In praise of embodiment and the fight within: my COVID story

It’s been more than 10 months since the World Health Organization officially declared the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time I had just moved into a house with eight strangers through a listing I found on Craigslist. Everyone in the house took steps to self-quarantine, reduce exposure, and improve sanitation around the house, but still, we each had our own separate lives. We made little collective, coordinated effort to adopt consistent precautions, other than limiting the number of guests at the house.

I continued going into work, the lumber yard where I was employed at the time having been declared an essential industry. We adopted mask wearing and social distancing procedures in accordance with government mandates and guidelines that emerged after the outbreak, but still, I was around coworkers and customers four to five days a week from March through the end of September. I hung out with three or four separate friends on a regular basis, but otherwise limited my interactions to my immediate household and coworkers. 

By the end of September it came time for me to leave Seattle. I drove down to Oregon, crashing with several friends on the way, and spent a month living on an organic farm with four other people. Occasionally neighbors would stop by. No one ever wore a mask—the population was so spread out in the area and no one seemed too concerned. From there I journeyed down to California, where I visited my family and several friends before moving into a group house with a dozen other people to start a conservation program. Christmas break came around, and I stayed with my family in Bakersfield, only interacting with my immediate relatives and the handful of people they had over for dinner on several occasions.

I had taken precautions that I felt were reasonable, but after all that exposure due to my particular life circumstances and decisions I figured there was a good chance I had already contracted COVID and simply had an asymptomatic case. I’ve been exceptionally healthy my whole life and don’t get sick often. I’d felt healthy the entire year. Just to be safe, I decided to get tested shortly after Christmas in anticipation of a wedding I would be flying to in Austin four days later. In the meantime, I was able to self-isolate at my sister’s house. She and her husband were out of town and had asked if I could housesit for them. 

The morning of my flight I woke up with a slight cough. I had just received a negative result from my test four days earlier. I got dressed in my suit (so I wouldn’t have to pack it) and put my suitcase in my car. I paused and coughed intentionally, paying attention to how it felt. My heart sank. This was no inconsequential case of clearing morning phlem. My body was responding to something. I was sick.

I would have to leave within the half hour to make it to the airport in time for my flight. Frantically I called a friend who worked at the CDC and explained my situation. I was caught between a negative test result, a slim window of exposure since then, and the slightest of symptoms. To my friend’s credit, she didn’t tell me what to do. I had to weigh the risks as best I could and make the decision for myself. 

I thought about the health disclaimer the airline I was flying with required all passengers to affirm: that they hadn’t knowingly been exposed to the virus or had symptoms in the past two weeks. I had symptoms right now. I couldn’t tell a lie and board an airplane in good conscience (much less attend a wedding two days later if my symptoms were to worsen). I called my friend getting married and left a teary voicemail. I wouldn’t be able to come to the wedding. 

I scheduled a COVID test two days later. In the intervening time my symptoms did get worse. My cough intensified and I became congested. My sense of taste and smell began to feel…off. I couldn’t taste much sweetness in anything. I couldn’t smell a scented candle burning in the room. I wondered if it was just the congestion. I hoped it was.

Five days later I got my test results: positive. I had COVID-19. 

I’d be hard pressed to invent a more ironic turn of events. After all that exposure over the first 10 months of the pandemic, I finally had the chance to self-isolate for a few days. After a negative test and minimal exposure, I came down with the virus the morning of the only flight I had booked since the pandemic hit. Like what the hell? Just when I thought I could start putting the year 2020 behind me, I found myself in isolation in my little sister’s old bedroom, watching Netflix and eating fresh-picked oranges from the backyard amid leopard print duvet covers and Eiffel tower wall art. 

This is my COVID story—or part of it, at least. I know we all have one, each chock full of our particular losses, frustrations, and griefs. But something feels different now that I’ve actually contracted the disease. I feel like I’ve finally stepped beyond the abstract, risk-management mindset. I’m no longer someone with such-and-such a percent chance of contracting the disease and such-and-such a percent chance of being hospitalized. In this sense the new case rates in my area are suddenly irrelevant. The virus is here, inside me, right now. I feel it in my breath, my muscles, my tongue. I am the host. The flesh-and-blood battle has come to me at last. In some mysterious—I’m tempted to say miraculous way—my body is waging war against a virus that the wealthiest nation in the world has proved incapable of stopping and that the brightest minds on the planet are still struggling to understand. 

Waging war…and winning.

In the early days of the pandemic, I was on the phone catching up with a friend who works in wealth management. He told me about a comment a bank executive had made in a recent briefing with investors that was, in the words of my friend, “straight-up metaphysical.”

“Our bodies are the best defense we have right now,” the executive had said.

I’ve thought about that line a lot over the past year. It’s a remarkable thing to consider. For the vast majority of us who encounter COVID, a brand new contagion that we’ve never seen before, our immune systems will find ways to fight it off. And in many cases we will fight it off so easily that we don’t even realize we’re infected

That’s incredible. 

Don’t get me wrong, I bless making space for the experiences of loss and grief this year. I know that hundreds of thousands of people have died. It’s been really, really hard and the pain is really, really real. However I also hope that even in the midst of the hardship we can find ways to stay in touch with the wonder of our bodies and the deep knowledge we hold in our being all the way down to our very cells. 

My former therapist often concluded our sessions with a bold affirmation: “You have everything you need inside you.” He meant it on a spiritual and emotional level, but now I can feel within me that it’s true at a physiological, immuno-response level too. I look at my hands and stretch my limbs, I take a deep breath and feel oxygen rush into my blood, I stand up and feel my muscles activate in my thighs and hips. I wake up and notice that I am not as sick as I was yesterday. I can literally feel the coronavirus being eradicated from my body. 

Truly, I am fearfully and wonderfully made. 

I recently took an hour to read Lawrence Wright’s excellent account of the pandemic in The New Yorker. It’s a veritable epic, ranging from closed-door conversations among CDC leaders and the White House coronavirus task force, to on-the-ground horrors faced by doctors in New York City, to the last hours of an aging World War II veteran who died neglected in a nursing home. I’ve read a copendium of such accounts over the year, from analytical articles centered around macro-level statistics of rising cases to individual stories of death and loss—people who died alone after an excessive immune response flooded their lungs with fluid, for example. 

And here I am, carrying within me the same malicious sickness that so much ado has been made about, calmly typing away on my laptop and sipping a glass of water. It’s quite unsettling, almost to the point of being absurd. I feel like Boromir picking up the Ring of Power on the the Pass of Caradhras, staring at it in perplexed wonder: “It is a strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and doubt over so small a thing…Such a little thing.”

So strange, and yet like the One Ring I do find there’s a sense in which this disease feels fundamentally evil. I’m wary of any theodicizing that would attribute COVID to the Devil or claim that it’s God’s judgement on the world, but still, something feels undeniably nefarious about it. It has a trickster quality, as if it had been contrived and set loose by the Joker or Professor Moriarty. Many cases are asymptomatic. The disease moves by stealth and deception, leaving one person seemingly untouched only to strike with deadly fury in the next. 

And when it does strike, well, it’s liable to target just about anywhere. As Wright describes in his account: “COVID is unusual in the variety of ways that it causes the body to malfunction. Some patients require kidney dialysis or suffer liver damage. The disease can affect the brain and other parts of the nervous system, causing delirium, strokes, and lasting nerve damage. COVID could also do strange things to the heart. Hospitals began admitting patients with signs of cardiac arrest—chest pains, trouble breathing—and preparing emergency coronary catheterizations.”

“There’s not a lot you can do but hope they get through it,” says one doctor in the piece. Since the outbreak began the medical community has developed some helpful treatments, but we still don’t really know how to cure this thing once infection sets in. Our only hope is the preemptive measure of a vaccine. In the meantime, we’re essentially left with only our bodies’ natural defense systems. 

Even the more mundane symptoms of COVID show up with what feels to me like a malevolent quality. For instance, the virus has drastically diminished my sense of taste and smell, and it has forced me to care for friends and family by enduring the sickness in solitude. In my worldview and theology, this is what evil does. 

In other words, I find that COVID has made a fundamental assault on the richness and beauty of my humanity. I trust I will almost certainly make a full recovery, so I’m not freaking out yet, but knowing how much harm the virus has the potential to cause, I am also not at ease. A friend of mine had COVID months ago and even though he has recovered, he is still experiencing lingering sensory fallout.

“It’s depressing to not smell correctly,” he told me recently. “I loved the smell of coffee and considered myself a gourmand in a way. My wife’s perfume she wore when we first met doesn’t smell the same. An avenue of joy is potentially altered forever. That’s hard to come to terms with.”

Indeed, the psychological devestation of anosima, losing one’s sense of smell, is well-documented. Doctors say it can be even more crippling and threatening than having a limb amputated. When the loss of smell is permanent, it almost always leads to depression, and in some cases suicide.

Is this not evil’s great twofold work: isolation, the severing of human relationships, and numbness, the undoing of the sensory, embodied pleasures that allow us to enjoy the good gifts of life? As the demon Screwtape reminds his temptor-in training in C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, “Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s [that is, God’s] ground…He made the pleasure: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one.”

Pleasure is good. Taste and smell are good and at the core of what makes us human. The only thing evil can do is eradicate, twist, and diminish it. We’re made for feasting after all! People in every culture, from Bible-thumping Southern Baptists to ancient Athenians to indigenous groups around the world, intutively recognize this. To live the good life is to feast with those you love, and that’s right where COVID has hit me and many others the hardest. 

One of my semi-regular practices during the pandemic, as the occassion calls for, has been to yell out loud, “Fuck you, COVID!” Sometimes I belt the curse out with friends. Other times I scream it by myself, raising my middle finger to the sky. I know the virus can’t hear me, but I make no apology for such outbursts. After all the measures we’ve taken and the sacrifices we’ve made over the past year to get a handle on the pandemic, COVID’s assault on my body feels like a violation. Taking my sense of smell and taste? That’s a low blow. I curse the disease again, “Fuck you COVID!”

We’re coming up on a full year of living with this goddamn disease, what else is left to do?

We can be angry and feel pent up. I think that’s a good, honest place to start. And then sometimes, in between my frustrated cries, I find shards of gratitude and little pieces of perspective. I take a deep breath and thank God for my lungs. This too shall pass. It will. The vaccine is on the way. There will come a day when I’m free of the teal walls of my sister’s bedroom—it’s only a weekend away, in fact. Soon and very soon. Like the flowers of the field, these dark, lonely days will fade away, and we will again see goodness in the land of the living. 

For now, though, I must wait, bearing my own small portion of the weight of the world. The virus will rage and linger, but on the battlefront of my embodied existence, this heart and skin and bones in which I live and move and have my being, it ends right here. 

POEM: Notes from Liminality

There are many ways to wander

And I am bent on all of them

My body stirs, pushes, pulls

Urging me out, out toward the horizon

To mossy waterfalls in the Olympics

Meteor showers under the Mojave sky

The golden dance of wind wolves

Wide, rolling sets at Sufers Point

I pitch my tent here and there

In misty backyards

Atop wind-swept ridges of pine and fir

Or nestled in sand among creosote

On the highways I seek visions

A pillar of cloud or column of fire

My ear strains to hear

The voice of a raven in an updraft

The call of a porpoise beyond the break

A guiding word gurgled from a valley creek

Selah

I chafe at the silence

Dodge masked faces

Gnash my teeth in the waiting

And return to my parents’ house

The walls of my childhood bedroom

Bind me in a cage of my own hiding

My heart claws out for love

In longshot and impossible places

Of course a notification won’t cure me

Ah, but maybe it will, see? Feels nice

Anything—even a photo—I’ll take it

But don’t give me waiting

Dear God, please don’t give me waiting

Here I am—look at me!

Turning time into a cheap trinket

Kneecapping stories before the conflict

While one word, just the one

Seeps in through the gaps

“Emptying.”

Selah

The Mojave opens its sand-red maw

Present, always present to receive me

The Pacific heaves waves of baptism

I have only to walk among the Joshua trees

To paddle into the tidal grave

These two: stillness and motion

The waiting and the dance

These two kill me—I turn my face away

Selah

Where then shall I go for eternal life?

The naked now beckons, whispers again: “emptying”

Through the void I catch the song of home 

Faint on the morning sea breeze

Skipping off the cold desert wind

A Spirit sings out:

“Take up your shovel, the soil is black

Take up your surfboard, and seek the break

One day you’ll learn how to dig deep

And stand up.”

Longing and Love Dogs: A New Years Reflection on Psalm 42

I make it a practice most mornings to read a psalm. Normally I read them in sequential order, but for the past several weeks I’ve found myself circling back on Psalm 42. Morning after morning, I feel compelled to return and read it again, breathe it again, speak it again.  

It’s funny. In two and half decades of being steeped in church and Christian community, I’ve probably heard this psalm referenced and preached on dozens of times. From what I can remember, these messages were often prescriptive. They emphasized how the psalm is a template for preaching to ourselves when we feel down and discouraged. The refrain is proclaimed boldly, almost obnoxiously: 

Why are you cast down, O my soul, 

and why are you in turmoil within me? 

Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, 

my salvation and my God.

As I’ve read Psalm 42 within my own the context of the year 2020, however, the text has taken on new depths and forms of meaning. At the end of the year I find myself with resistance on all sides. I had to cancel travel to a wedding yesterday because I woke up with a cough the morning of my flight. I’m trying to forge a new life for myself in the midst of a pandemic and in the lingering shadow of divorce. I’m trying to land a wildland firefighting job next season against competition a decade younger than me. I’ve left my church and theraputic community behind in Seattle, and I don’t see how I’ll be finding substantive replacements any time soon here in California. I hate being single, but I work week-long hitches in the wilderness with spotty cell service and spend my off days bouncing between Ridgecrest, Bakersfield, and the beach. God’s song is faint in my ear, if I catch any notes of it at all.

Sometimes I walk to a nearby park, speak Psalm 42 into the cool morning air, and find that I can breathe a little more deeply. I encounter no prescription here, no guidance, per se, but I do find permission. I find it through the voice of one who is also in the in-between, who is having a season of loss and emptiness, who feels cut off from spiritual community—from people that know your heart—and is surrounded by opposition. Whoever wrote this awful, beautiful song is facing emptiness and resistance on all sides. Just look at the language he uses: As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My tears have been my food day and night. My soul is cast down within me. As with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me.

It’s bleak. But in the midst of this awful, dark, place, he remembers times of rejoicing. You can feel the longing in his heart, “how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival.”

Look at this language again: go with the throng, glad shouts, lead them in procession, multitudes keeping festival. This isn’t a mere nostalgic pining after the “good old days.” There’s a legitimate loss here. I’m sure many Christians, including myself, can relate to this loss of worshiping together and seeing hearts united in longing for the living God. But I also see here the loss of everything innately woven into that longing and joy, the loss of human things like commmunity and camraderie and celebration. The psalmist isn’t just missing singing hymns at church, he’s missing rock concerts, he’s missing sporting events, he’s missing parades, dance parties, wedding feasts!

I wept yesterday when I called my friend to tell her that I wouldn’t be able to attend her wedding in person. I cried with anger and frustration that a stupid, trivial thing like a cough derailed my plans. I cried with sadness and grief that I wouldn’t be able to celebrate in the presence of her and her husband and the close mutual friends that we share.

Similarly, I nearly wept on Christmas Eve last week when I livestreamed a service from a local Anglican Church in Bakersfield. “Let us bless the Lord. Thanks be to God.” The liturgy flowed from my lips like a sweet, aching balm, evoking my own memories of leading a small Seattle congregation in procession to the house of God, where we would speak the same words to initiate songs of praise that I sang and played out on my guitar. 

I long to taste the sweetness of these things once again, and the longing hurts. 

The pain here is profoundly important to name. It underscores the great risk of giving voice to grief like Psalm 42. Cries like this set the griever up for disappointment, dissatisfaction, and ridicule. “As with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me all the day long, ‘Where is your God?’” The Lord doesn’t seem to be here now, but if he isn’t, when is he going to show? Why did he leave in the first place?

The question is left hanging as the psalmist makes an abrupt shift, turning the questioning back on himself, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” 

“Why are you cast down?” I read that question and want to scream at the writer: “Dude, look at what you just wrote! No shit you’re cast down!” The risk is palpable, evoked by the psalm’s visceral language. Horrific fates like bone cancer, drowning, and dehydration come to mind. 

There’s no use sugercoating it. If I’m honest, this is often what it’s felt like to hope in God the past year, and rather than wait, too often I try to take any relief I can get.

I recently ran across a poem by Rumi called Love Dogs. It tells a story of a man who was accosted by a cynic while passionately praying.

“I have heard you calling out, but have you ever gotten any response?” the cynic asks. The man admits to himself that he never has, and in his discouragement he falls into a confused sleep. While dreaming, the guide of souls meets him and asks the man why he stopped praying. “Because I’ve never heard anything back,” the man says.

The guide replies:

This longing you express

is the return message.

The grief you cry out from

draws you toward union.

Your pure sadness that wants help

is the secret cup.

Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.

That whining is the connection.

There are love dogs no one knows the names of.

Give your life to be one of them.

I do not like the guide’s answer, but I know of no other recourse for love. The whining is the connection. This is what it sounds like: When shall I come and appear before God? Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?

I think one of the most overlooked things about Psalm 42 is that God doesn’t answer. There’s no resolution, no divine deliverance or relief. If God shows up at all, it’s in a pummelling of breakers and waves. If anything he’s the one inflicting the drowning.

The whining is the connection—the crying out, the longing. That’s what looses the tears. That’s what keeps us alive in seasons of famine and plague, in years like 2020. That’s what makes us most truly ourselves, because we’re being honest and stringing out our hearts at the risk of disappointment.

Even more than that, I believe the whining itself is the very locus of our confidence and hope. The pure sadness—the thirsty panting—testifies to the union we were made for. It draws us ever onward and outward into the world even when we are quarantined alone indoors! It’s a confidence in future praise, in new possibilities, even as the psalmist inhabits a moment where praise feels impossible. 

This hope is what inspired Foo Fighter’s frontman Dave Grohl, two months into the pandemic, to assert with confidence in an article for The Atlantic that concerts will come back someday.

“I don’t know when it will be safe to return to singing arm in arm at the top of our lungs, hearts racing, bodies moving, souls bursting with life,” Grohl wrote. “But I do know that we will do it again, because we have to. It’s not a choice. We’re human. We need moments that reassure us that we are not alone. That we are understood… Together, we are instruments in a sonic cathedral, one that we build together night after night. And one that we will surely build again.” 

I’ve come to read the refrain from Psalm 42 with that same confidence: “Hope in God, for I shall again praise him. My salvation and my God.” 

This is a declaration of inevitability, just as Grohl declared that we will surely gather arm in arm at rock shows again. I don’t have to gin up my confidence and my hope with a Christianized pep talk when I feel downcast. I don’t have to force my feelings or even my beliefs to change. I simply have to enter in to the depths of my own humanness, though often that is the hardest thing of all. Of course I’ll praise God again, and I need not be anxious about how I get there. I have to. I can’t help but desire anything else—not in the long run, at least. It’s not a choice. The longing is deep in my bones because I’m human…because I’m a child of God. 

The Weight of Restoration: Lessons from Kill Team Arundo

We dub ourselves “Kill Team Arundo,” a scrappy band of a half-dozen AmeriCorps volunteers dispatched to San Diego’s eastern watershed regions for eight days to remove a bamboo-like grass called Arundo donax. 

Known colloquially as giant reed grass, Arundo donax is invasive in these lands, having been introduced to southern California nearly 200 years ago for roofing material and erosion control in drainage canals. Like many invasive species, it is devilishly hard to wrangle under control and remove. It is among the fastest growing terrestrial plants in the world at nearly 10 centimeters a day. As far as biologists know, it is not a food source or nesting habitat for any native wildlife here. 

Natural disasters only work to the arundo’s advantage. Heavy rains and flooding spread the plant further because it reproduces when pieces of rhizome—its rootstalks—break off and are washed down a river or watershed area to take root somewhere else. Arundo is also highly adapted to fire. Its dense stands are highly flammable year round, a serious liability in southern California, however its rhizomes are capable of surviving a fire event. When they resprout, they grow back more quickly than native plants, crowding out the ecosystem even more and choking out native willows and wild grapevines. 

Those are just the facts and figures. To actually engage the stuff, boots on the ground and tools in hand, is to face off with something out of a nightmare. We delve into an arundo grove like Dante descending into hell. You can almost hear the reeds taunting, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”

Layers upon layers of inch-thick stalks crowd in on each other, crisscrossing and overlapping and obscuring the world around us. There’s no way out but to fight, to find a foothold, any window big enough to reach through, and begin lopping off one stalk at a time. The ground in the watershed areas where arundo grows is often steep and unstable. Dry, dead, stalks pack the interior, arranged like prison bars to keep out intruders like us. They break off and uproot with little effort, but they are brittle and snap easily, leaving us with more pieces to pick up so they don’t dam and distort the waterway. 

Any part of a living arundo stalk is liable to wash downstream and regrow, so we remove every green shard in sight, meticulously picking through the detrius of stalks and leaves. It looks like a bomb went off in here. In the carnage, how easy would it be for us to overlook a small piece of stem and leave it to float away and start another grove? I try not to entertain the possibility in my mind. We just need to get the stuff out and be ruthless about it. Remove the biomass. Keep it above the flash flood lines. Leave no (potential) survivors.

Curses drift up from the streambed as we work the groves. Dust particles and plant fibers drift in the air and catch in our throats and lungs. It’s a war of attrition, we tell each other during breaks. Most of the time the terrain is too uneven and dangerous to wipe out the arundo with a brushcutter, so we fight hand to hand, mano-a-mano. We win by lopping off one stalk at a time, carrying up one armful of reeds at at time, and stacking them in one pile at a time. In a few weeks, once they’ve thoroughly dried, a wood chipper will come through and turn them into mulch. 

Some days we get the entire patch out and we can feel satisfied at night knowing that a round of pesticides will soon be on its way to kill the rhizomes remaining in the ground. Other days we take out as much as we can, usually only a fraction of a vast grove, only to be told it is time to move on to another site. We leave the bastards to continue growing. If no one comes back for another year, I wonder how much of what we’ve cut down will have regrown. Could we keep doing this in perpetuity, returning year after year only to beat back the same groves again and again while the aged oaks look on and the trickling stream nudges the sandy soil out to sea?

I start most days with energy and zeal for the task. My arms and legs feel strong and my heart longs to get outside and do some good in the world. I set about stacking the arundo in neat piles to be chipped. After an hour or two I’m hankering for a snack. By lunchtime I’ve started watching the sun in the sky, waiting for it to arc mercifully over the hills toward the horizon so we can go back to our campsite and I can eat copious amounts of fat, protein, and carbohydrates to sustain my lean frame.

As we drive to and from the work sites each day, I spot other groves of arundo peaking out through the watershed canopies along the roads and highways. It’s everywhere. I want to cry out, “Stop the truck! We need to take down that arundo!” I’m in a ruthless, wartime midset. We’re here to eradicate the enemy, completely and without mercy, and I hate to leave so much of the damned grass standing. I am, after all, a member of “Kill Team Arundo.” This is our mission. This is what we were made for.

“Don’t think about it,” our crew lead tells me. We must be strategic about which battles we choose to fight. There are rules to adhere to, private property owners who must be contacted and wooed over to the righteousness of our cause. There are protocols to follow to secure and ensure funding, to make sure we work safely, to track and quantify our progress. We’re short on manpower and resources, and there’s so much land. What can half a dozen of us actually do in 80 hours? 

I ask myself this question often.

We can make a dent, keeping the darkness of the impermeable groves at bay for a bit longer. But that’s about it. Just a dent. When the sun goes down we drag ourselves back to our campsite, and I feel the truth of the matter in my body. It takes a hell of a lot of work to do any physical, tangible good in the world. The task of redemption and restoration that we feel drawn to engage in as humans (drawn either by the Spirit of God or by the conscience in our hearts—I’d say both) is profoundly costly. I take stock of the resources invested in us to make this project happen. We are volunteers earning a pennies-on-the-dollar living stipend, but someone had to provide the bins of food in our trailer, the pickup truck and gasoline to drive five hours from Ridgecrest, the brushcutters and McLeods and loppers we work with, the tents we sleep in, the wood chipper that will come through and finalize our work. Even as we nudge these watershed regions toward a more whole, restored state, we still leave a footprint of our own, burning dozens of gallons of fossil fuels and tossing out a garbage bag of plastic waste on our way out.

What have we done with all that? Some good, yes, but it’s all incremental. We leave happy property owners in our wake and help the fire marshal sleep a little more peacefully. Maybe a few more gallons of water will make it into the Lake Jennings Reservoir next year rather than being sucked up by the arundo. At one site the project partner points out two oak saplings, just a few inches tall, that have sprouted next to the spot where a small patch of arundo was removed last year. I caress them gently and remember we are not alone in the work. 

We are not alone, and that is an encouraging thought. It’s not all walls of dead reed grass and picking plastic bottles out of the riverbed. I hear the breeze rustle the branches overhead and hear a bird cry in the distance. The cottonwoods and red-tailed hawks are just waiting for an opening in the arundo to step into the light, spread their branches, and soar. Truly, truly, the land holds a latent verdancy that longs to bring forth life and flourishing. I can feel it.

But it takes an act of faith to trust and obey the insistence in my gut that this all matters. It takes an act of faith to believe that those patches of arundo growing freely in the waterways won’t have multiplied two- or three-fold by the time another crew returns next year to continue this project. It takes an act of faith to believe that when I step into the hard, tedious, divine work of restoration and reconciliation with the earth, I’m living into a way of being that leads to life and ends with feasting.

It takes an act of faith to pay the price, too—to give up the treasure, the lost productivity, the blood, sweat, and tears necessary to begin healing the world from modernity’s excesses of disconnection and consumerism. It takes an act of faith to labor and make a ruckus like the persistent widow crying out to an uncaring judge for justice against her adversary.

And so I throw my body into another patch of arundo, hauling out stalk after stalk while breathing feeble prayers. Between armfuls I pause to watch the dust motes dancing in the dappled morning light. Here I strive, even as I am haunted in the liminal quiet by the question: “nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Here Am I: Reflections from Lake Jennings Reservoir

I’ve found a place to meet God. It’s a spit of land, mounded like a long hill, that juts out into the Lake Jennings reservoir near our campsite. I am spending eight days camping here in Alpine, California, working with a team of a half-dozen volunteers to remove arundo donax, an invasive, bamboo-like grass. We work from sunup to sundown each day, almost ten hours. It’s a grind.

There is rarely anyone else out here in the dark hours of the morning, just after the stars have faded. I come out to an open space atop the hill and sit at an aluminum picnic table. A ring of trees of varying sizes and species along the waterline encircles me. Dozens of birds populate the reservoir: tiny songbirds singing melodies, an osprey soaring overhead on the hunt, an assortment of waterfowl paddling near the shore.

It’s a good place to begin and end the day. The peninsula formation of the land jutting from the north to the south means the sun both rises and sets over the reservoir. Here I pray. And wait. I breathe and feel and reach out, like a blind man groping for Jesus of Nazareth. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me. Have mercy on me!” I speak the words and try to listen. “I know you’re out there.”

I wish I had something with which to consecrate this place, but I’ve misplaced my holy water and chrism oil. They’re in storage with most of my personal belongings. There is a wide, flat dirt clearing, enough open space to drive a car out and turn around. Maybe the dirt itself is enough. What more would God want of me anyways? Here I step into the depths of a season of solitude and loneliness, of the deprivation of modern comforts. I will be sleeping in a tent for at least half of my nights over the next six months — maybe even the next year if my plan to fight wildfires next season works out. The rest of the time I will be intinerant, flitting from bunk bed to guest bedroom to pullout couch.

The season of Advent is beginning, but out here it feels more like the early arrival of Lent. I stand in the dirt at dusk, surrounded by fading reflections on the smooth surface of the water, waiting for a whirlwind to rise up and call me to dress myself for action and face the cosmos like a man. The osprey dives from the top of a tree. I hear a splash. Just like that, a fish’s life is ended. It has played its part in the circle: raptor food. 

It’s dust to dust out here, I must remember that.

Here am I, taking it all in, ceasing my feeble prayers to marvel at the graceful, steely intent of the osprey’s locked and angled wings, diving like a homing missile. Here am I, delighting in the songbirds darting in and out among the cacti and eucalyptus trees. Here am I, feeling my stomach grumble in anticipation of the orange chicken my companions will prepare for dinner tonight. I guess I’m not so holy after all, thinking about orange chicken at a time and place like this.

Here am I. Do I dare ask the Lord to send me? Send me where? For what purpose? The world seems to be holding together decently enough, all things considered, without my meddling under the guise of divine mission.

Then again, perhaps I’m already as holy as ever, with my longing for a lantern-lit feast and a few dark hours of rest. Perhaps there’s not a mission to submit to, but freedom to shoulder like a pair of big, floppy wings. “You’re a big boy,” God the Father tells me. “You can make your own decisions.” And so I have. I’ve led myself here, working for pennies on the dollar, waking up to the stars, working by the sweat of my brow, sitting in the heat of the day eating pretzels and beef jerky in silence.

I must be on mission, though, one way or another. I know of no other way to live. It’s either mission — hacking arundo out of a San Diego watershed — or abandoning my heart to the impersonal gaze of a thousand photographs of women. It’s either mission — writhing on the couch, weeping in agony after signing my divorce papers — or a long string of evenings making my way through an on-demand streaming catalog over a meat lovers pizza.

I come out here seeking beauty and peace. I find them. They whisper to me like an intimate friend, then bid me go into the darkness and die. Sometimes I take their word for it, and the death gets drawn out, like a long, sleepless night in a cold tent. The night drags on too heavy. I abort and become a phantom of my true self, strung out and uninspired even by the constellations in the night sky.

But there is another way. It’s the way of writhing on the couch, of calling my mother the week my grandmother died, of weeping out prayers for the nurses in the Covid units, of watching a black man die under the knee of contempt incarnate. I scream and curse and throw my hat across the room. It’s all wrong.

Somehow — how could anyone ever explain it — this way leads to love. Again I cry out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Mercy? Yes, always mercy — always. But to what end, exactly, are my eyes being opened? Am I healing only to see thick patches of arundo suck the water out of the hills, choking the valley oaks and draining the osprey’s hunting grounds? Are my ears opening only to hear my now-ex wife say she’d felt more pursuit from a stranger at a bar than she’d ever felt from me? Is that where all this is headed, an endless battle against entropy, and in a house of mirrors to boot?

My god, the path is long and tortuous, an uphill scramble over shale and loose soil. It is seared with anger and carved out with the hot knife of heartache and sorrow. No one deserves such a road. But here am I, falling back into the precious tears of love’s release, abandoning all pretense. Falling, falling, saying again and again, “I am not well right now.” I show up in the world with a limp. Only then does it seem to appear: a steady, gentle hand at my side. New teardops fall alongside my own.

I don’t know what else we could possibly be here for. 

POEM: Overgrow

Thistles swarm the unused garden beds

Pigs get fat on fading greens

A month overdue for the butcher

The toolshed waits for walls and roof

Cucumbers grow yellow in the pantry

Augered holes lie open and unfilled

Waiting for a new foundation

__________

But the vision must go on

Yes the vision must go on

Hands till the soil with love

Urging the far-off dream ever closer

Some days coaxing, nudging, wooing it

Other times heaving it up hills

And pulling it out of ditches

Where the road turned too sharply

__________

Hands come here mid-journey

Sinking fingers in black soil

Hoping to fashion — to salvage —

The fragments of a lost goodness

Into something verdant and new

A place of still pastures and quiet streams

Where life is renewed

Shooting up from the ground

Enough to put food on the table,

Sustain a roof overhead,

And keep a few beds warm

__________

Maybe a little extra, too

To give — to bless

Like the neighbors’ gifts

Of raw honey, fresh milk,

An apple press for an afternoon

__________

The odds may look long

Some have said as much, and departed

Siding stacked near unfinished walls

Scattered feathers of a dead chicken

Rusted wood and metal strewn about

Waiting for months or years

Still waiting to play its part

__________

Ah, but the vision must go on

The dream inches closer

Pressing in to the only wealth a man needs:

A homestead and a fruitful harvest

A field to stand in and watch the moon rise

A porch for sipping coffee in the morning mist,

And a table for feasting —

Spring to fall and back again —

Enjoying the fruits of our labor

And he was with the wild animals: Why I’m warming up to pets and all manner of creatures

When I lived in Washington, D.C. in my early- and mid-twenties, I remember distinctly my attitude toward pets, and I was not ashamed to share it if someone asked.

“I could go the rest of my life without having a pet and be perfectly content,” I would say. And I meant it. My urban life was busy enough with work, church, concerts, happy hours, movies, and weekend outings with friends. I didn’t need another creature in my life taking up my time, attention, and resources. I had plenty of human friends, and that was enough.

Now, however, a public recantation is in order: I was wrong to feel that way. Or to phrase it with less judgment toward myself, there was something in my heart that was cold and disconnected that has since started growing warmer and closer to the heartbeat of life itself. 

I don’t remember any specific moment that marked a shift away from my dismissive attitude toward animals. Reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek probably had something to do with it. But in any case I’ve begun to change. I’m not at a point in life where having a pet makes sense logistically, but I am finding that there is value — much value — in being in relationship with animals. To live without connection to other living creatures, with their own wills, sensations, and even personalities, now seems like a rather impoverished way to go through life. 

I’ve never taken the time to extensively study or develop a theology of animals. This is the first time I recall ever writing about the subject. But I believe there’s a spiritual, soul-level dimension to this. From what I know of the lives of saints and spiritual leaders across faith traditions, many were steeped in a loving, attuned relationship to the world of living things, especially animals. 

St. Francis of Assisi is perhaps the most prominent example of this. He reportedly preached to birds and all manner of animals, blessing them and inviting them to praise their creator. One of the earliest accounts of Francis’ life, written by Thomas of Celano, who knew the saint personally, tells of a journey where the saint came upon a great multitude of birds.

“He greeted them in his usual way, as if they shared in reason. As the birds did not take flight, he went to them, going to and fro among them, touching their heads and bodies with his tunic,” Thomas writes. He goes on to describe how, in response to Francis’ preaching, “the birds gestured a great deal, in their own way. They stretched their necks, spread their wings, opened their beaks, and looked at him. They did not leave the place until, having made the sign of the cross, he blessed them and gave them permission.”

Today this legacy of St. Francis lives on; he is the patron saint of the environment and animals, and rightfully so.

In the Russian Orthodox church tradition, Saint Seraphim of Sarov was known to befriend a variety of woodland creatures near the cabin where he lived. One remarkable story describes his friendship with a bear:

Two nuns from a certain convent once came to visit Saint Seraphim. Suddenly a bear lumbered unexpectedly out of the woods and frightened the visitors with his appearance. “Misha,” said the saint, “why do you frighten the poor orphans! Go back and bring us a treat, otherwise I have nothing to offer to my guests.” Hearing these words, the bear went back into the woods, and two hours later he tumbled into the holy elder’s cell and gave him something covered with leaves. It was a fresh honeycomb of purest honey. Father Seraphim took a piece of bread from his bag, gave it to the bear, pointed to the door – and the bear left immediately.

These stories inspire me more and more every time I hear them. They stir my imagination for what is possible. Could a person really become so peaceful of spirit and attuned to the natural world that birds stop to listen to them preach or bears participate with them in the cocreative work of hospitality?

Assuming the natural world is an expression of a divine Creator’s love, creativity, and personality, I don’t see why not. My former priest from the Anglican Church, Fr. Daniel Rice, likes to imagine what happened when Jesus went out into the wilderness for 40 days of prayer and fasting. During this time, Mark’s gospel records, “he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.”

“Why was he with the wild animals?” Fr. Dan asks. Every time he speaks of this moment his voice becomes pregnant with emotion. “Because he was comforting them.”

He was comforting them! Take a moment to picture the scene in your imagination. Jesus’ heart for the world knew no bounds, it was deep and wide enough for even the wild beasts. He went out to these creatures, animals that were hunted and living out of fear and scarcity, and he proclaimed peace and hope to them.

For my part, I’ve started paying more attention to the animals around me. I do so first to honor their innate beauty, value, and worth, but also to receive any wisdom they might hold, opening my heart and imagination to what they might be speaking to me.

I offer two anecdotes from my life to illustrate this new way of moving through the world. Both of these happened last month, during my final week in Seattle:

___________________

The first took place at Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park. As I drove up from the seaside town of Port Angeles, the clouds grew thicker and closer. With every twist and bend of the road I could feel the air getting thinner and the world turn more wild and holy. At last the road brought me up to the visitor’s center, which looked out over a great vista of golden grassy hillsides and thick, green groves of fir.  There was something here for me, I trusted in my gut, but the deep peace and knowing that I had been seeking on the cusp of a major life transition — my impending departure from Seattle — was still eluding me. 

I drove further past the visitor’s center to the Hurricane Hill trailhead. Here a paved path followed the hillside up through a smattering of trees into the mist. I began walking. After a few minutes I saw a deer maybe twenty yards ahead. It was standing just a few feet off the trail to the right. 

I stopped. The deer was walking away with a cool, self-assured demeanor, one slow step at a time. It stopped and looked back at me.

“Hello my friend,” I said to the deer. “May I come up here? I don’t want to stay. I don’t want to take anything. I just want to be here for a while, to enjoy this place with you. Is that okay?”

I stood still, relaxed and strangely at peace, and waited. A minute or two passed, and the deer began to walk away further into the forest. I took a few steps forward, knelt, and kissed the ground, honoring the land that this beautiful creature called home.

“Thank you my friend,” I said. “It’s good to be here with you. Go in peace.”

Feeling summarily blessed, I went on my way up the trail, full of gratitude and anticipation for what was in store. 

___________________

My second profound encounter with animals happened during my last evening in Seattle. I had one slice of bread remaining in my depleted pantry, so I decided to take it over to the water reservoir across the street and see if I could find a crow or two to feed it to. I went outside, crossed the street, and began walking along the first stretch of the reservoir. 

At first I saw no birds out, then — a crow! And not just one, three of them! I walked over to the fence, tore off a piece of the bread, and threw it over towards them. One of them hopped towards me, snatched the bread in its beak, and took off. 

I heard a few harsh caws overhead, and then suddenly dozens, hundreds of them! Both of the two trees above me were filled with a murder of crows. They flew out and around the trees then back in with a pattern or rhythm I could not discern. 

The mystic in me came alive. I grinned like a little kid and looked up as the crows flew in and out, bidding me farewell. That was why they were here, after all, that was why they lingered above me. It must be! They were divine messengers, sent to let me know that providence had something up its sleeve for me as I turned the page into a new chapter of life. I couldn’t and wouldn’t know what would happen, but I knew it would be something beyond anything I could ask for or anticipate.

I began to walk back to the house. When I had gone a few yards a contingent of several dozen crows peeled off from the rest and flew into the next tree down, again directly overhead. 

I could hardly believe it. It was one thing for my heart to imagine the birds bidding me farewell. Now I genuinely believed it was happening. They were following me.

“Be well my friends,” I said, and the big, happy grin returned to my face. I basked in the moment a few seconds longer then continued across the street. 

Again, a group of crows broke off from the larger contingent, about a dozen this time, and glided over to the tallest tree in the backyard, a sizable fir. They perched near the top as I walked down the side of the house.

Now I knew it wasn’t a coincidence. Deep down in my heart and gut I felt that these crows knew I was leaving. They knew I longed for some sort of sign and they were here to offer it to me, to let me know that my leaving was meant to be, that the time was ripe, and that I wasn’t going to be alone.

“Be well! Thank you!” I said again, beaming with joy.

___________________

What is going on here? These moments are nothing less, I believe, than manifestations of the divine nature clearly seen in the world. The Native Americans knew this, with their rich and vibrant understanding of a Creator, along with many other Indigineous cultures. The Hebrew psalmist and sage of the Old Testament knew it too (see Psalm 104 and Proverbs 6, among others).

Today in the industrialized and digitized western world this wisdom doesn’t seem as common, but I find pockets of it here and there. When his 15-year-old black Lab Venus, was diagnosed with inoperable cancer and had to be put down, writer and Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr recalls with heartbreaking clarity the knowing and profoundly accepting look in his dog’s eyes.

“In those weeks before she died,” Rohr writes, “Venus somehow communicated to me that all sadness, whether cosmic, human, or canine, is one and the same. Somehow, her eyes were all eyes, even God’s eyes, and the sadness she expressed was a divine and universal sadness. I wondered if God might have an easier time using animals to communicate who God is, since they do not seem as willful and devious as we are.”

This story makes me think of a black Lab from my own life that I know named Katniss. When I arrived at Overgrow Farm, the organic farm where I’ve been volunteering through WWOOF for the past several weeks, Katniss ran up alongside my car as I pulled up the driveway. She was the first being to greet me, and her response at my arrival was utterly hospitable — nothing but enthusiastic joy, delight, and curiosity at my presence.

Sometimes in the evenings or during slow points in the day, Katniss will jump on her hind legs and hit the latch on the front door of the farmhouse to open it, just to come in and be with the people inside. When she does this her presence is almost always welcome. 

This is especially meaningful because the farmer who owns and runs Overgrow is recently divorced. It’s clear he’s still in the grieving process and picking up the pieces of a shattered life. But when his dog comes through the door, his face lights up and his voice jumps up half an octave and becomes tender and caring. Suddenly he sounds like a delighted father rather than a cynical, hurting man. I haven’t seen anything else come close to bringing him that much joy. 

I would dare to suggest, in fact, that Katniss is the greatest incarnate presence of Christ in his life right now — even more than I can be, in many ways. In a small but real way, she is a manifestation of God’s curiosity and delight and simple longing to be with us.

And I love her for it.

Of Thistles, Potatoes, and Parables

Cursed is the ground because of you;

in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;

thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;

and you shall eat the plants of the field.

By the sweat of your face

you shall eat bread,

till you return to the ground,

for out of it you were taken;

for you are dust,

and to dust you shall return.

These words from God’s curse on Adam in the opening pages of Genesis play through my mind on repeat as I dig up potatoes at Overgrow Farm, a small organic homestead near the central Oregon coast. It is October, but the sun is clear and bright overhead and the region is having a late summer. Even with my shirt off and a bottle of water close at hand, I feel beads of sweat forming on my brow and dripping down my temples and shoulders. 

For every potato I dig up with my hefty, four-pronged steel fork, there is a thistle plant growing in the garden bed that must be uprooted and thrown aside. My cheap plastic and fabric gloves are no good for this. The thistles still prick my fingers. I leave them to a friend working behind me with thick leather gloves. She will pull them out of the soil and feed them to the pigs. 

This is my first time doing serious garden work since I was a child. As I feel callouses building on my hands and squat down to avoid straining my back, I understand in my body—not just my mind—why the ancient Genesis narrative has been such a foundational text in shaping the worldviews of people for millennia. For those in an agrarian society (read: the vast majority of recorded human history) it must have seemed like the most obvious thing in the world. Of course work is cursed! It’s painful. It’s hard. It’s full of opposition and risk at every turn. The damn thistles just keep coming back! But it’s the price one must pay to eat and survive.

The curse, however, is not the whole story of my experience here in the field. Despite the sharp pricks of the thistles and the ache in my muscles, I find a distinct and remarkable joy in turning up potatoes. It’s like finding a buried treasure, plunging those prongs into the ground and turning up a handful of yukon golds. Sometimes it seems as if they are just waiting to be found, longing for that disturbance in the soil ushering them up into the light. “I’m here!” I feel them exclaiming as they burst up out of the dirt. I want to whoop and shout—eureka

In these happier moments my mind wanders further along in the biblical text to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. I marvel at how many of his parables are set in the context of agriculture. They’re full of things like vines being pruned and bearing fruit, day laborers working in the fields, harvests of wheat and tares, good soil and rocky soil, seeds falling and dying before coming to life. 

This connection is profound and obvious at the same time. Of course they are! It’s an agrarian society! This is the language of the people in Jesus’ day, the language of farmers and laborers and craftsmen. This is their lived experience of a world that is both predictable and full of divine surprises.

The bodily and spiritual implications of this, I am beginning to see, are potentially huge. Here in the dirt, pulling weeds, turning over soil, and harvesting vegetables, I begin to suspect that I am as close to the living core of divine wisdom as I have ever been. I have only to open my eyes in the sunlight, listen to the birds singing around me, breathe deeply of the forest air, and feel the dirt beneath my feet. I’ve heard it said that the thrust of Jesus’ teachings through his stories and metaphors isn’t so much to usher his hearers into a higher, hyperspiritualized reality as it is to open their eyes to the incarnational presence of God that is already active and accessible all around them. If God would dare to become a man and show up in their midst as the son of a carpenter from a podunk town in a backwater province of the Roman Empire, perhaps he was already there and had been there from the very beginning, speaking to them in the growth of the tiny mustard seed and the wine fermenting in new wineskins. 

It makes me wonder if the spiritual ignorance, apathy, and shallowness that is so widespread in the American church (and lamented by many Christian leaders, especially in the Reformed circles I come from) isn’t due to a lack of theological teaching and catechism so much as a physical disconnection from the earth. Sure, I’ve taken science and biblical studies classes and understand conceptually a fair bit of how seeds grow and how farming in the ancient near-eastern world worked. But after just a few days on a small organic farm, I suspect that hearing Jesus describe the Kingdom of God in agrarian terms doesn’t feel as real to me as it would if the deepest rhythms and well-being of my life revolved around achieving a sustainable, fruitful harvest.

Indeed, it seems this one significant way in which modernism and consumerism has atrophied the spiritual vitality of our souls. I’m tempted to go so far as to say that any regimen of discipleship or spirituality that purports to follow the way of Jesus will fall woefully and palpably short of our Spirit-empowered potential if divorced from the embodied agrarian context in which Jesus lived and ministered. Want your faith to become more substantive and alive? Maybe consider going outside and planting a garden.

Is it any coincidence that faith and spirituality didn’t begin falling out of fashion on a broad scale until the world became industrialized and urbanized? Even today, regardless of whether they happen to claim the name of Jesus specifically, farmers tend to be quite spiritual people. They’re surrounded by the miraculous, life-sustaining wonder of the created world every day. They understand how unpredictable life is and that their fate is subject both to their own diligent labor and to forces utterly beyond their control. This is one of those paradoxical intersections of true spiritual wisdom, more valuable, as the Hebrew psalmist sings, than much fine gold. 

I see little of this earthy connectedness in the practices of modern American evanglicalism other than the occasional summer camp or weekend retreat to a rural or alpine setting (which, don’t mistake me, are good and wonderful things). There’s a lot of talk about biblical instruction and righteous living, but not as much said about embracing the dirty, messy process of growth and the cycle of death into life that characterizes the entire created order. Healthy crops, after all, usually begin their life beneath a layer of excrement and rotting plants.

In contrast, the monastic traditions of the ancient church traditions seem to have a stronger grasp of this. Adherents to these traditions are steeped in tactile, physically grounded practices like cultivating gardens, keeping bees, crafting soaps and candles, and tending to the poor and infirm. They may not be “in the world” or on the front lines of popular culture, but I suspect these more earthy rituals actually open their hearts and bodies—rather than just their minds—to a deeper and richer understanding of the way of Jesus than any seminary training could ever achieve. 

I once heard a wise and thoughtful man say, “Prayer is the work.” As I dig up potatoes and weed out thistles, I begin to understand this in a more mystical way. This whole business of farming and cultivating does feel awfully cursed most days, full of pain and opposition and harmful turns of fate. But at the same time I find God is with me and speaking to me in all of it. He is there in the ache of my back and the cooling drops of sweat on my skin, in the swing of the hoe and the feeling of dirt beneath my fingernails, in the harsh cawing of the crows flying overhead and the squealing of the pigs at the arrival of another bucket of greens. And—perhaps most beautifully—God is there in the face of my neighbor laboring beside me, with whom I will feast tonight on the satisfying fruits of our labor.

POEM: Fever and ash

It is one thing to lose

A thousand points of contact

Every day

The goodwill smile

Of a stranger in a coffee shop

The quiet whispers

In between library shelves

The sweaty, frantic shoulders

At next Friday’s rock concert

It is one thing — and a thousand things

A six-foot gap

That pricks my soul

Each moment I am willing to suffer

And refuse the flat catharsis

Of glowing pixels and dry beer cans

_______________

But it is another thing —

Another thing entirely —

To lose the world itself

Great groves of fir trees

Beaches at low tide

Mossy stones and mountain springs

The inheritance of the innocent

And the last hope for the dying

The only place each one of us

You and I both, as equals

Can breathe free

_______________

Alas! There is no free breath here

Nowhere to fill your lungs and be whole

Not when the sun itself dampens

Into a charred orange orb

(If it is there at all)

Alas! We are domestic aliens

Bunkered in our homeland

Beneath a colorless sky

Some of us pray for rain

All of us wait for it

Wait with shallow, bated breath

_______________

Where do these dead days come from?

Are we reaping what we have sown?

A world of ash and displaced tenants

Muffled sunrises and cries of fake news

Whole towns left to burn

Fever that travels by stealth

With light touch and vice grip

Is this the beginning of the end of days?

Of a used-up land

Gasping gray Septembers

Groaning until the grid gives way?

_______________

Or — is it

But another of the new birth pains

Heralding a miracle?

Is it the ground being tilled

Charcoal churned and made ready

To receive a kernel of wheat

As it falls and dies?

Wouldn’t that be something?

________________

We may yet see a new goodness

In the land of the living

We may yet.

But here, in the realm of masks

And now, in the days of shallow breaths

I will keep waiting

Like my life depends on it

(because it does)

And pray for rain

POEM: Liminal Space

I lost more than a year and a half

When my wife dropped me off on the curb

In front of the neighborhood bar

With nothing but a carry-on-sized suitcase

And a fleeting hope that she didn’t mean the words

“You just lost your marriage.”

_______

I lost more than a year on the banks of the Chesapeake

When I drove downtown to the King County courthouse

And delivered a petition for divorce

That felt like death to sign

A fall into an abyss deeper than I could see

_______

The fall — not the impact — cracked me open

Blood flowed at last from festering wounds

That I had bandaged again and again

In tumbleweed towns and the land of cookie cutter privilege

In Bible-thumping bubbles and ivory halls of suit-and-ties

Here the brick towers of the Baptist church crumbled

Under the weight of concrete and cedar born amid loss

The welcoming abode on Margalo Avenue

Where the walkway bears my handprint

And my high school diploma sits in a filing cabinet

Has evaporated like the river in the summer heat

The heaven-like facade has burned down

Into purgatorial ashes

I enter the ashes and weep

I ride the metro into Capitol Hill

And emerge in a world turned gray and cold

My heart recoils as I look back at the open gorge

Listening to the echo of the collapsing bridge

That held a score and six years of my life

_______

I say to my soul:

Breathe; feel your feet

Retire to your bed — and fear no darkness!

Take your lunch on cinder blocks

And let your stomach be full for an afternoon

How else will you be able to stand up

With such a heavy heart?

_______

Alas! My kingdom has fallen

With its garden of delights —

Flowers in the full bloom of youth

The fellowship to defy death has failed

And the ruins lie about everywhere

To my right and to my left

Haunted by the ghost

Of a woman who is not dead

I touch her only in dreams and in memory

As I wander emerald hills

Limping from dagger wounds

Pricked by the sight of every silver SUV

_______

The road ahead appears — I have only to desire

To desire — but not the one whom my heart still desires

Where then shall I go, O soul?

Where then shall I go!

_______

I cannot make out the contours of home

Among so many modern lines

And my old inner voices crying “danger!”

To choose before I’ve chosen is bad faith

To not choose is violence at best, they say

Or damnation at worst, say the others

There is no balance, no compromise

Only tension

Magnets suspend me in the in-between

There is only the weary journey

Of walking in one man’s shoes

And then another’s — over and over again

Until my teary eyes are spent

And I fall back on those wooden beams

Singing the lament of the lyre and harp: How long?

How long, O lord?

_______

Sing to me of flames ravaging the forest

Of salt spray in the barrel of a wave

Of desert saints tending a parched and holy land

I will wander in search of my inheritance

A kingdom that was, and is, and will be

_______

I say to my body:

Sharpen your sword and feel your wounds

Sink your hands in the earth

Trace the wisdom of the trees in the grains of spruce and fir

Lace up your boots and stand in the rain

Hold your brothers close while you can

Feel their hearts beat, their lungs heave

Set your eyes on what you love

Let your gaze be strong and steady as folded steel

And your heart be soft and tender like a child’s

_______

I will seek first the kingdom, and trust uncharted paths

Through barren deserts and mossy groves

Rocky coasts and fields of quiet streams

I will welcome the warmth of a companion around the fire

Or the solitude of a cold night beneath the stars

When my heart stalls

And the way feels shut and dead

Still I will lift up my song and cry —

From the depth of my being, or with no depth at all

How long, O Lord, how long?

How long?