You can come to the desert, you can live here, but you cannot stay here. We knew this when we arrived in Joshua Tree, yet I doubt we knew why.
Yesterday, Aleksandra found a beautiful skull of a baby coyote, fully intact and blanched, cleaned, and preserved by the desert sun. She is right to say that the desert is suspended between life and death and, with it, so is everything else.
The stillness of the desert is like no other. One can truly think, can be, without the pangs and perturbations of the appetites. The spirit is not hungry ever or wracked by thirst but is quenched–or if not quenched, this is because the spirit is dried out. This is the kind of stillness I am speaking of where there is neither motion nor rest but nature, life held and held in place. Abeyance is eternity of a kind. This stillness, I mean. Therefore, the desert is the embodiment of ascesis, the careful stripping away, steadfast laying bare, the making pristine of the spirit. The spirit learns stillness, and this becomes its wholesome beauty, its safe keeping.
This, in any case, is what the desert can teach the one who listens and is open. But yet it attracts too often, too steadily, and nearly always those who, as Aleksandra says, are ‘seeking while hiding.’ They seek they know not what without knowing how, and this seeking lacks the verve, the moral courage because they hide out from each other and from themselves. Well, so bourgeois life was that with which they were discontented. Well and their discontent only takes odder shapes and so gradually, stretching and curving itself like the Joshua trees themselves or like cacti half-dying, half-not. Because they do not really look at themselves, these undeniably nervous people, these trepidatious sojourners. You see them blow in and blow out of town. You see them others stay and wonder about the desiccation, the reason for it all. What in them is drying up, what that they continue not to look at?
When we lived in rural Appalachia, there was a settled meanness and shabbiness about the place but also an honest, unabashed hardiness about the people. A man who lives there has learned to see after himself and his own. What he lacks in neighborliness he makes up for in resourcefulness. There is in the Appalachian character a fearsome resourcefulness that is worthy of admiration and no one–how could he?–hiding out.
In Joshua Tree, one is among fellow seekers and thus is intrigued by this social fact, yet after a while senses, alas, that this may represent the final stop for many, that there may be no other place for some to go, that a good number have simply given up on living without admitting as much to themselves. Therefore, the ferocity in their hearts is gone–they will not bite you, not being ornery like the Appalachian dog–to be replaced by the taciturn, this timid and quietly sorrowful way of turning away from conviviality and fellowship, understanding and love. Until it is also gone.
Our desert lessons? To quiet the appetites. To live meditatively. To be as sensitively, sharply responsive to what is as we possibly can. Our lessons beyond the desert? To rejoice in human life shuddered within our expanding chests. To dance with the vital essence as we take each other in blessedness. To read Whitman again. To feel living sensations passing through our fingers and across our skin, vibrating again our very human desire to live with élan and with the greatest sense of humor and to shelter nothing.
Therefore, we climb down from the mountains and enter the valley again where life swells uncontrollably. It is time.