We were all at the southern campsite, within the firelight.
I walked in a desert.
And I cried:
“Ah, God, take me from this place!”
A voice said: “It is no desert.”
I cried: “Well, but—
The sand, the heat, the vacant horizon.”
A voice said: “It is no desert.”
No one said anything.
She said. “That was by Stephen Crane, he never came to the desert.”
“He came to the desert,” Madox said.
~ Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient
At the age of twenty-nine, while wandering outside his palace, Gautama (Buddha) encountered an old crippled man, a diseased man, a decaying corpse, and an ascetic, or holy man.
These sights are now referred to as the four heavenly messengers.
I have never welcomed the visits of the four heavenly messengers. Who would? And yet, the messengers arrive again and again. In trying to evade them, to ignore and forget what they bring, I have hurt myself and others far more than the messengers ever have. Who hasn’t? And no matter my frantic evasions, they continue to visit.
I came to knowledge of mortality long before I came to the desert. When I was twelve, I woke suddenly in the night knowing I would one day die. I would be in exile from the earth I loved so much. I would be nothing. The knowledge was cellular and terrifying. I went downstairs to find my father. My mother was gone, in the State Mental Hospital after another suicide attempt.
I found my father on the living-room couch reading a magazine.
He asked me what was wrong. I told him. He set aside his magazine and said, “Well, the priests would tell us we need to live so we don’t have to be afraid of dying.”
I heard his words and in that instant, I lost not only my childlike sense of immortality, I also lost the belief my father was an all-knowing protector. I thanked him and went upstairs to bed. As I lay in the darkness alone, the knowledge of my death returned, and this time it was not only cellular and terrifying; it was immutable.
Fifteen years later, I sat in a circle of old women and knew with a far less frightening presence that I, with any luck, would grow old. I studied the kind and intelligent faces of the women around me. They seemed a hopeful portent for my future.
“I’d love to know how old each of you are,” I said.
The women’s faces changed. The life seemed to go out of their eyes. Some of the women giggled. Some looked irritated. Some flinched. Not one woman was willing to tell her age.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Maybe that was too personal.” We went on with our business, which was planning strategy for the old peoples’ rights group they had founded. I walked home after the meeting. My heart hurt. I wondered how we younger women would grow old with consciousness and grace—and without being shamed by our own aging—if we didn’t know old women who were proud of their age.
I am now seventy two. I look back and see that those old women had, in their deeply conditioned embarrassment, been unwitting messengers—not of how to grow old, but how not to. Some indigenous people believe that Coyote is one of the most powerful teachers. S/he shows us with reprehensible behavior what we don’t want to become. While the old women’s reactions were not reprehensible, they taught me what I did not want—and consequently what I wanted. I wanted to feel every element of my aging. I wanted to wear my age plainly in my body and on my face. And I vowed that when anyone asked me how old I was, I would tell her or him the truth.
I kept that vow. It was easy to keep in my thirties and forties. After all, Gloria Steinem had given me the perfect answer when people said, “You don’t look your age.” “This,” Steinem would say, “is how forty looks.” The vow was less easy as I moved toward being fifty—especially as I was single, straight and had bought the societal brain-washing that guys don’t want older women. Still, I kept the vow.
When I was forty-eight and afraid of the future, the messengers visited again. I’d learned to ask my dreams to teach me. I loved the idea—no interpreter between knowledge and the dreamer. That night before I turned on my side for sleep, I whispered, “Please tell me what I need to know.”
I found myself in a dream. I was conscious I was dreaming and I knew it was not a “psychological dream.” I was being given information by who-knew-what from outside my own psyche. I stood upright in space, high enough that the blue and green earth below appeared as a ball 4-5 feet in diameter. There was empty black space to my left. To my right there were infinite numbers of beings.
I saw a Buddha, a ball of light, a huge pine tree, a giant rabbit, a line of Hopi katsinas, a Jesus, a silvery cloud, a figure in a turban, Navajo Yeibeichi, all stretching as far as I could see in all the directions. They spoke to me, not in words, but directly in my mind. “We are the Entities,” they said. “We are not god. What you humans think of as God is really Source.” They explained the nature of the experiment that Source had created when the earth became.
I listened. I knew that what they were telling me was true. “You may wonder why we all look different,” they said. “It’s because we need to appear to a member of your species as something that won’t frighten them.”
They told me more, about the earth being out of balance and what the entities could and couldn’t do. Then they said, “We have two instructions for you. Never hide the signs of your aging.”
I slept peacefully through the night. When I woke to a silver-rose mountain dawn in the bedroom windows and the cries of Stellar jays in the dark pine, the instruction of the entities—to never hide the signs of your aging—was woven in with my old vow.
As I grew older, into my fifties, then my sixties, Buddha’s heavenly messengers were never far from my side. In my fifties, I discovered I had become invisible in most men’s eyes. No matter how much I hiked, how carefully I watched what I ate, my body changed inexorably. Menopause was not the arrival of power surges. It was quite the opposite.
In my sixties, I fell hiking and found myself trapped in an armature of aching joints. For five months I could barely move. My doctor told me I might have to live for the rest of my life with osteoarthritis. I caught glimpses of myself in store windows. I saw an old broken woman creeping along. The arthritis passed—thanks to the advice of a good woman friend and what seemed a miracle. But I was left with a caution in my body I’d not known before. Fear of falling walked next to me on every hike and the bouncy stride of my young and middle-aged womanhood was gone.
I was diagnosed with the very beginnings of diabetes and glaucoma and cataracts. Far worse, I began to experience the unconscious condescension of younger people, to be treated not as an intelligent, politically passionate and aware woman, but as an old lady who was—somehow, imagine that!—remarkably intelligent, politically passionate and aware.
My vow has carried me through all of it, through injury and limitation and marginalization. In keeping the vow, and in learning day by day how to live fully with a body and face that others seemed to be possessed to treat as the container for all their stereotypes about old, I came to write about aging not as a curse, but as a blessing that might guide the reader onto a path of her own making.
The Four Heavenly Messengers drew me forward to the deserts—on a path I knew only as I walked it. I walked the deserts of the Colorado Plateau, Southeastern Utah, Arizona’s Verde valley; hiked and camped in the Sonoran, Coloradan and the huge astonishment of Big Bend National Monument; and came to live for a year on a little mesa in the Mojave Desert. My writing on Luna Mesa emerged from a double occupation: fully in my aging and fully in a desert that is a constant reminder of the ancient Heart Sutra:
GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA. Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, O what an awakening, all hail!
It was in tiny one-room cabin on Luna Mesa in the Mojave Desert that I was taken down to bone, neuron and altogether beyond. The alchemy of wonder, loss, recovery, of Joshua Tree, arcing moon, coyote, rattlesnake was irresistible. I found myself in terror, unable to think, unable to rely on the compulsions and addictions that had always gotten me through. I gave up. And Luna Mesa held me safe while I did the deep reclamation I’d avoided all my life.
I finally came to the desert and, in that, came fully into being old.
Author: Mary Sojourner
Editor: Caroline Beaton