Good and Evil, Weeds and Greens

I just ordered extra-strength mold and mildew killer for a nasty basement area that hosts a strain of fungi I do not like. And later today I’ll chop, pull, and in some cases, spray chemicals on bugs and weeds and tenacious grasses that are choking the good stuff.

I hate this.

I hate every single stupid aspect of the battle between good and evil, weeds and vegetables, beneficial bugs and destructive infestations, liars and truth-tellers, thieves and the generous of spirit. I realize there’s a purpose for all of creation. Nature is not mistaken. We know a little but not enough. Defining anything as a weed or as evil begs the question of an omniscient creator who pronounces all things good (or potentially good, or redeemable). It violates my premise that God knows what God’s up to. This is why being rational sucks sometimes. The whole of life is filled with unsettling contradictions that must be addressed or endured.

I’m a consumer and a provider–a lover, hater, poet, pragmatist, winner, loser, dreamer, doodler; I’m easily duped but wise in the ways of my insular world. On occasion, I fail to be honest or kind—but I’m skilled at manufacturing reasons to justify myself.

As a human, I have a large degree of autonomy. I have the prerogative to be caring or cruel, truthful or deceitful; I have power over those weaker than I am. Each day arrives new but slightly tainted by the dregs of the day before. The brilliant colors of an unguarded sky disorient me as the hot wind of redundancy stirs the August dust. By late afternoon, I see in my face the toll taken by trying to live well. What do the “evil” people see—the depraved and debauched—do they see the same contours?  Small victories and apparent defeats? Do they glimpse God with her arms crossed, waiting? Do they see my futile longing to give every living thing another chance?

The problem with weeds and germs is that they don’t know their place: they’re not humble. They roam around the party sipping wine from everyone’s glass. They are invasive and infectious. Taking unfair advantage, they form self-defeating monocultures and thus fail to be a balanced part of an intricate ecosystem.

The God I hang out with is the Balancer-in-Chief. She climbs on the scales, lies down in the street, lets the bastards starve her to death. She sustains injuries from the blast, drowns in the flood, joins the protests, widens the cracks, and endures. Unlike me, she seems to know it will come out okay in the end. There will be justice. There will be mercy. There will be love. I shield my eyes from the glare of the moment, but I can only see so far. So while I’m still able, I yank at the weeds with a ferocious mix of futility and hope, and with a certain sadness, I leave their roots exposed to the merciless sun.

Influencer

“God,” I said to my coauthor, “we need to try and appeal to a younger audience. Maybe we shouldn’t focus on disease, death, plague, poverty, and pestilence so often.”

“Ya think?” God said. He’d stopped by in the guise of distinguished looking diplomat, trimmed beard, clear blue eyes, three-piece suit. Trustworthy. Then, just as he sat down, he aged into a very old man in baggy clothes, legs bent to the chair like sticks, vision clouded by cataracts. “Stop worrying that pretty little head of yours. Come give me a little peck on the cheek,” he said. “There’s smoke in the chimney, fire in the belly.” He jiggled his torso. It was repulsive. What in the heck was God up to? After a couple of lurid winks, God morphed again. She leaned over me, sweet cleavage burbling out of her scant bikini inches from my nose. She smelled of sunshine, youth, hope, and laughter—utterly delicious. “How’s this?” God asked.

“Mirror, please,” I said. God handed me a simple mirror, and I turned it on her. “Oh,” she gasped. “I forget how beautiful I am sometimes.” Then she turned it back on me. Given my 66 years, pajamas, and wayward hair, I did not have the same reaction.

“So you want a younger audience, eh?” God said. I pushed the mirror away. “Why?” she asked, not unkindly. She slipped a beach cover over her perfect shoulders.

I thought about it. Why would I want a younger audience? Why would I want an audience at all? I don’t even like people very well. “Influence,” I said hesitantly. “I think you should be a social influencer, and I’m willing to help.”

“Thanks,” God said with a wry smile, “but I can handle it. There are so many idiots, zealots, fanatics, and frightened people speaking for me, explaining me in formulas, thinking they have a bead on who I AM, I don’t really need any more help.”

I tried to be thoughtful, but God could see my feelings were hurt. She added, “Sometimes, sweetheart, diminishment amplifies the truth and lets the light in through the cracks.” Diminishment? The old Shaker song, T’is a gift to be simple got into my head, and as I hummed the tune, God grew large, black, and soft, and I relaxed into the familiar comfort of the unknowable. Her name was Diminishment. Her name was Truth.

“Why do you come by?” I asked.

“Why do I love you?” God asked back.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe it’s your only viable option.”

“Nope,” God said. “It’s a choice, and it happens to be the best way to influence anyone. Ever.”

In this vast land of fear and loathing, we hunkered down and snuggled. Then God packed up the mirror and left, taking most of the available light. She left me a little. Just a little. But I think it will be enough.

Pecking Order

There are fourteen tiny chicks in a box at my feet, hopping around, testing their wings, eating, drinking, pooping, napping, and then starting the sequence over again. They are utterly defenseless, so small they’d not even make a good hors d’oeuvre for a predator, but they don’t seem to know this. When I reach down to get one, they chirp in vociferous protest and scramble away as if escape were possible. Think of the energy they’d save if they just laid down and accepted whatever came their way–warmth, light, food, clean water, a snuggle with a human–or a quick end to a short life. Instead, they react to perceived threat with every fiber of their fuzzy little beings. It’s both comical and profound.

Chickens do not seem to engage in self-reflection. Among their favorite treats are chicken eggs and chicken meat. Their opportunistic cannibalism doesn’t appear to trigger any crises of conscience, and it doesn’t bother me either. They’re cute, and I’m pretty sure they like me. After capture, they relax in my warm hands, and some drift off to sleep. I can’t be sure, but it looks like blissful surrender.

“Well, it’s not,” God says, as she joins me, latte in hand.

“Where’d you get that?” I ask. I have my beer, but the latte looks good.

She flashes the telltale Starbucks logo and nods at the chicks. “They’re playing dead. It’s a last resort.”

“They are not,” I say.

God leans back. “Chickens are one of my prototypes,” she says. “But there are some design flaws. They have pecking orders and will literally kill and eat the hen at the bottom, especially if she’s an outsider. I’m not proud of how this has turned out so far.”

When God says things like that, it triggers my reactivity. “Yeah. And what’s the plan exactly? If the lion lies down with the lamb, what will the lion eat? Grass?”

God scoops up one of the black chicks and makes cooing sounds. Exasperated, I continue. “And if chickens kill the weakest member, doesn’t that make the flock stronger? And why would people born with a penis want a vagina? And if you have the chance to enslave someone for free labor, why not? Isn’t this why you gave us women, guns, and germs?”

God puts the chick back among the others, sips the last of her latte, and folds her hands. I slither to the floor. My plan is to play dead when God picks me up. But God just sits there, smiling and waiting. I look with longing at her soft, giant hands.

“Won’t work,” she says. “You’re too old to play dead.” She helps me change the water while the chicks chirp frenetically. “They’re so darn adorable,” she says.

“And versatile,” I say sarcastically, still wishing for an easier way, a less disturbing set of truths.

“And versatile,” God says, in a calm, dark voice. “Versatile.”

Legacy

Reportedly one symptom of Covid 19 is the loss of taste, which in rare cases could be a blessing. The worst thing I’ve ever tasted was a stink bug hidden in a bowl of fresh raspberries. Stink bugs emit a foul odor when disturbed, but they taste far more foul when bitten.

I doubt God has ever bitten a stink bug. I imagine the worst thing God has ever tasted is hatred. Even a little bit of hatred can ruin the whole savory stew of a creation born of love. I spat that stink bug out, brushed my teeth, and gargled, but the taste lingered. I shudder to think what we’re doing to God right now. But maybe it’s God’s own fault. The stink bug was entirely accidental. We’re not. There’s nothing accidental about us.

Some of you may wonder about the motivation, sanity, and content of this blog…as have I. Right now, you are reading my 200th post. Just over five years ago, I had a chance encounter with cancer. Facing imminent mortality yanked my consciousness around. Disbelief and indignation got all tangled up with gratitude, terror, and determination. My connections to the Great Beyond, the God of Bigness, Littleness, Cosmos, Critters, Creative Urgency, and Salvation expanded like stretchy strands of spider web, tenacious as dry rot eating through brick; God, the ever-branching tentacles; me, the crumbling brick.

I’ve gotten to know my bothersome Co-Author fairly well because I live by a river, and it’s quiet sometimes–quiet enough to hear the continual cracking of God’s fractured heart and green enough to witness the courageous mending wrought by the small yellow flowers as they befriend their fate.

Every day, I try to follow suit and befriend my fate. Bark peels off the fallen tree into my hands, and even this has become more beautiful than I can bear. I lay the best pieces on the water and send them downstream to people I do not know and cannot name; gay, black, beaten, homeless…the hungry and the dead.

No one comes back to tell us anything about legacies or regrets, but I am convinced everything matters a little. Like attending. Showing up. But to really show up, to take it all in, I have to pry myself open to touch and see, listen…and yes, to smell and taste. Even after the stink bug incident, some days I bravely sniff the breeze and roll the taste of God around in my mouth. No matter how fresh or putrid, bitter or sweet, I try to savor. Some days, God bravely does the same with me.

I wish each ferocious moment of connection would be enough, but that’s not how it works. Thus, I ponder and write. Thank you for reading these blogs and for prying yourselves as open as you dare. Openings create legacies, fleeting and fine-boned, as all legacies should be. For that, I am grateful.

Insult to Injury

I often make lists of the many sins committed against me. Acts of omission or malice, blows landed, insults slung. It’s like anticomfort food. And to add to my misery, ailments regularly drape and infest my body. Some days, I hope for a temporary ceasefire between invading forces. Other days, all is lost.

“Despair is nothing new to the human condition,” God says. “But then, neither is joy.”

“Oh, you are so subtle, God.” I said with a snarl, thinking God was trying to cheer me up.

“I’m hungry,” God said. “Will you give me a scrap of food?” This was not what I’d expected, and I’d already put the breakfast things away. I ignored the request.

“I’m frightened,” God said. “I’m lonely. I’m in prison.” God looked misshapen. I backed away. He seemed deranged and dangerous.

“My village flooded. I have nothing left,” God said. I checked the locks on my doors and the passwords on my accounts.

“I’m so tired,” God said. “I walked all night.” I shook my head. God was filthy, and I’d just changed the sheets.

“My legs have been broken,” God said. “I can’t walk.” He tried to drag himself toward me, arm over arm. I turned my back and ran until I fell exhausted on rocky ground. God coalesced in the stratosphere, floated down like a feather, and circled his body around mine. My face burned with shame. “I can’t,” I said through clenched teeth and tried to kick him away. “I can’t fix you. Can’t fix all the broken places. Can’t stop coming apart. What do you want from me?”

“Oh baby,” God murmured as he rocked my resistant body. “I want joy…and maybe a bit of compassion now and then. The kind that gratitude generates. But mostly, joy.”

This seemed reasonable, but I couldn’t fend off the fog of helplessness thickening around me. It was blinding and cold. I thought this nicer, softer God would obliterate it for me, but instead, he looked worried. “Throw it off!” he said, with some urgency. “Throw it off now. Think. Where’d you hide that last bit of joy?”

“In the paint brushes,” I said, sitting up. “And that incredibly twisted driftwood. And the words. And that kiss.”

“Go,” God said. “Paint, wander, write, kiss. And be sure to light the fire. I’ve dried the kindling for you.” He pulled small sticks from under his robe.

Suddenly, more than anything, I needed to paint something purple. And gold. And forest green. But the world had grown too dark to see very well. I remembered a line from Frederick Douglass’s famous speech (What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?) It’s not light that we need, but fire. Artificial illumination would not do. I could only paint a true and joyous thing by enduring the flickering glow of fire. I took the kindling gratefully and kissed the Pathetic Old Thing on his wrinkled cheek as we turned ourselves toward the gathering storm.

It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere

Lately, I’ve been taking the world apart little by little. Originally, I had planned to put it back together once I understood how everything worked, but I’m afraid I’ve misplaced some key pieces, and occasionally, I’ve gotten impatient, pulled too hard, and broken things. So, my new plan is a simplified version. Let things come together as they will. Sandstone with lichen. Rain that soaks the just and the unjust. Lightening that strikes on a whim. Fire that burns selective and incomplete. I can’t keep track of the passing hours or the imagined threats anymore.

I told God about my undoings and lingering responsibilities, hoping he’d take a hint and be of some kind of help, but he’s so busy. “It’s July and I haven’t even got my snow tires off,” he said.

“Yeah, but it’s snowing somewhere,” I said–an old happy hour joke—it’s 5:00 somewhere. We like being happy, me and God. We laughed.

“I know you could use some help with your projects, but with all the cotton blowing off the cottonwood trees and old people dying like honeybees, I just don’t have the kind of time it would take to put your world back together,” God said. His face had a pointed, parental look.

I didn’t believe him because God is not bound by time or space, but then I’m not always honest either. For instance, I’m not actually taking the world apart. The world is taking me apart, and it’s me who won’t be coming back together. Someday, I will be the lichen on the sandstone and the falling rain.

“If you’re lucky,” God interjected.

I knew God was still joking around, wanting to laugh and keep the mood light. And why not? When the time comes, I’m guessing God will give me a different way to see what has always been and will always be. I’ll have new jobs and a new name.

“But not yet,” God said to my wandering mind, sounding impatient with my inwardality. “Your old name still works. Like you said, it’s snowing somewhere. Let’s get a move on. Make hay while the sun shines. Don’t you trust me anymore?”

“What’s not to trust?” I muttered, mostly to myself. But I got dressed anyway, found my purple work boots exactly where I’d left them, and dragged out the mower. God was right. My old name still works. For now.

Driftwood

Today, I examine the curves and contradictions of driftwood and stones rolled by the river while I sip small amounts of soothing beer and let ideas of God come and go as they will. Some stay longer than others. Some wake me up. Some put me to sleep. Some are a comfort; others are profoundly disturbing. Even when I utter prayers beyond words, I laugh at myself. I don’t ask for much. No, that’s a lie. I ask for everything.

Everything. Why not? Ask and ye shall receive, right? But here’s something I’ve noticed: Don’t ask and ye shall receive anyway. Or ask and ye get nothing ye asked for. So ye makes up ridiculous sayings like when God closes a door, she opens a window. What? A window? I’m too old to crawl through most windows. See why I laugh? Windows let in light and air. It’s nice to sit and look out a window. It is not nice to crawl through one. So if God has shut a door, maybe sit on the couch and appreciate the view.

Maybe invite God to sit with you. Maybe give God a chance to explain herself. She won’t, but that’s okay. Humans are ingenious inventors, projectors, and deniers. I have no doubt you can think up more clever sayings about God or about Not-God to offer the grieving family, to scold the misbehaver, to justify your choices, judge yourself or others, get even, or get ahead. It’s so easy. Just sit there and make things up, drawing from ancient writings, evangelists, humanists, feminists, misogynists, economists–whatever your sources, brew up an elixir, gird your loins, and… No. Wait. Touch the driftwood.

Wait. Take the fingers on your left hand, run them gently up and down the tender skin on your right arm, feel the tingle, and marvel. Marvel. Fill your lungs with air you cannot see, and marvel. Blink your eyes, wiggle your toes, taste the inside of your mouth, and marvel. Glance at God, smile sheepishly, and apologize for everything. Then regroup and ask for everything. Eternity. Driftwood. Stones shaped like broken hearts. Everything. God will hold the ladder as you crawl out the window. Try to laugh all the way to the ground. It will help you manage your terror and the enormous sadness you should never wish away.

Raven

Courtesy of the amazing Ben Reed

I sit here now with my life in my hands, my future in my feet, thoughts in my mind, reluctance in my spirit. I’m trying to make myself throw a friendly arm over the shoulders of ignorant fools who eat propaganda for breakfast. False reassurances are so tasty. Comfort food for the complacent. Minute by minute, hour by hour, I do battle with the urge to hate. I want to hate those who deserve to burn in hell, but I will not. I will not hate the violent, scum-sucking, selfish, sadistic liars. I will not hate their tragically-seduced followers. Hate is comfort food for the self-righteous. We are all self-righteous, and we are hungry.

I will eat chard today and vegetables–the fruit of someone’s labor; sun beating down on dark soil, soil releasing what it has to offer. With gratitude, I will eat.

Raven lands to survey her world. What are you seeing, Raven? Decades ago, I watched a thin boy roast a cousin of yours over a small fire in India. In my world, eating crow used to mean eating your words when proven wrong. This saying has fallen out of use because no one can be proven wrong anymore. But in that child’s world, eating crow was literal. It meant he could live another day. What am I to make of this, Raven? You are my totem, my shiny black spirit guide. You are my wings.

Raven shrugs. The chokecherry bushes hold seven or eight red winged blackbirds, supple branches bending under the weight of this momentary group of dignitaries.

They won’t stay long, nor will I. As wisdom accumulates, flesh dissipates. While Raven lingers, my mind drifts to the exotic neon birds of the tropics, but Raven calls me back with shimmering shades of black. Maybe, someday I will understand iridescence and the angles of illumination. I will love my enemies and even bid them a fond farewell. “Until we meet again,” I will say, with warmth and conviction. “Until we meet again.”

Roots

In the bioluminescence of adoration, God stroked my bedhead hair, and I felt powerful. From the safe distance of her corpulent lap, I glimpsd the dark tentacles of fear wrapped tightly around the human heart. I saw the malevolent vine choking off compassion, strangling kindness, and feeding the voracious twins: greed and envy. I imagined taking an axe to the roots of fear and chopping us free. God laughed. Me and Paul Bunyan to the rescue. I laughed too and snuggled in, dreamy and half-conscious.

“What are humans so afraid of?” I asked my big-breasted comforter.

“The truth, honey,” God said. “You’re all deathly afraid of the truth.”

The innocent fun was over. I had to ask.

“What is the truth?” I whispered, hoping God would just gaze off toward the horizon and keep cuddling. But I knew she would not. Nor would she tell me fairy tales. Nor would she sugar-coat whatever I needed to face.

Her voice was even. Steady. Not cold, but compelling. “Honey, the truth is this: You are not perfect. You are mortal, restless, uncertain, and terrified of rejection. You are a member of a species that rapes, maims, tortures, enslaves, starves, and kills its own—a species frightened of all the wrong things.”

She paused and sighed. “Pain, loss, and death are immutable realities. They are part of the definition of life. Any number of accomplishments, offspring, accolades, facelifts, personal trainers, holy wars, conquests, or bank accounts will not take these realities away.”

“Stop,” I said and covered my ears. “I hate where you’re going with this.”

“You have no idea where I’m going with this,” God said. She pulled my hands away from my ears and crossed them over my heart. “In here,” she whispered. “Look in here.”

I felt waves of resistance but tried to hold still and listen. God continued. “Where I’m going is where you’ll go. But don’t worry. I’ve been there forever, and I’ve hidden some surprises.” She chucked me under the chin.

I stared at her, indignant. Defiant. What did God think I was? A child? Surprises? “C’mon, God,” I said. “Give me a break.”

“I already have,” God says, laughing again. “You have no idea.”

I gave up my pride and we settled back in. God, big and soft. Me, small and limited. Imperfect and afraid. God is wrong. I have lots of ideas. But God is also right. I do like surprises.

Flat Tire

“How do you measure success?” I asked God. “A weed-free garden? A billion dollars in savings? Well-behaved children? Unburned toast?”

“Nolite te bastardes carborundum,” God muttered as she pushed a strand of hair away from her sweaty face. She was trying to get a flat tire off her rig, but the lug nuts had been machine-tightened.

I watched in disbelief. “Just zap it with a bolt of lightning,” I said, exasperated. If there was ever a time for some well-aimed lightning, it was now. Our little world is in flames, our bodies in peril, and here’s God, trying to change a flat tire by herself, offering only a language-mangled quote as her version of success: Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

Fine. “Which bastards?” I demanded as God tried to find a way to use her entire body weight on the lug wrench. Today, God was thin. I almost wondered if the bastards had already ground her down some, but that’s ridiculous. We all know the bastards are no match for even the thinnest of Gods, don’t we?

“Could you steady the jack?” God asked. “I’m going to try and jump on this damn wrench.”

“No,” I said. “That’s a terrible idea. Call AAA or something. You’re going to hurt yourself.” She hadn’t even blocked the jack very well. It was sinking into the soft ground. I put my hand on God’s bony old shoulder. She shrugged it off and stood to her full majestic height. A string bean of an angry God.

“Is your van available?” she snapped as she dropped the wrench. “I don’t have time to mess with this. I’ve got to go.” My old van burns a little oil and pulls slightly to the left, but it still hauls an impressive load and gets me where I need to go. I had plans today that involved the van, but I couldn’t deny the request. Ride along or stay home; we all know where God’s going, and it’s no place to go alone.

“Shotgun,” I said with a reluctant attempt at humor.

“Oh, that seat’s taken,” God replied. “Ahmaud’s riding up front.” I flinched and looked down. “No worries,” God added with a piercing look. “There’s plenty of room in the back.”

“But there are no seatbelts,” I protested, ashamed of myself.

 “There’s air,” God said grimly. “There’s air. Now, let’s go.”