I wake in vain/I dream of love as time runs through my hand
I dream of fire/Those dreams are tied to a horse that will never tire
And in the flames/Her shadows play in the shape of a man’s desire
This desert rose/Each of her veils, a secret promise
This desert flower/No sweet perfume ever tortured me more than this…”
Leaving aside the fact that this borders on copyright infringement, why am I quoting from Sting’s “Desert Rose?” Because today’s the day my first “desert rose,” crush #1, turns forty. It’s a reminder that even as outer youth begins to fade, there’s a part of us that will always remain young, full of hope and dreams, and full of that youthful sense of romance and love. This isn’t an I-will-always-love-her kind of posting. For me, this is much more about how I see myself in love and in romance, with a muse like crush #1 as a backdrop.
I’ve always wondered why most of the world’s major religions can trace their roots to godly visions seen by men and women in the desert, why romantic poetry tends to come to people while traversing mountains, valleys and deserts, and why I’ve wondered about these things in the first place. The sense and vision of seeing something in myself and in others that is so different, so rare that I must sit down and write about it, or pace about and sing about it, or pass down stories from generation to generation about it. The desert’s the best place for it. Hallucinations, lack of water, plenty of life and death inspiration, a place of contemplation and romance, practicality and monotony, depending on what one’s doing and where in the desert they are and aren’t doing it.
The spring of ’82 for me was a lot of things, and I’ve talked about my last year of tweeness in greater detail than I have about almost anything else in this blog. But above all else, I was in my own desert, one created by me, my family, and Mount Vernon. I couldn’t possibly have made my year any worse if I’d shown up to school naked or been left for dead by my stepfather in a back alley somewhere. At least that’s I thought over the course of the year. I was confused about so much regarding who I was and who I wanted to become. If I’d been wise beyond my years, I would’ve realized that “I don’t know” would’ve been the best answer to any question anyone had asked me in seventh grade. From the inside out, I felt as bare as our kitchen cupboards were for much of that year.
Then crush #1 happened. She was my little mental and emotional oasis in a world otherwise gone hot and mad. It was a mirage, at least it seemed that way at the time. I knew then that there was no way that she would ever like me even half as much as I liked her, even if I had the dancing skills of Savion Glover and Mikhail Baryshnikov combined. Though a boy like me could dream, right? And daydream. And not just in the spring of ’82. I lived for the rest of the decade, even when otherwise preoccupied with other women, other crises, with my image of crush #1 as the place in my heart that would remain unsullied by the cares of this world, a place where only God could reach me. She remained my dreamy desert rose.
There’s still a twelve-year-old inside this nearly forty-year-old body of mine. I’m not looking for crush #1, for that young woman no longer exists, even in the woman that was her some twenty-seven years ago. It would be nice if I could get into a time machine and travel back to the summer of ’81, shake some sense into myself, and give the twelve-year-old me enough courage and humility to approach crush #1. That’s a pipe dream or — more to the point of this post — like “writing on the surface of a lake” (talk about mixing metaphors and Sting lyrics). A futile effort to recreate my emotional Big Bang. It echoes in my heart and head, but it only seems accessible in my dreams. Luckily, I don’t hold my wife or any other woman to those kind of emotional standards. That much passion can be dangerous and addictive.
In finishing up my World History course this semester, I’m reminded of the history of romantic poetry. In a lecture earlier this semester, I talked about the long history of the longing romantic song or poem. That you could start with Aryan nomads who made their way across the Hindu-Kush into South Asia some 3,500 years ago, bringing with them a spoken word tradition of songs about women whom they loved but yet were about as attainable as a sand storm in the middle of a desert. You’d then move on to Arab Muslim contact with the Indus River valley region some 1,500 years ago, adopting a Vedic tradition and turning it into written words and songs, among them The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (or 1,001 Arabian Nights). Fast-forward past the Crusades and you might find yourself in the age of European chivalry, including French poetry that combined the sacred and (at least for the 13th century) profane. Even in the love stories and pop music of today, there’s still this theme of unattainable, unrequited love, like a mirage of an oasis in the middle of the desert.
Despite all of the unique trimmings of poverty, domestic violence, my own struggles with my identity, and the whole Hebrew-Israelite thing, my story here is merely one as old as human desire itself. Whether young or old, male or female, gay or straight, and regardless of culture, there is that desert rose that is there but it isn’t. It’s the faint odor of that timeless oasis flower that is both rare in all of our lives, “the sweet intoxication” of romance, passion, love and inspiration that we all need in life. After all of these years, the memory of the one I call crush #1 does provide inspiration. If only because I can see myself in all of my boyish immaturity and imperfectness and realize that those “desert rose” moments are what makes life worth living. It made my life worthwhile back in the days where there wasn’t much else.