In March, my partner and I drove to Southern California to meet one of my online friends in real life. At first blush, our road trip celebrated the deepening bonds of friendship amid the spectacular landscape of the Southwest. But upon reflection, I realized the trip represented a more universal longing: as I traveled out west, I pursued a future my past self thought was impossible.
Our trip began on an unseasonably cold Friday morning in Fort Worth. My husband and I packed our luggage, road food, and supplies, and drove across the state, past wide-open golden brown prairies, small country towns, and fields of crops with pivot irrigators to the smelly oil fields of West Texas. When we stopped for gas in Odessa, I tried photographing the enormity of the bright blue sky above pump jacks but failed to capture the stark beauty amid the ruinous landscape.
Speeding down the interstate toward our first overnight stop in El Paso, I turned up U2 on the stereo, and we listened to their iconic swelling music that always conjures up pictures of endless open skies and the deep blue wonder of oceans. As my husband drove on, I played the album Joshua Tree and reminisced about my past, particularly the times when I lived with my father. As we sang along with Bono, lifting us up to the heavens with his sweet honey voice that blooms high soprano in “With or Without You,” I was completely undone. Joy and sorrow and anger and relief coursed through my body, co-mingling in the mysterious alchemy of remembrance. My husband caught sight of my plaintive face—he knows how to read my unspoken langue, and additionally, he is wise and kind—and he encouraged me to release whatever I was bottling up at the moment. Which I did, the guttural cry of grief leaving me as I wept for what was. God called out to me from my memories, the stones of Ebenezer that exist in my heart’s recollections of the past.
In the space of that moment, I was sent back to the early nineties, my teenage years spent living with my father whose mercurial moods, violent temperament, and isolating demands stained my soul with sadness. And also to spending time with my friend Becca, a gifted singer and bright light in the wastelands of my youth. A kept woman, I was forbidden from connecting with my father’s family up north because he had estranged himself from them. Allowed only to attend school events and music concerts, I met Becca at choir practice and we became fast friends. Becca is the only person my father allowed me to visit, the only friend who sees me and understands the hell I lived in.
Joshua Tree in the car with my husband became Joshua Tree with my only friend dancing to the whole album, Becca mouthing the words and singing with characteristic verve and passion. She is the only friend I confided in about my father’s episodic rages. Episodes were triggered seemingly out of the blue, often when I asked for help or was sick and needed to stay home from school or for no other reason than simply being around. Like the old prophet Isaiah, Becca cast a positive vision for my future, encouraging me with a confidence beyond her years; one day when you are older, you will marry a kind man who will care for you with great tenderness when you are ill and love you for who you really are.
The reverie lasted only seconds as the memories swept through me, and as I gazed at my kind husband, I was struck by the impossible grief and earnest glory of being human, how Christ knows intimately what it is to yearn for friends, to miss imperfect family, to find love at the center of all our moments of living. My relationship with Becca and her prophetic words are a stone of remembrance to the God who loves me into himself, that “Everything glorifies God, in its own way. Yes, darkness too, the one out there and the one that hides within me in my difficulties and tribulations.” Even in the darkness of past pain, we are pursued by light.
We sped on through the mountainous deserts of El Paso, where we arrived past nine o’clock in the evening and stayed for one night at an ersatz Southwestern hotel near the freeway. The next day, we awoke after nine hours of deep and untroubled sleep and headed back to the road, listening to U2, Sufjan Stevens, and Ahmad Jamal Trio, and drove through pistachio farms and faraway mesas of New Mexico, past dusty brown mountains and Saguaro cactus in Arizona, and made it to the white sandy deserts and huge gray mountains of Southern California, the land of my ancient childhood dreams. At dusk, we pulled up to her place, my friend greeted us with her baby at the hip, and instantly, we were together, at last, the magic love of friendship blessing our first meal with peace.
We spent four marvelous days with my friend and her family, our online friendship surpassing what we thought was possible. Four days full of laughing, eating together, and enjoying the sights of the greater Palm Springs area like the dated restaurant with the strange Jesus statues, visiting famous art museum after church, and spending time with my friend’s baby which felt like the best kind of home there is. As an aunt to my friend’s baby boy, I took the duty seriously and practiced breathing deeply so I could become a place of refuge for this little one. At one point, he looked up at me, sucked his thumb and placed his head on my chest, and slept. My friend looked at her husband and said, “He just knows who’s safe,” and smiled.
Our trip culminated in a day-long excursion to the Joshua Tree National Park, where I was smitten with the high desert landscape, the famous Joshua Trees reaching upwards in praise, and the thin cirrus clouds dancing high above us. As we drove up into the mountains beneath the cornflower blue dome of the sky, the temperature dropped and we donned our winter jackets, hats, and scarves as the rushing wind as mighty as the Holy Spirit blew all around us.
At the top of the Keys View overlook my friend pointed to the two mountain ranges in the distance, the majestic San Jacinto and San Bernardino mountains. I felt I was standing on holy ground and there I was awash in wonder at the promises of God coming true. Looking out at the distant mountains bathed in blue, I recalled the words of Brother David Steindl-Rast, the monk who challenged us to look for blessings even in the most unexpected places like our memories:
Source of all Blessing, you bless us with memory—that sacred ingathering of the past that allows us to recognize faces, learn poems by heart, find our way back when we are lost, and bring forth old and new from its nearly inexhaustible store. May I know what to forget and what to retain and treasure, keeping in mind the smallest kindness shown to me and spreading its ripples for a long time to come.
As I considered the paradox of memory, my husband brought me back down to earth, motioning us to stand together so he could take a picture on top of the windy overlook. And as we huddled together with the baby safely ensconced in his stroller, I smiled widely at the camera, embraced by love in all directions, trusting God and I have been pursuing each other in the bidirectional wonder of fully opening to the fullness of life, in healthy relationships, breathtaking nature, soaring music, and beautiful art.
I never thought I would survive the darkness of my youth, my father’s white-hot rage shaping who I thought I was and how life might work. But like saints throughout scripture, I trusted that God blesses us in our recollections, helping us suss out pursued kindness throughout our lives even as we acknowledge the times of loneliness, abandonment, and loss, for those moments matter too. But God was there for me in the form of a friend, good music, and in countless acts of love from beloved people.
With intention, I now practice remembering what God has done so that I can experience life abundantly right here in this moment. In my pursuit of a life I thought was impossible, God showed up in my memory in the moments of goodness. As I savored him in the past, I found myself extending outward to move through the world in generous love and compassion.
 Eckhart, Meister, et al. Meister Eckhart’s Book of Secrets: Meditations on Letting Go and Finding True Freedom. Charlottesville, Va, Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc, 2019, pg. 19.
 “Blessings” with Br. David Steindl-Rast.” Gratefulness.org, gratefulness.org/blessings/.
Cover image by Ben Karpinski.