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.

Shoulder Rub

Big History Project

“Why do you bother with me anyway?” God asked, petulant. It was still dark, but I could see the hazy outline of his dejected posture. He sounded depressed and antagonistic. Oh, great, I thought. One of those moods.

“Do I have a choice?” I mumbled from my twisted blankets. I didn’t want to play this game. The answers never change. I bother with God because God bothers me, and dealing with the plague of God is my way of chopping a path through the underbrush of life.

People who believe in some form of a creator tend to give thanks for the good things or ask for favors. They bank on God’s better side, fawning over him with praise, thanksgiving, or strange offerings that range from doves to virgins. Some twirl, some tithe. Some pray constantly, some five times a day. Some use ancient supplications, others improvise. I assume they think this will please or appease. Perhaps they imagine they can influence The Entity to send rain, heal a loved one, or save us from making the planet uninhabitable. I guess it’s worth a shot. But I’ve grown more and more familiar with the underbelly of God–the tender, desperate Alpha, the grief-stricken Omega, the wily Wonderment, the inexplicable Everlasting–and I’m not so sure.

I held perfectly still under the covers, waiting for God to intrude into my head with a comment or retort, but for once, God didn’t seem to be tuned in. He was folded, self-absorbed. This did not bode well for the hours of light and toil ahead of us. Was God going to sulk all day, slimy and bleak like pond mud? Would he harden by evening, cracking in the heat of a merciless sun? And when night falls, will he leave this planet, once and for all, tired of the ignorance and blame?

I sat up. “Come here,” I said. “You know a lot of us are sorry, don’t you?” My eyes were open and steady. I motioned for him to sit on the floor beside the bed. He looked suspicious but complied, and I began rubbing his shoulders. My hands tingled as they sank down into the trapezius muscles of a tense God. I kneaded the flesh like I knead bread, my fingers probing the sore spots, my palm pressing down into the transient tangibility; a form of prayer. Easy, without words.

The body of God relaxed and bravely gave way, softening into malleable clay. I let my hands rest on the uneven, brooding surface of dawn. Billions of years stood by, talking among themselves, just loud enough to remind me that there was work to do. Today. This day.

“Let’s get a move on Sweetheart,” I said to God, giving the shoulders one last squeeze.

God shrugged, stood, and straightened himself to his full height. “Fine,” he said. “You’re the boss.”

Auto-Correct

My Co-author had to disrupt the internet to get my attention and even now, crashed and subdued, I’m trying to find ways to curl up around some happy little thought and protect myself from the simplicities and complexities of that damn self-reflective loop that causes me such trouble. It’s worse than my morning cough. Worse than my lists of things to do. Is this banquet of options meant to prove something? Should I learn to weld?

My Co-author offers no edits. The exuberant birds keep singing, even though I’m sure they’ve already mated for the season. We have water. Enough water for baths and baptisms, for chard, onions, and corn. But the way forward, the way back–always under construction. This is hard for most lifeforms and algorithms to grasp. I am among them.

With a cool breeze and sustenance, it’s easier to make space for my longings and give them a name. I will call them Holy. With a severely curtailed agenda, it is easier to befriend all those familiar demons and fears. I will call them Holy as well. I recognize my hands and consider the things they will do today. If I stare long enough, the delicate bones of God disintegrate, and to be consistent, I know I should call the disintegration Holy and make this morning into a trinity. Land, sea, and sky. Mind, body, and soul. Life, death, and passage.

God slides into distant view as an inane prompt, wondering if I want to save this document. It’s not been saved in the allotted time, nor have I, nor have the people washing up on various shores, seeking to make a better life.

“I don’t like your magnitude this morning,” I tell my Co-author.

“I know,” she says. “And I don’t blame you one bit.”

“Oh, but you do,” I say. “I feel the sun on my damaged skin. I taste the salt. The joy in the river is at an all-time low.”

“And yet, here we are,” my Co-author says, complacent.

“Would you mind editing?” I ask.

“No need,” my Co-author says. “Everything stolen shall be returned. Everything broken shall be repaired. All words misspoken shall be transformed.”

“Sounds as reliable as auto-correct.” I say in a snarky voice. “So, thanks for nothing.”

“You’re welcome,” my Co-author says, and she means it. Nothing is one of her favorite gifts.

A misguided bird has flown through the open door into our porch. I move to help it rejoin the wilder world, glad to have something obvious to do, but before I get there, it has realized its mistake and flown away.

Heat

If it wasn’t so hot, I’m sure I’d have more profound thoughts and find something meaningful in the riffraff of this day, but the idea of cold water is as far as I can go right now. Our laundry is currently flapping in the beastly wind. I can go to the clothesline and bring it in, but I can’t think. Even the effort necessary to generate coherence could send sparks flying from my overheated fears into the parched undergrowth of my soul, and a fiery mayhem could ensue. I worry about the trees.

“Stop it,” God says. “You engage in ridiculous amounts of pointless worry. The souls of the trees are not at all like yours. They are fine. Fine, tall, and willing.”

“Willing?” I ask. There’s a pause. The earth wipes its sweltering forehead. I have horrid visions of blazing forests.

“Yield,” God says from a triangular highway sign.

“Unlikely,” I say. I don’t have the energy to yield today. I’m not a natural yielder. I wish I were a tree, but they don’t live forever. I wish I were new and shiny. I wish I were a radio, a cup of good coffee, a perfect banana, a crisp apple, a purple gladiola, or a row of corn soon to be knee high. I pretend that yielding is not required of such embodied objects.

“I’m sad, God,” I say. “Sad and hot. Hot and sad.” The little faith I have is not shaped like a mustard seed or a triangular highway sign. It’s a cheatgrass barb stuck in my sock, irritating my ankle to death. If I could find it, I’d yank it out, but it is embedded deeply in the weave of the yarn.

“Throw the socks away,” God says, and hands me a sweating glass of lemonade.

I take a sip and consider the barefoot road of the blessed faithless. In some ways, it looks easier, less conflicted, less painful, and if these were ordinary socks, I might comply. I might peel them off, throw them away, and rid myself of that exasperating, chronic chaffing—that annoying, inflaming, intrusion of barbed, fertile seed. Someone knitted these socks for me. I don’t know why I wore them through the deceptive, predatory grass, but I did.

“No.” I shake my head. “I can’t throw them away. But thanks for the permission. And the lemonade. That really hit the spot.”

“You’re welcome,” God says, in an approving voice. “It’s an old family recipe.” God speaks from within the twisted rind of a well-squeezed lemon. I realize that this fragrant, yellow God will soon rest on the unstable surface of our compost pile, momentarily brilliant, but willing to yield to the heat as it hastens the eternal dismantling.

Aerobics

On road trips, it is important to adapt. I just finished hopping around for 30 minutes in this guest house, urged on by a British man and two scantily clad women on YouTube. As is often the case, the women were silent, but they kept the beat. God sat on the edge of the bed, observing this ritual. My upper arms will be sore tomorrow because I do not routinely wave them around like that. I prefer the treadmill or the great outdoors.

“You’re always welcome to join in,” I say to God, as I wipe sweat droplets from the floor.

“Kinda busy,” God mumbles and turns to the map of the world on the wall.

I follow her gaze and feel the familiar plummet of significance. Not counting disputed regions, for now there are 195 independent (and artificially defined) nations on earth, populated by over seven billion of us. None exactly like me, but all of them a twinkle in God’s eye and a pain in God’s neck. All of them a whisper. Each of them a vision just out of reach.

“Remember,” God says. “The map is not the territory.” I do remember. Albert Korzybski, a Polish-American thinker, said that a century ago. Wise man, but still. Maps are something, right?

I grab my jacket and invite God along for a stroll in the park with the puppy and me. “Already there,” God says. I knew that, but I thought I’d ask. The proportionality of God is the issue. The map on the wall is a flat reminder of a round planet in serious trouble. Many of the flags along the bottom include red. I hold out hope that bleeding isn’t necessary, and weapons are not the final answer.

God sighs. “You left the key in the car and the car unlocked last night,” she says. “Might want to lock up on your way to the park.”

“Might not,” I say. “I like it when nothing happens.”

“Right,” God says with an eye-roll. “Your choice. A safe car is not a blessing. A stolen car is not a curse. Just so you have that straight.”

Of course, I don’t have that straight. I’m human. I manufacture imaginary blessings like that unstolen car all the time. “Sure thing,” I say to God with false bravado. “I get it. You had nothing to do with the car being safe.”

“That’s not what I said,” God says. “It’s just that I hate riding along in stolen cars, but I won’t blame you if that’s what I need to do. I’ll ride. I always ride. Even when it’s only a minor traffic violation, not a stolen car.”

“You ridin’ black or white?” I ask.

“Black,” God said. “Black and male. If they shoot me, call my mother, will you?”

I’ve not spoken with God’s mother for a while. I nod. “I will,” I say, imagining the cosmic grief the call would inflict. “But do you have to take such risks?” God gives me a disappointed look. “Yeah,” she says firmly. “Yeah. I do.”

Black Holes/White Flags

Once upon a time, God appeared in the living room and walked straight to the wood stove, extending his hands toward the fire. He seemed chilled and uptight. After a while, he gave me a half-eyed glance and in a choked voice said, “I sure hope I’m the kind of God you write about.”  Mystified, I mustered a reassuring smile.

Another time, God blew through the top of the cottonwoods, a holy howling terror, uprooting trees. Powerlines sparked and whipped like snakes. She pounded her chest, lifted skirts, and inverted the umbrellas intended to thwart the rain. “You will not stay upright,” she shrieked across the expanse. “You will not stay dry and there’s nowhere to hide.”

I hid.

God peeked down into my hiding place. “Sorry,” she said. “You can come out now.”

And then there was the time it drizzled miserably for days, and my sad friend told me she was dying, and the only God I could find was a four-legged critter that appeared to be a dog. God did some tricks, jumped on my friend’s lap, licked her face, and for a while, there was joy. Muted and resigned, but joy.

I slipped outside. Children were splashing in a threatening puddle. One of them kicked off bright yellow boots and squished black mud between her toes, barefoot and triumphant. I watched from the sidelines, silently cheering her on.

I’m remembering these times this morning as I sip a very stale beer—a gift from a stingy God who gives me leftovers–less than I think I deserve. But waste not, want not. And besides, what does deserve have to do with it? Is love earned or bestowed? Is it passed along or is each scrap absorbed into the black hole where nothing is ever enough and time itself has no meaning?

“Good morning,” God says, appearing beside me in stylish clothes. “Can I have a sip?”

“Sure,” I say. “It’s awful.”

God winks, tips the bottle back, swallows, and it’s gone. The beer is gone. The day is gone. Light is peeling off the walls, and I’m falling in.

“Help!” I yell to God as I dangle. The full weight of my body is too much.

God brings an umbrella and yellow boots, a dog, and a fresh beer. But I can’t accept any of it because I need both hands to hold onto the gravelly rim of my small reality.

“Let go,” God says.

“I can’t,” I yell back.

“Of course, you can,” God says, and kneels to loosens my fingers, one by one.

Managing Distractions

(Illustration from my book “When Baby Corporations Come To Play”)

During the next 22 minutes, I hereby resolve to sit in a soft purple chair facing out into my personal chaos and not move anything but my fingers. Warily, my body will relax; my thoughts will filter through a maze of urges, accusations, poetic phrases, and old jokes. Most likely, I will revisit yesterday’s indignations instead of remembering recent joys.

God will appear in fits and starts. She’s as subtle as the noisy microwave and the insistent hum of the cheap refrigerator I’m enduring for the sake of the planet. Or so I say.

I let myself love the pinkening of the sky, even though the pink is fleeting, and my love will go mostly unrequited. The sky does not have time to love me back for very long.

God moves freely around the room. She is interested in the ways lime green and pumpkin orange can change a life for the better. So am I. She seems fascinated with the ease and strength of torque screws, the ticking of old-fashioned clocks, the dangerous games people play in their minds, and the lyrics. And I do mean The Lyrics. The One Song. Sometimes, I sing along but I make up my own words. It’s safer that way.

At heart, God is a rapper. She claims she’s still writing relevant verses. I doubt it. What does she have to offer the gamers and the insistently ignorant? The magnificently greedy, the already generous? Or me, for that matter? And why do I think there should be a set of lines I can understand? As if that could save a single hair on my waning head.

Each minute is a minute unto itself. Round, perfect, weightless. I want to crawl into one and float away, but they burst like bubbles when I touch them. They take no prisoners, allow no passengers, and mercilessly disappear. All I can do is admire the flawless roundness, and shape myself to the circling earth, as if I, too, were a moment in time. Enough but empty. Complete but hungry. Irridescent, transparent—a shade of blue that only God can imagine.

It’s time to leave the soft purple chair and move into the falsely ordinary shards of the day. “Farewell,” I say to each of the 22 minutes, my voice tender and sad. The sky has given up on being pink, but God is still puttering around, admiring whatever she has in her hands as if nothing has slipped away. “Want to go for a walk?” she asks. I lift the skin on my face into a smile and look into her eyes. “Sure,” I say to the Eternal, the Great Intangible, the Path, the Lover, the Rapper, the Generator of the Splintered Now. “Sure,” I say, standing and ready. “Let’s walk.”

Coexistence

Our mousetraps often spring in the night, catching hapless rodents intent on eating our oatmeal or the crumbs from dinner. It always wakes me up. I hate the whole process. We diligently search for the entry points and sometimes seem to stem the inward march, but their skeletons flex, delicate as bird bones. They seem to materialize out of thin air. We see the gray flash or hear the dreaded scamper, and another round of trap-setting begins.

Some skirt around the traps. Others nibble so delicately they’re able to take a few bites and execute a temporary getaway. Some are miserably caught by their tails and drag the trap around. Others die from a clean crack across the neck.

Outside, the cats and hawks are always ready for another meal, so I understand the motivation to find a way in; warm places to nest and tasty scraps to glean. But these comforts are brief and fatal.

“Brief and fatal,” God says with a nod.

“Well, hello, Mr. Echo,” I say. God’s presence doesn’t unsettle me so much anymore. Besides, I could use a distraction. I’m working on my Advanced Directives with a Dementia Addendum. I wave the sheets of paper at God. “Want to serve as my witness?”

“I am always and forever your witness, honey,” God says. “But my signature isn’t worth a plug nickel.”

I’m not sure what that idiom means, but I like it. It was a favorite of my mom’s. “You’re pretty funny,” I say.

“I know,” God says. I turn to give God a smile, and just then, we both hear the snap from under the bench. I flinch. God says in a voice laden with irony, “And another one bites the dust.”

I start toward the trap, but God gets there first. “I’ll take care of it for you,” God says. I open the door. Twilight floods in, a dark liquid that will eventually dissolve my feet. I try to be brave.

So, so gently, God lifts the twitching mouse.  Joins the twitching mouse.  Becomes the twitching mouse.

And I am the hapless witness, briefly bereft of my fatal comforts, wishing such infusions of wisdom didn’t take so long.

A host of earthly beings surround God’s body, now peacefully still in the garden. I put on my coat and boots and go out to lie down beside my fine-boned God. In the steel gray sky, an eagle circles, sharp-eyed and majestic. The wingspan alone is beyond comprehension.

Change of View

I often wonder what inspired God to get into the business of creation. It’s obviously a work of love, but there are so many booby traps embedded along the way. The lack of smooth sailing for any amount of time suggests negligence. Or distractibility. Or inebriation. Literal and figurative landmines blow up innocent people, and the rain falls on the just and the unjust.

“So, Intelligence-Who-Sets-Things-in-Motion, what do you have to say for yourself?” I ask. I’m not in a good mood. We just moved ourselves from one condo to another. I’m tired.

“Good morning to you, too,” God smiles.

I sit breathing quietly, letting the smile of God wash over me, bringing both relief and the usual touch of terror. My watery eyes take in the new view through a different set of sliding glass doors. Last night, we slept in the old place, but this morning, I dragged the coffee table, frying pan, and my favorite cup to the new place, and here I am. Awake. With toast. And here’s God, smiling. And here’s the morning, arriving without apology, under the weight of so many newly dead, so many starving children, so many imprisonments, so many billionaires. I turn off the news, vaguely ashamed of myself. Angry at the capacity of humans to justify their self-serving, violent, deluded choices.

God is doing a silly dance around the boxes and displaced furniture.”Creation is my middle name,” she says. “I love trying out new ideas. I love diversity.” She pulls a bucket of sunglasses from behind her back—the lenses are densely colored–green, red, pink, orange, blue, black, green, purple—but none are clear. “Try them all,” God says.

“No thanks,” I say. “I’m retired.”

God laughs. I blow my nose. The new skyline is both urban and wild. I remember a defiant peace sign on the lowly hills. The majestic Mission Mountains are north of here, out of view, but close enough to feel their power rising. Peace signs come and go. Even mountains don’t last forever. They face erosion unafraid, taking comfort from flocks of noisy crows and the vast truth of sky.

I give God one last accusatory look and uncross my arms. “Okay,” I say. “I’ll try purple. But take the orange away. I’d rather see clearly, but if my vision is going to be tainted, I appreciate having a choice.” God hands me the purple glasses and sets the orange ones on the table beside my stack of masks.

“Thanks,” I say, halfhearted. God nods and hands me a beer and my vitamins. “Work up to it,” she says. She’s smiling again. Her cheerfulness, like the massive track lighting in this place, seems a bit much. I’d like a little less light.

Is you is or is you ain’t?

For the past 45 minutes, God’s been following me around while I fuss and mutter my way through the large piles of rocks in our house. It’s time to clean and sort. Smooth, thin, striped, white, broken, odd-shaped, heavy, pointed, round, speckled, flat, agate, sandstone, granite, petrified wood. I’m blessed with an inexhaustible supply of rocks. It’s awful. Blessings always come with a dark side. In this case, I have to sort and judge my rocks. Which stay? Which go? Sheep or goat? Precious or plebeian? In or out? Evil or good? Worthy or worthless?

I’ve been lazily indiscriminate about rocks, but there are limits. Life demands at least some discernment, and as we all know, discernment easily slides to judgment. Humans have many sayings about this.

  • One person’s treasure is another person’s junk.
  • Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. …And of course, there’s this one:
  • Do not judge, or you too will be judged. In the same way you judge others, you will be judged.

I hold an amber crystal and a friendly river rock in my hand, overcome with doubt. What makes anything or anyone precious? What makes anyone or anything worthless? Who or what belongs anywhere?

God sighs. His jazz band materializes and sets up in the kitchen. God positions himself on a stool, and in his sultry, seductive voice, begins singing that old Louis Jordan classic: Is you is or is you ain’t my baby? He sips bourbon. I’m afraid he’s planning to light up a cigarette. Clearly, he’s in one of his sarcastic moods. I briefly consider throwing the bum out.

The mood fades. The band packs up, leaving the kitchen littered with peanut shells and shot glasses stained with oily lipstick. God lingers and watches me clean. He’s smiling. Humming. Waiting. I’m a little put out, but God has cleaned up after me more times than I can count. And he’s always done a stellar job.

He’s unpredictable, unruly, unjudgable, stereotype-proof—but whatever God does, he does well. I know because I have a memory of perfection. An infinitesimal fraction of me was present when God and his jazz band crooned the Universe into being; when stars burst out of their atomic skins, when the planet I call home began to cool. In fact, we were all there—which puts us in the same boat—which makes judgment futile.

I wash the last glass; God sweeps the floor and opens the north facing window to a blast of late-November air. I endure the chill while I search through the rocks. I’m on a mission.

God laughs. “I don’t need a rock,” he says, accurately reading my mind.

“I know,” I say. “But I’d like to give you something anyway.” I feel nearly desperate to find the perfect rock.

“Okay, baby,” God says. He holds out his hand.