From Found Art
I know people who like to go on to the desert for entertainment. They take their sand toys to Borrego Springs or Ocotillo Wells or Glamis or any of the other deserts right outside San Diego, and they run dune buggies and sleep in their motor homes. This kind of weekending is of no interest to me. I am not much into cactus and coyotes and dream-catcher earrings. The only redeeming thing I can think of when it comes to deserts is that they always seem to be close to casinos, and I do love casinos.
Because the desert is foreign to me, living in one was weird, something that took getting used to. Living in an ancient desert was weirder yet. Right outside my flat was the Bible-times desert where people endured intense experiences such as temptations from the devil, murder, slavery, fasting, eating locusts, cursing God, and/or dying. That desert was a far cry from full moons and slot machines.
One of the austere desert qualities I noticed right away was the relentless wind. In the late summer and early fall, the Shamal rips down from Iraq and kicks up so much sand that the sun is all but eclipsed. One man is said to have reported that the Shamal peeled the paint right off his car, but I can’t confirm the story.
I met the Shamal one night when it rattled my windows with the hellish fury of a deranged cat trying to claw its way up a chalkboard, scratching and screeching. I thought my building – and, by proxy, me – was a goner for sure. Being from earthquake country, I should have thought to go stand in a doorway or something, but panic made me dive off the couch and onto the floor in the middle of the living room. I lay there for some time with my heart in my mouth, waiting for the storm to pass. The wind howled late into the night, and the next morning, the landscape looked like a giant wooden spoon had come down from Heaven and stirred everything up.
Trash was everywhere, littering the shoreline of the Gulf, blowing across the streets, dancing in the waves. Boulder-sized pocks were opened in the road, huge dunes were constructed overnight, patio furniture was long gone. A fine layer of silty sand covered absolutely everything in my flat, including the dining room table, the clothes and shoes in my closet, and the bowl of apples in the kitchen. I even felt it on my skin when I woke up the next morning, and I crunched little invisible granules in my teeth like you do when you go to the beach.
Despite the severity of the Middle Eastern desert, people seem to come to it looking for something – a promised land, a treasure, an escape, a reformation of the soul. None of this is lost on me. The Israelites of the Old Testament scriptures came to the desert to wander. Of course, that wasn’t their plan. They thought it would merely be an escape route from slavery to their homeland, the Promised Land. Wrong. The desert became their adopted home, a place of incoherent wandering for forty years. The only good thing they got out of the desert was a bit of manna and some hard-won lessons.
The Desert Mothers and Fathers of the third, fourth, and fifth centuries came to the desert to live in total asceticism, away from the effects of the Roman Empire on the Christian church. They wanted separateness, radical worship, and a lifestyle of zealous discipleship. Theirs was a search for simplicity and reform in the wastelands of Egypt and Syria – a lifestyle as extreme as the landscape they chose.
I’m sure I’m here to wander a bit, though I hate to admit it. Wandering is so dang tiresome and circular. (The Israelites are giving me a resounding, “Amen!” right now.) I hate having to revisit and relearn and return. Wandering seems so futile. I prefer MapQuest directions and clearly marked signage. If I’ve learned anything at all, I’ve learned that life surely doesn’t work that way.
Like the Desert Mothers and Fathers, I’m sure I’m also here to live apart from the mainstream for a season. I’ve never really thought of myself as the monk type. In fact, there have been times in my life when sitting alone with myself has felt like the social equivalent of making incessant small talk with a perfect stranger. In response, I’ve made a habit out of filling up most every quiet moment with at least a little bit of noise – enough to keep me distracted from the discomfort of not really knowing myself.
The deserts of Bahrain offer me an alternative. Solitude.
At first, I had no idea what to do with such a gift. I went about the task of writing two billion thank-you notes for gifts we received from our wedding. I began washing camouflaged uniforms in the strange European washer/dryer combo in our kitchen at Capital Centre. I went on base to check my email because we couldn’t get Internet access in our flat. I painted my toenails, plucked my eyebrows, ironed the newly washed uniforms, purchased a broom and tinfoil and lemon pepper at Mega Mart, squeezed in a nap or two, finished reading Phyllis Tickle’s memoir by the pool on base, and sent a few dozen text messages to Steve while he was trying to work. All of this took about three days, and then I was back at Capital Centre, all alone with myself once again.
The silence was deafening, and I was painfully aware of it ringing all around me. The quiet was so foreign that I didn’t even know where to start – evidence that I was also very foreign to me.
Often life becomes a big, whirling cloud of chaos, picking up momentum – not to mention patio furniture and car paint – as it goes. The crazy dervish bangs on our windows and scratches and claws at our door and leaves a gritty residue on us when we’re looking the other way. Life, the very thing we’re supposed to be living, is pounding on the panes of our souls, and there we are, lying on the living room floor waiting for the windows to give away.
The winds of life had dug out huge pocks in my heart and deposited “get it done now” and “you’ve got to prove yourself” and “don’t show a flaw” where living flesh had once been. Who was I underneath all that debris?
Like a bad first date, I awkwardly started about the task of figuring out who might be hiding inside my skin. I began by simply enjoying somerthing I wanted to enjoy in a way that looked more like being instead of doing. I pulled back the forest-green polyester drapes of the master bedroom, and I stood there and stared out toward the Gulf, noticing everything between me and the horizon – the pairs of white thobes and black abayas strolling down the boardwalk,the corniche at the water’s edge, the dhows dipping way out against the skyline, the tips of the water frothing up like meringue in the wind, the row of palms outlining the corniche shuttering gracefully.
The collective rhythm was like hypnotherapy, and I watched and watched until I could hear myself breathing again.
The only noise I allowed in was my first friend in Bahrain – Richard the BBC reporter. I’d occasionally pipe him in for some company. He would recount the woes of the world through British teeth, coating it all with enough wit and sarcasm to make the horse pill of war somewhat more tolerable.
My world was huge and endless, like the never-ending horizon on the other end of the Gulf. There were limitless options. This reality was equally freeing and frightening. My world was also very small and quiet, almost completely contained within the concrete walls of Capital Centre. This, too, was equally freeing and frightening.
Who was I apart from my job, my family, my friends, and even my church? Who was I without the trappings of achieving and striving? What was at the core of me? No assumptions. No pretenses. No one watching. No one expecting. No editing. No proving. Who was the Leeana behind and beneath and beyond the opinions of others, the cool competence, and the busyness?
The risk of sitting in the silence, as we all know, is what we will find there. I began to see the props I had been leaning on for quite some time. With these crutches exposed, I saw the hitches and limps for what they really were.
I had to start really small so as not to overwhelm myself. Every day, I put my list away, pulled the drapes back, and watched the water. One day, I forgot to turn on BBC and didn’t even realize it. Little by very little, I practiced the discipline of silence. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing at the time. I stumbled onto it, actually. I wandered around and around that flat like sandstorm winds until it became obvious there was nothing left to do except quiet down.
I got quiet. And then I got quieter. And then I got silent. That’s when the magic happened. I began to keep good company with myself, the kind of company you would keep with a friend instead of an enemy.
With time, Capital Centre became a place for me, a holy place you could say. Not just a place to cook meals or do laundry or complete tasks, but a place to be. The spacious quiet started working on the inaccessible, lost parts of me like a good massage. The silence reached down into the depths where the truest me resided, as if someone put their hands on me and made me feel the presence of my own skin where I had so recently been just bare bones. I was given a sense of myself that I had not experienced previously.
My friend Wanida can sing like the sun. Really. Her voice is radiant, filling up a room with power and heat and intensity. But when she was in college, her voice turned on her. She found out that she had nodes on her vocal chords that needed immediate attention if she were to salvage her singing voice. The doctors recommended months of voice rest, so Wanida complied, tapping on phone receivers, writing on notepads, and signing and signaling as best she could. Months of total silence. After some time, the doctors decided she was a good candidate for surgery, but the recovery from the surgery was more months of voice rest. She went about it again – tapping, gesturing, writing, mouthing. More silence. At the end of the voice rest and the surgery and the voice rest again, Wanida’s voice came back. This time, the sound was different. What emerged from her lungs, her vocal chords, and her mouth was a much stronger, resonant, enduring voice. Bigger and better than it had ever been.
Sometimes we need silence. Not always, but definitely sometimes. If we will comply, if we will receive the moments of quiet contemplation and rest, we might be surprised by what emerged. As much as I didn’t want to engage in the art of shutting up, the solitude offered me gifts I had never, ever received.
Like a desert windstorm, life is often unruly – wild, fierce, and howling. By choosing the stiller and smaller world of voice rest and life rest and mind rest and body rest, I somehow chose the stiller, smaller voice of God.
Though the desert was strange and unfamiliar to me most of the time. I believe God provided a present-day manna amid its desolation. Soul nourishment. Even the Shamal can’t take that away.