I awoke with sand in my hair, and a damp freshness to my skin. I didn’t know that dew visits the desert. The Colorado River conversed beside me. All night I’d been eavesdropping on this conference between water, stone, and air – a communion as ancient as the earth itself. This conversation with the canyon is precisely what I’d come for. Yet six months ago, if you’d suggested that I stay up all night to watch the world, I would have replied with an empty stare. Something has changed within me that I didn’t ask for, and that I never would never have predicted. My relationship with the desert is different now. This is my story of that change.
As a child, I believed that for the most part, the course of my life was in my hands. I was a devout proponent of cliche agency. You know, “if you can dream it you can do it;” “shoot for the moon and you’ll land among the stars;” “the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” I embraced these maxims hungrily. I dreamed, and worked, and followed my heart, and worked some more. I rode horses for a living, and aspired to become an Olympian. When I’d pursued this goal to its end I returned to school and completed two degrees. Then, I set out to build a career in mental performance consulting. I thought I knew who I was and would remain. Forever.
I left my home of origin, Vancouver, British Columbia, to pursue a professional opportunity. I ventured far from the vitalizing air of the Pacific Northwest to the arid elevation of Flagstaff, Arizona. Flagstaff is beautiful. But, leaving the lush canopies of temperate rain forest for the shadows of airy pines was tearful. To be honest, I’ve always been a mountain person. I mean real mountains, where rivers run, and ancient glaciers die slowly into lakes as blue as your eyes. I mean ranges that limit the sky, and look down upon you like Gods. The Northwest made me, and when I return there I still fold with relief into the thickets of my childhood. Emptiness I hadn’t sensed until returning there is filled. I drink in the layers of my old life like someone starving . A famine is fed within me that I’m never aware I’m sustaining.
I had never felt a connection with the desert. Close friends here in Flagstaff speak of their love for this expanse with the same emotional excess that I do for the Northwest. The red rocks of Sedona, the vast cut of the canyons, these sing to some the songs of their soul. I couldn’t hear the voice of this earth the way that they could. I’ve watched them with understanding, because I know the feeling of affinity with a space, but I hadn’t felt my own with this one.
I do want you to understand, I see beauty in the desert. During the edgy hours of each day the light lays down on the desert with such love it’s impossible to turn away. There’s extreme patience here, and resolve. There’s a constancy, and a stillness here not found in the mountains. The mountains are always in motion; they’re busy you might say. You can hide a lot in those dense depths. But you can’t hide in the desert. Here, you’re the movement. You’re the child under supervision. This spare truthful place misses nothing. I’ve felt grateful to witness her, and to have been witnessed by her in return. But I’m an outsider. This is not my home.
I’ve felt shame for my lack of love for the desert. Sometimes to be with her is like watching a person undress everyday, and yet know he does not fill my heart. I feel like someone who settled by marrying a friend, but always dreams of the one that got away. I’ve wondered what these feelings mean for my future. How long will I stay here? One day, must a mountain woman return to the mountains? One day, will the dewy air draw me back to where she waits?
This question lingered subtly under my skin at all times. Do you have a question like this in your life? What is to become of me here? In this role? With you? Perhaps it involves a place, or perhaps a profession, or a relationship with a person. Maybe you’re aware that something between you doesn’t feel like a perfect fit, yet it’s not time to leave. Perhaps you’re confused and stationary, waiting for clarity, always hoping for a hint of a home.
This experience that I’m describing is a little like “cognitive dissonance,” which is essentially what people feel when their actions do not align with their values. This is an uncomfortable way to live, and distressing to the mind in varying degrees. Normally, cognitive dissonance is alleviated by either a change in actions or a change in values.
This misaligned feeling was certainly part of what prompted me to take a trip to India last December. I chose India because I wished to be shaken and expanded. Honestly, I didn’t know precisely what I wanted other than to be different. My misalignment was grating, and I wondered if India would shape me into a better fit.
I traveled through North India for one month. My route included Kashmir, Darjeeling, and Varanasi. I was both awed and scared. I stood small before three magnificent faiths, and mountains in their rightful place - still in control of the people. I was the beneficiary of both kindness and deception. I made mistakes and those mistakes molded me. I had little company, and felt alone most of the time. I was at the mercy of my own inner life, and all that occurs inside a mind unable to hide within busyness. The trip was a privilege, and a process. I’d expected to return from India grateful, loving, and euphoric. Instead I landed in Vancouver tired, confused, and unbalanced. Emotions released due to ample peace for releasing, lit fires within that I did not realize could burn. Over Christmas I rested and waited, and interacted little. Slowly, the embers cooled and the smoke cleared.
There came a moment during that time in Vancouver, where I realized that I was looking forward to driving back to Flagstaff. I felt eager to greet the desert. I was excited to see her, like I was returning to visit an old friend. I felt like I was finally going to speak with a spirit with whom I could share my whole journey, and who would understand my process the way the abundance of the Northwest could not. I had never sought the desert before.
This feeling grew as I drove South, and as I pulled out of Salt Lake City I couldn’t wait to behold her – my desert. And, when I looked out at her during a run near Elsinore, the colors in the rocks were more beautiful to me than they had ever been. I realized that for me the value of this particular place was her stillness and stability. These buttes, these plains, they’ve been here for thousands of years. They’re not going anywhere. I can count on them. For the first time I felt grateful and said thank you, across the nothing that is not nothing.
The poet, Rainer Maria Rilke writes beautifully in his Letters to a Young Poet on the experience of difficult emotions resulting in positive change. In this case he speaks of sadness:
“That is why the sadness passes: the new presence inside us, the presence that has been added, has entered our heart, has gone into its innermost chamber and is no longer even there, is already in our bloodstream. And we don't know what it was. We could easily be made to believe that nothing happened, and yet we have changed, as a house that a guest has entered changes. We can't say who has come, perhaps we will never know, but many signs indicate that the future enters us in this way in order to be transformed in us, long before it happens.”
Personally, I believe that each of us has a role for good in this world. Sometimes this role can be lived out right in our own backyard. Other times we must travel far to find the place and the people for whom we’re designed. I think that sometimes when we arrive in this place it can take awhile to recognize it (or them, concerning the right people). It can take awhile for a place to become a home, or we need to become someone more in order to find home there.
Just last month I visited Vancouver. I stared out of the plane window while departing, familiar tears running down my cheeks. Once again I was leaving so many that I love, and who love me. But in that moment I also realized that there’s a difference between love and belonging (although both can certainly be present in one place or person). I cannot converse with the BC forests the same way that I can with the canyon walls. The desert is becoming a home. I am becoming at home in the desert.
These periods of tense indecision - these times of dissonance in our lives - they are not easy. One strategy that can help a person navigate them is expressive writing. This exercise, developed and studied by psychologist James W. Pennebaker, has been shown to help people dealing with difficult emotional turmoil. The writing need not be positive. One does not need to be concerned with punctuation or grammar. The person writing only needs to write about what he or she is feeling. You can even burn it when you’re done if you like. The benefit is in the moment of expression.
How and when change occurs, now that is a part of the mystery. Called by my new friendship with the desert I’ve spent more time in canyons lately. One night I camped on the bank of the Colorado, and watched the sky pass into darkness as skies always do. I witnessed the moonrise over the plateaus, casting silver kindness into grateful shadows. I saw the stars slide across the sky.
The next time you’re able, watch how the cycles of day change. The arrival of twilight is subtle, and then steadily and reliably overwhelming. The night becomes without a shudder; the sun brings morning without warning, and without fail. There are no other processes so smooth, so seamless, so sure in existence as the transitions among these forces of our world. And we do nothing to make this happen. This is how change can arrive for you.
How close we are to change, or how close it is to us, we can never tell. It can come without warning on silent wings – the way clouds cover and reveal the stars, the way moonlight touches a canyon. It can arrive like the sudden grace of a rainbow, or a calmness found in a heart believed doomed to lack it.
This morning I was laying on the beach in the canyon, staring at the red cliffs, watching the light show hints of rising above them. I was cold, and not sure how much longer I could sit there. I didn’t notice that the sun had already touched the ground behind me from an angle I hadn’t seen, and was gradually coming closer. Soon warm rays of daybreak would reach over my shoulders from behind.
About the Author
Shannon Thompson is a mental performance consultant who specializes in high performance sport. Shannon holds a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
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