The Long Gray Bird

The long gray bird is back with her disconnected head and graceful wing. She defines space that would otherwise be undefined, and she does so without much deliberation. She could have easily been compost or firewood which would have been fine. But for now, she’s an expression of God and grace, small nails, and a blank wall.

Last night on the news, I saw a soldier in combat fatigues: helmet, rifle, boots. He was sitting vacant-faced on the steps of a bombed-out building, the dark child beside him barely clad. Neither of them will ever find their way to my easy world. In fact, they may not even make it home.

I sleep, and in my dream, I welcome them. They are God. To the Soldier I say, “God, darling. You are beautiful and deadly. I wish you were obsolete.” To the Child I say, “Get up and run. It’s not safe here.” The Soldier looks me in the eye and hands me his rifle. “You cannot define the space around me,” he says. “I have to do that myself.” He lifts the Child into his arms with a certain finality and cushions her head safe against his chest.

I don’t know where they’re going or if they’ll return. I wave and try my best to smile, but the departure leaves me bereft, without purpose or direction.

“God,” I whisper, awake and facing morning, “You know I’d like to extend my reach; do things that make me feel important and complete. I’d like to turn the tide of hate into an ocean of love. I’d like to make the fear go away.”

The God of early morning is often soft, responsive to my naïve and narcissistic longings. She is patient. Unafraid. She knows that in any given moment, I could pull her off the wall, snap her neck, and put her in the woodstove, thus ending the torment of hope. She laughs like smoke. She is the residue of a well-lived life, the stubble in the field. She is sapling and ash, beginning and end, warrior and rose.

“I know,” the God of early morning whispers back. I hear the murmur of wings as the gray bird takes flight. “I am of your doing, and you of mine.” I nod, and again I wave and smile. But this time, no grief. I’m at peace with the leavings. Joyful, even. There is little doubt that in my next dream, I will learn to fly.

The Flower Show

Photo of Roxy Paine’s original work

It’s morning in New York City. I’m leaning against a pile of fluffy white pillows, gazing out the window, seven flights up, with a warm dark beer balanced on my belly. Across the narrow street, I see bricks, mortar, and shiny ventilation systems. I’m trying to quell my claustrophobia. Thank God for the beer. It wasn’t easy to find. “I guess anything worth anything is not easy to find, right?” I say to my faithful co-author.

“You tell me,” God says, her feet wrapped in the hotel’s luxurious comforter.

“Okay, I will,” I say. “For instance, you. You’re not easy to find.” But I catch myself. “No. Wait. Not true. You’re actually too easy to find. You smell terrible, you speak other languages, you have needs. It’s what the hell to do about you that’s hard to find. The Tao. The long and winding road. The way…it’s so foggy, steep, and dangerous. It’s slick. Nasty. And brutally beautiful.”

God leans over. Takes a sip of my beer. Rearranges her pillows, and sighs. “You are so right,” she says. “I do smell terrible. Not everyone is pretty, you know. Cut me some slack. Not everyone is perfect.”

I nod, but I don’t apologize. God continues. “Some of my favorite islands are going under. I make you this nice planet. You rip it to shreds. I make you all so similar, like family. You rip each other to shreds. Over money. Pride. Jobs.” She says ‘jobs’ with a sneer, pauses, and finishes with, “And you think I stink? Ha!”

I throw my arm over God’s familiar shoulder. “Yeah, you’re right. This is old terrain between us, isn’t it? Alive or dead, we mortals stink up the place. I’m glad you stink, too.”

God laughs. Suddenly, there are flowers. Funeral flowers. Wedding flowers. Light pink. Baby blue. Lilacs, clematis, columbine. And I am young, winning the junior division of the local flower show with flowers my grandmother grew. Then, I am old and all I grow are sunflowers, hollyhocks, and poppies. It seems we are doomed to seek comfort, solace, and the easy, deadly way.

“No, you’re not,” God says. “I’ve made sure you have reasonable options.”

I settle back in the pillows, take one more sip of beer, cork it, look straight at the New York God beside me, and shrug. God knows I won that flower show because my only opponent was particularly ugly and inarticulate. The sad truth is that her flowers were spectacular. Nearly perfect. And she grew them herself. My grandmother was proud anyway. I tried to tell myself, ‘A win is a win.’

But I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now. God will linger at the finish line, waiting fondly for the losers until there’s no such thing anymore. And all the former losers will be busy, planting and protecting, sacrificing and celebrating, honoring and adoring everything that blooms.

The Dance

Even though Google responds with greater enthusiasm and speed than God, I still badger God with questions, which is surprising because God’s answers are slow, few, and redundant. In contrast, Google is generous–instantly spewing out answers that sometimes number into the millions. Google requires internet access. God does not. God requires honesty. Google does not.

“You sound pretty sure of yourself there, cowgirl,” God says. “But I don’t require honesty. I’m foolproof. And if you were being honest, you’d admit that.”

I smile. This will be a good day. It rained in the night, but now a stiff breeze is taking back the precious moisture. God is clowning around in ways only a real creator can. There’s a certain music in the wind. Even though it’s unsettling, I usually like the slippery slopes and exhilarating spins around the dance floor with this intimate, unknowable God.

Daylight arrives without permission, but the comfort of night will be back. Darkness brings both rest and terror, but the clarity of day will return. The one-armed woman and the one-eyed man make fun of my shallow notions of beauty and perfection. I don’t want to love them or the image in the mirror. In fact, I don’t want to love anything.

“Now you’re being honest,” God says, panting. He’s taken a turn with every single possible partner. The music is relentless and has grown frenetic. I’m trying to enjoy the show, but multitudes are amassing, and I’m a little bit afraid.

“One more for the road?” God asks as he offers me his elbow. I consider Googling some excuses. How does one refuse God? Right now, I want to be a wallflower, one-dimensional and oblivious. How can I gracefully decline to dance? But this time, God is faster than Google. In the voices of all who’ve suffered, past and present, in the voices of those soon to suffer in this vast imperfect world, God answers gently, without malice. “You cannot.”

So, I accept the offer and do my best, but I tromp on God’s toes a couple times. He laughs and tosses me into high the air, and everything I’ve never needed blows away. I land lightly. I was right. This is going to be a good day.

Off-Gassing

I closed doors, opened windows, turned on fans, and lit the first fire in my new wood cookstove this morning so it could begin off-gassing. Then I took my latest rock project outside to spray with clear lacquer. The smell of that stuff can ruin your day if not your lungs. Some things necessarily involve the management of toxicity. In fact, as I think about it, there’s likely no avoiding toxicity as part of a larger process. Anywhere. Ever.

“You sure about that?” God asked.

“No,” I said, “but I bet you have an opinion.”

That cracked God up. “Ha! Me? An opinion? Did you forget I’m God? I don’t have opinions.” She said this with disdain.

I felt like doing a little off-gassing myself at this point. “Fine,” I said. “But back to toxicity. It’s like evil, right? Somehow, it’s part of the point. Rotten things smell terrible. Poop is disgusting. It’s the essential tug-of-war.”

“Not exactly.” God looked bored. “What’re you wearing for Halloween?” she asked. “I’m thinking witch, but I also love going as Quasimodo. That hump and giant mole really get to people. And it’s easier than dragging along a broom.”

I stared at God and then out the window. I wondered how the fire was doing. I wondered if the stones were dry. I wondered if I would ever get a straight answer from God.

“You won’t get many,” God said. “But I’m consistent. There’s that.”

“Like ‘love your enemies’ and all those other impossibilities?” I said, in a surly voice. “You mean how you’re the definition of compassion while horrid things happen all the time, right? You mean how deception is wrong, no matter what?”

God smiled, nodded, and lifted with a thousand wings. God drifted like smoke. God surfaced, a blue whale in a vast sea. I was enfolded in something beyond myself. It was nothingness, but I wasn’t worried. Something about me was holding strong. The basics. The dialectics.

“Don’t forget Lucifer,” God whispered and rubbed what felt like my head. “I love that little pipsqueak.”

“I’ve always known that,” I whispered back. “I’ll never forget.” I was making promises I had no way of keeping, but it seemed to please God anyway.

“Set the intention,” said Blue Whale before diving to the ocean floor. “Then hang on.”

So that’s what I’m doing. Intention is set and I’m hanging on. I will minimize my toxicity as best I can. But my reach exceeds my grasp, as I suspect it always will—and that damn new stove is back-drafting.

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.”