It’s What’s for Dinner

Yesterday, I borrowed my sister’s horse trailer to salvage some old lumber, but things did not go smoothly, and the trailer arrived home well after dark. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a problem, but it’s shipping season; she needed to haul calves bright and early today. We unloaded recycled boards with flashlights, and at dawn, I went back to use a magnet to search for rusty nails in the crusted manure. I didn’t want a distressed calf to end up with a nail in a hoof.

When I sit down with my co-author to await the alchemy that produces words, I’m often pulled toward thousands of unnecessary things to do, but picking up loose nails was necessary—an effort to avoid small suffering in the face of huge suffering. Even though it meant facing a cold morning, I’m glad I found and removed those nails.

But that was that. Now it’s time to write, and the familiar battle is on. Mind and body at war: Mind wants to settle and focus, but body gets up, stares at the baked goods, waters the spider plant, paws through the fridge for a corked half-beer, and meanders back outside to check the temperature and admire the sunrise. The bawling of distraught cattle is thick in the air.

I come back in and sit. A housefly buzzes the coffee table, executing dives and turns that I admire, even as I hate and detest the fly. I start to chew my thumb for inspiration, but the odor of cow poop stops me cold. I’d forgotten to wash my hands. At the kitchen sink, I find last night’s dishes, so I scrub a few of the pans. I grab a fly swatter on my way back. Of course, the fly disappears.

I sit again. My mind is calm. I am not moving. I accept the lowing of bereft cows and the frantic calls of their disoriented calves, destined to be fattened, slaughtered, and eaten. I live in this particular world. I accept my role in the brokenness.

When the followers of Chuang Tzu asked him how he’d like his body disposed of, he replied it mattered not: Eaten by the birds of the air or by worms in the soil. Such is the journey of the body. In the grand scheme, we eat and are eaten.

“True,” God agrees, joining my thoughts, hands folded in his lap, large and calloused. “But I must say, some of your fellow beings get a lot fatter and sassier than others. And unlike the endings brought about by hunter or slaughterhouse, many deaths are neither swift nor humane.”

I nod. One of the most haunting images on the nightly news is the emaciated woman, nursing a stick-thin infant. She sits listless, her eyes and the baby’s eyes dull, unregistered. Neither will ever be fat.

With clean hands, I offer God a croissant. He declines.

Protective Gear

Sometimes, I deliberately write from a darkened place because as those who dabble in God are painfully aware, there is such a thing as too much light. Even with safety goggles, a hard hat, and an emergency whistle, it’s impossible to feel entirely secure in the presence of what might be God. True, there’s a chance it’s something other than God, but it is not to be trifled with. It is Vast and Elsewhere. Holy Restraint. Indeterminate Destiny. Fool-proof Finality. It is Allah, the Tao, Enlightenment, Sacrifice. It is lamb and lion, gnat and nature—the fertile valley that floods with some regularity causing everything to die and be reborn.

Pure light burns through stupidity to the heart of all selfishness. The razor-sharp fangs glisten, and there’s a roar that makes Niagara seem like wind chimes in a gentle breeze.

Maybe God doesn’t realize her own strength or what it means to be first and singular, unadulterated and unmitigated light, but even a sideways glimpse can overwhelm me. I slip off the rails of rationality, my train of thought crashes, and the flammables in my soul ignite. It takes enormous effort to get to the river and douse the flames.

I, for one, do not appreciate how this feels in the morning. The advantages of denial are obvious, but the comfort there is limited. When I was a child, I feared the coming apocalypse, assured that the end times would be filled with fire, terror, and remorse. Then I grew up and realized that time is always ending, and there will always be terror and remorse—fire, hunger, and upheaval–but there will also be moments of wonder and inexplicable joy.

For instance, right now, as the days shorten and the chill of imminent winter asserts itself, the lion has laid its head on my shoulder and draped its body across my lap. It is a wild thing that loves me. My eyes close. The giant paws massage my sore muscles. Night is coming and cannot be stopped by my incoherent prayers, but…

I am reminded of stars.

Lava and Fresh Fruit

The air is cool and nasty this morning, thick with particulate, willful ignorance, lost causes, and the frenzied breathing of people frantic to escape regression. I need to make some difficult decisions, but first I will walk the path beaten into visibility by wildlife; I will find water and wash away my sins. If I were inclined to invite anyone along, it would be God; she’s known for all sorts of rituals and baptisms, but today, she’s messed up. I’m not sure what she found to ingest, but she’s blotto. Disconnected. The chasm, the steep slopes, God’s self-inflicted wounds; all too much for me today. I’ll leave God unchallenged. Otherwise, it could get ugly.

On the skyline, four saddled horses paw the ground, eyes wide, nostrils flaring. Most likely, the riders partied with God last night and are sleeping it off somewhere. I wonder if the horses will find their way through the scrub brush, invasive species, and backlit sky to this apparently level terrain on which I stand. Intuitively, horses know that even solid ground can only be trusted to a certain extent because at its core, the earth is a restless sea of lava. They may choose to stay put or spin and disappear. I wouldn’t blame them.

Meanwhile, the other God has serenely mingled itself into a box of perfectly ripened peaches from Colorado, so tender, so delicious they make me cry. It’s a privilege to touch their velvety outer layer, smell the embodiment of grace, and partake of the deep yellow flesh.

“God,” I say. “You are beyond comprehension, but I’m not giving up. I’m not backing down.”

“Too bad,” Golden God whispers. “Pride goeth before the fall…but come to think of it, meekness goeth before the fall. It is the nature of things to fall. Don’t be afraid. You’ll find us there, among the descended and drowned, the defenseless, the clowns–among the decidedly ugly and vastly imprisoned. We’re there as much as we’re anywhere.”

“I don’t want to find you there,” I whisper back.

“I know,” God says.

I offer nothing else. I have peaches to freeze. Beans to pick. Onions to dry. Cucumbers to pickle. And an unknown number of inhalations with my name on them. And what’s God got to tend to? Recovery? Irrelevance? Water? I’m not sure of their entire list, but I know the molten lava must be stirred. Otherwise, it will cool to stone, and that will be the end.

What God Thinks is Funny

Out of nowhere, the pouty voice of God declared, “Most people don’t appreciate my sense of humor.” I managed to look interested rather than startled. God continued, “…and they rarely get my sarcasm either. You people are too literal.”

This seemed unfair. How, exactly, are we supposed to recognize a cosmic joke? Or respond to a sarcastic God? Sarcasm is a defensive, often insulting manner of getting a laugh or hurting someone.

“Why would you even want to be sarcastic?” I asked.

“It’s cheap and easy,” God said. “Good way to cut someone down to size.”

“Ah, c’mon God,” I said. “You seem a little off today. What’s up?”

“What’s up?” God mocked. “What’s up, God? Why is this happening, God? Bless me now, God. Make us another planet, God. Clean this up, God. Give us one more gold metal so we know we’re better than the communists, God. Make my day, God.”

“Well, someone’s a little grumpy this morning,” I said. “Bad night?”

“Bad night?” God said. “No night. Never night. No rest. Not the plan. The seventh day, I was going to chill. I said it was good and tried to relax, but no. It wasn’t entirely good. It was mostly good, but I missed a few details. My bad.”

God beat her chest and shook her wild hair loose, the demons screamed, and the world rolled like a bowling ball down the alley of a galaxy with trillions of exquisite pins quivering in hot anticipation. The impact promised to be utterly spectacular. An ending unheard of. Unimagined. Untenable. Acting on instinct, I threw myself across the expanse, gasping when my body hit the cold hard surface of nothingness.

“Nice try.” God’s voice was warm, approving. I was too dazed to respond. I just stared. “No, really,” God added. “Nice one.” She held up a rating card with a 9 on it and said, “Now let’s warm you back up a little.” She led me to the fire. I was naked beyond bone, floating without form. The small things that had tethered me to what I thought I knew glistened like gossamer. It didn’t seem possible to hold on anymore.

“Easy, there,” God said. “I think we’ve had enough for now.”

I rallied. “Oh, you think so, huh?” I crossed what would have been my arms if I had arms. I was not going to give up that easily. I’d just thrown myself across the abyss, hadn’t I? “Hold my beer,” I said.

God cracked up. Tears rolled down her wizened cheeks as laughter nudged the earth back in place. She laughed so hard that the demons paused in their misery and the angels in their dancing. And I managed to laugh a little too. I knew the joke was on me, but I laughed anyway. God and I have found that this is the best way to handle situations like this. Laugh. And then leap again.

Saffron

I woke up so existential this morning my cold brew coffee is quivering with meaning, and I can see to the edge of the known universe. With few reservations, I pronounce it good. My hands push themselves together. The familiar flesh I live within, the geodesic cellular structures, the cool, smokey breeze, the faint bird songs, the river, the memory of ice, the calendar, the unsung heroes, burned, drowned; gone. But not gone.

The Untethered Oldest Woman stops by to borrow my eyes, a cup of sugar, and all the eggs I’ve ever stored, anywhere. “You can have whatever you need,” I say. “There’s more in the pantry. Most of it is past the sell-by date anyway. Take a lot of whole wheat flour. It’s close to rancid.”

“How much toilet paper can I have?” she asks. The look on her face is wily, her intent buried deep within the dark wrinkles that hide inhabitants of other planets, illegal immigrants, and the shamed and aging losers of cosmic beauty pageants.

“Take it all,” I say. “I don’t care.” And I mean it.

“Well, aren’t we accommodating this morning?” The Old One says, smiling. “I’ll only take what I can balance on my bike. That’ll leave you with a year’s supply or so. Better stock up, though. There’s another wave coming.”

I don’t rise to the bait. Well, maybe I do. I don’t know myself all that well most mornings—even the existential ones. “I don’t care.” I repeat, and cross my arms, wondering how to make a graceful exit.

The Untethered One shakes her head. “You’re a terrible actor,” she says. “I like that about you.”

I consider the things that haunt me; the slack-jawed sleep of the feeble, the twisted postures of the dead, the fact of toilet paper, an orange scarf waiting to help with my yoga poses. These are my oppressors. These are my liberators. These assure me that today, I exist. To celebrate, I think I’ll add red, green, and maybe turquoise to the streak of blue in my chemically white hair. Then I’ll drive to town and join the army.

The nice thing about this plan is that the colors are temporary, and the army doesn’t want me.

The long orange scarf catches the light and reminds me of saffron. Such an expensive spice. I’ve hoarded a small packet so long it’s likely lost its flavor. It’s not only that it’s rare and expensive, though; I’m also not sure how to use it.

“Use it today,” The Untethered Oldest Woman urges. “Pudding. Cake. Chicken. Doesn’t matter. It’s the act of using it that will matter.” I’m doubtful, but she’s extraordinarily animated. “No, I’m serious,” she says, waving her many arms for emphasis. “It will matter. Use the saffron.”

Rock Saw

I have a functional rock saw. It’s dusty, rusty, and ugly, but it has one fancy feature: the blade–which has diamond chips on the edge. It can slice a rock in two but if I accidentally touch it, it won’t even scratch my skin. I know this in my head, but my neck muscles tighten to the point of popping when I flip the switch and begin guiding the chosen rock through the process of coming apart.

It is with reverence and holy anticipation that I open and explore the inner workings of stone. Some have nothing hidden and remain a steady brown or gray, but others have intricate interiors—patterns of color and luminosity, suggestions of scenery, stories of minerals and the workings of water. When the slabs first separate and emerge from the murky waters, they shine like newborns. The one has become two. A beautiful but sudden breakage has taken place—much different than the geologic forces that diminish stones slowly into smoother, more humble surfaces.

As it turns out, God doesn’t like my rock saw all that well. The Three-in-One stand alongside, frowning. They don’t approve of the primitive deconstruction of density and coherence. They don’t fully understand my all-too-human sequence of raw apprehension followed by awe. Maybe I don’t either. But as always, they are patient and kind.

“Having an audience doesn’t help,” I told them last evening, as I worked on a particularly hard specimen. Something deep inside that amalgamation of jasper and flint was so dense it repeatedly grabbed the blade and stalled out. I kept trying, but the motor reached the shut-down temperature, so there we sat, waiting for things to cool.

“Want something to drink?” I asked, hoping they’d say no and go somewhere they’d be more appreciated. They glanced among themselves, mentally conferring about the status of their hydration and the needs of the universe.

“Don’t let me keep you,” I added. “This could take a while.”

Again, they conferred. And laughed. A flock of sparrows landed on their outstretched arms which had blackened to coal. Then diamond. Then jasper, blood red and mustard yellow. The sparrows lifted the inextricable threesome, dropped them in the river and updrafted into numinous air I could only hope to breathe someday. A very high place. Heaven, if you will.

As time came back into focus, the motor had cooled enough to let me start again, working slowly through the recalcitrant hunk of greatly compressed life. “It has to be beautiful in there if it is this hard to cut,” I thought to myself. I often think things that turn out to be mostly wrong . This is an insight that often brings a surprising amount of peace.

Volcanic

God slept rough last night alongside the cooling embers of volcanic rock from the eruption of Mt. Nyiragongo in Africa. She awoke exposed, porous and pure as the lava itself, but this did not make her happy. She shook me awake to ask if I would bury her under the acres of rich loam currently planted in alfalfa so she could begin reclaiming her complexity. To be simplified to lava is painful.

“Oh no!” I exclaimed as I opened my eyes in the dim light of dawn and ran my hands over a face so jagged and pitted it made terrible acne seem easy. “Oh sweet God. You’ve become stone.”

“Yes,” God said, woeful, but with a shred of hope. “Lava stone. I’ve heard it has healing properties, but I’d rather move along. Bury me in the topsoil, please. There’s still time. I’ll take care of the rest.”

I reluctantly agreed. We held hands as we walked through the verdant fields made fertile by thousands of years of runoff from the surrounding and willing hills. I was glad I’d remembered my cowhide gloves, both because the hand of God was razor sharp and because the shovel I was dragging along was old. The handle was splintered, and I knew I would be digging for a long time, possibly the rest of my life.

The squawking of the wild and noisy geese nesting across the river helped me find my center as God chose the perfect place to be interned. I wished for another way, but life consists of trying to solve things that are not solvable. This is something gradually revealed over the years allotted to those defined as alive. They say that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. This is true, but then the same can be said for all deaths; ultimately all problems are subjective and temporary, and all deaths seem permanent.

The bounce of sound across water is predictable but not guaranteed.

“God,” I said. “Are you sure?” I was wondering why God insisted on being buried on such a beautiful day. I wondered why I had to be the one digging. I wondered where this weathered old shovel came from.

“Yes,” God said, the nod of her head causing tremors under my feet. Her voice is not measured in decibels but rather revealed in the marrow of reverberating bone. I broke ground, putting body and soul into the sink of the shovel, giving thanks for the leather protecting my thin, unlovely skin from slivers and blisters. I have callouses, but they are often an insufficient defense for these long hot days and the softening effect of sweat.

Settling

There are short-lived truths that go sour, longer truths that offer comfort but eventually wear out like a well-loved quilt, and eternal truths that hide among the bulrushes, debts, and sanctuaries. Physical punishment or harsh words will stop unwanted behavior in its tracks, but the motives will dive underground and propel from below.

“Ok,” God says, “Then grace is like a shovel.”

Your offspring don’t own you, and you don’t own your offspring, and we are all the offspring of many. Boundaries are a constant negotiation, but we trundle along, fostering and adopting, breaking and healing, astonished and befuddled; the urges and joys of reproduction writ large.

“Of course,” God says. “My image in the darkened glass.”

There are forces that undermine balance, reduce generosity, and recast restraint as shameful. The meaning of enough is flattened by trucks exceeding the speed limit. Avarice can be dressed up to look like self-care, and acquisition is a seductive master, a damsel in distress, a mirage of power.

“Yes,” God says. “And forgiveness is a home-cooked meal.”

Fear is a natural response to the threat of pain, death, or humiliation. Belligerence is also a natural response. Hatred is the venom produced by fear and belligerence. The poison flows both directions—outward and inward.

“True,” God sighs. “And the antidote…”

God’s voice fades. I lean in, hoping God just needs to clear her throat or something. God is going to say the antidote is love, right? Or maybe compassion, or courage, or sacrifice? Silence reigns. No singing river. No chattering birds. No traffic. No wind. Not even the distant opening or closing of doors.

“Is this it? The antidote is nothing?” I think to myself.

“Noooo,” my inner self protests. I realize I’m dangerously close to settling for a short truth, even if i know it will grow bitter with time, even if I know it will lose its shape like cheap underwear. As long as it disguises the taste of the poison in my mouth–I don’t care.

I look straight into the vibrant universe and hope for a reassuring word.

“Sorry,” God finally says. “I’m all out of platitudes.”

“I don’t mind,” I say, thrilled that God has spoken. “I can handle that. Have a nice day.” I chuckle.

“You crack me up,” God says, laughing. We stand face to face, our foreheads touching, eyes closed, breathing. Then we link arms and walk to the garden to plant a few more marigolds among the rows of kale.

Illusions

Almost every morning, though I’m never quite sure why, I willingly rise to meet the occasion of dawn. Lately, I’ve been finding God already busy in the kitchen baking massive amounts of bread and eating chocolate between virtual meetings. Today, she’s humming to a shadowy companion who is also God. Above me, someone scuffles, below me someone coughs. They are also God. As usual, I’m surrounded, and as usual, I surrender—a prisoner of a war I don’t remember starting.

“Toast?” God asks and winks. “My inmates never go hungry.”

From the far corner of a certain cold reality, I am tempted to refuse. But I love breakfast. “Sure,” I say. “Thanks.” I pour my own coffee and situate myself where the news of the world murmurs in the background, not close enough to harm me—or so I think. But behold. It harms me anyway.

I have a friend who wastes no time. She gets up early for advanced instruction in her second language. Yesterday, she forgot the word for garlic and all was lost. But not really. We both know better. We grew up with Joni Mitchell. We were lucky.

Each day I am reminded of lilies as I dress myself. The petals of lilies hold moisture. If you crush them, the nectar of the gods will glisten in the palm of your unfamiliar hand, and you will ask forgiveness even if you’re sure you haven’t sinned. But how can anyone be sure?

God sits down for a breather, wiping flour dust across the front of her dark silk blouse. Her face is flushed and sweaty from leaning into the oven. So many loaves. So much redemption. “Uh-oh,” I say, as I try to brush the flour streaks off her chest. “You have to look good from the waist up. Remember?”

I offer her a hanky, feeling oddly chivalrous. She mops it across her forehead and gives it back dripping. I contemplate the holy sweat of God pooling in my hand. Could I use this hanky to absolve myself? The world? Could I water the broken lilies and restore them to their former glory?

“Eat your toast,” God smiles, her voice rich and motherly. “Just eat your toast.” She glances down at her smeared shirt and disappears, presumably to change. Maybe I’m supposed to entertain the other Gods and do the dishes. Maybe not. Their sufficiency is both reassuring and destabilizing. I’m never sure what I’m called to do so I make things up. In graduate school the professors said we should not act without a theory to undergird our actions. For some time now, my theory has been love. It’s a weak theory with limited explanatory power. That’s why I like it so much.

Face Bugs

There are creatures on our faces that feast on cells and oils and then die because they have no body part to eliminate waste. This might be among the worst design flaws ever. Why do they dwell on our faces? Why do they even exist? To the naked eye, they are invisible. Ancient wisdom teaches that what is seen is transitory, but that which is unseen is eternal. This was before microscopes.

The same ancient sources suggest that God is very particular about his face and who can see it. In fact, seeing the face of God can be dangerous. But living on it could be far worse. I wonder if these microscopic organisms feast and die on God’s face like they do on mine.

“Um, God,” I say, scratching at my scalp (thinking about these creatures makes me itch). “Do you have Demodex on your face, mating at night, laying eggs around the rim of your pores, exploding with excrement when they die?”

“Of course,” God says. “They’re fascinating. I name each of them. Gives me something to do when I can’t sleep.”

“That’s gross,” I say. “Nasty.”

God looks straight at me. “Labeling something nasty means you’re afraid. It’s a primal, irrational response. You can do better than that.”

“No,” I protest. “No, I can’t.”

“Yes, you can,” God says. “Fear is the root of the problem. But fear leads to grabbing at power, which leads to lying, labeling, and leading others astray. Quite vicious. Quite sad.”

I’m befuddled. There are so many things that make me squeamish, so much nastiness…even if I somehow overcame my revulsions, I can’t see how it would help.

“Take each face in your hands,” God says. “Feel the skin, see the longing in the eyes, listen to the breathing. Layers and layers of life at work in the moment. Remember, you’re a bug yourself. A bug in a jar with holes in the lid.”

My claustrophobia hits as hard as the rest of the fears God is igniting in me: Vulnerability, insignificance, death. There’s a scream rising my throat. A howl of desperation.

“Hold the face,” God says. “Hold the face and pray.”

The alternatives are worse, so I glance at God and try to comply. In my mind, I take the jowly face crawling with hatred and look into the beady, belligerent eyes. Underneath the sheen of hatred, I see fear. My hands are on fire. I cannot find words to pray, but from the bones and ligaments of my being, a prayer arises, and my hands hold until the cold and holy silence of forever takes me entirely apart, and I am free.

“Nice,” God says in an admiring voice. “I’ll take it from here.”