I recently read, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (1998) by Belden C. Lane. I picked it up because I was attracted to the words desert and spirituality. The first paragraph of the introduction was enough for me to gamble on the purchase (I confess this was a purchase at a used bookstore). B. Lane begins with his location “far up the Chama River Canyon” and shares with the reader what he sees, which, of course extends to how he sees it. The description is both startling and soothing. Here he invites us to think about the landscape as awesome, not so much in an overt spiritual sense, but clearly his view expands the river and travels upward to the mountain range which he reminds us was called, Sangre de Cristo, by the Spanish. Somehow he also fits Georgia O’Keeffe’s desert beauty in this expansive view as well. I was hooked not just because I like all things Spanish, and I love what New Mexico did to Georgia O’Keeffe, but because it seemed to challenge me to think about what is awesome, beautiful and fearful and how do these often used words affect how I think and act. I was intrigued too by the brief summary on the back of the book. Belden Lane was going to do more of what he did in the first paragraph: bring his love for the wilderness, his spirituality and death ( his mother’s dying), not only within the same book, but on the same page in order to expand and enrich each concept.
I was ready to see things differently. My 10 year old daughter was scheduled to return from a residential treatment facility with no real advancement in understanding her mental illness and absolutely no insightful recommendations on how to transition her back to the community. Well, I thought, if Belden Lane is saying that his mother, who had Alzheimer’s could somehow be understood through his contact with “fierce landscapes” and if this all can strengthen spirituality then I was ready to read.
For what exactly was I hoping? I wanted to feel more than dread that my daughter was coming home to live with us once again. I wanted to see something besides a little girl who seemed resistant to all forms of treatment. I wanted to deepen my understanding and love for her. Of course, reading Belden Lane’s book did not magically make any of the above occur. In fact, I had been working on doing all those things for a long time. I’d say since the day she arrived from Kazakhstan. Belden Lane’s book did, however, give me a different perspective, one which I could and do use when I absolutely cannot make sense of anything that is happening with my daughter. He writes:
“But I didn’t understand how one makes this movement from desert harshness to desert love, and if and when it occurs.
“Naturally there are no guarantees that it ever happens. Some people die in the desert. Others flee as quickly as possible before it can affect them in any serious way. Only a few remain long enough to discover a hard-headed, unromanticized compassion, stripped of the sentimentalism that too often substitutes for love. They are the ones who manage to sustain the terrible and the good without compromising either one.” (p. 217).
“To sustain the terrible and the good without compromising either one.” I wanted to do that. I wanted to get through the desert, or up the mountain or down the river, without believing for one minute that I could control it or change it or even live through it. More than just a simple acceptance, what Belden Lane expresses is true love, authentic and solid. In a place that is so immense and absolutely uncaring as the desert there can spring forth life that is filled with love. This love is not the happy ending of a fairy tale; neither is it the acceptance that is merely a giving-up on life because joy does not last forever love. It is rather, real love. A love that lives in awe at what it beholds. A love that knows when to get close, when to stop demanding answers, and when to take cover.
Now, I admit, that this passage is pretty far into the book to declare the entire book worth the read, but there is such a quality to this book that chapter after chapter encourages the reader, and gently guides him/her until finally you find yourself thinking about what you are leaving out of life. For me, I felt what Belden Lane was saying something I had felt, especially this “sentimental love” when dealing with so many of my daughter’s professional therapists, aides, teachers, etc…. They wanted to see a child that somehow miraculously was spared the trauma of early neglect and then an orphanage. They wanted to believe more than anything else that, given time, my daughter would grow out of missing a healthy early development. They wanted to believe that it was all okay even if she did not develop at all. Who in the world can argue with the desire to smooth things over so that the landscape does not look so terrible? In our modern tourist society we are quite accustomed to making everything accessible. Can mental illness be as accessible as a tourist bus ride through the desert? Is a tourist bus ride through the desert even possible? Advisable? When I think of my daughter I sense something big, mysterious, unknowable, and harsh. Yet, there are some professionals that miss it all. As if they were looking at the landscape through their car window. It does no honor to her to forget or ignore her reality; but rather diminishes her lived experience and her current challenges. She is an awesome, fierce desert landscape, who needs to be approached with total awareness. You would not go into a desert without a water bottle, a compass, food, map, and an understanding that you are not in control here, would you? This is a book that does not speak directly about trauma, but certainly gives the reader hope: not for the cure; but for the commitment.
In the end, Belden Lane’s book helped me to put into words what I was feeling, and also gave me enough space to recommit myself to my daughter. He writes:
“To freely choose what one cannot change may be the highest exercise of the will, and its deepest freedom.” p.206
Is the acceptance of things one cannot change a form of ‘mental-gymnastics’ (a friend of mine uses this term, and I think she would say it is…)? I suppose it could be a way to ease the pain of suffering. “An opiate,” as it were. But, I do not think so. Again, this is not the giving in of those who cannot understand why they play by the rules and still get burned, so because they cannot come up with a proper answer they use faith to make all the numbers divide evenly. I think it has to do with understanding the harshness of the terrain, and with choosing life — all of it — not just parts of it. We must look with it curiosity and awe, but always proceed with care. Life is not a dream; it is real, and it is here for those who make the choice to live it — all of it.
Belden Lane’s book offers so much. More than I can say here. It is harsh and sober. It does not offer an easy pay-off. There are no five steps to a happy-ever-after existence. In fact, it challenges the reader to think about existence as something more than a profit for oneself. If the fierce landscapes in our lives have anything to offer us or any meaning at all, it is in how we approach them and whether or not we mean to ignore them or honor them. And, of course, how we make room for them in our lives.