It’s What’s for Dinner

Yesterday, I borrowed my sister’s horse trailer to salvage some old lumber, but things did not go smoothly, and the trailer arrived home well after dark. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a problem, but it’s shipping season; she needed to haul calves bright and early today. We unloaded recycled boards with flashlights, and at dawn, I went back to use a magnet to search for rusty nails in the crusted manure. I didn’t want a distressed calf to end up with a nail in a hoof.

When I sit down with my co-author to await the alchemy that produces words, I’m often pulled toward thousands of unnecessary things to do, but picking up loose nails was necessary—an effort to avoid small suffering in the face of huge suffering. Even though it meant facing a cold morning, I’m glad I found and removed those nails.

But that was that. Now it’s time to write, and the familiar battle is on. Mind and body at war: Mind wants to settle and focus, but body gets up, stares at the baked goods, waters the spider plant, paws through the fridge for a corked half-beer, and meanders back outside to check the temperature and admire the sunrise. The bawling of distraught cattle is thick in the air.

I come back in and sit. A housefly buzzes the coffee table, executing dives and turns that I admire, even as I hate and detest the fly. I start to chew my thumb for inspiration, but the odor of cow poop stops me cold. I’d forgotten to wash my hands. At the kitchen sink, I find last night’s dishes, so I scrub a few of the pans. I grab a fly swatter on my way back. Of course, the fly disappears.

I sit again. My mind is calm. I am not moving. I accept the lowing of bereft cows and the frantic calls of their disoriented calves, destined to be fattened, slaughtered, and eaten. I live in this particular world. I accept my role in the brokenness.

When the followers of Chuang Tzu asked him how he’d like his body disposed of, he replied it mattered not: Eaten by the birds of the air or by worms in the soil. Such is the journey of the body. In the grand scheme, we eat and are eaten.

“True,” God agrees, joining my thoughts, hands folded in his lap, large and calloused. “But I must say, some of your fellow beings get a lot fatter and sassier than others. And unlike the endings brought about by hunter or slaughterhouse, many deaths are neither swift nor humane.”

I nod. One of the most haunting images on the nightly news is the emaciated woman, nursing a stick-thin infant. She sits listless, her eyes and the baby’s eyes dull, unregistered. Neither will ever be fat.

With clean hands, I offer God a croissant. He declines.

Protective Gear

Sometimes, I deliberately write from a darkened place because as those who dabble in God are painfully aware, there is such a thing as too much light. Even with safety goggles, a hard hat, and an emergency whistle, it’s impossible to feel entirely secure in the presence of what might be God. True, there’s a chance it’s something other than God, but it is not to be trifled with. It is Vast and Elsewhere. Holy Restraint. Indeterminate Destiny. Fool-proof Finality. It is Allah, the Tao, Enlightenment, Sacrifice. It is lamb and lion, gnat and nature—the fertile valley that floods with some regularity causing everything to die and be reborn.

Pure light burns through stupidity to the heart of all selfishness. The razor-sharp fangs glisten, and there’s a roar that makes Niagara seem like wind chimes in a gentle breeze.

Maybe God doesn’t realize her own strength or what it means to be first and singular, unadulterated and unmitigated light, but even a sideways glimpse can overwhelm me. I slip off the rails of rationality, my train of thought crashes, and the flammables in my soul ignite. It takes enormous effort to get to the river and douse the flames.

I, for one, do not appreciate how this feels in the morning. The advantages of denial are obvious, but the comfort there is limited. When I was a child, I feared the coming apocalypse, assured that the end times would be filled with fire, terror, and remorse. Then I grew up and realized that time is always ending, and there will always be terror and remorse—fire, hunger, and upheaval–but there will also be moments of wonder and inexplicable joy.

For instance, right now, as the days shorten and the chill of imminent winter asserts itself, the lion has laid its head on my shoulder and draped its body across my lap. It is a wild thing that loves me. My eyes close. The giant paws massage my sore muscles. Night is coming and cannot be stopped by my incoherent prayers, but…

I am reminded of stars.

Burgers

“God,” I said. “In order to believe in some absolute form of you and thus be falsely assured of a thin, exclusive salvation, a lot of people have silenced their hearts and blinded themselves. You’re aware of that, right?” God rubbed his forehead and looked out the window. I continued.  “They put basic truths through mental meatgrinders, make up twisted doctrines, call this faith, and hang together in paranoid groups, ignoring the obvious and applauding the hateful.”

God drummed his fingers together and used his sleeve to wipe his nose. The tears were real, even if God isn’t always real. The idea of absolute has the same problem as the idea of the perfect quilt when it’s chilly, the day free of duties or doubts, possessions that need no maintenance, the weedless garden…. Absolute is a nice idea but in our small slice of temporary reality, there’s no such thing. The quilt has lumps. The day has worries. Things break down and end. There may be no weeds visible, but just under that dark sheen lurk roots and seeds patient and tenacious.

In time, all things show their fault lines–their contradictions, inadequacies, hypocrisies, and failings. But what if we could move out of the constraints of time? What if fault lines are passageways?

God wavered and disappeared as he often does. “Come back,” I commanded in my bravest voice. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Enlighten me. I’m wondering if anything is absolute, and I don’t have all day. Or maybe I do, but I like you best in the morning.”

“Why?” God asked silently.

“Not sure,” I said, happy to be back in dialogue. I often chew on my left thumb when God and I visit. Today, the thumb tasted like soap because I had just washed yesterday’s dishes, and I’m not great at rinsing. I swallowed the soapy taste. “You seem fresher. More possible.”

Still no visible sign of God. “Oh, I’m absolutely possible,” he said from nowhere. “All day. Late into most nights.”

With that amorphous assurance, I put myself in motion; hung the laundry, took out the trash, wiped some dusty surfaces, touched a couple of my favorite rocks, scrubbed three fat carrots that grew despite the weeds, combed my hair, found my phone, took some vitamins, and packed the car for a trip to town.

 “What do you want to do for lunch?” I asked God, politely ignoring his absence.

“How about burgers?” God said, chuckling.

“Or not,” I smiled. I don’t like burgers. God knows this. And I absolutely know God knows. And that’s what made this reassuring. And very funny.

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.