At my daughter’s most recent preschool holiday potluck, I started talking to one of her favorite teachers who had just returned from week-long trip to Arizona. She takes a regular trip there with a friend of hers and recounted a story of how her fellow travel companion was hiking and brushed up against something spiny. As he backed up, he collided with something else equally prickly and pinballed a bit as he struggled to recalibrate safely on his path, all while narrowly missing a possible encounter with a scorpion. This account illustrated how the desert is composed of terrain that is primally set up to protect itself.
This image of a place whose very topography facilitates a line of defense reinforced an impression that I have always had of the desert, but didn’t fully round out in my mind until recently. The desert for me represents a complex feminine landscape, that I have felt connected to – long before cacti took over Pintrest. Maybe it’s because my mamma was born in Colorado’s San Luis Valley at the base of Mount Blanca near the highest dunes in North America. Or perhaps it’s because of a deep feeling of peace that consumed me when I would visit my Nonna in Tucson, Arizona. From the moment I would see her waiting in the baggage claim area, all bundled up in her fully lined, Italian wool coat, big sunglasses, flat cap, pressed slacks, and size 9 shoes, I knew that all was right in the world. She would start to do her signature dance, more of a jig really, and would pump her little arms up and down when she saw me and it was all I could do not to knock my fellow travelers over as I ran down the escalator and inhaled the faint smell of Lancome while I hugged her, laying my cheek on top of her head. As we made our way back to her house, I would always crack the window, just a sliver, to feel the warm air on my face as the saguaros rolled by outside, and I would swell with the anticipation of the home cooked meals that awaited me just miles away in her kitchen. God, how I miss her.
After she passed away there was a part of me that felt as if I could never go back there. However, as time went on I realized that there is a piece of her, and consequently a piece of me, that will forever remain the Arizona desert, which now brings great comfort. It is a place that has a certain dramatic solitude, but not a loneliness and as with any harsh environment, you don’t come to the desert unprepared which is part of her allure. That unknown. The rawness of the landscape that leaves her exposed and vulnerable, and yet it is that very rawness that keeps her alive.
Then, just when you think you have it all figured out, the mirages begin to wave their lines of deception making it difficult to distinguish reality vs. insanity, and you start to believe that maybe they are one in the same.
It is this unpredictability which imposes the land to draw on her reserves, forcing her to reach deep into the earth, past her roots, straining to get to the core. Survival depends on it. As the end looms, the moon emerges. Its light blackens by contrast the cracks that sprawl across the surface of the ground, and the rain starts, replenishing the stores. We are the rain, lifting each other up, to nourish one another for survival. We need to continue to sustain each other not just today with a flash flood in the face of uncertainty, but for the long haul. Drop by drop, a sustainable rivulet.
The moon then gives way to the rising sun, casting a resilient, golden, hue on the succulents now full of life-giving nectar, and she is transformed again. The blooms across the desert open in the relentless rays, and she’s ready to fight another day.
Marissa B. Niranjan is a incessant chatterbox who is grateful for the gifts of dear friendships and conversations which helped to formulate this piece in her head. It is such an important reminder of how interactions are a continuous well of inspiration if we are open to them. If we don’t talk to one another and listen to what others have to say, that well will dry up and so much will be lost.
Speaking of sources of inspiration, the main image for this piece was taken by one of my favorite people not this planet, my aunt, Barbara Berryman (loving known to almost everyone as Aunt Baba – thanks to my two-year-old-self for not being able to pronounce my “r’s”) who continues to teach me that women and girls can do anything. Auntie Baba was one of the first women to be hired in the early 1970’s into a technical position at IBM and hasn’t stopped blazing trails since. She has traveled to 47 countries, including Chile, where this photo was taken in the Atacama Desert.
One final note. For preschool potlucks, my go-to contribution has been a bowl of hot tater tots straight from the Taco Time drive through and a bottle of ketchup (organic of course), which actually fits with the theme of this post because their logo is a cactus. The tots are always the first things to disappear from the table and it makes my life so much easier. Trust me on this one. 🙂