Recently I stayed at the Joshua Tree cabin of my friend Lisa Marr for a three-day, self-designed residency.
This was my “Mission Statement”:
I chose my dates to coincide with the Triduum, in the Catholic church the three days preceding Easter: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter vigil that takes place Saturday night when Christ, in the tomb for three days, is resurrected.
To that end, I plan to spend my time in Joshua Tree reveling in nature, taking hikes, playing the piano, taking photographs and notes, working on an essay about my desert experience, and contemplating my death.
Paolo Davanzo, founder of the community storefront and resource known as the Echo Park Film Center, is Lisa’s life and creative partner. She walked in one day during the Center’s infancy and neither of them have ever looked back. They give free documentary film-making classes to the elderly and kids (I met them several years ago when I took their Intro to Documentary Film-making class myself).
They travel around the world showing people how to make movies about their neighborhoods and families and friends. They’re always learning something new: how to teach people how to film with Super 8; how to process film using native materials like, say, cranberry juice from Alaskan bogs; how to convert an old bus into a Filmmobile they drive to spots in and around LA for screenings and impromptu parties.
As Paolo says, “We never know who will walk into the Center: a kid on a skateboard, an older guy wanting to convert home movies to digital, a CalArts film theorist, a homeless woman wanting to use the bathroom.”
The day of my arrival, I drive out to Joshua Tree and meet the two of them at the downtown Two Sisters Café. Like all people of integrity, they dislike talking about or drawing attention to themselves. When I offer Lisa a donation to the Center for my time at the cabin, she demurs, “No, NO! That’s part of the deal. We don’t want to take money for the residencies. We just want people to feel free to create.”
After breakfast, I follow them out to the 5-acre property, which Lisa bought 17 years ago with a friend. The cabin, set high on a hill overlooking a bowl-shaped valley, has neither running water nor electricity and the idea of opening the place up for artist’s residencies is new. Together, Lisa and Paolo help me haul up my stuff and give me the grand tour. You put your food in a Coleman cooler, heat water on a two-burner propane stove “do your biz,” as Lisa charmingly puts it, in a spackling compound bucket set beneath a toilet seat in the outhouse—then dump it in the compost bin.
As soon as they drive off in their beat-up Honda, I unpack and set out for a walk, to explore. Dirt paths lead in every direction and treasures abound. Rocks in a variety of shapes and colors, from boulders down to pebbles. Pieces of desert driftwood that resemble human hands, devil’s claws, the squished head of a Jack Russell terrier. Chips of old colored glass, worn smooth by wind and sand. Desiccated cactus skeletons, shot through like Swiss cheese with holes. Fallen-in-on-themselves Joshua trees, their foliage like the corpses of gray fright wigs.
Within an hour I’m reflecting that the desert is full of contradictions.
A place of death where 30 or 40 kinds of wildflowers are in bloom.
A place of silence punctuated by noise: helicopters from the nearby military base, drunken revelers in gigantic pickup trucks, gunshots.
A place that draws people from two very different ends of the spectrum. At one end are those who view the desert as a place to despoil. People who tear up the earth and disturb the animals with dirt bikes, or dump their garbage, or put fences and barbed wire and guard dogs around their property in order to fortify what is “theirs.”
Then there are the Lisa and Paolos. People who don’t lock their doors even though the cabin was burgled several years ago and the thieves made off with, among other things, the indoor-mounted solar power controller. Instead of purchasing another solar controller and a dead bolt, they stocked the cabin with candles. As Lisa says cheerfully, “Seventeen years and one break-in: that’s pretty good.”
Instead of bringing extraneous stuff in to make the desert their own, Lisa and Paolo have built on what is already there. Out of painstakingly collected rocks, they have fashioned a labyrinth, a bocce court, and the stone floor of what they hope to eventually make into an open-air “Dream House,” for looking at the sky and dreaming.
A few years ago they invited some friends to help construct a pottery shed. Here they make bocce balls, wind chimes, little bowls to hold candles, cups in which to put wildflowers. On his hikes, Paolo leaves small bits of these colorful creations tucked among the rocks.
Now that I’ve started to get my bearings, I return to the cabin and explore inside, too. A green over-the-shoulder bag bearing an old-school paper tag with a Russian doll printed on one side and on the other the hand-printed message: “Good for collecting rocks.” Oil, vinegar, salt, honey, tea. Extra cans of soup and sardines. Sunscreen, Band-Aids. Extra sleeping bags, bedding and quilts.
A game of Yahtzee, decks of cards, a tambourine. The out-of-tune piano Lisa had promised.
A woodstove, kindling, and a bookshelf that include Sibley’s Bird Guide, Home Repair, Marvels of Insect Life by Edward Step, and a volume that especially catches my eye: Growing Up at the Desert Queen Ranch by Willis Keys and Art Kidwell.
The chapter “Johnny Lang’s Ranch Visit” features a photo, circa 1923, of a man who looks exactly like Jack Sprat in the Illustrated Treasury of Children’s Literature I’ve carried around since I was a kid.
“On a cold day in January,” the story runs, “the old miner in need of supplies tacked a sign to his cabin door that he was heading out and was expected to return ‘soon.’ Two months later his mummified remains were discovered amongst the desert brush by Bill Keys, Frank Kiler, and Jeff Peeden as they were constructing the Keys View Road in what is now Joshua Tree National Park. The body of Johnny Lang was still covered with a piece of canvas, while nearby the remains of a small piece of bacon wrapped in paper, and the ashes of a last campfire were silent witnesses to what happened that night. Lang’s advanced age [he was 72], his state of malnutrition, and a cold winter’s night combined to make this camping spot his final one.”
That night the wind howls. Pieces of stray plywood rattle. Doors thump.
After my second day of eating sardines, canned soup and mandarin oranges, I begin to feel for Johnny. The thought of that “small piece of bacon” makes my mouth water.
There are three elements in the desert. Fire. Water. Cell reception.
The rising of the sun, the tiny fire flaring from a candle wick, the blue flame of the two-burner propane stove, all elicit indescribable joy.
Every drop of water needs to be trucked in, hauled up the hill and rationed. How grateful I am for enough of this precious, life-giving substance to fill the kettle and make a cup of instant coffee with sweetened condensed milk!
“No Service” reads my phone but I quickly discover that by following the base of the low-lying hills to the northeast, within five minutes I emerge into the clear and suddenly have three bars of reception.
Here, I also discover a stone “chair,” a little sheltered ledge set into a stand of people-height rocks.
|LIZARD ON ROCK|
|THE STONE CHAIR|
The morning of Holy Thursday I go out to the stone chair and have a phone interview with a radio show out of Texas.
That night I drive the dirt road back to the paved roads, Route 62 and, in the adjacent town of Yucca Valley, the 7 o’clock service at St. Mary of the Valley. Holy Thursday is the night before Christ died, the night of the Last Supper when he dips his morsel and points it at Judas. The night that Christ, knowing he’s be betrayed, girds his loins, kneels, and washes the feet of his disciples.
To the outsider, why bother? A suburban church, unprepossessing in every way. A harried priest. Ten parishioners who take the altar, sit in folding chairs, and have their pre-scrubbed feet “washed.” But to those who love Christ, this is the re-enactment of a gripping drama. A God who consented to become man reviled and scorned, as all people of integrity eventually are on this earth. A God of love who failed in every worldly sense, as all people of love do.
Driving the unlit desert roads back to the cabin around 10, I reflect that it would have been “easier” to stay home and observe Holy Week from the comfort of my apartment, near to my local parish. In two months, I’ll be 65. I’m in good shape, and take no medications, but my body aches. Scrabbling among the boulders, I’m not quite as sure of my footing as I used to be. At night, out here all alone, I’m a little afraid.
But in Wood of the Cradle, Wood of the Cross, Caryll Houselander, lover of traumatized children and one of my most treasured spiritual companions, observes:
“It is the favorite accusation of those who, for reasons of their own, are made uneasy at the sight of someone else’s honest attempt to practice the Faith, that to save one’s own soul is a selfish, egocentric preoccupation which makes one introverted, censorious, and withdrawn from other people.
In reality the opposite is true. As Christ grows in the soul, suffering and the capacity for suffering increase in the life, and with it the desire to suffer grows. This is not because of any morbidity, such as masochism, but because where Christ increases, love increases”…
So more and more I see the value of consenting to some tiny bit of discomfort, of stretching physically and spiritually. You can’t plan for what might or might not happen. You have to let go and offer yourself up, knowing that while you’re stretching you don’t “feel” anything is happening except that you’re suffering, possibly needlessly and not all that graciously or patiently.
I need to participate with people like Lisa and Paolo, simply because of who they are: smart, kind, funny, generous of spirit, excited about life. There’s another reason. The single, celibate life, though not one I would have freely chosen, suits me perfectly. It’s been given to me as a gift and a mystery and a cross.
But two people together can create something that neither one could have created alone. That is the glory of marriage or any in-for-the-long-haul committed partnership. That glory spills over to all who come in contact with it. I find I like to spend a certain amount of time around people who are happily, fruitfully paired. I need that strength to sustain me.
My own life bears some of the same fruit a marriage would, and some different fruit. I hear through my writing from a variety of people. Because I’m available in a way a person with a partner and/or children perhaps couldn’t be, I’m able to respond, and make a conscious effort to respond, in a way that requires time, strength and heart.
I hear from many such people out here in the desert. A nurse from Montana who can’t stop drinking. A religious education teacher whose husband is addicted to porn. A woman from Wales who’s contemplating becoming a contemplative hermit. A retired priest whose ministry is visiting priests who have been convicted of sexual abuse in prison Another woman who’s been diagnosed with cancer and wonders if I could share some experience, strength and hope with respect to my own bout with cancer—and could I pray for her?
I can’t use my laptop but out on the stone chair with my phone, I answer my emails. This tiny discipline is part of what I call my policy of love. You get some exercise every day. You learn something useful. You do something kind that you won’t be recognized for. You notice and give thanks for what is beautiful. You practice a bit of piano.
Good Friday is a day of fasting.
I come out to the stone chair again that morning to pray the Stations of the Cross: the chart of Jesus’s long, tortured walk to Mt. Calvary. Christ Is Condemned to Death. Christ Meets his Mother. Veronica Wipes Christ’s Face With Her Veil. Christ Speaks to the Women. Christ Falls a Third Time.
On one level, really the only important level, I’m beyond thrilled and grateful simply to be alive. Deep down, I reside in a kind of perpetually stunned happiness
But on an incarnate level, I’m hungry and dirty.
I feel hollowed out, empty, devoid of ideas.
I do know this: to bring my body and blood to a place where the bodies of other people I admire and respect and love have been. If there’s one thing I believe in it’s the mystical order. That our little acts of kindness help. That our meager attempts at peace-making help. That our going the extra mile for and with each other register. That our songs and stories and films and pottery cups and dream houses literally hold the world together.
Tradition has it that Christ Was Nailed to the Cross around 9 in the morning. He didn’t breathe his last till 3.
I raise my face to the sun. And with Lisa and Paolo’s tattered prayer flags flying in the wind on the surrounding hills, I contemplate my death.
A clip from Haydn’s Piano Sonata No. 40.
I am not kidding, Take 75.