Under a Nowhere Sky: How Absence Shapes Us

Last night, the moon was a perfect roundness in the western sky.  Dusky red, it hung above the treeline for twenty minutes longer than it had the night before.  But tracking the motions of heavenly bodies has never been a serious pursuit of mine.  I am no astronomer, and content myself with admiration wherever they stand in heaven’s vault.  This morning, the sky is milky, thick with undefined cloud cover that blots away any hint of blue.  Dew is heavy on the grass, and the hem of my skirt was unpleasantly damp after I checked the progress of the tomatoes, peppers, and beans in the garden.

 

A Selkie’s Dreams

My life is marked by a backward gaze.  I am always more fond of what was than what is.  This is, while admittedly a flaw, not something I’m overly troubled about, provided that I learn to either use what I see or curb the inclination to stew.  Stewing is something I have a positive genius for doing, and not particularly productive, since it often involves self-pity.  The reason I bring this up is that, as I looked up at that featureless morning sky, I remembered the heartbreaking beauty of dusks and dawns in Albuquerque.  You might find far prettier places out west.  I know I have.  But I lived in that city for some years, and learned to love the dawn there because of the light.

I remember that I did not at once love the city.  It hit my brain with a dirty sledgehammer of thirst for many months before I suddenly noticed the light.  The creeping, golden, ethereal light that was as much like a paean of praise as anything else.  To see the mountain slopes separate themselves from the night–jade and cerulean sighing into a clear jonquil that almost broke my heart before erupting into a frenzy of pinks, reds, and oranges for which I have no name–was a prayer of thanks that I was alive.  I remember evening times, walking to the grocery store and stopping to watch the way the fading day painted itself across the rounded curves of sailing mountain ranges of cloud.  The understanding of beauty was pain, keen and searing, and I cried with joy as I stood in the middle of an empty residential street.

 

Caves

I think about my persistent thirst in those first months, the way my brain ached with the absence of water.  When I left, I had grown accustomed to all the features that come standard with living in any sort of desert–a built-in consciousness about all moisture.  For the first time, I was acutely aware of the scent of rain–of any standing water, really.  As I stood watching my last Albuquerque dawn from the boarding queue in the Albuquerque Sunport, I felt a difference within me.  I had never truly seen water or understood it until I lived in a place where it was not abundant.

Even though I’ve been back in the Deep South for some time now, the frugality I learned out west is still with me.  I feel the awareness of water like a cave in the back of my thoughts, but it is never the same here.  The South, even during a dry spell is wallowing in moisture, and it comes to the eye in gaudy, frenzied growth.  My water glass never beaded with moisture while I lived in Albuquerque.  These seemingly small things that go with heavy moisture–including high humidity–shaped the imagery I use in association with it, with fertility and richness.  But I gathered new words and shapes for beauty and longing during those years of voluntary absence from this place I call Home.  They are with me still, and like the creeping air currents that move at ground level carrying dust and fine sand, they are always working to shift my inner world.

 

Rarity

While I do not disavow that there were painful experiences to be had during my years there, I will always consider that time as something extraordinary.  I learned so much–about myself, the nature of my craft, and about the appreciation of everything.  In thinking about it, I find myself filled with a torrent of images–moments, people, experiences, landscapes, tiny details that go unnoticed by many–for which I am so profoundly thankful that it presses outward against the inside of my skin.  I am filled–by a reasonless joy akin to seeing a lover–by the remembrance of my life.  I was given a treasure house of moments.  Even people I have no love for are kept here, gilded impartially by this beatitude I feel.

The desert places of the world are proving grounds.  In rarity, detail is noticed as it cannot be with abundance.  But also, there was a balance about the unpopulated spaces I visited–away from the streets of the city.  There was a feeling of proportion, a language of plants, animals, sky, and earth, that the introduction of my own humanness threatened to render as gibberish.  I always had the feeling that the shadow cast by cities in that region were invasive, destructive to the overall balance that asserted itself as soon as I shook off my attachment to the city–the car that carried me away from it.

“Water, water, water….There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount , a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand, insuring that wide free open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.”   ~Edward Abbey

Now that I am firmly separated by a year and more away from the desert, I can look back and see it clearly.  For a long time, I couldn’t.  I was unable to separate the emotional pain I created for myself from the wealth of stimuli the place itself provided.  Now that I can, I wonder what strange fruit that time will produce.  I think about the joy, which is a deep, achingly full sense of thankfulness.  I remember the pure white moon rising whole above the Sandias in a periwinkle sky and all the bitter mornings I sat, uncaring that I shook convulsively with the cold, to watch the sky change.

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