Detritivores

Photo credit: Andrew Cooper

We buried huge pieces of our neighbor’s fallen cottonwood in our garden a couple years ago so the soil could benefit as the wood decomposed. The Germans named this process Hugelkulture. Our neighbor had planned to burn the pile–converting decaying wood to unnecessary BTUs and ash. Not an awful thing to do, but not ideal.

Over the past couple years, deceased bodies beloved to me have also been converted to ash; rolled through a special chamber that reaches over 1400 degrees Fahrenheit, bone fragments pulverized, and the resulting remains scattered on chosen hills, sprinkled on the face of deep waters, buried alongside a rosebush, or saved in an urn.

The air stirred during one of these scatterings. Turns out it was God, shaking flour off her apron so she could join the final minutes of the ceremony. She’d been baking croissants. Thanks to her vigorous flapping, the gray powder twirled upward in micro dust devils instead of drifting peacefully to earth. “That’s what ash does,” God whispered defensively as I frowned and shook my head. “It can’t be entirely controlled or avoided even on calm days.”

“Then you’re a lot like ash,” I whispered, smiling so she wouldn’t think I was angry with her. Of course, I’m always a little angry with God but not enough to want to hurt her feelings or make her disappear. I think she feels the same about me.

“No, not ash. I’m more like the detritivores chomping away on your cottonwood stumps,” she teased back.

“Excuse me?” I raised my eyebrows.

“Look it up,” God whispered. But somehow, I knew. Detritivores are creatures that convert the dead to nutrition for the living; butterflies, maggots, and such. They thrive off waste, breaking down and cleaning up that which is left behind.

Once, I was laying in some grass and a butterfly landed in front of my nose. It was my father, long-dead, hypnotic wings the iridescent blue of his eyes. He was as attentive as ever. We talked of things, worldly and otherwise, and he flew away. Now, decades later, many more forebears have joined him.

“I’d rather go gently into dark dirt than blaze up in flames,” I muttered to God. “Is it legal to be buried in your own garden?” We’d both been rude side-talkers, but my voice may have gotten louder. God shushed me. The priest intoned the final blessing and made the sign of the cross, ignoring the ash settling on his shoulders. I leaned in close and whispered, “I bet those robes are going straight to the cleaners.” God stared straight ahead, but her mouth twitched a little as we bowed our heads for the final prayer. Neither of us closed our eyes.

Certain Realities

“I hope you don’t think I’m real by any of your standards,” God said, with a worried look. “It could set you up to be pretty judgmental.”

“Well, actually, I do,” I admitted. “On occasion. But not without reservations.”

“Fair enough,” God said. “I think I can help clear this up. Let’s talk about omniscience. Infinity. If you started counting out loud right now, it would take 31 years to get to a billion. And that’s just one little abstract billion. I mean, I don’t blame you for trying to reduce me to something you can comprehend, a set of easy answers, a source for whatever you think you want–but I’m beyond your gray matter, excuses, threats, formulas, and numeric systems.”

“Sheesh, God,” I said, running my hands through my wayward hair. “Could you just shut up for a minute? I don’t need this right now.”

“Sorry, but I think you do,” God said. “Bear with me.”

The kindly old gentlemen sitting across from me leaned in, stroking his beard thoughtfully. Santa Claus? Everyone’s idealized grandfather? Before he diverted to this ‘I’m not real’ sidetrack, we’d been talking about the trials and tribulations of being the kind of person I am. I’d been on a roll; confident I was convincing him to see things my way and help me out.

But he’d turned the conversation sideways. “With your current instrumentation, you can detect about two trillion galaxies in what you call the universe. Each galaxy has about a hundred million stars.” He paused, and in a tender voice, added. “I know them all by name.”

I tried to do the math. Stars. What’s two trillion times a hundred million? The wonderments and limits of being human blew my brain up. I grabbed at the shards flying everywhere, hoping to pull myself back together.

“Give it up,” God said. “I love you best this way.”

“What? All discombobulated, overwhelmed by the incomprehensible, creative web of whatever you are? Uncertain of what matters in my littleness? How to be of use?”

“Yup,” God said. “Exactly. It’s Otherness that troubles you. Let go of your crazed images and false guarantees. Don’t try to shape me based on your need for power or reassurance. Nothing defines me. I am Beyond.”

I felt lost and enraged. I thought to myself I might as well kill God off and go it alone. The kindly gentleman handed me weaponry and said, “Be my guest, sweet earthling. You wouldn’t be the first.” He raised his hands in surrender.

But the thought of dealing with a decomposing God stopped me cold. What would I do with the body?

“That is one of the problems, isn’t it?” God asked, quietly. “And it’s worse than you imagine.” He lowered his arms and drew me in. “I’m your inner albatross. An old dog sleeping in the warmth of your soul. Internal amputations are tricky, especially when you’re unsure of what to cut away.”

God’s New Job

“Hey, I just landed a job as an aerobics instructor,” God told me this morning, flexing his biceps. He struck a pose that accentuated his ripped thighs and taut butt. “Minimum wage, but it’s a union job with full benefits.” He was beaming. I was speechless. He continued. “Don’t look so shocked. It’s spiritual aerobics. We’ve been working on this idea that with the right music and attire, we could motivate humans to get their souls into better shape. Can you imagine a nice pair of Lulu Lemon leggings for the spirit?” He rubbed his giant hands together. “Now, that would be sexy.”

Occasionally, my job is to pop God’s bubble. Big ideas shimmer in the early morning light but they are transient. “God, darling,” I said gently. “You have some very creative notions, but…”

God interrupted with a toothy grin. “I knew you’d be a skeptic. I think pairing examples with music might do the trick. See, if I’m up front, and I shout something like bite back that sarcastic comment, swallow your pride, give beyond what you wanted to give while I jump around, it’ll look easy. I’ll make the heavy lifting of telling the truth appealing, and we can show people how they can increase their flexibility by offering the coats off their backs—all part of a good workout for the overweight ego.”

The thought of obese egos trying to keep their pulse rates in the optimal zone made me laugh, but I was unconvinced of the overall appeal even though God was ridiculously enthusiastic.

“I’m gonna convince people to try high-energy benevolence, to crawl out on some shaky compassion limbs. We’ll play the right tunes to inspire a few high-stakes sacrifices.”

“Sounds dangerous,” I said, a small knot forming in my stomach.

“Oh, totally,” God said. “But your job is not to stay alive as long as possible; your job is to stay as loving as possible. Get that soul in shape. Death is not elective, but cruelty is. It’s healthier to die trying to help than it is to live fat and sassy off the labor and poverty of others.”

I imagined my spirit in red spandex with an ivory sports bra. God smiled approvingly and turned to the drummer materializing in the kitchen. “We need a cosmic pulse,” he said. The drummer nodded, dreadlocks springing into action. She had multitudes of eyes and hands, and there were more snare drums than stars. Creation throbbed with the joy of now and the sorrow of wasted time as the walls dissolved. A blur of angels and devils leaped onto the dining table, guitars already wailing, hips gyrating. God handed me the bass. “Carry that bottom beat, baby,” he said. “Let’s rattle some bones.”

Shelter from the Storm

We are all a long way from home, dithering and dallying, trancelike automatons until something small or large loosens a stone in the foundation. Lost, but not completely lost. Found, but not yet found. Half-heartedly seeking what Bob Dylan called a lethal dose of salvation. Always a little messed up, though occasionally well-intended. For instance, I didn’t mean to leave the rice in the microwave overnight or the fish on the counter. I didn’t set out to drink all the cold brew and not start the next batch. But mea culpa—these are among my many thoughtless mistakes, and I hereby offer myself conditional forgiveness. I tell myself You’ve got to stay focused. And I add Straighten up and die right. Or is it lie right? Or fly right?

“I prefer fly right,” God says, settling in on the couch beside me. “And who put you in charge of forgiveness?

“Well, I’ve always assumed it was you,” I say, “And it’s a hell of a job.”

God smiles sympathetically and rifles through the mail, lists, receipts, masks, and rubber bands on the coffee table. I sit quietly, hoping for a bit of advice or assistance. My recent efforts to be more organized have fallen woefully short. The demons of distraction are delighted as I try various methods to get centered: Deep breathing (smoky air); beer (disorienting); garden (needs weeding, watering system not working); sticky notes (they lose their effectiveness when they’re everywhere). Lovingkindness meditation (too hard). I’m full of excuses and self-pity. There’s plenty of blame to go around.

“I wish I lived somewhere that forgiveness wasn’t even a necessary thing,” I say.

“Hmmm,” God says, absorbed in a sale flyer for energy-efficient window replacement. “I doubt it.”

And to top things off, the Text Predictions function in Word has suddenly turned itself on. I hate Word guessing at what I’m trying to say. I hate automatic updates. I hate passwords. I hate warring search engines. I hate smoky air, suicide bombers, drought, rice in the microwave, weeds in the garden, turkeys in the straw, refugees in the ocean, people willing to infect each other with viral hatred, flagrant ignorance, and this long and winding road that always leads me here. To the here and now of an ever-eroding present tense. I’m a child of the 60s.

That prophetic Beatles song locks down in my brain. “Don’t leave me waiting here,” I sing to God. I think I’m being funny, but God and I choke up. The Long and Winding Road was their last number-one single in the USA. So fitting. The unattainable. The end is the beginning, and the beginning is the end. The wandering is the journey. The trying is the failing. The failing reveals grace, and our last job is to die forgiven.

“I do know how hard it is, honey,” God says. I nod. We sit, staring out the recycled windows at the waning but beautiful garden.

The Dance

Sometimes, I don’t get along with the co-author of this blog all that well. We argue, give each other the silent treatment, and land low blows, but then we usually find our way to uncomfortable compromises. It isn’t exactly quiet desperation, but close. We’re like the gruesome twosome in the couples counseling literature—together for the long haul, though there are days it isn’t pretty. Arguing with God is a thankless task and there is scant evidence it does much good, but what are the alternatives? Eat curses and enemies for breakfast with loaded guns across our laps? Slide blithely toward extinction? Give shallow thanks for our short-sighted blessings, imagined or real? Die alienated, resentful, or afraid? No.

For instance, this morning I say, “Hear my prayers, oh mighty and all-knowing God.” (I only start this way when I’m in a certain mood.) “I implore you to move most of earth’s population to other planets. Provide everyone with birth control, shelter, and nutritious food. Let the artists do art. Let the lovers love. Let the earth recover its incredible balance. Disable all weaponry. Learn an instrument and play for us every evening. Sing for us every morning, and at noon, dance. Amen.”

My co-author responds. “Hear my suggestions, oh puny human,” she says. “Feed the hungry. Provide shelter and comfort to one another. Limit your offspring. Visit those who are ill or imprisoned. Give cheerfully and pay your taxes willingly. Elect rulers with integrity and compassion. Stop relying on that which is nonrenewable. Stop using poisons and short-cuts. Stop using weapons. Stop acting like you own the place. You’re just passing through. Learn an instrument and play for us every evening. Sing for us every morning, and at noon, dance. Selah.”

Our longings are similar, but we disagree about who’s responsible. Many of us can’t even carry a tune. Who should take the lead?  

“Not me,” God says. “I’ve already given you all you need.”

“I don’t think so,” I say.

“Of course you’d say that,” God says, in a firm mother’s voice. “You’ve made a royal mess. Clean your room.”

“I would,” I claim, shamefaced. “But I don’t know which one’s mine.”

“Doesn’t matter,” God says. She hands me a dust cloth, a mop, a broom, knee pads, a toolkit, water bottles…

“Stop!” I say, “I already have all that stuff.”

God grabs a can of oven cleaner. “Then let’s get going,” she says. “I need time to practice. I’m combining tap with some exquisite break-dance moves for my next performance.”

This is a great motivator. I love watching God dance, her muscular body supple and yielding, her hair snapping like lightning. Sometimes, she invites the universe to be her partner, and spectacular forces shape themselves to her. Sometimes, she dances solo. Either way, it is magnificent. I gather rags and rubber gloves, and away we go. I’m not sure what, but something will be shiny clean by noon.

Lava and Fresh Fruit

The air is cool and nasty this morning, thick with particulate, willful ignorance, lost causes, and the frenzied breathing of people frantic to escape regression. I need to make some difficult decisions, but first I will walk the path beaten into visibility by wildlife; I will find water and wash away my sins. If I were inclined to invite anyone along, it would be God; she’s known for all sorts of rituals and baptisms, but today, she’s messed up. I’m not sure what she found to ingest, but she’s blotto. Disconnected. The chasm, the steep slopes, God’s self-inflicted wounds; all too much for me today. I’ll leave God unchallenged. Otherwise, it could get ugly.

On the skyline, four saddled horses paw the ground, eyes wide, nostrils flaring. Most likely, the riders partied with God last night and are sleeping it off somewhere. I wonder if the horses will find their way through the scrub brush, invasive species, and backlit sky to this apparently level terrain on which I stand. Intuitively, horses know that even solid ground can only be trusted to a certain extent because at its core, the earth is a restless sea of lava. They may choose to stay put or spin and disappear. I wouldn’t blame them.

Meanwhile, the other God has serenely mingled itself into a box of perfectly ripened peaches from Colorado, so tender, so delicious they make me cry. It’s a privilege to touch their velvety outer layer, smell the embodiment of grace, and partake of the deep yellow flesh.

“God,” I say. “You are beyond comprehension, but I’m not giving up. I’m not backing down.”

“Too bad,” Golden God whispers. “Pride goeth before the fall…but come to think of it, meekness goeth before the fall. It is the nature of things to fall. Don’t be afraid. You’ll find us there, among the descended and drowned, the defenseless, the clowns–among the decidedly ugly and vastly imprisoned. We’re there as much as we’re anywhere.”

“I don’t want to find you there,” I whisper back.

“I know,” God says.

I offer nothing else. I have peaches to freeze. Beans to pick. Onions to dry. Cucumbers to pickle. And an unknown number of inhalations with my name on them. And what’s God got to tend to? Recovery? Irrelevance? Water? I’m not sure of their entire list, but I know the molten lava must be stirred. Otherwise, it will cool to stone, and that will be the end.

Wildfires

We evacuated a few days ago. God refused to help sort what to take but rode along in the tiny spaces available in the car and winked at me as the fire officials at the station explained that the wind had shifted. The fight was going another direction. If we took the back roads, we could go home. As we turned around, God disappeared and I was glad to see him go, even though his absence is as much of an illusion as his presence. At least with him ostensibly gone, I could avoid thorny conversations for a while.

Who wants to talk with the God of fire during an evacuation? The God of suffering, loss, and apparently random events? It never goes well. The book of Job for example; an elongated poem, a chorus of voices and views, Yahweh and Satan in a cosmic pissing match, Yahweh’s praise of evolution, and a lesson in pointlessness. Sure, there’s the veneer of a happy ending, but not if you realize it will all end again. Who wants to lose everything twice? Thrice? Forever?

“Do you think the key is to have nothing to lose?” God asked as I sat by the window, breathing smoky air, waiting for another evacuation notice. I didn’t mind that God had swung back around. He was better than the meager offerings on Roku.

“I don’t know about that,” I said, scanning my accumulations; books, art, a sheepskin rug, my yoga mats, special rocks, blue glass, a cedar jewelry box filled with trinkets, a stack of incomplete gardening journals (we start a new one every spring). Of what consequence would their loss be? Little to none. Of what consequence has my life been? Or anyone’s?

God nodded, noncommittal. Listening. I grieved and tried to be brave about it all. I wanted to imagine I was of great consequence; something other than one of the trillion dominoes God has gleefully lined up, waiting and watching to see what might set off the next run, gently drumming his fingers, offering substantial odds to anyone willing to bet against him. I wondered if I could step out of line. Redirect the future of my particular genetic strain, remain standing, and win.

“Of course,” God said. “Be my guest. I like winners.”

“But I thought you liked losers,” I said. Conversations like this give me vertigo of the soul. Winning isn’t definable, and I don’t actually know what kind of consequence I want to be. It’s risky business to have God along in an evacuation because no matter what you take along, God knows what you’ve left behind and will circle back. God always circles back. This may be a good thing, but I’d rather have the promise of perpetuity or at least a direct way home.

What God Thinks is Funny

Out of nowhere, the pouty voice of God declared, “Most people don’t appreciate my sense of humor.” I managed to look interested rather than startled. God continued, “…and they rarely get my sarcasm either. You people are too literal.”

This seemed unfair. How, exactly, are we supposed to recognize a cosmic joke? Or respond to a sarcastic God? Sarcasm is a defensive, often insulting manner of getting a laugh or hurting someone.

“Why would you even want to be sarcastic?” I asked.

“It’s cheap and easy,” God said. “Good way to cut someone down to size.”

“Ah, c’mon God,” I said. “You seem a little off today. What’s up?”

“What’s up?” God mocked. “What’s up, God? Why is this happening, God? Bless me now, God. Make us another planet, God. Clean this up, God. Give us one more gold metal so we know we’re better than the communists, God. Make my day, God.”

“Well, someone’s a little grumpy this morning,” I said. “Bad night?”

“Bad night?” God said. “No night. Never night. No rest. Not the plan. The seventh day, I was going to chill. I said it was good and tried to relax, but no. It wasn’t entirely good. It was mostly good, but I missed a few details. My bad.”

God beat her chest and shook her wild hair loose, the demons screamed, and the world rolled like a bowling ball down the alley of a galaxy with trillions of exquisite pins quivering in hot anticipation. The impact promised to be utterly spectacular. An ending unheard of. Unimagined. Untenable. Acting on instinct, I threw myself across the expanse, gasping when my body hit the cold hard surface of nothingness.

“Nice try.” God’s voice was warm, approving. I was too dazed to respond. I just stared. “No, really,” God added. “Nice one.” She held up a rating card with a 9 on it and said, “Now let’s warm you back up a little.” She led me to the fire. I was naked beyond bone, floating without form. The small things that had tethered me to what I thought I knew glistened like gossamer. It didn’t seem possible to hold on anymore.

“Easy, there,” God said. “I think we’ve had enough for now.”

I rallied. “Oh, you think so, huh?” I crossed what would have been my arms if I had arms. I was not going to give up that easily. I’d just thrown myself across the abyss, hadn’t I? “Hold my beer,” I said.

God cracked up. Tears rolled down her wizened cheeks as laughter nudged the earth back in place. She laughed so hard that the demons paused in their misery and the angels in their dancing. And I managed to laugh a little too. I knew the joke was on me, but I laughed anyway. God and I have found that this is the best way to handle situations like this. Laugh. And then leap again.

Rake Handles

Painting our shovel handles industrial yellow worked out well, but dark green for the rake handles was a mistake. I used to hate being wrong, but I’m more patient with myself now. I have red paint. I can fix it. Then, we’ll be able to see those handles hiding in the grass and be far less likely to step on the tines or lose the rake for months on end.

“Of course, there’s always the option of putting the rakes away after you use them,” God says with a laugh. I sneer. God continues. “And on the subject of mistakes, I’m getting more patient with myself, too. Perfection is a shifting concept—a process. Without mistakes, there are far fewer ways to learn.”

“Oh, I get that,” I say. But inside I’m thinking yeah, and what about people who won’t admit their mistakes? The people who believe they know more than the experts? The people who willfully destroy the earth? The people who put others at risk by not taking basic protective measures?

“You win some, you lose some,” God says. “You can quote me on that.”

I smile dubiously. I doubt I’ll be quoting God on that or anything. I am sick to death of supposed God quotes thrust at me through social media by people I know to be incredible hypocrites. And yes, we all have our hypocritical moments. That’s the thing about perfection. It brings out the worst in people.

“Sure is smoky,” I say.

God nods, rubbing her eyes. “Yeah, and hot as hell,” she adds.

I raise my eyebrows. God gives me a sly look and nods again. “Like I said, without mistakes, there are far fewer ways to learn. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

“God,” I say. “You scare me when you talk like that.”

“I know,” God says. “But I can’t help it. Fear is one of your bigger mistakes. Hatred is another. Paint those red and put them away when you’re not using them for the good.”

She sounds stern, but she opens her arms for a quick embrace. “The seasons don’t arrive at exactly the same time every year, honey. But they always arrive. You can’t stop them, and you shouldn’t try.”

“Can I quote you on that?” I ask, facetiously.

“No need,” God says. “Everyone who’s anyone already knows. And the rest won’t listen anyway.”

“That’s what it seems like,” I admit. “But you aren’t giving up on them, are you?”

“Never,” God says. “But I’m glad you asked.” The quick embrace is now a bear hug and God kisses the top of my head and for the briefest of moments, everything is holy. And perfect.

Saffron

I woke up so existential this morning my cold brew coffee is quivering with meaning, and I can see to the edge of the known universe. With few reservations, I pronounce it good. My hands push themselves together. The familiar flesh I live within, the geodesic cellular structures, the cool, smokey breeze, the faint bird songs, the river, the memory of ice, the calendar, the unsung heroes, burned, drowned; gone. But not gone.

The Untethered Oldest Woman stops by to borrow my eyes, a cup of sugar, and all the eggs I’ve ever stored, anywhere. “You can have whatever you need,” I say. “There’s more in the pantry. Most of it is past the sell-by date anyway. Take a lot of whole wheat flour. It’s close to rancid.”

“How much toilet paper can I have?” she asks. The look on her face is wily, her intent buried deep within the dark wrinkles that hide inhabitants of other planets, illegal immigrants, and the shamed and aging losers of cosmic beauty pageants.

“Take it all,” I say. “I don’t care.” And I mean it.

“Well, aren’t we accommodating this morning?” The Old One says, smiling. “I’ll only take what I can balance on my bike. That’ll leave you with a year’s supply or so. Better stock up, though. There’s another wave coming.”

I don’t rise to the bait. Well, maybe I do. I don’t know myself all that well most mornings—even the existential ones. “I don’t care.” I repeat, and cross my arms, wondering how to make a graceful exit.

The Untethered One shakes her head. “You’re a terrible actor,” she says. “I like that about you.”

I consider the things that haunt me; the slack-jawed sleep of the feeble, the twisted postures of the dead, the fact of toilet paper, an orange scarf waiting to help with my yoga poses. These are my oppressors. These are my liberators. These assure me that today, I exist. To celebrate, I think I’ll add red, green, and maybe turquoise to the streak of blue in my chemically white hair. Then I’ll drive to town and join the army.

The nice thing about this plan is that the colors are temporary, and the army doesn’t want me.

The long orange scarf catches the light and reminds me of saffron. Such an expensive spice. I’ve hoarded a small packet so long it’s likely lost its flavor. It’s not only that it’s rare and expensive, though; I’m also not sure how to use it.

“Use it today,” The Untethered Oldest Woman urges. “Pudding. Cake. Chicken. Doesn’t matter. It’s the act of using it that will matter.” I’m doubtful, but she’s extraordinarily animated. “No, I’m serious,” she says, waving her many arms for emphasis. “It will matter. Use the saffron.”