That’s Why We Came Here

I think often about that Jonathan Safran Foer quote: Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living. I, like most of my friends and loved ones, have a lot of projects and lives I want to pursue, but limited time in a day, and a need for a stable income to pay rent and buy food. I am also a cancer, which means I like making homes {more than wanderlusting around}, and am quite good at it. I wrote somewhere on the internet earlier this year that one of my few really honed skills is making myself feel at home anywhere.

I was explaining to my high school best friend yesterday that I also think often about the person I was before I became a person. How I am trying to learn how to make a home inside of myself instead of making everything else around me into a home. This is something that is very hard for me. I like cleanliness and order. I like to be able to anticipate things because I like being comfortable. I like knowing where and when I’ll get to eat and sleep, and I hate being cold. I frequently find myself not wanting to do certain things because they force me to leave that space of comfort and that feeling of home. I’ve never really known how to just be home in myself. To be comfortable going with the tide. I struggle to find peace inside myself as opposed to outside myself.

My Galactic Rabbit horoscope for this month was the most spot on of any horoscope I’d ever read. Gala wrote: You dreamt a house into being. You dreamt light streaming through a window and falling on the pages of a book, the curled back of an animal that was your animal, a room where everything you cherished was protected from rain and time. You dreamt a life into being and grew into that life, the doorways framing your frame, the kitchen with its endless ritual of making and unmaking. You took the house’s shape and forgot what the dream was built on, by whom. You married an idea and made a vow. You thought you were the house; you forgot how dreams are made.

What I’ve spent the last four years doing is making a life for myself that is perfect and well structured. I hoped this would make up for all the things I did not have: the love of the romantic partners I’ve pursued, money, success, stable roots in a single place. This fall, I made myself a schedule so I could get through my fellowship year with my heart and brain in tact. I even had an instagram hashtag for it: #howtosurvivefellowshipyear. I was going to the beach twice a week, yoga three times a week, volunteering at my regular after school tutoring program on Thursdays, attending weekly writing dates with friends, photography class at the art center up the street, comedy nights across the street. I felt productive and good, but not particularly happy. Just regular. And after a really hard summer, regular was enough.

Since my mid-twenties, I’ve had this kind of weird fantasy about my life that involves moving to a small town in the middle of nowhere, getting a bartending job, and just sort of starting over. I think what I like about this fantasy is that it allows me to leave behind people I’ve hurt or who’ve hurt me. It allows me to hold onto the parts of myself I like and let go of the parts I don’t. I like the idea of starting over, especially because I constantly feel like I’ve made a mess of things everywhere I go. Drama and heartbreak and complications and pressure and expectation. I put myself on a track to become a writer and professor, and that’s the only real thing I’ve been working toward since I was 18. I’ve collected people and a life along the way. I dreamt a house into being. And I became that house. It felt good. And then it felt like nothing. Gala also wrote in my cancer horoscope for October: What happened when the house you built no longer fit you? You let the boards sigh while you paced the floor and packed your life. You were neat and then you were messy. You lay on the ground until the difference between you and the ground was very clear. Then you got up and did what you had to do. You are powerful enough to have many dreams, many lives.

A week ago, I got up off the floor and did what I had to do. I moved to the desert. This is another fantasy I’ve always had, but one that never seemed practical enough to warrant me even trying to figure out how to do it. But on October 1st, I went out to Joshua Tree for a week long artist residency and I ended up being able to stay for two weeks due to another artist canceling during the second week. Two life changing weeks were enough for me to get off the floor and figure out what in my life needed to change for good. I was determined to get back out here, and I was fortunate enough to have connected with the artist who runs the residency. Due to cancelations in other work trade residents who were scheduled to live on her property in exchange for doing work, I’ve been allowed to take their place.

There is something about the land out here that calms me in a way I’ve never experienced before, even when I’m in very relaxing places like tropical beaches or quiet mountains. It’s like the magnetism of the earth or the negative ions or something I don’t entirely understand. Being here slows me down. It slows my speech down and my thoughts down. Nothing feels urgent. I feel no pressure from anything, not even myself. Everything I’ve struggled with until now either feels like it’s not really a problem, or it has become clear enough for me to work through it with grace.

Out in this desert, I am closest to the person I was before I became a person. Before I was anything other than a girl in the suburbs in Littleton, Colorado. When I only had a handful of friends and no true ability to be open or vulnerable. Believe it or not, there was a time when I didn’t talk much and didn’t open up about anything. I was shy and introverted and scared. And I’m still scared, but I’ve become someone much different, for better and for worse. Out here I am reminded of that old self though, but only in the good ways that serve the me I’ve become.

When I was here for the residency, I lived in this wagon station that AZ designed and built. I slept on a comfortable mattress every night with the lid open and my dog next to me. I awoke in the middle of the night to the milky way. I rose with the sun. We had an outdoor kitchen at the encampment where I would cook meals with the other 10 or 12 artists also visiting for the residency. We worked every morning on weekdays from 10am-11am on whatever AZ needed done on the property. Trimming creosote, stacking firewood, fixing rock walls, painting cinder block, sweeping, raking, cleaning the chicken coop. We lived entirely outside. This is something I’ve always been scared to do. But doing it with many others made it feel safe.

Something about living in extreme environmental conditions of the desert and with the bare minimum necessities for comfort—running water, fire to cook food with, something to sleep on—has sharpened my focus. I spend my time more intentionally. My life is structured around when the sun rises and how hot it is. I know always what exact phase the moon is in and how it’s going to affect my ability to navigate the landscape at night. I pee in the sand and poop in a bucket with other people who live on my property. We compost our food and poop across the way from the chicken coop where we sometimes get fresh eggs in the morning. I cook all my meals outside, eat them overlooking the 29 Palms Highway. When I wake up in the middle of the night to pee, I squat underneath a bowl of stars and think about how I am doing this very basic human necessity under the most gorgeous conditions imaginable.img_3501

I’m not trying to fetishize a particular lifestyle and I’m well aware that I likely appreciate these conditions even more because I am privileged enough to have safety, comfort, stability, and more than the bare necessities back home in the city. But this approach to living out here is new to me, and I am constantly in awe of how being more connected to the land and the outdoors is changing my body and my mind.

After my two weeks at the residency were up, I went back to LA for a week to reflect and process. I saw my friends, had meetings with my advisors, tutored my kids, had dinner with some former students, and all I knew was that whatever healing I’d begun in the desert wasn’t finished. Without a definite plan or place to sleep, I drove to the desert last Monday night. I ended up splitting an Airbnb in Pioneertown with a friend who happened to be in the desert for one night. On my drive up, I got an email from the place I’d done the residency confirming that a space had happened to open up that day on the property.

On Tuesday morning, I moved into one of the two shipping containers that have been converted into living spaces with just a bit more accommodations than the encampment, and now I’m waiting for either more cancelations, to be relocated somewhere else on the property if there’s room, or to find a new place to live out here. This uncertainty is something that would have had old me panicked. But I am learning to trust the way that things work out, even if I can’t control or predict them. This has always been my biggest challenge. But out here it barely feels like an issue.

I found a community out in the desert immediately. I worked one shift at the headquarters of the non-profit the artist I work with runs a couple Saturdays ago and all the people who work at the swap meet where the headquarters is located came up to me all day to chat. People have offered me places to live, things to eat, sights to see. Every person I’ve encountered out here has been more hospitable than the last and I can’t even go to the local mechanic to get my car checked out without the shop owner talking to me for an hour about the section 8 housing near the Salton Sea.

I’m working on listening to myself and my needs more than I have historically done. My mom would tell you that I’ve always done whatever I want, and that is true, but often times what I want is to chase after and care for the various people I love. I feel beholden to them and to love in a way that makes me stuck sometimes. Especially when what I feel beholden to is the same men again and again who never feel quite as beholden to me. Out here, I am just with myself. And the dog. I have a new community of people who don’t know any of my history. I am volunteering at the Community Center’s Saturday brunch and at the HDTS headquarters. I know the local bar and restaurant and café owners. And the woman who blesses animals with sage. And the woman who crochets amazing creatures. And the man who works at the gas station in the town of Amboy {population: 8ish}.

In exchange for living on this property, I am helping AZ work on a new log book of places in the desert. This means my job entails visiting cool sites, interviewing people, learning local histories, meeting strangers, photographing things, and writing about all of it. This is the third of my main fantasies for my life. I’ve wanted to be a radio journalist for as long as I’ve been listening to radio, and even though this job doesn’t produce something audible, it feels a lot like what I imagine parts of a radio journalist {or any journalist}’s job might feel like.

I’ve made three fantasies into one reality: moving to a new town and starting over at a new, different job; becoming some kind of journalist/reporter/travel writer; living in the desert. Everything sort of aligned in this gorgeous way that allowed me to trust in this decision. I am on fellowship year and not bound to LA for any practical reason, my friend was thinking of getting a cat so is watching mine as a test run, the two main students I’ve tutored for years left the tutoring center for a different center just a couple weeks ago, cancelations opened up space for me to live for free on this property, the relationship I was in ended abruptly when I moved back to LA in August, etc etc etc.

I have so much more to say about the desert, but I’ve already gone on long enough. So I’ll just share a few of my favorite things that have happened since I got out here on October 1st:

Running into all my friends at breakfast at a local Wonder Valley bar called The Palms, which serves delicious and very inexpensive breakfast on Saturdays. Then climbing the Kelso Dunes with said friends. Then BBQing next to a giant man made salt lake at a salt mine in Wonder Valley until after sundown. Then skinny dipping with said friends in the salt lake, floating in the cool salt water under the new moon, star filled sky. The water looked like a glass mirror. Like the whole sky had fallen to earth and come to rest there in the basin of the valley named for the only feeling that place truly inspires in me, which is wonder.

Driving down to Mecca one day a few weeks ago with friends to do the strangest slot canyon hike in the painted hills. A hike that defeated me when I tried it solo in March, but a hike I was able to do this time with friends. Then stopping at a date farm oasis for date milkshakes, of which I drank one and a half. Then lunch at an excellent Mexican place in La Quinta. Then a long sunset hike through the wash behind the camp when we got back. 

All the days we worked on refurbishing these old homestead cabins in Wonder Valley that AZ is making into art/living spaces. Raking and sweeping the desert, trading stories, watching the clouds paint the sky.

The day I went to the Integratron and did a sound bath that left me in a state of awake/asleep limbo. Then having my tarot cards read by the most beautiful soul in the back of her van she’d converted into a living space. She confirmed all the most important things I always thought I knew about myself, and I cried tears of burden and release to her while bombs went off in the distance. I laughed at the drama of it all, because given my penchant for the dramatic, nothing would have suited my card reading more than to have literal bombs exploding in the distance, especially given that the tentative title of my book project about the desert is Out In This Desert We Are Testing Bombs.

The night we saw Peaches at Pappy & Harriet’s.

The day we went swimming in the small rock pool at a nearby commune in exchange for magnetic iron ore sand that I dug up with a giant magnet and delivered to the head of the commune. Then wandering one of the HDTS parcels looking for the art installations that dot the landscape.

The morning my friend and I hiked to this nearby oasis and had been talking about how we wouldn’t likely see big horned sheep because it was still too early in the season. Then seeing a herd of them run by as my dog chased them onto a ridge where the sun caught them perfectly in the distance.

Out here, I meet the sweetest people. I hear the coolest stories. I get to hike every morning and evening, often with my friends J & A who lived out here well before I did and who keep me sane and clear headed and who take such good care of me and my dog. The night I went to Peaches, they let her sleep over and they texted me this photo of her having a puppuccino from Starbucks.


Out here, I can be whoever I want. And whoever that is will be accepted. Because we’re all out here for a lot of different reasons. And everyone seems to get that. I may not feel entirely seen, but I feel entirely safe, quiet, and strong. Maybe you will roll your eyes at how cheesy this all sounds. But I won’t be able to see you. Because I’ll be here, looking out at this gorgeous view of the desert that is now my home.


**A note about my favorite poem, from which this post gets its title:

Adrienne Rich’s “Trying to Talk With a Man” is my favorite poem for two reasons. The first of which is that it is about the desert and begins with my favorite lines of all time: Out in this desert we are testing bombs/that’s why we came here.

The second reason it is my favorite is because the poem is really about two things. It is about the desert and it is about love. She starts by saying that Out in this desert we are testing bombs/that’s why we came here. But in the end she says:

Out here I feel more helpless
with you than without you
You mention the danger
and list the equipment
we talk of people caring for each other
in emergencies – laceration, thirst –
but you look at me like an emergency
Your dry heat feels like power
your eyes are stars of a different magnitude
they reflect lights that spell out: EXIT
when you get up and pace the floor
talking of the danger
as if it were not ourselves
as if we were testing anything else.
Just those last two lines. As if it were not ourselves/as if we were testing anything else. How being out here is about being in the desert, but how it is also about testing the limits of our own capacities to be and love and exist. Out in this desert I am testing a lot of things, most of all, myself.

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