I believe in keeping company with vastness. That is why I wait each morning for the rising sun to light up the desert mountain behind my house until it glows the color of raspberry sorbet. This is my cue. I walk into the back yard, stand in mountain pose with my arms raised to the sky. I recite what is probably the ultimate prayer of spiritual geography: the Navajo Blessing Way.
May beauty be before me,
May beauty be behind me,
May beauty be above me,
May beauty be below me,
May I walk in beauty today.
I am not alone. A short stroll from my yard is a great slab of rock inscribed with ancient petroglyphs. They are among the 8,000 rock writings recorded in this urban preserve on the southern edge of Phoenix. Some of the most common motifs are spirals. Made of a single, continuous line, they start in the center, the line working its way out in ever widening circles until it encompass the world.
A trio of archeologists who studied Hohokam culture concluded that many of these petroglyphs are like drawings of prayers made by individuals looking for a place of contemplation away from the smoky cooking fires, the noise of children at play, the troubles of everyday life. In search of solitude, they walked from the river valley to the horizon, always moving toward the place where the “mountains are standing.” I like to think that there were others like me who waited for the slant of the sun to strike the rock and, in the extraordinary alchemy of daily life, turn the granite to gold.
That they would seek counsel at the base of the mountain is not surprising. The Northwoods writer Sigurd Olson believed that we need spaces as big as mountains, as wide as the sky, to understand our place in the universe. Taking measure of our lives against the backdrop of vast spaces, he suggests, may have stirred the first religious impulses in early humans. We seem to be drawn to them for the same reason that we visit the great cathedrals of Europe or walk the shorelines of oceans: to measure our lives against the infinite and find the part of ourselves that is unbounded by the bricks and mortar of flesh and blood.
I too believe in the necessity of vistas. A few months after my husband died of a sudden heart attack in the middle of the night, I spread some of his ashes around the cactuses that he had carefully planted in the back yard. I waited for the first storm of the summer monsoon, when waves of hard rain swept across the mountain bajadas like billowing sheets of silk. And when I realized that I was spooning his ashes into the troughs that he had dug around the plants with his own hands, my grief too broke like fists of water beating on the dry, desert floor.
But the mountain works against the downward gaze. The criss crossing of ridges takes the eye to the far horizon, as if to say, look, we are a part of a larger universe in which nothing is lost. There is, after all, rock dust in our bones. Some of it may find its way back into the heavens to form new constellations. Some of it might build new mountains.
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