On July 15, 1994, at 4:30 in the morning, I dressed and unzipped the tent door. I said goodbye to Bill and put on my backpack. The sun was not yet up, nor were our companions in the other tent. Not a breeze stirred the dusty branches of the Pinon pine tree. I do not recall a single sound, other than my footsteps falling softly on the hard, dry earth.
I was in the desert of New Mexico. The day marked one year since my daughter Kathryn had died. I was still angry, still bewildered, still raw with sadness. I left the campsite and walked down what had once been a riverbank into the bone-dry arroyo, the old river bottom. I asked Jesus to walk with me and set out toward the hint of pre-dawn light. I had no idea where I was going.
I walked for a long time, an hour at least. My destination was a place I believed I would recognize once I found it. I walked through foreign landscape in the growing light. The earth was hard and astonishingly beautiful. I had never before encountered such a variety of earth colours: white and yellow, black and brown, rusty red and soft beige. This was Georgia O'Keefe country (she had lived and painted on this very property). The play of light on these rich colours made me wonder if God had just set down the paint palette and gone off to rinse his brushes.
The rock formations were start-ling, like the hoodoos in the Rocky Mountains or in the Badlands of Alberta. As the sun rose, they cast shadows at my feet and along the walls of the canyons I passed through.
We had come here to meet old and dear friends, John and Nancy. John had been working on his master's thesis in New Mexico, studying solstice ceremonies at the Tewa Village of San Juan Pueblo. This was "Indian country," where the cultures of the Tewa, Navaho Hopi, and Apache enrich everyday life. John and Nancy were our guides to such places as Taos and Chaco Canyon, telling us stories learned from the peoples of this land.
Bill and I are not desert people. We are drawn to water, not cacti. Every summer we camp somewhere near a lake. The desert, we thought, would be interesting but not a place to stay. What's in a desert? Snakes, spiders, wind, rock.
But the desert captivated us. We didn't want to leave. We loved the low sky. We loved the wind and the coyotes, the surprising colours, and the amazing quality of light. We took photographs and hiked. I painted, using the earth itself. We became desert people. And that is why, on July 15, we were still in this place.
It is not possible for me to enter Lent without thinking about walking down the arroyo on that day, holding nothing but my heart. I was stripped bare in that place. Grief does that to you. The desert does that, too. The wind whips words from your mouth. The scorching sun dries your tears. The towering cliffs help you realize your true size.
Eventually, I found the place I was looking for. Beside a huge boulder, I sat down and wept. For a long time I emptied my heart to my God. Eventually, I became still. Suddenly I heard what seemed like a roaring to my left. I turned my head slightly. Hovering so close I could have touched them were two hummingbirds. They stayed a long time, it seemed. My breathing calmed. I relaxed. After some time, they darted away.
Over the remaining days we spent at Ghost Ranch, we hiked daily into the canyons. It was a healing time, simple and good. One day we hiked up another new trail. Because this would be a hot, strenuous climb, we left early enough to reach the summit by 9 a.m. Shortly before we arrived at the top, I sat to rest. Bill detoured down another path in order to see the view from the other side of the ridge. As I sat resting, the sun moved from behind me to the side. As it did, it revealed a rock formation straight ahead of me. I stared in amazement.
I saw a gigantic sculpture; it appeared to me that it was a seated woman with her head bent over something on her lap -- a large, round ball. I imagined this to be Mother Mary cradling the earth. The sun slowly moved again; the shadows changed, too. Bill returned from his sojourn and I stood and pointed to the wondrous sculpture I had seen, but now I was looking at a huge boulder, not Mother Mary. I knew she was there, but try as I might, I could not see her again.
Back at our camp, I painted what I had seen. Today, the painting (which I boldly framed) hangs above my desk, and some days when I have seen too much television news or spent too much time in a concrete place in my heart or mind, I look at her. I remember the desert time. I remember what the arroyo looked like in the predawn stillness. I think about how Jesus went into the desert to be alone with his God. I think about desert and wilderness stories in the Bible and how holy is that place. I give thanks for my companions in the desert and on life's journey who help me find and hold the hand of God, even when it is very dark. Before we left the desert, John told me that there is a traditional Hopi belief that the hummingbird is a messenger between heaven and earth. Like angels. *
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