My friend Ginger sent me a recording of the Mojave Desert at dawn, and I've been listening to it when I can't listen to NPR anymore, and sometimes instead of NPR altogether. I shut the doors and windows to block out the traffic of Mass Ave and crank up the volume on the stereo and close my eyes.
A friend of a friend was executed in the Westgate Mall in the Nairobi shootings. She was a malaria and HIV/AIDS specialist. Her partner was an architect designing a new HIV treatment center in Uganda. She was two weeks away from having their baby. They were in Nairobi to have the baby. They were in the mall to have lunch.
HOW DO YOU PROCESS THIS INFORMATION, these facts.
I am waiting in line in the coffee shop reading the New York Times this morning. I am looking for updates on Nairobi, which is no longer front page news. It is absurd: the violence, my cortado. How does one balance the weight of the world with the frivolities of one's little day? Where does painting figure into all this and how could it possibly matter? (It matters.) P. and I discuss this at length, and when we are too tired about it all I turn on the recording of the desert.
The comfort of old friends in the wilderness: howling coyotes, a pair of great horned owls, uppity cactus wrens, a covey of Gambel's quail, a despotic hummingbird buzzing the microphone at 2:20. I talk and write about how the physical landscape of Joshua Tree fundamentally shifted my perception of light and space, but now I realize I've been narrow in my argument; the aural landscape is just as profound. (I feel guilty for finding comfort in this, guilty in general.)
A last-minute Sunday evening swim at Walden Pond with P. and Hopie. The water is cold and clear, and I think of my favorite Hopkins poem when a school of dappled sunfish crowd my legs, then disperse in a flash of silver. We stop by Thoreau's cabin on the way to the parking lot, shivering and giddy, and notice the first maples are starting to turn.
On the way home we detour to an excellent nursery my mother-in-law's been telling me about. It's closing time and I pick up a blue star fern because it reminds me of Maureen's recent paintings.
I fall asleep with the Mojave recording on repeat. P. gently loosens my iPhone from my clutch when he comes to bed, puts it on the bedside table, pulls the covers up around us. The next morning I do some online digging around to verify Hopie's claim about Thoreau's mom doing his laundry (the Internet says: affirmative). And then I come upon this, from Thoreau's journal from August 30th, 1856:
“It is in vain to dream of a wilderness distant from ourselves.”
I think that's why Joshua Tree is such a transformative place for so many people: it is a wilderness that includes ourselves.
In the meantime I am slowly, excruciatingly, trying to set up my studio in Cambridge and make decent paintings, believe in them, remind myself they matter somehow. I call my mom to wish her a happy birthday. We talk about Nairobi, we talk about how territorial hummingbirds are, we talk about her bumper crop of dahlias that I planted when I was working on my thesis last spring. I make a big round gesture with my arm the way my great aunt did when she was trying to make a point about a lot of things at once and couldn't quite find the words.
iPhone pictures from a Labor Day Weekend trip to visit our old home and friends in Joshua Tree, California.