Tag Archives: desert

Wanderer of the Desert _ When Two Worlds Meet: Part 1

It is the spring of my fifth year at Stanford, and I am engaged in the highly stressful endeavor of applying for, and then receiving acceptances from graduate programs in philosophy. It is a time that now I am thoroughly relieved is in the past. The culture of the aspiring undergraduates in our program is, retrospectively, much more like a fundamentalist religious cult (with the strange difference being enforced critical thinking) than a typical academic department. The six students applying for graduate school this year, of which I am one, have formed a tight knit if competitive cohort, fervently engaged in an almost obsessive solidarity that I find familiar enough to not question (and I still don’t want to know why.)

My peers and I routinely discuss things such as how the search for truth is the most superior calling and that we would die for our ideas. We unfortunately mean this literally. (I am glad my past self was not tested on this.) We hold that the absolute worst thing that can happen to an undergrad is to not get into grad school. We frequently proclaim our slogan “Don’t get left behind!” While outwardly we pretend to be rational autonomous agents who are not at all conforming to a bizarre conception of the world, inwardly we grapple with our fears and insecurities that we will never be enough. Admittedly, I now tend to cringe at how ridiculous we were and can’t quite figure out what came over us. But this is particularly true concerning one of my fellow cohort members who proudly confided to me that she routinely quoted Plato during sex. This, I tell her in the moment, is taking things too far, even for me, and I ask her to just keep that to herself from now on. Please?

As it happens, I am one of the five out of six fortunates who do not “get left behind.” I get into two graduate programs. My fate is secure. However, the letter offering me a place at the University of Anonymous Desert, comes only two days before I must send in my acceptance. Two hours later I’ve booked a flight for seven AM the next morning to visit the school. Despite my culture shock (which I discount as I have experienced culture shock at every grad school I’ve visited,) I decide after my whirlwind encounter that the people at the school are nice. Speaking of the wind, I also notice that I can literally hear voices on the wind that tell me which direction its blowing, and this fascinating phenomenon helps persuade me to return and investigate further. After much anxiety and tears and irritating my parents, I commit to attend the school in the desert in the fall.

Around this time, my parents sell our family home, the one I’ve grown up in since I was three years old. Then, weeks before I move to an unfamiliar state to begin my program and live self-sufficiently for the first time, my parents separate. The death of their marriage has been a slow and painful one. Though part of me recognizes their separation is probably the best thing to ever happen to our family—they brought out the worst in each other—I am also broken-hearted and devastated. Part of me wonders whether, had I never been shaken as an infant, the marriage would still be intact, though I know this is as far from the truth as the assertion in a scene of Monty Python, “The Holy Grail,” that small rocks float.

It only takes a month or two in my graduate program before I realize, my family situation notwithstanding, that I have made a terrible mistake. I can’t stand feeling like a number rather than a person. I can’t stand the three digit temperatures. I can’t stand mustering up the courage to speak up in class just to have my ideas unceremoniously dismissed without even the courtesy of an argument, and in front of my colleagues besides. I am displaced, not just from my childhood home, the security of a two-parent household, and the only state I’ve ever lived in: I also, slowly, begin to become estranged to myself. I do not recognize this woman struggling to be seen and heard, who is not respected for her ideas, who is barely surviving without sight or assistance in a literally hostile environment.

Still, I do not think of leaving, regardless of how much it is, and it really is, killing my sense of self-worth and breaking my spirit, delighting in making me small, molding me into a “presentable vegetable” courtesy of the Logical Song.

First, there is the fact of my commitment and that leaving would be to break it, and that, I am convinced, would be giving up in a shamefully dishonorable way. But secondly, where would I go? My time in the nest is over.

My dad now lives in a small apartment and is dating a woman whom he eventually marries. My mom has moved to a funky rental and is struggling to get back into the workforce after twenty-seven years as a homemaker. I will be more secure in the grad program than trying to make it in the real world where my address is from nowhere. I stay.

As one year drearily trudges numbly into the next, my grip on the core part of myself, who I am, what I stand for, what I believe in, why I am here, slowly sinks beneath the red sands, like the horse from Never Ending Story who drowned in the swamp of sadness as he was pursued by The Nothing. The Nothing is so quiet, that I never notice its gradual erosion of who I once was until no trace of it remains. Then, one morning, I awake to a day like all the rest: except I don’t know who I am. Having no energy or will to grieve such a loss, I stumble on with little sense of purpose or meaning, and even now, much of that time is lost to disassociation, out of the reach of memory.

November of 2007 sees the final drawing up of my parents’ divorce papers. Meanwhile, the landscape around me at the school mirrors the raw and barren, thorny, and parched landscape of my heart. Up until now, I’ve spent my whole life living in the Bay Area, California. I’m used to and love the golden hills, the green lawns and chattering trees, and most of all, the ocean. But here, here the desert sands ooze red like blood, canyons gape open like mouths fiercely begging for a rain to quench an eon of thirst; here the wind gathers itself and rumbles across the earth like a living animal. Here people promise themselves in strange awkward moments that a scientist somewhere must be hard at work at this very moment, creating a pesticide that will get rid of the vast infestation of dust that takes over their houses, floats in films onto their dishware, scurries into their clothing, sifts through their hair, settles into their ears and mouths, suffocates their souls. For like the parched clay within my heart, dried out and hardened from the intense heat of anger, frozen by my fears, stilled by the silence I keep in order to survive where I do not belong, the landscape surrounding me is hostile and defensive and sometimes literally locks its tenderness away, displaying nothing but spikes on the outside.

The philosophy department in this earth-cracked, hungry place is full of bigoted and sexist graduate students and prejudiced professors. One graduate student tells me after an argument in which I announce that if the department is going to give me ninety students to teach, it is my responsibility to give each of them an equal opportunity to learn, even if my research falls behind for this reason: “It would behoove you to adopt our values, or leave.” There is the professor not on my committee who expresses surprise that I have passed my comprehensive exams. There is the professor who insists that I have made a pact with most of her colleagues to grade me leniently due to my blindness, a statement I still have in writing. In fact, my miserable situation even seeps into my dreams: I dream that, at a department meeting, all my colleagues turn into eighth graders. True enough, my experience is very much reminiscent of middle school.

This desert, which I have now endured for two long years, leaves my bones dry and brittle, leaves my soul thread-bear and gulping for water, raw and cold like a piece of forgotten old stone. Inside or out, I am nowhere. I have no home, and for this reason, through the years in the desert, I wander like a nomad, like one of a lost people yearning for a promised land without the benefit of believing that a god will grant such a place to me.

For during this time I also shed the last vestiges of Christianity and throw myself whole-heartedly into following the earth-centered path I have always followed, whose name I have only now learned. I am ecstatic to realize that there are others like me in the here and now, and I can claim the ancient ways of my own ancestors. Somehow amidst the despair, I honor mother earth, hold sacred the land, sea, and sky, and speak to the old ones. This revelation somewhat complicates my graduate experience however as it also means living in the broom closet. According to my department members, the only sane position on spirituality is atheism and anyone deviating from this world view is stupid, irrational, and not worth anyone’s time. There is no attempt to tolerate others’ differences, and even the Christian in the program finds himself at the center of ridicule and insult. So I live a double life, unable to be honest with my colleagues, in constant fear of discovery.

At the end of spring 2011, and nearing the end of my coursework, the smoldering remains of the silent cry within myself keens so loudly for freedom that I can no longer ignore the necessity of leaving. I am so tired of wandering. I have wandered this desert for six years. I take a six month lease apartment in the fall to make sure I don’t change my mind. I’m too far along to leave the school, but I can make an exodus, like Moses out of the American Sahara back to my home in the Bay Area, where I can write my dissertation on virtue and interdependence. I will return to the rolling brown hills, green trees and winding trails, and water. Dear, inviting, vital ocean whose rhythm is my heartbeat.

Not even a new relationship, the first one in as many years as I’ve been a graduate student, can detour me from home. With tears in my eyes I leave for a long distance arrangement and for an apartment in Berkeley, surrounded by family and friends, soft mist, the silent bay, and people who won’t figuratively cut off my head if they learn I am a druid. (As a philosopher I very much value my head, thanks.)

Finally I start to grow and heal. Finally I can dissolve into a sacred space of becoming, from which I might emerge changed, but enough, re-membered into cohesion, renewed. Perhaps I will even once again be able to hear the voices on the wind and look into the world beyond the world, which now is lost to me. Perhaps, I can spin a cocoon around my broken pieces so that the withered fragments I have become can mend me, weaving themselves into new wings with which to fly.

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To Ayla of The Earth Children, 2003

In that dream I had, you ran to me, your five-year-old body parting crowds. I knew your name and forgotten language before you ever said a word. Then you leapt into my arms and spoke mine. That night, we wove ourselves through eons and what we can make believe, face to face with her other’s beginnings.

In different ways, for different reasons, we once took another chance to live. Mine began with a coma, a terrible dot that tore life into two unfinished clauses– before and after the closing of eyes. And for us both, it ended with a scream– the kind uttered at first recognition of difference, still afraid to lose what we had no time to love.

At twelve, when I first heard your story, my blood still stung in the places where so many tried to cut me off from myself. It was you who challenged me to start bleeding watercolors, spill tears without silence, as if, just by painting the desert in swirls of blue, I could stumble into the mist of belonging.

Then, there were the twelve years since. The acorn follows the oak tree, (the meaning of your name,) the child mother to her, woman, the earthy light of old caves. Was it you, or me, who brushed my voice across these shattered sands, slowly removing the brambles–so many obstacles to overturn, so many who deserted me? Was it me, or you, who learned to love the pathfinders (the wolf as their symbol?) I have adopted their language; they have become my second family.

It does not matter which of us came first. That night when you perched on my horizon like a firefly, I whispered to you all I knew to make the world more beautiful. Perhaps it was you, or me, who dreamily pressed a face to the window as we drove home,
Glass reflecting back our smallness, a cool mirror and warm skin.

I still remember waking: how the sun poked its face through the blinds and how the dream felt, ebbing back into the marrow of my bones. I wanted to speak soundlessly, moving my hands, my whole body, through those ancient signs you danced as a child. I would say this to thank you. I would say:

“This woman wakes. This woman has found her others. She has sifted through the grains of sand, and has counted you in every one.”

When Two Worlds Meet: part 1

There was once a young woman named Aoife (pronounced Ee-Fa.)  It is said that her name means radiant beauty and long ago many with her name were strong heroines.  Aoife however did not know this.  She also did not know, or in fact she positively denied that, she was beautiful or strong. 

In 2006, Aoife was accepted into a graduate school in her field.  Although the school was prestigious, it was not a place for her to prosper.  Right before attending the school, both her parents died.  Her younger sister was attending college and her younger brother was out trying to find work in an ever tighter economy.  And so, even while dealing with their own tremendous grief, the three siblings decided the best thing to do was to sell the house and use the money to further their individual futures, whatever they may be.  Though Aoife thought about deferring her graduate program a year to cope with the loss of her mother and father, she also knew there was no home for her to return to.  She would have no place to land while processing her loss and not be faced with the harsh reality of making ends meet.  She would be more secure in the grad program than trying to make it in the “real world” and so she went ahead and attended that fall, feeling more empty and displaced than she ever thought possible.

To her dismay, Aoife found that the landscape of her new surroundings at the school mirrored the raw and barren, thorny, and parched landscape of her heart.  She grew up among cliffs and ocean, and everything she knew and loved was green.  But here, here the sands oozed red like blood, canyons gaped open like mouths fiercely begging for a rain to quench an eon of thirst; here the wind gathered itself and rumbled across the earth like a living animal.  Here,  people promised themselves in strange awkward moments that a scientist somewhere was at that very instant creating a pesticide that would get rid of the vast infestation of dust that took over their houses, floated in films onto their dishware, scurried into their clothing, sifted into their ears and mouths, settled into their souls.  For like the parched clay within Aoife’s heart dried out and hardened from the intense heat of her anger at being alone, and the tumble weeds she allowed to grow over that calm quiet pool where she used to belong to herself, the outer landscape around her was a vast inhospitable desert.  There was no place inside or out to which Aoife belonged.  She was, in the most immediate and eternal sense, a girl from nowhere.  She had no home, and for this reason, through the years at that school, she wandered like a nomad, like one of a lost people yearning for a promised land without the benefit of believing that a god would grant such a place to her.  And as things go, no god would grant her such a place after all.  Still, also as things go, she did not remain deserted in a desert forever for it is always possible to remember that you’ve never ceased belonging to yourself.

This she was able to do, but only after she put down the sickle of anger she used to cut all the new shoots of possibility growing inside her before they ever had a chance to blossom.  She did not find her way out of that desert back to the ocean and the water and the green trees before she unstopped the dam she placed cutting the water off from it’s path, and let a reservoir of tears fall onto the thirsting earth of her bones like the river it once was and needed to be.  It was only then that she came home to herself.

For six years, Aoife wandered the desert, and it was at the end of the sixth year, just before the dawning of year seven, just before her time as a selkie out of water ran out completely, that she moved back to be near her siblings near the ocean and among the trees.  It was there that she grew, and it was there that she healed.

Now before Aoife’s journey into the desert, she had had a gift that most people never have in their lifetime.  Unlike most of us, she could, as a young girl, see the fairy folk who dwell in the hills walking home before dawn as to hopefully not be seen.  She could have long conversations with the small nimble beings who dwelt in and among the branches of trees, and she could speak to guardians of the stones.  She had often walked through the woods when no one else was around and saw the creatures that glowed like fireflies twinkling in the air, or would stand quietly with a passerby from another world, each silently taking in a sunset.  As soon as she left for the desert, this strange and uncanny ability of hers vanished.  Yet it returned when she finally returned.

So it was not surprising to her that, one day just after dinner while she was drying the dishes (for surely, the most extraordinary things occur at the most ordinary times,) she sensed someone behind her patiently waiting to get her attention.  Turning around, Aoife noticed him almost immediately.  He was over six feet five inches, with long curly blond hair, large searching blue eyes that were old, such old and farseeing eyes, and his eyes looked into hers and he saw through her.  In any case, it felt to Aoife like there was nothing those eyes did not see once they searched her own.  He had, she noticed, very strong hands.  He appeared somewhere just before midlife in age, if age indeed mattered at all in the world beyond the land of the living.  He was wearing clothes that appeared handmade, and he wore a very large belt with a sheathed sword hanging from it, and carried a shield with a pattern on it that Aoife couldn’t place, though she did notice that there wasn’t a single straight line.  Between the way he looked and was dressed and the things he carried, she could tell he was of Celtic origin but beyond that she had no idea.  She wondered briefly if there had been any soldiers in the generation or so before her grandmother was born.  Her grandmother told her how her family had lived in Ireland for centuries, before times became too hard and she and her mother and brother emigrated to America.

The person who had suddenly materialized in her kitchen didn’t seem to have any issue to fight over with her, for which she was seriously grateful.  He seemed friendly and kind, if gravely contemplative, and certainly formidable.  Aoife mused for a moment that it was extremely lucky of her not to be an enemy of his.  She found it hard to actually make eye contact, but decided it would be less of her not to and so she had.  For a while they merely looked at one another, and then not sure what to do Aoife turned to finish scrubbing the pot in the sink.  Cautiously she peered around a few minutes later to see if he was still there, but she saw only the tiled counter that served to divide the kitchen from the rest of the one bedroom apartment.  .

For the next few weeks, the stranger began stopping in to talk with her or check up on her, exactly which Aoife couldn’t always tell.  Although the stranger didn’t share his name with her, she began having conversations with him.  Not surprisingly to Aoife, she learned he had been a great warrior in life.  Besides this, however, she also found out that he loved poetry and music, valued all the simple day to day things that made living interesting and meaningful, said much in few words, was very solemn and serious, loved nature and all the places that were wild and especially those undefined places where boundaries are crossed between land and water, tree roots and dirt, where fog ended and clarity began.  Sometimes they walked out in the woods together, and he would smile at children as if they were his own.  Aoife wondered if he had children.  He also would often appear wearing different outfits from the time before, and lately only wore wool clothing, carrying nothing with him. 

Finally one day while they sat together on a hill watching the sunset she asked him who he was.  She considered this otherworldly person to be her friend, however strangely they met, and indeed she had one more friend in the otherworld than in this one.  Aoife still had her siblings to talk to, but still hadn’t made too many friends.  The man smiled and agreed that that was a good question to ask, and admitted he had completely forgotten to mention it since he had been alive more than 1500 years ago and who he actually was versus what people thought he should be were not the same.  “Names are important,” he said, “But they’re more than a hindrance than a help when it turns out you’ve heard of the person before and what you heard isn’t very accurate.”  And with that, before disappearing, he instructed Aoife to wait there a moment, as there was someone else he also wanted her to meet and they could introduce themselves together. 

So, somewhat baffled, Aoife stood on the hill staring out at the night sky with nothing around her but the wind and a sprinkling of trees and wild flowers, and it becoming pretty cold outside.  She almost decided to walk home, convincing herself that she was crazy to be out here about to meet more people that the majority of the entire population on the planet wouldn’t be able to see, when a large mist settled on the hill and the man she’d been getting to know walked over with someone new.  The other man was shorter than the first, but only by a few inches so he could hardly be said to be short.  His hair was more brown than blond and was also curly and long.  He had eyes that were brown in some kinds of light and hazel in others, was very thin, and had exceptionally long legs.  Unlike her friend’s somber, almost stern quiet eyes, the second man’s eyes glinted with curiosity and wonder.  Aoife surmised that he could be quite serious when needed but that he preferred to find the humor in life and that he never lost that playful awe at the sheer immensity of living and the miracle of existence that most people lose touch with when they grow older.

“Well,” her friend was saying, “I am Oisin, the son of Fionn Mac Cumhaill, and this is my cousin, Caoilte Mac Ronan.”

Despite herself Aoife began to stare at them.  She then realized that she was staring and that was probably rude, and quickly looked down at the ground so that she would stop staring.  She then thought that staring at the ground was the kind of thing a person would do if they didn’t want to meet with a situation head on so she went back to looking at them.  This all took about two seconds.  Finally she remembered what to say when you’re meeting someone.  “Hi, it’s very nice to meet you.” she said and added, “I definitely heard of you.”

The three shook hands and then Caoilte said, “Most of what’s been written about us is interesting and entertaining but it’s greatly exaggerated and sometimes quite false.”

“What he means is that you won’t be able to learn who we really are from reading accounts of who people think we are or wanted us to be.” Oisin added in explanation.

Aoife nodded, a bit overwhelmed.  She found she was trying to process what she was seeing and hearing and it was all a lot to take in.  It just never occurred to her to be prepared for meeting well known people from the past who lived in the second century.  At the same time, she realized she was also attempting to excavate a long forgotten memory that she felt was relevant, but she couldn’t quite uncover it.  Finally she had it: there the memory was.  She had been eight years old.  Her grandmother was telling her  stories that were told to her when she lived in Ireland as a child.  There was a story about the Fianna of Ireland, and how they never died but instead were sleeping under a spell in a cave waiting for the time to come back and set right all that had gone too far.  Her current self wasn’t too thrilled with the implications of the story simply because it was too much like believing in some savior who would fix other people’s problems for them.  However her past self, as she recalled it, believed every word of the story and she had spent days afterwords despairing over the fact that tons of people were stuck in a miserable dark forgotten cave and couldn’t get out of it.  She hated caves as a child and thought death was probably preferable to chilling, literally, in some dark secluded yawn of earth somewhere.   She had confronted her grandmother about this and insisted that it wasn’t right, now that they knew the story, to not go looking for the Fianna’s cave to at least try to get them out of it.  Her grandmother had laughed and smiled at her and said she shouldn’t take the story so literally, but her eight year old self had determinedly learned that the cry they used to give was the truth against the world, and there were a few nights when she looked out her window at the starry sky and shouted “The truth against the world!” three times hoping that would be slightly useful.  It wouldn’t have been one bit useful, she thought now, and smiled despite herself.

“What is it?” Asked Oisin who had been studying her expressions thoughtfully.

“Well, um, it’s just that as a child I grew up believing you were stuck in some lonely dreary cave somewhere and, quite obviously, you’re not,” she explained hoping she sounded mostly articulate.  “Once I grew up, I stopped believing the story was actually true, but for some reason I am still very glad to be completely certain that there was no truth to it at all.”

“No, we aren’t stuck in a cave,” Oisin agreed, “In the life beyond life, we assist those among the living who ask, for we would never presume to assist someone who feels it would be unwelcome.  We protect those in the manifest world who need us and act as guides to them.” After a pause he said with an amused look in his eyes, “That said, no one’s ever tried as hard as you did to get us out of a cave had we been in one.”

Aoife’s face turned red. “Oh no,” she said dismayed, “You actually payed attention to my childish howling away?  I was just a really silly impressionable eight year old.”

“You were a very empathic and kind eight year old who tried to help people you never thought you’d ever meet whose lives you had no reason to care about for longer than it takes to hear a good story.” Caoilte corrected.

Aoife frowned.  This was all turning into a very memorable and strange night, for sure, but something was nagging at her.  Some question she needed to ask.  Some part of all this she did not understand, and the not knowing of whatever it was made her uneasy.  Finally she voiced the question that was vexing her, that would not let her go.  “Why?  I mean, why are you here talking to me?” I’m this random misplaced grad student who doesn’t write the greatest songs, is only decent at poetry, and can’t run to save my life, she added to herself.  “You can talk to anyone you want, why me?”

“Why not?” asked Caoilte.

Aoife shook her head, but she could think of no rejoinder to that response.

Oisin then looked at her with complete seriousness, almost earnestness.   For the first time that night they looked into each others’ eyes.  “The world is starving for meaning,” he began, “We need you to bring meaning to those who find  that, while  all they could ever imagine or want surrounds them, still they are left malnourished for they lack any sense of purpose to their lives and lose sight of all that is most important to them.  We need you to be one of many who show all you meet compassion and acceptance and demonstrate in all you do that we are all interdependent and need each other to live well.   The world yearns after love.  You have more than enough romantic love in all it’s various dramatic guises, but I mean the love families have for their children, seeds have for sunlight, rivers have for motion, nature has for itself.  The kind of love that knows no limitations or boundaries, that knows only what is true.  The kind of love that allows people to be strong yet kind, independent yet vulnerable, able to meet everyone where they are for who they are.  People are afraid of themselves and their own voices.  People have forgotten the power that lies buried inside them.  The cave your grandmother spoke of is the harsh and lonely place most human beings consign the very measure of their names, and exile the majestic and mysterious, radiant light that might have guided them in this manifest world.  They leave themselves to languish there ineffectively casting eerie shadows at the barren walls that over time they and others have built, mistakenly believing that these walls keep them safe and hold them exempt from age, pain, or despair.  They couldn’t be farther from the truth.  They choose fear and run from who they are.  We need you to embody that wild and earnest spirit you always have been, to shine in this world and remember who you are, and be one of the voices in the world who helps others remember all they’ve ever been.  In the past you learned how to make yourself small.  Yet that is one of the problems in this fragmented weary world:  choosing to be small, believing it is your greatness and strength and whole authentic vast self that others won’t ever be able to accept or approve of.  It is the smallness in this world that lets it die, a little at a time.  Stand tall, for if you did not deserve to be here now you would have never been.  Being fully alive is our right.  Dream of the dawning of a world without fear.  Dream of a world where everyone can give voice to all that lies within them, so that your children will live the wisdom of their beginnings, so that they learn never to let others steel their originality, so that they come to greet each other as free persons and live by the wonder shining out through their eyes even once they’re old.  Even now, that tiny spark, that quiet voice hidden inside, could burst at any moment, and from the heart of every silence, rend from it the truth it yearns to cry.  Be that voice.  You have the power to decide exactly how you want to be in the world, so don’t ever be afraid to speak your truth.”

“We will protect you and guide you.  We ask only that you remember us.” said Caoilte.

“The truth against the world.” Aoife replied in a voice that was almost a whisper (somehow speaking loudly didn’t seem appropriate just then.)  It was all she could do.  It was all she could say.  The three looked at each other for several more moments, and then Aoife was alone on the hill.  It would take her weeks to process what had happened.  It would take her months to begin to tangibly live out any of the Fianna’s words in the actual world.  What she did do without difficulty is vow to remember them and share her experience in whatever way it would best be heard.

Yet this is not the end of this story, for it was not the last time Aoife spoke with Caoilte or Oisin, and there were more to meet besides.

Visit the following link to download “The Call of the Fianna,” by Fionn Tulach, formerly known as Fiona Davidson. This is the story of the Fianna’s cave told by one of the finest modern bards living today.
https://app.box.com/s/joj0hjcwetrl81f5wk65