When I was a child

Sandstone

When I was a child, I wandered the hills seeking treasure, searching for diamonds– settling for flint or jasper. I also saved sick and abandoned animals or stood watch as life ebbed away and their eyes dulled into death. The funerals were elaborate, with grass-lined cardboard coffins and all sorts of prayers offered up. Magpies, sparrows, kittens, and lambs. I knew God then as a kindly grandfather who, like me, stood watch from the clouds that rested on the shoulders of the nearby foothills. His hills. His feet. His world.

But now, God and I have a more complicated relationship. The magnitude of the cosmos has impressed itself on me, and the minuscule mass of quivering molecules cloaked in my skin are slowing down. People are dying in fires and floods. Children are mangled and hungry. When they wander, they’re not looking for pretty rocks. They’re looking for food.

I raise my fist in God’s face, as if there is a God, as if there is a way. And God flinches. She is traumatized, bleeding, bruised…and regal. She is hungry, angry, scorched, and stubbornly vital. “You can’t scare me,” she says, after regaining her composure. “You can’t scare me.”

But in my heart, I know I can. And I’m sorry. I am so, so, sorry. God, I am so sorry. Universe, I am so sorry.

God puts her knife down. I throw my arms around her. The pettiness of my worries shames me. I promise to do better. To make donations. To live simply. To march. To express my indignation. I will reduce the number of hours I spend hating. Hating. Hating. But I can’t actually do this. I am weak. I have to ask for help.

“Um, God,” I begin. “I have a compost bucket for a heart.”

“I know,” she says. “Compost is good. It breaks down. Rest. Stay warm. Try to love people a little better.”

“I already do that,” I say, disappointed. I was looking for diamonds, not the common stuff of existence.

“Flint and jasper, petrified wood. Quartz, granite, even coal,” God says, and then adds, in a knowing voice, “Sandstone.”

And miraculously, I see it. Sandstone. With lichen growing, just the right colors of orange and green. Yellow and gold. So fragile. So irregular in its jagged perfection. So contrite. Diamonds are cold and hard, slicing deep wounds in the open hand of God. Sandstone yields and crumbles. I am sandstone, soon to become a granular part of this sweet and tiny earth. With help from my broken friend, I can choose the lower places. It makes me a little nervous, but if God can flinch and recover, so can I.

Facial Hair

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God struggles with facial hair just like the rest of us. What does it mean if you don’t pluck your chin hairs? What about those Duck Dynasty-esq beards? What’s the message? And what about a little planet that fails to groom itself? Yes, it appears that earth groomed itself just fine before humans started asserting their appetites, but like it or not, we’ve clumsily joined the ecosystem and the globe now has a steady diet of bad hair days.

One thing I know about the face of God is that the bone structure is birdlike and fragile. It responds to the slightest breeze. And the eyes of God are often fringed with thick, curly lashes. When God blinks, entire galaxies lift and fly through the dark nothingness. On the face of God, unwanted, unmanaged facial hair presents a kind of danger the rest of us can only imagine. It disguises and insulates. It allows us to pretend we don’t know the truth.

This morning, an unshaven God has squeezed himself into one of our sage-colored easy chairs and is rubbing his bristly face, watching me type. “How about you clean this place up a little today?” God asks.

My fingers slow on the keyboard. “What’s the point?” I snap. I meant to sound belligerent, so the grief that wells up surprises me. I look down at my Ninja Turtle pajama bottoms. They’re too big, but I like them. I may wear them all day. My eyes roam around the room because I don’t want to look at God. A day has arrived and it will be spent and gone no matter what I do. The mundane and the horrific. Kindness and cruelty. Hunger and gluttony. Where to begin? Where to end?

Dust dances in the muscular sun streaming in my passive solar windows. God’s voice has the gravelly sound of a man holding back tears. “I know. I often feel the same way. I think it was a good idea to invent time, but sometimes, I’m not so sure. ”

In the distance, the wind is snapping the fabric of an American flag I attached to a fencepost near the highway. I took my signs down yesterday, but the flag stays. The redundancies of human existence often fool me into forgetting linearity. But linearity robs me of the moment. Another weary dialectic to grapple with. I glance at God’s face. His beard seems to have grown a half-inch since I last looked. His eyes are burning orbs, seething with something beyond hope. His fingers drum impatiently on his legs.

“I think I’ll go shave,” he says.

“Okay,” I say. “I guess I’ll get dressed.”

 

Too Old For Anything but the Truth

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I am now officially too old to pledge allegiance to anything but the truth, so every morning I get up hoping to encounter something true. If God is awake, this usually causes him to clear his throat while the sun removes the frost from the windows. Perfect frost. Perfect sun.

I try not to look directly at God because I’m afraid he’ll spoil the moment. If I hold perfectly still, perfect moments roll around in the room, clear blue marbles, resembling the way the earth looks from the heavens. They balance on the surface of reality like uncried tears. In a terrible, frail, temporary way, all things are good, and perfect. In their beingness, all things are true. This is something God agreed with at least once, so I’m wondering…

“Yes,” God says. “I still agree.”

I pour God a cup of coffee, not noticing the dead fly in the bottom of the cup. God adds cream and sees the body floating on the surface. There’s been a serious invasion of spiders and houseflies as the weather turns. Most of them come in and die. Ordinarily, I avoid vacuuming, but they’re piling up, so I’ll have to clean again. None of this feels perfect. The day takes on a familiar tedium.

God skims the fly off the top of his coffee and takes a sip.

“Gross!” I say. “I can get you another cup.”

“I know,” God says. “But don’t bother. What’s a dead fly here and there?”

I admire this crude nonchalance. In the Arctic, it’s impossible to drink a bowl of warm soup before a layer of mosquitoes dive-bomb and die on the surface. You sip dead mosquitoes gladly. A far worse threat looms on the frozen horizon.

God is watching me as he sips the steaming coffee, bushy eyebrows tipped inward in a kindly look. The frost has melted. Intense October light takes over, casting sharp shadows, promising magic.

The smell of dark honey on my leftover toast breaks my heart. I know have no choice. No real choice but to accept the ethereal truths that plague and frighten me. That exhaust and break me down. All I have is a blurry vision of this clear blue moment on this clear blue planet, and though I’d rather achieve a more known perfection, I have to vacuum flies and change the sheets. I’m expecting important guests.

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.

A Message From Stone

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By arranging them just so, I can make rocks look like flowers from a distance. Or with a dab of acrylic paint, I can make them look like fish, fruit, or people. So many stunning rocks have come to me and told me their tumbling cracking coalescing stories. They’re always broken, but some have been reformed and smoothed. I don’t know if they long to reconnect to whatever lies beneath us. I don’t ask because I don’t want to answer that question myself. Rocks always look sure of themselves as they make their geologic journey back and forth from dirt. The lichen, wind, rain, and fire—these elemental forces usher them along—but I’m not so sure of myself and I don’t want these escorts.

Rocks are the bones of God, the repository of vital minerals and fleeting ideas. You’d think they’d be more permanent, but then God isn’t permanent. God just is. “Why?’ I ask God, as I curl my body around a very large river boulder “Why?” I ask again, touching the sharp edge of a crystal. “Why?” I ask a third time, a clear blue sapphire in the palm of my hand.

“Three questions, no answers,” God observes with an easy smile. God is an excellent listener. Less good with answers.

“Wow, you can count,” I say, glaring. I’ve been generally unhappy with God lately. “Did you see that news piece on Russia? The Orthodox believers think Putin is from God. This makes me sick.”

God nods, smiles, and says, “Me too. But you don’t have to go all the way to Russia to get a taste of that malarkey.”

There’s a pause. God repeats the word malarkey and starts laughing. I feel awkward, but then the willows start laughing, the evergreens start laughing, the mountains hold their bellies, gasping for air, but the air is laughing too. The absurdity of our teeny tiny human projections, distorted by fear, fueled by hatred, financed by greed—puny, grasping, hateful people called holy. Worshipped as if they can save us. The laughter is contagious. We are literally cracking up, coming apart, falling into the deep, soaring into the heavens. For this moment, I’m not angry. Not afraid. Not sad. I just am. I see my fractured image reflected in the lake of forever.

This is what I know: If you want to hear the voice of the Creator, fit your ear against a smooth stone. If you want to taste the goodness of the Universe, take a tiny pinch of soil and touch it to your tongue. And if you want to glimpse eternity, find some malarkey and laugh until you cry. Let your salty tears roll down and splash into the tide-torn heart of the surging, pulsing, laughing God.

Seven Onions

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Today, I harvested the last seven onions, but the beets and carrots can wait in the dark autumn dirt a while. Frost only makes them sweeter. There’s a chill in the air. I wore my mother’s jacket. She died three days ago, against her will, but in the end, peaceful. That damn body betrayed her–the one she’d shoved into high gear every morning until it gave out. As I signed the papers, I knew she wanted that body burned to ash and flung into the wind–the same wind she knew as well as she knew the neighbors over the years–but I cried anyway.

I am in mourning. God has flitted in and out, respectful but adamant as I rail against her awful ways of doing things. The ways of God. The ways of God. What does that mean?

God is trying to be a soft barrier between me and despair. I prefer despair. God strokes my hair the same way I stroked Mom’s as she lay unconscious, her spirit moving slowly up the other side of the ravine between life and death. I push God’s hand away, angry and ashamed.

“Don’t do that,” I say.

“Okay,” God says. She tears up with me. “I loved her too, you know.”

I nod, reluctant. “I know. But you have a strange way of showing it.”

God nods. “The birds have started migrating,” she says. “I suspect another brutal winter is on the way.” I frown. The unstable shelter of the seasons is little comfort.

I look into the craggy face, the sad eyes, and realize that for God, this might be the hundred-millionth brutal winter. For God, everyone is dying, their bodies transforming, their warm, frightened souls flowing to where they will be known and welcomed. I want to know how. I want to know why. But God’s face is etched with a kind of wisdom I’m not ready for. I look away. Instead, I look to the hills. They are my oldest friends. I trust them. “Take care of her,” I tell them. “Make sure she finds her way.”

Wink

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In the lecture hall, down near the podium, I spotted God floating among the performers. I waved, and God winked–a massive slow wink that dimmed the lights and blew my head open. Time slowed to the pace of a heartbeat and then circled like the dancers, like the globe, like the unfamiliar sun. The Maori and Lakota, the Bashada, Samurai, Brahmins, Untouchables, Princes and Queens. Unsung women and disproportionate men.

After so much travel, so many miles, I was feeling alien. Insignificant.  But the wink changed all that. I fell into the inner vision of first home, the fiery cosmos, the place where the Creator serves breakfast and wipes his hands on a dirty apron, happy to watch us eat. The place where the tables are long and the memories longer. The place where we remember that once, we were protons and neutrons, innocent waifs, glowing translucent blue and delicate ivory. We weren’t afraid, cradled in such a vast vision; there was no reason, no excuse, no boundary. Just the womb of God, waves breaking, white noise.

And even now, billions of years later, we’re sand on the shore, dust underfoot, waiting for the wind to lift us. We’re so small we can hardly even see ourselves, hard at work, stubborn and vicious, achieving little—unaware that we are irritants on the perfect surface of God’s gaze.

“Not exactly,” God interjected. “Not irritants. Just reasons to wink. So many reasons to wink.”

“I know,” I admitted. “I said that because I irritate myself. And these people irritate me to no end.”

“Jet lag?” God asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “And pavement and single-paned windows. Traffic and tariffs and men who’ve forgotten who they are.”

“I’m sure you’d be happy to remind them, heh?” God sounded Canadian. He elbowed me in the side.

“You bet I would,” I said, arms crossed, starting to see the humor. “And I’m sure that’d be well-received, don’t you think? Most men love instruction from feisty old white women.”

God and I had a good laugh, though I admit I had the thought, “But who are they going to listen to?” As far as I know, God ignored this mental query. He gradually rejoined the warriors dancing in the inferno, weapons ready, drums beating, feathers rising like sparks.

So much, I don’t know. But this, I’ve recently discovered: At the edge of the lower world, the little brown birds will eat from your hand if you hold absolutely still and you offer something they recognize as food.

 

A Dog in the Fight

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God and I don’t usually get into theological discussions, but recent claims on Facebook—that we shouldn’t worry because GOD IS IN CONTROL—forced me to bring this up. “Are humans autonomous?” I asked God.

“Yes,” God answered, looking a little wary. “It’s a package deal. Comes with consciousness.”

“So when people say ‘You, Oh Most Amazing, Most Loving, Most Majestic Creator, YOU are in control’…”

God interrupted. “They’re wrong. You know I’m the biggest forgiver you could ever hope to meet, but I’m not a control freak. I made it possible for you to love each other and tend the earth responsibly. To save things and make things better. That’s my contribution.”

“So, um, you’re not going to do it for us? You’re not going to intervene? Even if we’re sinking like bags of rocks? Acting worse than pigs? Lying, torturing and starving each other?”

“Right. But you always have the option to save yourselves.”

“How?”

God looked impatient. Maybe even a little angry. “Haven’t I made this painfully clear?”

“You mean like, um, love our neighbors? Give our lives for our enemies? Share? Tell the truth? Ten Commandments. Golden Rule. All that?” I was stammering.

“Exactly. Do you watch the news at all? Do you think, even for a minute, I don’t LOVE the Rohingya? That I’m not starving with the 870 million who are hungry right now? Do you think it was ME who built nuclear bombs? You think I profit from gun sales? C’mon.”

I looked away. God ranted on. “You can’t be serious. Me, in control? What have you been smoking?”

I think God thought this was funny. I wasn’t laughing. God continued. “Okay, I’ll admit, I hold out hope that you’ll do my bidding, but I realize it’s damn hard to give all that you have to the poor, forgive everyone, stop building walls, stop amassing riches, stop hoarding weapons, and just hang out with me in the cloud of unknowing, unselfish, unbearable love.”

“But, God, aren’t you on my side?” I whined. This was my co-author, my sometimes gentle friend, cutting me no slack.

“No,” God said in a big voice. “No. No sides. Your football games? Your stunningly stupid, shortsighted selfishness? Your empire-building? Your big winners and dead losers? No. I have no dogs in your fights. No. NONE.”

God took a deep breath which led to a coughing fit due to the smoky air. I held still.

After some throat-clearing, God went on. “I do have one dog, though. She’s a rescue mutt. I call her Gracie. Look at those eyes.” God’s voice was playful and gruff. I looked. Huge brown eyes, liquid with love. Her fur was long and scruffy, her tail, wagging. God continued. “She’s not a fighter though. She’s a lover, aren’t you girl?” Gracie licked God’s hand. God leaned down and went nose to nose, soaking up some doggy kisses.

I waited. God’s head stayed down, but Gracie offered her paw, and we shook. She licked my hand. I threw a stick, she brought it back. I threw it again, she brought it back. One more time, she brought it back. And then they were gone and I was alone, but Gracie had left me a pile of sticks. Enough to last a lifetime.

New Shoes

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This morning, on the Stillwater, smoke from both the fires of Canada and the fires of hell invade my body and soul with every shallow in-breath, and I endure the artist at work–yesterday’s ashes glazing the face of granite into something too terrible to touch, too beautiful to behold.

Not long ago, I began to pack for yet another autumn transition. I picked the last of the purslane-choked green beans, pulled the onions, undid the hoses, and with sickening ambivalence, bought poison to deal with mice. Traps or poison? I’m not a rodent, but I’d rather be poisoned than trapped. If we had a decent God, we wouldn’t have to use our crude, projected empathy to make these wrenching decisions. Maybe we’d even feed the mice and marvel at the prodigious quantities of seashell pink offspring. Or maybe in the spirit of the grand circle of life, we’d learn to eat said offspring. A delicacy. Except for their tiny spasmodic appendages, curled baby mice do bear a remarkable resemblance to shrimp. Wait. That wouldn’t solve the problem.

Eat or be eaten. Poison or be poisoned. By and large, the weeds won this year. And now, forests are being blazed out of existence, flood waters gorge on land, and lives are lost. I sit in unearned comfort, grimly examining the karmic consequences of nonaction, trying to goad my flesh into movement, my mind into comprehension. It feels useless. Why bother? Such is my mood today.

Yesterday was a different story. I had new running shoes, and there’d been rain. And God, I know you don’t like it when I imply you’ve engaged in miracles for my sake, but it seemed you’d reduced the gravity along the highway where my stride was effortless and I bounded along like a deer, legs spring-loaded, heart lifted and extraordinarily light.

“It was the shoes,” God says.

“I don’t believe you,” I say.

And God laughs. I can barely see the big, sharp teeth through the haze, but I can hear the riotous sound of a happy God.

“No, really,” I say in my loudest voice. “I don’t believe you.”

“I know,” God says. “Next time, run in old shoes with rocks in your pocket.”

“Fine,” I say. “That’s just what I’ll do.”

“And what will you prove, darling?” God asks, suddenly all innocent and interested.

“Nothing,” I shout. “I’ll prove nothing. There’s nothing mortals can prove. You shift the odds, change the playing field, turn down the volume, distort the light. We’re mice in an endless maze. Where are you, God? That’s what I want to know. Where are you?”

“Sheesh, oh ye of little vision. Calm down. You cannot look anywhere I’m not. I’m the maze and the fire, the weeds and the water, the new shoes and the rocks. And by the way, you got a good deal on those Sauconys, but I liked the yellow Asics pretty well too.”

 

Alarm

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God isn’t usually an alarmist. But it’s not like things have been easy lately. We were jogging yesterday, or rather, I was jogging and God was flitting along, reminding me to hydrate. God doesn’t need to hydrate. I like to think God doesn’t need anything, but I know this isn’t true.

“You know I’m the First Author, don’t you?” God asked as we crested over a small rise in the road.

I nodded curtly. I don’t like to talk when I’m running. Oxygen is an issue.

God continued. “I’m wondering about how much to edit. You know your little world is in tough shape, right?” I snorted. I hate it when God sounds worried and states the obvious. It throws me off. I get panicky.

“I love this place,” God continued, sad and pensive. “I’m proud of the way it’s woven together. A fine and delicate piece of work. And I’m intrigued with the little nubbins of consciousness and compassion appearing in your species. I’ve waited a long time for that.”

God was ruining my run. I stepped into the borrow pit to let a large RV roar by, glared at God, and said, “Like you said, you’re First Author. Write a different story line.” I was panting. “If you like this place so much, save it. If you think we’re a cool species, speed up our evolution.”

God sat down on a pile of sandstone. I paused, running in place, trying to keep my heart rate up.

“I’m doing what I can,” she said. “But I’m stumped. My compassion is yours for the taking. I’ve published ads, made special two-for-one offers, pointed out the folly of greed…I’m not sure what keeps going wrong. Maybe I should have designed the reproductive systems differently. If three of you were required…Or maybe, if I ramped up what seems obvious…your mortality–the brief time you have here to make any difference. But that just seems to frighten you. And you don’t just resort to violence, you cultivate it.” God was mumbling and scratching her head, lost in thought. “…this is a species willing to kill each other for money or sport…willing to let children starve…ripping up their own little planet, poisoning it…” Her face was grim.

I considered sitting down beside God to try and be of help, but I needed to get home, and it was hot. I started moving again. To be honest, I ran as fast as I could manage. But one thing I know; God always catches up. One minute, you think you’ve left God in the dust. The next minute, you are the dust, and the earth is turning on an unfamiliar axis. It is then you realize the way forward is the way back, and those who are beloved lie utterly defenseless, waiting. Not moving at all.