The Harbinger

Rita and John Tippet 2

On this somber morning, the chalky smell of old lessons fills my nose, and I remember posing beside a piece of art created to decompose. The Artist lingers nearby, a tortured soul, ready to recompose when the time is right.

Broken birds and fallen women find redemption in the great yellowness of a steady sun. This has always been the Artist’s intention, but it’s hard to admit because we like to make our own little plans and pretend the forts we build will protect us forever. What can we make true by pretending? What do you want to count on? Which lies are you willing to live by or tell the children?

If you mix pure gold with tired red blood you get a burnt orange that catches and holds the holy light so gently even tiny things are seen and safe. I am old, but I miss my mother. I am wise but certain of nothing. I know I’m of use, but I’m not sure why. Even the forgotten are of use, but they don’t know why either.

Once, we were butchering chickens. The uproar was astounding, the panic widespread. My lover, a city boy, was in charge of catching the fat, terrified hens and handing them to the person with the ax. He’d grab one by the leg, cradle her in his arms, and stroke her downy white feathers. “It’ll be okay, little buddy,” he’d say in a soothing voice. “It’ll be okay.” But then, for some reason, he heard himself. He stammered and stepped back, pale and appalled. I think he wanted to abandon his post. But there was no point. It was harvest time. The chickens were plump and ready. It had to be done, and it would be okay. The cosmic joke was on him and the chickens and anyone who fails to grasp redemption. It is neither cheap nor easy, but it is guaranteed. The chickens were perfect and delicious.

Valentines

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God has been making fun of me lately, trying to get me to wrestle, insisting I lighten up. I resist because of this sense of impending injury. God doesn’t realize her own strength, and I tend to fight back, even if it’s all in fun. But is it ever all in fun? C’mon, God. Is it?

God pulls her tickle-fingers back and takes a deep breath, accidentally inhaling millions of locusts, eleven planets, and so much disgusting space debris that she sneezes. I grab a well-installed towel rack and hang on.

“Bless you,” I say automatically. What a stupid custom. No demons are going up anyone’s noses, especially God’s. But I say it and mean it for whatever that’s worth in this strange condition of being alive. And I am alive. Alive in sage green, burnt orange, and lavender paint spread over the chalky primer. Alive in the demolition and reconstruction of shelter. Alive like the probiotic bugs I’m sipping to recolonize my ravaged digestive track.

“Bless you again,” I say, as God’s second sneeze rattles the rafters. I add, “I’ve never really thought about you sneezing.” God rubs her nose and wipes her eyes. “Yeah, I’m allergic to some things you’d never guess,” she says. “And besides, you can’t think of everything. Want me to do a little thinking for you?” She grins.

“Oh no.” I say this in a very firm voice. “No. Absolutely not.” I figuratively wrap my arms around my brain and hold my hand up like a guard at a school crossing. “No.”

One thing I’m clear on is this: God’s thoughts are not my thoughts. God’s ways are not my ways. I prefer my own thoughts. Otherwise, what’s the point? God has grown Vulcan ears, and her eyebrows are thick and angular. “Mindmeld, anyone?” she says, clearly having way too much fun. “Oh my God!” I say, starting to laugh despite myself. “Could you just leave it alone?”

“It, or you?” God asks, and adds, “I can drop a subject as quick as anyone, so yes, I can leave it. But you? Sweetheart, you might think you’d like a little distance, but you can’t understand how bad that would be. So, you? Nope, I won’t be leaving you alone. Ever. Sorry if that makes you uncomfortable, but I’m God. I have certain prerogatives.”

My face is stony, but the glare is facetious. I just don’t feel like admitting my relief. Right now, a nap sounds good. “Excellent idea,” God agrees.

“Yes,” I say. “I’m glad I thought of it.” Then with exaggerated dignity, I crawl into her chest cavity, very near her broken heart, and fall asleep.

 

Snowbound

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Two feet of God fell through the night, pure white, yielding and silent–a worthy opponent, this friend of mine. “To what do I owe this honor?” I asked as I shoveled, and tried to mean it. “Nice of you to stop by,” I added, lying. No answer. I went back inside to stoke the fire and stare out the window.

A resolute sun broke through, brief and blinding. I could see nothing. Hear nothing. The tips of my toes and fingers felt nothing. This was the white of beguiling lies, seductive cover-ups. I was out of my depth, but it kept coming down. I’m ill-prepared, I thought. When you consider wind chill, even the burliest humans are easily frozen. The teeth of my cyberworld chattered. How do you love in this bitter cold? we asked each other, not actually wanting to know.

From the security of my couch, I contemplated the fields of deep, deadly white. For my people, black is the color of mourning–the color of absorption. But billions of people mourn in white–the color of reflection. White is what happens when light gathers force: blood red, sky blue, the yellow of fire and sun.

“That’s enough of that,” God said in a gruff, grandfatherly voice. “You’re trying too hard–too full of yourself. How about the red of that little wagon? The yellow of dog pee on snow?”

“But the situation is serious, God,” I said, embarrassed. “And I didn’t know you were listening. Could you knock, or at least make some noise before you barge into my head like that?”

God rolled himself into a single eyeball, a sheen of ice glazed over a deep, dangerous blue. He winked.

“Sorry,” he said. “I know it’s childish, but I love startling people. You thought I was out there, being weather, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, maybe,” I said. “Or maybe not. You tell me, Mr. Know-It-All.”

An avalanche of laughter crashed against my dying world, my endangered species, bathing it in cold comfort, icing away the inflammation of ego and all things unsettled, unfiltered, and unattainable.

“Love can look like this,” God said, pointing at a single ember.

I knew the fire needed more wood, but I was reluctant. Winter isn’t over and the woodpile is precariously low.

Grieving in the Old Blue Chair

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Today, I sit in the light of the rising sun, rocking myself in the old blue chair–the one I loaned my mom before she died. It’s an unusually small recliner. For a few months, with planning and effort, she could get out of it by herself. But then she couldn’t. She fell and laid helpless on the institutionally-bland carpet for who knows how long? They found her tangled in the floor lamp, alive but not coherent, her body bruised from her efforts to get up. That was Mom. Never stop trying to get back up.

Dylan Thomas would have approved. Mom did not “go gentle” into any dark nights. In her stubborn way, she raged against the dying of the light. When faced with a challenge, she’d clamp her thin lips tight, stomp on the gas and shoot down the road, her ever-shrinking body taut with determination. She’d arrive in her shiny white Ford, peering at the road from just above the steering wheel. She never stayed long.

God has stopped by to reminisce. He’s wearing decades on his shoulders, and our whole upstairs has become quite crowded. “Oh God,” I say, shifting to make room, glad for the company. “Remember how she believed that when she got to heaven, she’d have to give Dad an account of how she managed the ranch after he died?” God nods, a little teary. He really admired my mom over the years. “And remember how much she gave away?” I added. God smiles with pride.

There’s not much else to say. Those last three days, death pulled her tenderly down through the layers of life until it was just her brain stem fighting for air. The Wasabi sting of emotion threatens my placid mood as I sit with the memory of her  insistent breath, sucked in and out, in and out, irregular and awful. Not a memory anyone needs to have.

After she fell out of this chair, she never sat in it again. I brought it home—slightly more worn. I’ll keep it a while.

“Tell her, will you?” I ask God.

“Tell her yourself,” God answers, and holds up a mirror Mom carried in her purse. She used it to reapply her lipstick and smooth her hair. God slips open the purple plastic cover, and I see the unadorned eyes and lips of eternity–of now and forever. I see the eyes of God, wide like a baby, and the lips of God, as full as Bob Marley’s, singing.

I fight to let God’s swaying body save me–to believe in mercy and compassion in this broken, greedy, hungry world. To use my breath for good, and welcome my demise with grace. I rock in the old blue chair, sun warming my bones, while God, as audacious and angular as ever, dips and weaves as he hammers out the beat on the steelpan drums.

Inviting Abuse

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God and I were philosophizing as we watched the snow pile up. I was wound up—as in downright nasty. “The thing about power is that it brings out the worst in everyone. Like when people weaker than I am mess up and instead of owning up and apologizing, they lash out, make excuses, lie, threaten, and offend. What is wrong with them? Don’t they know they are squishable little bugs?” God raised an eyebrow, but it didn’t phase me. I ranted on. “It’s like they’re baiting me, inviting abuse.”

God frowned and held up her hand. “Whoa there cowgirl, let’s slow down a minute. Of course it’s an invitation. But not for abuse. It’s a screamingly clear invitation for compassion. You hold the cards. I think you know that.”

I glared. The way I saw it, if anyone should be screaming, it should be me. “Yeah, fine, compassion,” I snarled. “But what about me? What about justice? It isn’t fair. People act as if I’m to blame for their bad decisions and bad luck. At least they could say they’re sorry. A lot of people deserve a good whack, they need to be served papers, they need a call from my attorney.”

“You don’t have an attorney,” God said patiently.

“Well, I could damn well get one,” I snapped.

“So could I,” God said.

Unthinkable implications flood the room. God with an attorney. I grabbed the fragments of power I thought were mine, wove them into a raft, and tried to row away. “I’m worthless,” I shouted. “Leave me alone.” I broke into a sweat as I pulled on the oars.

“Here, let me help,” God said, as she settled herself beside me on the leaky vessel. We rowed shoulder to shoulder, gliding over all the angst and blame in the world. I began to let down my guard, but then I realized that the escape route I’d chosen was circular. I panicked and hyperventilated. “We’ve gone in circles,” I yelled, humiliated and filled with dread.

God smiled. “Honey, all escape routes are circular. That’s how I laid things out. Check Google Earth sometime.” She kept rowing, maddeningly cheerful. So, I just gave up. We spent the day exploring the concentric wonderments of creation, the gravitational guidance of long-suffering servants, critical masses of insects and starlings, visions and dreams. By evening, I was completely spent. I laid my head in God’s lap and reached for her hand.

“What are you so afraid of?” God asked as she stroked my hair. I thought as hard as I could, given my exhaustion, the rocking motion of the settled sea, and the distracting brilliance of her deep black eyes. “I don’t know for sure,” I mumbled.

The last thing I heard was the gravely laughter of God playing a game of poker with a rowdy crowd of whiners. She had a royal flush. Her winnings covered a multitude of sins, imagined or otherwise. God pulled the soft flannel blanket of mortality up to my chin, and I drifted off to sleep in the orbit of a forgiving moon.

 

Sweet Darkness

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For the past two nights, I’ve woken in the unknowable blackness of far past midnight and wrestled with the biochemical truths of the human propensity for bleakness. Who knows why these useless awakenings occur? True, I might be a little more stressed than usual. For the holidays, I’d planned on spending more time hanging around in the spiritual ozone, letting God know my soul was open for business, but instead, I bought a condo. An old one. December is an excellent time to do real estate and pull up disgusting carpet, especially in the higher elevations of the northern hemisphere, where ice and snow add to the romance of trips across town.

“Smart ass,” God says, at my elbow. “Trying to write fancy is no substitute for confession or compassion. And it is certainly no excuse for jilting me.”

“You’re nuts,” I say back, kind of glad God has shown up, if only for an argument. “This isn’t fancy writing, I’m not avoiding confession or compassion, and you are impossible to jilt anyway.”

God waits, patient and large. I wait, less patient, asserting my own puny largeness as best I can. We sit; me, trying to recover from a bad night’s sleep; God, well, who knows what she’s up to? She wraps herself in shadow and begins growing darker and darker. For a while, I watch the disappearing act, detached and calm, even though I realize a black hole is opening up in my living room—the gravitational pull is bending the light into itself and I am dissipating into my imperfections. The only source of light comes from faces around me, lit up with hatred. They glow from the heat of fear, greed, and a steely will to survive at all costs.

“Hold them,” God says, as she offers me a set of icy black hands. “Be gentle,” she adds. I cradle the first vicious face in my beautiful hands, wishing someone could see how incredibly compassionate I was being. The face spits at me. Embers of spit melt holes in whatever it is I am. I hold on, but eventually, my substance goes up in flames. I gag from the smell of singed flesh and the oily residue of false pride.

“That worked out well,” I gasp, as God reconstitutes my being.

“As well as can be expected,” God says. “Would you like to rest?”

I nod and surrender–weak, grateful, and fully known. God shakes the sky free of stars and I crawl down into the sweet, healing darkness where the fires of fear have all gone out, the glare of hatred has no reflecting surface, and fetid wounds inflicted by too much artificial light will be disinfected and stitched shut. This is the place warriors become lovers, where the cool, black hands of God hold the flushed face of the universe until everything dies peacefully into itself.

In my dream, I am young again. Peter, Paul, and Mary are singing. And I want to believe them. We all want to believe them.

 

A Farewell to September

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September has begun picking at the clothing summer gave her, refusing to eat, and sighing a lot. There’s little doubt it’s about over. October is waiting in the wings, audacious, pregnant with color, unafraid of snow.

“What’s your favorite month?” I ask God. I say this just to get a little conversation going. I don’t actually care about God’s favorite month, and usually, I hate these kinds of questions.

But I ask because God seems distant today. God is in a very big mood. Bigger than sky or any of the planets in our solar system. Bigger than whatever is beyond what we can see. Big. You might think such a big God wouldn’t have time to contemplate her favorite month, but you’d be wrong. As God and I have gotten better acquainted, certain subtleties of her personality have surfaced. She can be stubborn and compulsively attentive to minutia. She likes chit chat. For someone who created the known and unknown universe, she can seem quite shallow and petulant, although she’s also the ultimate role model for apologies and forgiveness. There’s a steadiness I appreciate, even if some of her ways annoy or confuse me.

“I like them all,” she answered. Her voice was knowing. Patient. “But there’s something intriguing about December in Montana, don’t you think?”

I regretted asking. I could feel some kind of lesson coming on. “Depends on what you mean by intriguing,” I said. “I don’t like snow, or the holidays, or bare branches, or slick roads. If you mean the fight to survive is intriguing, then yeah, I guess.”

God didn’t answer directly. Instead, she blurred herself into the gray ash of a cremated body. The bruised purple of sunrise filtered through the translucent storm that was God. I watched wide-eyed and afraid as she rolled the months into a blanket with an impatient flourish. She grabbed my soul, wrapped me tight in the distorted jumble of seasons, and suddenly, we were on the shores of Hawaii. There, clad in bright strips of rags, she scrubbed out the differences on sharp volcanic rocks, welcoming waves of salt water with the wrinkled solemnity of the ancient ones. Gradually, all beautiful, all dangerous, all vital distinctions gave way and floated out to sea.

“There you go,” she said. “An occasional hurricane, but otherwise, totally placid. Bland. Uniform. Predictable. Safe. Are you happy now?”

I hung my head and said, “No. Not really.”

And then I was alone. September doesn’t need me anymore but I know the perils of October all too well. Before the ground freezes, I will transplant rhubarb and stack the split and fragrant wood high against the coming winter. I’ll warm myself in the crackling circle of fire, and with the few words I have left, I’ll resurrect the seasons, even those that will eventually do me in.