Fire

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Before the snow came, I burned rotten, misshapen wood. Dirty wood, not even worth cutting up for the woodstove. Wood filled with unremovable, wayward screws. Such fires are my last resort.

Enduring the scorn of my carpenters, I save every scrap of wood—wood that was once a seed that grew into a tree that was felled, milled, planed, dried, sawn, hammered, and then, in this case, tossed aside as remnant. I am a gatherer of remnants. I restore things. But there’s a limit, and sometimes, fire is the answer. It burned ferocious and unfettered.

Evening came, the fire died down. I went in to watch gratuitous violence on TV and eat fish wrapped in freezer-burned tortillas. Long after dark, I looked out the upstairs window. Of course, the flames were gone, but to my consternation, the embers were visible. The air was still, but I know well the nature of wind—it can blow up sudden and savage. Not long ago, our neighbor’s smoldering garbage nearly burned our house down. My fire wasn’t dead enough.

Boots, flashlight, rake, shovel, I trudged across the uneven ground to assess the cinders. Things were hotter than I’d thought they’d be. I found a long hose and hooked it up to the hydrant. Water hit and hissed. I put the hose down and stirred the steaming mound. Embers, given a last gasp of air, burst into flame. I let them burn themselves down, down, down, littering the night with airborne sparks. Hose at hand, I admired the blaze for a while. Then I broke the fire apart. Flame fell back to glowing embers. I raked a perfect circle of pulsating orange heat and stared into the hypnotic beauty.

The circle glowed vibrant and seductive. I imagined screams of agony, should I walk across these coals, or sink down through the intense heat to the inverse world below. The vision was potent enough that I turned the hose on full force. Fire, water, earth, and air. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It took a while, but finally, I could put my hands anywhere in the gray soup. It was over.

I walked slowly back to the house, a somber carbon-based lifeform, caught in the trappings of a long-dead Deity. I glanced up. Dark sky came to life. My eyes adjusted to billions of stars, mirroring my true, living image back to me. Minuscule. Vulnerable and magnificent. Stardust, spit, and ash. Ragged, weary, incomplete.

I knew I would be what was left after the fire. And I wasn’t afraid. I tucked myself into the womb of the ever-birthing, ever-blazing God.

Facing into the Wind

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I’m in Chicago, visiting. Bad things have happened in the world. Very bad. A young father, wrapped in his black widow hoodie, hovers over a brand-named stroller. He’s at Starbucks. He is white. His child is rose petal pink. He will order the same drink his entire life, which will be neither as long nor as easy as one might guess. This much I know on my own.

Then, the heavens open, and four horsemen descend. Even before they hit their stride, most of the world bows down. A few try to hide. I casually throw my coat over the child, looking down and away. She’s remained quiet, playing with her hands, which are turning to long green vines. Beautiful strands of ivy. So tender they make me cry. I wish she were turning to stone instead. I wish I were turning to stone, but I’m not. I’m seething, disoriented, weak to the point of water.

God is glaring from every corner, fretting at the customers, darkening the sky. Hurrying the line along. The horsemen dismount, elbow forward, and place their orders. It’s clear they’re not going to pay. They slug each other’s shoulders and point lewdly at younger women. They’re eyeing the baby, making repulsive gestures. As they stroke their filthy beards and move closer, I gag in fear, and vomit. They back up, disgusted, and leave, whipping their horses and shouting joyful obscenities as they disappear over the horizon.

God brings a mop and bucket, and without a word, cleans up my mess. I touch my face. The child. The window. I take her outside and she puts down roots.

Even with the sky black and foreboding, I realize I’ve been saved.

But to what end? I feel an urgent need to know.

I go back inside the Starbucks and summons the courage to tug on the frayed sleeve of God’s flannel shirt. “Why did you save me?” I ask.

“What can I get for you?” God answers. “Wait, let me guess. Split-shot latte with two percent.”

I nod, and accept the foamy drink. “Why did you save me?” I ask again, this time a little louder.

God sighs and gently takes my face in those warm, strong coffee-scented hands. I want to look away, but it’s too late. The eyes have me completely in their spell. “Why did you come back inside?”

Monday

2014-08-29_12-50-26_254-2It’s a good thing someone invented the idea of Monday. Monday forces the issue, kicking the workaday week into reality, another heave-ho, away we go. Monday. Named, it is harder to avoid, even when days march along like soldiers in identical fatigues, lock-stepped, shoulder to shoulder, with only sundown and sleep as divisions.

Hello, Monday. Here I sit, awake, wording-up like a good verbal cowgirl, waiting for the frost to melt and the clouds to lift so I can escape myself. I’m certain I’ll strain my back in the process. My thoughts drift to God, who isn’t welcome right now. I redirect my brain to my lists. Better. But not enough.

I open my favorite breakfast beer. God wants a sip. No. Not welcome. You are not bread. You are not wine. You are not beer. You are a whiny bully who won’t stand up to cancer, or evil, or aging, or even, apparently, untimely death. In fact, you pal around with Death. Yesterday wasn’t funny, God. And today promises to be all bent out of shape because of how you invited Death to stroll along the Stillwater and view the fall colors with you and me. I’ll admit, the colors are spectacular this year, and yes, Death gets some artistic credit. Don’t think that makes up for anything. The beauty is almost incidental this morning. All that matters are my lists.

Leave me alone. I have leftovers to eat, floors to mop, gates to build, boards to move, tools to organize, piles of rotten wood to burn, and burn, and burn. A newly fallen cottonwood offers me shelter, and I’m tempted. I could curl like a fox in the snarl of the uprooted base and sleep in the deep dark nest of decomposed leaves and thereby join the circle on my own terms. Oh, I know I’m being dramatic, but I need some space, God. Leave me alone, okay? Please. Just leave me alone. Your chatter and apologies, your jokes and invitations. I can’t deal with you today. Maybe later, you can help me shed some of these uncomfortable clothes, but for now, I need the layers. In my mind, they are keeping me warm.

Along the Stillwater, Late August

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It seemed like a good afternoon to seek enlightenment, so I asked myself where to turn.

“Turn toward that which brings you joy,” Self said. So I went to the river, not for the water, but for the stones. I knew who’d find me there, but I wasn’t trying to hide. God always follows me around when there’s any chance I’m going to be happy.

It was a difficult visit.

I did find joy. And silliness. Orange rocks with flecks of gold–fool’s gold. I’ve always been fond of fool’s gold. It masquerades, unashamed, as a precious metal, all the while aware of its ordinariness, cheerful and shiny in its temporary stone abode. I considered the eons that will go by before the river rolls this stone enough to free these flecks into sparkling sand. I realized my bones would be dust long before, and I sat down and cried.

Enlightenment. Illumination. Detachment. I wanted to fill up my soul for whatever lies ahead. That’s what I was doing and I wanted to do it by myself.

God knew this and came by anyway. And not only did God come by, She brought a friend. I did a double-take. Death had tagged along. I tried to be polite, but Death could tell I didn’t want to visit, and discretely moved a little ways away.

“I know I’m being rude,” I said to God. She was decked out in river regalia, gray eyebrows and wrinkly tan skin. Kindness twinkled in the bright blue eyes that held me in their piercing gaze.

“Yes,” God agreed. “But you know what you know, don’t you?”

All day, I’d been trying not to know what I knew. “You mean?” I said, quaking inside.

“Yes.”

“How soon?”

“Sooner than later. Later than sooner.” God threw her flabby old arms around me. Clearly, God had gotten too much sun as a youngster. “Mortality is a lifestyle, honey. Not a destination. The event isn’t that important.”

“Then what is important?” I said, angrily. I was troubled. Shaken. Sad. Those arms were not attractive. The day had come apart.

“Come on over here,” God said to Death, who was still keeping a respectful distance, watching the water flow by. “We go way back, don’t we, Sonny?”

Death smiled and nodded, dark hair fluid on his shoulders. God turned back to me.

“What’s important is making the acquaintance,” God said. “Ironic, isn’t it? Knowing the dark lightens things up. It’s better to be ready. Aware.” Death nodded again.

“I am,” I said reluctantly. And I tried to be. I said hello to Death. I didn’t look away.

They both left. I sat on the river bank and watched as the sun colored the sky behind the cottonwoods. There were black spiders everywhere. The stones were crawling with them.  They like it along the river. I don’t know why.

Rhubarb

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I was in the garden on the third day, fighting weeds and despair. A couple sauntered up, arms around each other’s waists. They looked familiar, but I couldn’t place them until they let themselves in the gate and got within a few feet of where I was kneeling. I shaded my eyes and stood with some difficulty. My knees aren’t the best.

“God?” I said, astonished. “Yes,” they said, smiling. They were married, of course. Would God choose to live together without the benefits of matrimony? That’s a question for the theologians. These two were absolutely married, beyond any shadow of a doubt. Beyond marriage, beyond romance. They were joined, as one.

The woman said to me, “Don’t garden in your church clothes, silly.”

He nodded in agreement and pulled her close for a little kiss. “Isn’t she the best?” he said. Then he took a bright yellow bandana out of his pocket and blew his nose.  “I’ll leave you gals to visit.” He squeezed her shoulder, walked to a large stone, and sat with his back to the sun.

She stayed beside me, her shadow rippling over the deep green zucchini leaves. She fingered a strand of wooden beads around her neck. I had more questions than she had beads. They lined up in my head, but I didn’t speak them out loud.

Who are you? What do you want from me? Why am I here? Why do I even exist? When will I no longer exist? Isn’t it a waste of good consciousness, to just let it flicker and go out, like an unfed fire? Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? How would I know?

I could taste the remnants of coffee in the back of my throat, and knew myself to be alive. I smelled like the dirt under my fingernails. Thick clay soil, rich with worms. Clinging. Tight. In need of sand from the river, old stones ground down. In need of humus. Organic matter, ready to give itself to the cause of robust growth, to begin again.

She was watching, silent and calm, her face open, filled with approval. The late morning sun was hot. Dazzling. Dangerous. There I was, no hat. No sunglasses. Skin exposed. Soul exposed.

Suddenly, I remembered the wilting rhubarb I’d picked an hour ago, but hadn’t taken to the house. It wasn’t too late, but I had to excuse myself and dash away. The harvest was scant this year. I didn’t want my rhubarb to go to waste. I felt guilty. It would have been more polite to stay in the garden and visit—offer lemonade. I put the rhubarb in icy water and watched God stroll arm-in-arm upward into cloud and sky, a flimsy apparition of perfection. I wanted to drop everything and join them. But I stood firm, the rhubarb in my hands, tart and iridescent red.

How God Got Co-Authorship

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In Missoula some weeks ago, I stopped for a quick lunch while running errands. I’m not in the city often anymore, so Asian food sounded great. God wasn’t invited, but that never matters.

“Your work isn’t finished, you know,” She said, helping Herself to my Pad Thai.

I sipped my tea. “Oh, I know,” I said. “I’m always busy.” My tone was dismissive. The past two years had been rough. Maybe God was trying to comfort me, but I wasn’t in the mood.

Undeterred, She gave me a toothy smile. “You won’t like what I’m about to say.”

I hate that lead-in. I rallied my defenses, though I knew it was futile. God and I have an arrangement, and it’s not about going to heaven when I die. It’s about peace in my remaining days. If I don’t listen, my soul gets prickly and confused, and I tend to drink too much.

God of the toothy smile continued. “The house looks nice. The children are grown and lovely. I enjoy your little poems. But you’ve been hiding. Playing it safe. You need to find more driftwood and shards of colored glass. Step a little further into the abyss.”

I put my cup down angrily, spilling a little tea. God paused, gazed out the window, and faded. But like the grin of the Cheshire cat, the toothy smile faded last.

Lunch was over. I rode my bike into the afternoon, pot holes rattling my bones. I thought of places I like to hide. Caves and hollow logs, small dark closets, little shiny houses with hidden doors, big houses, subdued by a certain humility, spaces under bridges, nests in trees. I know about hiding. I know about shelter. I’ve used sticks and stones, glass and granite, spit and dirt.

God caught up with me. “I want co-authorship,” She said bluntly.

I stalled. This was not going well. “But I, um. Well, you’re never entirely coherent.”

“Coherence is overrated,” God said.  “I’ll have my attorney draw up the papers. There’ll have to be some deadlines.”

Fuck, I thought. I bet She’ll have a penalty clause too. I was upset. Frightened.

“Of course I will,” God said, from inside my head. “If you want an advance, you’ve got to get real. You can’t have forever. And to tell you the truth—which I pretty much always do–you wouldn’t want forever, honey. It’s a burden you’re not ready for.”

Resigned, defeated, I mumbled an apology for my language and rode on home in the gathering dusk. I paced, ranted, fasted, ate, and hid. I sang off-key, fell on the ice while stomping, fed the chickens, contemplated an early death, and generally came apart. Came utterly apart.

Those who’ll put me back together have begun a slow procession across the bridge. They’ll come down the alley and settle into the open-faced sheds they helped me build, politely waiting. Like God, like me, most have been broken. Discarded. Some will die. But they will be of great help. I’ve known this my whole life. Trash and transformation—a holy circularity. God incarnate, God in the mirror, God in the people, God at the bottom of the heap. This is where we should look. This is where life itself hides out.

Dualities

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I

God stopped by the other day. He’s gained some weight and acquired a limp, but his mind was as sharp as ever.

We sat on the tailgate of the silver pick-up, swinging our legs, watching the sand hill cranes. I mentioned the possibility that he could help out with things around here. There’s a lot left to do.

He was a good sport and tried to chop some wood, but it was too much for him. He got winded, and rubbed his chest in an alarming way. Honestly, I couldn’t even justify paying him minimum wage. He didn’t seem interested in the salary anyway. He sat back down on a nearby stump, stroked his white goatee, and stared out into space, attentive, like he was hearing something I couldn’t hear.

I got him a snack. He chewed with his mouth open, and examined the contents on the package. “I have a touch of diverticulitis,” he said, smiling. “I shouldn’t eat things with seeds. But sometimes I cheat a little.”

Even with his large belly, his posture was regal. He moved with slow grace, scratching himself thoughtfully. “Bug bites.” He caught my look and added, “They have a purpose.”

I shook my head. “You could’ve done better. You could’ve skipped bugs. And childbirth. Even we lowly humans invented zippers. What’s with that?”

This was old terrain. He glanced me into silence. Typical male. I decided to wait on this topic until he reappears as the large black woman with the soft, yielding lap. She has birthed me with ease, over and over. I trust her explanations more than I trust myself—for good reason. She’s saved my life a couple of times.

God interrupted my reverie. “Got my license to pack,” he said. “Need to buy a loose jacket and one of those fancy ankle straps. Might want to carry two.”

“Great,” I said. “That’s just great. Congratulations. You moving to Montana permanently?”

“Nah,” he said. “But when in Rome…”

II

Well, what do you know? Here’s God again. She’s bent over, tending flower beds on a sleepy side street in the city. A half-block away, I notice a big-boned mother with twin sons. She is struggling down the sidewalk towards God. One of the boys is angry. He bites his blanket and yowls. The big-boned mother wants to slap the red, contorted face of this defiant son, but God and I are watching. It’s harder to slap your child around with an audience. In this suspended moment, we are joined by a lovely blond girl with perfect skin and a clingy peach-colored dress. Her breasts and butt wobble. She is so sensuous even the little boys are entranced. She appears to be walking her dog, but I think, “No. She is some kind of angel and that’s not a real dog.”

I make eye contact with God. God winks, the frame freezes, and suddenly, I am alone.

I am fully, completely, alone. I am so alone my front teeth feel unfamiliar to my tongue. The light around me is metallic and cold. There isn’t much left of my body. This makes me nostalgic. Sad. My eyes, still in my head, fill with salt water. Warm, oceanic water. I want to float, weightless in this water. The big-boned mother has come back for me. I don’t want to go.

In the Beginning

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I first met God as a small child, wearing my fancy dress. We played some simple games and I was smitten. It was easy. Once you get the hang of it, there’re so many things needing to be baptized or buried.  But salvation is a different story. The fat boy in third grade, for instance. He had no friends, and was bullied and ridiculed constantly–so easy to torment that even the teacher got into it. One time, she kicked him viciously in the shins while he was trapped in his desk, directly behind me. He cried and tried to fend off her blows, snot smeared on his face, hot with humiliation.

Safe at home, I fantasized how I’d save him by inviting him over to play. It would be like Cinderella, only Fat Boy was the one with wicked step-sisters and the terrible life, and I was the powerful, beautiful princess. I never invited him over, and life moved along. But it never moved completely past his pain.

The Little God I knew back then had arranged a nice white life for me, mostly safe, with a few disappointments, and some near-misses which I interpreted as signals of my importance. There were thin cracks in the mirror, and a few dangling questions, but I was on the road to heaven. It wasn’t until my divorce that Little God blew up on me. My good girl image was shredded, inside and out.

My soul was a combat zone, and I wailed and flailed. But sometime, somehow, in the midst of my rage and sorrow, Big Truth rolled in like a tank rolling into a skirmish. Big Truth lifted the hatch, pulled off His helmet, and saluted. I snapped to attention, frightened, ashamed. I could tell this wasn’t going to be a slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am kind of truth. Sure enough, Big Truth raised a bullhorn and shouted, “All have failed. All are forgiven. All are enlisted. All will die.”

It seeped from soul to bones. I repeated this strange declaration in my mind, “All have failed. All are forgiven. All are enlisted. All will die.” Big Truth nodded, clearly reading my mind, and held the salute until I saluted back. It was a feeble gesture on my part, but it must’ve been enough, because Big Truth climbed down, toting a large box of treaties and legal documents. I thought I was going to have to sign my life away, but instead, we built a fire and burned them. “You need to relax,” Big Truth said. “If anyone should be uptight, it should be me. And look. I’m calm. I’ve got this.”

“I’m trying,” I said. “But you’re freaking me out. You’re not exactly what I thought You were.”

“Of course not. Would you want me to be what you thought I was?”

Even though I actually did want God to be exactly as I thought, I knew that wasn’t the right answer. “No, I guess not,” I said. “But then, who are You?”

“Hmmm,” God said. “Good question, baby. You can call me pretty much anything. And you’ll be a little bit wrong. But no worries. I’ll hear you.”

Then God mentioned that a few of His buddies were going dancing later on and invited me along. I went straight home, shed my bulky clothes, and put on my dancing shoes.

Out of uniform, with a few beers in Him, God is one heck of a dancer. And His band, Sweet Jesus, what a band!

Before we called it a night, I cozied up to God and said, “C’mon. Really. What’s your name?”

God took a deep breath. His eyes burned with a fearsome love. “Like I said, I have a lot of names,” He said. “But for now, you can call me Fat Boy.