Monday, September 30, 2013

Violence, Vanity, Wilderness

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.



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.

[Listen here.]

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.

At the register the woman named CAROL –one R, one L; a no-nonsense embodiment of Yankee thrift– remarks on the resplendent fern. "That's a good specimen," she says as she nests it carefully in the cardboard box between my new euphorbia and rhipsalis, and I feel stupid pride at having picked out a good one, and am in a great mood all the way home over my fern. When we get home I accidentally gouge myself as I arrange the new cacti on the windowsill. Where should we put the fern I'm about to ask P. but he's on the phone about Nairobi and I wipe the blood off my finger and go boil water for tea instead.

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. 


  1. Thank you, Lily, for these words, your pictures, the desert music. I often think that the wilderness that includes us (yes, this times 10,000) is the only place for us to make any sense of anything at all.

  2. Such beautiful, heartbreaking words.

  3. What you are doing matters. The economic opportunities you are giving many, while sharing a deeply rooted tradition, and your beautiful designs with the world is absolutely critical to making the world a better place. I have worked in international development for over 6 years, and I am all too familiar with that deep feeling of guilt. We just bought a fixer upper and I love the amount of creativity and thought that is going into everything. But when something as tragic as Nairobi happens, the pleasure in finding the perfect minimalist light fixture seems somewhat absurd. After many years, I have come to accept and welcome that feeling of guilt. I know it is what keeps me grounded, empathetic to those I am working with, and crazy determined (maybe too much so) to make this world a better place. Your scarves are what brought me to your blog, but your openness and honesty are what keep bringing me back.


    P.S. this MLK quote is one I often think about... "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

  4. I hope it's always appropriate to say I am so sorry for your loss.

  5. Very beautiful, well-written, and heart-felt. Your words read exactly the way daily actions and thoughts feel after matter how close or how removed.

  6. it is beyond me to understand how humans can always be so horrible to each other. (and yet, and yet...)

    i am so sorry for your + p's loss. the nonsensical nature of everything means that it happened because it happened, but recognition of the goodness others do (helping prevent diseases that wipe out huge swathes of people, for example) is what starts the brain up again; rekindles the fire to go, and do, and make, and live.

    thinking of you, and sending lots of psychic matches to start that heart-fire again. xo

  7. Nice collection of pictures. All are very good. I am very sorry for your loss. Everything will be fine. god bless you.

    Kopi Luwak

  8. Poignant. Sad. Beautiful. I've never been to the desert except via your blog. As for making art that matters, I struggle with that too. I like the quail hanging with the cacti.

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  10. Such beauty yet pain in those words.

  11. So often, I will start my day in the studio; all happy, content and satisfied. Art being what drives me, mostly. But then, when the night crawls in and I am leaving my tools, to answer emails, to browse the net, the feeling of doubt might sneak around the corner. Such a cruel world and I believe in canvasses and paint? Well... You are right, sometimes it gets tough, to make myself believe in meaning and to resist the craving for escape into a deserted place, all far away from them mess. In the end, maybe this mismatch (not sure this word really fits it) is what drives us. Maybe we need it to stay grounded. Maybe it is what makes us whole, when on the other side, it stings so bad. Not knowing, we probably just keep going. Even, when it seems almost impossible. I am so sorry for your loss.

  12. Beautfiul writing and so heartbreaking.

  13. That recording really made my day. I've actually been taking the desert for granted lately and dreaming about my hometown shoreline and palm trees.This morning though while out with the pups,I thought - just be happy and enjoy what you have and how you live NOW. TODAY. Because it doesn't suck. Oh and "uppity" was the perfect description of those cactus wrens. They really are ballsey birds aren't they? xoxoxo

  14. Hi Lily -- we emailed ever so long ago (I was thinking about working on the ranch you worked on, but ended up moving to Uganda instead). Now I am sitting at my wooden table in my Kampala flat with candles burning and listening to the Mojave Desert. Elif was a really good friend of mine and worked for the same organization that I do now. We spoke on Friday night; and she was killed the next day. It's been a heartbreaking week. It touched me to see tribute to her here, on a blog that I still love to visit now + again.

  15. Hi there,
    ...long time reader first time commenter...
    Don't under estimate the post-grad-school-let-down. Nairobi is so terribly real and, in retrospect, grad school is so unreal and it's very own little bubble world. What happens there is so important and intense but when you alight from the bubble and look ahead to an art making life it can make you feel a bit disoriented and doubtful-- especially when things happen in your world that are so raw and powerful--tragedy or joy. Stay centered, get your buns back to the desert and know that we need the beauty you bring.

  16. I am so terribly sorry for the loss of your friend and her partner. Thinking of yall and them.

  17. you are a magical fairy duchess of the desert AND of dessert. your work is transcendent. i am so proud to be your friend! <3

  18. your posts bring me such peace. i live in silver lake, but i am from the desert. in my youth, i hated it. truly. but i'm in my 40's now, and i see how it can be magical - not for me - but for others. the east coast seems so mystical and foreign to me, even though i have traveled the world a bit... the green - it's just so lush, so, not - california. thank you for your art, postings, and sharing your life. it's very generous...

  19. As beautiful an essay as ever Lily - so glad I found your corner of the internet a few years ago.

  20. Everything is connected. The vibrant sounds of the Mojave Desert and the unexplainable tragedy in Nairobi. The sweet baby that was never born and the rest of us who struggle to make sense of it all.


  21. Hi Lily,
    I just was looking at your paintings site, and I don't know if you recently updated or if that happened a while back, but they look sooooo jawdroppingly beautilful! Just wanted to tell you that - and sorry my comment isn't exactly responding to your post above...

  22. Joshua Tree is a place I "grew up," exploring and losing and gaining myself in it's wilderness. Lily and "P" my heart breaks for your friend, especially as a woman who was a Midwife and now works with mothers. I am speechless in my head about the execution of your friends, in my heart it cries and weaps for mother's everywhere and father's too. I know one thing, you'll make beauty in your healing. love and peace to all. XO


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