WHAT MAKES THE DESERT BEAUTIFUL

“The stars are beautiful because of a flower you don’t see . . .”

“What makes the desert beautiful,” the Little Prince said, “is that it hides a well somewhere . . .”

A dear friend of mine lost his mother-in-law recently. Every weekend over the past years he and his wife had traveled a long highway to visit with her, only returning home to start a new week of work. It was exhausting.  Recently, she died. Some time later he passed by her home.

“It feels weird,” he said after that. “For so many years I’ve gone there and now she’s not there. “

Every presence denotes an absence, and absence denotes presence; you can’t have one without the other. We think we know that. For example, we know that life is followed by death; someone is present, till s/he’s not.

But when someone is present, do we see the absence there at the same time? Or when someone is absent, do we see their presence simultaneously? Usually we’re stuck in one or the other. But right after loss, it feels as though you have one foot in one and one foot in the other. You experience absence and presence all at the same time.

What makes the desert beautiful is that it hides a well somewhere. What makes this hot summer day so green is that it hides piles of snow, and what makes the light so bright is that it hides a dark, moonless night (except for the fireflies that do their magic along the edges of the forest).

Bernie and I once discussed Buddhist groups and people who do hallucinogens in order to experience a different reality.

“Zen is about seeing things as they are,” he said. “Nothing extra, just as they are.”

“Much is hidden inside,” I said.

He looked at me. “You have so much imagination,” he mused.

On the 49thday of his death I walked in the deep woods and emerged at the top of the farm that Zen Peacemakers had owned for a decade or so. A crow cawed from the top of a very large willow tree we once considered taking down to make room for water and sewage pipes. Each time I see that tree I think of how close it came to dying.

A blue car, a little like Bernie’s, came down the drive, circled the island that contained the big willow, and then drove out without stopping. There was no wind anywhere, but leaves fluttered madly.

I wish I knew how to read these things.