Desert Reflections

We are, I think, by our very nature, a meaning making people.

And yet, I find myself looking back at the meanings my ancient ancestors made with an occasional raised eyebrow – especially given that we can see what is happening thousands of light years away.

Our rental car was hot, despite the air conditioning. The blazing August sun over the Syrian Desert seemed to reach in through the glass with fiery fingers. My neighbour, sitting on the west side of the car leaned uncomfortably toward me, and away from the sun’s searing grasp.

As we drove north on a narrow ribbon of black through the dry red land, it was clear that something was afoot in the nation because we passed several very large army convoys going in the opposite direction.  Soldiers clung to the long khaki tarps that shielded the machines of war from the sting of the desert sand.

The red-brown cloud off to the northeast made me VERY uncomfortable. It looked at first like smoke fuming across the plain. The colour reminded me of dried blood – and I could almost feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up despite the heat.

The cloud came closer and closer, apparently travelling towards us even faster than we were travelling towards IT.

All of a sudden, the first fat drop of rain hit the windshield – rain? In the desert? In August?

I stared at the land we were whipping past and suddenly realized that as each immense gobbet of water hit the dry red earth, it sent up a puff of carmine dust. The distant red cloud, that was now almost upon us, was in fact the churning earth itself, roiling up to meet the lowering sky.

In that moment, I understood the primeval conviction that it was the mating of Mother Earth and Father Sky that gave life to the dry world.

Yes – there are other connections that can be made to a cloud of dust, the colour of blood. As Christians, we can make the connection to the blood shed by Jesus on the cross. As citizens of the world we can also make the connection to the blood of shed by modern Christian, and non-Sunni Muslim martyrs for their faith. The rest I leave to you and your own religious imaginations.


Some months ago, one of my former students in Damascus reminded me of a discussion we once had when I was teaching him English. He had tried to convince me that I was mispronouncing “chaos” because all the words he knew that started with “ch” had a “soft” start, like “church” and “chimney.”
In my letter back to him, I reminded him that English can be such a complicated language because it is the child of many many fathers, with all the problems of its mother’s complex relationships.
I probably called it a “bastard” language back then, with all the wryness of someone who had herself only recently learned of the depths such a status could indicate: a chasm between self and family, between self and community.
Chaos comes to English from Latin, but it is a bastard in itself, coming into Latin from Greek. It comes into English from the Vulgate where it was the word for the vast open unformed emptiness that preceded the seven days of creation.

Chaos stands against cosmos 
As bastard stands against family
As order stands against disorder
Ahh — but think!
Think of all the creative potential
Think of what happens outside the walls
There in the borderlands
Lies all the possibilities for change and growth
Let me, O Lord,
Be the bastard
Who finds how chaos
May yet change
Th’imperfect order
Of the church.
What a funny chaotic language English really is: not empty at all, but very disordered 🙂
Ahhhh – the possibilites