March 28, 2020

Report from the desert (1)


I’ve been here in the desert for a couple of days now. The temperature only strays below 100 degrees after the sun goes down, and soon makes its way back up there by around noon the next day. I don’t seem to be bothered much by it; in fact, I rather enjoy it, though I’ve not stayed outside for any considerable length of time.

It has been a time of mundane, daily life with family. We’ve shared meals together and sat around and caught up on what’s been happening in our lives. I’ve been a designated driver, taking my relative to the treatment center for chemotherapy, another to the eye doctor, running errands. I’ve had a few brief outings of my own during appointments and downtime when people needed rest.

Mostly, it feels a lot like what I do every day. My relative with cancer has been doing a tremendous amount of life review, and I’ve been a primary listener. I ask a lot of questions, provide supportive attention, and let him know I care. As is true with most of my daily work, I didn’t come to the desert with an agenda other than to be here and to be available.

Earlier today, he indicated that he wanted to do a few things and run some errands by himself, without my assistance. Fine by me. I didn’t come to take over or insist on being his caretaker. Later on, a few of the other family members gathered around the table after supper and talked. I didn’t feel a need to be there; in fact, I thought it probably would be better if I didn’t insert myself into the conversation at that time. They needed time to share stories with each other, to listen and laugh and reflect on their own experiences without my presence or participation.

I’m thankful for what I’ve learned over these past ten years working in hospice. I don’t have to be the center of attention. I don’t have to contribute something tangible or identifiable every moment. I can let go of thinking I can fix things or even that that is my job. I can listen without feeling I have to pass immediate judgment or give my opinion.

And yet at the same time, it feels like something is happening. Real communication is taking place. Love and concern and appreciation is being shared. Whatever “help” is, it seems to me that we are all experiencing being helped and feeling like we’re helping.

I know very little about desert ecosystems. Somehow, in the midst of all this heat and dryness, plants grow and flourish, animals find hydration and nourishment, and human beings come up with ways to make homes in the wilderness.

There is so much more to the story than the barren, unpromising surface. The quiet, relentless power of life advances, occasionally blossoms, and always wins out in the end.


  1. I lived in Tucson, just south of Phoenix, during a very hard time in my life, and the severity of the desert was actually a balm to my spirit because it was so spare, harsh and unforgiving. In the absence of lush greenery and abundant water, it allows one to strip down expectations and look at life in a more elemental manner. So much life actually thrives in that environment, but you have to train yourself to see it in the heat and dust. The same goes for the human spirit. In a desert, bare life becomes much more focused and pointed. The artifices are removed, the essentials are made clearer.

    I often think back on that time as a crossroads in my life, hopefully, a path chosen wisely. May your relatives do the same, and I hope you will have a role in it.

    May God bless you…

    • Oscar, I think I know what you mean. While in Arizona I visited a friend from Maine who had grown up around the coast and islands here. He was living in Kayenta and working as a nurse on the Navajo reservation. Although the desert ecosystem is very different from the Atlantic Ocean, he said he didn’t feel homesick. “The desert replaces the ocean,” he told me. I could see and feel that.

    • I don’t think it’s a coincidence that our God is a god of the desert:

      “Sing to God, sing praises to his name;
      lift up a song to him who rides through the deserts;
      his name is the Lord;
      exult before him!”

      Just as you said Oscar, “The artifices are removed, the essentials are made clearer”. Water is essential to all but it is made more clear how precious it is while in the desert. So it is with Jesus; we need Him at all times but it seems to be only when all the artifices are removed that it becomes clear how essential He is to our faith.

    • I was born in Tucson, and the folks finally moved back there. I spend my winter break there every year, after Christmas services are over. I love the area, and I’d live there in a second if there was work available. I was born a desert rat, I’ll die a desert rat, and no amount of time spent living in tundra can ever change that about you. I’ll take 120 degrees in the shade any day over being snowbound.

  2. Christiane says

    going out to the desert . . . long known to be a place for solitary contemplative renewal

    “”In the fourth century a.d. the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia and Persia were peopled by a race of men….
    They sought a way to God that was uncharted and freely chosen,
    not inherited from others who had mapped it out beforehand.
    They sought a God whom they alone could find,
    not one who was ‘given’ in a set stereotyped form by somebody else.”

    (Thomas Merton ,
    The Wisdom of the Desert)

  3. Gary Hammons says

    This is very true and very moving. I know what you mean by the urge to be the center of attention, the “minister”, or “pastor” or “man of God” or whatever,to be who is supposed to have “the answers”. This is a burden but a self imposed one. Such a blessing to be free from such a weight and to allow God’s grace to work his quiet power. My prayers are with you and your family.

  4. Robert F says

    Buddhism considers this ability to let go of the sense that one is, and the driving need to be, the center of everything an important advance on the road of wisdom. To realize, and even gratefully accept, that one is “nothing special”, that what one has to contribute by word or deed to any situation is “nothing special”, and that one’s opinions and knowledge are “nothing special”, is considered a liberation that frees one up to do the only work there really is: being present, to the world and other people as they are, and to oneself.

    • flatrocker says

      So how do we square the concept of being “nothing special” with psalm 139’s proclamation “I am fearfully and wonderfully made”? Is there something about Christianity that elevates us beyond “nothing special”? And if so, does our reaction to this realization hold the key to what liberation is truly about?

      Something Damaris said in a comment the other day seems to resonate here. Our humility is our protection.

      • Robert F says

        No doubt Buddhism and Christianity disagree on this subject and many others. Not only does Buddhism believe in the nothing-specialness of any particular person, it also believes that there is no self!

        I do, however, believe that it is useful as a Christian to realize that I’m not at the center of things, that I’m no more special than any other person, and that realizing this is a part of being wise.

        • I don’t think they actually disagree. They are just different. When EVERYONE is fearfully and worderfully made, NO ONE is special. And yet we are all special to our creator. We can take delight in the first, and remain humble because of the second. We can have both.

          • turnsalso says

            That sounds rather like Luke 11:28, where Christ corrects a woman’s nepotistic shout of praise by saying that one is blessed by God because of faith in him, not in anything particular about them.

          • Robert F says

            Where Buddhism and Christianity disagree is on the actual existence of the self, which is paralleled appropriately enough by their disagreement on the actual existence of God. Where God is not real, neither can any self be real; rather, the self then is merely an epiphenomena (materialism), or temporary illusion (Buddhism, and other like religious philosophies).

      • Christiane says

        “So how do we square the concept of being “nothing special” with psalm 139’s proclamation “I am fearfully and wonderfully made”?”

        Hi FLATROCKER,
        Damaris got it right about ‘humility’.

        As to your question, there is this to think about from the Jewish tradition:

        “According to Rabbi Bunim, everyone should have two pockets, each containing a slip of paper.
        On one should be written: ‘I am but dust and ashes’, and on the other: ‘The world was created for me’.
        From time to time we must reach into one pocket, or the other.
        The secret of living comes from knowing when to reach into each.

        The first phrase is spoken by Abraham when he realizes that he’s bargaining with God over S’dom (????) and `Amora (?????) – Sodom and Gomorrah: “I am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27)

        The second phrase is from the Talmud, illustrating that we are all unique individuals, though we are formed from the same earth.”

        As to when to be humble and when to understand our dignity as human persons, C.S. Lewis put it this way in his Narnia chronicles, where Aslan addresses the children:
        “You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve,” said Aslan. “And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content.”

        Pope Francis once said ‘who am I to judge’? He was speaking in the great traditions of the Talmud and of the sacred Scriptures . . .

        ‘who are we’? is one of the great questions of mankind
        . . . who are we in reference to God
        and who are we in reference to humanity as a whole? . . .
        we find our answer in the Incarnated Lord Who assumes into Himself our wounded human race, and Who alone has the power to heal it and raise it to eternal life.

  5. Adrienne says

    “I’m thankful for what I’ve learned over these past ten years working in hospice. I don’t have to be the center of attention. I don’t have to contribute something tangible or identifiable every moment. I can let go of thinking I can fix things or even that that is my job. I can listen without feeling I have to pass immediate judgment or give my opinion.”

    Oh how I have needed to learn this lesson. Not only am I “wired” to be this way being the first born child but evangelical Christianity teaches us to be this way. If someone has a problem, life issue, whatever we are DUTY BOUND TO FIX IT! After all we have all the answers and this is our responsibility. At the very least fling a Scripture verse at them. To just listen and not give counsel is the mortal sin of evangelical Christianity.

    God have mercy on me and thank you for breaking me and remolding me. You are ever and always the Redeemer.

  6. Robert F says

    “The quiet, relentless power of life advances, occasionally blossoms, and always wins out in the end.”

    I think this is true. Life prevails over the seeming barrenness and hostility of many, many environments. But death follows life wherever life prevails over such places, itself flourishes wherever life does, and then prevails over life when each life meets its own end. I look to Jesus Christ for the reversal of the way of nature, for the life that prevails over death, and in which death itself is starved.

    • Robert, what you express so well is pretty much the theme of a book of essays that I have coming out in September — another Jeff Dunn project. It’s called The Between Time as an acknowledgement of the strange world we live in between paradise and redemption.

  7. CM, while you’re out west you should check out 21st amendment’s hell or highwatermelon. It’s my go-to in the summer, although it’s harder to get on the east coast.