where life's not empty, it's restless.

Archive for the month “November, 2011”

Desert Rain

It was pouring as I drove my tin-can rental car up the hill outside Tucson.  This is crazy, I thought.  Crazy that it’s raining in the desert, and crazy that I haven’t turned back yet.

I listened to the news as I splashed along.  An 85-year-old man, known to have dementia, was missing: went to the supermarket, never returned home.

I pulled into the Tucson Mountain lot.  The rain suddenly stopped.  So I grabbed my knapsack and began to follow the first trail I saw.

A hundred yards from the car, I hesitated, confused.  The trail had disappeared.  Or rather, there were suddenly half a dozen trails: all formed in the past hour, by rivulets of rain.  Whatever footprints might have once marked the real trail had been washed away.  There was no one else around.

This must be what dementia feels like, I thought.

I turned around and spotted a stone shelter just above the parking lot.  My beacon: When I turned around, I would head straight for it.

I knew I was in no danger, not really, yet I felt queasy: do scorpions come out after a rain in the desert?  Rattlesnakes?  I had no idea.  Could the clouds gather again so quickly and rain hard enough to cause a flash flood?  Probably.

I felt small and humble and not very smart.  But I pressed on, thirsty for a little fresh air and exercise.  Twenty minutes, then I’d turn around.

40 minutes later, I made it back to where I started, dry and unbitten by any snakes (though I did have a cactus needle stuck in my sock), diving into the car just as it began to pour again.

Maybe it was the sheets of rain or maybe it was the fact that I didn’t have a Tucson map, but I got myself all turned around trying to find a café I remembered. I pulled into a 7-Eleven.  The cashier had no maps and didn’t know Tucson much better than I did.  But a girl in a pizza parlor shirt came in to buy cigarettes for her boss.  She looked so young the clerk carded her.  I asked her if she knew how to get to 4th Avenue.

“I just moved here from California,” she said.  “But I’ve got a map in my car.  You can have it.”

When I told my dad and stepmom I’d come down to see them in Phoenix, I did not expect rain.  I did not expect to get lost on a trail or in Tucson.  Visiting Phoenix, I am used to feeling like the youngster: invincible, unwrinkled (OK, maybe less wrinkled), high on Vitamin D.  Like the girl from California who no longer needed her map, not like the man I heard about on the radio.

After that first day, the sun came out and stayed out.  I took a map on my next hike, the beautiful Mormon Trail loop at South Mountain.

This time, there were plenty of footprints.  And other people, like the two men I passed—skin like armadillos, Lawrence of Arabia-style sunhats flapping—so deep in conversation they barely nodded at me.

“The thing about cosmology,” one said to the other, “is that it’s isotropic!”

      Isotropic: I looked it up later.  It means exhibiting properties—such as light transmission—that are the same in all directions.

The desert may feel isotropic after rain, but it’s not.  One way leads to confusion; the other back to the car.

We humans are not so isotropic either.  And yet.  If you pull out for the wide wide shot, we too are part of cosmology, of the infinite, isotropic universe.  Especially in middle age: we’re young, we’re old, we’re every age we ever were or will be all at once.  Sometimes in one hour of hiking.


I had a window seat, so I took in the view as we flew north from Phoenix.  Suddenly the all-beige, all-the-time Arizona landscape began ripping itself into accordion pleats: red, gold, ivory, green, with a sugar dusting of snow.  I didn’t know what it was.  Then I did: the Grand Canyon, right there below my wingside window, sashaying across the desert like a Flamenco dancer.

I’ve only visited once. We were on a summer road trip with our kids, seven and ten at the time, which put us smack in the middle of those years when, as a parent, you feel the same sort of immortality young people feel about life in general: This will never end.  Being parents like this, with our children always with us, in the car, in the tent, on the Bright Angel trail? This is our life. Forever.   

            On this flight, on my way home from visiting my dad and stepmom in Phoenix, I am realizing that they in their seventies and we in our fifties now have a huge life experience in common: the empty nest.

You know I try hard not to use the words “empty” and “nest” together too often—but sometimes it can’t be helped.  Empty.  Nest.

My dad and stepmom love their desert life, their tennis, golf, bridge, friends. They’ve never felt the need to over-meddle in our lives or in the lives of their grandchildren.  But that visceral charge you get from being physically near your own offspring? That doesn’t go away.  It’s still there at 54 and it’s still there at 77.

Here’s what it looks like, Night One at Dad’s house in Phoenix: Dad’s excited about seeing me. He can’t stop talking. He asks me about my life, but can’t resist jumping in when I’m in mid-sentence. He feels celebratory and keeps the wine flowing, later and more plentifully than is really a good idea for any of us.  He keeps the conversation zigging and zagging from football to car insurance to politics. He’s conservative, I’m liberal, and we’re used to sparring, but I bristle when he starts a sentence with the words, “YOU probably think…” He pulls back and apologizes.  The next day he jokes about it, which is his way of apologizing some more. 

            Note to my children: anything sound familiar here? The talking too much, the asking of the wrong questions and forgetting the right ones, the flowing wine, the seminars on subjects you love, like insurance? 

            I had a rueful but satisfying private laugh when I thought about it later.  It’s good to have those mortifying, humbling realizations now and then; those moments when you must acknowledge: yes, I am becoming my parent.  It actually makes me feel closer to my dad.  Sympathetic.  We share something: that visceral, parental something.

Here I am 54, and my Dad still feels that something about me, the way I feel it about my kids.  The way I savor their presence just as completely as I took it for granted and thought it would last forever, back in the tent on the south rim of the Grand Canyon.  You never do see the big picture when you’re in the middle of it. 

This Thanksgiving, pretend you’re in a plane, looking down on the dining table, crowded with people you love.  It’s startling, isn’t it?  How strikingly unique and beautiful it is: like your own Grand Canyon, rippling through your life. 

There will be storms; there will be turbulence.  But you wouldn’t ever want to miss it.  Or expect anyone around the table, in their joy at being together, to do it all just right.

Hello wordpress!

It’s time for the Restless Nest to move into a real blog site.  Thank you, iWeb, for getting me started! will still be my home base.  But moving the Restless Nest to WordPress will make it easier for you to comment and for us to have a real conversation.  Which is what a blog should be, right?  Not just me, me, me talking to me but me talking to you and you talking back.

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