For Richard Rodriguez, the center of the universe is a vast and brutal desert. In his new collection of essays, Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography, the Pulitzer Prize–nominated writer and self-described former “scholarship boy” uses the physical and spiritual severity of the desert landscape as a starting point for a complex meditation on our culture’s condition—from the death of American newspapers to widespread environmental destruction and the growing acceptance of marriage equality. For Rodriguez (a practicing Catholic), the desert is, at once, the place where the God of the Abrahamic religions first reveals himself to man, where Jesus fasts for 40 days and nights, where Gabriel appears to Muhammad. It is also where America has recently sent its young to fight and die in war. Where else would one turn for existential answers?
“The desert reminds us of how tenuous our relationship to the Earth is,” he says. “For believers, the task is to wonder what God intended by making himself apparent in that landscape.”
With that charge, Rodriguez ventures into the notion of desert in a series of 10 essays that begin with musings on his own identity—and the very fallacies of identity itself—as seen in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. He starts by studying a deceptively simple word, deeply familiar to those who speak Spanish, which secretly guards our collective identity: ojalá, which, in short, means, “God willing” or “let it be so.” Little is it known, though, that the word derives from the Arabic language during the Muslim rule of Iberia and that the last two syllables are a direct echo of the word, and the prayer, Allah. For Rodriguez, there is a delicious and instructive lesson in the fact that when a Mexican-American grandmother, for example, wishes something to be via the ojalá, she is, in effect, asking it of the same God that millions of Muslims pray to five times a day.
This hidden legacy, the echo of meaning and prayer across millennia, is a central idea in the collection. The rest of the essays, as such, unwind like an exploration through unexpected connections between cultures and history. If Rodriguez’s meditations are a desert, they constitute a paradoxical landscape that is simultaneously open and teeming. He writes with a combination of academic rigor and emotional honesty on topics as diverse as Liberace, Lance Armstrong, Mother Teresa, the gay movement (“the eight-legged acronym, LGBT”), Muhammad Ali, Las Vegas and seemingly everything that’s been on his mind for the past decade or so. Each historical figure, each remembered conversation is an ojalá, revealing truths about our culture that are not immediately obvious but are somehow familiar.
“Thomas Aquinas muses that writing is a form of prayer,” Rodriguez explains. “I have always understood that to mean that it requires an emptying of oneself.”
Despite the seeming seriousness of these topics and of the act of prayer, Rodriguez often writes with a wink and a smile, relishing the irony of history and his own sensibility. If the writer is truly emptying himself, of course, there must be some wit and charm that emerges as well. And let’s not forget that the title of the book is Darling, a somewhat cryptic word that reveals a playfulness, affection and femininity that is crucial to Rodriguez.
The word is “at once affectionate and off-putting. I wanted to remind the reader that women were at the center of my concern,” he explains. “The book is populated with darlings. I didn’t want the book to be overly pious.”
Even within this playfulness, though, which is especially pronounced in the essay that gives the collection its name, there is—as with the word ojalá—a hidden sense of something deeper. Even though the essay delights with touches such as its parallel mentions of the Catholic Irish Order of the Sisters of Mercy and San Francisco’s drag-based Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and even though he remembers his flirtatious and demonstrative afternoons with a female friend very fondly, there is an implied sense of loss and nostalgia throughout.
Rodriguez retreats from that idea slightly: “I’ve always hesitated to be sentimental,” he says. “I’ve always described it as an unearned emotion.”
Still, the essays largely describe a culture in which loss seems to occur at an accelerating rate. Rodriguez is right: By no means does he engage in excessive sentimentality. However, an essay like “Final Edition,” which details the 19th-century creation and current demise of San Francisco’s newspapers, is more than a sorrowful obituary for an industry; it is a reminder to us of what it has meant to have a community and to connect with others in a way that no longer exists. Rodriguez tells of the birth and death notices that were a crucial component of the paper, of the aspirational civic sense it could inspire and the very sense of place that it fostered. Today, none of this exists.
“When death becomes so secret that it is no longer a civic event, you don’t have newspapers,” he laments.
Beyond the sense of community that a local newspaper can steward, there is even more at stake as we digitize our existence. Again, in conversation, Rodriguez turns to religion: “The way Muslims kiss the book, the way Christians dance with the book: This has weight,” he says.
While discussing these topics—the loss of our sense of place, the move from the physical to the electronic, the American myth of the individual and our right to disconnect from the past—one wonders what the full extent of what we are losing might be. During our conversation, Rodriguez related a story that occurred on a long flight over Alaska as he sat next to a young boy. During the several hours of the flight, the boy never disengaged from his electronic game device; he was rapt by the screen, by its flat and small reality. Meanwhile, Rodriguez looked out his window and noticed a dramatic near-Arctic landscape and a sky full of unusual colors—hues that one wouldn’t see on the mainland. The boy, however, missed it entirely.
“How can you be Huck Finn on a raft and not even notice?” he asks in astonishment. “What kind of man will he grow up to be? What kind of neighbor? What kind of lover?” The only response, perhaps, is somewhere in the stubborn hope of an ojalá.
David Garza lives in New York City.