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.

Bruised

God and I were sitting in our pajamas near a nice fire, watching the sky, hoping the storm wouldn’t bring the cold temperatures predicted. Hoping the planet would somehow survive the ravages of greed. I was examining an ugly bruise on my forearm. Essentially, bruises occur when capillaries near the surface break and spill blood. Thin skin increases the risk.

Thousands of years ago, a prophet wrote that God wouldn’t take advantage of a bruised reed. There was no mention of bruised arms, egos, or disintegrating hips, but why would this assertion be necessary? What kind of God would go around beating up injured, weakened people, or break an already bruised reed?

“Um, God,” I say, “What’s your point with that whole bruised reed thing?”

God’s full attention swings toward me, a lumbering presence, a set of boots. I pull my sleeve down to cover the purple blotch. A tiny fraction of God’s focus is enough to end life as we know it, but I risk such things because in the end, it doesn’t matter. We’re sitting on a second-hand couch. I don’t care if it gets scorched.

“Why do you ask?” God says, warm breath laced with lavender and the allure of summer.

“Nice move,” I mumble and shift my gaze to the sparrows landing on the icy fence. As most four-year-olds know, Why? has no final answer. Asking why is a way to prolong the conversation, to shift the burden back.

I turn again to the God on my couch. “I ask because…” I am inundated with unwelcome insights. I hate bruised reeds. If I were God, I’d make a bonfire out of those damned reeds. How is it possible to walk alongside the bruising and the bruised? I don’t like wounded healers, and I don’t want to be one.

We sit. The wind is picking up, the chill becoming dangerous.

The ancient gaze of God is kind. “You love what you think is whole and beautiful because your vision is shallow.”

I close my eyes.

The primordial voice of God is gentle. “You love stories with endings because the untold threatens your sense of control.”

I cover my ears.

The wounded hand of God is warm as it hovers over mine. “You love stones because the bruises don’t show.”

I open one eye.

It’s not a single hand but a thousand; mottled, thick veined, and open. I choose one, entwine our fingers, and wait. God willing, the frozen ground will eventually soften toward spring when both planting and burying will be easier.  “Oh, we’re willing,” God says as the sky dumps snow. “But are you?”

Bathwater

Desmond Tutu arranged to have his body reduced to bone with water instead of fire. But then, where does the water go? In the darkest hour, this is what I ask over and over. “Where does the water go?” There’s no answer. I imagine God’s warm hands emerging from the dim mysteries of night to massage away my dread, but night runs its course faithful to its purpose and somehow, I rest.

God is the baby thrown out because the bathwater has grown so murky, but we hate admitting mistakes, don’t we?  Polluted, opaque waters create a dangerous urgency. Rabbits introduced in Australia with no natural predators, the wrongheaded trapping of coyotes and other wild beings, coffins surfacing in the flood; these are just a few of the frightening ways our intentions circle back, contaminated.

Light finally appears, brash and naked. I am drenched in the vivid orange of willows, awaiting an arrival that has already happened. I am dead to the night, dead to myself, alive to the day, and it is good.

The end and beginning, elephants, elevations, evolution, the vibrant midnight blue I created from discarded paint. All approach perfection. But even with perfection, there are problems. The eye of God I see seeing me blinks because there is dust in the morning air. The dust is of God’s own making, but I stirred the dark, dark blue and painted it on our most obvious wall. When I stare long enough, I can see all the way through.

There are many ways to be incontinent. I am proud of mine. The leakage of reason into the vast ocean of unknowing is often thought to be a toxic form of erosion, but it needn’t be. I am living proof that even landlocked nations can learn to swim.

“Come on in,” God yells from the place where all rain and grief begin. She’s floating shamelessly on her back, splashing her fat little hands, delighted. “The water’s fine.”

I laugh. There is nothing fine or safe about this new day or this water, but it is what we are made of.  It is what we bleed into and what might wash us clean. It is the amniotic fluid from whence we came. God swims to the shore and takes my hand. We stand ankle-deep and skip stones across the rippled surface. God’s feet are bioluminescent. Mine are clay.

Speaking Terms

Yesterday, God and I were not on speaking terms. Today, a purifying spring snow is falling, the beer is cold, and I have repented. It was partly God’s fault, but I’m the one repenting. It works better that way. God can be a real handful, but after I calm down, I don’t mind cajoling him along. It’s that or fire him, and I don’t want to fire him: I need the help. We all need the help. Even the toughest among us need the help.

“Not true,” the Bruising Force of God says, smearing bacon fat on the last piece of toast. “Well, maybe true,” he admits, chewing with his holy mouth open.

“Sometimes, you disgust me,” I say, trying to focus on the garden instead of God’s missing teeth, the dead bodies in Ukraine, or the grief inherent in being human. Pandora is playing my Eva Cassidy station. I turn up the volume to drown out the smacking noises. Long ago, a friend introduced me to Eva’s voice—though Eva had already died of breast cancer. She didn’t survive long enough to enjoy her success. My friend does not remember any of this because her memories have come as untethered as cheap kites in sporadic wind.

“Cheap. Fancy. Doesn’t matter. They all come back to earth,” God says, as he brushes crumbs off his shirt. “Write that down,” he adds. “That’ll be a good line.” I glare out the window. The snow is thicker now, each flake a mesmerizing angularity, falling straight and heavy. I wonder if the weight will break branches.

“Yes,” God says, still pontificating. “Branches will break. Oceans will rise. There will be surges and recedings. But in the meantime, I’d sure like another piece of toast.”

My wish to bring God down a notch is palpable, but I manage to get up, walk calmly to the kitchen, and make more toast.

Transparencies

There are days when dinosaurs, cockroaches, and head lice provide me with a certain comfort. The deliberate ignorances and cruel choices of our species are hardly inspiring, but when I consider the magnificence of survival and the wonders of extinction over the inconceivable span of years these creatures represent, I relax. We can all relax.

Consider the lesson of the glass winged butterfly (Greta Oto). Freed of human tunnel vision, we can ride the tails of invisibility and let our perspectives shrink and swell. Trippy. Who needs externally induced altered states when you can consider the history of our planet and become completely disoriented, bodily displaced? As one researcher noted, being transparent makes for great camouflage. There’s no point in hiding cumbersome errors, glaring false starts, or neon selfish longings. Why not own up to our foibles, strip down to essence, and have a good laugh at ourselves as we give up or start over? In a cosmic, tragic sort of way, we are hilarious. This may be the sole reason humans have consciousness; we can laugh. God likes to laugh.

Or maybe, it’s terror. We inflict terror on each other, and when we do, we often reach out of our bodies to see if anyone is there to help. We come apart so easily because we’re afraid of being nothing, but here’s the funny part: We are everything; the thorn and the rose.

Across the meadow, the Artist is painting roses with blood—your blood, the neighbor’s blood, God’s blood, the soldier’s blood.

“Please,” I whisper to the Artist. “No more roses.”

The Artist pauses, hands me a brush, and with a smile that brings tears to my eyes, says, “Paint what you will.”

“No, I’m not that kind of artist,” I protest, holding the dripping brush away from myself. But I see that the blood is holy, and I relent. I paint myself red. I paint the Artist red. It occurs to me we are the embodied Scarlet Letter, marked as shameful, marked as chosen, marked as doomed, marked as loved.

These absurd contradictions make God laugh. I laugh. The Artist laughs. The dinosaurs laugh. Lice and lichen, seconds and centuries, grief and gladness, daylight and starlight, the endless longing for justice, mercy, and release. In my humbled alteredness, I understand there is no greater love than to lay down your life for a friend and sadly, there’s no greater delusion than to think you can preserve your life or anything you love anyway.

“Well said,” the Artist comments gently, combing through my hair with a fine-toothed comb, checking for lice. “I have nothing to add.” I know that’s not exactly true, but I let it go for now.

Bucket Lists

Nearly all the windows in our house are oriented south for solar gain, but the view to the north is exceptionally nice. Our inner space reflects a set of values, givens, and limits. We’ve filled most rooms with books and rocks to hide lapses in judgment. Outside, the garden has gradually improved—I love repurposing metal coated with rust and twisted stumps that are not yet dust. It takes a practiced eye to see the beauty.

“Yes,” God says, disrupting my existential mulling. “I love repurposing, too. Especially the fragile and distorted.”

“Hi there, God,” I say in a falsely chipper voice. “How about you be nice and take care of me today? Let’s exercise, write, do some art, drink green smoothies, and then after I’ve fallen fast asleep, how about you carry me gently into the next realm?”

“What?” God says in mock surprise. “You want to cash it in?”

“Well, yeah. Or, maybe,” I say. “I don’t like aging. I want an easy way out.”

“An easy way out,” God echoes, nodding. “Thank you for being honest with me.” This is a standard phrase therapists use when clients drop a verbal bomb about their homicidal, suicidal, malicious, vindictive, hopeless, violent urges and fantasies. It buys a little time.

But God doesn’t need to buy time. I’m suspicious. God already knows I’m as afraid of dying as the next person, but I’m deeply ambivalent about staying alive. Fighting for every last breath soaks up resources, drains loved ones, involves a fair amount of suffering, and has the same outcome. What’s a few more days or even years if they are filled with pain, struggle, and hardship? It may look heroic, but there are many ways to define heroic. Leaving willingly, gracefully, at the right time might be another definition. I glance sideways at God.

God glances back. “How’s that bucket list coming?” she asks, with a mischievous smile. “I know you’re inclined toward rescuing and saving, but don’t put the world, or yourself, on the list. You can save neither.”

“God, darling,” I say. “I don’t even know what ‘save’ means. And how’s your bucket list coming along?”

“Thanks for asking, sweetie,” God says. “But let’s talk about why you want to know.” This is another classic therapy maneuver; turn the question back on the client. But then God reaches over, takes a drink of my coffee, and salutes herself in one of my many mirrors. This is not a classic therapy move. Too invasive. Too intimate. Impulsively, I look straight at God, grab her cup, and take a swig. The coffee is hot, dark, and bitter. I want to spit it out, but God bows her head, palms together, touching her lips. I have the distinct impression she’s cheering me on, so I swallow and raise the cup. We look in the mirror together. It takes a practiced eye to see the beauty.

Lies

Sometimes, like right now, mocking, sarcastic words get in my head, and I write them down and imagine going viral. But then I hit delete hoping to be left wordless and alone. Words are the vehicle of vanity, triviality, and lies. There has to be something true beyond words.

In daydreams, I stare steadily into the eyes of the current Russian dictator, our own recent dictator-in-waiting, Brazil’s and Britain’s buffoons; I imagine having the depth of soul to crack their stony defenses and open some tiny pocket of humanity and compassion inside them. Their grotesque, malignant egos melt away and flocks of bluebirds and goldfinches are freed from within, winging their way to freedom. Cue: Julie Andrews singing “The Hills are Alive…”

O.K., I’ll admit it. What I actually imagine is vultures pecking their eyes out while I hold them frozen in place with a magic spell. Then I smash their skulls on rocks. I… There’s a disturbance to my left. I hold up my hand. “Not now,” I say, turning to God, who always stops by midsentence. “I’m on a confessional roll.”

“You certainly are,” God says, as she multiplies and divides. She’s heavy with child. With children. She’s heavy with hope and courage. She’s heavy with bombs. She’s swallowed the detonators; the bombs will explode, and today, like every single day on this blessed earth, she will die a hundred thousand deaths. And in this fragmented, impossible way, God, too, will go viral.

“Come with me,” God says. I back up, shaking my head.

“Where?” I ask. “Nirvana? The life I deserve next? The cross? The front lines? The back alleys?  The grave?”

“Yes,” God says. “Come.”

I take a reluctant step. Then another. It’s rocky terrain. I stumble. I get up and examine my scrapes and bruises. I hurry toward the fleeting purple robe in my pointy shoes. The bridge across the icy stream has been destroyed. I try to leap across, but I slip and fall in. I think I’ve sprained my ankle. I’m wet, cold, hungry, disabled, lost, afraid, and angry. I’m a refugee, hunted prey, weakened by age and a soft life. “Stop!” I shout at God. “You’ve made your point.”

“I did?” God asks, in disbelief. “I wasn’t aware I had a point.”

“Not funny,” I say, rubbing my frozen hands together.

“Agreed,” God says. “Not funny.”