I wept the day I heard the news that John Denver died.
I never owned an album of his work, but his songs were a soundtrack to my youth and I can still sing the lyrics to every one of his tunes when an ‘oldies’ station sends it over the airways.
While heading to work this morning, the digital display on my radio listed ‘Rocky Mountain High’, and tempted by nostalgia, I switched stations to listen and smiled at myself for remembering every word as the melody progressed.
In keeping with my Lenten practice of noticing, it occurred to me while I sang….all these years, I had appreciated the catchy pop chorus, but had never attended to the message of this song.
The opening phrase startled me….
“He was born in the summer of his 27th year,
Comin’ home to a place he’d never been before,
He left yesterday behind him, you might say he was born again…”
Denver’s words perfectly described an experience I felt when moving to Albuquerque twenty years ago. Relocating to a new city can be difficult, but circumstances of that move were especially stressful because Steve was absent for most of the event. His new position required that he attend extensive training out of state for extended time, so I did most of the preparation and selling of our old home in Texas, and all of the searching and decisions and purchasing of our new home in central New Mexico, a place so different than anywhere we had lived before.
My mom accompanied me to house hunt in the new city, and just as I was giving up all hope of finding something affordable in the area we liked, she pointed out a Roadrunner in our path, which is deemed good luck; we playfully followed it around a corner….and it led us straight to a house in a cul-de-sac which met our needs. I immediately called the realtor and an hour later signed a purchase contract on the spot. That should have been an indication to me of the ways this place in the southwest would alter my life….but I was too caught up in details to consider it more than a happy coincidence. I should have noticed.
A month later, I drove across the desert in a little pickup truck with my two young daughters, our Dalmatian named Amiga, (Amiga means ‘friend’ in Spanish, and at that time I expected she may be my only one there for a while!) potted plants that wouldn’t survive the trip in a commercial moving van, and my mom, (thank God for my mom!) whose kind and loving support helped me to hold it all together in a time of emotional and physical upheaval.
Tired from all the details of moving and numbed by the long trip across the desert, we headed into the evening sun, past Sandia Mountain and into the river valley of Albuquerque. Nearing our final destination of the west mesa, as we passed over the Rio Grande there was a crucial shift in my core. It happened like a lightning strike, my entire body instantly was alert with an overwhelming sense of….’I’m home’. It wasn’t a thought in my brain, instead it was a warm, deep-down-in-my-bones, spiritual ‘knowing’…. and an affirming sense of calm washed over me. Like Denver’s words, I was born in that summer going home, feeling at home, my soul knowing it was home, in a new place, even though I left most that was familiar behind me.
The song continued…
“Now he walks in quiet solitude the forests and the streams
Seeking grace in every step he takes…”
”You can talk to God and listen to the casual reply”
Living in the high desert mountains, my family frequented the pine forested cliffs and rocky streams of the Jemez wilderness north of Albuquerque. We ‘climbed cathedral mountains’, hiked through copper canyons and camped in clearings under the ‘shadow from the starlight, softer than a lullaby’ as described in Denver’s song. In those places, I experienced creation in ways that changed me, brought me closer to the divine, anointed my connection to nature. Sitting upon spent needles with my back leaning against majestic trees whose solid strength came from surviving the seasons of wildfires since time began, I petitioned the heavens, looking upward through the bark and evergreen toward the turquoise sky above, praying to the Creator of it all, and sensing God’s presence in the whisper of the breeze through the pine branches. Those years spent savoring my connection with nature spurred increased mindfulness toward the sacredness of this one unique planet earth; this dirt and wind and fire and water place for humankind to thrive, for us to protect as stewards of the gift.
Denver’s song expressed his thoughts on stewardship this way:
“Now his life is full of wonder but his heart still knows some fear
Of a simple thing he cannot comprehend
Whey they try to tear the mountains down to bring in a couple more,
More people, more scars upon the land.”
…and Denver’s connection to nature punctuated the final lines,
“I know he’d be a poorer man if he never saw an eagle fly.”
Amen, John, amen to it all.
I lived only a few short years in the land of enchantment, but those years were monumental in lessons learned from the people and places there that opened my heart and stretched my understanding and grew my soul. Having moved on again, that high desert place is where my spirit is fullest and I know it is home. I return every time there is opportunity.
This morning, noticing the meaning in John Denver’s message, I sang along in grateful celebration for my own soul-centering desert place.
Rest in peace, John, your message endures.