The Constant is Change

“A kennel is different than a fenced yard,” I explained to God last evening as we problem-solved the nature of limits, dogs, and human frailties. Dogs naturally dig, bark, jump, protect, chase, growl, and express exuberant affection. This presents problems to the elderly, newly planted marigolds, and other tender things. God seems to think containment should include flow.

“I know the difference,” God said with a twinge of disdain. “But I want to be able to open the door and be done with it. I like things simple.”

What a lie! I risked looking straight at God who then splintered into a hungry blackbird, a broken bike, unearthed seedlings, an abandoned fawn, an icy river, and hops vines using last year’s growth to climb heavenward. A teaspoon of topsoil, a glance at sky–this is all the evidence anyone needs; God does not like things simple.

“Fine. So we’re not that simple,” God admitted, fading into the late-blooming lilacs. I filled the bird feeder, replanted snapdragons, marigolds, and basil, and imagined how I could upcycle the bike. It has a kickstand. That gave me hope. Even though the river is high and noisy, I slept well.

But an intrusive idea about yet another way to rearrange the living room occurred to me this morning, and a Paul Simon tune is on replay in my head. The bike is still broken and I need to build a fence. I’m trying to focus, but distractions take root like invasive weeds—they have no natural enemies. Possibilities plague me. What should I transform next?

The angelic face of change is often made of plastic and other petroleum products designed to enslave and deplete. And yet…

Change is what we are made of.

What would we do without rust and mildew, the molding peach, the dry rot spreading through brick and mortar? Should we bow down to the power of deterioration and thank the gods of decline? I think not, but I suspect it’s all the same to the Many-Sided God; unlike me, they are free and untethered.

“Ah, but you are free to choose your tethers.” God intrudes midsentence–appearing as punctuation and grammar, a parenthetical phrase gone rogue, coauthoring away, as unbidden as Paul Simon, as pernicious as bindweed. And as dangerous as an unruly dog who is way too happy to see me.

“Get down!” I yell. This is not an ideal way to interact with God, but I have no treats or tennis balls to throw, so I drop to my knees where it’s safer and tell myself it’s not a bad thing to be adored.

Bruised

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I close my eyes.

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

I cover my ears.

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

I open one eye.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.”