When I return to the landscape of my growing up years, making the five hour drive from my home in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia to the gentle farmland of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, I drive by the farm where I grew up without stopping. I do not turn in the lane once shaded by a canopy of catalpa trees or pass by the rock garden where the “Slow Children at Play” sign my older sister painted so many decades ago once stood among the hostas. It could as easily have said “Slow, Children at Work.”
This is a place many say no longer exists. Headlines read, “Paradise Lost: Inside the Burned-out California Town Destroyed by Deadly Fire,” and “‘There’s Nothing Left of This Town,’ Paradise, California, May Never Come Back From the Ashes.” It was a small town; few knew it. It is not an overstatement to say the wildfire put it on the map the same day it wiped it off.
The West Texas winds blew heavy dust that clung to my eyelashes, and a bit of sand got into my eyes. It was a cool day in mid-summer, but Lubbock’s never-ending parking lots gave off residual heat that made me feel like I was baking. Lubbock has too many parking lots. Driving through town, lot after lot passing my window, made me long for the dull-green landscape of the plains only fifteen minutes away. I kept on down Broadway, past the empty lots where houses once stood, past the empty downtown (even though it was only 4:30pm), past the old segregated part of town that always brings out a bone-deep sadness in me, eventually making it past the last highway. I could see the NTS tower in my rearview mirror. Mac Davis’s song was right, I really like seeing Lubbock in my rearview mirror. I could have appreciated it more if it didn’t leave so much dust in my eye.
In mid-May 1999, alone on my last morning in the Annapurna Sanctuary, I tramped along the moraine below Annapurna Base Camp. The sun reflected off Machapuchare, the distinctive fish tail peak, at the bottom of the valley. Tharpu Chuli flanked me on the left, its 6000 meter crown glistening with fresh snow. No clouds covered Annapurna’s summits behind me or obscured the immense sky. The trail meandered from 13,500 feet to 12,000 feet. The low-oxygen air, like a drug, rendered the sapphire sky in vivid contrast to the silver cliffs, the white snow, and the wild crocuses that burst from south-facing patches in happy pink dots.
When I’m back in the city and on the subway, I tend to look at my book or at my feet and the feet of other people. I note the different kinds of shoes, their colors and states of wear.
Today is December 23, so there are shopping bags by all the shoes, held fast between lower legs and sometimes kicked out of the way of people coming and going. Bags filled with brown boxes and shoe boxes and stacks of folded clothes.
I’m sitting down, and a man stands above me with his back to me. Under his left arm is a cardboard box that says 6H on the side in thick permanent marker. He never turns around, and I never see him, but I know that he lives in 6H.
When I heard ancient Iranians worshipped Mithra in subterranean caverns, my first reaction was: why would anyone worship Mithra in total darkness? Mithra, the god of heavenly light, who goes over the earth, all her breadth over, after the setting of the sun, touches both ends of this wide, round earth, whose ends lie afar, and surveys everything that is between the earth and the heavens. In Mithraic belief, the God Mithra slays a bull to move the world and enlighten it with love. Followers pray and purify their souls in order to ascend to their heavenly place of origin.