When the small body stopped forming and came out of me, I put it into a yogurt container and drove out to the desert. We placed it on the ground between a saguaro, an ocotillo, and a barrel cactus, and made a circle around the form with small stones. I intentionally left an opening to allow its spirit—if such a thing existed—to get out.
The blood had started at 5 a.m. I went to the bathroom and there it was, just like a period. Just like the end of a sentence. Only it hadn’t been a sentence, it had been a joy, and now, I was pretty certain, it was ending. I crawled back into bed. “I’m bleeding,” I told my partner.
We got pregnant easily, on the second try, in June. By August it was real. At the end of a cross-country drive from Pennsylvania, where we’d been visiting my parents, we took a pregnancy test in a South Dakota motel. We went to Mount Rushmore and looked at the white men’s heads, but all I could think about was the beautiful creature inside me. I already had a name picked out.
In September I went on a six-day backpacking trip in Yosemite with a friend. Because of the nausea, I couldn’t eat much of what we’d packed. But somehow we hiked at high altitudes and lounged aside glacial lakes. On an external hard drive somewhere there exists a digital photograph of me in an alpine meadow wearing shorts and a maroon t-shirt with my hand on my belly. I can still conjure the anticipatory bliss of that moment.
When I got home, I felt tired and unproductive. Friends assured me I was working hard—my body was creating complex systems, capillaries, a heart—and that made me feel better about the malaise. I looked forward to feeling fantastic in the next two trimesters. I looked forward to the belly. To the glow. To ushering a being into life.
Instead, after eleven weeks, no heartbeat, and that bright-red blood at dawn, I ushered the being into the desert, food for a coyote or a hawk or a javelina.
The man standing across from me that evening in the desert, the man who would have been the father, said we’d try again and that it would work and we both believed it. But that winter we did not touch each other very often. We tried a few more times, and the next summer, numb from what seemed an interminable chill, I burned the house down.
He went away on a bicycle trip. Darkness settled in, the monsoon rains came, and then I let another man touch me. I was reaching for something shiny but all I found was emptiness.
My partner returned, and two months later saw the phone bill with all the text messages. It didn’t matter that I’d already started taking myself to therapy, that I was already repenting and trying to forgive. The truth would not bring back what we’d lost.
I moved out of the house, and then I moved back in, and then the man who would have been the father fell in love with someone else. They eventually married, and he impregnated her twice.
I wish my burning could have cast some kind of glow. The baby stayed in the desert. I myself stayed in darkness for a long time.
The desert, they say, is beige and sandy and empty. They say it is a wasteland. They say it is barren. They say that the plants are at war with each other for a single precious resource. They say there are no trees. They say the desert pricks and prods and pokes. They say “stinkin’ hot” and “Godforsaken.” Godforsaken. Godforsaken.
I know for a fact that this is all untrue.
Fall to your knees.
People say this, too.
It means: Prayer. Beseeching. Begging. Grief-stricken. Holy. Emptied. Lost.
The thing I lost was really small. I looked for it for a long time.
I looked in shoes. Kids’ shoes.
I looked in hands. Kids’ hands.
Give me five. Up high, down low. Too slow.
Give me three. Give me two.
I looked between rocks, at the base of cacti, all over the desert pavement.
Give me one.
People have said nice things about my body. Lovers, friends, massage therapists. Beautiful. Strong. Powerful.
Such a body comes, I suppose, in part from genes and in part from having started ballet at age seven, and having continued to dance for most of my life.
But a beautiful, strong body can betray.
Inside me are dozens of fibroid tumors and uterine cells where they’re not supposed to be. The fact of the misplaced cells is called endometriosis.
End. Oh. Me. Tree. Osis. The only nice sound in there is “tree.”
I didn’t know I had endometriosis until I went to see a fertility doctor. I was forty. By then I was with another man, a man who’d had a vasectomy, so before considering its reversal, we wanted to check out my own reproductive system.
Drawings of endometriosis show uteruses deformed by cobwebs of tissue and brown tumor-looking globs. You can’t know the extent of the disease unless they look inside you with a scope. If they find it, they sometimes can scrape it out. “Plastered,” said a surgeon once, after inserting an ultrasound wand inside me.
After my initial consultation the fertility doctor looked at me and said, “Very slim chances of conception.”
No other baby came, despite other partners and much trying. Effort, for all we laud it, is not always a pretty thing. A body can clench. A heart can harden. A body can betray. A heart can grow thin in longing.
Almost everyone who comes to the Sonoran Desert comments on the quality of the light. It is like a veil, only completely transparent. The way it moves across the mountains, the way it contours clouds, the way it colors canyons. People say the light makes them feel alive.
In Spanish, “to give birth” is dar a luz, which translates back as “to give light.” It is one of the most beautiful phrases there is. The birthing of the human placenta, after a baby, is alumbrar, to illuminate. Similar terms exist in Portuguese and Italian.
The desert gives light every day.
Some months after the miscarriage, I spent two days inside a room with twenty other sad and angry people at a Grief and Trauma Therapy retreat. Everyone in my life thought it was a good idea.
We sat in a circle, and someone would go into the center and cry into pillows or beat a telephone book with a stick until it disintegrated. This was called expressing the grief, letting out the trauma. Wringing, squeezing, expelling.
One man went in and hammered out curses at his father, wherever he was. I was startled by the violence, but the counselors looked peaceful, nodding with encouragement. Another man went in and rocked himself like a baby and told his wife she had abandoned him by dying. A woman held two pillows close to her chest and pretended they were the two babies that came out unfinished. She said loving, motherly things to them. I picked at my socks. I felt jealous of her, loving on her pillow-babies like that.
I kept not going into the circle. I did not want to perform my grief.
Late in the weekend, one of the counselors invited me into a side room and said, Try. I hit the phone book awkwardly without much force. Are you angry? I shrugged. Who are you angry at? God? Was I angry at God? I didn’t know. The counselor gestured to the phonebook. I hit it. Say something, he said. Fuck you, I said to the phonebook. Can you say it and mean it? I hit the book a little harder. I said mean things. I felt stupid.
At the end of the weekend we all stood in a circle outside. A kind of graduation, I guess. We were supposed to put something symbolic into the circle. I found a rock, and when it was my turn, tossed it into the circle and said it was the same size as what I’d lost but that what I’d lost weighed so much more. I said I was letting it go.
Miscarriage is not unique to humans. Sheep can miscarry if they are pushed in crowds or chased by dogs. Some animals can spontaneously miscarry if an unknown male shows up. This has been observed in deer mice, meadow voles, collared lemmings, domestic horses, and geleda monkeys.
The Sonoran Desert is the most biodiverse desert in the world. This kind of biodiversity entails a lot of trial and error. Not everything is viable.
Female coyotes are only fertile for two months of the year. During estrus, they form monogamous pairs with males. When pregnant, the female relies on the male to bring her food. After sixty-three days of gestation, a mother coyote will give birth to an average of six pups, though sometimes as many as nineteen. Baby coyotes are blind. Light comes after ten days, when their eyes open. Over half of them won’t make it.
Saguaro cacti, the iconic Southwest species, can produce 40 million seeds in their lifetime. But a seed is fragile. It will only endure a few months in the soil bank. Most will not become seedlings or adults.
Maybe the body gets imprinted with what left it.
Maybe the body holds the space.
Maybe the body can’t forget until the space is filled.
Maybe the body betrays because it knows something.
If the body wants to give light, maybe the body just wants to see.
The Buddhists say that suffering is simply not accepting what is. And that the best way to practice acceptance is with small things, like the weather. It rains; it is hot. What can you do? Or you can practice with what Pema Chodron calls the causes of “bourgeois suffering.” If it is too cold on the airplane, for example, you say, “This is what cold feels like.” Or when there are no tables at your favorite restaurant, you say, “This is what disappointment feels like.” The idea is to not identify with the feeling, but just to feel it. Thich Nhat Hanh recommends simply greeting the cause of discomfort, over there, and not identifying with it. Hello cold. I see you. Hello disappointment.
Hello sun. Hello heat. Hello clouds. Hello rain.
Hello pregnant friend. Hello second pregnant friend.
Hello therapist. Hello acupuncture needles. Hello Chinese herbs. Hello vitamins.
Hello sperm bank. Hello ultrasound. Hello ovulation predictor kit. Hello cervix.
Hello two-week wait. Hello hope.
Hello blood. Hello blood. Hello blood.
Hello scar tissue. Hello cysts.
Hello loss. Hello longing.
Hello emptiness. Hello light.
Hello canyon. Hello darkness.
Hello tears. Hello grief.
Hello fuck you. Fuck you hello.
The summer after I lost the baby, I started doing a movement practice called compositional improvisation, making up dances with others on the spot. Composing together, without planning or plotting. Think of jazz. Think of poetry. Think of story, woven by bodies working together.
We do not know what will happen. We pay attention to the intersection between our own choices and those of others. We learn to trust the body and its wisdom. We learn to ask, “What does the piece want? What does the piece need?”
Part of the practice is to show up as you are to the work. If you are exhausted, you can dance the dance of exhaustion. Pretty soon it will change. If you are irritated, you dance the dance of irritation. Watch and see what happens. Does it shift? Notice what you notice.
This is another word for acceptance.
One of the studios we practiced in had large cathedral-like clerestory windows. Throughout the day, light moved over the floor in squares and rectangles. If you were paying attention you could duet with the light. You had to follow your impulse at the right moment and step into the square or around it or through it. These windows of opportunity do not last. If you wait too long, the light shifts, the windows close.
The grief I pretended was a rock morphed into a hard stone of longing. I held onto it and crawled into a small, dark canyon. I lost more light every day, every month, every year.
The canyon invited reflection. I talked and wrote. Sometimes this was helpful. Sometimes I did damage to myself.
Inside the canyon, I saw shadows.
When I moved my body I could see that sometimes the light was coming from me.
Everything is material. Even if it doesn’t materialize.
One year I made a dance in a dry riverbed.
The Santa Cruz River cuts through the west side of Tucson and runs only during the summer monsoon floods. The rest of the year it is dry. This is because for decades, people pumped groundwater to feed fields, mines, and a growing city. But the river—or its ghost—is the reason Tucson exists at all. People began farming in its flood plain four thousand years ago, and it’s been continuously inhabited ever since.
Until the 1940s the river supported lush mesquite bosques and cottonwood stands. It sheltered nesting and migratory birds, beavers, bobcats, deer, and other mammals. Even Sonoran Desert native fish like the Gila topminnow and desert pupfish swam in it.
To make a dance you first do what your body wants to do. Then you think about where you are and why you are there. You improvise. Then you make decisions. Then you refine and practice. I like to invite other dancers into this process, to create a collective story. Eight dancers visited the riverbed with me for several months. We explored. Amid the debris, we found an old suitcase with a hole large enough for a body to fit through. We disappeared into the suitcase to find the stories of a dead river in our bodies.
We performed in late April. By mid-morning it was already 100 degrees. When my bare skin hit the ground, I gasped then tried to hover. Stay put, I told myself. Do the dance of burning. Do the dance of dying. But it was no longer a dance. It was a purification.
La Llorona, of popular Mexican legend, is the ghost woman who wanders the banks of a river looking for her lost, drowned children. In some versions of the story, she herself has drowned them, an act of despair and revenge toward the husband who has left her. She then drowns herself. But before she can be admitted to the afterlife she must find her children.
We danced her that day in the riverbed, all of us La Llorona, searching with our body for whatever precious thing we each had lost. I sprinted from the west bank to the east sixteen times. Looking for my pupfish. Falling to my knees.
Sometimes the body needs a new environment in order to see itself anew.
Almost a decade after I left my loss in the desert, I went to Southeast Alaska for a two-month artist residency in a community of people, trees, and marine mammals. The sky in Southeast Alaska is a different color than in southern Arizona. The sun casts an entirely different kind of light. Plus, water. The ocean. Rivers. Rain.
The Sonoran Desert gets eleven inches of rain a year. Sitka can get eleven inches in September.
I got myself a pair of rubber boots and followed the advice of an Alaskan who told me to wear a ball cap under the hood of my raincoat. Nearly everyday I walked to where a river empties into the sound.
For the first few weeks of my stay, the salmon were still spawning. They wriggled up the river, their bodies glistening and spent. Gulls circled overhead, their endless calls a soundtrack to the birthing and dying below. This was an encoded sacrifice. Most parents would give up their own life for their offspring, wouldn’t they?
The rocks were strewn with carcasses and the breeze was all decomposition and rot.
Life was left, life was beginning. The rivers, trees, and birds would be fed. From my vantage point on the shore, under my hat, I absorbed this. A kind of grace.
I listened to the local radio every morning. As September became October, the days began to shorten. A woman would read the weather report, announcing high and low tide, sunrise and sunset, the total duration of daylight, and the amount of loss or gain of light. By November, the woman was saying, “That’s a loss of four minutes, forty-seven seconds, from yesterday.”
In the desert Southwest, no such report is needed. Arizona does not even observe daylight savings. We lose light in the winter and gain it again in the summer, but not to extremes.
The sun is warm and omnipresent.
But the desert light can blind. Mirages are sometimes just mirages.
October 15 is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day.
When I learned of this, I wondered if I was supposed to do something special. Like go walk with my invisible child. Or make another little circle of stones. Or light a candle. Or should I just cry, and cry, and cry until my body expunges itself of sorrow? Until I become dry and forlorn and godforsaken.
Is it possible to give light without giving birth? Is it?
Give me one.
I have a friend who came to the desert to walk though his grief. He said it offers solace, because nothing inside him needs to thrive here. “When things die in the desert they stay there forever,” he told me.
We know this because we find bones, dry and bleached and scattered.
But when there are no bones? Does that mean there is no solace?
I look and look and look.
If you want to be with child, this is what you must do: You must send money to India for a puja. You must push needles into your abdomen. You must mix in hot water gritty powders of plants that look like ancient mushrooms and drink them. You must pull cards from a Tarot deck. You must go see a psychic with animal heads hanging all over her house. You must find the only woman in town who does a form of massage passed down from Mayan shamans. You must let her rub flowers and smoke over your body and knead your belly to right your inverted uterus. You must wear white and visit a woman who knows how to prepare a meal for the Yoruba deity, Oshun. You must bring five eggs and arrange them—still in their shells—in a meal of rice and fish powder and walk into a river and leave them there. You must push through your pain and bless the pregnant women you meet. You must let the babies stare at you and send you communiqués from the other babies, not yet formed. You must pay attention to egg-shaped things. You must have an altar and on it place items—baby spoons, a bib, a candle, Mexican milagros—to summon in the tiny being. You must let a physical therapist reach inside you and apply pressure to the fascia. You must travel in a tiny imaginary vessel to the dark space of your uterus and describe what you see there. You must tear down the old wallpaper. You must have a conversation with an egg from your left ovary. You must inject yourself with hamster pee. You must talk to a doctor in a white coat who makes a living from women like you and their dogged dreaming. You must believe all the people who say, over and over, It will happen. It will happen. It will happen.
And when it does not happen you must find grace and forgiveness, the two most elusive things—slippery, small, crafty—and swallow them into yourself until you become whole.
You must accept the sore throat of this impossible task.
Not far from Tucson’s empty river is an urban patch of desert on a steep hill. The hill is home to some of the oldest plant research plots in the world, many of which are dedicated to the study of the saguaro cactus. In the early part of the twentieth century, researchers believed the saguaro population was in decline. But long-term observation showed the plants undergo boom and bust cycles, some years flowering and fruiting in abundance and some years not.
I got a small grant to work on the hill and did a series of movement experiments. One evening I assigned myself an hour to stand with a saguaro. Daytime faded. Nighthawks arrived. The city below lit up. By the end of the hour I was looking at the saguaro and it was looking at me, two beings on a hillside, inherently different, inherently worthy, without want, without need.
The saguaros bloom in May. White flowers rise from their crowns or the ends of their arms. In a 24-hour fiesta, bees, moths, hummingbirds, doves, and bats pollinate the flowers. The fruits emerge like bright-red hearts and burst open when ripe. Like salmon spawning, a saguaro blooming and fruiting is one of the most generous acts on earth. It is the hottest time of year in the desert—the rains are stuck in the clouds, the cicadas are hissing—and yet here is the cactus holding out its fruit. Within each one are two thousand seeds, like tiny black eyes that are eaten and dispersed by coyotes, birds, and insects.
When these fruits come, I feel no envy. Only invitation. Sweet blood, miracle progeny.
I have fed the desert my deepest hunger. She feeds me back.
You can do the dance of being cold. You can do the dance of thirst. You can do the dance of standing still on a hillside. You can do the dance of generosity. You can do the dance of loss. You can do the dance of not-mother. You can do the dance of longing again and again. On hot sand. Amid cactus spines. In rivers. Aside a pounding surf of sea. Anywhere. Pretty soon it will change. It won’t fill you, but it will change. And in that way, it will be like light.