I used to watch the summer monsoons as if they were a picture show.
Our house was perched at the top of a hill overlooking Tucson. Every August, thunderheads would roll over the bluish hills and send their pencil-sketch lightning bolts down over the glittering city.
I’d turn off all the lights, spin the barrel rocking chairs around to face the gigantic picture window in the living room and watch the lightning touch down. Their eerie glow lit the city for a moment, all the houses and buildings bright as day. Then rain would come, its thrum steady on the ceramic roof.
I could almost hear the plants slurping up each drop.
In the desert, rain is always a gift. It changes everything. The morning after a storm the landscape transforms. Shrubs sprout new leaves, soft green shoots come out of what looked like dead twigs. Days later, the tall tips of the ocotillo would be crowned with orange-red flowers that I would pluck and drink for nectar.
The soil would give thanks for rain with softness and green and the great exhaling scent of water mixing with humus.
I have lived almost all my life in deserts: Phoenix and Tucson and now San Diego.
I was astonished, as a new transplant, back in seventh grade to discover that San Diego is a desert, its annual rainfall less than Tucson. Come here and you might miss that too.
People have forced it green.
Hawthorn shrubs, related to blueberries, grow in front of every tract house, lantana and ice plant the de rigueur groundcovers, green and pink, pink and sage, green green green.
I love my hometown, but sometimes it lies about who it is.
Both Tucson and San Diego drain more than their fair share of water from the Colorado. The whole Southwest is a suckling pig.
But you would never miss the desert in Arizona; it surrounds you. Tucson especially does not hide it. No, that city wears its desert shrubs and cacti like crown jewels.
The prettiest rose I ever saw bloomed on the prickly pear next to our old swimming pool. Come springtime, the layers of fuschia silk would swell and burst open like the full skirt of a rich woman. The rest of the year the cactus would be pale green and yellow, sheathed in thorns and spiders, but on those weeks where it bloomed you would realize what beauty really is.
It is softness and whimsy and lush color in an achingly dry setting.
I think of Jesus in the desert, tempted by rocks turned to bread, and I wonder what we are doing to the desert when we think we can turn its dry twigs into lawns. I wonder about the false miracles we conjure when we pretend the land we live on is more fertile than it is.
When we pretend our lives are more fertile than they are.
I wonder why we turn our souls from the desert even though it is all around us, whether we live there or not.
On this soul-parched earth, we are all of us desert-dwellers. We are all waiting thirsty for living water. Let us not cover over the dry soil. Let us hold hands and acknowledge each other’s thirst.
Let us be honest about the months where rain does not come, and does not come, so that when the lightning arcs across the sky we are ready, hearts thumping, to drink.