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.

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.

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.”

 

Red Box

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God and I are meandering down the alley. I’m on foot. God’s doing a high-wire act to make me laugh. There are crows, evidence of squirrels, and things discarded littering our way. Among the riffraff I find the redeemable. I offer thanks for the empty gift box flashing fancy red from a garbage can, and driftwood, smooth as skin, and seven or eight green apples, all bruised from the fall. I commune with the broken, hoping to catch a direct glimpse of my constant, often invisible, sometimes putrid companion who hides among the worst of it. The ways of God aren’t always pretty, safe, or easy. But I’ve learned to never, ever sanitize God. It causes a crippling loss of the sensations that make us human.

Today, it appears God wants to be silly, but shoes hanging by their laces from electrical lines don’t do much for me. Everything seems stupid. “Hey Goofball,” I venture. “Could you stop clowning around? I don’t want to laugh right now.” Honesty usually works well with the Holy Goofball. She can make her hide thicker than a crocodile’s. But this time, her skin is thin and she’s reactive.

“What makes you think this is for you?” she asks, voice sharp and petulant. “It isn’t always about you.” I look around. Lilac bushes are wilting. Alley weeds transgress, ugly and aggressive. Dust and smoke swirl. And then I notice that a muttering woman with a Safeway shopping cart has turned toward us. Why’d she turn? It isn’t even a paved alley. But here she comes. Snarling. Incoherent. A small, vicious world pulled tight around her—she’s walled herself off from gentleness, reason, or even meaningful contact. She’s a one-winged bird, flapping low. The gravel impedes her progress, but even so, she’s steadily getting closer.

Unhinged people frighten me.

Of course, I know, you know, God is permanently, proudly, unhinged. An ever-present danger to my complacency. Ultimately, it’s always God pushing the shopping cart, arriving as requested. I often wonder why I ask. But this is irrelevant. The street lady comes for us all, requested or not.

She waits, scowling, while I meekly climb in. There’s room for my red box, the driftwood, and a few of the apples. I am adding to her burden, but I see no other option. This unflinching, castoff God shows me the way, holding a fractured mirror.

My real home is a borrowed wire cage, my shelter permeable, mostly imagined. I am wilting lilacs, aggressive weeds, swirling smoke and fine gray dust. I am the favored child of an unhinged God, waiting to see what will happen next.

Hide and Seek

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God and I were playing hide and seek in the pasture near the river where fallen cottonwoods and piles of brush add to the texture to the landscape. Here and there, boulders find a moment’s rest, nestled into tangled riparian roots. It’s remarkably green for August. God was having a lot more fun than I was, but that’s often the case.

“I see you,” God said. “You’re not even trying.” She looked bored.

I have a competitive streak. God knows this.

“Okay,” I said. “Keep your eyes closed longer.” I took a deep breath and let myself sink into my footprints, tugging them under with me as I disappeared. This is risky because without footprints you can no longer discern if you are coming or going, alive or dead. Not an easy place to hide. I could hear God counting.

“One thousand nineteen. One thousand twenty. Ready or not, here I come.” She sounded excited and happy. I shivered in the residue of nothingness. To distract myself, I imagined I was at a party, drinking free beer, making the mandatory small talk that confirms my membership in the community of those who still cast shadows when the sun is up. Then I told even the idea of my shadow to disappear.

Twigs snapped. Dry grasses crackled. The wind picked up, leaves rustled. I could feel the sunset gathering intensity. Violet and orange taunted my eyelids to spring open. A fledgling eagle screamed far overhead. Creatures from my worst dreams began to eat my limbs. God wasn’t playing fair, but this only made me more determined. I willed myself senseless, motionless, colder than absolute zero. I put my heart in dark water and pulled the last of the air out of my lungs. None of this was at all safe, but I was playing with a dangerous God. Playing for keeps. Playing to win.

“Hmmm,” I heard God mutter. “She’s getting the hang of this.”

A great longing took what was left of me and spread itself over the face of the earth, invisibly thin. I dissipated into the falling night, the soothing moon. It was over. I was gone.

“There you are, my little soldier,” God said, approvingly. “There you are. That was fun. Now it’s your turn. Count as high as you’d like.”