Aftermath

God flaps long black wings and lands gracefully on a large pile of debris while I gaze at what was once a fence but is now a line of uprooted bushes, broken promises, sticks, and mud. I wave. God takes human shape and waves back. A wide-brimmed hat shades her eyes from an ambitious morning sun. The FEMA people have come and gone.

We are creatures of the seasons, drawn along by the unstoppable orbit of earth and the long and short of things out of our control. We’ve learned to adapt. Even the meanest among us is glad for a cold drink on a hot day. Even the bravest does not welcome frostbite. When a season runs amok, and our shelters collapse, burn, or float away, we stand stripped of familiar, protective layers. Our dreaded smallness is revealed.

Both “aftermath” and “seasons” have etymological roots in agriculture. Knowing when to plant and knowing there will be a smaller, second crop available after harvest–these are as essential to survival as breathing—though not as automatic. I survey the aftermath of this season so far. It has severely eroded riverbanks, civility, and the pillars of our democracy.

I settle beside God. We say nothing. Not long ago, the flat surface we’re sitting on was a bridge plank from somewhere upstream. Now it’s woven into what the river has lifted, tossed, and left behind. It will not be a bridge again. I do not know which bridges will hold. I’m tired and afraid. God takes my hand, and we walk to the garden where seeds are belatedly sprouting. I am astonished to see the Lower Salmon River squash seeds I saved from last year making a go of it. I was sure they were rotten, infertile, or dead.

“Never say never,” God whispers, gently touching the sprouts.

“Never say always,” I counter. “I’m not sure what’s next, but it won’t be the same river, ever again.”

“Nothing is ever the same river,” God says.

I give God an ironic look and push my hand through her ephemeral chest. On the other side, there’s a new season as yet unnamed. At some point, I will call it home, but even so, it will be temporary.

God leans down, pulls a weed, and squints up at my wavering being. “There is no final resting place,” she says. “But the painted ponies love having riders like you.” She hands me a golden coin. I hand it back. She laughs, swallows the coin, and flies away. I have flotsam and jetsam to clear, wells to cleanse, and fires to build. So many fires to build.

Water

The river has risen to magnificence, inflicting random agonies. I play the pain on my old guitar and the pain plays me like water. We are an unlikely duet. I yield the melody to the flooding river because my ragged vocal cords cannot handle the range this song demands. There are high notes best expressed with compassion and exquisitely controlled vibrato, and bass notes so low they trouble the souls of those with ears to hear.

God dances on the surface of the swirling eddies, a child performing in her first recital, insects reveling in abundance. Entire homes float by. “What can we take apart?” God asks, rubbing millions of wet hands in anticipation. “And how shall we put things back together?”

I know I should volunteer but I have no idea where to start or what to do. “God,” I say, speaking against the thunder of boulders rolling by. “How can I help?”

“Good question,” God replies. I’m surprised. Usually, it’s God asking the good questions.

“Climb as high as you can, look across the valley, and find the place where earth meets sky. Then hold your thumb to the horizon and notice how your perception shifts.”

This is a trick I’ve done many times to shrink the size of an imposing moon, but always with ambivalence. I usually prefer an imposing moon and my own hazy beliefs about gravity and the relative size of things.

“I don’t want to do that,” I say to God. “Any other suggestions?”

“Sure,” God shrugs. “Do what you need to do. Take the moon home for all I care. I’ve made a million moons and there are more to come. They will always agitate the water until it turns into wine.”

Uprooted trees float by, lodge, and bend the current. I wade into icy shallows, kick debris off the fence, and watch the current take it away. God shows up in bib waders. I wonder if the old guy is foolish enough to try and fish. He has worms and sinkers. I shake my head. He grins a sloppy, open-mouthed grin.

God’s first suggestion comes back to mind, and I realize elevation is not a bad thing. I pack the guitar and prepare to begin this last ascent. I’ll not lift my thumb to the horizon, though, because perception doesn’t change the order of things. Instead, I will harken to Mother Mary’s wisdom and let it be.

The Constant is Change

“A kennel is different than a fenced yard,” I explained to God last evening as we problem-solved the nature of limits, dogs, and human frailties. Dogs naturally dig, bark, jump, protect, chase, growl, and express exuberant affection. This presents problems to the elderly, newly planted marigolds, and other tender things. God seems to think containment should include flow.

“I know the difference,” God said with a twinge of disdain. “But I want to be able to open the door and be done with it. I like things simple.”

What a lie! I risked looking straight at God who then splintered into a hungry blackbird, a broken bike, unearthed seedlings, an abandoned fawn, an icy river, and hops vines using last year’s growth to climb heavenward. A teaspoon of topsoil, a glance at sky–this is all the evidence anyone needs; God does not like things simple.

“Fine. So we’re not that simple,” God admitted, fading into the late-blooming lilacs. I filled the bird feeder, replanted snapdragons, marigolds, and basil, and imagined how I could upcycle the bike. It has a kickstand. That gave me hope. Even though the river is high and noisy, I slept well.

But an intrusive idea about yet another way to rearrange the living room occurred to me this morning, and a Paul Simon tune is on replay in my head. The bike is still broken and I need to build a fence. I’m trying to focus, but distractions take root like invasive weeds—they have no natural enemies. Possibilities plague me. What should I transform next?

The angelic face of change is often made of plastic and other petroleum products designed to enslave and deplete. And yet…

Change is what we are made of.

What would we do without rust and mildew, the molding peach, the dry rot spreading through brick and mortar? Should we bow down to the power of deterioration and thank the gods of decline? I think not, but I suspect it’s all the same to the Many-Sided God; unlike me, they are free and untethered.

“Ah, but you are free to choose your tethers.” God intrudes midsentence–appearing as punctuation and grammar, a parenthetical phrase gone rogue, coauthoring away, as unbidden as Paul Simon, as pernicious as bindweed. And as dangerous as an unruly dog who is way too happy to see me.

“Get down!” I yell. This is not an ideal way to interact with God, but I have no treats or tennis balls to throw, so I drop to my knees where it’s safer and tell myself it’s not a bad thing to be adored.

Life as a One-Act Play

Shades of green and lavender dance in the background. Even with eyes wide open, it’s impossible to tell if the room has walls or is defined more by water and isolation. Actors are vaguely aware of each other.

Me: (sermonizing to a nebulous offstage audience) Mother Earth is exhausted by this adolescent phase of humanity. We’re facing severe consequence. All it will take is one big planetary shrug and we’ll be a species known only by bones. We’ve failed to outgrow our epic selfishness, destructive impulsivity, and futile denial of mortality. Earth won’t clean up after us forever; our money and phony apologies won’t save us…

God: (muttering to self, pacing) She’s right. They should know better by now. Maybe I should have set firmer limits.

Me: (turning to God) Or maybe you’re sending mixed messages.

God: (slightly mystified) I thought love would be enough.

Me: (sad, defensive) I don’t know why you’d make that assumption. Love is a lot harder than you realize.

God: (indignant) You think I don’t know that?  I keep course-correcting with forgiveness and wearing my best clothes so that nature might have a chance to teach you something. I hate to mention this, but on other planets, things are going better.

Me: (shaken) But aren’t we your planet of choice? Aren’t we your favorites?

God: (thoughtfully muttering to self again) Too close to call. Tough to know how much more to invest. (Turning to me) Everyone wants to be my favorite, but actually, I’m my own favorite. It has to be that way.

Me: (indignant, arms crossed) Well then, I’m my own favorite, too.

God: (wryly) How’s your lumber supply? You’re aware of the supply chain problems, right?

Me: (trying to be funny) Are we talking ark? Greenhouse? Firewood?

God: (expanding to ginormous) All of the above. And more. Add marshmallows to your list.

Me: (despairing) And coffins? We’re gonna need lots of coffins.

God: (grabbing my hand with tenderness, a thousand eyes crying) Yes. I can’t change that. But eventually, they’ll be empty, baby. Empty.

Me: (trying to yank my hand free) Are we talking resurrection or decomposition?

God: (many heads nodding) Yes.

Light fades to the point where photoreceptor cells in the well-developed vertebrate retina are challenged, and the cones let go. Color dies but thanks to the rods, a set of hazy gray paths are still visible. They merge at the vanishing point.

How I Hang On

The strands of God I braid into lifelines are made of rags, dried roots, aches, pains, snake skins, and sun. My images of God are stained by blood and the poison leaves of rhubarb, crushed, boiled, dried, and painted on muslin shipped from India, the cloth of royalty, spun with pride by beautiful brown people starving for a chance at life.

There are those who keep their meditations and rituals tight and tidy, like spiritual minimalists. They expect God to do the same. Variations on good and evil are not tolerated because of the mess that creates. But I can absolutely assure you, attempts to keep God simple and sorted out never work.

God appears or withdraws without warning. God ignores, intrudes, laughs, cries, gallops away, swims back, soars, grovels, snorts, pouts, lurks, flaps, crawls, and overstays any kind of real or imagined welcome. I lament the naïve worship of false saviors and the primitive ways we think we can protect ourselves.

“And what about plastic?” God asks, joining my foray into complexities and despair. “Tupperware was once regarded as a miracle.” God takes the shape of a vacuum cleaner, then a fridge; God infuses a book of photos of my chemo baldness and the breastless beauty of my friend’s short-term victory over cancer. God is flippant and fancy, playing the fool to cheer me up.

“Be ye still, God,” I say to all the moving pieces.

“Good one,” God laughs and pulls me onto the trampoline. God is protective, warning those close to me that I can’t be bounced as high anymore. Even though this signals the condition of my bones, I am comforted by the attention.

“I know you pretty well,” God says, watching me jump. “I wish you’d stay off ladders.”

“Oh, take a hike,” I say.

 “Good idea,” God says. And away we go.

This is the Big Truth. We can neither contain nor control God: not in rituals, not in words, not in ideas (simple or otherwise), not in rules, not in promises, not in skylines or photos—even from the Hubble telescope. God refuses to be shaken down, defined, spoken for, or reduced. Thus, it is wise to entertain sorrow, welcome the stranger, love the enemy, and find strength in the profound, complex joy that is life itself. God’s blood is the blood we bleed. It is on loan from eternity.

Partying with God

“Hey, God,” I whisper, slipping quietly down the dimly-lit stairs. God’s an early riser, but others are still asleep. “Wanna party?” Sometimes, my morning mood is both desolate and overly energized. I don’t even know why I say what I say.

“You bet,” God answers with enthusiasm. “You mean like eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die?”

Exactly, I think to myself. I want a reassuring party with my adoring little God: a fatalistic precursor, debauchery-laced denial.

My eyes slowly adjust to the sunrise out the window. The pasture glistens far beyond a describable green. Turkeys have been eating the tops off my onion sets, and chokecherries are budding. Spring is arriving with her usual expectations, but each winter leaves another indelible mark on my psyche.

Inviting God to party is risky, but not inviting God is risky too. This one will cost me a bottle of beer, some lime-flavored chips, and the kind of scrutiny only fools and children are willing to endure. But right now, I am an unswaddled child. I’ll be fine, I tell myself.

“No, you won’t,” God says in a million joyful voices. “You won’t be fine. You are fine. There’s a difference. C’mon. Let’s get this party on the road.”  God is legion. They are many. They are beautiful. I don’t have enough beer. And even if the chips expand like the loaves and fishes, they’re stale.

“Ah, never mind,” I say. “Let’s skip the party. I need to go shopping and pull some weeds. I need to put things away, do the floors, make some calls.”

“But you invited us,” God protests. “We’re coming along, no matter how you spend your time. And we brought plenty of refreshments. You didn’t think we’d show up empty-handed, did you?”

I have endured scorn, exalted in adoration, sought invisibility, reveled in mastery, and played by myself on any number of shorelines and precipices. What possessed me to issue that rash invitation? A party with God at dawn? I might be an unswaddled child in my mind, but in reality, these stairs are a real challenge.

I sit on the bottom step, cover my ears, close my eyes, and will God to disappear. Instead, she scales down to singular and sits beside me in superhero pajamas. She hands me coffee. I hand her the day. She turns it this way and that, gazes at its beauty, touches its pain, and hands it back.

“All yours,” she says. “Enjoy.”

“I’ll try,” I say as I put the day in my pocket. And I mean it.            

“I know you will,” she says. And she means it, too.

Who’s to Say What Starlight Might Do to the Skin?

Yesterday, I was looking for something in one of our outbuildings but within seconds, I’d forgotten what I was looking for. Our sheds reverberate with such potential that I can’t go in and come back out the same person. Touching the chaos causes a quickening; stacks of windows become greenhouse walls; slightly-damaged doors open to somewhere nice; a child pounds joyously on the drum set; strewn with straw, the stall in the corner protects a menagerie awaiting the ark; futons offer rest (or shelving); saw blades are sharpened; the woodstove is hooked up so I can cook in an emergency; empty frames and canvases are masterpieces hung in a gallery where antiques are tastefully displayed, and the scraps of angular metal have been welded into wings.

Our buildings are all named: Yoga Studio, Bug Barn, Playhouse, Solar Shed, Old Garage, Eva House, Lean-to, River Cabin, and of course, the decrepit and dangerous Contemplation Corner. The names reflect aspirations, not content. The structures are salvage yards and sanctuaries filled with failures awaiting transformation.

“God,” I said. “Proportionally, I bet I have as much broken and discarded stuff as you do.”

“Well, hello there, Junior,” God drawled. He’d materialized beside a flat-tired trailer, chewing a blade of grass with studied nonchalance. His thumbs were hooked on the pockets of dirty overalls. “That’s not exactly what I’d call news.”

“Could you get any more stereotypic?” I asked. God shrugged and faded. I squinted into the neon orange sunset and began walking home.

I am chronically derailed by the allure of what could be, and I blame God for this. It takes resources and patience to repurpose the wrongheaded or rejected. There are days I long for everything to burn to the ground; for fire to devour the bulging collections of oddities and unlikely visions; for extreme heat to purify my remaining days.

“Tidiness does not ensure wisdom,” God said, in the voice of a patient teacher. She was resting in a rainbow-colored hammock hung between two thorny crabapple trees. “I found this hammock under a pile of flat soccer balls,” she added. “I like it.” She was wearing a sundress from the ragbag and had tipped one of my straw hats over her face.

“It’s getting dark,” I said to the spectacle that was God. “You may not need that hat.”

 “Maybe,” she agreed, throwing one unprotected, delicate arm over her head. “But who’s to say what starlight might do to the skin?”  I knew she was making fun of me.

“You’re right,” I said, offering her a sweater. “Who’s to say what starlight might do to the skin?”

Let the Mother Decide

I was yanked out of the waters of my first baptism by forceps used with such urgency that my head remained misshapen for years. I cry when I think about it, which isn’t often. Birth seems a silly thing to grieve, but my mother didn’t want a baby just then. She wasn’t ready. I was an accident, a burden arriving early. Not by her choice. Not by mine. She would have chosen an abortion, and I would have chosen to be aborted so I could have slid directly to the better place. This forced detour hasn’t been all that scenic. My mother should have been trusted. She knew. But the law required that she carry me from fetus to fruition. So here I am.

I’m lucky. Many born unwanted are never wanted. They remain objects of resentment and neglect. My parents had the internal means to adjust, and the external support needed to accept my birth, recalibrate, and carry on. But I think I speak for most fetuses. Straight to God is better. Let the mother decide.

My second baptism occurred when I was four. My hair was done up in little curls and sprayed with lacquer-like hairspray, so the sprinkling of water hardly ruined a thing. I’ve been told I went along with it, cheerful and apparently charming. I don’t remember much except that I was the focus of a somber ceremony, and it involved a God in white robes.

My third baptism occurred in my late teens, entirely my choice. It happened in a swimming pool in Connecticut, conducted by a fervent bleeding-heart Jesus freak in frayed cut-offs with an acne-scarred chest. The miracles, imagined and otherwise, continued, inspiring faith and madness in equal portions. Snakes haven’t bit me; lightening hasn’t struck me. God outgrew the robes and now arrays herself in tangibilities, acts of kindness, and the brilliance of the rising sun. She has adjusted things so that I can maintain a modicum of decorum and enough sanity to pass as ordinary.

“Ordinary?” God says, teasing. “No. Not you.”

“Hi, God.” I say. “Happy Mother’s Day.”

“Thanks,” God says. She looks happy. She’s carrying a wicker hamper, and though the world is resting on her shoulders as usual, for once, it is riding light and easy.

“What’s in the basket?” I ask, anticipating an invitation for a hike or a picnic. Afterall, it is Mother’s Day.

“Oh, the usual,” she says. “Sandwiches, carrots, water, dandelions, ants, umbrellas, music, cookies…and forceps.”

“Ah, c’mon God,” I say, probably looking a little pale.

“Better to be prepared,” God says. And basically, I agree.

“You didn’t need to bring the ants,” I say.

“You’re probably right,” God says. “But one never knows.”

Bullshit Makes Good Compost

“I started with the idea of green hills but quickly veered toward the more central question of water,” God said. “And when I was younger, I thought everything should have a touch of blue.”  We were considering the markers and wonders of seasons as we strolled along the rising river. Evening light bounced orange off the smoother surfaces. As is often the case, God was stoned, oblivious to the assumption that conversations should make sense. I was on guard. A barely lucid God can be both freeing and frightening.

We skipped a few rocks across white ripples. I squinted up at God and said, “Well, when I was younger, I swallowed the wrong words and have suffered bouts of vertigo ever since. Especially when it comes to you.”

“I know.” God admitted, with a goofy grin on his face. “That may account for your swollen joints and liberal leanings. Maybe it’s an immune system response.”

 “Nah,” I said. “Lately I’ve realized bullshit makes great compost. It was you all along, wasn’t it?”

God threw his head back and a majestic, maniacal mirth roared through the valleys. He whooped and howled and slapped his thigh. Small trees caught fire. He laughed so hard it turned into a coughing fit. I pounded him on the back. He wasn’t really in danger, but it was fun to have an excuse to beat on God.

Things settled and we sat ourselves down on a fallen cottonwood. “Bullshit makes great compost,” God repeated as he wiped his eyes. And he was off again.

“It’s not that funny, God,” I said after the second wave of tremors and surges subsided. “You’re just really messed up right now.”

“I know,” God said between lingering chuckles. “But don’t worry, sweetie. Like you said, the joke’s on me. Sometimes, I forget how hilarious I am.”

As night fell into place, we began walking back, guided by the string of blue lights blinking near the porch. It’s amazing how long those solar-powered bulbs last. And it’s equally astonishing that even with all the wrong words, queasy sensations, and primitive fantasies, God is still my favorite insanity.

He put his arm over my shoulder and in a stage whisper said, “Must you refer to me as an insanity?” His face was still glowing from the flames he’d lit. I shrugged. He grinned. “I mean, at least bullshit makes good compost. What’re you gonna do with insanity?”

It was my turn to laugh. “Give everything away,” I said, happy to have such an obvious answer. “I’ll just give everything away.”

“No, you won’t,” God said.

“Yes, I will,” I said in a calm voice, gazing up into the infinite sky, taking strength from the touches of blue lingering around the edges.

There Will Come a Day

When I got out my vitamin organizer to take my supplements this morning, today’s cubby was empty. I must have dipped in twice yesterday. No wonder I feel overwrought; too much B-complex and an overdose of magnesium may account for my anxious dream last night wherein Barack Obama helped me bandage the finger I cut making his family a salad. I don’t like forgetting, and I don’t like anxious dreams.

But dream we must. Forget we must.  Decline we must. Die we must. There will come a day when the puppy digging in the compost right now is an old, grey-faced mutt, and there will come a morning when no matter how watchful I am, I won’t glimpse my sister, half-crazed on her 4-wheeler, chasing down a skunk with her shotgun.

“Sorry I’m late,” God says as she rushes in. “You’ve rearranged your writing space. I like it.”

“Oh, hi God,” I say. “Coffee?”

God holds up her hand. “No, thanks. I had a cup with your neighbor, and I’m going to treat myself to a latte later. Still catching up on the fiascos of Easter/Passover/Ramadan. And Ukraine…” Her voice cracks.

“Hmmm,” I say. “Want some vitamins or something?”

God smiles and leans forward. “You know I’m not vengeful, right?” I nod and wait. “And you know I don’t play favorites, right?” I nod again, wishing I could be an exception. “And you know branches will always grow toward the sun and move gracefully in the wind, and things you drop will fall toward the center, right?”

I nod a third time suddenly feeling quite sad. “And where do the things you drop go?” I ask in a quiet voice, turning my face away. But God sees my eyes welling up anyway. She makes a fist of her giant hand and thumps herself hard in the chest. “Right here,” she says, and hits herself again. “Right here.”

When I sleep, I shroud the windows in purple velvet drapes. It occurs to me that I’d like my body wrapped in these before it is laid to rest in the garden. “Sounds like a good plan,” God says, voice fading. “I like purple.”

I have the intention of wiping my eyes and nodding again, but neither are possible because I have dissipated into the moment. The drapes are sun-streaked, dusty, and elegant. Granted, it may be an idiosyncratic or imagined elegance, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is the gravity-defying blackbird perched on the top branch of the wind-whipped cottonwood.