Our love affair didn’t start out so affectionately. Love at first sight it was not. I think my comments were along the lines of “Wow…brown, dirty, ugly”. And really, I’d never thought of myself as prejudiced until then. But the red, raging love in my heart was enough to color my world and make me stay put.
I’ve called Arizona my home for almost ten years now, that “brown, dirty, ugly” place. And the relationship that began very rocky, the one I ignored for so long, has blossomed casually into a full blown love affair. Most of the time, at least. When it’s cool. And it rains. And I can see the pristine mountains through the brown cloud of choking smog. And there aren’t any accidents to clog the freeways. And the sun shines just right, but not too hot, through the cotton-ball clouds. And the saguaros and prickly pear burst with bold pink and gold flowers. And the pavement doesn’t burn your toes. And the wild bunnies pause a little longer and gaze a little deeper.
Of course, the red, raging love was for that of my then-boyfriend-turned-husband who I’d moved from Indiana to live with at 19. I would’ve traveled anywhere for him (still would), though I made my disdain for the desert adamantly clear throughout those first, ohhhh, seven years. I railed about the general bland, dirt color of the entire city (houses, plants, soil, rocks, mountains). I made flippant comments about the lack of unique and interesting architecture and neighborhoods and culture. I mocked the illegal status of fireworks. I bemoaned the absence of seasons and the everyday, predictability of the weather. I whined in the summer when there was insufficient shade, and paltry excuses for lakes, and “Sheesh, why does everyone stay inside during the summers? Oh yeah, ‘cause it’s hot as hell!” (“At least it’s a dry heat”). I gagged dramatically when the tap water left the grit of desert sand between my teeth. I pursed my lips, and raised my eyebrows audaciously, and stood my ground when I barked “And our new home WILL have grass and NO desert plants!” I thought I was giving the AZ sun a big f-you when I decided to defiantly lay out in it for a mere hour, by our apartment pool one November…until I burned my chest so terribly that I couldn’t wear a bra for weeks and garnered permanent sunspots as a result (NOW who gave the f-you?). I rather confidently and officially told my family there was no way we’d be living there long because “how could ANYone live there”? I was a hater before there were “haters”.
It’s just that the Midwest of my youth was so green, exploding with brilliant colors on every corner. The streets were only two-laned and even the cities were thick with the shade of trees and softened by masses of grass and dew-dropped flowers. The leaves changed colors in the fall, and with it came the biting gust of October’s excitement and the promise of winter (and snow days!). Houses were painted different colors, shaped different sizes, and most yards remained unfenced. People were friendly, a sense of community abounded, and the grocery store and pharmacy were within a two-minute drive of any resident. A trip to the “country” was a short fifteen minute jaunt and lining its winding roads were corn stalks, and old churches with peeling white paint and lopsided steeples, and children playing in acres of rolling yard. I could walk barefoot in the summer, even on the sidewalks, and didn’t have to reserve outdoor activities until sunset. There was history in the old state of Indiana and Missouri, generations of families still living on the same farm, in the same neighborhoods, rocking on their porches the same old chairs their grandparents rocked in.
I failed to see the shades of color behind the plants and trees and mountainscapes of Arizona. It wasn’t until many years later that I began to recognize the diversity here; in the people and in the landscape. When I realized that we could head four hours north to pine country and ski our butts off AND return to gorgeous “winter” weather the same day, something clicked. This state has so much to offer, from its low desert dunes and scrubby bushes to its middle desert plateaus and mesas, to the unexpected canyons and waterfalls that hide in almost every unexplored area, to the evergreens and snow-capped mountains of the high desert.
After some of my edges have softened for Arizona, I can appreciate the drama that the native plants exude as they proudly bloom, after months of drought and heat. In spring, I witness the wildflowers, the poppies, suddenly populate the sides of the highways and the mountainsides reminding me of the resilience in nature. I recall the variety of areas we’ve explored in our Jeep, some places so “verde” and lush that I had to really concentrate to know we were still in Arizona. I remember camping near Verde Hot Springs, among the trees, next to the river and the natural springs…accidentally invading on a hippy, rainbow gathering. Of course, I cannot forget my favorite hiking trip down the Canyon to the Havasupai Indian campground. This incredible village is home to number of majestic waterfalls, healing and crystal clear-blue. For five days, we swam and played and napped and ate vegetarian food to our hearts content. Peace and quiet, under a coal-black sky, while the stars danced. I sat on the edge of a canyon ledge, peered over into the vastness, and imagined it was a deep as my soul.
Now when I drive home from work, 10 miles out of the hustle and bustle of Phoenix, I appreciate the splendor of the grand desert. As the sun prepares to set against a sky so blue and purple you’d think it was a movie set, I adjust my eyes so I can experience the view for the “first time”. The magnitude and expanses of this land is powerful. I notice the wayArizona sunsets encase me, puncture me with their brilliance, burn in my chest. I love that they actually make me gasp. That’s how I know I’m alive. The native spirit is still alive in the rocky hillsides, in the pebbly dirt mixed with thorns and spikes from plants, in the sound of distant coyotes howling their stories. As my car pulls up the slight incline, the natural chunk carved out of the top of the mountain ahead (like an upside down arch) is a reminder of nature’s creative ability.
Oh, the mountains…On my drive, the mountain range is jagged and expansive. The tallest and most dignified in the range appear washed out grey from a distance, almost like a cardboard cutout. A few months ago, these mountains were covered in snow. When I used to visit my husband here, we’d cruise in our friend’s big, white Jeep with the top and doors off. I would rub the heated desert wind into my skin and stare at the distant mountains. They were so beautiful, so proud, and I wondered if Phoenicians even noticed them anymore. I vividly recall vowing if I ever lived here I would never stop noticing them. Sadly, I did. They fade into the background as does most environmental scenes I pass daily. Lately, I’ve been striving to notice them because they are a reminder of the important things in life that remain solid. Love. Family. Self. And, while these things can shift and morph over time, just as the wind and rain shape the mountains over time, the foundation lingers…hugging the Earth from which we were born.
The desert has been healing for me. This was unexpected. I think it’s the way the desert calms me, silences me, hushes my being. Here, the plants are still and rigid, barely moving. They grow and sprout and bloom and keep only the bare essentials. This is essential in order for them to conserve water and survive the drought and monsoon storms. They don’t quite dance like the grasses and ruffled-layered trees of the Midwest. And while I enjoy that dance, am swept up it its bliss and rhythm, the desert reserves it’s stillness for my heart. I’ve just recently been able to put a finger on this difference, on how the desert moves me to tranquility. It seems the nature here prefers to reveal itself in mysterious ways and enjoys being quiet with its words. I’ve had to really listen. And, the characteristics of this desert nature has mirrored my own growth and path…really listening.
Of course, home will always be “home”, my Midwest. It is where my spirit truly resides. In fact, it’s as if bits of my spirit root themselves in the ground every time I visit. When our plane lifts off, I can feel my spirit trying to pull me back, grabbing me desperately. Sometimes, I can’t even look at the broccoli-trees below because I fear my urge to stay would ground the plane in that very instant. And, I sense my spirit when I return again, when the plane touches down. I wait for it. It is reaching for me, welcoming me, rejoicing and singing all at once. It is what calls out to me like a Mother when I stand among the oaks and exhale with them. It is what washes over me while I lie in bed and listen to the incessant chirping of crickets and the whooo-whoooooo of a distant train whistle. And while the desert grounds me, the Midwest spirit twirls me like a little girl in her Daddy’s arms, carefree again, unchained, curious.
When I visited home last month, I trekked out to my friend’s newly purchased 7 acres in the country. She showed me around. All I could do was stand in awe, turn, stand some more, and pine for this sort of land. I know I looked like a little girl lost, but really it’s as if I’d returned. Glimpsing towards the dense forest, I could imagine woodland creatures and fairies and lots of lazy, late afternoons full of exploration and tree sitting. This is the gentle land where you can go to cry and shout and birth babies on the banks of gurgling creeks, or in a tree house among the fireflies.This is the land where children emerge from woods, dirt stuck to their hands and knees and elbows, at the beckoning dinner-call of their parents. This is the land that harbors the bones and spirits of my ancestors, my grandparents, deep in the soft cradle of the earth. If only I could weave myself a quilt of my home, complete with honeysuckle, dogwood blossoms, the leaves of the walnut and maple trees, and dotted with the smell of grateful grass after a storm…
These are both my “home”. Each one redefines the meaning of home and I belong to them both as I belong to the fullness of the moon on the stillest of nights. As David Whyte explains in his poem, “The House of Belonging”:
“This is the bright home in which I live
this is where I ask my friends to come
this is where I want to love all the things
it has taken me so long to learn to love”