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.”

The Will of God

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At 3:00 AM I was unwillingly awake with an old church song stuck in my head. I tried to breathe it away. I tried to layer another song on top to cancel out the insistent tune. I finally fell asleep, but now, with the dawn, the song is back. Coffee, Paul Simon, a nice Vimeo poetry reading—nothing has obliterated this song. So, like any sensible, mystically-oriented writer, I Google the lines to see from whence they come. Alas. It was an easy Google. New Testament. Writings of a fellow mystically-oriented writer called Paul in the book called Romans. Here are the words of the song:

We are heirs of the Father, we are joint heirs with the Son.
We are children of the Kingdom. We are family. We are one.

But guess what? The song is a bit selective. The whole verse has a disturbing caveat. We are one, alright…IF we share in the suffering. But isn’t God’s love supposed to free us from suffering? Sometimes, I like a good paradox. An enlightening dialectic. But this morning, I don’t like the song, I don’t like the verse, I don’t like suffering, and I hate my internal judge who says maybe I haven’t suffered enough, so I can look forward to more or die a total slacker.

God arrives gently. “How’s the book coming along?” he asks. He’s talking about a book I’m writing on suicide.

“What’s the point of anything?” I answer. “The book is freaking me out, and I doubt anyone will publish it anyway. And why is suffering even a thing?”

“Bones break,” God says. He sighs. “Fire burns. Hunger happens. I don’t like it any better than you do.”

I believe this is true even though I’m talking to the Biggest God. The One who could fix it all. The One with perfect pitch who plucks the strings of the cello, paints the sky, births the morning, ties the knots, upends the endings, buries the dead, begins with no beginning, ends the day with no end.

“I’ve been working on my will,” God says. “What would you like to inherit?”

My insides drop. “You can’t die,” I say from a very cold place.

“Of course I can,” God says. “I do it millions of times a day. It’s a job requirement.”

“That’s stupid,” I say. “You’re God. You wrote the job description.”

“Yes, I did,” God says. “Now, what would you like to inherit?”

I look at God, utterly astonished at the ridiculous question and impossible answer.

“Nothing,” I mumble.

“What’s that?” God says, leaning dramatically across the couch.

“NOTHING,” I shout. And I mean it.

But God snaps open his briefcase, and a fully formed day leaps out, intensely pigmented, filled with the aroma of baked goods and lilacs, songs in my head, words at my fingertips, and a horizon barely out of reach. Just the way I like it.

“Okay,” I say. “For now.”

“Yes,” God says. “For now.”

 

 

The Words Live On

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This past week, Ram Dass died. He’d had a stroke in 1997, and his acceptance of that disabling event was inspiring. This morning as I read over quotes that capture his sensibilities, I feel envy. Don’t we all want to be a guru? An old soul? But I say to myself, “Choose your poison, choose your longings, choose your savior. But most importantly choose your words.” Ram Dass knew the power of choice and the power of words, especially after the stroke. Words are part of the way we build up or tear down. We can hurt each other with a simple twist of the tongue. We can speak vicious untruths.

One of the reasons I like God is that God lives so far beyond words. Sure, she stops by, and we chat in English (I am hopelessly monolingual), but sometimes she lifts me by the back of my neck and nestles me down in something indescribably warm and delicious. “What is this place?” I ask by lifting one eyebrow. She laughs.

“I call it forgiveness,” God says. “But you might think of it as gratitude. The place where the best ideas are born. I don’t know. Call it whatever you’d like. Use your words.”

I throw a holiday pillow at God. She’s put a Christmas stocking on her head and wrapped solar LED lights around her waist. “In the beginning was the Word,” she says, teasing, almost giddy. “Why do people ignore that? Word. Word. Word.” She then begins singing. “All you need is Love…da da da da da…All you need is Love. Love. Love is all you need.” She leans in, holding a golden microphone. In the glow, I feel old. Unshiny. Words are escaping me at ever accelerating rates. I want them back. I want fresh starts, clean sheets, no scars. And lots of fancy words. But God just shakes her booty and turns up the volume.

There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known
Nothing you can see that isn’t shown
There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be
It’s easy…Love is all you need.

“Lennon and McCartney.” She kisses her fingertips and takes a bow. “Brothers from another planet.” Again, envy. I want to be a brother from another planet. I want to be Ram Dass, Maya Angelo, Sir Paul, Lady Gaga, Nancy Pelosi, Mother Theresa, and Harriett Tubman. I want to matter. The glib assurances of salvation from a distant God, formulas and pat answers—I spit them out. I want to eat first fruits from the magic tree.

“Oh, no you don’t,” God says, suddenly quite serious.  “No, you absolutely do not want to do that. Why on God’s green earth do you think such things?”

“Because someone has to save us from ourselves,” I say. But I know that isn’t true. It’s already too late, and the saving has been neatly wrapped in the dying for longer than anyone but God can remember. God grins at me. “Been there, done that,” she says. “And to tell you the truth, sometimes I wonder if it was worth it.”

Now I’m the one who is suddenly serious. “Oh, it was, baby God,” I say, letting those words take my entire being. “It absolutely was.”

What You Are Now

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Sometimes I pedal around town on my bike meditating. The alleys, the streets, even the funky traffic patterns are as familiar as my hands. I’ve lived in dozens of locations and left my DNA all over the place. It’s my town.

God rides along wearing my memories; scarves and beads, seven chickens, a hundred trees. I try to accept the shocking truth that the world goes on without me, but I resent it. God is relatively gentle about this, pointing out how tall the trees have grown.

“What good are these damn memories?” I ask as they pelt me like sheets of sudden rain. I’m drenched. Shivering. Sad. The bygone days are a howling pack of coyotes; phantoms that leave teeth marks, longings without names.

“Not everything is good in isolation,” God says. “You’re not what you remember.”

“Oh, thanks.” My voice drips with sarcasm. “That helps a lot.”

“It will,” God says. “Give it time.”

I stop the bike and sit on the curb beside a large mound of fallen leaves. I remember crawling under a pile like this. October. Centuries ago. But the sound of the rain on the brittle leaves was yesterday. It occurs to me that I would like to be buried in a pile of leaves, here on a side street, in a ceremony so quiet no one is inconvenienced in the least.

“You already are,” God says. “C’mon. Let’s ride. I’m getting restless.”

“Fine,” I say. We pedal toward a steep hill and begin the climb, me seeking perspective, God enjoying the ride. I’m so easily seduced by the idea of my own importance, sucked into the undertow of imagined glory. The view helps. I watch the little city move itself here and there as I catch my breath. Then I turn the bike around. The downhill stretch is littered with rocks and potholes, but my tires are full and the light is good.

God and I gather speed as we cruise back into the thick of it. I think to myself, it’s probably after 3 already, but I check my watch. It’s nearly 5. Too many young people smile at me. Newer model cars zip by. My brakes squeak, and my resolve weakens, but I find solace in the alleys. Discarded grace, throw rugs, pottery, and a pile of sticks for firewood.

God hops off. A thousand wings begin designing the sunset dipping liberally into orange and magenta. I strap the rugs and pottery on my bike, drape the grace around my shoulders, and make a mental note to pick up the firewood later. I wonder if I’ll remember. I wonder if it matters. I wonder whose elongated evening shadow is peddling ahead of me. It’s vaguely familiar, but God is right; I’m not what I remember.

Nada

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God wasn’t present in any noticeable way this morning, but I had that spidey sense she was hovering somewhere close by. I thought maybe a little chatter would draw her out. “God,” I said. “Sometimes you and I have a communication gap. And I can see why. There’s me. An average, timeworn human–two bumpy hands, a couple of creaky knees, an increasingly unreliable memory, sporadic compassion–and then there’s you. From what we’ve observed so far, you seem to have created 10 billion galaxies, each of which averages 100 billion stars—one, (one!) of which is the fiery orb asserting itself in my own little sky right now.” I tried looking deeply impressed. No response.

“You are absurdly, incomprehensibly intangible, nonbodied, nonbound. You are without need for breath. You are breath. You are beyond time. It’s a toy of yours. You have no name and every name. You are the namer. We have little to nothing in common, but here you are, hanging around.” I thought maybe admitting I could sense her would cause a response. Nope.

“God, look,” I said. “You’ve always treated us humans with respect, even when we amputate compassion, act like idiots, and appropriate the idea of you for our own ends. I wish we didn’t do that, but you have to admit you’re difficult, you big old lunk of creativity. You tiny speck, you source of suffering and disaster, comfort and shelter. You ladybug, sea monster, apple fallen close to the tree. You infectious laugher, chill of death, you decomposer. You teller of the final truth. Most of us don’t like the real you very much.

“I know,” God said, finally speaking up. “But I’m grateful when I can absorb even a little bit of liking. I make do with very little.”

“Someday, I won’t exist,” I said. “Then what?”

“Do I exist?” God answered.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Then, darling, we have something in common after all, don’t we?” God took a long swig of an awful tasting green smoothie I’d made and spit it back in the cup.

“Good lord!” she said. “Why in the world do you drink things like this?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “In fact, right now, I know nothing.”

“Excellent answer,” God said. “You’re lying, but that’s okay. It’s an aspirational nothingness. Another thing that we might have in common. Eventually.”

I thought about that for a minute. Yes, I know nothing for certain, but I speculate endlessly, grabbing what appears to be solid, holding on for dear life. We are splintered, me and God. But there’s something. Something. Or maybe I have it wrong. There’s Nothing. A deep, resonant Nothing where our trueness will finally be at peace.

“Could you give me some space?” I asked God. “Today, you’re too much.”

God gave me a regal nod and complied. In the dead silence, I was as bereft as I’ve ever been. And as loved. And as complete.