Apr 22, 2012

On Deserts . . . and Gratitude

By Jennifer Debenham

I learned the difference on how to spell "desert" and "dessert" in grade school when my teacher informed our class that the double "s" in "dessert" could remind us that we always want seconds on dessert, but never would we request more of the dry, miserable desert.

As a child of the northern Nevada deserts, facing attitudes like this from my mentors, you might well imagine how I could come to the conclusion that the desert is no place to be--at least not by choice. After all, if one doesn't want seconds of something, does one really ever want firsts? Not to my way of thinking.

Couple that with my own dear mother's exclamations of joy whenever we'd leave said desert and head for--literally--greener pastures, and you're on your way to understanding my own eventual contempt for the desert. On a trip up the Oregon coast when I was a child, Mother's constant words of delight taught me we had truly entered a wondrous, even magical, place. I learned the lesson most dutifully that green is better than . . . well . . . brown.

It's probably no surprise, then, that I would jump at the opportunity to leave my desert home when my own Mr. Wonderful--from Alaska, no less--asked for my hand in marriage. When he informed me that we would be spending our first summer together living in the Last Frontier, I couldn't have been happier. What a thrill that would be!

And it was.

With wild flowers that reached past my head, and bear stories that pricked goosebumps I didn't know I possessed, and plenty of opportunities to view that verdant color not seen so much in the "one-s" desert, our first summer was a thrill this desert girl couldn't help but experience just as wide-eyed as a child with a pocket full of money on his first trip to a candy store. But before long we were back to the reality of college life and, yes, the desert.

Our next several years of marriage would take us to the deserts of Utah, Nevada, and southern California. While I was happy in each of these places, I never truly appreciated the desert around me. My focus was more on my friends and family. And while that is easily the best place to focus our happiness, I've since learned that finding happiness in EVERY part of our lives is important to maintaining lasting joy.

Ironically, my appreciation of the desert didn't happen until just a few months before we were scheduled to move to a place that was about as different from the Nevada deserts I had grown up in as a place can get--the Pacific Northwest.

It all happened because I had been spending a lot of time writing for some Master's classes I was taking at University of Nevada, Reno. I was forced to draw inspiration from my surroundings. Much of the time my inspiration was my family, my children. But more and more often I started to think about my grandmother "Gran," as I called her, who had passed away many years earlier, and from whom I believed I had inherited much of my creative talent. She was a poet and an artist, and most of her subject matter centered on the desert, which she loved. Why did she love it, I wondered. There must be something to it.

So little by little I noticed things I had never seen before. Maybe Gran was my muse.

And I was taken in.

Did you know, for instance, that the "one-s" desert is not ONE color--that tired, parched brown I had always crinkled my nose at? Well probably you did, because you are not so blinded as I had been much of my life. Often it is not easy to see these colors clearly under the glare of the noon-day sun, but there are yellows and grays and blues and greens. Yes, green! The sage, the junipers. And even the dirt is colorful in the desert, depending on where you are.
If you really want a treat, you'll set aside a moment or two to enjoy the best time of the day in the desert--sunset--when the brightness of the day has floated to the far corner of the western sky and cast a subtle glow across the land. But don't just look at the show in the sky, tempting though it will be with the bright, deep colors that change almost as quickly as you can breathe in and out. Share a part of your gaze with the landscape below that colorful sky. Then you'll notice that all the colors you picked up on before are now a deeper, more vibrant shade.

My love for the desert took many sunsets to establish itself. I wasn't easily persuaded. But now, after spending four years in a place that is green and vibrant and delightfully moist, I now find myself back to my roots. Back to the desert. I'm glad I learned to love it long before I returned.

And it makes me wonder . . . what else can I learn to love, to find joy in and gratitude for? After all, if I can love the "one-s" desert as greatly as I do now, maybe I can learn to love diets, or spiders, or--my personal worst--giving the dog a bath.

Hmm . . . baby steps!


  1. Great post, Jenny! I loved reading your insights. Having moved from the mountains of northwest Montana to the desert of Arizona, I can totally relate to what you said. It took me a long time to find beauty in the desert...but oh what beauty! Gratitude is the key. thanks for the great reminder.

  2. I've only visited the single s once in a while. What impresses me is that amazing night sky. All those stars.


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