Each time you set foot on the desert it tells you a different story. Here’s mine.

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Tiny White Box newFive hours of silent driving today. Just as one can wake from a dream and examine it all morning, I spent today pondering last night in the desert. Nothing has formed, I have no lesson or, God forbid, moral to offer, but I’d like to share some of the thoughts that came to me last night and today. They may eventually combine to form a wonderful mental meal, but for now they’re just ingredients sitting on the counter.

The dunes’ malleability.  In the morning, all my footprints from last night were gone, swept away by the wind. Talking with Berber nomads, they say each time you set foot on the desert, it tells you a different story. For me, each story has been beautifully tragic and tragically beautiful, each tale dripping with joy yet with a heart of unspeakable sorrow. And yet . . . and yet . . . the sorrow makes the joy much sweeter.

The stars I’ve never seen in the States. So strange that living in Pittsburg on the Canadian border, I thought I’d discovered the true night sky. Looking up at the Sahara’s canopy, I thought of the hand fans distributed at southern churches. In Pittsburg, I’d been looking at a single leaf; here, the fan is fully spread. 

Mr. Warnke. I’ve had heroes in my life, of course. Baseball players, and artists and musicians and a few politicians (both George McGovern and John McCain, who, besides their Irish heritage, have nothing in common). Most of these heroes are people I never met, so they remain perfect on their pedestals. 

Mr. Warnke was different. My friend John’s dad, Mr. Warnke yelled at me regularly (with good cause), smoked like a chimney and knew more about history than anyone I’ve known in my life. As an example of justified yelling, when I was in sixth grade, my science teacher stopped by the Warnke house socially, and Mr. Warnke asked me to get a couple beers. Having been raised in a house where mixed drinks were the norm, I went to the Warnke’s freezer and filled two pilsner glasses with ice and as much beer as could fit in around the cubes. When Mr. Warnke saw my sacrilege, he roared at me that I was a chowderheaded monkey fit for nothing—or at least that’s how I remembered it. He could unleash rivers of insults, but they always meant I was okay in his book.

A West Point grad, Mr. Warnke seemed to know something about everything—the Peloponnesian War, trade routes through India, the different Indian tribes and their habits, baseball history and mechanics of all kinds. He was the kind of guy I could just listen to, letting his easy knowledge flow over me.

I’ve described a lovable grouch who knew a lot and was a good storyteller, but why was he my hero? I brought out the grouch in a lot of my friends’ fathers, and knew a lot of smart and effective tale tellers. Why Mr. Warnke as hero?

Colonel John Warnke was paralyzed from the neck down in a Jeep accident in the Jordan desert when he was in his 40s. Although he only had enough control to flap his arms (and get a cigarette to his mouth with a specially-made holder), he was one of the best fathers I’ve ever known. The fact that his paralysis figures this low in the story is why Colonel John Warnke remains one of my goddamned heroes.

And that’s why I spent much of last night thinking about him and his desert fate. I wish him well, whatever afterlife he inhabits.

Music—Paul Simon has a new album, Seven Psalms, which I’d downloaded to my phone, thinking it might be inspirational to hear it at night. The horizon is so far away and the sky so huge, I can’t listen to music because the silence is so beautiful.

The relationship between predators and prey. It’s easy to think about predators, and worry that one of them may be waiting around the corner, but without prey the predators can’t survive. There are a lot of bullying dicks in the world. How can we teach others not to be prey? I know this can sound like blaming the victim, but I think there’s a subtle thought here, too subtle for a chowderhead like me to tease out.

What camel milk tastes like. Whether the Berbers make cheese from it. Whether the Berbers eat camel. What camel tastes like. Whether camels eat people. What people taste like. 

Why I’m so happy.  I’ve got much for which to be grateful: four women in my life, three wonderful, charming and beautiful daughters and a beautiful, intelligent, sensitive, funny wife. That wouldn’t have been enough back when I was drinking and drugging.

A job offering meaningful, fun and challenging work that makes a difference in people’s lives. That wouldn’t have been enough before I got into recovery.

A home and a dog that perfectly meet my needs. That wouldn’t have been enough to fill that gaping hole in my soul.

I don’t know why I’m happy. I just know I am. And I suspect my recovery is at the heart of the matter.

About this Author

Keith Howard

Executive DirectorHope Recovery

Keith Howard is Executive Director of Hope for NH Recovery and author of Tiny White Box