Advent Day 18: When the deserts bloom

But this, too, is also real.

These were the words of my spiritual director, a wonderful wise woman of Jewish (Reconstructionist) background, several years ago when I found myself just stepping out of several years – more than a decade, actually – of loss, life upheaval, and trauma.

I was at a writing workshop in a beautiful part of Minnesota, and I had woken up to the sound of leaves rustling outside my window. After a few years spent in NYC, where the sound of tree leaves rustling is most often buried under the sounds of human travel, industry and interaction – the soft sound had brought me to tears.

Tears. Not tears of joy, but tears of, “what if I allow myself to love that sound again?”

What if I remember what it’s like to be in love with being alive again? What if I can’t turn away from it?

Anyone who has struggled with depression or PTSD or anxiety knows that one of the hardest things about being in those spaces is the loss of ability to see or experience beauty and goodness in the world. Everything that was once good turns to dust, and the only thing that feels real is darkness.

Even after we leave that acute phase, it can take years and decades to start to trust our own perceptions of goodness in the world; to trust that an experience of beauty or love or even just feeling “ok” is not a cruel trick of the universe, a lure meant to pull us down into the pit again.

That truth that my spiritual director spoke: that the beauty, too, is also real – has taken me years to begin to internalize.

In truth, I’m not sure I ever believed it, deep in my bones. I’m getting much better at it.

The scripture I’m looking at today is from this past Sunday’s readings, from the book of Isaiah chapter 35:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;

like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.

Most of the readings in Advent so far have been about the tearing down of the old (to make room for the new, of course, but still – tearing down of the old) and have been a real mix of beauty and terror. To be sure, this Isaiah reading continues and gets more into the doom and gloom. But I wanted to allow myself this morning to just hold these few lines close to my heart. The desert is desiccated and dangerous; the desert also blooms. Both are true. The blooming, too, is also real.

The desert will not always bloom. My life, which feels so miraculously good right now, will at some point go into painful upheaval again. This is the way of life for those of us who try to actually live. The Lord giveth, the Lord also taketh away. I know that. But I am now healed enough to see and revel in the blooming desert, even to enjoy the flowers of my life without also carrying the deep distrust that this, too, is just an illusion.

No. This, too, is also real.

And in our world, our country. Developments in the last several years have been dangerous in a way I don’t think I’ve lived through before. The hatred, the xenophobia, the trampling of the poor, the abandonment of the most vulnerable, the wanton destruction of the planet that is our home. This is all real.

But real also are the miracles of the ways that people have always and will always, I believe, continue to work across difference for the good of others. Real also are the amazing teachers my son has been blessed with this year. Real also are the ways that therapists and other mental health professionals witness their clients finding ways to heal and find joy again. Real also are the first responders who continue to rush headfirst every day into crisis and trauma. Real also are the species who have been brought back from the brink of extinction and the land and water that is being cleaned. Real also are the kids who make sure that the new kid isn’t sitting alone, that the queer kid isn’t bullied, that the special needs kid is given respect by others.

We all know that the world is falling apart. But the desert is always also blooming, and that, too, is also real.

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