There’s Nothing In Here

“Beyond the white clouds a blue mountain. A traveler goes beyond that mountain.”

 — Zen poem

You know how it is. You stand at the edge of a black highway. It’s so hot your boots stick to the asphalt. The sun bears down on you — on your skull, on your breath. There is nowhere you’d rather be.

There are mountains beyond mountains beyond mirages. Cobalt beyond indigo beyond dusty blue. You know what’s out there — the way washes curve back into the rock, how a waterfall no wider than your palm might be spilling over basalt. There might be reeds and a cottonwood luminous against the dark rock.

A couple in a cliché vehicle drives up and park. They slowly emerge from the car. You try to hold to the cobalt, the waterfall, the verdant flames of the cotton leaves. The man announces to the woman, “There’s nothing out there.” She shudders. In as long as it has taken you to stop breathing, the people are there, not there, and gone.

You look out at the mountain. The sky above is cloudless. You know toward what you will go.

The building was built a few years ago. It is austere. It’s easy to imagine guards and prisoners, easy to believe that like university buildings constructed in the Seventies, it has been designed to discourage students gathering in protest; and should they gather, to allow them to be contained easily. I walk into a huge gray lobby. There are no other people. There is an elevator. I take it up to the second floor.

I exit into more gray, find my way to the room in which I will teach a writing circle. I wait at a long table. Everything is tidy. Everything is gray: table, chairs, walls, ceiling and floor. The door opens into another gray hallway lined with wall-to-wall windows. Outside, the sun drifts down toward a ragged skyline. I lean against the doorframe and watch rose-blue evening melt in.

The students walk down the hall, their laughter muted by the sharp angles of the building. We shove the tables to the back of the room, move the chairs into a circle. I suddenly notice the equipment on a big desk. Brooke laughs. “Watch,” she says.

She touches a button. Two screens slide down over the whiteboard. She touches another button. “What do you want to see?” she asks. “Anything. We can project anything from the internet to the screens.”

“Spirit Mountain. Nevada. Sunset,” I say.

Brooke clicks again. I step aside and turn to the screens. There are two Spirit Mountains side by side. Cobalt rock. Red-gold burning on their tops. Pale desert and dark Joshua trees at their base.

“The last time I looked at that mountain,” I say, “a tourist said, ‘There’s nothing out there.’ Let’s write from these pictures and the prompt: There’s nothing in here.”

We write for thirty minutes. We read. A nineteen-year-old man takes his turn. “There’s nothing in here. I believe these rooms are designed this way to drain the creativity from us students. That way we won’t ever think about what college has become. That way we won’t fight back.”

We finish reading. Brooke steps toward the computer. “No,” the young man says, “leave those on the screen. Let’s pretend we can walk into the pictures. Let’s write from there. We can start with ‘There’s nothing out there.’ Then we’ll go beyond.”