Growing up in a desert has a certain stunting effect on the way your consciousness forms. There are just some things that you come to accept as the shape of reality, while what constitutes normal everywhere else in the world comes to feel like an impossible fantasy.
Seasonal variation? That’s when it’s warm for a while instead of hot, right? What do you mean there are places where there are statistically more than 30 days out of 365 that see rain? More than 7 inches annual rainfall? Where you don’t have to plan your activities around the sun and the times of day when it will be hottest? Where you can just go outside if you want to, without having to take safety precautions? What would that even be like? Trees and grass and flowing water – those aren’t real things that just happen. They are just an element of colorful storytelling, something people put into movies and TV for atmosphere. The leaves changing in fall – that’s a pretty myth. When and what is fall, anyway, and who can tell it’s actually happening? Doesn’t summer just sort of gradually lose its edge for a while until it’s time for spring again?
The phrase “White Christmas” means exactly nothing. The color white for me, when I think of it in connection to the weather, calls to mind an impression of summer. Of dead lawns and naked trees, blinding sunlight and pavement so hot it shimmers, the heat rising up to become indistinguishable from the baked-white haze of the sky. Christmas morning, more often than not, dawns bright blue and clear and pleasant enough, but too warm for that optimistic sweater you just unwrapped. White Christmas? I hope not.
Water is not a luxury in the desert. That would imply it is something you could live without, something it is your right to do with as you please if you’ve the means to afford it. Water is life, and that there is not enough of it to go around is a fact you see made readily apparent by the pervasiveness of the sun-baked browns, faded yellows, dead whites. There is no sight more decadent than a thriving, green lawn. You grow up knowing that your personal supply of water is and should be limited. Early in childhood it simply becomes part of your awareness that you do not leave taps running, that showers are short, that the bulk of whatever water you are allowed in a day needs to go into your body, not wash over it, or you will die. Playing in the yard with the hose is a calculated rebellion. By the time you’re an adult, you don’t even think about it anymore when you only open the tap twice, so briefly, when you brush your teeth; but you do think about it – you very much think about it, and wince – every second that you run water down the sink to clean that cookware you just used.
You find yourself developing a particular grim set of the mouth that happens without thought every time you see a water excess.
You love plants, you are aware that your continued existence is dependent on a symbiotic arrangement with them, but you are also aware that every living thing you see growing requires a calculation: is the life of this plant, this particular one, vital enough to justify the quantity of water required to keep it thriving? You love flowers and trees, but you know they’re a luxury you can’t afford. You get used to the idea of being limited, of saying no.
My best friend in the world loves science fiction, and convinced me to read one of the novels that he considers most important in the formation of the genre: Dune. He was sharing something he loves and was prepared to gush with me when I was done. He was not prepared for my instant, utter loathing of a much-loved seminal work. To someone who lives in a place that is not a desert, it would no doubt read like an intensely imaginative and even extreme effort of world-building. The world of Arrakis is, to me, no exotic curiosity. The strictures of life there due to the lack of water are not an interesting thought exercise.
I am aware, in the same way I am also aware that the moon is actually a giant hunk of rock obeying gravitational laws and not a glowy floaty blob in the sky, that there are places where things I think of as impossible are commonplace. I know there are places where the seasons are distinct from one another, where you actually can’t get by perfectly fine without owning a jacket, where rivers have water in them, where things grow on their own because there’s enough water to sustain them naturally. I know these things are true like I know that truth about the moon – I have to just believe them because people I trust say so, because I can’t actually find the proof in my own observable reality.
My in-laws allowed me to join them sixteen years ago when they house-swapped for a few weeks with a family in Northern Ireland. It was my first time leaving the States. It was only my third time ever traveling beyond the topography of the American Southwest.
The circumstances leading up to our vacation were harried and difficult. Death in the family, mountain of work to get through in a narrow window of time, rushed move, infant to care for in the midst of all. In July heat. We were young and determined to make it work. When all was said and done, it was only the literal morning of our flight that we got the last of our boxes into our new home and finished cleaning our apartment in order to get our deposit back. Our life still in boxes in the living room and running into a second day on one night of sleep, we boarded first a cross-continental flight to Atlanta, then the longer flight to Dublin, where my husband’s parents – there before us – were to pick us up and drive us to the house in Bangor. We’d make it, we reasoned, by napping on the plane as soon as the spawn fell asleep.
He never did.
I have never been so convinced I was about to literally die of exhaustion as I was when the pilot announced that we were beginning our approach and I thus became aware that I wasn’t getting any nap at all, not even a short one. I’d been up for two days that had been full of grueling physical labor and the stress of international travel. And an infant who refused to sleep. I wished I had listened to the kindly Irish man at the airport who had advised me to put a dollop of whiskey in the boy’s bottle.
Then I looked out the window.
I don’t even have the ability to describe that feeling, that first feeling that jolted through me when I looked down and saw Ireland spread beneath me. I can say I was breathless, I can say I was suddenly more awake than I ever had been in my life. I can say I couldn’t believe what I was looking at, that such a place could be real. I can say I understood in that stunned moment that it’s not a euphemism when they call it The Emerald Isle.
The spawn promptly fell asleep in the car when the in-laws came for us. A part of me knew I should be annoyed by that. But I was in the grip of a powerful enchantment and I could not tear my wide-open eyes from the window, all through that two-hour drive from Dublin to Bangor. Green. So very, very green. Alive. Ancient. Vital. And green.
That same kindly old Irish man at the airport who counselled whiskey if the boy would not sleep had looked at my red hair, green eyes, and cave-dweller-pale skin, and asked me if I was going home. Surprised, I told him no. That I was an Arizona native, and it was my first time leaving the country.
He smiled at me and told me I was going home, I would see.
The last time I visited a place that isn’t a desert, in 2011, it was during that time of the year when spring still has its head buried in winter’s pillow, groggily mumbling about just five more minutes. Which means that the last time I saw life just living, growing, flowering, was actually six years ago, in Colorado. I forget, when it gets to be so long in between, how hard it always hits me. How very much I am in a different world from the one I know. I was not ready for Portland.
It was another travel day without sleep the night before, this time through no fault but my own ongoing battle against insomnia. My flight was so early that I was afraid of sleeping through my alarm and missing it, which meant I fretted so much I never fell asleep at all. I am no longer as young as I was in Ireland; pushing through more than one day without sleep isn’t as easy as it used to be. Worse, no one would be picking me up from the airport this time and I was traveling alone. I had to navigate Portland’s public transit, including a change from train to bus, on my own, trusting to my maps and the research I had done before leaving Phoenix. (Seriously questioning my insistence on living without a smart phone.)
The city was obscured by an opaque bank of rain clouds as we landed, but that in itself was an exotic wonder to me. I could just glimpse the two winding ribbons of the Columbia and the Willamette, and a dark mass that I assumed was a lot of trees – and the imposing presence of Mount Hood to the east. My latent volcano obsession stirred. But I was tired and frankly pretty nervous about navigating my way through an entire strange city as a lone autistic person. I was focused on getting safely to the house I was sitting, dropping my bags, and catching a nap.
Again, the green woke me completely.
But not just green, this time. The flowers. So many flowers. On the train and then the bus, as I watched the city speed by, I was gripped by the vibrancy of the colors. The clarity, the intensity, the variety.
The unfathomable quantity of different greens.
You must understand, Phoenix is painted in a beige palette.
There is a period of maybe two weeks in March, when the sun comes out after the February rains, and the yellow wildflowers will burst out over the desert floor like an overtipped pot of honey. They die quickly – lack of water and an excess of sun. It’s a shame, because they are quite pretty, but even that brief burst of life does not venture outside the spectrum of beiges, browns, yellows, and occasional oranges that define the visual range of Phoenix.
But Portland. Portland is alive with color. And it’s somehow not even just the range of the colors; I swear the same colors are brighter in Portland than they are anywhere else. Like the place exists alone in HD in an SD world. There’s a particular TV show that takes place in Portland, and I had always thought to myself while watching it, “Okay, but do they really have to have the contrast and the green filter ramped up so high?” Now I realize, they’re not. That’s just what Portland actually looks like. The colors are stunning in their intensity and depth. I mean that as literally as Ireland is The Emerald Isle. I was stunned.
The audacity of life just growing wherever it wants to without having to be carefully cultivated, growing so luxuriantly, growing so unabashedly and colorfully and exuberantly. A tree isn’t even life enough by itself in Portland – there is moss growing on that tree, ivy growing on that moss.
I saw a plant that wasn’t content merely to grow leaves, the leaves themselves were growing leaves. You can smell it, too, the green. The life. Things just growing whether anyone particularly wants them to or not. It defies my understanding of the way the world works.
I tried, while riding that bus, to think of words that could describe what I was seeing. I failed. I could only stare in wide-eyed wonder, utterly overwhelmed, aware that it would be a mistake to shed visible tears on public transit, trying my best to keep that from happening with only partial success. Some corner of my dehydrated desert-bred soul started to come alive, tentatively, and I could feel it happening, like I was waking from a long dream. Or entering one. I was never certain, the whole time I was there, whether I was sleeping or waking, but I knew I was in another world from the one in which I conduct my daily life.
There are drinking fountains on the sidewalks of downtown Portland that spout a continuous flow of water all day, every day, whether anyone is drinking from them or not.
I still don’t have the words to talk about what happened to my soul in that place. I came away with literally thousands of photos because I knew that would be the only way I could try to make sense of it. I’ve been home for more than a month now and when I look at the photos, I find it difficult to believe that’s what they actually look like without re-touching. Surrounded by the desert that bred me and shaped my mind, I already feel my time in Portland to have been an impossible fantasy.
I could feel that happening, too. On the flight home, fairyland growing more distant behind me, I could feel the dream ending. Everything going back into its box. My acceptance of what reality means narrowing down again to fit within what the desert will allow. It was harder then to stop the tears.
But you don’t waste water in the desert.