What kind of crazy person moves to Arizona twice in one lifetime, both times during the month of July? That would be me.
My first stint in the dessert consisted of two years in Tucson, about ninety miles south of where I now sit. I came here for graduate school, moving six weeks before classes started in order to house and dog-sit for former professors of mine whose kids I’d babysat in college. They generously let me stay in their beautiful home while they spent a six-month Fulbright term in Santiago, but with them gone I didn’t know a single person in Tucson.
That summer was hard, as I’d known it would be—but there’s knowing and then there’s experiencing, and the former doesn’t really prepare you for the latter. For weeks, the only person who knew me by name was Bob, the yoga instructor whose classes quickly became both sanity maintenance and a reason to leave the house. My only friends were Penny and Dillon, the pups with whose care I was entrusted; I loved them both, but Dillon, the boxer, and I grew especially close – both of us snugglers, he could sense my loneliness, and took to jumping up into my bed at night. Sometimes I still dream about sleeping with one arm thrown across his big barrel chest.
I was a recently graduated religious studies major and soon-to-be MFA student at the time, so it shouldn’t surprise you that I took the opportunity to read all of the desert literature I could from Terry Tempest Williams to Edward Abbey to the Desert Fathers of the Third Century. Though writing across space and time, there were threads in all of these writings that united the authors’ meditations on the landscape—its punishing, harsh exterior, its unexpected and breathtaking beauty, and the resilience it demands of its inhabitants.
Perhaps it will seem a little melodramatic to extend my own metaphor here, but I gotta say, those desert clichés feel pretty on-base even the second time around. My current circumstances are very different; far from moving here alone, I moved with my mom and my child (with my wife to follow once she moves her father into assisted living and readies our Houston house to put on the market). Instead of knowing no one and being friendless, one of my best friends in the world now lives a mere five minute drive from where I live, after seven years of long-distance friendship. As before, I will be entering a new school community, but this time as a faculty member instead of a student.
And still—it’s hard. It’s hard in ways that have surprised me, and by which I feel somewhat embarrassed. After all, I have buried a parent, weathered my spouse’s cancer diagnosis and treatment, adopted a child, and written two books; I have done challenging things, things that feel more justifiable to me in their difficulty. But here I am, using a TV tray for a desk, eating peanut-butter-filled pretzels out of a bowl and watching the summer lightning storm play against the sky, and wishing this were maybe a little bit easier.
But I didn’t choose this for easy, or simple, or routine. I chose it precisely because I knew it would challenge and stretch and expand me, which it is. During my first summer in the desert, my friend Kate sent me the following excerpt from Anne Carson’s brilliant work Autobiography of Red; thirteen years later, I find myself leaning on that final line once again:
His mother was at the ironing board lighting a cigarette and regarding Geryon. Outside the dark pink air was already hot and alive with cries. Time to go to school, she said for the third time. Her cool voice floated over a pile of fresh tea towels and across the shadowy kitchen to where Geryon stood at the screendoor. He would remember when he was past forty the dusty almost medieval smell of the screen itself as it pressed its grid onto his face. She was behind him now. This would be hard for you if you were weak but you’re not weak, she said and neatened his little red wings and pushed him out the door.