Over the last week I was doing a training event in New Mexico. Since I was not one of the primary players being trained, I got to spend most of that time pulling security, which involves sitting in the turret of a gun truck and watching the desert for hours on end. With temperatures topping out in more than the usual number of digits, and sun that hot on me pate, I felt a lot like a piece of meat in a broiler. In a strange way, though, I enjoyed it. The desert is so huge. It is open and arid and inhospitable, and that makes it beautiful. (It wasn’t designed with white people in mind, I can tell you that.) There is something about the emptiness that encourages emptiness of soul, or at least some emptying of the soul, which is a step in the right direction.
The silence is good for me. The heat is good for me. The discomfort is good for me. SPF-50 sunscreen is also good for me. My Irish/German heritage is highly evidenced by the fact that after three weeks out here I am only a half a shade darker than I was in rainy Washington.
The last night in the desert God put on a bit of a show for us. The sky started clouding over around six, and then right about sunset it started to get cool and windy. I could see the thunder storms raging miles away around the mountains. The clouds seemed to be bigger than the mountains themselves, and underneath the clouds were great gray sheets of rain. And then, the wind changed direction, and started sweeping the storm clouds away from the mountains to the north, driving them south across the desert. The next thing I knew I was being pelted with raindrops the size of Chihuahuas, and as thick as thieves. If you can imagine a crowd of soaking wet thieving Chihuahuas freefalling on your head, you will get the idea.
The first thing to do, obviously, was save the gear. So I jumped out, ran around to the cargo area on the back and grabbed out my med bag and our three-day bags (nope, not waterproofed. I mean, this is the desert, right?) Then I ripped the tarp out from behind the radios and bungee cords from the back and quick as a flash rigged up a little cover over the turret. It was large enough to cover the whole turret, tight enough so that it didn’t flap in the gale force winds, and still allowed me to see out over the gun and rotate the turret 360 degrees or more. And there I stood, a little damp and chilly, but none the worse for wear. I turned the truck on, turned on the heater (never thought I’d use that on this trip) and listened to the drumming of the rain on a synthetic canvas roof.
Presently, the rain ceased. The cloud ceiling stayed, but it wasn’t dropping more than the occasional sprinkle. The wind was soft, now. Not just soft as in no longer ripping the hat off my head and trying to snap bungee cords. It felt not simply gentle, but soft like a woman’s hand. There was a tangible quality of softness, like velvet, or felt, or mullein leaves, brushing across my face as if that was its sole reason for existence. There is an intention in the wind, a purpose. It has meaning, and the meaning of that wind was a caress. The sun was behind the clouds, but I could see the rays of light stabbing through to the earth. “God’s Eyelashes,” I used to call them when I was younger, because to the ten-year old me they looked like the eyelashes of a half-closed eye. I don’t see the resemblance that much anymore, but I still call them that, because I haven’t thought of a better name.
As the sun sank lower and lower behind the clouds and the sky grew darker and darker, those rays of light slanted wider, and their fingers reached closer to me. Someone rolled up on the dirt bike asking if I wanted to be relieved, but I said no, I would prefer to stay and watch the sunset.
The sky at this point was almost completely clouded over. It looked, for all the world, like a gray bowl overturned on top of the earth. I imagine if you lived inside a snow globe and had really bad breath it would look much the same. There were still storms carrying on in the distance on all sides, except to the west, hanging down in gray, amorphous sheets like a curtain from the edge of the cloud bowl. On the west side, though, just where the sun was going to set, there was an opening. As the sun began to dip below the edge of the bowl it was as if the whole world was transformed right before my eyes. The underside of all the clouds nearest to the sun was shot through with red. Pinks and lavenders stretched around the edges of the bowl, almost meeting in the back, fading into the deep blue slate of the clouds. The rain storms flushed and then glowed bright rose red. From twenty to fifty miles away I could see them embraced by the light and shifting with the wind, like a slow, graceful love dance. Behind me, on the eastern side there was a pair of rainbows arching off the scrubby pastureland below the mountains to the northeast, disappearing into the clouds, and then descending in parallel curve to the ground to the southeast. Two rainbows, one inside the other, perfectly parallel with each other, forming a double arch exactly over that point on the eastern horizon where the sun would rise the next day.
The whole brilliant display lasted only three minutes, and then faded to purple, and then deep, bluish black, and for the few minutes I was trapped inside that glorious ceiling of cloud, I felt as if the whole thing was for me; I felt very small, and very young, as if the clouds were the arms of God, wrapping around me for a brief moment in a gesture of love. Not simply love, but specifically affection, the humble, earthy, human feeling of familiarity and comfortableness. Like when you are a little kid and your Dad hugs you and says, “It’ll be okay.”
That is fatherhood. The love that I do not deserve, and could not exist without.