What the Worms Know

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Clear sky. Clear blue sky. Warm sun. Dark, wet soil. Worms at work underneath. Fat worms, translucent. Harmless. Grass. Green and growing aggressively. Dandelions with long roots. Grass with longer roots. Mint and iris, competing, roots and bulbs and a very blue sky. Me with a shovel. Me with dirt. Rich dirt, fully alive with whatever creatures live in dirt. Hello, creatures. Hello sun. Hello God. The backyard, dancing a circle dance, hands joined, feet first, collapsing into the arms of spring. Laughing. Not menacing, not hysterical, not messed up. There’s always rain in the forecast, blight on the horizon. But Now is perfect. Cautious, but perfect.

“Not quite,” God said. She was digging. “Drop the caution. Therein lies perfection.”

“Wrong,” I said. “Therein lies foolishness. Therein lies disappointment. Therein is falling on my face. I prefer a bit of caution with my Nowness.”

“Sorry to be insistent,” God said. “But I’m right on this one. Perfection exists only without caution. Let it go.”

“God,” I said. “Look at this worm. Have you ever seen a fatter, happier worm?” I didn’t want to keep arguing. God either wins outright, or my day gets all tangled up. Avoidance is an excellent strategy.

God took the worm in her hands and examined it. “No. Or at least hardly ever.” She gave the worm a holy kiss and ate it. “Thanks,” she said, licking her lips.

“Gross,” I said. “Why do you have to do things like that?”

“Protein,” God said. “Pure protein.”

“Yeah, but why not a nice charbroiled steak?” I said. “Or at least rice and beans? There’s something twisted in you, God. Very twisted.”

“YES!” God said, twirling around the raised beds, her skirt flaring, her eyes flashing fire. “Twisted. I am a twisted, uncautious dude. Therein lies my perfection. C’mon.” She held out her hand.

I was tempted. Sorely tempted. Overly tempted. The dirt was warm and welcoming. The melody, ancient, familiar. I took the hand of God and we joined the circle, dancing like folks at the end of a wake, loosened by liquor, sorrow, and song. It was a wake for all that is dead, all that is dying, all that will be born anew. It was my own wake, and I was dancing. It was a wake for what I’ve known and destroyed. We danced more and more frenetically. God and I. It was beyond. We were somewhere and nowhere. I couldn’t let go. I won’t let go.

“Fall,” God said. “Fall on your face.” I hesitated. She wasn’t taunting. She was serious.

“Okay,” I said. I was delirious. Intoxicated. I fell in the mud, naked and without excuse. I rolled in rotten leaves, ate the bitter buds of dandelions–and I was saved! Just like that. Saved.

 

4 years, 25 days ago

20150408_073319 (2)April 2, 2015

Surgery today. Awake early and off and on through the night. city noises. Ivan and his lover directly above us having boisterous sex on a squeaky bed, sometime around 4 AM. I think Ivan may weigh a lot. Or maybe his lover. Or both. They walked around.

The garbage trucks and alley noises were random and abrupt. I felt irritated but in a slow-motion, sad kind of way. Like I felt irritated at the rules about not eating and drinking before surgery. Mindless broad application of rules that violate the body’s needs but protect in certain cases for certain reasons. I react irrationally to these things and insist I will eat right up to the last minute, and drink, and use the less invasive enema options. My family rolls their eyes, argues, but they back off and let me meander in my eccentric expressions of rebellion and self-determination.

While John slept, after my foray into food, the first Hibicleanse shower, the first enema, and the last coffee, I laid as still as I could, listening to his various breathing patterns, wondering about the dreams and workings of his mind and body as he comes along on this journey.

I feel a longing to get up and write. This would wake John up. I tell myself the weight of my words or ideas do not stack up against my love for John or my wish for him to grab some kind of rest out of this hostile environment. I watch the light arrive through the cracks in the vertical blinds. I send a loud shout of welcome to the day. Then it occurs to me that I will be losing a part of myself this afternoon. I begin the work of saying good-bye to my uterus and the companion body parts that will soon be disconnected and pushed out of me.

I thank that collection of cells I’ve called “Uterus” all these years. It was the nest from which my daughters flew. It did glorious work. I assure it that it will be joining the larger collection of cells. I tell it that we are all star dust. We are all just momentary compilations of DNA and it is our destiny to rejoin the Creator. I ask it/them to greet my father, and tell him about the children and the grandchildren that have sprung from his seed and the uterus of my mother. I am sad. I tell them not to be afraid.

I talk to the cancer cells. I scold them, but only in an understanding way. They are errant. They need a fresh start. It doesn’t work to be selfish and take things that are not yours. It doesn’t work to replicate oneself over and over again. I speak with them about their fears of diversity. Their arrogance and false assumption of immortality. Their lack of awareness of the greater world and the intricacies of individuality. I listen to John’s breath change. His gentle snoring. The occasional twitch or jerk of his warm body.

He drifts awake, dazed. I leap up to pee, come back to grab my computer and tell him I need to write, not talk. Then I break the rules and read him a loving text from someone. He reads me one that came on his phone and I snap “no talking.” Clearly a double-standard. But I get some latitude today—I’m going in to have some parts of my body removed, and hear how much of it has been tainted by these wrong-headed cancer cells. How many have snuck out and begun to corrupt other parts of me?

Soon, my daughters will arrive and the clamor of family love will overtake my consciousness and I will begin the push-pull, the dance….I will find my way through how much of my own need versus how much of their needs should shape the day, the conversation, the future… The younger daughter is obliviously cheerful; the elder, able and willing to talk about mortality in the tiniest doses. I’m grateful, but I am weary of trying to sort all this out. Oddly, I’m still willing to try. I feel magnanimous. Larger than myself. This brush with reality has broken me open, some of my self-centered, self-defining aspects have at least temporarily disintegrated. Their fleeting integration has given way to a fluid definition. A more universal identity, shared by all the fragments that make up what we think of as the Universe.

I am afraid to stop writing. I’ve lifted my fingers a couple of times—gone back and edited some. I’ve crawled into the words—they are a soft, warm shelter from the harsh hours ahead. Except for the work I have yet to do, and the pain my demise will cause, I wish I were already dead. Dead is the easy part. Living in this unknowing place, aware of the time-limits, wondering when the buzzer will sound, the referee will blow the whistle, the lights will go out—this is hard. Wondering what matters. If I have months or years left, what will they be like? What should I do with them?

I continue to feel humiliated about having cancer. I guess I thought I was unreachable by cancer—I thought our heart problems would get me. I’ve probably held unconscious beliefs that people who get cancer deserve it. Now that’s ugly to admit, but I suspect it’s true. Like all the other awful “isms” we find in ourselves. Hard to admit. Even harder to eradicate.

The other two dominant struggles/reactions are

1) I haven’t lived a good enough life—I’ve squandered what I was given, I haven’t done enough, I was undisciplined and lazy… and

2) I need to protect my loved ones from the pain of my illness, suffering, and death.

Knowing that my pain exacerbates theirs is like being trapped in an impossible and evil echo-chamber. A sadistic twist thrown into the perfectness of love. I’ve known that the Creator lives in this same place. Pain echoes pain. We carry it. It bounces back and forth. It rips things open. It strips away the extraneous. Like many of God’s ways, it seems like a bad design flaw. If I were the Creator, I’m pretty sure I would do away with many of the “ways of nature” and we’d all live on the shores of Hawaii forever. Well, not really that last part, but geez. It seems like She/He could have thought up something less painful and daunting than mortality, starvation, trauma, cruelty, abuse, loneliness, pollution, cancer, car wrecks, and knapweed.

Okay, I’m lifting out now. I can see the flippant side of me returning. I can stop writing now. Thanks, words. Thanks, God. Thanks, loved ones. Thanks, email, cell phones, air planes, sons-in-laws, and other generally blessed parts of my transitory life…I’ll stop now. I’ll be okay.

 

Through the Broken Looking Glass

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It isn’t an easy morning. I’m washing someone else’s dishes, angry at yet more news from the legislature. “I cannot keep trying to love these idiots,” I think to myself. I hate trying to love my enemies. They are many, and loving them is a terrible, horrible, sickening task. They do not deserve it. They deserve to be drawn and quartered, humiliated, silenced, tarred, feathered, squished like the ugly insects and reptiles that they are.

Why didn’t God nip Lucifer in the bud? Of what use are serpents? Tricksters? Mosquitoes? Isis fighters? Greedy, cruel, old white men? There’s something seriously wrong with a God who lets powerful strangers destroy the earth, force unwilling women to stay pregnant, torture fellow humans, kill other species (and each other) for sport, withhold basic shelter, food, and health care to those without resources. Resources. Fuck resources. Who owns anything? I think I’ve earned the things I own, but I don’t think about it for long because I might have to give it all away. To my enemies.

A soapy glass slips from my hands and hits the porcelain sink. I stare at the shards. Glass is a slow moving liquid, but at high enough temperatures, it flows visibly—a scalding stream of unbearable light. The gods made of glass are dangerous, but gods made of greed will eat you and your offspring and their offspring. So many voracious gods crunching through the bones. I am fixated on broken glass. The kitchen blurs.

“Am I invited to this party?” God says, appearing as a vial of nerve gas in the corner. I back away. “Could I have a hug?” God asks, from the mouths of leaders who amass wealth rather than serve. “Kiss me?” God slurs the words before passing out drunk on the floor.

I run to the stinking body and kiss the molten forehead. I empty the vial of nerve gas on my feet, bury my head in my hands, and pray ferociously for a bigger God or an easier way.

Outside, the complex trill of a meadowlark rises, an anthem of defiance. A declaration of independent joy–of pure seduction. I slide my body off the crowded altar, comb the familiar hairs on my head, and cake myself with thick, wet clay.

“Recognize me?” I whisper to the meadowlark who is God who is spring who is not long for this earth. “I’m under here, and I’m okay.”

I am of no use to the meadowlark, but she sings for me anyway. The clay bakes and cracks and falls away, toxins neutralized, abrasions healed. She sings as evening gathers force. The sparks from a burning cathedral light the sky. Reveal the truth. Illuminate the little moment I’ve lived in, with its soft walls and tiny peek-holes.

“I like what you’ve done with this place,” God says. “But you could use a few more windows.”

“I know,” I say. “But there’s a problem with structural integrity.” And I try to believe myself.

Ordinary

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The morning had gone exceptionally well so I took a minute to say thanks. God shrugged and said, “Everything’s not about you, you know.”

This seemed harsh, but yes, I was a little self-focused. From my personal perspective, slightly magical things had been happening. I’d found four of my favorite coffee mugs at Goodwill, as well as decent boots, muffin tins, and a bigger strainer for my kefir projects. Why not give the Universe a hug back?

“Because smooth sailing and blue cups prove nothing,” God said, arms crossed. “Cancer, heart disease, bad breath, and broken hearts mean nothing. They just are. They are neither omens nor proof.”

“I don’t think you understand,” I said. “That’s cruel. You have no idea what it feels like to be chronically grasping at meaning, vacillating between faith and futility. You have yourself with you all the time.”

“You’ve got a point there,” God said. “But I don’t have it all that easy either. I like seeing you happy, but when you get bogged down in misattributions, I feel the need to adjust your sights.”

Now my arms were crossed. “Fine,” I said. “Adjust away.”

Nostrils flared, stars tumbled, oceans flattened, and rudely awakened from geologic slumber, mountains rose angry and jagged. My hair fell out, my eyes rolled, and there was nothing anywhere to hang on to. Nothing but the vague and slippery idea of God. It hardly seemed enough, but it was all there was. Believe me. All there was. No blue cups. No muffin tins. No loving reassurances. No monsters to kill, no diseases to fight, no paths to discern. Nothing but this idea beyond words—this translucent whisper of the only truth, the only source, the only finality.

“Uncle,” I said to God in existential agony. “I give up. You win. It’s all you. I’m sorry I’m so needy and temporary. I know you’re lonely, even though you’re everything. But what can I do? I’m nothing.”

God startled. “Sorry. I may have over-done it. It’s true you’re nothing, but I forgot to show you that you’re also everything.” God started to fill her lungs for another out-breath.

“Stop!” I shouted, hands over ears, eyes tight shut. “Maybe another time.” I didn’t want to be everything. I needed space to pull myself back together. I wanted a kind of coherence that cannot be spoken. I longed to get in my dented old green van and drive beyond the vanishing point, contained, alone, and untouchable.

“Shotgun,” God said, trying to open the door with the broken handle. Laughter burst from the center of my self-aborption. I was delighted that this bumbling, apologetic God was determined to ride along.

“Okay,” I said, and added, “Thanks for those blue mugs, you old scalawag. I’m not as gullible as you think.”

 

Your mama told you there’d be days like this

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In the southeast corner of my life there’s a perfect circle of stone visible to anyone uphill or airborne. The northern boundary is an entirely different story. It’s a river that shapeshifts with the seasons. Water washes over the fallen cottonwood, gouges the mountain, and settles in deadly eddies.

Today, it is all too much, and paradoxically, nothing is ever enough. Not God, not people, not earth, not sky. The small and large injustices plaguing me have metastasized and lit the landscape with a cold, blue fire.

Some small part of me lives in fear. Lives in fear. Lives in fear. I’d like to kill off that part and live with more grace. That part would like to kill me off and reign as a vicious sovereign. Usually, I keep her underground and undernourished. Today, I am sorely tempted to throw her red meat. Why not? The world is awash in sovereigns eating red meat. I myself am mostly red meat.

God is a stretch of long gray sky, atmospherically unstable. Dead in the way of winter. The first signs of spring arrive from the grave—weeds, spiders, mud, and hunger. Mating rituals begin. Some will die showing off their antlers or plumage. Some will be passed over and never bear fruit. So what? That’s what I say. So what?

The gardener has turned the soil. The physician has opened a vein. The old woman is wearing her apron. The migrant has crossed the border. A child has been born. They are all doomed with the dignity of temporary flesh, but as they hold hands, as the world turns, as the rivers flow, as rocks hold firm, as the ozone shreds, as the species evolve, as fatal floods fertilize and recede, a certain and tragic joy remains. I want none of it.

For now I will stubbornly inhabit the illusion of autonomy. God has agreed to stay west of here, busily mixing the colors that will mark the setting of this particular sun. “Thank you,” I murmur, aware of the costs of such holy self-restraint. God nods.

No one goes it alone, but glittering fools pretend otherwise, and sometimes, I join them, peering at the world through my homemade periscope. With carefully-placed mirrors, you can create endless images of the same thing.

Cookies

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This morning, I stumbled into a nest of words that swarmed up like wasps and stung me. Disown, disavow, defy, dissent. Renounce, repudiate, reject, rebuff, refute, rebut. Deny. None of these words can ward off a root canal or undo a pregnancy. Even spoken together, they can’t change the meaning or length of any given life. They cannot change what is true. But they can do damage.

“Correct,” God said. She’d stopped by for coffee on her way to the city where these words are far more dangerous. “It’s tempting to deny rather than deal with things. Easier to disown than own up. But where’d you be without dissent when the tanks are at full throttle? Or refute when what is spoken is not true?”

Memories of Tiananmen Square…dissenting bodies flattened into dark stains of blood and flesh. Fast forward, flash back. Locations and causes vary, but it doesn’t end. People as pawns, people as predators. People fleeing or fighting back. People against people.

God turned the radio down and ate another cookie. “I’m not surprised that humans are a migratory species,” she said, rather randomly.

I thought about this for a minute. “Yeah, but it doesn’t seem voluntary,” I said. “People migrate because of disaster, violence, hunger…and they aren’t often well-received.” I pictured people jailed, children caged, battles, conquests, claims, displacements, paperless people pushed back or enslaved. I could see thick walls adorned with razor-sharp metal built to stem the flow of hope that comes disguised as desperation. Migration seemed even more dangerous than dissent.

“Sure,” God said. “Forced migration can be brutal. But humans also just explore. They get bored. They reach higher, dive deeper, and widen the circle. And sometimes, the stranger is welcomed with real hospitality. I like that.”

God’s placid mood slowly drained the toxins from my swollen oppositionalities. Or it could have been the beer. Or the turkeys pacing the fence. Or maybe the return of the Canadian geese, paired and gliding through the snowy sky. Whatever the source, I found the wherewithal to smile.

“I like that, too,” I said, and remembering my manners, I added, “I’m glad you stopped by. Thanks.”

“De nada,” God said. She put a cookie in her pocket. “One for the road.”

“Take more,” I said, pushing the blue plate towards her. “Take as many as you’d like.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” God said. She helped herself to every last cookie. Our eyes met. She grinned. I could see cookie crumbs caught in her teeth. Cookie crumbs on her jacket. Bits of cookie falling from her grasp, turning into a sea of cookies, mountains of cookies, a sky of cookies. A planet of fresh-baked cookies.

“How did you ever get involved with a God like that?” I asked myself as she and her cookie-filled fists faded. I shook my head, but to be honest, I have no regrets. Occasional terror, but no regrets.

Random and Small Redemptions

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Lately, I’ve been having the weirdest experiences ever. I call them God, but they freak me out. Little serendipities. Parallel visions of fire. Random and small redemptions. Good things happen. Are they God? Bad things happen. Are they God? Can you pray yourself into an astounding win? Can you pray yourself out of a fatal car wreck? No wonder people yank God down into manageable formulas and comforting, though wildly implausible, explanations. Believing into an open, infinite God is hard.

“Oh baby,” God interjected. “I so hope you’ll grow up a bit more before you die.”

“So do I… And how would that happen exactly?” I said, somewhat sincerely. And then things came completely apart. The chains fell. Static and then silence. The call dropped. The line went dead. The station went off the air. The grid went down. My familiar body was suddenly defined by subzero isolation, white noise, and emptiness turning in on itself. Eternal nothingness. No self. No one.

“Can you hear me now?” God whispered. The words froze in the air and shattered. I forced my fists to splay into fingers and asked my bones if they still were there. The familiar rattle reassured me. I inhaled, filled what I assumed were my lungs, fell backward into oblivion, and flailed until I’d created an imperfect angel. Then I burrowed home on hands and knees, knowing the way instinctively.

“You crack me up,” God said as I emerged from my self-inflicted plummet.

I struggled for footing in a nonexistent present. “And obviously, you crack me up. But not in a good way,” I mumbled through unfamiliar lips.

“Emptiness is a good way,” God said. “Think about it. The fullness of time is the end of time.”

We sat for a while, breathing shared and splendid air. “Sometimes, I dream I’m weightless,” I said. “And I can fly.”

“Yes,” God said.

“And I can see forever and hear every beautiful sound ever made,” I said, lying.

“Nice try,” God said. “That’s not the kind of growth I was hoping for.”

“I know,” I said. “But you like it when I crack you up.”

“True,” God said. “There’s that. And I guess you realize you can’t really lie to me.”

“Yeah” I said. “But you let people lie all the time. I hate that. You don’t swoop in, smite them, or even clear things up.”

“True,” God said. “I just wait.”

“Okay,” I said. I’d had enough sparring for a while. “I’ll wait with you.”

“Promise?” God said, with a resigned, lonesome look.

The question didn’t surprise me, but my answer made me incredibly sad. “You know I can’t.”

God’s head dropped. I knew he was crying. I took him in my arms and said gently but firmly, “I can’t promise you anything, God. But I’ll try. I’ll really try.”