Saffron

I woke up so existential this morning my cold brew coffee is quivering with meaning, and I can see to the edge of the known universe. With few reservations, I pronounce it good. My hands push themselves together. The familiar flesh I live within, the geodesic cellular structures, the cool, smokey breeze, the faint bird songs, the river, the memory of ice, the calendar, the unsung heroes, burned, drowned; gone. But not gone.

The Untethered Oldest Woman stops by to borrow my eyes, a cup of sugar, and all the eggs I’ve ever stored, anywhere. “You can have whatever you need,” I say. “There’s more in the pantry. Most of it is past the sell-by date anyway. Take a lot of whole wheat flour. It’s close to rancid.”

“How much toilet paper can I have?” she asks. The look on her face is wily, her intent buried deep within the dark wrinkles that hide inhabitants of other planets, illegal immigrants, and the shamed and aging losers of cosmic beauty pageants.

“Take it all,” I say. “I don’t care.” And I mean it.

“Well, aren’t we accommodating this morning?” The Old One says, smiling. “I’ll only take what I can balance on my bike. That’ll leave you with a year’s supply or so. Better stock up, though. There’s another wave coming.”

I don’t rise to the bait. Well, maybe I do. I don’t know myself all that well most mornings—even the existential ones. “I don’t care.” I repeat, and cross my arms, wondering how to make a graceful exit.

The Untethered One shakes her head. “You’re a terrible actor,” she says. “I like that about you.”

I consider the things that haunt me; the slack-jawed sleep of the feeble, the twisted postures of the dead, the fact of toilet paper, an orange scarf waiting to help with my yoga poses. These are my oppressors. These are my liberators. These assure me that today, I exist. To celebrate, I think I’ll add red, green, and maybe turquoise to the streak of blue in my chemically white hair. Then I’ll drive to town and join the army.

The nice thing about this plan is that the colors are temporary, and the army doesn’t want me.

The long orange scarf catches the light and reminds me of saffron. Such an expensive spice. I’ve hoarded a small packet so long it’s likely lost its flavor. It’s not only that it’s rare and expensive, though; I’m also not sure how to use it.

“Use it today,” The Untethered Oldest Woman urges. “Pudding. Cake. Chicken. Doesn’t matter. It’s the act of using it that will matter.” I’m doubtful, but she’s extraordinarily animated. “No, I’m serious,” she says, waving her many arms for emphasis. “It will matter. Use the saffron.”

Rock Saw

I have a functional rock saw. It’s dusty, rusty, and ugly, but it has one fancy feature: the blade–which has diamond chips on the edge. It can slice a rock in two but if I accidentally touch it, it won’t even scratch my skin. I know this in my head, but my neck muscles tighten to the point of popping when I flip the switch and begin guiding the chosen rock through the process of coming apart.

It is with reverence and holy anticipation that I open and explore the inner workings of stone. Some have nothing hidden and remain a steady brown or gray, but others have intricate interiors—patterns of color and luminosity, suggestions of scenery, stories of minerals and the workings of water. When the slabs first separate and emerge from the murky waters, they shine like newborns. The one has become two. A beautiful but sudden breakage has taken place—much different than the geologic forces that diminish stones slowly into smoother, more humble surfaces.

As it turns out, God doesn’t like my rock saw all that well. The Three-in-One stand alongside, frowning. They don’t approve of the primitive deconstruction of density and coherence. They don’t fully understand my all-too-human sequence of raw apprehension followed by awe. Maybe I don’t either. But as always, they are patient and kind.

“Having an audience doesn’t help,” I told them last evening, as I worked on a particularly hard specimen. Something deep inside that amalgamation of jasper and flint was so dense it repeatedly grabbed the blade and stalled out. I kept trying, but the motor reached the shut-down temperature, so there we sat, waiting for things to cool.

“Want something to drink?” I asked, hoping they’d say no and go somewhere they’d be more appreciated. They glanced among themselves, mentally conferring about the status of their hydration and the needs of the universe.

“Don’t let me keep you,” I added. “This could take a while.”

Again, they conferred. And laughed. A flock of sparrows landed on their outstretched arms which had blackened to coal. Then diamond. Then jasper, blood red and mustard yellow. The sparrows lifted the inextricable threesome, dropped them in the river and updrafted into numinous air I could only hope to breathe someday. A very high place. Heaven, if you will.

As time came back into focus, the motor had cooled enough to let me start again, working slowly through the recalcitrant hunk of greatly compressed life. “It has to be beautiful in there if it is this hard to cut,” I thought to myself. I often think things that turn out to be mostly wrong . This is an insight that often brings a surprising amount of peace.

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.

Jerusalem

There is joy in an empty morning, especially if it is tinted slightly turquoise or gentile orange. Wait. I meant genteel. Not gentile. Where did that come from? Oh well. Too late. My mind has gone down the rabbit hole of the middle east and the histories of whole cultures and artificial delineations that have led to pathetic claims of superiority and audacious acts of murder or full-on genocide. Out of suffering has come suffering.

Oh, Jerusalem. You were meant to point us to wholeness but instead, you are irreparably cracked. You have a planet-full of earthborn children pretending to cry out for peace, but peace is boring. What we want is unfettered growth, unmitigated accumulation, endless storage space, and the assurance of a self-styled salvation. Gentile, Jew, Palestinian, Greek, African, White, Latino, Asian, Native, Alien, Influxers, Outgoers, Believers, and those bloated with greed. We’re all a blur in the eye of the passing God who named us Jerusalem and flew away. Named us Eve, Fig Leaf, and Pig’s Eye.

“Are there clues in our DNA?” I ask God as he makes another pass, and I continue to free associate, stimulated by the random events of typos and auto-correct.

“For what?” God says, slowing to a flickering presence, picking at a hangnail, disdainful and uninterested in being embodied.

“For how we’ve gone so wrong,” I say.

“Who’s to say you’ve gone wrong?” God says. “Maybe I planned it this way. And what do you mean by ‘wrong’ and am I included in your sweeping judgements?”

I lean in close to this flippant caricature with onion breath, ragged nails, and bruised feet. God leans away. I lean closer. God gets up and puts himself in the corner, a place of shameful contemplation. I wiggle past the hulking body and become as angular as any corner has ever been.

“Face me,” I demand. Then add in a pleading voice, “I have something you might like.”

God’s hair is greasy. His teeth are mostly gone. His longings are choking the life out of him. He can’t have what he most wants. He’s so lonely he’s willing to settle for fleeting liaisons, lies, and invitations to banquets where only poison is served. Why would anyone host a banquet and then serve poison?

In my angularity, I’ve chosen to serve ramen. It takes the shape of its container, but the long strands remain true to themselves unless they’re cooked too long, and that’s what matters. I try to make sure nothing tastes like soap, whitewash, or condemnation, but there’s a slight aftertaste anyway. I don’t blame myself. If I’ve learned anything from God, it is this: nothing in life will be completely free of aftertaste.

Trees Walking

“God,” I said, after a hot, dry afternoon of good and bad happenings. “How are you different than coincidences or things we can’t explain?”

“I’m not,” God said. “In other dimensions, they don’t even call me God.”

I’ve always known that had to be the case, but knowing hasn’t reduced my longing for a provable formula, a reliably vengeful God, a certain ally, or an intelligent designer with some degree of accountability.

I sighed and asked politely, “What do they call you, then?”

God smiled. “Ah, let’s see. If I put the terms in English for you, I’m sometimes called Attribution, Allah, Beelzebub and Baby’s Breath, Creator, Calamity, Dalliance, Dendroid, Emmanuel, Ego…” She paused and smiled. “Shall I go on?”

“Well, the ABCs are a little boring,” I said. “How about a different alphabet? Or the language of a neighboring planetary system?”

This was perhaps an unwise request from an older soul like myself. God grabbed the brittle corners of my imagination and shook the filmy cataracts loose. My eyes beheld a night sky so dense with possibilities that it almost instantly blinded me. The names of God were a thousand suns, unleashed. God waved her baton; the symphony of all her names was deafening. I intended for my tongue to move, but it would not. With great effort, I raised my finger to signal for help.

“Enough?” God asked.

“Too much,” I said, as I tried to gather what was left of my sensibilities.

“Hand them over,” God said.

“No,” I said. “They’re mine.”

God shook her mane, waved her appendages, leathered up, and roared around in circles on a ruby red Harley. Followers stampeded behind, raising clouds of luminescence. A cacophony of unearthly mirth blew through the trees and with help from a gifted artist, they were transformed into maniacal silver laughter. I couldn’t hold on.

“Uncle,” I shouted.

“Good one,” God shouted back.

“No, I mean I give up,” I said.

“I know what Uncle means,” God said as she put me back together, muttering to herself in languages from beyond and beneath. “There.” She patted my head which felt slightly askew. “That’ll do for now.” She started to walk away but then gave me a second glance. “You’re getting a little tired of the circularity, aren’t you, honey?”

“No!” I lied. “No, not at all.” With the few shreds of pride still at my disposal, I stood erect. “You have a nice day, God” I said. Then I turned my back, rolled under the nearest pile of dead branches, and held very still. As my eyes adjusted, I could see that I was not alone. So many sentient beings, so many innocent souls hiding from the birds of prey.

Maybe God was right. Maybe I am a little tired. This will be an excellent place to rest.

NYT2009
(One of Roxy Paine’s amazing creations)

Volcanic

God slept rough last night alongside the cooling embers of volcanic rock from the eruption of Mt. Nyiragongo in Africa. She awoke exposed, porous and pure as the lava itself, but this did not make her happy. She shook me awake to ask if I would bury her under the acres of rich loam currently planted in alfalfa so she could begin reclaiming her complexity. To be simplified to lava is painful.

“Oh no!” I exclaimed as I opened my eyes in the dim light of dawn and ran my hands over a face so jagged and pitted it made terrible acne seem easy. “Oh sweet God. You’ve become stone.”

“Yes,” God said, woeful, but with a shred of hope. “Lava stone. I’ve heard it has healing properties, but I’d rather move along. Bury me in the topsoil, please. There’s still time. I’ll take care of the rest.”

I reluctantly agreed. We held hands as we walked through the verdant fields made fertile by thousands of years of runoff from the surrounding and willing hills. I was glad I’d remembered my cowhide gloves, both because the hand of God was razor sharp and because the shovel I was dragging along was old. The handle was splintered, and I knew I would be digging for a long time, possibly the rest of my life.

The squawking of the wild and noisy geese nesting across the river helped me find my center as God chose the perfect place to be interned. I wished for another way, but life consists of trying to solve things that are not solvable. This is something gradually revealed over the years allotted to those defined as alive. They say that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. This is true, but then the same can be said for all deaths; ultimately all problems are subjective and temporary, and all deaths seem permanent.

The bounce of sound across water is predictable but not guaranteed.

“God,” I said. “Are you sure?” I was wondering why God insisted on being buried on such a beautiful day. I wondered why I had to be the one digging. I wondered where this weathered old shovel came from.

“Yes,” God said, the nod of her head causing tremors under my feet. Her voice is not measured in decibels but rather revealed in the marrow of reverberating bone. I broke ground, putting body and soul into the sink of the shovel, giving thanks for the leather protecting my thin, unlovely skin from slivers and blisters. I have callouses, but they are often an insufficient defense for these long hot days and the softening effect of sweat.

Under the Influence

My head moves more fluidly (inside and out) after a smattering of beer—usually about half a bottle of Moose Drool. I achieve similar results by playing with the right amount of paint, rusted metal, knotty slabs of wood, rocks, or dirt. The right amount of God is a different formula. It ranges from less than none to cosmic tons.

“What do you mean, similar results?” God asks lazily from the kitchen where he’s adding a lot of cream to his coffee.

“Hmmm. Let me think about that,” I say, as if I’m going to answer. I’m sipping my Moose Drool, adjusting my lists, and enjoying the bright yellow birds hopping around in our diversely-cultured front yard. God melts through the window and into the lawn so quietly the birds don’t even notice they are now hopping around on God’s chest. This tickles God. He tries to hold still but the earth trembles. The great heart of God is gathering force as it comes apart in the dirt.

The trick with God is to stall. He’s got the worst case of attention deficit disorder ever. Humans with attention problems face a lot of challenges, but with God, it’s just another glorious day of goldfinches flitting across the wide expanse of everywhere at once.

Ah ha! Everywhere at once. That’s it. That’s my answer. The result of just enough paint, canvas, rock, metal, or beer is the momentary assurance that I’m in the right river, and I’m not going to drown. I’m everywhere and everyone. connected but alone, safe and in mortal danger; and I accept this eternally transitory condition as my own. As God. As a bright yellow bird.

“God,” I shout. “I have it!”

God surfaces and blinks. He’d fallen asleep among the holy invisibilities of existence. “You have what?” he asks, not fully awake.

“I have your answer,” I say, disappointed at his apparent confusion.

God scratches his rangy head. “I think I forgot the question, honey. Sorry about that.”

“God,” I say. “Sometimes, it seems like you’re not paying any attention to me at all. You’re too busy enjoying the yellow birds.”

 “You’re right. You’re absolutely right,” God admits with a guilty grin. “They’re so beguiling and fragile. So perfect and temporary. But then, so are you. I’ll try harder.”

“O.K.” I agree. It’s time to get dressed. I put on my bright yellow pants and a yellow hoodie.

“Look!” I shout to God from my yellowness. “This should make it easier for you.”  I’ve also added hot pink high-tops to my outfit. We both think this is very funny.

Settling

There are short-lived truths that go sour, longer truths that offer comfort but eventually wear out like a well-loved quilt, and eternal truths that hide among the bulrushes, debts, and sanctuaries. Physical punishment or harsh words will stop unwanted behavior in its tracks, but the motives will dive underground and propel from below.

“Ok,” God says, “Then grace is like a shovel.”

Your offspring don’t own you, and you don’t own your offspring, and we are all the offspring of many. Boundaries are a constant negotiation, but we trundle along, fostering and adopting, breaking and healing, astonished and befuddled; the urges and joys of reproduction writ large.

“Of course,” God says. “My image in the darkened glass.”

There are forces that undermine balance, reduce generosity, and recast restraint as shameful. The meaning of enough is flattened by trucks exceeding the speed limit. Avarice can be dressed up to look like self-care, and acquisition is a seductive master, a damsel in distress, a mirage of power.

“Yes,” God says. “And forgiveness is a home-cooked meal.”

Fear is a natural response to the threat of pain, death, or humiliation. Belligerence is also a natural response. Hatred is the venom produced by fear and belligerence. The poison flows both directions—outward and inward.

“True,” God sighs. “And the antidote…”

God’s voice fades. I lean in, hoping God just needs to clear her throat or something. God is going to say the antidote is love, right? Or maybe compassion, or courage, or sacrifice? Silence reigns. No singing river. No chattering birds. No traffic. No wind. Not even the distant opening or closing of doors.

“Is this it? The antidote is nothing?” I think to myself.

“Noooo,” my inner self protests. I realize I’m dangerously close to settling for a short truth, even if i know it will grow bitter with time, even if I know it will lose its shape like cheap underwear. As long as it disguises the taste of the poison in my mouth–I don’t care.

I look straight into the vibrant universe and hope for a reassuring word.

“Sorry,” God finally says. “I’m all out of platitudes.”

“I don’t mind,” I say, thrilled that God has spoken. “I can handle that. Have a nice day.” I chuckle.

“You crack me up,” God says, laughing. We stand face to face, our foreheads touching, eyes closed, breathing. Then we link arms and walk to the garden to plant a few more marigolds among the rows of kale.