July 07, 2009

Where Does My Garden Grow?

I watered the plants again this morning. It's an every-three-days task that takes three or more hours, and that I have split into two days. Which means I water today and tomorrow, I have Thursday off, and I water again Friday and Saturday.

And then I leave.

Watering the plants - the slow drip method of irrigators - is a meditative process, communal with the birds that flock to the newly-watered ocotillo, and cottontail that sneak sips straight from the hose until I approach to shift it. This morning the wind was howling, casting a cool breeze that's unusual for even 6 a.m. Usually the wind doesn't blow like that until the early evening leading into twilight. The beavertail cactus squeaked its rubbery surface steadily in the wind. The sprinklers sprayed a finer mist than usual, and I swear I felt its spray around the corner on the porch, in my shaded area where I usually drink water, read, and look out over the Joshua Tree Highlands. Sometimes I forget to read because my eyes are too busy scanning the hills that stretch out from The Desert Lily. Although we are only 2.5 miles from the main highway, there is no traffic noise. No cars or trucks are rumbling through the bumpy dirt roads that aren't maintained by the city. No ATVs are revving in the upper hills. Just birds, flies, the wind, and my own heavy breathing from dragging hoses and climbing gentle slopes.

I don't feel lonely, all by myself. Not here in the Highlands, with the yucca and creosote and cat's claw and cholla (damn cholla) and the fragrant flowers that attract me as much as the hummingbirds.

I feel loneliest down the hill, where the people are. It's crushing for me to be sitting in Water Canyon, and be greeted by a vacant stare from Tammy, one of The Desert Lily's neighbors, when I smile as she walks by. Or from Jesse, another neighbor, who at least takes a double take, thinks twice about it, and keeps walking. I could announce myself but I don't. As much as the town has given up on me being a temporary resident, I too have given up on the town.

Eric, the young mohawked artist who asked for my number two weeks ago and has never used it, at least stopped by my lonely spot to say hello yesterday. I'd just booked my return trip home. He talked of his new internship at a talent agency as though offering up an excuse, an explanation, an apology, a peace offering. I feigned interest in his professional pursuits and smiled at him, chin in hand, asking questions as uninteresting as their answers. Another boy his age - a fellow drug recreationist, maybe an artist too - stopped by and distracted Eric from our conversation, sitting down with us and not introducing himself. I smiled at him and tried to engage in the conversation but gave up quickly when Eric did not introduce me. I thought Eric had maybe forgotten my name and the real reason he never called was because he couldn't find me in his phone. How many times had that happened to the guys I'd given my number to?

I looked for an opening in the conversation but the boys were now facing each other, deep in meaningless conversation. I turned my attention back to my laptop, too distracted to accomplish anything significant so I kept flicking Alt-Tab with my left hand, toggling between applications, trying to look busy but dying for them to leave. The immediate proximity of being ignored was excruciating.

Eric excused himself to go have a cigarette, and although I was sad to see him go, I couldn't have withstood the present social interaction (or lack thereof) much longer.

I don't know when I lost sight of Eric standing outside smoking, but when I next looked up, he was gone. He hadn't even said goodbye.

This morning during my water ritual, I started to come to terms with the finality of my last week here. I've only had to water the plants just a handful of times since I arrived, and at first I was grateful for a reason to get up, a purpose to my stay here, a contribution to The Desert Lily's livelihood. The hotter it gets, the drier it gets, kicking up a sandy dust that I breathe in all night and then cough out in the shower in the morning. It takes longer to water the trees and bushes that soak up the moisture immediately. The drizzles on the ground from my hose transport evaporate in minutes. As I consider my water footprint (something of which I became acutely aware on Jesse and Max's houseboat), I wonder whether it's really doing any good to water these plants, whether it's fair to have a garden in the desert. What I'm doing is not agriculture. I'm not harvesting flowers or fruit or roots or nectar here. I'm growing beauty, perhaps unnaturally, perhaps selfishly.

My mind goes back to thoughts that are nearly a year old now, of looking for a greater purpose to my existence - the entire reason I applied for Peace Corps in the first place. Now that I've had some time to accept my rejection from service, I still can't help but think I was meant to do more, to help more, to provide more, to contribute more. This trip - an egomaniacal exercise in creativity and selfish tourism - has only intensified those feelings.

I'd be OK with being so alone if I were a park ranger, or a student of the desert, or a cultivator of soil or soul or culture or love or life. But I'm living a life that's not my own out here, and my existence is just hanging in the ether, waiting to evaporate completely like the spilled water of every third morning, or collect somewhere onto something, into some kind of solid that someone can see, touch, smell, consume.

It's not like I have much of a purpose in New York. But the life I live there is mine, as unhappy as I may be with it. And although I'm terribly lonely in a city sea of millions of people, I know that there are a few that I have an affect on: who I make laugh, I make cry, and I inspire and motivate.

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