits with sudden energy and a buzz from one bush to the next while butterflies seem to bounce in the air around them. Wayne and I find some shade and sit. He is two seats away from me and one more time I find myself falling into a space of calm. A moment. A sound. A place. A peace that travels inward, burrows in, and seems to restore what the events of this desert stole. I watch the hummingbird; it is not my father’s messenger today. It is a bird of exquisite beauty finding nourishment in this oasis. I hear Wayne speak. “Do you feel the tranquility?” he asks in the delicious quiet.

I look at him, surprised at myself. I do.

His sister, three years younger than us, two days go took me out to the Boyce Thompson Arboretum an hour’s drive south of Phoenix. I immediately fell in love with the majestic, mysterious place, a patch of desert forest and flower in the shade of Magma Ridge, a craggy rock face that climbs straight up out of the desert, a timeless guardian to a dry creek bed that cuts through the rock at its toes. For me, though, the magic was in the eucalyptus—native to Australia but transplanted in other hot regions of the world.

Carol, knowing my affinity for these stately, white-trunked trees, simply took me into the gardens, past the water fountain, through the turnstile, beyond the gift shop, and into an oasis the Olympic gods could not have imagined. As we came onto a diverging trail, she turned me and simply said, “Look.” I was facing a forest of eucalyptus. “Oh, Carol,” I breathed in wonder. For here is another world. One step and anything can happen.

“Let’s save this to the last,” I tell her, so we take the main path then, up and around a man-made lake, a stony path that continues on up and around, passing under the Picket Post House that Boyce Thompson, one of the richest men in America by the time World War I broke out, built into the stony outcroppings; and then down, down, down, along a cliff overhang to the dry creek bed below. Wayne’s many LBBs skitter and hop, and fly into trees, the names of which leave my head faster than I can collect them from the signposts, and then, suddenly, a rock house.

We approach from one end and peer through two widows, two rooms, both opening into a third. We skirt and approach from the other side—and I find this stone house of more than a hundred years still sitting in the shade of trees, the names of which my mind has so quickly lost. Eternal against momentary, endurance against fleeting.

Once upon a time, the sign tells me, a family of five lived here in these tiny rooms. I can’t imagine. Cut off from the world, squatted along the creek now dry as bone. They’d made their living as truck farmers, watering their lettuce and kale no doubt from the creek. A place where strangers enter now, a place where the state of Arizona now grows herbs using sprinklers.

Carol and I left the little house and garden with reluctance. We came back up to the main gardens and exited through the eucalyptus forest; these trees cleaner and whiter than those I remember from California where, for eight troubled months in 1962, I’d lived as a nine- and ten-year-old. My sisters and I used to play under the taller, scragglier eucalyptus, and we'd walked beneath their high shading limbs with blind Uncle Earl, singing,

“Kuckabaro sits in the old gum tree,
counting all the gum drops he can see,
Stop, Kuckabaro, stop!
Leave one there for me!”
I wander now through similar gum trees, and I find that Kuckabaro still sings and still counts. I start to sing and Carol laughs. Names have been posted on each of the many varieties in this forest of eucalyptus gum. Red Gum. River Red Gum. Dark Gum. I pick up the fallen leaves and breathe in the stinging sweet smell, a smell I can, I think, get drunk on. A sting, yes, but intoxicatingly sweet. What would it be like, I wonder, to make love in such a grove? Engulfed by contradiction, yet entirely satisfied?

Let me take you back to Wayne and the botanical gardens and November 2. He and I, friends of yore, had only gone in a short ways when I bent over and felt the smooth leather of an agave cactus…then gingerly the tip of a single sharp quill that framed each frond. I pressed my finger into the stabbing pain, hissed, and yanked my hand back. I looked up at Wayne. Why is the desert so hostile?

I didn’t know Wayne when first stung by this desert, and he faded from my life as my unhappiness deepened. But when his grown up self squatted down beside me to point out the budding of a fragile blossom of the prickly pear cactus, the contradiction of hostility and beauty was hard to miss—in much the same way as the contradiction is hard to ignore in the eucalyptus’s stinging sweetness. When he stood, I wanted to take his hand, to acknowledge in some way the stirring metamorphous that was taking place. For this desert to which I’ve returned not only greets me with all its hostility but surprises me, too, with all the beauty I’d forgotten lived here. I find that I need not "forget" the brutality, but that I can integrate my history of both pain and pleasure in the same way the eucalyptus fills a breeze with stinging sweetness and the cacti can endure, content with blossom and thorn.

Even more encouraging is this: that with my friends and family who still live here and who still love me I have stumbled upon the shell of a stone house that once was me. I am at long last remembering who I was and can still be.

PS. Two books on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that I checked out of the library after posting this blog tell me that "lessons taking too long to learn" is not an accurate assessment; that the traumetized mind can only "learn" when ready, when the enviornment is supportive. These books also tell me that people sexually assaulted often view their lives as altered, and go through life as two people--the one before, a personality that fades from memory, and the one that is now and not a real, authentic self. This is perhaps what the stone house symbolizes for me. Clearly it was a return to pre-Dr. Mattson, pre-marriage.