Two months into the new year I sit by my window in the late afternoon, the last threads of daylight incandescent above the western landscape. I watch the sun turn each cloud to pink, red, yellow, and mauve, and then settle, a glowing egg of light, against the Santa Rita Mountains. From their lower slopes all the way to the window, the desert becomes a dusky carpet, mysterious, serene and compelling.
One year ago at sundown I waited by a window similar to this one, studying the twilight over the same mountains and desert. I wore perhaps the same shirt and trousers, drinking the same hot drink over and over. Looking out I might have experienced frustration, as I feel now, that the shape of my life had not changed, the geography had not been transformed. As I stared out then I might have perceived the mountains as a dark wall, forbidding and absolute; viewed the desert as a metaphor, its emptiness characterizing some aspect of my own life.
That the desert landscape tonight appears beautiful seems evidence of some interior change, an indication of my own growth. Sometimes when I try to measure such growth I become discouraged, the change having come with such subtlety I must look for it deep inside, reflecting and examining. Sometimes I think I've grown when I can look at something, some detail which before I'd overlooked, and understand its worth and importance. Often those things I value most are very small: a child singing, the music of church bells, an unexpected letter, a friend who stops by in the evening, wanting just to share part of himself in conversation.
Sometimes in the course of such talk, such friendship, I can feel the changing currents of my own life. A year ago my neighbor, Gabriel, was still a stranger. The first time we passed on the walk I nodded hello, and he gestured back, but both of us continued in our separate directions. I'd wanted to speak but wasn't sure quite where to begin, what words to open with. Because his skin was darker than mine, a tawny-red brown, I thought his language might be different as well. A month passed before he stopped me and we began to speak.
Ironically it was English that Gabriel, an American Indian, wanted to talk about. He could speak the basics of the language, enough with which to communicate, but he wanted badly to improve his grammar. If he could become fluent in the language he could complete high school, eventually enrolling in college to study agriculture. He told me that for months he'd been working from an English text which had belonged to his grandfather, a book which had become a source of confusion. I said that I'd be happy to tutor him from a book of my own.
For the rest of that evening we sat together by the grammar book, repeating the tenses of irregular verbs until he could use them correctly without coaching. As he learned English I learned the history of his tribe, the Arizona Hopi, the myriad hardships they'd endured, their continuing battle to survive. As the months passed I worked regularly with Gabriel, each of us exchanging parts of our lives, teaching what we knew, our relationship evolving until we could call one another friendm.
Tonight as I reflect backward I think about the process which was necessary for the making of that friendship. Most importantly it required empathy and a willingness to remain open, allowing perception to unfold in expanding circles, encompassing what before had been misunderstood. It is such an outward opening movement by which I gauge the progression of my life, which permits me to embrace a neighbor who I thought once was as forbidding and wall-like as those mountains. But as I sit waiting for Gabriel, an open English book on my desk, the mountains loom majestic in the semi-dark, a velvety curtain which frames the panorama of life.