There is no need for complicated philosophy . . . the philosophy is kindness.
–Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama
Monsoons have arrived in Escalante. Brash, vociferous monsoons carried into town on raucous winds and dumping fat, lavish globs of rain. At the very moment I write this, lightening sparkles around me, thunder bellows, clear water falls from the sky—one minute battering insistently, the next descending gently—and squishy mud forms around the porch of my writing shed as if it were the gift I’ve been waiting for. And it is.
The monsoons have been present in Escalante for three weeks now. Those whose job it is to predict and report the weather call them violent storms. I call them kind, benevolent storms. My phone was deadened for a day and the water ran urine-yellow from my kitchen faucet for a week. Still, I wouldn’t call those consequences—my loss of modern conveniences—acts of violence.
No doubt someone will point out to me that such storms are violent because they can be, and often are, deadly. A young husband and father was struck and killed by lightening during a recent storm, and in the not too distant past hikers have been killed in flash floods, common in nearby canyons during monsoons. But death itself does not denote violence. In my mind, violence requires intent. And monsoons are just monsoons—there’s no violent intent involved.
Of course, one could then argue that if monsoons cannot be violent nor can they be kind and benevolent, as I have described them. I suppose that is true. Monsoons are indifferent to humans. But I am not indifferent to monsoons; therefore, I choose to receive them as kind. After a summer start of scorched earth, smoke-filled air, empty lakes, disappearing rivers, and a dry, dusty yard—a stark preview, no doubt, of summers to come—I can’t find anything but kindness and compassion in the monsoons. Others are free to receive them as they wish.
* * *
Last fall, Steve and I attended a gathering of about fifty people interested in a new collective consciousness—a consciousness that would reconnect the human mind to the reality of the human habitat, a consciousness that would remind us that humans can live without fossil fuel, airplanes, and cars—and, in fact, have done so in the not too distant past—but they cannot live—and never have been able to live—without clean air, pure water, and non-toxic food. Because a physiological adaptation to such a state is unlikely, most of us know—if we are conscious at all—that the choice among those things is quickly approaching.
As one might expect, based upon who has the most to lose in the game of chicken we’re playing with the earth, the average age of those in attendance at the consciousness gathering was approximately 20-30 years my junior. The crowd was hip, young, smart, and creative, and it showed in their manner of dress, in the expansiveness of their art, and in their relationships to one another. I felt the opposite of all those things: old, dowdy, out of place, and shunned. Steve—a redneck hippie intellectual who is comfortable in his own skin and, therefore, comfortable in any group—fit right in. For five days, we camped among the youth, sharing meals and conversation. It was not easy to keep my defenses up for a full week, but I managed.
On the final day, the group came together to bid one another farewell with a few final words from each of us. I had nothing to say, so while others spoke, I occupied myself with formulating something simple, something that wouldn’t give me away as the only person who had not been transformed by the experience. But I kept getting distracted by the words of others—words that contained what seemed a genuine outpouring of love, not only for everyone in the room but for humanity and life in general.
When it came my time to speak, I could not. While everyone patiently waited, I wept. A young man—a burner (a devotee of Burning Man) in his early 20s with wildly free, shoulder-length hair and face paint—sat next to me on the floor. As I attempted to speak through tears, he reached over, gently but firmly wrapped his large hand around my forearm just above my wrist, and held onto me until I stopped crying long enough to utter a few words. Afterward, as everyone one stood to leave, I touched his arm and thanked him. He smiled and engulfed me in a tight hug.
I don’t know that young man’s name, I don’t know if I will ever see him again, and I don’t know that I would recognize him if I did. He gave me the simple but momentous gift of kindness and taught me something about myself: I contain my own segregation. I carried it into that gathering. At the moment of my vulnerability, at the moment I let down my defenses, he bestowed unrestrained compassion.
* * *
Last month the New York Times published an essay in which I shared my life-long struggle with fear. In the online comments, some scoffed, some simply called me foolish, and some argued that I have no right to my fear. They pointed out that I live in a beautiful place, that I have a good-looking husband and a cat. They, thereby, proclaimed me unworthy of fear. I agree! That’s precisely what I tell my fear every morning: go away; you have no reason to be here. I am not deserving of your presence.
Others urged me to hang onto my fear, even suggesting I may not be fearful enough, especially when it comes to my physical surroundings. They told me the same thing the signpost that graces the trailhead near the Escalante River tells me: “You Could Die Out Here!” Precisely why wandering a vast, magnificent desert calms a person like me.
Many more readers—online and through email—reacted with the simple philosophy of kindness. I was stunned—perhaps naively so—by the sheer number of such messages I received. Some called me courageous for sharing my fear in a public way, informing me that fear and shame often operate as a pair, and, indeed, that was the message of the angry readers: you should be ashamed of your fear. Some wrote to me of their own struggles with paralyzing fear, irrational fear, fear that greets them every morning and haunts them throughout the day. Fear, it turns out, is democratic—it is not gender specific, it is not geographically specific. It does not care about skin color, sexual orientation, class, religion, profession, trade, talent, intellect, friends, family, love, or income level. No one is deserving of that kind of fear, and no one need be ashamed of that kind of fear. To those who reached out to me in the vein of kindness, thank you.
* * *
The other day, a friend of mine received a great review from Publishers Weekly for her forthcoming novel. I was truly happy for her, without qualification. I’m embarrassed to admit that for much of my life I’ve experienced petty jealousy with the good news of friends. I did not understand that joy can be shared, that there is plenty to go around. I did not understand that one person’s good fortune does not supplant another’s. Opportunities for joy should not be squandered. Same with kindness. If I don’t carry kindness in my soul, I have no way to receive it from others.
* * *
Steve likes to run in the desert; I like to walk in the desert. Both of those things are made more pleasurable by the kindness of monsoons so we’ve been going out often—starting at different points and meeting in the middle. We typically go out after the monsoon has passed but the remnants linger—pools, quicksand, the scent of sage, and—if we’re lucky—waterfalls over slickrock. Sometimes we’re out when the monsoon arrives, so we tuck under an alcove to watch the storm through wide eyes and a panel of water or climb to the safety of high ground from which we watch the river rise, turn muddy, and gush below us.
Washed-smooth and moisture-packed sand is a joy to travel over. It requires no trudging; it’s like walking on a sponge. As I walk, I can’t stop myself from looking back at my perfectly formed footsteps, especially if I’m walking barefoot. I’m somehow fascinated by the way they follow me—teasing and fun, a playful existential game, but a game with a moral I’ve yet to figure out. Once while walking together in post-monsoon sand, Steve and I noticed that I—a smaller and slighter body—was leaving deeper prints than he. I attributed this to his lightness of spirit. So I continue to check the tracks behind me, expecting that one day I’ll turn and see no trace of myself.
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