“Everything is beautiful and I am so sad.
This is how the heart makes a duet of
wonder and grief.”
— Mark Nepo, from his poem, “Adrift”
Saudi Arabia is a country of amazing geological interest and the Al Qarah Caves in eastern Saudi Arabia near Hofuf are one of Saudi Arabia’s extraordinary sites. A series of narrow passages, the caves were created through the geological process of erosion in the clay, silt, and limestone earth forming a series of “very deep and narrow joint-controlled fissures.” (The Jabal Al Qarah Caves of the Hofuf Area, Northeastern Saudi Arabia: A geological investigation.)
Deserts are important. While deserts seem to be bare, treeless places and can feel like a bleak wilderness, it’s from deserts that some of humankind’s important cultures such as ancient Egypt rose. Thirteen of the fifteen types of minerals on our planet are found in deserts. Plants and and animals found in deserts have developed ways to adapt the harsh conditions and still thrive. (More of desert’s amazing qualities described here.) From deserts came innovations such as irrigation helping to nurture and sustain life across the globe. In a world where things seem increasingly bleak, and where metaphorically speaking it feels we’re heading into the depths of a desolate land without water or shade, perhaps it’s a good time to contemplate the desert.
At some point in our lives most of us come to a place where the world turns arid, lonely and vulnerable. You sense you’re in a wilderness by yourself where the path you once followed has disappeared and you recognize you need some further kind of internal strength to keep going. Barbara Brown Taylor details this wilderness experience in her talk on subsistence spirituality with these words, “In the beginning, you weep. Because all the familiar landmarks are gone, because you don’t know where you are. Because the only food left in your backpack is disgusting. And the little bit of water in your canteen has turned green. You’re hungry, you’re tired, you’re lost, you’re alone, it’s getting dark. And even if the sky is clear enough for stars tonight, you don’t know how to read them. You always meant to, but you never learned. So now what? If you’re a pray-er, you pray. If you’re not a pray-er, you pray. What else can you do once you’ve come to the end of what you can do for yourself? It’s time to find out what faith means out beyond the boundaries of where you were warned not to go.”
When there are no answers, when you’re waiting and waiting for a change in circumstances that never comes, how do we make the waiting bearable? Some wait their entire lives struggling to sustain themselves with adequate food, shelter, and clothing. Though they may be resourceful and diligent, some never obtain opportunities that allow them to develop the abilities they have to the full extent of their longing. Though kind or honest, some people aren’t treated with respect. When coming to the end of our resources of what we know to do, how do we continue? How do we allow our suffering to transform us into people of deeper wisdom and heart rather than fall into a pit of despair or gradually grow bitter?
In his poem “Adrift,” Mark Nepo writes,
In the very center, under it all,
what we have that no one can take
away and all that we’ve lost face each other.
It is there that I’m adrift, feeling punctured
by a holiness that exists inside everything.
I am so sad and everything is beautiful.
While none of us likely wants more suffering or grief, when adrift between seeing all we have and and all we’ve lost, as Nepo points out in his poem, that is when we feel the puncture of the inseparability of wonder and grief that somehow makes us aware of the sacred. It’s this insight that can be the catalyst for internal change that enables us to find a way to live alongside the unbearable.
Saudi Arabia may be a desert country but it also holds one of the world’s major sources of energy: oil. Organic life from previous times transformed under pressure and with heat has become a source of energy. that which has died transforms into new life. Though a place of interest and beauty, nevertheless, pressure and erosion created the caves at Al Qarah. All life is in a process of ongoing transformation.
In the nature, we can experience the inseparability of life and death, how the dying of one life form engenders the birth of another. John Muir wrote “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” The oceans, as well as the mountains, are also a fountain of life, and spending time there is transforming. Saudi Arabia borders the Red Sea, one of the most phenomenal areas to scuba dive in the world, as it is where two continental plates, the African and the Arabian, have pulled apart creating an enormous and extremely deep rift. Inside this Red Sea rift over 1000 species of fish and 150 species of coral can be found–beauty and life thrives.
When I consider the processes of the natural world, I wonder about how I might view the cultural rifts and political erosions in a similar way–a process of deconstruction and reconstruction that are occurring simultaneously–a dying while living. The intersection of these seeming opposites is a place where new awareness and possibilities can arise.
In creative acts people take elements and combine them in ways generating change. Alternatively, as Muir suggests, when we spend time in the natural world, it acts on us and we are changed. We physically sense ourselves held inside a greater reality, a greater wholeness. As Kabir Helminski writes in “Beauty as a Way of Life,” “When the spiritual imagination awakens, the world is transformed. It is the same world, but seen differently.”
In specifically thinking about the challenges women have faced through history and continue to face, I offer this poem from my new book, Buoyant.
In Praise of Women Divers
This is for the woman who took her children
to the Red Sea to paddle through water their father
had never touched, though he grew up beside it
every day looking into its face.
This is for the woman who became a divemaster
though told it was dangerous and she’d be seen
in a wetsuit, how she led other women underwater
though it was illegal, teaching them the ways of fish,
discovering together another world, finding
every day is a good day to dive.
This is for the women who wore abayas
atop their wetsuits as if they were merely
onlookers while meeting the Coast Guard,
and the men on the boat the only divers.
This is for the friend who stood on the boat deck
wearing her snorkel and mask, black robe
flapping with wind, smilingly determined to explore
what lay beneath the sea’s sun-smoothed surface—
all of us others planning to join her.
This is for the women who broke the law
by choosing to dive, who probed shipwrecks
and gazed at their gaps, who entered through holes
blasted into steel holds—how vessels once so strong
no water could enter, are now broken open, sunken,
propellers forever halted, going nowhere.
This is in celebration of the women who saw wrecks
in water clear as windows, the happiness engendered when
something so big, so seemingly sturdy, in its destruction
became a place of beauty decorated with soft corals, animated
with angel and broom-tailed filefish sweeping through.
For those of us wandering in a wilderness, Barbara Brown Taylor leaves us with these words. “So I don’t know what your wilderness is all about. But you do…What you gain though, is the rewilding of your soul. Because the desert is the spiritual wildness protection program, open to anyone willing to leave the pavement and be emptied right out, making room for God knows what is coming next.” In the midst of our desert wandering, we can pause and ask ourselves how we can open into what’s coming next, how we can allow for a reef to form from the sunken vessels in our lives.