Matt and I went on a little vacation to Las Vegas over the weekend to rest and try snowboarding (my first time). It was a nice getaway, other than people smoking on the no-smoking floor of our hotel and Matt’s getting altitude sickness from our little snowboarding adventure on Saturday. As we drove through the desert on our way back home yesterday, I was struck again and again by the unvarying ugliness of the landscape, the repetitive monotony of the drive, and the stark contrast between the barrenness of our desert vacation and the beautiful tranquility of our beach-side home.
Our drive home reminded me of the contrast between the spiritual wilderness I endured for several years since moving to California and the rest and growth I’ve begun to enjoy in the last few months. Here’s a little taste of my spiritual “desert vacation,” an excerpt from a piece I wrote and posted two years ago:
There is something haunting about the barrenness of the desert. The dry, cracked earth produces little more plant life than bristles, thistles, and thorns. I am sitting on the hillside overlooking St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California. The cemetery rests behind me, just up the winding dirt path. The sun is unmerciful, but I shiver, defenseless against the wind. It is Ash Wednesday. I have never been to a monastery before. I envy this rhythm of life so firmly established here, so deeply rooted in history, tradition, and meaning. I envy the unrushed movement of the brothers as they go about their daily tasks with studied patience. Mostly, I envy the cultivated attitude of reverence toward solitude and stillness. Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lenten season, is marked by fasting, prayer, and quiet. I have hiked up this hill, away from the monks and visitors, in order to break the silence with my sad song. Read the rest here.
What I noticed as we drove back toward California was something I had never been able to imagine while I was stuck in my spiritual wilderness: we were leaving the desert. We had stayed in the desert for a time, but we weren’t living there. Now we were going back home, back to where we live, back to the mountains and the ocean. I was in the desert for so long, it felt like I was living there, like I was going to live there forever. Now I see moving to our home by the beach as a physical representation of the spiritual move I was making from the wilderness to the ocean, from barrenness to new life, from anguish to peace.
When we arrived home yesterday afternoon, we unpacked the car and made a bee-line for the beach to catch the sunset. Every time I watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean, I marvel that I live here now. I can see this every day if I want to. I’m no longer surrounded by noise, rushing cars, flying helicopters, and smog. Now I’m surrounded by vacationing families, retirees, quiet days, and quieter nights. And, oh yes, the sunset. Here’s what I see every day as the sun goes down: