Unfolding the Map
Don't you ever feel like you just want to get rid of all the clutter in your life? William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) presents the desert as minimalist, which gets me to muse on the clutter and complexity in my life, and how I might use the desert as an inspiration to simplify. If you want to see the spare and barren place in Texas that inspired all of reflection, click on the thumbnail of the map at right.
"Somewhere near Eagle Flat, before a rider-against-the-sky horizon, I stopped to rest from the buck of sidewinds. Annual rainfall here averaged less than seven inches, and the Rio Grande to the south often ran dry before it crossed the desert. Spindly ocotillo stalks, some twenty-five feet high and just coming into orange blossom, bent under the north wind. Creosote bushes had cleared dead zones by secreting a toxic substance from their roots to insure whatever moisture fell they would get....
"Between the creosote and stony knobs streamlined by gritty winds grew grasses in self-contained clumps and cactuses compacted like fists. Everything as spare and lean as a coyote's leg. Under that sprawl of sky and space, the minimal land somehow reduced whatever came into it, laying itself austerly open as if barren of everything except simplicity. But it was a simplicity of form - not content."
Blue Highways: Part 4, Chapter 9
Eagle Flat, Texas
I wish I were like the desert as LHM describes it. Not the dead zones created by toxic creosote secretions in a desperate attempt to capture water. Nor do I want to be a spindly ocotillo plant, or other spiny desert plant that lures one with beautiful blossoms but can pack a sharp stab if one gets too close or touches them. I've met people like that in my life, have been hurt by a few of them, and I don't want to emulate them.
What I'd truly like to emulate at this stage in my life is the minimalism and the simplicity that the desert teaches. I live a life of plenty, at least for me. My wife and I both work, which in the economy as it stands as I write is a good thing. We are busy people, always doing things. Our calendars are packed with work things and events, public service, and entertainment. My wife is more busy than I am usually, with her journalism, her radio work, and her presidency of a national women's journalism organization. However, I often go 4-5 days a week without getting home until eight or nine at night. I belong to a group that eats once a month with men who just got out of jail and are in a halfway house, a bit of normalcy and generosity that we hope they can carry with them and perhaps keep them from going back into jail. I get together with friends. My wife and I like to do cultural things together. I stay at work often later than I need. I manage to fill my time without even knowing how.
Our house reflects our lives, because we are not in it much. It is cluttered and difficult to clean. We don't spend the time we need to cull the things in our life down to what we need. We get frustrated with it, but we continue live our lives and wonder when we'll ever get to making our home more manageable. We keep bringing in more stuff, which we have to find room for. We keep scheduling events, and the chores go undone.
Sometimes we have trouble communicating, because we are so involved with things that it limits the time we can have discussion together. It has led to some difficult times between us. The clutter of our lives makes it easy to get distracted from the hard things we should discuss. In the past couple of years, frustration with this state of our lives, along with professional worries, lead me down a path that was destructive and hurtful. It was a time of pain and guilt, and a time I exacerbated due to my actions.
My thoughts and feelings have also been a welter of complexity that in many cases hasn't served me in good stead. I tend to be a sensitive person emotionally that overthinks things, puts two-and-two together when it doesn't add up in reality, and blames myself for pretty much everything. When I perceive someone's hurt or pain, I make a great effort to help or to fix it. I prop people emotionally, or at least try, and spiral downard if I can't do anything about it. At the same time, I minimize my own emotional hurt and pain, and convince myself that I am a net cause of hurt and pain and inadequate to helping others. Counseling, and the advice of friends, over the years has convinced me intellectually that I am being unrealistic if I think I'm the holder of all the bad in the world. Emotionally, I'm still trying to get there. Thankfully, my wife is taking this journey with me and we are moving forward, together.
I wrote before about how some have found stability through removing themselves in some way from the world. I can't do that. I'm drawn to it in some ways, especially during hard times, but that feels to me like just a reaction, not a lifestyle. But I do look to the desert, and LHM's words remind me that the desert offers a lesson.
Here is a portion of the world where minimalism is not a luxury or a fad, but a necessity. Life exists in balance. In the desert, any plant or animal that exceeds its alotted portion will wreak untold havoc upon the rest of the ecosystem. Any plant or animal that falls short will suffer personal consequences - it will go hungry or thirsty, or in the worst cases die. Each plant and animal does what it needs to survive. No more, no less. It is a simplicity that I would do well to emulate both in my actions and in my thoughts and feelings, to simply accept myself as I am and be satisfied with that person in all my glories and all my faults - the blossoms and the spines.
The paradox, as LHM points out, is that the desert shows that simplicity of form does not mean simplicity of content. It is in the letting go, the search for a simpler life, the search for harmony, and the desire for inner and outer peace that allows us, when we find it, to understand the complexity and the beauty that is us and our lives. So, as I sit writing today, in my cluttered office in my cluttered house, I have Hildegard von Bingen's music playing in the background - her complex melodies underscoring the simplicity she desired of her daily life in a 12th century convent and her simple desire to be closer to God. My house is situated in a desert gussied up by civilization, but at its heart still a desert and therefore, if I look, a further example of simplicity that can inspire me. It was here long before humans showed up, and it will be here long after we, our dramas and complexities, are gone. It has reached some kind of universal understanding that I cannot fathom, but that I can strive to understand if I set aside or at least minimize my complexities for a while.
In the spirit of how I wrote above, I made a video of pictures I took in West Texas, specifically Big Bend, the Davis Mountains and the Guadalupe Mountains. Unfortunately, the video didn't turn out as well as I'd like - my video software on my desktop is not as good as it could be - but the music is from the same Hildegard von Bingen album I was listening to as I wrote. The video will give you the sense of the desert out there. I'll upgrade the video when I get access to my laptop - which is with my wife on a trip right now.
Addendum: Evidently, if you're in Germany you can't see my video with the Hildegard von Bingen music as it's been blocked. So, below is a silent version. Find Hildegard's O Vis Aeternitatis, put it on, and watch the video. Sorry - but evidently one just can't put music to a video any more and post it on the web. What is the Internet coming to?
If you want to know more about Eagle Flat...
...today you will just have to be content with the minimalism that the desert has to offer. There isn't anything in Eagle Flat but the desert, which is in the spirit of this post anyway. Take some time, if you can, to sit with Hildegard von Bingen or in silence, even if it's only for a minute. Take away the complexities of life and enjoy the feeling of being.
Next up: El Paso, Texas