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.

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.

Auto-Correct

My Co-author had to disrupt the internet to get my attention and even now, crashed and subdued, I’m trying to find ways to curl up around some happy little thought and protect myself from the simplicities and complexities of that damn self-reflective loop that causes me such trouble. It’s worse than my morning cough. Worse than my lists of things to do. Is this banquet of options meant to prove something? Should I learn to weld?

My Co-author offers no edits. The exuberant birds keep singing, even though I’m sure they’ve already mated for the season. We have water. Enough water for baths and baptisms, for chard, onions, and corn. But the way forward, the way back–always under construction. This is hard for most lifeforms and algorithms to grasp. I am among them.

With a cool breeze and sustenance, it’s easier to make space for my longings and give them a name. I will call them Holy. With a severely curtailed agenda, it is easier to befriend all those familiar demons and fears. I will call them Holy as well. I recognize my hands and consider the things they will do today. If I stare long enough, the delicate bones of God disintegrate, and to be consistent, I know I should call the disintegration Holy and make this morning into a trinity. Land, sea, and sky. Mind, body, and soul. Life, death, and passage.

God slides into distant view as an inane prompt, wondering if I want to save this document. It’s not been saved in the allotted time, nor have I, nor have the people washing up on various shores, seeking to make a better life.

“I don’t like your magnitude this morning,” I tell my Co-author.

“I know,” she says. “And I don’t blame you one bit.”

“Oh, but you do,” I say. “I feel the sun on my damaged skin. I taste the salt. The joy in the river is at an all-time low.”

“And yet, here we are,” my Co-author says, complacent.

“Would you mind editing?” I ask.

“No need,” my Co-author says. “Everything stolen shall be returned. Everything broken shall be repaired. All words misspoken shall be transformed.”

“Sounds as reliable as auto-correct.” I say in a snarky voice. “So, thanks for nothing.”

“You’re welcome,” my Co-author says, and she means it. Nothing is one of her favorite gifts.

A misguided bird has flown through the open door into our porch. I move to help it rejoin the wilder world, glad to have something obvious to do, but before I get there, it has realized its mistake and flown away.

Jerusalem

There is joy in an empty morning, especially if it is tinted slightly turquoise or gentile orange. Wait. I meant genteel. Not gentile. Where did that come from? Oh well. Too late. My mind has gone down the rabbit hole of the middle east and the histories of whole cultures and artificial delineations that have led to pathetic claims of superiority and audacious acts of murder or full-on genocide. Out of suffering has come suffering.

Oh, Jerusalem. You were meant to point us to wholeness but instead, you are irreparably cracked. You have a planet-full of earthborn children pretending to cry out for peace, but peace is boring. What we want is unfettered growth, unmitigated accumulation, endless storage space, and the assurance of a self-styled salvation. Gentile, Jew, Palestinian, Greek, African, White, Latino, Asian, Native, Alien, Influxers, Outgoers, Believers, and those bloated with greed. We’re all a blur in the eye of the passing God who named us Jerusalem and flew away. Named us Eve, Fig Leaf, and Pig’s Eye.

“Are there clues in our DNA?” I ask God as he makes another pass, and I continue to free associate, stimulated by the random events of typos and auto-correct.

“For what?” God says, slowing to a flickering presence, picking at a hangnail, disdainful and uninterested in being embodied.

“For how we’ve gone so wrong,” I say.

“Who’s to say you’ve gone wrong?” God says. “Maybe I planned it this way. And what do you mean by ‘wrong’ and am I included in your sweeping judgements?”

I lean in close to this flippant caricature with onion breath, ragged nails, and bruised feet. God leans away. I lean closer. God gets up and puts himself in the corner, a place of shameful contemplation. I wiggle past the hulking body and become as angular as any corner has ever been.

“Face me,” I demand. Then add in a pleading voice, “I have something you might like.”

God’s hair is greasy. His teeth are mostly gone. His longings are choking the life out of him. He can’t have what he most wants. He’s so lonely he’s willing to settle for fleeting liaisons, lies, and invitations to banquets where only poison is served. Why would anyone host a banquet and then serve poison?

In my angularity, I’ve chosen to serve ramen. It takes the shape of its container, but the long strands remain true to themselves unless they’re cooked too long, and that’s what matters. I try to make sure nothing tastes like soap, whitewash, or condemnation, but there’s a slight aftertaste anyway. I don’t blame myself. If I’ve learned anything from God, it is this: nothing in life will be completely free of aftertaste.

Trees Walking

“God,” I said, after a hot, dry afternoon of good and bad happenings. “How are you different than coincidences or things we can’t explain?”

“I’m not,” God said. “In other dimensions, they don’t even call me God.”

I’ve always known that had to be the case, but knowing hasn’t reduced my longing for a provable formula, a reliably vengeful God, a certain ally, or an intelligent designer with some degree of accountability.

I sighed and asked politely, “What do they call you, then?”

God smiled. “Ah, let’s see. If I put the terms in English for you, I’m sometimes called Attribution, Allah, Beelzebub and Baby’s Breath, Creator, Calamity, Dalliance, Dendroid, Emmanuel, Ego…” She paused and smiled. “Shall I go on?”

“Well, the ABCs are a little boring,” I said. “How about a different alphabet? Or the language of a neighboring planetary system?”

This was perhaps an unwise request from an older soul like myself. God grabbed the brittle corners of my imagination and shook the filmy cataracts loose. My eyes beheld a night sky so dense with possibilities that it almost instantly blinded me. The names of God were a thousand suns, unleashed. God waved her baton; the symphony of all her names was deafening. I intended for my tongue to move, but it would not. With great effort, I raised my finger to signal for help.

“Enough?” God asked.

“Too much,” I said, as I tried to gather what was left of my sensibilities.

“Hand them over,” God said.

“No,” I said. “They’re mine.”

God shook her mane, waved her appendages, leathered up, and roared around in circles on a ruby red Harley. Followers stampeded behind, raising clouds of luminescence. A cacophony of unearthly mirth blew through the trees and with help from a gifted artist, they were transformed into maniacal silver laughter. I couldn’t hold on.

“Uncle,” I shouted.

“Good one,” God shouted back.

“No, I mean I give up,” I said.

“I know what Uncle means,” God said as she put me back together, muttering to herself in languages from beyond and beneath. “There.” She patted my head which felt slightly askew. “That’ll do for now.” She started to walk away but then gave me a second glance. “You’re getting a little tired of the circularity, aren’t you, honey?”

“No!” I lied. “No, not at all.” With the few shreds of pride still at my disposal, I stood erect. “You have a nice day, God” I said. Then I turned my back, rolled under the nearest pile of dead branches, and held very still. As my eyes adjusted, I could see that I was not alone. So many sentient beings, so many innocent souls hiding from the birds of prey.

Maybe God was right. Maybe I am a little tired. This will be an excellent place to rest.

NYT2009
(One of Roxy Paine’s amazing creations)

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.

What the Worms Know

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Clear sky. Clear blue sky. Warm sun. Dark, wet soil. Worms at work underneath. Fat worms, translucent. Harmless. Grass. Green and growing aggressively. Dandelions with long roots. Grass with longer roots. Mint and iris, competing, roots and bulbs and a very blue sky. Me with a shovel. Me with dirt. Rich dirt, fully alive with whatever creatures live in dirt. Hello, creatures. Hello sun. Hello God. The backyard, dancing a circle dance, hands joined, feet first, collapsing into the arms of spring. Laughing. Not menacing, not hysterical, not messed up. There’s always rain in the forecast, blight on the horizon. But Now is perfect. Cautious, but perfect.

“Not quite,” God said. She was digging. “Drop the caution. Therein lies perfection.”

“Wrong,” I said. “Therein lies foolishness. Therein lies disappointment. Therein is falling on my face. I prefer a bit of caution with my Nowness.”

“Sorry to be insistent,” God said. “But I’m right on this one. Perfection exists only without caution. Let it go.”

“God,” I said. “Look at this worm. Have you ever seen a fatter, happier worm?” I didn’t want to keep arguing. God either wins outright, or my day gets all tangled up. Avoidance is an excellent strategy.

God took the worm in her hands and examined it. “No. Or at least hardly ever.” She gave the worm a holy kiss and ate it. “Thanks,” she said, licking her lips.

“Gross,” I said. “Why do you have to do things like that?”

“Protein,” God said. “Pure protein.”

“Yeah, but why not a nice charbroiled steak?” I said. “Or at least rice and beans? There’s something twisted in you, God. Very twisted.”

“YES!” God said, twirling around the raised beds, her skirt flaring, her eyes flashing fire. “Twisted. I am a twisted, uncautious dude. Therein lies my perfection. C’mon.” She held out her hand.

I was tempted. Sorely tempted. Overly tempted. The dirt was warm and welcoming. The melody, ancient, familiar. I took the hand of God and we joined the circle, dancing like folks at the end of a wake, loosened by liquor, sorrow, and song. It was a wake for all that is dead, all that is dying, all that will be born anew. It was my own wake, and I was dancing. It was a wake for what I’ve known and destroyed. We danced more and more frenetically. God and I. It was beyond. We were somewhere and nowhere. I couldn’t let go. I won’t let go.

“Fall,” God said. “Fall on your face.” I hesitated. She wasn’t taunting. She was serious.

“Okay,” I said. I was delirious. Intoxicated. I fell in the mud, naked and without excuse. I rolled in rotten leaves, ate the bitter buds of dandelions–and I was saved! Just like that. Saved.

 

Snowbound

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Two feet of God fell through the night, pure white, yielding and silent–a worthy opponent, this friend of mine. “To what do I owe this honor?” I asked as I shoveled, and tried to mean it. “Nice of you to stop by,” I added, lying. No answer. I went back inside to stoke the fire and stare out the window.

A resolute sun broke through, brief and blinding. I could see nothing. Hear nothing. The tips of my toes and fingers felt nothing. This was the white of beguiling lies, seductive cover-ups. I was out of my depth, but it kept coming down. I’m ill-prepared, I thought. When you consider wind chill, even the burliest humans are easily frozen. The teeth of my cyberworld chattered. How do you love in this bitter cold? we asked each other, not actually wanting to know.

From the security of my couch, I contemplated the fields of deep, deadly white. For my people, black is the color of mourning–the color of absorption. But billions of people mourn in white–the color of reflection. White is what happens when light gathers force: blood red, sky blue, the yellow of fire and sun.

“That’s enough of that,” God said in a gruff, grandfatherly voice. “You’re trying too hard–too full of yourself. How about the red of that little wagon? The yellow of dog pee on snow?”

“But the situation is serious, God,” I said, embarrassed. “And I didn’t know you were listening. Could you knock, or at least make some noise before you barge into my head like that?”

God rolled himself into a single eyeball, a sheen of ice glazed over a deep, dangerous blue. He winked.

“Sorry,” he said. “I know it’s childish, but I love startling people. You thought I was out there, being weather, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, maybe,” I said. “Or maybe not. You tell me, Mr. Know-It-All.”

An avalanche of laughter crashed against my dying world, my endangered species, bathing it in cold comfort, icing away the inflammation of ego and all things unsettled, unfiltered, and unattainable.

“Love can look like this,” God said, pointing at a single ember.

I knew the fire needed more wood, but I was reluctant. Winter isn’t over and the woodpile is precariously low.

Bone Marrow

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“You’ve locked up an astounding number of people,” God said, settling into the sage green recliner. “Expensive choice,” she added. She pushed back to elevate her feet. The news coverage of poorly fed immigrants imprisoned in New Jersey seemed to have stimulated this comment. I nodded politely, but this is not my favorite topic.

“And a few of them are on hunger strike,” God said, shaking her head.

“Do you disapprove?” I asked, confused about where this was going.

“Oh no,” God said. “I’m right there with humans risking their lives for justice.”

“But starving yourself is a form of slow suicide,” I said. Some people think you don’t approve of that. Ever. At all.”

“Ironic” God said. “You have the death penalty and you force tubes down the noses of those willing to die for a cause.” I flashed back to a documentary of prison guards inserting those tubes. It had made me cry. God interrupted my unsettled ruminations. “You remember that Mary Oliver line ‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’”

“Of course,” I said. “But she was not writing about hunger strikes.” I looked straight at God. God rolled her eyes, stood, and began pacing.

“I forget how rule-bound and simplistic you humans can be. It’s rare for you to transcend—to realize that you’re only temporarily clad in that one wild and precious life. There are times to let go.”

I looked out the window, wishing for silence, but God didn’t let up. “Thousands of years ago, when the Poet wrote ‘…a time to kill and a time to heal…’ she didn’t mean these actions were preordained. There are times to be born and times to die. Times to reap and times to sow, times to throw stones and times to gather stones together. Each of you has to figure out when.”

I thought of Palestinian youth, throwing stones. Dying. I thought of scorched swaths of earth–reaping and sowing obliterated by climate change, chemicals. The enormity of moral agency chilled my inner being. I wanted a default setting to fall back on.

God read my mind. “No part of you is ever alone,” she said, standing near the fire, rubbing her hands. She reached in her pocket and handed me a shiny business card. It read:

God. Author of Forgiveness.
Source of Wisdom. Definition of Love.
Free Consultations

I felt sick. “No,” I said and threw the card in the fire. “Too subjective. Too permissive. Too precarious. I’d rather have our legislatures just make some laws.”

God laughed. “No you wouldn’t,” she said. She pulled the card back out of the fire. The flames had done no damage. “Your best decisions are based on love. Your worst are made in anger, driven by fear, greed, revenge, or hatred. It is your body–your one wild and precious life. The laws you need are written in the marrow of your bones. Sorry, but that’s just the way I made you.”

“Bones disintegrate,” I said, still hoping for an easy way out.

“I know,” God said. “But the dust you become is light and beautiful, and the Wind is gentler than you can imagine right now.”

State of the Union

edit First pair blue hair

“I love scientists,” God said, sipping herbal tea, relaxed and open. “I just love them. They try so hard to understand, reveal, predict, and invent. Aren’t they something? Such visionaries.”

“Yeah,” I said. We sat for a while. Then I added. “You know, I’m somewhat of a scientist myself.

“Hmmm,” God said. “I don’t often think of you that way, but now that you mention it, I can see a little scientific mindedness in you. More artist, but sure, a little scientist.”

Well.

My eyebrows bent down, but I pushed them back up to the level of civil discourse. “I love scientists, too,” I said. “But doesn’t it bother you that you’re kept out of the equations so often?”

“What?” God said. “Are you nuts? I don’t have to be recognized to be present. In fact, I get a lot of exercise jogging around in equations and hypotheses. They’re great places to work out. Science-types are like moles, digging into creation. They examine air, stars, creatures deep in the sea. I love that burning desire to understand.” God paused, looking like a proud parent, and added, “I never dreamed they’d come up with the idea of splitting an atom! Wow. Just wow.”

I was aghast. “God!” I yelled, “You know what we’ve done with split atoms, right?”

God gave me that “duh” look and said, “Children take things apart, and sometimes, they can’t get them back together. It’s part of the long, long walk.” God’s voice faltered. I could tell I’d hit a sore spot, but I was unrepentant.

“It’s more than that,” I said, my voice deadly serious. “And you know it.”

God sighed. “Okay. True. Divide and conquer is a primitive strategy. Bringing things together is a more advanced skill than taking them apart.”

If I could’ve held it together, I would’ve given God a “duh” look back. But I lost it and slid into my usual slash and burn. I stomped back and forth on our concrete floor until I gave myself shin splints. I growled until my throat hurt. I punched the air. I kick-boxed with God. My heart rate moved past the aerobic range. I shouted, “We are tragically fractured, and we just keep fracturing further. Human trafficking, walls and greed, gutted landscapes, forced pregnancies, prolonged suffering at the end of life. War. Torture. Starvation. Nuclear waste. And you sit there, admiring scientists and spouting off about bringing things together?”

“Yes,” God said in a stubborn voice. She appeared to be unfazed. “Exactly.”

She sat down and took a sip of tea, trying to hide her tears. I hid mine, too. A long moment passed. Then, a cruel storm blew up, and fierce as a mother eagle, God flung her powerful, protective wings around the cosmos. My reach is maddeningly limited, but I tried to do the same.