What makes a subject difficult to understand — if it is significant, important — is not that some special instruction about abstruse things is necessary to understand it. Rather it is the contrast between the understanding of the subject and what most people want to see. Because of this the very things that are most obvious can become the most difficult to understand. What has to be overcome is not difficulty of the intellect but of the will. -Ludwig Wittgenstein
I was young, ten or maybe I had yet to reach double digits. Anyway, my family was going on a trip. Imagine. I imagine how I must have been as a boy. It’s hard to imagine myself as a boy. I can only imagine myself as I have always been passing through boyhood. My hair, seven cowlick strong, gave me the appearance of a porcupine in a blender.Today in the morning without the gels and struggles, it still has the the echo of that boyhood look.
I remember the morning of trip the way others remember the details when they meet love in the face of another. Living in the desert, the color was normally an earth tone copper. My part of El Paso smelled like a combination of unwashed socks and rotten eggs. A local smelter’s tall spire would spew out this flavor for us to enjoy.
I had that feeling kids usually start to have at that age when you notice the world was larger than your family. Hints about a larger context began to invade my world. Poverty lived just across the river in Mexico. I was just getting around to becoming aware of it. We could look down on neighborhoods filled with the cardboard and scrap metal roof shanty houses as we passed them on I-10.
The University of Texas at El Paso was above the road on top of a mountain on right side. Down below past the river and over border there were ten thousands poor Mexicans scrapping out enough for their daily tortillas, corn of course. I wonder how many cabernet-drinking professors were there at the top of the mountain looking at the other nation below. The common complaint of academics being an ivory tower too separated from the daily struggle to commune with real life was more than a metaphor for my hometown. It was geography.
I wondered what their life was like as we drove past the poor people of valley on the left. I wondered what the poor thought of when they looked up and saw UTEP with its exotic buildings modeled after the Himalayan country of Bhutan. My family was driving to visit Carlsbad Caverns, just as we always did when we had out of town guests. My memory betrays me as to their identity. I have forgotten them. I remember sitting in the back of the family car, a Datsun B210 with a red, white and blue top. I kept quite as we pass the poor; I was lost in my imagination. We then headed into the desert, leaving the border city behind us as we headed to a big hole in the ground, as my stepfather called the Caverns.
The week before our trip, it rained the whole week. It was desert rain, hard and loud. The kind of thumping rain that starts by making small craters inthe tan dust. The dirt of the land fought the pounding water, and as the days went on, it yielded and accepted the gift. I had never seen such rain in my desert. The El Paso had problems with flooding simply because exotic nature of so much water in the desert.
I remember learning in Seminary how living water was another term in first century Palestine for moving water? El Paso became streets filled with living water racing to an unknown ocean. As I remember, the water was fast living water, moving quickly enough to create whitewater on some of the steeper streets. We kids love it and the adults were annoyed. I remember so many water adventures throughout that week. My parent’s car flooded crossing the downtown bridge from Mexico. The irrigation ditch behind our backyard filled with water and crawdads. Later, it would sprout wild aspargus with a wild nut flavor that spoiled for me commerical aspargus.
The sound of the rain echoed in my head throughout the week. The normally trickle that was the Rio Grande become a real river. During most of the year, the Rio Grande was the butt of so many jokes. So dammed and controlled the Rio Grande normally lacked even enough water to earn the name of brook or stream. That week, though, it filled to the top of its banks and beyond. There reports of flooding. There were warnings on TV about getting to close to the river, lest it swept you under.
Then the water stopped, and it had brought life to our desert. The air tasted of new life. After a great rain, it always smelled like the first day of creation. El Paso long ago was ancient rain forest. The week’s worth of water brought the ten thousand year old memory of what it once was back if only for a short time. The desert erupted into a temporary jungle.
I remember the drive to caverns, seeing the bloom only living water can produce. My parents woke us early to get in the road. My sister, Blanca convinced my parents that she was old enough to stay home by herself. I had no such luck, so I went for the God only knows how many umpteenth time to Carlsbad. I am glad I went. On the drive, the morning light seemed to filter through a stain glass window. The rain revealed a hidden life.
What was unusually reddish brown bloomed into a pallet of contrasting green hues. I had never been with so much beauty before. The slopes up to the shear cliffs of El Captain were alive with vegetation I had never seen before. The flowers I never knew of exploded on to the Franklin mountain range in colors of reds, yellows, and even blues. Desert recalled it past life as mist rich soil teeming with new animals and plants aching to be found and named. I was still foolish enough to think I could find new names for such beauty. I could hear the moan of ancient seeds cracking their hundred if not thousand year old husks and stretching out new roots into a waiting earth. We stop a couple of times just to take it all in.
Some people stop to try to own the beauty with camera. I am grateful my family forgot the family instant Polaroid camera. We just stopped and were silent with the new life the living water brought. Something was different about this childhood memory than what I normally rememer.
Usually, my alcoholic stepfather was a large green metal file cabinet at the center of my memories. His stories were that file cabinet with those ugly rounded edges so solid that it would take three or four lifetimes to move from them from the center of my childhood recollection. He was the star of my childhood with exploits of passing out during Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easters. Except on this morning of living desert, the beauty of creation revealing itself push everything aside with a deep sense of joy. Beauty made me alive. I believe here within the new beauty brought by the living water of the week before I began to speak with God. I know that here is where I began to listen to the divine.
With out knowing it, I was beginning to quit being an atheist that day. I quit feeling that God had abandoned me. It took many years for the seed to take root ... but life moves to the rush of water.