Justification by Location, Part I

I’ve been thinking lately about the oft-repeated saying:  “On their deathbed people seldom wish they had spent more time at the office.”  OK, but if I don’t utter such a wish on my deathbed — extremely unlikely in my case  –, what will I say, assuming I can say anything?  It occurred to me that it might be something like:  “At least I’ve lived in interesting places.”

Maybe all of us live in interesting places, which we would realize if we had the luxury of getting to know our surroundings in a deep way.  Also, different places may strike us as interesting or not depending on our age or whether we are happy in a job or have friends there.

When I was younger, I thought big cities were inherently interesting simply because a lot of people lived in them, which necessitated tall buildings, restaurants, display windows with mannequins in elegant or avant-garde clothes and avenues of women actually wearing them, theaters, subways and general hubbub.   My hometown, Wheeling, West Virginia, was uninteresting because it had none of those things.  So I left home and went to college in New York;  a little later I lived in Philadelphia, and long after that I worked in Chicago.  Once I spent a summer in Paris, which I guess counts as living there.  I’m no longer in a big city, but that’s the subject for another post.

After having been gone from Wheeling for almost fifty years, I haven’t changed my mind to the point where I want to go back there to live.  But neither am I sure I would find it uninteresting.

A couple of years ago PBS published a photo-essay online about some young idealists, including one from New York, who planted an urban garden in the shadow of an overpass that cuts through a decaying neighborhood in Wheeling, a slowly decaying city.  http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/farm-urban-ruins/  At the time the essay was published, the young urban farmers were negotiating with the city to purchase some additional acres in Vineyard Hills, the site of a public housing complex whose primarily African-American residents had been displaced when it was torn down years ago.  Now the site is abandoned and overgrown, with rotting lampposts and moss-covered steps the only sign that a community once lived there.  But someday soon it may be covered with tiered vegetable gardens.

This is what Danny Swan, one of the farmers, sees when he looks around him:

What really excites me about Wheeling is what turns so many people off about Rust Belt towns or makes them feel sad and depressed: the vacant buildings, the vacant lots, the infrastructure that’s here for 80,000 people when only 30,000 people live here … Because what can you do with a vacant lot? You can take this piece of land that was basically an overgrown garbage dump five years ago, and you can produce $20,000 worth of food there. You can create something new.

In other words, there are different ways to look at a lack of people, abandoned buildings and overgrown lots, ways that don’t necessarily involve disdain or even nostalgia or a Romantic aesthetics of decay.  You can look at a place and see its future, filling in the empty spaces with an imagined bounty.  It seems my hometown is a more interesting place than I would have guessed.

When I say “interesting,” though, I’m thinking of landscapes, natural mostly but also built:  iconic landscapes like Jackson Hole and the Teton range, exotic landscapes like the Sonoran Desert.  I’m thinking of the West.  I congratulate myself, if only subconsciously, for having escaped dreary Wheeling and then, finally, the placid, cultivated Upper Midwest.  I think:  if on my deathbed I can make no other claim to having lived a good life than that I chose to live in these interesting places, I will feel justified.

But it will be a strange justification if all I have done my whole life is to trade one interesting place for another, if I have chosen compelling landscapes while abandoning others.  Where is the merit in a simple failure of imagination?   In cultivating the earth farmers like Danny Swan also cultivate precisely the sort of sustained attention and patience that are necessary to find anywhere interesting.

Well, I have ended up in the mountain West and the desert Southwest.  The interest of these places is obvious, if not to everyone’s taste.  Maybe by ferreting out what isn’t so obvious — so beautiful, so sublime, so austere —  I’ll merit the privilege of being here now.  This is the direction I’ll try to follow in future posts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yesterday, November 10, 2016

Early yesterday morning, November 10th, I sat on the edge of our bed facing the window. I had my eyes closed because I had been meditating and then praying, or what I take to be praying. When I opened them, the sun was just catching the fronds of the palm trees. They were swaying in the strong wind that’s been blowing here ever since Election Day in a real-life demonstration of the “pathetic fallacy,” the attribution of human emotion to nature. But the effect of the sun on the palms countered whatever ominous significance the wind carried. It produced the illusion of waving spangles threaded through the palm fronds, or mysterious, self-renewing sparklers that failed to ignite the palms themselves. I’ve seen this effect often, though usually early in the evening when the wind blows up before calming again after sunset. It is always magical, arresting, and so it was yesterday.

Like meditation and prayer, beauty was an interruption, a caesura, all the more startling because my eyes had been closed, and all the more unexpected given the anxiety, anger and sorrow I’ve felt since election night. It could have come in any number of forms, but as it happened the beauty was specific to the place I live, southern Arizona.

It’s hard just now to heed all the calls for reconciliation and resilience and resistance, but it isn’t hard to succumb to the beauty of this environment, to the light that progresses from roseate glow at dawn, to glinting, to palpable and all-pervasive at mid-day, to the copper-gold halo above darkened mountains at sunset.

Today, the wind has finally stopped howling around our townhouse and scattering dried husks off the trunks of the palm trees. But as always here, the light remains.

Lucy Redux, or Taking Your Neighbors Where You Find Them

For two years people in our neighborhood have been waking up to Lucy’s nasally, braying honk. She starts anywhere from three in the morning to just before sunrise, and her voice really carries, so it might be more accurate to say that people have been woken up for two years.

Lucy is a domestic white goose, and how she ended up in a pond on the seventh hole of a country club golf course is still a mystery. Soon after Lucy’s appearance one of the houses on the seventh hole went on the market, possibly because the owners were not voluntary early risers. But it eventually sold; it is, after all, a luxury home in what you could call Desert Brutalist style, with strong horizontal lines in concrete and stone, and a lot of glass, so that from the street you have a clear view from the front door to the back wall and through to the edge of Lucy’s pond. I wondered whether Arizona’s real estate forms contain a line for disclosure of “nuisances,” among which Lucy could certainly be considered one.

Nevertheless, Lucy has thrived. The people who live near, if not on, the course christened her shortly after her arrival and fed her bread crumbs and animal crackers. They celebrated when Lucy laid eggs, and someone put up a “Do Not Disturb” sign near her nesting place under a low palm. As it turned out, Lucy was a little confused about the facts of life, as were perhaps her human neighbors, since no one had ever seen another goose on the pond. Not one little Lucy hatched, and after nearly a month of futile brooding big Lucy gave up and returned to her normal routine.

One day a few weeks ago I took one of my regular early morning walks on the front nine and noticed that Lucy wasn’t at the pond. Then I remembered that I hadn’t heard her honking the past few days. When Lucy was still missing from the pond the next time I went for a walk, I started asking after her.

If you don’t know what’s going on in your neighborhood, there’s a very good chance one of your neighbors does. This assumes that you actually live in something that can still be called a neighborhood and not in an anonymous aggregation of strangers. In fact, one definition of “neighborhood” might be a smallish area in which news is communicated informally from one resident to another, face-to-face.

Anyway, this is the definition I’ve come up with thanks to Lucy. On one of my walks I passed some residents and stopped to ask them if they knew anything about her. They told me that Lucy had been hit by a golf ball and taken away for medical care, and that she was supposed to be returned in several weeks.

Poor Lucy! What were the odds of that little head getting beaned by a golf ball, and after all the months she had lived on a golf course? Jim suspected someone might have hit her with a club in the interests of a good night’s sleep. But someone else in my yoga class, which meets in the clubhouse, said no, a member of a foursome had teed off, not seen that Lucy was in the path of his ball, and knocked her out. The foursome had immediately rushed to her aid, wrapping her in towels and calling around to various veterinary ERs before reaching the Tucson Wildlife Center, which has experience with wild web-footed patients. Lucy’s medical bills were paid by the responsible golfer and other sympathetic residents.

Last Saturday Lucy was returned to her pond, to much fanfare. A bunch of us, plus a local television station news crew, watched as the Wildlife Center volunteers lugged her crate to the edge of the pond and opened the door. Lucy immediately waddled down the embankment and slid into the water. Her immediate neighbors, a pair of mallard ducks, swam over in apparent welcome. A few minutes later Lucy let out a moderate-decibel honk, and everyone clapped and cheered.

On the news that evening Lucy was described as the club estates’ mascot. They showed an X-ray of her injuries. There was Lucy’s long neck in ghostly grays, with a necklace strand of vertebrae and at the top a tiny skull missing a small chunk. It seemed remarkable that she should be back with us, but she has resumed her vigorously unmelodious paeans to the break of day.

We humans, meanwhile, had a brief experience of community around an animal rather than as a consequence of social class. The inherently privileged locus of a golf course made it possible, of course.  Many of the residents already know each other — often enough through golf and socializing at the club.

And then, it always seems easier to rally around an animal in need than a fellow human.

Still, this momentary community came together around the unexpected and, in fact, the uninvited.  We didn’t put Lucy in the pond.  She somehow seems to have chosen us.  Nor are geese the most endearing members of the animal world.  Aside from her honk Lucy can be irascible.  She once hissed at me when I offered her some bread, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

For all that, she set the mechanisms of neighborliness in motion.  If it was only a golf ball and a goose, it was a start.

Lucy arrives back at the pond, with a television crew.

Lucy arrives back at the pond, with a television crew.

Hearty volunteers from the Tucson Wildlife Center

Hearty volunteers from the Tucson Wildlife Center

Will Lucy recognize her pond after three weeks in the hospital?

Will Lucy recognize her pond after three weeks in the hospital?

Yes, she's back in the swim.

Yes, she’s back in the swim.

My Lucy badge, which a neighbor created and passed out.

My Lucy badge, which a neighbor created and passed out.

 

 

 

 

 

Omen, comic, bad boy, bird: Reggie the magpie

Photo found at Audubon.org

Photo found at Audubon.org

I have been feeding a magpie that comes to our deck in Wyoming. I have even had the temerity to anthropomorphise him by naming him “Reggie.”

Reggie observes me from a lower branch of the blue spruce that overhangs part of the deck while I toss large baguette crumbs onto a far corner. Next he jumps down to the low railing on the side of the deck and then onto the deck itself, where he walks with swift, deliberate strides over to the bread. If I toss a crumb closer to where I’m sitting, he hops towards it sideways, his glistening black eye turned upwards as if to study my face. I try to remain impassive. Reggie snatches the crumb and hops back onto the railing and eventually flies away, his wings elegant white fans ribbed in black.

The Reggie who appears at our deck on any given day may in fact not be Reggie; like their cousins the ravens and crows, magpies communicate information to one another. Thus, Reggie may have passed along to other members of his colony (for magpies are very sociable birds and live in groups) that the humans on this particular deck, under the branches of this particular blue spruce, toss out edible food and do not move.

Reggie may not even be a male, since the magpie sexes are indistinguishable by their plumage. Females are somewhat smaller, but there is only ever one magpie that hops onto our deck, so we can’t make comparisons.

You can see the black-white-and-blue flash of magpies everywhere in Jackson Hole: in town, along roadsides, in the sagebrush flats, on fenceposts. They swagger across fields and roads like young toughs, their sleek black heads thrusting forward as they walk and their long tails dragging behind them like the train of a black satin ball gown.

From our bedroom overlooking the deck, we hear their unmistakable chuks, squawks, whistles and, most surprising, a throaty, burbling murmur that they manage through closed beaks, like avian ventriloquists.

Magpies were once more widespread in the United States than they are today, but they have become an almost exclusively western bird, with the Mississippi their eastern-most boundary. In the nineteenth century they were a symbiotic species with the bison that roamed the Great Plains, feeding off insects in the animals’ hides. But the near-extinction of bison chased magpies farther west.   They were, and are, not much loved. Magpies feed on crops and pick at open wounds on livestock, and farmers and ranchers still try to poison and shoot them.

But I am something of a parasite here myself, feeding off the land with my eyes, or at most tramping or riding over it with car or bicycle tires. So I have no reason to begrudge magpies their rowdy ways, or indeed to see them as anything other than handsome jokesters.

Still, if ranchers and farmers haven’t influenced my opinion of magpies, folklore might have. Magpies were once thought to bring bad luck. A single magpie perched on your windowsill was a harbinger of death. The English had elaborate formulae for greeting a lone magpie to avoid bad luck; for example, one was supposed to repeat “I defy thee” seven times. Alternatively, one should inquire after the magpie’s wife or greet it with “sir.”

An old English counting rhyme about magpies goes as follows:

One for sorrow,
Two for mirth,
Three for a wedding,
Four for a birth,
Five for rich,
Six for poor,
Seven for a witch —
I can tell you no more.

But this is the American West, not the Old World: there are no birds of misfortune here, only avian opportunists. Omens seem so European, and Poe’s doomy raven owes more to that world than this empty, bright one.

I learned something else about magpies when I began studying them: the magpie is the only bird known to recognize its image in a mirror. If you stain some of its white breast feathers red, it preens itself intensely to make the red stain go away. In some basic sense it knows that “I am I, and that is me.”

Even if I don’t know for sure whether that magpie is Reggie.

And even if I myself sometimes doubt that the “I” who lives here within view of part of the Teton range, a place I had never visited until eight years ago, is the “I” of past decades and other landscapes.

Reggie and his clan, meanwhile, in their gentlemen’s suits out of some Dickensian lithograph, wear their identities with mocking aplomb. They can tell me no more.

 

 

Bisbee, AZ: The town too odd to die

My friend Suzanne told me that if she were hiding out from the law, she might think about moving to Bisbee. I can see what she meant, having recently returned from a two-day trip there with Jim and our friends Mel and Lynn.  Ninety miles southeast of Tucson, Bisbee is an old copper mining town that tumbles down the sides of two canyons in the Mule Mountains.  It’s just eleven miles from Naco, across the border in Mexico: one of the main streets of downtown Bisbee is Naco Road (although, like Nogales, there are two Nacos, one in Arizona and one in Sonora).

We had barely parked the car upon arriving when we noticed four men walking down one of Bisbee’s many narrow side streets; three of them were wearing orange jumpsuits with the faded letters “A.D.C.” on the back. They were not wearing leg chains or handcuffs, and in fact they walked as if, like us, they were simply strolling through town to take in the sights. But during our stay we saw many men in orange jumpsuits performing tasks that might otherwise have been assigned to municipal sanitation workers or county road crews. They were even opening doors for tourists at the old Queen Mine visitors’ center. There’s a state prison in nearby Douglas.

Since Bisbee is probably short on revenue other than what it brings in from tourism, cheap labor is a good deal, as it was for the copper and silver mining companies back in the day. When the I.W.W. wooed Bisbee’s miners in 1917, the sheriff and an army of vigilantes rounded up known union sympathizers, herding them first into a ballpark and then into boxcars, in which over 1,000 of them were shipped off to Columbus, New Mexico.  Columbus was not much of a destination;  it had been attacked and burned the previous year by Pancho Villa. The upstart miners and everyone else who’d had the misfortune to be mistaken for one of them were warned never to return.

In Bisbee they call it the “Deportation.”

Maybe it was the men in orange jumpsuits, or Bisbee’s claustrophobic placement in two narrow canyons, or maybe it was the fact that it began raining shortly after we got there; but altogether Bisbee had something of the sinister about it, in an antiquated sort of way. The town was like an elderly aunt who seems harmless at first sight but about whose dark past you have vague intimations: it’s in her eyes or maybe it’s those big, vintage onyx rings on her arthritic fingers.

Founded in 1880, Bisbee grew to be the biggest city between St. Louis and San Francisco in the early 1900’s, with a population of 20,000. It is now home to around 5600. The miners are mostly gone except for some old-timers: high grade copper ore, which was first mined underground and later in a large, orangey open pit, ran out in the mid-1970’s, and the mines were closed. In the meantime, though, as we learned at our obligatory tour of the old Queen Mine, 3 billion pounds of copper had been extracted, along with millions of ounces of gold, zinc and lead. In fact, Bisbee sits on one of the richest mineral deposits in the world.

Entrance to the Queen Mine.  In the foreground, intrepid tourists

Entrance to the Queen Mine. In the foreground, intrepid tourists

A fire burned much of the commercial district to the ground in 1908, but almost all the buildings in today’s small downtown date from the early teens of the last century, lending Bisbee its old Western town charm. But also its ghostliness; the fact that Bisbee is surrounded by actual ghost towns might also have something to do with that. And the Copper Queen, Arizona’s oldest continuously-run hotel (it opened in 1902), has billed itself for years as a place where guests should not be surprised by a brush with the para-normal. This sells, apparently, because a nearby boutique hotel, Canyon Rose Suites, also lists occasional visitors from the spirit world as one of its amenities. Meanwhile, outside on the cracked sidewalks and steep alleyways there are always a few people, but not many. In short, Bisbee has an embalmed air.

The Copper Queen Hotel

The Copper Queen Hotel

Or it would have, were it not for graffiti, somewhat painterly but including the F-word in large black letters, on a sheet metal wall blocking off an overgrown open space between two buildings. Or the chain-smoking, hard-bitten artist who lounges outside her gallery of collages and metal sculptures on Naco Road. Or the tiny, brick-walled Cornucopia Café on Main Street, which serves vegan soups and the best egg salad sandwich ever. Or the Shady Dell, where you can stay in lovingly restored and determinedly campy vintage trailers. Leaving town on Tombstone Drive you pass a gas station-turned-pizzeria called the Screaming Banshee. It just seems fitting.

Sometime back in the 1970’s, hippies and artists from California and elsewhere in Arizona discovered Bisbee and its rock-bottom housing market. In the 90’s there was another influx of folks looking for affordable vintage housing in a mountain setting. People opened restaurants, coffee shops, antique stores and art galleries. There’s a bicycle shop and a micro-brewery. This demographic shift of miners to bohemians revived Bisbee’s economy just enough to keep it scraping by on a vaporous diet of regional history and B-level tourist curiosity.

 

Part of downtown Bisbee

Part of downtown Bisbee

Bisbee has a lot of small, quirky hotels

Bisbee has a lot of small, quirky hotels

Bisbee's houses spill down the hillsides

Bisbee’s houses spill down the hillsides

We had booked rooms in a bed and breakfast just above town on Tombstone Canyon road. It might also have had ghosts, but perhaps the owners didn’t want to capitalize on ghostly children: the B&B was an elementary school from 1918 until the early 30’s. Each of its high-ceilinged rooms and suites, off long hallways, are school-themed. We were in the Arithmetic suite, and our friends Lynn and Mel were in the Library suite.

What is it that brings out the nostalgic in bed and breakfast owners? Or what aesthetic impulses are at work in certain people such that they feel called to open bed and breakfasts? There seems to be some symbiotic relationship between quilted hearts and muffins served to a handful of guests every morning at seven. To be sure, you don’t find many Mid-Century Modern B&Bs.  The bed and breakfast is so entwined with Victoriana that nostalgia is a given. In the case of our B&B, that nostalgia took the inevitable turn to excess: teddy bears and dolls, a tiny wood-and-metal school desk in our sitting room, lace doilies, old textbooks, tiny porcelain rabbits in a schoolroom setting, and, somewhat incongruously, faded reproductions of French Impressionist paintings in faux-gilt frames. Down in the dining room, with its outdated television, VCR tapes and afghan-draped sofas, the round dining tables were set with placemats of indeterminate color on tablecloths shiny from years of laundering. But the sheer profusion of schoolhouse memorabilia distracted from the dining area’s threadbare aspect.

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A detail of the Arithmetic Suite.

 

A tender, possibly Edwardian, moment on our dresser at the B&B

A tender, possibly Edwardian, moment on our dresser at the B&B

Presiding over this treasure-trove of mannequins and country-style fabric was our jovial host, a man of perhaps sixty, eager to tell us about the B&B’s past incarnations and full of little jokes. B&B hosts are almost always couples, but I was never quite sure who made up the school house’s distaff side, unless it was the Mexican-American woman who made fresh salsa for the breakfast tables. The salsa was good, and the coffee was strong.

Our night was quiet and undisturbed by mysterious sobbing or soft rustling. No sounds of children playing in the schoolyard at midnight or unexplained bells in the hallway. Although Lynn was rather startled by a large Raggedy Ann doll staring up at her when she opened their door in the morning. The doll had not gone so far as to position itself on Lynn and Mel’s threshold; it was merely part of a pyramid of inanimate figures heaped on a love seat just outside the Library suite.

We visited Bisbee’s History and Mining Museum, a very well-done little museum affiliated with the Smithsonian, and we straddled the tiny train — more like an engine-driven line of hotel luggage carts — into the depths of the old Queen Mine. We had drinks at the Copper Queen’s bar, where the young woman tending bar that night made a great Manhattan. In general, despite the limited dining possibilities in Bisbee, we had to agree we’d tasted some superlatives: the cocktails, the egg salad, the pizzas at Screaming Banshee. But at the end of a day and a half, Jim and Mel agreed they had “done” Bisbee and didn’t need to come back.

Lynn and I disagreed. Not for nothing did AARP’s magazine dub Bisbee one of America’s “quirkiest towns.” And quirky runs deep. You can’t plumb its depths in just a day and a half.

A couple of weeks later during a Lenten retreat in Tucson I happened to hear a homily given by the current rector of tiny St. John’s Episcopal in Bisbee. We’d visited St. John’s, a white frame church built in 1904, like much of Bisbee, by Phelps Dodge, the company that owned most of the mines. A friendly woman working in the adjoining garden had let us into the church on a weekday morning. St. John’s rector is Mexican-American, a different face from the succession of severe white men in white collars who look out from black-and-white portraits in St. John’s vestibule. He based his homily on a book by a friend of his titled “The Future Is Mestizo!”, which was appropriate given that the retreat was devoted to the theme of “migration spirituality.” The rector was both humorous and dynamic. He also serves the parish in Douglas, home of the state prison.

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St. John’s Episcopal in Bisbee

 

Who makes up his community, I wondered. What new spirit life, if any, is housed in St. John’s yesteryear walls? For that matter, what about the gracious, willowy woman who served my egg salad sandwich at the café? Or the pizzeria owners? Who lives in Bisbee? What drew them there or what circumstances or off-kilter affection make them stay? To Lynn and me, Bisbee was a town suspended between dying and an underground energy.  It was a place we still needed to mine.

On Noisy Neighbors and Raindrops

No one quite knows how Lucy got to the pond. A few of our neighbors said someone had brought her into the Estates and left her here, assuming that since she is whiter than bed sheets, she is a domestic goose. But it seems unlikely that anyone would go to the trouble of driving a goose all the way from a farm to a country club golf course — and presumably off-hours, in the dead of night. Our friend Skeeter, a wildlife photographer, thinks Lucy is a Ross’s goose, and if she isn’t that, she is a snow goose, which looks very similar. Whatever Lucy’s true origin, somewhere along the way she got separated from her tribe and kin.

Lucy has lived at the pond on the 15th hole for the past six months, announcing her presence just before dawn with a repetitive, three-note honk — more an adenoidal shriek, really — that reverberates down the narrow, adobe-brick cul de sacs bordering the golf course. We hear her almost half a mile away. Sometimes I wake to her honks in the middle of the night; she is probably alarmed at coyotes or bobcats, our mostly invisible neighbors.

But in the morning Lucy honks because she is demanding her breakfast. Whatever else she lives on, at least one older couple from the neighborhood feeds Lucy stale bread early in the morning, when residents are permitted to walk the course. They have made it a daily ritual. Once I decided to try feeding Lucy myself. She waddled over to inspect the bread crumbs I’d thrown on the grass, looking at me slightly askance with very pale blue eyes. When I extended my arm to offer her another piece of bread, she hissed at me, exposing tiny rows of teeth. A week or so later Jim and I were walking the course and passed the pond. Lucy approached us expectantly in her side-to-side, pigeon-toed gait and continued to follow us for some yards, having apparently forgotten that she’d spurned my bread only days before.

No one really knows whether Lucy is a female. For that matter, most people probably don’t know that the goose’s name is Lucy. Jim and I call her that because it’s what a local resident dubbed her during a casual conversation at a neighborhood dinner: “Lucy” was the clever homonym for “Loosey”, as in “Loosey Goosey.”

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As a water fowl Lucy presumably enjoyed the weather this past weekend. Friday and Saturday it rained for close to forty-eight hours straight, the wettest Jim and I have ever experienced Arizona, except for a trip I once made in December with my parents to visit the mission of San Xavier del Bac, south of Tucson. It was pouring in Phoenix that day, and it continued to pour all the way to San Xavier. After our tour we found a sandwich shop near the University and huddled inside as impromptu creeks rushed down the sidewalks and streets. So my very first memory of Tucson, which I actually saw very little of, is further obscured by sheets of rain.

Jim told me he’d seen water running in the Rillito River, which we have only known as a dry riverbed, though we also know that it can grow to a muddy torrent during the summer monsoons. According to the front page of Saturday’s Arizona Daily Star, Friday set a record for rainfall. A hiker had to be helicoptered out of Sabino Canyon, where the criss-crossing streams can rise rapidly.

Late Saturday afternoon the rain finally stopped. Dense, low clouds were visible from 3200 feet in the Catalina Foothills, but at least something was visible in the sky once again. Light was beginning, ever so slightly, to coalesce out of the clouds.

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On Sunday morning, after Lucy had finished her reveille, the dense fog started to glow, first almost imperceptibly and then, as the sun rose, like some vast, deep-sea colony of microscopic phosphorized creatures translated into air. The colony shape-shifted and separated into smaller colonies, and the sun emerged.  The city was still invisible.  But by early afternoon the fog had burned off, though it took a day for the bricks in our shaded walkway to dry. In the brief, humid interval a spider seized the opportunity to drink and weave.

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On Monday the sky over Tucson was its characteristic deep blue, and the light was approaching, by imperceptible increments, the brightness that throws everything into an impossibly sharp relief, an almost unbearable brightness. This week it almost feels as if we had earned it.

In Tucson, ‘Tis Not the Season

In the thirty years he lived in Hawai’i, Jim says, he never missed the changing seasons of his youth and young adulthood. Perhaps that’s because he spent seven years in San Francisco transitioning between temperate and sub-tropical zones before he moved to O’ahu.

My transition, assuming one was needed, has been this: We arrived in Tucson for our first winter season on December 30, 2012. I, for one, have no strong feelings about the appropriate weather for New Year’s, and given that Jim spent New Year’s Eve and Day in bed with a stomach bug, and I spent the 31st in search of flat-screen TVs, that winter holiday passed in a blur, albeit a sunny one.

Last year we arrived one week before Christmas, a more demanding test of one’s ability to abandon seasonal expectations. All our Christmas tree ornaments were still in Wisconsin, which anyway seemed a more fitting place for anything pertaining to evergreens. However, I had thought to put my vintage aluminum Christmas tree in the car before we left Madison. It was perfect for southern Arizona, the anti-Currier & Ives, sleigh-rides-through-the-snow landscape. Of course, you can buy greenery here, too — along with huge ristras, those grape-like bunches of dried red chiles, the Southwest’s holly berries. But a shiny metal tree felt right for a country of rocks and dry dirt.

 

If anything, people who celebrate Christmas and live in places like Florida or Arizona or Hawai’i get more creative with holiday decorations. Don’t have a spruce in your front yard? Think of all the decorating possibilities for palm trees and cacti, the favorite one being Santa hats atop saguaros. And, of course, people light up their houses here, too, though the electric profiles visible from the street are lower-slung than up north, where the prototypical illuminated house is a two-story colonial.

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In Madison, as, I suspect, in other cities, there is a holiday lights display that is set up in a park near downtown and consists of secular holiday figures — snowmen, reindeers and the like — outlined in hundreds of white lights. You can drive your family through this little electric wonderland, and, indeed, you’d be unlikely to want to go through it on foot after dark in December.

But here in Tucson the privately run botanical garden Tohono Chul sponsors three successive weekends during which you can stroll among lit-up local flora and listen to live music: prickly pears, palms and mesquite trees as you’ve never seen them, and won’t again until next Christmas.

 

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The unaccustomed (to me) juxtaposition of winter holiday trappings with the pale greens of the desert and mild, sunny days has produced a certain seasonal dysphoria, though a not unpleasant one.

In the church’s liturgical year, Advent is also an unsettling time. Waiting is the spiritual posture of the season, and waiting makes us uneasy. We want the present under the tree now, the thing we are waiting for to happen.

Most important, we want to know what it is we’re waiting for. Feeling expectant for no definable reason is the most unsettling of all. We are waiting, waiting — some of us for justice, some for the end time, and others of us simply for the moment when our life emerges from a series of fragments and begins to take shape.

The desert has a way of setting this season in relief, as its peculiarly clear light does with most things. The holidays here seem less a function of climatic cycles than what they really are:  the product of human hopes that compel us, again and again, to celebrate in the dark.

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