They think they love God! It is only his old clothes—of which they make scarecrows for the children. Where will they come nearer to God than in these very children?
—Henry David Thoreau, Journal (Nov 16, 1851)
There is a bird in the woods whose song stops you and makes you blush
—Arthur Rimbaud, “Childhood”
We lived in the country in St Charles, MI, until I was nine. My dad designed our house improvising from templates for tri-levels, and it was built while I was getting ready to be born. He actually moved everything over from the apartment that he and my mother were living in so that my mom and I could come home to this house (still unfinished) for the first time when we left the hospital together… My folks walked on the cross beams with a new baby and it would still be a couple of weeks before they had running water.
Our house was on three acres surrounded by another five acres of woods and fields, surrounded by farmland. Sometimes it felt like an island. There was solitude and time for exploration; there was also deep familial love and companionship.
I spent a lot of time in the trees and almost always came home with sap on my hands. We caught tadpoles in the ditch and made our own myths. I retraced the walking path my dad mowed through the woods around our house backwards in my dreams (which is to say, clockwise), entering through the wet dark section that we tended to avoid during our waking hours—it was where my first dog Patches, and later, our puppy Zippy were buried. Sometimes I dreamt there was a decrepit house in the woods with an elderly couple looking down at me from the window.
My father chopped firewood in the bright part of the field where wild strawberries grew in summer and we walked out through the ruts of neighboring farmland. He used to put glass bottles of Pepsi in the freezer after school and drink them at dinner. Sometimes they would sit too long and explode. My mother took us to pick raspberries at her grandfather’s farm and she taught us to sing hymns.
We skated figure eights when the standing water in the woods froze.
My parents were loving, enthusiastic, and full of encouragement. Our home-life always felt safe and stable, even though there were times when we didn’t have very much money. We moved across the state to my dad’s hometown when I was nine and our life in town was happy too.
* * *
One of the first lines I ever wrote: the past is glass, turpentine, rags remembers the garage of that St Charles house.
I haven’t seen the poem it comes from in years and I’m not interested in trying to track it down…
It was about introductions and it already understood poetry to be a contact point with the “FORCE” of William Carlos Williams’ collective imagination that initiates a dialogue with creation.
The past has been a part of this dialogue from the beginning.
Playing in the yard along the edge of the woods some summer morning when I was six or seven, I stumbled across a dead robin with its neck broken. It looked like it was sleeping and I laid down on the ground to look into its eyes/ dream her dream.
If this life is it, I am so grateful.
* * *
My favorite childhood games was “spy.” It involved watching our family members do ordinary things from increasingly precarious hiding spots. My brother, Josh, and I watched our younger brother, Noah, sort through his trucks on the living room floor; we ducked around the side of our above ground pool to watch my dad trim the yard in his red riding mower while he listened to Tigers games on his radio headphones.
My mother is Baptist and we were Baptist kids, raised to fear and respect a panoptical imagination of God, until my dad (an atheist) allowed that we were old enough to make our own choices.
We went to Sunday School/ church every week, went to Awana (a.k.a. “Youth Group”) on Wednesdays, church camp, and VBS (Vacation Bible School) in the summer. We did Bible (“sword”) drills and watched Bible stories our teachers acted out on felt boards. We played volleyball, went bowling, gave “witness,” and sang Christmas carols in the old folk’s home. We sang joyful songs before sermons that thrilled and terrified us by stressing the active presence of evil in the world (think: Cotton Mather’s The Wonders of the Invisible World: Observations as Well Historical as Theological, upon the Nature, the Number, and the Operations of the Devils). We were raised to believe that Satan persecuted Christians; Satan, thus, persecuted us.
We watched a documentary about demonic messages that were being communicated through rock music and I buried all of my hairband tapes in the yard. I stopped wearing my Poison Open Up and Say…Ahh! shirt—the first item of clothing I remember buying for myself. (I didn’t listen to non-sanctioned music, apart from oldies and soul/ Motown on my Dad’s car radio, for the next five or six years…). We were given comic books about the apocalypse (“end times”): the rapture/ Armageddon, the second coming/ the thousand years of peace, etc. I remember one page that featured airplanes crashing into buildings because the pilots had been raptured and another captioned “blood will flow higher than a horse’s hooves.”
* * *
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.
—Robert Creeley in “I Know a Man”
Not long after we moved to town, some new friends and I discovered the foundation of an old gas station at the edge of the field behind our house—a tile floor with a wide black and white checkered pattern that was littered with abandoned bricks, pallets, and a cluster of blue forty gallon drums. Working together, we managed to rock one of the drums and tip it over. The seal broke and it bounced, spattering our legs as we jumped back out of the flow of unmixed white primer that picked up wilted leaves. Maybe this never happened. I continue to find I have vivid memories of things that never happened…
* * *
For several years, our church rented and held services in the old IGA building while a new church was being funded and erected—classrooms were framed cheaply with 2x4s and Styrofoam panels were put up in place as dividers. Sometimes Youth Group met in the old meat department.
Our old “teen”/ “young adult” Sunday school teacher, Mr. M., fumed incoherently and rattled our cages with manic freeform lectures full of hellfire and brimstone until he was asked to stop teaching and left the church. He told me to tell my parents to vote for George Bush, Sr. He told me my father was going to hell. He also, inadvertently, taught me something important: that salvation is related to presence. He taught me this by insisting that the “contract” of salvation that we make with God is unstable because sinning is a breach of the terms, etc. (Something my mom would have never said.) We went bowling in Canada and played Red Rover in the rough cement parking lot behind the building, sliding on loose gravel and tripping over weeds coming up through the cracks.
I remember watching rain pin bright yellow leaves to the sidewalk. I remember looking at my young body vibrating with electricity with shame and disgust—the same way I looked at bruised pears swarmed by sweat bees before I threw them over the fence into the field.
Mr. M. was eventually replaced by another Sunday school teacher with ties to the TV evangelist Jack Van Impe; the “adult” classes my Mom attended were patterned off of Dr. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family series.
We were raised to be in the world and not of the world.
We were raised to believe that “narrow is the gate and difficult the road that leads to life” (Matthew 7:14). We were raised to believe in “Romans Road” to salvation (Romans 3:23/ 3:10-18/ 6:23, Romans 5:8, Romans 10:9/ 10:13, Romans 5:1/ 8:1/ 8:38-39), etc.
We were raised to believe that faith and good conduct were psychological in nature and I grew up with a deep convictions that our thoughts have physical manifestations. Attempting to conceal worldly thoughts/ desire was sinful and, ultimately, futile because Jesus “could see into our hearts.” A summer camp youth pastor even told us that when we died all of our sins would be broadcasted on a big white screen to play “like a movie” for all of our loved ones.
We were voluntarily (to the extent of the freedom we were given to make our own decisions as children) Foucault’s “ever-visible inmates,” “object[s] or information, never the subject[s] of communication” (Discipline & Punish).
* * *
I had no real imagination of private space, probably didn’t have one until the last couple of years of high school. Private confessions to God made through Jesus (our intermediary) were the only way I knew how to relieve the crushing pressure of the guilt I felt as an adolescent… I compulsively made lists of sins and potential offences.
How we get here from the warmth and openness of my familial life, I’m not sure, but I can tell you the two thoughts are not mutually exclusive. Triggers are preconscious and emotional.
The game was rigged and it required incredible focus and recall. I used to stand in the corner of my room and flip the closet light, on and off, to punctuate each confession and jog my memory. Preacher kept me in the site of his sniper rifle: His fury, slanted yellow wire casings,
consumes briars and thorns.
Everything would appear on a big white screen, but everything
I forgot to ask forgiveness for would be between us
during the last judgment.
Dresses in the bridal shop window
gleamed like shell enamel in moonlight.
Fear nested in voices. Larvae spread
chemical trails through leaves. Preacher’s version of grace was corrosive,
just an old battery leaking acid.
In St Charles, I was the clear-eyed grasshopper swaying on a dewy mirror of grass on the shady embankment near the garage. Gone in a flash (click) when the blade was torqued to launch it.
William Blake’s “The Garden of Love” stands as a powerful demonstration of the fact that impositions hamper activity. Meditating on the way institutions attempt to regulate our spiritual lives by drawing them into a dull consensus, Blake asserts that the commandment “THOU SHALT NOT” binds us in “briars,” arresting experience and growth, transforming a beautiful garden full of flowers into a graveyard:
So I turn’d to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore.
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joys & desires.
It’s a good representation of the way Baptist indoctrination layered my childhood. (The flip side of “spy” was, of course, games that involved hiding as not to be seen: dodging headlights by dropping to the ground and/ or scattering behind trees while we were delivering newspapers in the early hours of the morning…)
Foucault: “He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection” (Discipline & Punish).
My mother used to take us out swimming after dark when we stayed with her parents up at the Lake Huron in the summer. Our legs crumpled into a shaky column of moonlight until we couldn’t see them anymore and I remember feeling fish move below us while stars flared across the lake’s oily skin. The night sky felt as immense and lovely as family. Darkness smelled like fish. My mother showed constellations she knew. Our voices echoed across the lake. I remember saying my own name, its strangeness deepening and unfolding. I remember I wanted to step away from my mother and brother, but also keep ahold of their hands.
* * *
Why did I love to play “spy” so much? Josh’s enthusiasm flagged early on and he still makes fun of me about it. I think it was an attempt to tap into the imagination of God I was given, to participate, and so, reimagine a God that evolves out of these questions: Who/ what is God and who/ what is watching? Who is regulating (would dare to imagine they could regulate) God’s vision? How do they see me/ us? What kind of presence does the gaze bear? How is being witnessed related to giving “witness”? Below these questions was the fact that my imagination of God was communal and mired in self-loathing (an integral dimension of born-again indoctrination you might call “the hook”), suspicion, fear, and trembling.
I think my attraction to spy games reveals an early desire to feel empowered (active) in my passivity. I know I wanted to feel the gaze soften, felt it softening through the imperfect medium of my life. I know I wanted to feel judgment melt into kindness and I know I wanted to see my family for who they were, acknowledging all of our flaws as a part of the daily reality of our grace—this was especially true when it came to my father, a “non-believer.” I know I wanted to see and remember that grace is ordinary and that our triumphs and flaws make way for ordinary shows of grace. This is the way that we were told to think that Jesus looks at us, but it didn’t seem to translate into the swampy and paranoid culture of terror born of our involvement with the church.
Distancing myself from the church in high school began as a conscious attempt to loosen my commitment to a system of beliefs that blinded me to the spiritual resonances of the entire spectrum of phenomenological “worldly” experience and excluded others (including my dad). It unearthed music and it has evolved into a fundamental rejection of organized religion all together in favor of wakefulness, destabilization, and visionary experience. I remember watching snow fall through frost-choked wild carrot, lavender, and Echinacea, trying to follow the snow’s instructions not to choose one to the exclusion of others.
Thoreau writes in Walden, “our whole life is startlingly moral.” I understand this to mean life is a gift that comes on its own terms and we should accept them with gratitude. The moral choice is the widest possible definition of presence, the broadest range of associations.
Thoreau: “let there be as much distinct plant life as the soil & the light can sustain” (Journal, Nov 12, 1851).
* * *
I’m trying to stay open, in spite of anger and baggage,
like a blossom closing around questions.
I’ve been watching the old wooden seawall across the Belle River from my parent’s kitchen break up most of my life…I think it predates the iron seawalls that were put in during the eighties—before the seawall was put in the cut-bank began to erode in front of the cemetery and a handful of caskets washed into the river. The past is glass, turpentine, rags. But, as Thoreau says in his rough-hewn elegiac masterpiece, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, “the story is current.”
There’s a bright blue trampoline near the ghost of our old apple tree—a family of ceramic ducks that used to live in an antique Pepsi box have gone missing. The lasting inscription of each snowflake changes the vocabulary of the forest.
The feeling of dipping my hand into the river’s glassy brown current is primary, unmistakable. I can still feel electricity and resonance of the wake behind the boats we rowed and motored around as children, when we first moved into town, in my fingers. It’s there every time I touch something that feels like a center and subsequently comes apart: layered intensities of chalky light and the harmonic reflection of leaves shatters and folds inwards to set the leaves into increased activity/ make more. (Throw my ashes in some day.)
Sometimes the river is opaque, frozen over, and depth presents itself as a ribbon of silver with a coarse edge; it’s chipped or continuous.
This is mostly everything I understand to be true about language/ nature/ God that I want to pass onto my son, Gus. Watching him drawing and playing in the leaves, I see he already knows. I’m putting this down for myself and for him, in case he ever feels lonely or forgets.
* * *
Echoes of my childhood are etched into my personality like threads of color that halo the porch light in greasy rain. I’m earnest, but I also tend to be solitary and private. I’m terrible at (and terribly uninterested in) most versions of small talk. (Maybe you got stuck talking to me at a party once? I’m the one who didn’t give a shit about the score of the game…) I guard my time, try to simplify commitments, and cleave to the spiritual impulse of my “calling” (wherever it seems to lead) with determinism. My partner Kirsten says that I make it hard for people to get to know me… Sometimes I feel like I’m all surface—melt collecting on dull ice beneath, a scrap of mirror that reflects fragmites overhead. Other times I feel depths, oscillating magnets, cavernous reverberations of chimes and churning water. I recognize that there is a fundamental loneliness about my experience that may well be exacerbated by previous imaginations of spiritual occupation and I feel ecstatic joy whenever it’s perforated.
I remember sitting nearby while my grandfather gutted perch behind the cottage in his tank top and cut-off shorts while waxy yellow daffodils jangled against dirty white siding in the flowerbed. The way he used to say, “Go wash up.” Cool water in the bathroom that always smelled septic. I remember the wiry tightness of his arms and the way he would stick the knife in to saw along the fish’s sides, their shocked eyes open. I remember dried scales glinting under his nails at the oily edge of his paper plate through dinner.
Make no mistake we are in and of the world.
Sparks disappearing into void over the rusted barrel
where we burned plates and other garbage after the meal.
I was born with a raspberry seed in the hollow of my tooth.
Times of struggle and upheaval reveal unresolved issues related to ideas about “election” that are embedded in Baptist culture: being chosen or not, inherently graceful or not. Aren’t the trappings of worldly success (whatever that means this afternoon) the shadow of God’s favor? When things begin to feel difficult, I often fear that I’m being taught a lesson and/or being punished for straying. Have I stepped out onto the wrong path? Have I stepped off the path all together? Jack Spicer: “Where you get lost is in the forest” (“The Serial Poem and The Holy Grail”). Living with the feeling that I’ve misread essential doctrine—a clumsy paper snowflake spinning in lamplight—is hard, and I think it’s going to be. I distrust my instincts. But, more and more, it seems like the promise is to get lost because certainty itself hardens into stagnation.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” tells the story of Young Goodman Brown, a newlywed Puritan, who reluctantly says goodbye to his wife, Faith, and walks out into the woods, a place he has been conditioned to fear, on a mysterious errand that he feels deeply conflicted about—likely to the Old Boston Church where the American revolution was being planned (*surely a break with the King carries larger spiritual implications/ feedback related to the concept of Divine Right, an archaic cultural belief that linked the King’s order to the King of Kings). Young Goodman’s woods is rifted by unresolved feelings, psychic wounds, and demonic hallucinations that collapse his imagination of himself, his pride, and his cultural superiority into the otherness of a terror-scape populated by his friends and family. He is absolutely destroyed. He abandons his errand/ sense of purpose and recoils violently from his community. His inability to live with questions and accept his own culpability in the evil he perceives manifests in the judgment and futility of self-imposed emotional exile.
“Young Goodman Brown” is a terrifying parable about the cost of underestimating one’s faith (“Faith!”) and/or shrinking from one’s faith in order to maintain sanctimonious delusions: you become the very thing you’re most afraid of and you lose everything. “In truth, all through the haunted forest, there could be nothing more frightful than the figure of Goodman Brown,” etc.
A dead robin’s eye is an instant that reflects a lively and incomprehensible subject.
* * *
When I taste ‘God’ I taste bread
—Fanny Howe in The Quietist
The robin I found that summer morning was given to a cigar/ pencil box patterned with pens and ink jars—my dad used them to store things like paperclips and rubber bands on a bookshelf next to his recliner in the family room. The box sat on a shelf in the garage until we buried it later in soil that would undoubtedly degrade the cheap cardboard and take the robin back into itself.
Thoreau’s companionship has taught me that salvation is a momentary question of presence; it’s a matter of being mindful of the way my actions (and inactions) resonate with the ecosystem(s) I’m given to and it requires great concentration.
A dedication to composting increasingly supplants other imaginations of “after-life.”
Writing has come to embody a model of religious practice.
My immediate writing community—beginning with the company of poems (perforated by silence) and extending to a handful of friends—has come to embody a model of community that’s supportive and dynamic in ways my church “family” never was; it’s also impossible not to blush at the intensity of companionship in the letters my partner, Kirsten, and I wrote to each other when we were first falling in love.
Community wakes me up and helps keep me awake—my family does.
Love and attention grow out of singular devotion to creation that’s open and expansive.
Stan Brakhage’s “Burial Path” (1978), made the year that I was born, meditates on a newly dead bird by offering visions of flight and snow collecting in pine boughs, birds eating and darting away from branches; leaves snap into place with precision and slip out of focus; the gauzy threshold of curtained windows and doorways delineate perspectival limits and frame points of departure. The camera jogs between landscapes real and safe picturesque representations to consider the blur of memory and imaginative space to reminds us that life and death perforate each other.
A box might rest a bird, but it can’t contain it. Neither can the lyrical associations Brakhage conjures or the ecstatic pulse of film moving stave off the permanence of death. “Burial Path” is full of reverberating shots of the bird in the box: its body its feet, its eye. It remembers with shattering tenderness that death depends on objectification and flight depends on slippage that resists classification—being in the moment and gone before the moment settles.
Faith is like this too. Religion and reverence put us in a box. Questions draw us back out into place. Blake says that John Milton “wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell […] because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s parting without knowing it” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell).
Satan: “Energy is Eternal Delight” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell).
* * *
Gus is two years old this Christmas and he’s taking everything in, including stray accounts of Christ’s nativity from the Gospels. A painted shop window representation of the manger scene features a “very special baby” as three men approach on camels beneath the light of the Christmas star in the distance on the way to our neighborhood bagel place. Luke’s good news arrives through the medium of Linus (voiced by Chris Shea and sponsored by Coco-Cola):
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not; for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men.
Listen to all those “ands,” the way “sign” resonates with “a multitude of heavenly host” as Linus drops his precious blue security blanket while he proclaims, “Fear not.” Other details come through popular Christmas songs where they are still associated with the breath moving through people’s lungs and gaudy airbrushed plastic centerpieces in Rite-Aid: a crèche that sings “Away in the Manger,” a couple of sad-looking angels with cheap gold French horns who sing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” All of this feels just right to me: gorgeous, open, populous, and fully integrated into our daily errands for baby shampoo, art supplies we need for the rocket we’re building out of a cardboard box, tic-tacks.
Distancing imaginations of God from these things is a terrible violence; it’s crass and ungrateful. It severs God from the force of creation.
* * *
Watching dirty snow melt away from the heat of fallen leaves, I’m thinking about the grace and heat of falling.
Milton’s Satan compares his fallen comrades to stray leaves while they reel in blinding pain on the lake of fire: they are “entranced/ Thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks” (Paradise Lost, Book I). I’m a deeply flawed person and I identify with Satan when I read Paradise Lost—much more so than with Milton’s cardboard cutout representation of God. So should we all. Spiritual vision is unfinished, truncated by our humanness and various processes of becoming. It’s tragic to lean into our agency, imagining that we can circumvent God’s will. It’s all God’s will. Satan and his followers are never operating outside of it. It’s like DH Lawrence says, “True liberty” doesn’t lie in setting oneself in opposition to the “old masters”; it lies in submission to “the deepest whole self of man, the self in its wholeness” (Studies in Classic American Literature).
Satan reveals an important truth when he addresses the troops with teary eyes, asserting, “space may produce new worlds” (Paradise Lost). Movement opens space and their fall furthers God’s creation.
Dislodging a seed from my tooth undoubtedly starts creation anew. It was always a part of God’s activity just as Satan—beloved and lonely, blinded by egotism and anger— unknowingly furthers creation in Paradise Lost.
I keep thinking that change is difficult. It’s not. Thinking is the problem. It’s springtime one way or another. You can hear the river current moving faster, snow melt carving the mountains. We are all being shaped by powerful forces that focus well beyond our purview. This morning, my son was a fox, a frog, Sister Bear, a tiger, a digger, a puffin named Una, and a dinosaur. He was, of course, always himself and always whole, grinning across the floor with his mother’s eyes.
Stepping out onto the deck, my mother, Lanora (light), reminds me of the ministry of the sand dollar; she reminds me that my brother, Noah, used to gut catfish to pull the cross of their bones out.
I don’t want to gut anything.
If the cross is there, it’s there. Duffle bags full of shelled chestnuts we buried in the field as children
sprouted regardless of effort. (Nothing to do with us.)
When I look at my son I see God is well underway, looking back at me, smiling before he howls with laughter or scowling in displeasure at offences/ trespasses I barely understand… I see the seeds of his ever-evolving personality take root and I’m going to do my best to teach him to honor those seeds. I’m going to do my best to encourage goodness and courage as he cedes himself to the compost of instincts with patience. It will be graceful; it might not be pretty.
Thoreau says in “Walking” that “part will be tillage, but the greater part will be meadow and forest.” I believe him and I believe the greater part is innate grace finding its own way with others fumbling to help.
I believe the future depends on it.