The sun shines intensely in Saudi Arabia. Everywhere, light reflects off the desert floor and reverberates against stone. Filled with light, light, and more light, to stand on the earth in Saudi Arabia is to stand in the midst of a wide circle of sun. Holding immensely beautiful forms and textures, the Arabian peninsula has no rivers and no permanent natural water source.
Several years back, I visited the UNESCO World Heritage site of Al-‘Ula, founded in the sixth century BC, and located on Saudi Arabia’s north west edge. The ancient Biblical city state of Dedan slightly south of Mada’in Salih in this same area, rests on what was the incense route, and was the capital of the Lihyanites. Later, the Nabateans encompassed the area making Mada’in Salih (then called Hegra) their capital. Like the northern capital of the Nabateans in Petra, Jordan, the site contains elaborate facades of tombs cut into rock, where the earth pulsates in vibrant color.
Though there’s much to love in a light-filled day, sometimes, though, light’s intense radiance can make us long for the softness of shadow and night’s coolness. To enter a door and step into coolness is welcomed. Shade and evening hours are blessings.
When crossing over the lintel and walking into a different world, we carry with us understandings of the world we know, making bridges from what we know to what we don’t. Gradually, as our eyes and mind adjusts, we begin to discern how the new world we’ve entered functions. There are many places and ways of being we don’t know about and don’t understand because those places and worlds are not the ones we are familiar with. When we enter a new phase of life, start a new job, move to a different city or country, fall ill, begin playing a new instrument or try learning a new language, we enter a kind of liminal world where things aren’t necessarily illuminated or clear. Instead, we’re in the dark, so to speak, and have to learn to inhabit a new way of structuring meaning and making sense.
Len Anderson’s newest poetry book, The Way Home, is a probing exploration and beautiful expression of the territory of betweenness or emptiness–places of not knowing, not seeing, the mystery life can reveal itself to be when we find ourselves inhabiting what feels like an internal desert. In his poem, “Door,” Anderson writes,
Deep in a dream
I am a lone pilgrim,
walk the ancient city
arrive at a door
and find myself
in the company
of a great silence
As a pilgrim or a seeker described in the lines above, when we enter a new world or way of living, we grow aware we stand in a place of mystery. The old rules and patterns don’t fit and the new world doesn’t speak the same language as the one we left. Traveling through unfamiliar territory is an ancient place. It’s wise to pause and to listen deeply.
In his poem, “Unknown Ghazal,” Anderson writes how the territory of not knowing is a good place to be, “Welcome, make yourself at home, here in the unknown,/ Don’t worry, you can find a way deeper into the unknown.” A thirst of the spirit or heart can last for decades, and for some, centuries. We all desire to be happy, to live with joy and be free of suffering. Thirst is, nevertheless, a given quality of existence. Like the children of Israel who walked into unknown desert for years, thirst can eventually lead to a promised land. Even the promised land, however, was located in a desert.
Because of their wide and windswept emptiness, deserts landscapes embody the longing for life and growth. As Anderson writes in his poem, “The Longing,”
You and I and all growing things
are made of longing. Even the stars
formed in the longest night we can imagine
from the dust left by that flash
that opened out into everything
could be called a kind of longing.
To be a part of creation is to know longing. Whole continents and subcontinents embody landscapes of longing, together with the very stars that were “formed in the longest night we can imagine.” Yet out of this longing came what “opened out into everything.” Everything visible was born out of a yearning.
Deserts are an embodied yearning. In seasons of adapting and waiting on the lintel of liminal space between worlds where it’s unclear what world you inhabit because the world you’re familiar with is no longer the world you live in, it’s good to remember the desert world and how those who inhabit such lands have managed to live inside its constraints. People have lived in desert regions for millennia. Entire civilizations were created in the deserts of Mesopotamia, known in Ancient Greek as the land between rivers. Channeling water for urban use and irrigation, people built entire civilizations there. Ur, Uruk, Lagash, Eridu and Babylon are all cities that grew up in the desert areas between rivers. Recognizing water’s preciousness as it fills seasonal oases after rains or flows from a mountain spring, desert communities channel the water they find, enabling it to benefit to the whole community. In this gathered effort, it’s feasible to not only survive in a desert land but to also thrive there.
The world is always being renewed, earth reimagining what shape it wants to take. Sitting at the edge of Saudi’s Red Desert you can watch wind lift and flick the sand, tenaciously shifting the perfect-edged ochre and red crystals grain by grain into new forms. “Come into being as you pass away,” says the Gospel of Thomas, logion 42. Everything in both exterior and interior landscape, is shifting, moving, becoming new, even as it alters, ages or dies.
There are sandy deserts and there are stony deserts. Since ancient times people have carved beautiful structures in the hardscape desert lands. Stone personifies deep longing in its steadfastness as it waiting to be worn down or broken open. With patience and endurance, we, too, with the help of others, can create something enduringly beautiful out of what is difficult and hard. As Anderson says in his poem “A Little Mystery,”
Inside each thing
is the possibility
we’ll never find it all
Even these stones
and mud we call Earth
are a child of the Heavens
with a touch of Hell
They help hold us here
for this fleeting
In his poem, “Into Being,” Anderson describes a child “born without eyes or ears or tongue, without knowing.” This awareness is an unexpected kind of emotional and physical desert the parents in the poem have been given, and they are distraught. The doctor in the poem responds to the parents’ grief saying, “I can only speak from my own / incompleteness.” The beautiful insight Anderson gives here is that even those who are healers are incomplete. It is in recognizing our shared incompleteness with others that we can create a kind of healing. The poem ends with these words of the doctor’s advice regarding their child, “And you must listen / as you never have before. / Each cry, / even the deepest silence / is speaking.” Each one of us lives with incompleteness. If we allow ourselves to listen deeply enough, we can find ourselves in those we perceive as broken or as “other.”
Dwelling in desert places, waiting with uncertainty, we can practice being fully present with not knowing and tune our ears to the sound of small streams of water that allow us to keep going. Embracing the empty land we walk in and visiting the oases when the rains arrive is a way to live in a land between rivers. We survive by practicing hope until we’re able to hear what speaks from the silence and can open the door into a new place of knowing.
4 thoughts on “Living in a Desert Land”
Wonderful piece. The knowing and longing address so many levels – from the landscape outside to places in my head, heart and gut. Not knowing (yet) is becoming a new way of life for me lately. Your writing was a comfort. The photos add so much. Thank you. Blessings, Elizabeth
Uncertainty is so challenging. Practicing putting our minds and hearts into a context wider than our worries is a resource we can draw on like water to help us through our desert days and eras. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me, Elizabeth. We help each other survive.
It is New Year’s Eve and we are embarking into 2021, full of hope and uncertainty. Thank you for all your beautiful writing that has accompanied me during this desert year of wide empty spaces, glaring light, moving landscapes, and restful shade. Love, Catherine
You are an ongoing inspiration to my life. I appreciate your presence and thoughts ever so much, Catherine.