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?”

Bruised

God and I were sitting in our pajamas near a nice fire, watching the sky, hoping the storm wouldn’t bring the cold temperatures predicted. Hoping the planet would somehow survive the ravages of greed. I was examining an ugly bruise on my forearm. Essentially, bruises occur when capillaries near the surface break and spill blood. Thin skin increases the risk.

Thousands of years ago, a prophet wrote that God wouldn’t take advantage of a bruised reed. There was no mention of bruised arms, egos, or disintegrating hips, but why would this assertion be necessary? What kind of God would go around beating up injured, weakened people, or break an already bruised reed?

“Um, God,” I say, “What’s your point with that whole bruised reed thing?”

God’s full attention swings toward me, a lumbering presence, a set of boots. I pull my sleeve down to cover the purple blotch. A tiny fraction of God’s focus is enough to end life as we know it, but I risk such things because in the end, it doesn’t matter. We’re sitting on a second-hand couch. I don’t care if it gets scorched.

“Why do you ask?” God says, warm breath laced with lavender and the allure of summer.

“Nice move,” I mumble and shift my gaze to the sparrows landing on the icy fence. As most four-year-olds know, Why? has no final answer. Asking why is a way to prolong the conversation, to shift the burden back.

I turn again to the God on my couch. “I ask because…” I am inundated with unwelcome insights. I hate bruised reeds. If I were God, I’d make a bonfire out of those damned reeds. How is it possible to walk alongside the bruising and the bruised? I don’t like wounded healers, and I don’t want to be one.

We sit. The wind is picking up, the chill becoming dangerous.

The ancient gaze of God is kind. “You love what you think is whole and beautiful because your vision is shallow.”

I close my eyes.

The primordial voice of God is gentle. “You love stories with endings because the untold threatens your sense of control.”

I cover my ears.

The wounded hand of God is warm as it hovers over mine. “You love stones because the bruises don’t show.”

I open one eye.

It’s not a single hand but a thousand; mottled, thick veined, and open. I choose one, entwine our fingers, and wait. God willing, the frozen ground will eventually soften toward spring when both planting and burying will be easier.  “Oh, we’re willing,” God says as the sky dumps snow. “But are you?”

Bucket Lists

Nearly all the windows in our house are oriented south for solar gain, but the view to the north is exceptionally nice. Our inner space reflects a set of values, givens, and limits. We’ve filled most rooms with books and rocks to hide lapses in judgment. Outside, the garden has gradually improved—I love repurposing metal coated with rust and twisted stumps that are not yet dust. It takes a practiced eye to see the beauty.

“Yes,” God says, disrupting my existential mulling. “I love repurposing, too. Especially the fragile and distorted.”

“Hi there, God,” I say in a falsely chipper voice. “How about you be nice and take care of me today? Let’s exercise, write, do some art, drink green smoothies, and then after I’ve fallen fast asleep, how about you carry me gently into the next realm?”

“What?” God says in mock surprise. “You want to cash it in?”

“Well, yeah. Or, maybe,” I say. “I don’t like aging. I want an easy way out.”

“An easy way out,” God echoes, nodding. “Thank you for being honest with me.” This is a standard phrase therapists use when clients drop a verbal bomb about their homicidal, suicidal, malicious, vindictive, hopeless, violent urges and fantasies. It buys a little time.

But God doesn’t need to buy time. I’m suspicious. God already knows I’m as afraid of dying as the next person, but I’m deeply ambivalent about staying alive. Fighting for every last breath soaks up resources, drains loved ones, involves a fair amount of suffering, and has the same outcome. What’s a few more days or even years if they are filled with pain, struggle, and hardship? It may look heroic, but there are many ways to define heroic. Leaving willingly, gracefully, at the right time might be another definition. I glance sideways at God.

God glances back. “How’s that bucket list coming?” she asks, with a mischievous smile. “I know you’re inclined toward rescuing and saving, but don’t put the world, or yourself, on the list. You can save neither.”

“God, darling,” I say. “I don’t even know what ‘save’ means. And how’s your bucket list coming along?”

“Thanks for asking, sweetie,” God says. “But let’s talk about why you want to know.” This is another classic therapy maneuver; turn the question back on the client. But then God reaches over, takes a drink of my coffee, and salutes herself in one of my many mirrors. This is not a classic therapy move. Too invasive. Too intimate. Impulsively, I look straight at God, grab her cup, and take a swig. The coffee is hot, dark, and bitter. I want to spit it out, but God bows her head, palms together, touching her lips. I have the distinct impression she’s cheering me on, so I swallow and raise the cup. We look in the mirror together. It takes a practiced eye to see the beauty.

Outsourcing

People who insist on naming God after themselves irritate me. Same goes for people who display religious icons, symbols, carvings, or statues. Wise writers far before my time called these “graven images” (not a compliment) and indicated Yahweh (not their real name) isn’t thrilled with the idea of being portrayed in such limited, distorted ways. We invent names we can pronounce and create images we can use for signaling, comfort, or torture. The names and images come with suggested donations and membership guarantees. The in-crowd will be safe. The out-crowd will go to hell.

For convenience, I call this massive, creative, omnipotent bundle of compassion, wisdom, and potentiality “God.” Short, crisp, easy to spell. But wildly inaccurate, right God?

God slides into view, a pile of sticks, a taste of tea, an imagined joke, a yoga stretch, safety. An act of kindness, vivid forest green washing through a dream that would otherwise be drab. God isn’t shy or without preferences, but neither is God insistent. I wait.

“Ocean,” God says. “Egg of magpie. Eye of newt. Opposable thumbs. Lace. Elephants. Lilies. Those who are heavy-laden. Microscope, telescope, telltale stains on a well-worn soul. Yellow. Something gleaming on the far horizon. Mercy. Hallucinations, hallelujahs, hallways leading nowhere. Everywhere.”

“Stop!” I yell. “What in the world do you mean?

God laughs. “Not sure what you mean by “world.” Remember that just beyond your definitions, a little part of me is waiting for you. But no hurry. We have forever.”

“Blue,” I said. “Warm quilts, icy beer. Old friends. Leg of lamb, bark of dog, things that frighten me. Death. Justice. Slow arrivals. Snow falling innocent and pure. The brave song of a single child. A cracked bell ringing.” I stop and wink. “Am I getting the hang of it?”

God loves to play, but sometimes the rules of the game are hazy. The fire crackles and converts the dead apple tree to gas and soot. The temperature rises. A tiny fraction of feather escapes from a small tear in my down vest and floats on currents invisible to my naked eye. It appears to defy gravity in favor of other forces as it floats here and there. Or maybe it isn’t defiance. Maybe it’s a complex expression of faith: gravity, warm air, cool air, breath, the earth circling a star we’ve named the sun.

The wisp of feather finally settles, God fades, and I know that someday I will be free and undefined. But for now, I make up rules that suit me and name things that actually have no name.

Senses

Smell is our oldest sense. Collectively, humans can detect billions of different odors. This has played a central role in our evolution, leading to such literary declarations as Fe Fi Fo Fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman. The sense of smell has made headlines recently because a microscopic organism has been infecting human brains, disabling the senses of smell and taste: a virus not to be trifled with. But then, evil is rarely to be trifled with, right God?

No answer. The silence isn’t holy. But some days, I just keep talking.

And about this notion of evil, God. Who’s evil? What is it? As you know, I don’t like dust settling on things again and again or ashes as a final destination. I like fresh sheets, crisp salad, and good news. Call me shallow, but that’s the way it is, God. I would prefer to be comfortable, adored, young, well-fed, and smart. And whatever deprives me of what I want, well, let’s call that evil, shall we?

My one-way chat takes a nasty turn as the sun intensifies through the window and I see myself reflected on my computer screen in all my dismal glory. “No wonder God is busy elsewhere,” I say to my image in a mean voice. “You’re all the things you dread.” I consider the procedures and surgeries available to make me seem younger, more adorable, smarter. This breaks my fall. My distended ego deflates, and I give myself a smile that naturally lifts the wrinkles.

See, God? Here I am, smiling. All done judging. C’mon by.

I sit. I force myself to say prayers of lovingkindness for the twisted senator, the mouth-breathing fools on the airplanes, lazy neighbors, unkind people, even those who torture, deprive, and dehumanize. I give thanks for my senses, even though I can smell the blood of the disgusting humans who are destroying the planet. Oh, I wish I were the giant.

This last thought finally rouses The Presence. Holy Words, like sleek black animals, invade my brain. “You can’t eat your way to heaven,” they say in a low growl. “You can’t smell your way to salvation. You can’t see the face of God, and you can’t force your way in.” The Words collect around The Presence, and The Presence turns to me, taking the shape of a very old friend.

“The thing that shines in the broken moment, the shelter of translucent skin, these are lessons. Very little of who you are or what you do is to your credit or entirely your fault. Regardless, you will never be the giant. For this, be grateful. Go listen to holiday music. Inhale cinnamon and vanilla.”

“But that seems so…” I pause.

“Shallow?” asks my Very Old Friend. “Simple?”

“Yeah,” I nod. “It’s like giving up. Surrendering.”

“Yes,” my Very Old Friend says. “Much harder than it seems. But you can do it.  I’ll help.”

Sphincters and Other Lesser Parts of the World

In the process of letting go (a euphemism for aging) I’ve grown more conversant with my inner workings. Organs, nerves, limbs, skin, circulatory systems, hairline–we’ve all befriended each other. For instance, on a recent road trip miles from anywhere, my bladder urged me to pull over. I squatted (a humble pose if there ever was one) and waved cheerfully at the driver of the pick-up that happened by. She waved back. A warm calm spread throughout my body as my bladder and I drove on home.

Some of us think of creation as parts of The Body. Others are more exclusive about who’s in and who’s out; what’s to be honored, who’s to be enslaved. These are ego-based pretendings, wrong-headed derivations. In the Oneness, every molecule has a voice. For instance, when stubbed, the oft-overlooked third toe suddenly takes center stage.

This is the kind of pondering that almost always guarantees a visit from God. Sure enough. She’s arrived on the west wind with a flood-inducing chinook on her tail.

“Why, hello there, God,” I say. “What a nice surprise. C’mon in.” My automatic hospitality reminds me of a poem my grandmother had on her kitchen wall:

            Guest, you are welcome here. Be at your ease.

            Get up when you’re ready. Go to bed when you please.

            We’re happy to share with you, such as we’ve got,

            The leaks in the roof and the soup in the pot.

            You don’t have to thank us or laugh at our jokes.

            Sit deep and come often. You’re one of the folks.

I memorized the rhyme, but I didn’t know what it meant to sit deep, and I didn’t like people partaking of my grandmother’s kindness. I wanted her all to myself. Now, I want God all to myself. I want singular adoration, endless comfort, and permission to be at my ease forever without the hassles of caring for others.

“Sorry,” God says. “Doesn’t work that way.” We gaze at the fire. She strokes her chin. “If you had a choice, which part of The Body would you be?”

I chew my thumb and think. Brain, eyes, ears all come to mind, but they’re too obvious. “Bladder,” I say. “I’d be the mop bucket.”

God laughs. “You know you’d have to cooperate with the sphincter, right?”

“Yeah,” I say. “I’ve known that for a very long time.” I raise my right hand. “I do hereby solemnly swear to love and honor the sphincters of the world. My own and others.”

I expect God to chuckle, but instead, I realize we are sitting deep; God and me. And I see that nothing functions without cooperation and mutual respect, internally or out there in the nasty, brutal, fractured Oneness we live within. I know I’m not alone, but sometimes I wish I were.

The Flower Show

Photo of Roxy Paine’s original work

It’s morning in New York City. I’m leaning against a pile of fluffy white pillows, gazing out the window, seven flights up, with a warm dark beer balanced on my belly. Across the narrow street, I see bricks, mortar, and shiny ventilation systems. I’m trying to quell my claustrophobia. Thank God for the beer. It wasn’t easy to find. “I guess anything worth anything is not easy to find, right?” I say to my faithful co-author.

“You tell me,” God says, her feet wrapped in the hotel’s luxurious comforter.

“Okay, I will,” I say. “For instance, you. You’re not easy to find.” But I catch myself. “No. Wait. Not true. You’re actually too easy to find. You smell terrible, you speak other languages, you have needs. It’s what the hell to do about you that’s hard to find. The Tao. The long and winding road. The way…it’s so foggy, steep, and dangerous. It’s slick. Nasty. And brutally beautiful.”

God leans over. Takes a sip of my beer. Rearranges her pillows, and sighs. “You are so right,” she says. “I do smell terrible. Not everyone is pretty, you know. Cut me some slack. Not everyone is perfect.”

I nod, but I don’t apologize. God continues. “Some of my favorite islands are going under. I make you this nice planet. You rip it to shreds. I make you all so similar, like family. You rip each other to shreds. Over money. Pride. Jobs.” She says ‘jobs’ with a sneer, pauses, and finishes with, “And you think I stink? Ha!”

I throw my arm over God’s familiar shoulder. “Yeah, you’re right. This is old terrain between us, isn’t it? Alive or dead, we mortals stink up the place. I’m glad you stink, too.”

God laughs. Suddenly, there are flowers. Funeral flowers. Wedding flowers. Light pink. Baby blue. Lilacs, clematis, columbine. And I am young, winning the junior division of the local flower show with flowers my grandmother grew. Then, I am old and all I grow are sunflowers, hollyhocks, and poppies. It seems we are doomed to seek comfort, solace, and the easy, deadly way.

“No, you’re not,” God says. “I’ve made sure you have reasonable options.”

I settle back in the pillows, take one more sip of beer, cork it, look straight at the New York God beside me, and shrug. God knows I won that flower show because my only opponent was particularly ugly and inarticulate. The sad truth is that her flowers were spectacular. Nearly perfect. And she grew them herself. My grandmother was proud anyway. I tried to tell myself, ‘A win is a win.’

But I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now. God will linger at the finish line, waiting fondly for the losers until there’s no such thing anymore. And all the former losers will be busy, planting and protecting, sacrificing and celebrating, honoring and adoring everything that blooms.

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.

Burgers

“God,” I said. “In order to believe in some absolute form of you and thus be falsely assured of a thin, exclusive salvation, a lot of people have silenced their hearts and blinded themselves. You’re aware of that, right?” God rubbed his forehead and looked out the window. I continued.  “They put basic truths through mental meatgrinders, make up twisted doctrines, call this faith, and hang together in paranoid groups, ignoring the obvious and applauding the hateful.”

God drummed his fingers together and used his sleeve to wipe his nose. The tears were real, even if God isn’t always real. The idea of absolute has the same problem as the idea of the perfect quilt when it’s chilly, the day free of duties or doubts, possessions that need no maintenance, the weedless garden…. Absolute is a nice idea but in our small slice of temporary reality, there’s no such thing. The quilt has lumps. The day has worries. Things break down and end. There may be no weeds visible, but just under that dark sheen lurk roots and seeds patient and tenacious.

In time, all things show their fault lines–their contradictions, inadequacies, hypocrisies, and failings. But what if we could move out of the constraints of time? What if fault lines are passageways?

God wavered and disappeared as he often does. “Come back,” I commanded in my bravest voice. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Enlighten me. I’m wondering if anything is absolute, and I don’t have all day. Or maybe I do, but I like you best in the morning.”

“Why?” God asked silently.

“Not sure,” I said, happy to be back in dialogue. I often chew on my left thumb when God and I visit. Today, the thumb tasted like soap because I had just washed yesterday’s dishes, and I’m not great at rinsing. I swallowed the soapy taste. “You seem fresher. More possible.”

Still no visible sign of God. “Oh, I’m absolutely possible,” he said from nowhere. “All day. Late into most nights.”

With that amorphous assurance, I put myself in motion; hung the laundry, took out the trash, wiped some dusty surfaces, touched a couple of my favorite rocks, scrubbed three fat carrots that grew despite the weeds, combed my hair, found my phone, took some vitamins, and packed the car for a trip to town.

 “What do you want to do for lunch?” I asked God, politely ignoring his absence.

“How about burgers?” God said, chuckling.

“Or not,” I smiled. I don’t like burgers. God knows this. And I absolutely know God knows. And that’s what made this reassuring. And very funny.

Wildfires

We evacuated a few days ago. God refused to help sort what to take but rode along in the tiny spaces available in the car and winked at me as the fire officials at the station explained that the wind had shifted. The fight was going another direction. If we took the back roads, we could go home. As we turned around, God disappeared and I was glad to see him go, even though his absence is as much of an illusion as his presence. At least with him ostensibly gone, I could avoid thorny conversations for a while.

Who wants to talk with the God of fire during an evacuation? The God of suffering, loss, and apparently random events? It never goes well. The book of Job for example; an elongated poem, a chorus of voices and views, Yahweh and Satan in a cosmic pissing match, Yahweh’s praise of evolution, and a lesson in pointlessness. Sure, there’s the veneer of a happy ending, but not if you realize it will all end again. Who wants to lose everything twice? Thrice? Forever?

“Do you think the key is to have nothing to lose?” God asked as I sat by the window, breathing smoky air, waiting for another evacuation notice. I didn’t mind that God had swung back around. He was better than the meager offerings on Roku.

“I don’t know about that,” I said, scanning my accumulations; books, art, a sheepskin rug, my yoga mats, special rocks, blue glass, a cedar jewelry box filled with trinkets, a stack of incomplete gardening journals (we start a new one every spring). Of what consequence would their loss be? Little to none. Of what consequence has my life been? Or anyone’s?

God nodded, noncommittal. Listening. I grieved and tried to be brave about it all. I wanted to imagine I was of great consequence; something other than one of the trillion dominoes God has gleefully lined up, waiting and watching to see what might set off the next run, gently drumming his fingers, offering substantial odds to anyone willing to bet against him. I wondered if I could step out of line. Redirect the future of my particular genetic strain, remain standing, and win.

“Of course,” God said. “Be my guest. I like winners.”

“But I thought you liked losers,” I said. Conversations like this give me vertigo of the soul. Winning isn’t definable, and I don’t actually know what kind of consequence I want to be. It’s risky business to have God along in an evacuation because no matter what you take along, God knows what you’ve left behind and will circle back. God always circles back. This may be a good thing, but I’d rather have the promise of perpetuity or at least a direct way home.