When I was in junior high and high school, I often daydreamed about being a sort of modern desert hermit. When driving through the open desert, especially the higher and hillier desert, I would imagine how a home could be built right into the hillside, letting the earth insulate the space from the extreme heat and cold of the desert environment. There were always goats, in these daydreams, foraging on the desert wildlife and providing me with their wool and milk; I suppose there was a well, too, but I don’t really remember that part of it. And it was always just me.
Partly I was inspired by the history of the native people of the Southwest – by their ingenuity, creativity, and sheer stubbornness in surviving in such a hostile climate without the comforts and amenities of modern life. I was (and still am) amazed at how they not only scratched out an existence from the dry sands of the desert, but did so with time and energy to spare for the creative labors of decorative pottery, weaving, storytelling, and dance. Sitting in my air-conditioned car or pulling food from a refrigerator seemed so cosseted and disconnected from reality compared to the struggle of living in the desert without electricity or running water, and I yearned for that connection to the land I lived in.
The other fuel for my daydreams was my intense introversion and shyness. I liked other people, or at least I didn’t dislike them, but I didn’t really feel a need for them on more than special occasions. Alone, I would have my work and my books and time to be with God – what more did I need? And I saw that in the city, I could never really be alone. Being alone in a city is either accomplished with the intentionality of a retreat (imbued with purpose and direction) or falls upon you with the calamity of social awkwardness and isolation (implying your inferior value in society). There is never the calm content of focused solitude in one’s work or rest, never time for aimless wandering of the mind in exploration of some new idea, never silence in the constant stream of trivial conversation babbling by. But in my desert refuge, I thought, I could find all those things without the stigma of being a loner and a loser, absent from the crowds because no one wanted me present.
To be honest, I still feel the appeal of a desert hermitage. I have a more realistic view of just how much hard work it would require, and I have family responsibilities that would seriously interfere with living a solitary life, but I would love to get out of the noise of the big city and be more intimate and familiar with the land and sky from which physical life is drawn and nourished. For now I will focus on living well for God where I am – but maybe someday I will live in my naturally-built, off-grid, sustainable home and enjoy the stillness in the air as the sun goes down.