Who’s to Say What Starlight Might Do to the Skin?

Yesterday, I was looking for something in one of our outbuildings but within seconds, I’d forgotten what I was looking for. Our sheds reverberate with such potential that I can’t go in and come back out the same person. Touching the chaos causes a quickening; stacks of windows become greenhouse walls; slightly-damaged doors open to somewhere nice; a child pounds joyously on the drum set; strewn with straw, the stall in the corner protects a menagerie awaiting the ark; futons offer rest (or shelving); saw blades are sharpened; the woodstove is hooked up so I can cook in an emergency; empty frames and canvases are masterpieces hung in a gallery where antiques are tastefully displayed, and the scraps of angular metal have been welded into wings.

Our buildings are all named: Yoga Studio, Bug Barn, Playhouse, Solar Shed, Old Garage, Eva House, Lean-to, River Cabin, and of course, the decrepit and dangerous Contemplation Corner. The names reflect aspirations, not content. The structures are salvage yards and sanctuaries filled with failures awaiting transformation.

“God,” I said. “Proportionally, I bet I have as much broken and discarded stuff as you do.”

“Well, hello there, Junior,” God drawled. He’d materialized beside a flat-tired trailer, chewing a blade of grass with studied nonchalance. His thumbs were hooked on the pockets of dirty overalls. “That’s not exactly what I’d call news.”

“Could you get any more stereotypic?” I asked. God shrugged and faded. I squinted into the neon orange sunset and began walking home.

I am chronically derailed by the allure of what could be, and I blame God for this. It takes resources and patience to repurpose the wrongheaded or rejected. There are days I long for everything to burn to the ground; for fire to devour the bulging collections of oddities and unlikely visions; for extreme heat to purify my remaining days.

“Tidiness does not ensure wisdom,” God said, in the voice of a patient teacher. She was resting in a rainbow-colored hammock hung between two thorny crabapple trees. “I found this hammock under a pile of flat soccer balls,” she added. “I like it.” She was wearing a sundress from the ragbag and had tipped one of my straw hats over her face.

“It’s getting dark,” I said to the spectacle that was God. “You may not need that hat.”

 “Maybe,” she agreed, throwing one unprotected, delicate arm over her head. “But who’s to say what starlight might do to the skin?”  I knew she was making fun of me.

“You’re right,” I said, offering her a sweater. “Who’s to say what starlight might do to the skin?”

Transparencies

There are days when dinosaurs, cockroaches, and head lice provide me with a certain comfort. The deliberate ignorances and cruel choices of our species are hardly inspiring, but when I consider the magnificence of survival and the wonders of extinction over the inconceivable span of years these creatures represent, I relax. We can all relax.

Consider the lesson of the glass winged butterfly (Greta Oto). Freed of human tunnel vision, we can ride the tails of invisibility and let our perspectives shrink and swell. Trippy. Who needs externally induced altered states when you can consider the history of our planet and become completely disoriented, bodily displaced? As one researcher noted, being transparent makes for great camouflage. There’s no point in hiding cumbersome errors, glaring false starts, or neon selfish longings. Why not own up to our foibles, strip down to essence, and have a good laugh at ourselves as we give up or start over? In a cosmic, tragic sort of way, we are hilarious. This may be the sole reason humans have consciousness; we can laugh. God likes to laugh.

Or maybe, it’s terror. We inflict terror on each other, and when we do, we often reach out of our bodies to see if anyone is there to help. We come apart so easily because we’re afraid of being nothing, but here’s the funny part: We are everything; the thorn and the rose.

Across the meadow, the Artist is painting roses with blood—your blood, the neighbor’s blood, God’s blood, the soldier’s blood.

“Please,” I whisper to the Artist. “No more roses.”

The Artist pauses, hands me a brush, and with a smile that brings tears to my eyes, says, “Paint what you will.”

“No, I’m not that kind of artist,” I protest, holding the dripping brush away from myself. But I see that the blood is holy, and I relent. I paint myself red. I paint the Artist red. It occurs to me we are the embodied Scarlet Letter, marked as shameful, marked as chosen, marked as doomed, marked as loved.

These absurd contradictions make God laugh. I laugh. The Artist laughs. The dinosaurs laugh. Lice and lichen, seconds and centuries, grief and gladness, daylight and starlight, the endless longing for justice, mercy, and release. In my humbled alteredness, I understand there is no greater love than to lay down your life for a friend and sadly, there’s no greater delusion than to think you can preserve your life or anything you love anyway.

“Well said,” the Artist comments gently, combing through my hair with a fine-toothed comb, checking for lice. “I have nothing to add.” I know that’s not exactly true, but I let it go for now.

Lies

Sometimes, like right now, mocking, sarcastic words get in my head, and I write them down and imagine going viral. But then I hit delete hoping to be left wordless and alone. Words are the vehicle of vanity, triviality, and lies. There has to be something true beyond words.

In daydreams, I stare steadily into the eyes of the current Russian dictator, our own recent dictator-in-waiting, Brazil’s and Britain’s buffoons; I imagine having the depth of soul to crack their stony defenses and open some tiny pocket of humanity and compassion inside them. Their grotesque, malignant egos melt away and flocks of bluebirds and goldfinches are freed from within, winging their way to freedom. Cue: Julie Andrews singing “The Hills are Alive…”

O.K., I’ll admit it. What I actually imagine is vultures pecking their eyes out while I hold them frozen in place with a magic spell. Then I smash their skulls on rocks. I… There’s a disturbance to my left. I hold up my hand. “Not now,” I say, turning to God, who always stops by midsentence. “I’m on a confessional roll.”

“You certainly are,” God says, as she multiplies and divides. She’s heavy with child. With children. She’s heavy with hope and courage. She’s heavy with bombs. She’s swallowed the detonators; the bombs will explode, and today, like every single day on this blessed earth, she will die a hundred thousand deaths. And in this fragmented, impossible way, God, too, will go viral.

“Come with me,” God says. I back up, shaking my head.

“Where?” I ask. “Nirvana? The life I deserve next? The cross? The front lines? The back alleys?  The grave?”

“Yes,” God says. “Come.”

I take a reluctant step. Then another. It’s rocky terrain. I stumble. I get up and examine my scrapes and bruises. I hurry toward the fleeting purple robe in my pointy shoes. The bridge across the icy stream has been destroyed. I try to leap across, but I slip and fall in. I think I’ve sprained my ankle. I’m wet, cold, hungry, disabled, lost, afraid, and angry. I’m a refugee, hunted prey, weakened by age and a soft life. “Stop!” I shout at God. “You’ve made your point.”

“I did?” God asks, in disbelief. “I wasn’t aware I had a point.”

“Not funny,” I say, rubbing my frozen hands together.

“Agreed,” God says. “Not funny.”

Pick-up Truck

At the present moment, I readily admit I’d rather spend my time shopping online for a reliable used pick-up than hang out with God. Existentially, I know I’m not alone in this preference.

To be clear, I don’t mean just any pick-up. I want a humble, road-worthy little pick-up that will take me anywhere I want to go. Sadly, these are rare. In our current culture, driving a small, fuel-efficient pick-up has become a direct threat to one’s sense of superiority, a signal of submission to bigger trucks, a failure to flaunt one’s flagrant, entitled use of all things petroleum.

And I don’t mean I’m avoiding just any God. If I could find a God who would answer my prayers for a dependable rig, that would be one thing. But the God who shows up most of the time rides shotgun without regard for vehicular prestige or utility. Of course, there are times I like driving around with a good shotgun-riding God. But other times, I want a God who will take the wheel and get me what I want right now. And I want it sanctified, guilt-free, and easy; a blessing from a God who bestows blessings on those who deserve them. Like me.

If I had a little pick-up, I could buy big things and haul them around. I could load up furniture I no longer like and get rid of it. I could throw a sleeping bag in the back, drive anywhere I fancied, and take care of myself. I could escape into thingness, dislocation, and the illusion of having the right-of-way. I even imagine finding an offramp that turns me and my pickup around to give us another run at life.

If I had a God who would agree to be my Security Detail, my Bouncer, my Getter and Doer—a God I could prop in the corner to scare away the heathens and inferiors, wouldn’t that be nice? If I think of it that way, I could be God’s God.

“I don’t need a God,” God informs me in a gruff voice intended to disguise amusement. I’m neither startled nor dismayed. I grin sheepishly, my mind caught in the cookie jar of fantasized omnipotence.

“Uh, hi God,” I say. “Good thing you dropped by. It was getting a little crazy in here.”

“No worries,” God says. “There’s a pandemic of crazy going on. How about we quarantine together? I’ve got a couple of ventilators if we need them.”

“Sounds good,” I say. “I’ve got reams of bamboo toilet paper.”  Shotgun God slaps his thigh. Bouncer God lets people in. Cardboard God starts a fire, and I stir the cauldron of soup and feed the sourdough starter some nice, fresh flour.

The Meek

“Here’s the question,” I said to God. “Why would the meek even want to inherit the earth? After the unmeek are finished pillaging, what’ll be left anyway?”

Three distinct snow devils twirled by, and then a vicious wind blew the remnants of the last storm across the garden, blurring my view. The weather patterns have begun to express earth’s outrage at its tormentors. The meek stand at the far end of the long arc of justice and there’s no pot of gold awaiting. Only diminishment and misery.

“Interesting question,” God said. “Could I get a couple of scrambled eggs? The brown, free-range ones, if you please.”

“Why?” I asked. “What’s the point? You’re not hungry.”

God shrugged and made his own eggs.

And here’s another interesting question,” I said with some irritation. “Why is nature so exquisite? Elephants. Apple trees. Caterpillars. Orchids. Translucent baby mice, huddled in their circle of pink, bones so tiny they could be eyelashes. Wild skies. Bengal tigers. Wheat fields before harvest. Fire. Ice.” I paused, caught up in the complexity and splendor of it all. Then added, “and why are humans so destructive?”

God ate his eggs, nodding and smacking his lips. “These eggs were fertilized,” he said. “Circle of life and all that. Tasty. But this toast is questionable. I think your flour has gone bad, and I think I’d like some ice cream.”

I sighed. The wind had died down. The air was clean, my vision unimpeded, my flour rancid, my questions mostly unanswered, and for some inexplicable reason, my soul was at peace. A cold snap was rolling in, but we had enough wood. I vowed to have more faith next time and buy less flour. But I bake a lot of bread.

“Survival is a complicated, temporary equation, isn’t it?” I asked God as he zipped his down coat, wrapped his neck with a wool scarf, and pulled his rabbit fur hat down tight. I didn’t expect him to answer, but he did.

“Yes and no,” he said. “On one side are the essentials: Compassion. Humility. Sacrifice. On the other, well, you figure that out.” He took a long lick of what appeared to be licorice ice cream and added, “It may involve delight.” Then he slipped out the door to the west where joyous and majestic mountains rose to greet him. There were snowshoes strapped to his back.

The Harder Truths

“God,” I lamented. “It’s seriously cold and I’m sad.”  My old friend had died in the night, brave and private in his decline. I rubbed my hands together, trying to warm them. God watched me, face impassive. I continued. “You know I hate being cold.” I was feeling sorry for myself. Too many losses. Too much grief. Deep freeze cold makes me insecure, achy, and painfully aware of mortality.

God didn’t seem inclined to do anything useful, so I got a blanket. She watched as I draped it over my chest and wrapped my feet. Then she said, “Most of you secretly want your mommies when you’re cold, hungry, frightened, or sad, don’t you?”

This seemed less than kind. I glared. Said nothing. God went on. “But not your real mommy. You want an imaginary celestial being who understands how hard things are. Someone to fawn over you, feed you, assure you of your incredible worth, make false promises, and tuck you in, safe and sound, every night.”

I wasn’t enjoying these revelations, and the blanket wasn’t helping much. I shivered and looked away. God continued. “Oh, I know you sometimes arrange to be tucked in by surrogates, but even if they give you warm milk, dim the lights, or stay and snuggle, they aren’t what you long for. They can’t save you from yourself.”

Why on earth was God saying such things? I’m not all that demanding. I don’t think I long to be taken care of—at least not all the time. Is a blanket too much to ask? Overall, I’m relatively independent, nearly a prepper, minus the guns. I have two outhouses, a pantry, solar panels, wood stove, tons of rice, and an attitude.

God sat big in the middle of my brain. I sat uneasy in the presence of this God, apparently determined to say things I didn’t want to hear.

“Being grown-up means you put yourself to bed at night.” God said, as if ending a sermon or an inspirational talk.

I was not inspired. “No,” I wailed. “You’re wrong. You’re there. I know you are. And there are others. The ancestors. The nymphs and gnomes, the weak and strong. My beloved. My children and the children in such despair. Such need. They all go to bed with me. And we sleep. And we wake up. And we hope. And we believe as best we can.” I made these shaky declarations between ragged breaths, my hands fisted, ready to slug it out.

God took the fists and blew warm breath on them as they unclenched. I looked up and saw that God was crying, too. We flung our arms around each other and let the tears drip into the vast and rising darkness where the souls of the dearly departed wait to tuck us in with a strange and certain warmth.

Holiday Lights

Recently, my friend brushed so close to death that her skin became luminescent, and the fingers on her left hand grew longer and more graceful. I noticed this when she lifted that hand to show me how she’d surrendered. I suspect she was either bidding the others in the room farewell or she was offering her hand and the rest of herself to the Larger. She doesn’t know. But at that moment, a Boundless Tangibility of Peace overcame the reluctance in her lungs, and she lived. It was that close. I like looking at her. She’s always had an easy laugh and a generous ear, but now she glows.

Three years ago, I decorated random pieces of yard art with solar-powered holiday lights, and they’ve flickered ever since, faithfully announcing the arrival of a thousand nightfalls. Of course, I know that eventually the lights will go out and my friend will stop glowing, but the pressing question is this: What are we supposed to do in the meantime? How should we greet each sunrise when we find ourselves alive? How do we handle the twinkling blue as daylight fades? My friend isn’t sure. Neither am I. We think it has something to do with acceptance. Authenticity. Doing our best.

But who knows? My Co-author does, but it’s tough to get a straight answer.

“Now honey-pie, y’know that ain’t true.” God has shown up. He protests in an awful imitation of a Southern drawl. “Y’all make this a bigger puzzle than it needs to be. I’ve been damn straight on this since forever. Love, give, and rejoice until you cannot do it anymore. Then fold.”

“You make it sound easy, but it’s not,” I say, feeling both insolent and amused.

“Want me to spell it out, darlin’?” God asks, long arms crossed over galactic chest, looking impish.

“Yeah,” I say. “Spell it out.”

“Love.” God says as if he’s in a spelling bee. “L. O. V. E.”

“Very funny,” I say.

“Then laugh,” God says. “Laugh your greedy, frightened, malignant, time-limited ass off.”

“I don’t mean funny like that,” I counter. “I mean you aren’t much help. I can spell ‘love’ all by myself.”

“Oh, really?” God asks and waits.

“Really,” I say firmly. But I’m lying. I’ll be asking for help within minutes. With apologies to Robert Frost, I’m often a lost child in the confusing woods when it comes to love.

“Now, ain’t that the Truth?” The Boundless Tangibility of Peace says to the Larger.

“For certain,” The Larger says. “Them woods is lovely, dark, and deep. But they ain’t no place for a chubby-cheeked babe.”

This cracks us up and we laugh our fool heads off. Yes, God is Love, the Big Breast in the Sky, the Larger, the Smaller, the Woods, the Clay, the Life, the Death. And yes, God is the Way Home. But until then, there’s work to do, and we all know how it’s spelled.

Thanksgiving

            “Sometimes, your species is hard for me,” God said, looking a little haggard.

            “I know,” I nodded. “I don’t like people that well either. But it’s hard to write them off entirely.”

            “Yeah,” God agreed. “I often wonder what makes me hang in there.” She paused. I waited. “It might be the gratitude,” she said finally. “Humans are capable of saying thanks in a way that warms my heart. Nothing quite like it.”

            “Gratitude?” I asked. “You like that better than when they apologize?”

            God chuckled. Her corporealness was starting to fray. “Are you a worthy representative of all humanity?” she asked in an impish voice, a luminescent grin taking over what was left of her face.

            “No.” I shook my head emphatically. This was a trick question.

            The grin expanded. “Oh, no worries. You’ll do. Tell me how you feel when you’ve messed up and need to say you’re sorry.”

            I grimace. Confession of sins? Facing faults and shortcomings? Asking forgiveness? Not easy. Not fun.  

            “You already know this,” I said, giving God a look. “I hate failing and being wrong. I do not like needing to apologize.” I looked down at my hands and stopped talking, but in my mind, I went further. It’s complicated. I have my pride. Once in a while, I get stubborn and lie to myself or other people. And I blame others and feel sorry for myself…but I didn’t want to mention that to God.

            The eyes of God looked upon my soul. “My point, exactly,” she said. “People often make the same mistakes and sometimes, show up again, woeful and defeated. Or they get defensive and act like they’re not wrong after all. I accept apologies all day long, but I don’t enjoy the process, and I don’t think people do either.”

            God looked at her own hands, cracked a thousand arthritic knuckles, and stood into the stratosphere of herself. She wrapped the cloak of unknowability around her shoulders and set the sky on fire. “So, that’s why I like gratitude better than penance,” she concluded.

            “But how do you know it’s sincere?” I asked, but there would be no answer. The room, the land, the cities, the earth—everything had become one big party.

            God was center stage, doing an Irish jig. Darlings and demons cavorted across galactic dance floors, and all creation clapped and stomped, keeping the intricate beat alive. “Gratitude’s an attitude. Fake it ‘til you make it,” they sang. I couldn’t see who was playing the frenetic fiddle, but I did not want to join this ridiculous reverie. I needed some space, and God knew it. The scene receded and God’s merciful arms surrounded me. Only me.

            “Go in peace,” she said, dismissing me to my quiet place.

            “Thank you,” I whispered.

            “You’re welcome,” God said. We both meant it.

High Wind Warning

As dawn arrived, the wind picked up and all manner of things wired or weighted down began banging and clanging in protest, especially the artistic frying pan hanging next to the rusty tire chains. Everything not secured took flight. It was the last I saw of the brown tarp, the ordinary clothes I’d hung to dry, and the light pink clouds that make mornings easier. I ran outside and grabbed at vague shapes flying by, but it was futile. I looked up. The tempest had peeled the sky raw, and the gaping blue of infinity was in sharp relief. I wasn’t ready for the existential vertigo that washed over me. My lack of innocence was frightening.

“God!” I yelled from the middle of nowhere. “I could use some help here!” The voracious wind emptied my lungs and flung my words down the valley. I took cover in the low-slung fort I’d built as a child, amazed it was still there. On hands and knees, I inched deep into the soft, undisturbed darkness and found a place to hide.

This is where a Godness discovered me, hours later. I was thirsty and ready to surrender. The Godness began to sing against the merciless gusts in a tone lower than sound. Gradually, the wind died down, and we emerged to survey the damage. Fallen trees, stripped branches, shed antlers, lost feathers, disturbed water, dashed dreams—a landscape bereft of permanence. Neither God nor the earth engage in murderous self-defense. I could see why the promise of heaven makes so little sense. It’s only the promise of hell that matters.

I tried to whisper the names of God etched in the grounded patterns of dust and ash, but my lips were gone. Holy breath, warm and moist on my neck, made me long for my mother, or a simpler God, or something easier than gale-force wind. Gently, the Godness wrapped me in fragmented light and told me I would always be beautiful. I shook my head and blushed the blood red color of my favorite hollyhock.

Hollyhocks are biennials. The seeds from the parent plants sprout and gather force the first year and bloom madly the next. They can last for generations without any human assistance. The hope they inspire seems delicate. But it’s not.

The Long Gray Bird

The long gray bird is back with her disconnected head and graceful wing. She defines space that would otherwise be undefined, and she does so without much deliberation. She could have easily been compost or firewood which would have been fine. But for now, she’s an expression of God and grace, small nails, and a blank wall.

Last night on the news, I saw a soldier in combat fatigues: helmet, rifle, boots. He was sitting vacant-faced on the steps of a bombed-out building, the dark child beside him barely clad. Neither of them will ever find their way to my easy world. In fact, they may not even make it home.

I sleep, and in my dream, I welcome them. They are God. To the Soldier I say, “God, darling. You are beautiful and deadly. I wish you were obsolete.” To the Child I say, “Get up and run. It’s not safe here.” The Soldier looks me in the eye and hands me his rifle. “You cannot define the space around me,” he says. “I have to do that myself.” He lifts the Child into his arms with a certain finality and cushions her head safe against his chest.

I don’t know where they’re going or if they’ll return. I wave and try my best to smile, but the departure leaves me bereft, without purpose or direction.

“God,” I whisper, awake and facing morning, “You know I’d like to extend my reach; do things that make me feel important and complete. I’d like to turn the tide of hate into an ocean of love. I’d like to make the fear go away.”

The God of early morning is often soft, responsive to my naïve and narcissistic longings. She is patient. Unafraid. She knows that in any given moment, I could pull her off the wall, snap her neck, and put her in the woodstove, thus ending the torment of hope. She laughs like smoke. She is the residue of a well-lived life, the stubble in the field. She is sapling and ash, beginning and end, warrior and rose.

“I know,” the God of early morning whispers back. I hear the murmur of wings as the gray bird takes flight. “I am of your doing, and you of mine.” I nod, and again I wave and smile. But this time, no grief. I’m at peace with the leavings. Joyful, even. There is little doubt that in my next dream, I will learn to fly.