Friday, December 31, 2010

into 2011 with cs lewis

All this, indeed, I do not remember.

I remember the remembering, when first walking
I heard the golden gates behind me
Fall to, shut fast. On the flinty road,
Black-frosty, blown on with an eastern wind,
I found my feet. Forth on journey,
Gathering this garment over aching bones,
I went. I wander still.

But the world is round.

Friday, December 24, 2010

the patchwork christ

offered before Holy Communion at Heartland Church one day in 2010 . . .

apropos as this year winds down and another year prepares to carry us along with it like the wind, like a stream, like a dream . . .

the patchwork Christ

Let's talk a bit about regrets - we all have them (except Frank Sinatra, though he may be singing a different tune now) - the way I see it, none of our lives are woven seamlessly, even though for a time they may seem so or others lives may seem so - they are a patchwork quilt - holding that image in my head helps tremendously because, as you know, such quilts are composed of different fabrics and colors and various patterns yet the result is a work of great beauty, often preferred to a seamless counterpane of one fabric and one color

once you have that in your mind all the bits and pieces of your life come together in Christ - all the rags that seem ill-fitting, all the fragments that seem connected to nothing of worth or of long-lasting value, all the scraps that don't fit - they all come together in the heartblood of Jesus and create a quilt of unique beauty and lasting value, heirloom quality - so put all those life fragments in Christ's hands and let him make the covering - you carry on and let him worry about how all the different colors and scraps and fabrics will fit, even the long whole pieces of cloth of better seasons that must come alongside the torn bits of bitter seasons - nothing is wasted, nothing is lost - he will bring the pattern out of it all so that even the angels will marvel and future generations will see how the good and bad, the hard and soft, the peace and the pain came together in the grace of Christ

all this to say, it's never too late to do what you love - I wanted to be known as a novelist in my 20s and 30s - here it begins to happen in my 50s - I wanted to do the English university thing and do some teaching and lecturing - now it is happening - I wanted to write theology and be published and have a readership - lo! - so the quilt takes on new hues and designs - go to the path you did not take long ago and take it now - once you begin, brambles will part, thorns fall aside (though some may tear at your cloak), forests open like a blessing, and all the new bits will fit perfectly into the patchwork quilt Christ has been stitching together before the beginning of time - do not leave this world without having tried to do all that you love and especially what you love the most - is not that burning in your heart Christ's burning in your heart? Seek him in prayer and follow his leading and overcome your fear - seek a new life and direction with the love and faith he gives you. Nothing is impossible with God.


boxing day or the feast of stephen

For well over a thousand years the 26th of December meant only one thing to Christianity and, soon enough, western civilization.

It was the Feast Day of St. Stephen.

Remember the Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas? "Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen, when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even."

It was always coupled with Christmas. Always. For the Son of God came that he might give his life as a ransom for many. And sometimes, following him, the Christian gives his life or her life in Christ's name and also for the sake of the many.

Stephen was the first believer in Christ to die for no other reason than that he was a believer in Christ and a believer that God so loved the world.

For centuries Christians celebrated both Jesus and Stephen side-by-side.

Then in the 1800s people came up with a better idea. Make Christmas not about Jesus or the child born to die on the Cross - make it about buying and buying and buying. Then to this good idea they added another good idea. Forget this dreary Feast of Stephen and its talk about losing your life for Christ's sake in order that you might find it. Instead, follow the new example of December 25th on December 26th as well - buy and buy and buy - and buy even more.

Whoever dies with the most toys wins.

Christians, who are up in arms about how Christmas has been corrupted, say very little about the loss of Stephen's Feast Day (if they're even aware of it). I would say the malls this Sunday will be full of millions of Christmas worshiping their God by buying and buying and buying till they drop.

Some will even skip church to do it.

Because, I mean, let's not be legalistic about it.

We can worship God anytime and on any day of the week.

But St. Stephen the Martyr's Boxing Day sales only come around once a year - and some of the best deals are to be had right on the Feast Day of the 26th. God understands.

Perhaps he's out shopping too.

Yes, I know it's the only example in Scripture where Jesus is on his feet in heaven, not sitting on the throne, witnessing Stephen's murder and shed blood.

Well, I'm on my feet too. Looking for ways to save money.

And the money I save I tithe to the church.

. . . now and then . . .

Let's not be legalistic about it.

I mean, God is such a plush, huggable, overstuffed, squeezable god these days, what harm could he find in rank materialism?

We've lost the Feast of Stephen. Most Christians didn't even blink. And this Sunday's excitement will not be worship with other believers.

It will be buying and selling.

Now that's something to get excited about.

I once had a T shirt that mightily offended almost everyone in our culture when I wore it. It irritated Christians, non-Christians, atheists, agnostics, the whole spectrum.

I'd often hear people muttering about my T shirt after I'd passed by.

No, one young woman said to her friend, somewhat distraught as she spoke, that's not the way it goes - it's whoever dies with the most toys wins, that's how it works, whoever dies with the most toys wins!

It sounded like she was frantically trying to convince herself.

And what was on my black T shirt?

"Whoever dies with the most toys wins" - but wins was X'd out and replaced by two other words that changed the phrase completely and made it, actually, truer than true, even gospel true.

"Whoever dies with the most toys . . . still dies".

for wistful Christians and believers

Sometimes, even though we believe, we go through times, through experiences, that make us wonder who we are, where we are going, and who God really is.

It was not a thornless rose garden for Jesus, this world. It can never be so for those of us who follow, looking for his footprints in the dirt and grass and along paths of stone.

Yet the storyteller at the bright fire says we find our way home again.

That is how the story goes. That is how it has gone from the beginning of beginnings.

The House of Christmas
G.K. Chesterton

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost - how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky's dome.

This world is wild as an old wives' tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

for wistful atheists and agnostics

Christmas leaves out no one - I mean, the message of love and redemption. It is for all. And often those outside churches understand it better than those within, for they are not used to hearing about it over and over again, they are not inured to its beauty.

From the author of Tess and other tragedies, I offer this prayer-hope-wish for all my atheist and agnostic family and friends who wish-wonder-dream that it might be so, that God might be so, that Jesus might be so, that an unstoppable, unending, impossible love might be so.

The Oxen
by Thomas Hardy

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now hey are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen.
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve
"Come; see the oxen kneel

"In the lonely barton by yonder comb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

God rest you merry

In the original version of the carol, the comma comes after "merry", not after "you".

So anyone dropping by: God rest you merry, whoever you are.

Think about what it means that God would incarnate in a woman's womb and as a fragile infant. As a toddler. As a six year old. As a teenager. As a young man of 21 with his whole life ahead of him . . .

I have already put three Christmas stories on the blog this December - The Wild Geese of Bethlehem; O Holy Night; and The Body God - so it is only sufficient for me to say, this Christmas Eve: He comes to make his blessings known far as the curse is found.

And God rest you merry this whole and holy season.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

the language of the Christmas season

Christians usually get upset this time of year not only by the commercialization of a spiritual season, but by the language that removes what spirituality is left almost completely.

However, there really is no need to get worked up.

If people say "happy holidays" you can say "Merry Christmas" (which = Merry Christ Mass, from the days when every Christian went to Mass on the 25th). I do it lots. No one minds. In fact, many times they'll feel free, at that point, to say "Merry Christmas" to me in return (which they often do) because now they know I won't be offended if they use the expression.

But then there is this term "holidays" which seems to be at the center of the controversy. Christians gnash their teeth and put on sackcloth and ashes when they hear the politically correct "happy holidays!" used over and over again.

Again, there is no need to be upset.

This term doesn't rob spirituality from the season. It actually heightens it.

How so?

Because it was, to begin with, a spiritual greeting. It comes from a time in Europe, 500-1000 years ago, when you got days off because of religious festivals and feast days. In that era, the term was "happy holy days." Over a long period of time, the expression was conflated into "happy holydays" and eventually the "y" was dropped for an "i". It still meant "happy holy days" but as Christian Europe became more secular it no longer meant time off for religious festivals. It meant anytime you got a break from work for an extended period of time: your annual vacation, summer away from school, time off at Christmas and Easter (not because you necessarily believed in Christmas and Easter in a spiritual way, but because the days off at those times of year were kept even though the Christian significance of those once-upon-a-time religious festivals was lost or deliberately discarded).

So if someone says to me "happy holidays" they are unknowingly saying "happy holydays" or "holy days." If you respond with the same phrase, albeit with a different pronunciation, "holy" instead of "holi", and they're listening, they'll notice the difference. If they ask, you can tell them, "Hey, I'm just bringing out the full meaning of what you said: holidays means, at its root, holydays. So, yeah, Merry Christ Mass and happy holy days to you too, thanks."

The "reason for the season" is still being expressed by all the politically correct people, and even those who don't believe in anything to do with Christmas, every time they say "happy holidays". They just don't know it.

Until they read this blog . . . or you unpack the meaning of the expression for them.

Happy holydays to you this week - and God bless forever and ever, amen.

How great a fall that merited so great a redemption and so great a Redeemer.

celebrate december 22nd!

Why celebrate December 22nd?

Most people focus on December 24th (Christmas Eve), December 25th (Christmas Day), and some take a good look at December 21st (winter solstice).

In addition, December 26th (Boxing Day) is good for buying till you drop, December 31st (New Year's Eve) is good for parties, and January 1st (New Year's Day) is good for another meal, visiting, polar bear swims, and resolutions.

But what's the big deal about December 22nd?

It's the first day after the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. It's the first day that all the days start getting longer, the first day of more light, the first day on the journey to the longest day of the year in our hemisphere, June 21st. The sun starts to crowd out the night.

So we celebrate the 22nd because we celebrate the light, it's return, and it's growing strength.

We celebrate it because the light comes upon us slowly, incrementally, as so often quiet, strong, good things can come - not all at once or in a sudden surge, but bit-by-bit, moment-by-moment, year-by-year, a goodness often unnoticed by us until we are suddenly aware it is there and has been there for a long time, it's just that we've been oblivious. Just as many of us are oblivious of the lengthening hours of daylight until a month after Christmas, or Valentine's Day, when it becomes obvious that the sun is setting later and later, but rising earlier and earlier.

For Christians, of course, this is a metaphor for Christ who called himself the Light of the World. By Christmas Day, we've had a trinity of days, and the light is already greater than it was on the 22nd. An appropriate symbol for Jesus, who is the light in all our darknesses, a light the darknesses we wrestle with can never master, understand, or put out.

Celebrate December 22nd - light a candle, buy a new lamp, get up and watch the sunrise, thank the God who always brings light out of darkness.

The 22nd is a symbol of our great hope - that Jesus really has overcome the world.

The 22nd, therefore, is the day to be of good cheer.

Just as the 25th is the day to receive the glad tidings of great joy - which are for all people.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

bury my heart at wounded knee

****I shall not be here, I shall rise and pass, bury my heart at Wounded Knee
- Stephen Vincent Benet

****In March 1973, when I was young and invincible and into journalism, I traveled with a group of other young, invincible 19 year olds to Wounded Knee, South Dakota from Winnipeg, Manitoba. An uprising was underway between AIM and the United States government under the presidency of Richard Nixon. We'd thought we'd report on it. So we rented an LTD and drove 15 hours non-stop to the site of the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890. It never occurred to us that we could have gotten our heads blown off.

****As life and the ways of God frequently favor the foolhardy, brave and naive, we showed up at Wounded Knee at the same time as a temporary truce went into effect. So instead of being stopped stone cold by federal troops and US marshals and turned back, we were permitted into Wounded Knee at our own risk. We didn't think it was a risk. A white pillow case flying from our aerial, down into the valley we went. And were immediately stopped by a carload of Native Americans armed to the teeth who wanted to know how many troops were at the checkpoint we had just driven through.

****So began our long day at Wounded Knee which is the basis of this story here. As I wrote it, I mused about my experiences growing up in Manitoba and the First Nations people I had met. I also thought about God and Christ and how much of the gospel, or at least the way we presented it back in 1973, was centered on how whites saw the world, and not on how other races and cultures might see it. And how they might see Jesus. I also thought about the centuries of warfare between Europeans and Native Americans - could the migration from Europe have been handled more peacefully? But you cannot go back. Only try to listen to the right voices and go forward.

****I originally entitled this story White Man's God. That's how you find it in the book of stories of which it's part (Mister Good Morning). Today I'm giving it a new title which I've taken from the last line of the story - An Evening For Angels.

I hope it speaks to you.

It really is based on a true story.


An Evening For Angels

In June the cottonwoods release their seed and for weeks it is a summer’s winter. White swirls in and out, tumbling and turning, as if the world is a glass globe a child has lifted and shaken. Overhead, the blue dome is spotted. Some detest the whitefall. I feel it is a time of magic. Anything might step out of the whirling. Anyone might come in out of the storm. And so it is that Jimmy Strikes With A Gun comes my way. June is a new earth in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
The town has lived more than a hundred years along the banks of a gold and green creek. Hills rise all around, and in the west, mountains blue, mountains purple, mountains at morning and at dusk. A footpath of gravel edges the banks of the creek. I see him coming, his face like a chisel, a straw cowboy hat tight on dark braided hair. I sense us riding toward each other, a harsh riding, his face cold and blunt, mine sharp and steep and far, rifles in our fists, the plains cracking with the fast hooves of our ponies. But out of the white falling, it is him.
He stares. “White Man’s God!” he laughs.

It is March. The city is melting. Water pools in the gutters and glitters in the empty fields. A warm south wind. Parkas are shorn. A smiling. A straightening of backs. The prairie winter is done. Sprinklers are spitting and hissing on the fairways. I am studying journalism, hopelessly behind in my assignments, slumped at a typewriter, trying to work something onto the sheet of paper directly from my head, without a rough draft, the way the pros do it. Tim, round glasses and short beard and jeans, he snips into the room. I lift my head. Soon I am in a car, an LTD, a dark one. There are six of us. Driving down the plains, north to south, from farms to ranches, flat land to hills, greater heat, longer suns, brown grass.

At the last of the fifteen hour drive I am behind the wheel. We have come through night and morning and now it is past noon. Hill after hill. Buffalo - we are not only going south but going into time, it is not only another country but another era. We see a few pickups. Then, for a hundred miles, nothing.

I am still at the wheel when the man swings the machine gun and aims it at my head, the head of the driver, as a man with a gun is trained to do. He is in cavalry blue. But he is no older than I am, standing up in his dirt green armoured car. We are the same. But we started in different places. I brake quickly. The LTD swerves and slithers. I throw up my hands.
“What are you doing?” shout my friends and fellow students. "Get going, get going!”
“I’ve got a gun pointed at my head.”
“He’s not going to shoot. Get going, get going.”
He never relaxes the grip on the gun. The gun is mounted on a swivel and it tracks us. We drive down into the valley at our own risk, he says. We’re laughing too much, almost giddy. Both sides have agreed to a temporary truce. The other students back home swore we’d never get in. We tie a pillowcase to our aerial. I’m driving again. Into the valley. Into Wounded Knee.

A raw wind had been blowing at the border between Manitoba and North Dakota. We said nothing about the uprising at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. We stopped for coffee at a local watering hole south of Fargo. Ranchers with curled and battered stetsons. It was 1973 - they didn’t like the look of my hair. They said something, steam flickering over their hands, clutching their coffee mugs for warmth. I was polite - tired but full of the good will sparkle which comes with impending adventure.
“Pardon me?” I asked.
The ranchers eyed me, then smiled with the blue cut of the ice dawn snagging the windows of the diner: “You got hair like a sheep, boy. We ought to shear you.”
The ranchers laughed. I laughed, but from my nose, pretending. I laughed that laugh again when the muzzle of an AK-47 dangled lazily at my stomach.
“Hey. I’m gonna use this white guy as a shield and start blasting.”
They were mostly Sioux. They had about as deep and healthy a laugh at my expense as the ranchers had had over their Saturday morning breakfast. I was standing in the valley with a ridiculous notepad in my hand and there were loaded guns all around me and buildings full of bullet holes and underneath the grass was blood.

The United States government had cut off power to the Knee but someone had jury-rigged a system so the Sioux could still pump up gas from the underground storage tanks. Cars and trucks darted back and forth as we headed toward the station, edging our way down and in from the valley’s rim. A car jumped out of the trees and cut us off. They wanted to know how many soldiers and federal marshals were up on top. We drove to the gas station. That’s where Jimmy sat, rolling a cigarette. He watched us and listened to us for a few minutes.
“Where’s your college?” he asked suddenly.
“The Canadian Indians are jerked around worse than we are. And they don’t even know it.”
A young man with long dark hair, headband, and black-rimmed glasses rode up on a paint, holding the reins to a horse trotting behind him. He held a Winchester lever-action.
“Patrols,” said Jimmy.
“Are you all Sioux?” I asked.
“Nah. Cheyenne. Crow. Nez Perce. I’m Blackfoot. Hey. You should have seen the firefight last night. Tracers slamming into everything. Now we got this truce. But it won’t last. What are they going to do? Give us back Mount Rushmore?”

The more we relaxed, the more our group split up and wandered, photographing, listening. The South Dakota sun was warm but the breeze held the memory of the dead snow. We slipped on our jean jackets. I stared at bunkers that had been cut into the earth, concrete blocks stacked around their edges. The Catholic church flew the stars and stripes upside down over its doorway. Inside the altar was crammed with a stereo system. Some women were ladling out cups of hot soup. Covers from Dee Brown’s paperback, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, were taped up in various buildings. Or pieces of foolscap:




I was watching them slaughter a steer a native rancher had brought up in the back of his truck. The sun dropped gunmetal blue behind the church. Jimmy walked up with his AK-47.
“Sitting Bull. He was killed just north of here. On the Grand River. Did you know that?”
I shook my head. “Soldiers?”
Jimmy laughed. “Sioux. Indian police. Right after that the soldiers moved up the Grand River Valley into Wounded Knee and opened up with their hardware. Right here. Shot down everybody. Same old story. Women and children. They were afraid of the Ghost Dance. Afraid there’d be another Indian uprising. They were after Spotted Elk. He rode with Sitting Bull. It was Custer’s old regiment did the job. The Seventh Cavalry.”
The church’s steeple was a cross. Two perfect black lines against the blue sunset. Jimmy eyed it.
“You a Christian?” he asked.
I shrugged.
“Methodist?” he prodded.
“It doesn’t make any difference to us. It’s all the White Man’s God. What do Christians care about freedom and creation and respect? Where are you spending the night?”
“I guess we’ll huddle up in the car.”
“Better come with me. In case there’s shooting.”
It was a shack with three or four others sleeping on the floor. I didn’t belong. But no one asked Jimmy why. And no one offered me a blanket. I draped my denim jacket over my back and shoulders. Runners for a pillow. It was dark. And cold. But no gunfire.

“Where are the other white kids?”
1970. A high school play on Louis Riel. All the Metis and Cree parts were being played by Metis and Cree. I’d wanted to play Gabriel Dumont. But I wasn’t Metis. A tall Cree girl asked me where the other white kids were. I’d never been given a colour before.

I woke. Starlight? Moonlight? I didn’t think it would be a good idea to move around in the dark so I lay there. I tried to pray. What do you pray for? Sitting Bull had gone to Canada for a few years, Jimmy had said. But the Canadian government had abused him and his band so badly he returned to the U.S. He had become famous. Buffalo Bill signed him up for his Wild West Show and Sitting Bull wound up scribbling autographs. He even wore sunglasses for his old eyes. Jimmy had laughed: “But every Indian is a drunk, right?”

A story formed in the night before I fell back to sleep. I had scarcely any notion of writing one. I’d become bored with my journalism classes and was thinking about dropping out. Someone spoke in their sleep. The story would come to be published on the front page of the city paper. I would be invited to speak at various places about what had happened at the Knee. A friend who farmed would snort at my reporting: “Really unbiased. Yahoo for Sitting Bull and the Little Big Horn. Tears for Wounded Knee. If they want to be free, fine. Tell them to stop taking government handouts.” A friend of my mother’s would listen to my story as I told it to her in our living room. She would shake her head: “But they’re the children of Ham. It may seem cruel but it’s the judgment of a just God. The children of Ham will always be slaves to the whites. It’s God’s law.”

The toe of a boot dug into my ribs.
“Let’s go,” Jimmy was saying, hanging onto his AK-47. “Maybe the truce is over and I‘ll need you for that shield.”
A large white tepee had been erected and drums were beating. A crowd had gathered.
“It’s a ceremony for those warriors who had their first fight Friday night. The warriors are blooded. You can watch. But don’t go near the tepee. Powerful medicine flows from its entrance. A guard will knock your head off if you get in the way.”
Shirts and jeans and Winchesters and semi-automatics and headbands and beads. They moved in single file, their feet shuffling with the drums. They came up to an old monument erected to those killed at the Knee a hundred years before. Each one placed their hand on it. Jimmy too.

“I joined AIM a few months ago,” Jimmy was telling me later. “I knew they were planning this.”
“So what’s going to happen?”
“What can happen? Eventually, we’ll have to surrender. There’ll be no water, no food, no ammo. We’ll last awhile though. It’s spring.”
“You don’t think Nixon will negotiate. You think he’ll answer with guns.”
“Yeah. He will most probably. But we’ll get a piece of him. Of all of you. Dark children of a White God.”
“Jesus was a Jew.”
“He wasn’t white.”
“The traders with their whiskey were white. And the pony soldiers. And the preachers who called us devils.”
“Indian tribes fought each other and lied and broke trust. That doesn’t make native religion worthless in your eyes.”
“There is nothing in the Christian’s heart for the land, even though they claim God the Father made the land.”
“Yes. God created. He told us to be caregivers for the earth and all that He made.”
“Sure. And a lot of whites follow that, don’t they?”
“You can’t say every white is a Christian.”
“I could blow you away. You think this is a seminary? We’re fighting for our lives, not a bunch of doctrine. White Man’s God.”

The truce ended before we could drive out and that night the fire fell. Jimmy was smoking in the graveyard and telling me that the Quakers had been trustworthy in dealing with the Indians. Lights formed a sudden parabola over us. He pushed me flat behind a headstone. Then came the sound, not nearly as loud as in the movies: Tack-tack-tack-tack-tack.
Jimmy hunched over and ran and I stumbled after him. We dropped into a bunker. There was another man there, a friend of Jimmy’s I’d met at the gas pump, Michael Many Wounds. Michael and Jimmy watched for the source of the U.S. fire and then opened up with their own tracers. The shots went where they wanted them to and they cheered. WHACK-WHACK-WHACK-WHACK-WHACK-WHACK. Now the noise hurt. I had a swift image from the afternoon of a Sioux woman, a flower of wrinkles, smiling and telling me Sitting Bull would be riding this night as she pressed hot bannock into my hand. Firing erupted from all over the valley and the hills. Then it ended. In the silence, one last shot.
“Thirty-thirty,” grunted Michael.
“So, White Man’s God,” rumbled Jimmy, leaning back into the cool earth of the bunker. “What would you do?”
“If you were Sioux. Apache. Blackfoot. You’re on your front lawn and they drive up and beat on your father and mother and on your grandmother, they throw you out of the house, rip up your garden, tie you up and tell you it’s not your property anymore.”
“I’d get a lawyer.”
Jimmy laughed. “White Man’s God and his lawyers and judges. No. There’s no law for you. They just take. They rape your kid sister. Now what?”
“I fight back.”
“Like us.”
“I wouldn’t stay on a reserve.”
“You’re going to leave the reserve? The Cheyenne tried that and the U.S. called out ten thousand soldiers to track them down. The Nez Perce tried it too. Of course, we’re talking a hundred years.”
“I’d go anywhere.”
“The white man doesn’t want you on his street.”
“I’d get a good job.”
“A white man’s job.”
“As soon as I’m doing it, it’s my job.”
“So easy. You grow up in a clean house with a green lawn and all your rosy options. But what if all your family and friends are on the reserve? What if it’s your ancestral home? Try to think Indian, White Man’s God. Try to feel it.”
“People leave.”
“Sure. I left.”
“That was good, wasn’t it?”
“For you everything is something to be used to get you farther and higher. I can’t think like that. For Christians the whole earth is something to be used up.”
“How can I think that way? All of God is in creation. It says His divine nature is in everything. You can see it. You can see Him. You get to know who He is just by looking. How can I desecrate what is part of him? It’s Christ’s face.”
The bunker was so black I could not see them. Jimmy only grunted: “White Man’s God.”

All the next day there was firing from one end of the Knee to the other. Scarcely anyone moved from place to place. They were worried about snipers. A few crawled back and forth with food and water. Tim ended up in my bunker, his beard longer and scruffier. He was incensed.
“Did you know they put a bullet in the LTD?” he squawked. “What are we supposed to tell Hertz?”
“They can bill the President of the United States,” grinned Michael Many Wounds.
At night we were free to walk. Jimmy took Michael and I back to the graveyard.
“If we get hit, it’ll save us a trip,” he smiled. He lit up. “I’ll tell you something else you don’t know, White Man’s God. It was a white man went to Cochise. A Christian. I guess he was a real one. Usually the best white man is one that’s shot and hung. But this man kept his word. He would read his Bible and pray every morning. Cochise saw that. And he treated the Apache with dignity and respect. He treated them as if they were also God-made, like all whites think white people are. He made the peace. He was a soldier too. I cannot understand that.”
“What was his name?”
“Howard. Brigadier General Oliver Otis Howard.”
“Why are you telling me all this?”
“I keep hoping there are others like Howard and like Penn and the Quakers. A few more whites who belong to God. Michael hears me talk all this crazy talk. No one else.”
Michael grinned in the dark. “It’s good crazy talk.”
Jimmy’s face was sparked by the cigarette. “I’d like a God who was God for everyone, not a Sioux God or a Peigan’s Blackfoot God, not a white man’s God or a Hindu’s God or a Moslem’s God. I think there has to be this Great Spirit for all peoples. Doesn’t the Christian Bible say everyone is made of one blood, every tribe, every nation? So a priest told me when I was a boy. I want this God.”
I squatted under a tree, its branches still sharp and bare. “I used to walk from my house in the suburbs to downtown, to Main Street. I wanted to see Indians.”
“I’ll bet you were always glad to get back to your home in the suburbs, weren’t you?”
“I thought that if I were an Indian, I would return to the old ways. I would go back to the pride that used to be the Indian people before the alcohol came. I would break free and be a warrior once again. And the God I would worship would have the face of Jesus, dark with the sun of the desert. He would be the Great Spirit. I kept going back to Main Street. It depressed me. But it was something exotic at the same time. I wanted to tell them to go back to their dignity, to go back to their strength.”
“You were one of the crazy whites who gets romantic about the Warrior of the Plains. But no people can go back.”
“I had just become a Christian. I was only fourteen. But I thought a true Christian should be full of life. There should be rivers and mountains and immense prairies in them. Purple thunderstorms and long yellow seasons of the sun. Snow and ice and winds that soared. Stars so sharp they cut slits in the night. I read some of the Plains Indians own writings. We had so much in common. Surely they could see Christ was a God for them, full of courage and sacrifice, strong with love and noble suffering, not afraid to die, not afraid to rise again, purifying everyone, restoring everything. I read that the Father God chose to make all the earth through Jesus. All the trees. All the beasts. All the winds and clouds and waters. This is your God, I told them, this is the One to rescue you. I said all this with my heart. That’s why I keep telling you: The Indian should be what he was created to be. What the true Christ created him to be. What Father always intended him to be. But how often is this true God talked about?”
“When you talk crazy like this, what do your white friends say?”
“I had the Cree make me a buckskin shirt. I showed them the design I wanted. No buttons. I just pulled it over my head. It was a very light tan, all kinds of fringes, and just a sun and a moon on the front for decoration. It was a beautiful shirt. A man at my church saw it and he advised me to destroy the shirt because it was associated with native spirituality. No, I told him. I designed the shirt. The sun and the moon come from St. Francis of Assisi, who loved God’s creation. Brother Sun and Sister Moon. This got me into more trouble. St. Francis was a Catholic and I was supposed to be a Protestant. Destroy the shirt, he said. It will bewitch you. The Indians are a downtrodden people because they worship false gods. I thought about this. I came back to him and I asked him what he thought white people worshiped. Jesus, he told me. No, I said, mostly they worship money and sex and power. Aren’t these false gods?”
“What happened?”
“One day I left the church. There were other reasons as well.”
“But you did not stop believing in your crazy Christ?”
“No. I could not.”
“Or remaining among Christian people.”
“There are Francises there. And Howards and Penns. You told me.”
“There are Indians who are Christians.”
“Some. Apples. I’m not interested in sucking up to the whites. I want the real God who says I am equal with everyone. But is it Jesus? Is it Buddha?”
The sky erupted. Flares and tracers and the hammer, hammer, hammer of guns, fire scribbling across the night. The three of us ran to the bunker. As the AK-47s bounced against their shoulders, I covered my ears. Once a cluster of shells shattered the cement blocks near our heads and we hugged the bottom of the bunker.
“If you get shot,” Jimmy told me as we lay in the dirt, “you can come back as an owl and tell me which God I should believe in. Okay?”

With the dawn came another truce.
“Get out,” ordered Jimmy. “Tell our story. Here.” He grabbed an orange bumper sticker that read, Wounded Knee, National Historic Site, and scribbled an address. “When I’m out of prison, write me. Go.”
Tim was rounding everyone up. “It’s only a three hour truce. We’ve got to move.”
We piled into the car and started up the hill, toward the armored car and the young man with the machine gun. The FBI were there too. They would detain us for an hour, ask us question after question, until an an old pro for U.S. News and World Report would persuade them to let us go. He put an arm around my shoulder and smiled: “It’ll be worth it, son. You’ll get your first byline for this story.” I could see Jimmy Strikes With A Gun and Michael Many Wounds still watching from below as we got back into the LTD. They must have seen me. No one waved.

I walked down Main Street in my home city and I felt stifled. I wished I could take all the Cree and the Metis from Main Street to the Knee. Let them be warriors again, I prayed. Let them want dignity and freedom more than anything else. No one at my church was interested in my story. The city paper published two articles and paid me and I got an A+ in reporting that term. I went on to seminary. My buckskin shirt was stolen, along with my luggage, the evening I flew into Vancouver to begin my studies.

The uprising collapsed many weeks after we left Wounded Knee. Only a few managed to escape the armed noose of the U.S. government. A few years later, in court, AIM successfully defended itself against the charges brought against it by the FBI over Wounded Knee. I saw a photograph of AIM leaders celebrating their courtroom victory with a huge cake strewn with candles. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse and Spotted Elk I read about in books. I passed through my years as a white man’s pastor. Some I met despised all Indians. Some loved all Indians. I met many Cree and Sioux and Blackfoot who had returned to their native spirituality and embraced it, drumming, drumming. I met others in churches. On special occasions, they dressed in white deerskins and eagle feathers. They drummed too, drummed that Jesus was the true God, the God for all peoples.

A hot wind. Cotton bursts over our knees. Jimmy buttons his shirt. He has shown me the massive scar tissue from an FBI bullet, like white plastic melted and waxy over his dark skin.
“I forgive them,” he says. “They’re just crazy white men.” He grins. “White Man’s God. All right. I will tell you. I follow the God of all peoples. But it is no white man’s religion. No. The white man actually does pretty badly at it. This Christ, you know, he does not have a white bone in his body. What do you think?”
I laugh. “I think you are right.”
We can only talk for an hour. He is in town for a Peigan pow-wow. White and blue and white the sky. It is strange to pray together. I see him with the AK-47: “I’m going to use this white guy as a shield and start blasting.” There is a small Bible covered in deerskin in his shirt pocket, stained with dirt and sweat. He reads to me from it and the fingers on the white paper are strong. The sun over the Dakotas. The sun over the Rocky Mountains. A thousand years.
“It could have been Sitting Bull beside me. It could have been Spotted Elk,” I say.
Jimmy saddens, his whole spirit seems to droop. “All the blood of my people. If someone had spoken well a hundred years ago. If someone had prayed well. No Washita. No Little Big Horn. No Wounded Knee. No white bodies. No brown bodies. Only one body, only God’s body. Ah. I dream too much. Foolish dreams. Is this a world without suffering and death? Out of the broken soul, an eagle. Out of one tired to death, one who runs. Out of blood and nails, a life, all life. How else can Father work?”
Jimmy stands. “I have to go. There are things I need to say at the pow-wow.”
“I guess we won’t see you again.”
“No. I don’t think so. Not here.”
“God gave us the creek.”
We embrace with strength. The wind has dropped and the air is quiet.
“Jimmy. What happened to Michael?”
He smiles gently in his sadness. The cottonwoods are a rich green. They do not move. In the silence of the wind, you can hear the creek. Over stones, over sand, over time.
“Michael was killed a few days after you left. He is buried at the Knee. No. Don’t speak. I must finish. He never forgot how you talked that last night. Prairies in you. Thunderclouds in you. A God of all peoples and beasts. The God for the Sioux and the Cheyenne and for the earth. The dying God. The God to free us. No white had ever spoken like this. He would joke about it just to keep it from his soul. The only good Indian, he would laugh, is a free Indian. When the bullets found him, he lived a few minutes. He wanted me to pray with him. How could I pray? I remembered the stations of the cross. I talked about the stations of the cross. I believed nothing. He believed everything. I buried him the next day. Alive. What else could he be? He clenched life in his dead hands and took it with him. I was the dead one. After the uprising ended, I had nothing. Except Michael. He haunted me. What he believed haunted me. When I had found my way to the truth, I came back. I put flowers at his grave and a new stone. There is a cross on it. And what he prayed at the end: “God of all bloods, I am Michael, your son.” When you go back, White Man’s God, you will find it. It is not obvious, but you will find it.”
He begins to move off down the path. Now a warm breeze blows from the mountains and the cottonwoods rush overhead like a sea. Some bits of seed dance around us, bright as grains of starlight. The blue softens and moves over and around all the earth. Soon he is far away but he laughs as he crosses the wooden bridge over to the other side of the shining creek: “White Man’s God. It is an evening for angels.”

Friday, December 17, 2010

The God Hunter

The God Hunter

Robert Bodey, PhD, was growing weary of theology. He had been teaching it for twenty-five years and he was bored. So he gained weight. His usually impeccable apartment became a shambles. He avoided returning to it for as long as possible after work because he felt lonely in it - there was only the furniture, a small TV, and wall after wall of huge books with German titles stamped on their spines, all now in disarray. He stopped changing the sheets on his bed too. They became itchy and grey with granules of dirt.
Robert Bodey was not married. He had planned to get a PhD and he had gotten a PhD. He had planned to get a position at a university teaching theology and he had gotten a position at a university teaching theology. But he had not planned to get a marriage, so he did not have one of those. He was a bachelor. At fifty-five he frequented an inexpensive Chinese restaurant for his meals or ate Hamburger Helper and Rice-a-roni out of the pots he cooked them in.
After a year in this depressed state he decided to have a physician he knew look him over. The doctor didn’t even bother to use his stethoscope.
“You’re fat,” the doctor said. “You look like one of the pyramids of Egypt. I want you to find a dog for yourself and get out every morning for some exercise.”
Bodey reflected and decided to get two dogs. He chose them from the other side of the glass pane while both of the puppies were sleeping - he concluded from this that they were a quiet breed of dog. They turned his apartment into a racetrack and then, with unabated energy, a wrestling ring. He proceeded to take his first walk immediately, following the doctor’s orders with commendable alacrity, nursing a vain hope of tiring the two puppies out.
Bodey lived in a small apartment block just off campus. The university owned hundreds of acres of forested land which it had not yet developed and this land was interlaced with trails. People walked on them, jogged on them, cycled on them. Bodey turned his two puppies loose on them and strolled behind them at a moderate pace. The puppies would race ahead, peer about for Bodey’s triangular hulk and elfish legs, run back to him, jump on him, then race ahead once more. Bodey spent an hour in this fashion every day and in time, surprising himself, he came to enjoy it. And the puppies brought life into his apartment also, made it something of a home. After six months Bodey did begin to lose weight, found he could breathe better, and he began to laugh when he lectured, which startled his students, who thought he was choking.
Despite all these physical and psychological improvements, however, the puppies were unable to do anything about Bodey’s general malaise towards his teaching career. The new red and yellow hardbacked tomes in his office, sent gratis by various publishers, remained unopened. He no longer revised his lecture notes from one semester to the next. He eventually came to the point where he seriously began to consider some kind of dramatic exit from the whole farce, as he had come to view it. Perhaps crying STRAW! in the middle of a lecture on God’s self-revelation to the human race, walking out, plugging the toilets in the washrooms with pages from his theology books, and then resigning. He actually decided on this particular course of action, set the date five months in advance, and stolidly awaited its arrival. In the meantime, he continued to walk his puppies, who were now truly dogs, and to look at the green of the trees as he briskly strode past them down one trail after another.
Two weeks after he had made the decision to end his career as a theologian, a woman with a black Labrador Retriever stopped to chat with him on a trail. She admired his two dogs.
“Are these Malamutes?” she asked.
“Yes,” answered Bodey, who wasn’t sure what she meant.
“They have a beautiful wild look to them.”
“They do, don’t they?”
“Did you know there were coyotes in these woods here?”
“Pardon me?”
“Coyotes. A whole pack of them. They’ve been here for years.”
“Coyotes?” exclaimed Bodey. “Coyotes in the middle of the third largest city in the country? That’s hard to believe.”
The woman shrugged. “Well, they’re here. Miles and miles of forest for them. I saw the pack once. That would be two years ago now.”
“You couldn’t have been mistaken?” probed Bodey. “You’re sure you weren’t seeing a German Shepherd or something?”
The woman laughed at him. “Oh, no. These weren’t German Shepherds. They have quite a different look to them. Quite a different way of moving. Very wild. Feral. You can’t mistake them for somebody’s pet.”
After this surprising conversation, Bodey took it upon himself to casually ask other dog owners he met on the trails if they had heard of the coyotes. Some of them had, some of them didn’t know what he was talking about, and a few claimed they had seen them with their own eyes. Their sightings tended to be brief, perhaps only a glimpse of a lean figure loping through swordferns, but one or two declared the coyotes had shadowed them, quietly keeping pace with them and their dogs. Coyotes were killers, a man said. A bitch would lure a dog into the woods where another coyote, her partner, would get in behind the dog, hamstring it, and then both would gobble it up. The man warned Bodey to keep his dogs on a leash if he ever saw anything suspicious, and then remarked on the coyotes’s sinister amber eyes. “A lot like the wolf,” the man assured him. Others spoke of the beauty of the coyotes, their wonderful coats and their huge bushy tails, their sleek forms and the grace with which they moved through the rain forest. “They’re very shy, very timid,” these persons explained to Bodey. “Not at all like the wolf.”
Bodey sensed a growing desire within him to see these coyotes for himself. Some of the curiosity, he knew, had to do with the fact that, like most city-dwellers, the only wild animals he had ever seen had been behind bars, which hardly made them wild, or they had been making fools of themselves in national or provinicial parks, begging for white bread and potato chips. How many times did you see a wild animal in its natural environment? He was aware that people who lived in the midst of coyotes and bears and wolves all their lives, ranchers and farmers up north, for instance, could get so used to seeing them they practically ignored the creatures - unless they viewed them as intruders and nuisances that threatened their livestock and needed to be poisoned, trapped or shot. But Bodey was in a state of almost childlike wonder, wanting to see a wild animal, to look into its eyes without wire or gun between it and him, with no desire on his part to do anything but gaze and perhaps - he only mentioned this to his dogs - talk to it.
Accordingly, he began to gather information from those who had seen the coyotes about where they had seen them and at what time of day. When some of them wanted to know why and he told them he hoped to see the coyotes for himself, a few smiled and encouraged him, but others said, “You don’t want to see them. They’ll give you the creeps. The bunch of them will circle around you. We don’t understand enough about coyotes to know what they’d do to a person if they got him alone.”
Bodey could not deny having a few garish daydreams of sprawling in a thicket with his throat torn open while he watched a coyote chew on his leg and thigh, but the excitement of the quest was overpowering. He went to all the locations in the forest where people claimed they had seen the coyotes and he went at every different time of day imaginable. He even went at night once, a flashlight in his pocket, when the calls of the birds and the creaking of the tree limbs made him think of films he’d seen about Vietnam.
When he had no luck, he went to the university library and read up on coyotes’ habits. Apparently, he would have a better chance of catching a sight of them just before dawn. So he began leaping out of bed at five every morning and hauling his bewildered dogs out onto the trails, his eyes scanning the trees around him, his ears alert to the slightest rustling sound. Once, after a rain, he thought the sound of fat raindrops plopping off the trees into the undergrowth was the padding of coyote paws through the ferns. Another time he followed a set of wolfish tracks down a muddy, skinny trail that led off a larger one into the densest sections of the forest. He tripped over roots, hauled his body over huge cedar deadfalls, soaked his feet in black puddles, scraped his face on thorns. At the end of the path the tracks stopped under the paws of a Siberian Husky which had stopped to urinate against a tree while its master lit a cigarette.
Despite the fact that he heard nothing and saw nothing, Bodey kept hoping, though his earlier zest faded. He stopped getting up at five. The strong leashes he had purchased for the dogs in preparation for the encounter with the coyotes he frequently left behind in the apartment. As the months passed, he thought less of the coyotes and more of his disillusionment with his profession. The only times of day he looked forward to now were his hours with his dogs and the moment he turned off the light to go to sleep. He returned the books on coyotes he had assembled back to the university library and he did not renew them. Everyone who mentioned sighting the coyotes was talking about an experience they had had two or three years before. Bodey reasoned that the pack had moved on, had stolen past the city limits to the mountains where they belonged.
Two days before his planned dramatic resignation, the clocks went ahead one hour because of daylight saving time. Bodey dutifully reset the hands of his wristwatch and alarm clock and went to bed thinking of how he would fling the word STRAW! at those serious men and women scratching their notes about God into their binders of foolscap. He rehearsed the moment again and again, lost consciousness, dreamed about nothing. He got up at six, dressed, and took the dogs on the trails.
It had been raining, but the sky was a light spring grey, not the grim charcoal of the winter months, and the silver light brightened the green around him. He did not feel much like walking and wanted to get it over with, hurrying the dogs along, becoming impatient with them if they dawdled too long in a particular pool or at a particular odour. His pace slowed and his head went down as he thought about his Monday morning lecture. Just to get it over and done with and to get out, never to look back. Why had he ever wanted to study theology in the first place? The lifeless abstractions, the predictable conclusions, the vague and drawn-out analyses of the divine. Perhaps he could get a job at the post office.
An old man with an iron-colored mustache, black beret, brown walking stick, and two large German Shepherds came briskly up the path towards him.
“Morning,” grunted Bodey.
“A big noise in the bush,” the old man said. “I think there are coyotes back in there.”
Bodey grunted again. A tree falling. Birds. Most likely a squirrel or racoon. Bodey passed on with his dogs and his eyes reverted to the dirt and stones just ahead of the toes of his shoes.
The cry startled him. He knew immediately what it was not. it was not a dog. The cry came again, around a swerve in the trail, partly a bark, partly a wail. Bodey stopped to listen. Again it came, louder and closer. The dogs milled about his feet, confused, whining. Then there were two cries, answering each other, high, with a dying twist to them. An instant later and there was a powerful burst of yipping and howling. My God, thought Bodey, my God. He began to run. The dogs ran with him.
Each half-minute or so he stopped running, listened, gauged his distance from the sounds. After a couple of minutes he was right on top of the cries, they were breaking out of the forest off to his left. The leashes were in his pocket. Fumbling with the catches, he snapped them onto the dogs’ collars. They plunged into the woods, stumbling over branches and moss-covered stumps. Far from the trail, Bodey stopped again, his heart bumping against his chest, his breath loud, a pant leg ripped open. A cry shot at him from a clump of pine twenty feet away. He squinted, strained to see, knew it was there, saw only pine needles and thin, grey tree trunks. The dogs hurled themselves forward, almost tearing their leashes free from his tight grip. They ran behind him, leaped forward again, so that the leashes bound themselves around Bodey’s legs and he fell, his mouth filling with dirt and chips of rotten cedar. He untangled himself and got up and spat. The calls came from farther away. They were leaving.
Bodey cried out, tried to imitate the call, yipped, howled, fought to put a quaver in his voice. A cry responded to his. He howled again, his dogs churning up the moss at his feet, twisting him around with their leashes, pawing at the air. Yowls and barks were fired back at Bodey from the woods. The dogs jumped ahead and Bodey fell backwards into a deadfall. The broken end of a branch punctured his shoulder. Another cry, still farther away, a note at the end of it, as if it were asking a question, hanging there in the green and in the polished silver. Bodey struggled up, howled, had both leashes in one fist, began to run deeper into the woods. Wails answered him from behind a distant cedar stump as wide and high as a small hill. He and the dogs blundered towards it. When they reached the monstrous stump, there was nothing, but the dogs sniffed it vigorously and Bodey felt eyes on him, thought he saw a face and ears, no, only another stump, stood as still as he could, praying, squinting, wanting. Nothing. There were no more cries.
He and the dogs found their way out of the forest, got back on one of the main trails. He unfastened the dogs’ leashes and they raced off into the bars of yellow light, the sun wedging its way in-between two clouds. Right away they met a man with a springer spaniel.
“Coyotes,” Bodey panted. “Did you hear the coyotes?”
“No,” the man replied.
“Back there in the woods. They were almost singing to each other.”
The man called to his spaniel: “Come on, Tina, come on, girl. Nice meeting you.”
The man moved along the trail. But Bodey had to talk. He met a woman and a man with their collie. He forced himself to observe the usual amenities. Then he told them he had been right on top of the coyotes, that they had been howling all around him.
“You know,” responded the man, “I heard them two or three years ago. But I haven’t heard them since.”
“Just over there.” Bodey gestured. “Just off that trail. Calling and yipping.”
“Well, that’s interesting. That’s very interesting. I would have thought they’d have moved on by now.”
The three of them listened but heard only the stirring of branches, a robin. The couple smiled at Bodey.
“We’ll push on,” they said. “Nice talking to you.”
Bodey was out early the next morning, and the next, but heard nothing, saw nothing. He walked off the trails, stumbled through the bush with his dogs on leash. He sat quietly near huge stumps and waited. The light would break and fall on his shoulders and head.
He continued to mention what had happened to the other dog owners he met on the trail. Some listened and said nothing. Others changed the subject. Once he spoke about it at a faculty meeting and a colleague of his puffed at his pipe and snorted, “Coyotes? Coyotes in the middle of the third largest city in the country? That’s hard to believe.” Another laughed. “Well, you know, I’ve seen them. I’ve seen them back there. That was years ago. But it’s a lot different when you get a look at them. They’re kind of scrawny creatures, actually.”
Bodey did not leave the university. He did throw out most of his notes and extensively revised all his lectures. He often spoke extemporaneously, sometimes rambled. It was impossible to get rid of him because of his tenure. His classes dwindled. Students claimed they saw him wandering, apparently aimlessly, through the woods with his two dogs and they chuckled. The story even went around that he had been seen walking through the trees and howling like a wolf or coyote.
Yet a nucleus of students became devoted to him, attending all his lectures, asking questions, producing thoughtful and penetrating essays. One young woman came up with an award-winning thesis, astonishing the faculty. How did Bodey’s meanderings and mumbo-jumbo, they demanded, inspire such leanness of prose, such blazing insight, such astounding intimacy with the divine? “As if,” one professor remarked, “the lot of them had gone on a hike with the Almighty.”
Bodey made no comments to anyone, did not involve himself in any of the controversy or faculty intrigue. He went back and forth along obscure trails that curled in and out of the rain forest, his dogs leaping ahead, he striding behind, stopping to listen, pausing to squint through the bristling green, often leaving the trail and struggling to make his own path through branches and swordfern and rot. These explorations became the very stuff of his life, and you would find him sitting on a stump with his hands just under his nose, eyes focused straight ahead, for all the world like something that had grown up out of the rain forest itself, palms together, thinking God knows what.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

the far kingdoms of blue night


I was born when my father was 38, the first child. He did not become more cautious because he had a son to provide for. Within a few months of my birth he decided he must finally begin to ski down the slopes of mountains. He also was determined to climb them with rope and ice axe and crampons biting into snow and rock. He went hunting, not to kill - he never did shoot anything - but to draw as close to the animals as he dared, to cougar and moose and grizzly. He wanted to do everything that he had imagined himself doing but had never done because the risk intimidated him. Mother told me it was as if one life concluded at my birth and another began minutes after I began to cry and my flesh began to brighten with red and pink. She said it was because he wanted to be a young father for me, someone who could keep up with the other fathers in their twenties. He wanted me to be proud of him, wanted me to see him strong and full of new mornings.
“That’s not all of it,” he told me when I was twelve. “Yes, I do want to be young for you, not some fat wheezing parson who can only cheer you on from the sidelines. But I want to live a few more lives with you too. Why did we wait until I was 38 to have you?”
I shrugged. We were sitting in a nature park by our home, leaves like cornflakes all around us, and our two dogs yipping and leaping up a pine tree after a squirrel.
“I was afraid of your mother dying in childbirth. Then I was afraid of you growing up and getting into drugs or into a gang or hating me or hating God because I was a minister. I loved the mountains, always hiked in them. I wanted to press my heart against them and let it beat into the stone but I was afraid of getting that close. What if I fell? I wanted snow from my skis to burn my face and melt like a rainfall. I wanted to slash down through the pines and all the cold whiteness. What if I fell? So I stayed at a distance from all the magnificence. You were born. I wanted us to go into the splendor together. I had to try. There were too many fears. I had to plunge into them like a mountain river, feel all the fire and the cold and the sting, and climb up on the other bank, having got somewhere. I’m talking too much. Do you know what I’m trying to get across?”
I did not know then. It bothered me when he used so many words so quickly like that, as if he were speaking faster and faster and might fall apart.
“Forget it,” he said. “Let’s go see Mom.”
Then he was silent and sure and strong, walking back with me through the forest, yes, and into the mountains, onto the slopes, pitching in the great sea in a small kayak, building a fire with no match in wilderness where we knew no one could protect us. I did not know what he meant about facing fears. What did my father fear? Surely he had always been like that, always skiing and climbing and hunting deep into the manless earth. He could use his body as well as anyone. And when words came from him, they came many times like shooting stars blistering a constellation.
To earn a living he preached and counseled and led people - he hoped - into the presence of God. And he wrote stories and published them and the money fed us and clothed us and sometimes mother nursed at the hospital and the moon was full and the world turned round and round. He did not have to worry about us running from him or mother or their God. Why would you hate a God my father compared to a pond, or to a cataract, or a massive cornice of snow and flickering ice? Who would flee a God who fashioned eagles and fox kittens and the far kingdoms of blue night? There was no fear.
We lived, my brothers and sisters and I, and grew up on an island in the North Pacific where there was an infinity of shores and where we could watch the seashells crackle into sand. There were huge waves that thumped like a thudding heart under your feet and mountains bristling with lion and bear and roaring with glaciers and their rapids. Yet my father always looked restlessly over the sea to the mountain range you could spot on the mainland, white peaks that floated above the waters like the high towers of a fantasy.
“Out past those are the real mountains of the earth,” he would say. “The Himalayas are beautiful, as heavenly as the white stars. But the Rocky Mountains are the true stuff of earth, rugged and solid and crammed with light, impossible to ignore. Somehow they are rooted in the centre of everything that matters, they are fastened to God. We have to go to them.”
We always did go to them. Camping in southern Alberta. Riding horses in the foothills west of Calgary. Wandering along the Bow River near Canmore looking for flat stones. Standing in our skis on the razor peaks scattered about Lake Louise. Yet he seemed most excited when he could draw us into the mountains and long fields of Banff.
He ignored the fact that Banff was a tourist town and he never considered himself a tourist. He enjoyed the bookstore, mother the shops and restaurants, we often hiked up past the graveyard to the School of Fine Arts at the Banff Centre to listen to musicians or to watch the plays. But it was really those tall grey monoliths he came for and, sparkling at their feet, the red deer.
He swore the elk would sense his true intentions and allow him to come close. He was not reckless but he felt the animals would understand him and not run. Mother would get upset because this was the same way he acted in grizzly or cougar country, hoping one would pop up at his elbow and begin to converse with him about the vagaries of heaven and earth.
One year the elk were particularly numerous in Banff and he was anxious that he and I walk out from the Banff Springs Hotel towards the forest and have a long day’s communion with the huge beasts. But I was a sophsticated thirteen-year-old and would not go.
“Animals don’t talk, Dad,” I said. Period.
“Of course they talk. Let’s go. The others can swim in the pool.”
I wanted to swim in the pool. “They’re just animals.”
“No animal is just an animal. It will only take an hour. Soon you’ll be in university and long gone.”
From the time I was ten he constantly informed me I was going to be in university soon. I put on my jacket and followed him past the outdoor pool and the steam rising from its surface. One of my brothers hooted at me and splashed. I decided to enjoy being the eldest, the one privileged to go on dangerous adventures with Dad, and I merely showed my brother my back. We followed a path down to the Spray River, then crossed a bridge and walked through a spattering of spruce trees. I was slouching, no longer needing to put on a show for my brothers and sisters, wishing I could be with them in the pool or banging away on the spangled video games in the hotel’s arcade. Father had stopped and I looked past him.
An elk herd was grazing on a field surrounded by trees on three sides. The field was actually one of the hotel’s fairways but it was autumn and the course was closed. One of the elk had a large rack of antlers that swung like a pair of swords whenever he glanced up and swiveled his head and neck. There were fifteen elk cropping grass. Even though it was November no snow had fallen. Their breath was like white smudge marks in front of their nostrils.
We were about one hundred and fifty yards away. Father wanted to get closer. He knew elk had charged persons who came too close but he was in a mood. God would reach out and touch us somehow through the animals. So we crept nearer. A few of the females began to squeak back and forth, like seals by the Pacific.
“What do you think they’re saying?” father asked me.
I was still sulky. “They’re not saying anything.”
“Of course they are. They’re probably talking about us.”
His eyes were rippling with light, the sun leaping in and out of balls of cloud over our heads. He decided we should not get any closer just then but go farther on and follow a trail into the woods. It was littered with elk pellets and mud churned up by large hooves. A musky scent lay over the trees and bushes. I scrunched my shoulders against a sudden feeling clattering up my back.
“Dad, let’s go back.”
“We should go back. The elk are too big.”
“You don’t have to be afraid. The elk will sense our intentions.”
“What if they don’t?”
“They will. I want you to think that way.”
Two shapes suddenly appeared ahead of us on the trail. They were large and moving at a slow trot towards us. Father stopped.
“We’ll head back,” he said.
I turned and began to stride, my long legs carrying me at a lope.
“It’s all right,” father called, “they won’t hurt us.”
“How do you know?”
We emerged from the trees and struck out across the fairway. The herd did not pay us any attention. I was heading for the bridge over the river. The more distance I put between the elk and myself, the better I felt.
Six elk broke across the river in front of my father and I. They had smelled us and become alarmed, chopping through the shallow water in a thunderclap of spray and gravel. The herd on the fairway lifted their heads. The six elk ran up to them and the herd began to pace back and forth. The two elk from the trail burst out of the woods at a gallop and the herd grunted and began to run towards us and the river.
“Don’t move,” father ordered. “They’ll outrun you to the bridge and go right over you.”
My heart twisted and a jolt made my whole body tighten. The elk bore straight down on us. There was a buzzing in my head and I began to experience a sense of detachment, that somehow the elk were not pounding across the grass at us, that I was watching it all from such a great distance I was safe, these were only vivid images. The herd roared past us, balked at the river, then raced back up to the fairway, passing by us on the other side. Their necks were straight up, their noses thrusting, their run became more like fast prancing, but they did not stop. Once they reached the top of the fairway they twisted and hammered towards us again. Father put his arm around my back and shoulder. I could smell them as they banged past, swung on the gravel at the river bank, and pelted alongside us back to the field.
The circle they had created around us became tighter each time they hurtled back at us. I could see the grass splitting under their hooves. My heart cracked at my chest and I opened my mouth. Father’s grip was tight. He pulled me to himself. The herd flew around us again and again. Their eyes became larger and larger, like monstrous black marbles. The bull elk jumped out of the swirl and faced us, antlers chopping from side to side. As he confronted us, the herd began to slow, a few stopped, they all stopped, poised, their legs ready to fly again, their heads up, watching us and their master, their profiles strong and dark.
The bull elk reared his head and trumpeted at us, that powerful and frightening call with its staccato climax of gusts and wails, frightening because it seemed to us a scream, because it seemed a pent-up screeching of wildness. Twice more he cried out, stamping a front hoof, snapping his rack in the cool air. Then he ceased.
For several minutes he watched us, standing utterly still, surrounded by his herd. Finally he dropped his head and began to eat. The others began to graze too. The circle became looser, some of the animals drawing closer to us, others moving a bit further away into the field.
After awhile, father said we could sit down. We squatted on the grass. No one paid us any attention. Elk moved past us, practically stepping over us, but we were no longer threatened. Yet we did not feel free to go. Once I jerked my hand because a stone suddenly pricked it and the bull elk glared at me and snorted, throwing up his head. He stared me down, then resumed his eating. But he never moved any distance from us.
“I feel like we’re prisoners,” I whispered to my father.
He was not smiling. “We can see it that way or we can see it as a privilege. He could have charged us and he didn’t.”
“I’m afraid, Dad.”
“Try to see that they’re accepting us.”
“But how long do we have to stay here?”
“They’ll move on. Bit by bit. They’ll spread out.”
“I thought you said they could understand our intentions?”
“What makes you think they haven’t? How many people are allowed to sit in the ring of a wild elk herd?”
The clouds had disappeared and the sun ran over the mountains, slewing light. The herd gradually broke the ring that had clasped us. A few crossed the river. Others drifted up by the forest to nibble. Two or three grunted and nestled down only a few yards from me. An hour went by. The bull elk finally turned his back on us and stepped carelessly and powerfully up to the far end of the field, at least 200 yards away.
“All right,” father said in a quiet voice. “It’s time to leave.”
We stood slowly. The elk that had bedded down near us merely glanced as we walked carefully past. We reached the bridge, which was a place of safety, a quick passage to the hotel and its high stone walls. But once I reached the bridge I did not want to go any further. I looked back at the herd and I looked at the bull, his antlers sparring with the sky as he bent to feed.
“Did he talk to us, Dad?” I asked. I no longer felt fear. I knew the bull elk was a mighty animal, but I also felt I had been special to it. I had been close enough to touch it. I had sat in its presence.
Father leaned his hands on the side of the wooden bridge. “I suppose he did talk to us.”
“So can you tell me what he said?”
The tip of the sun was fastened to the sharp slant of a mountain.
“You can get close,” Dad answered. “Close enough to get over your fear. Close enough to get rewarded. But the awe never leaves. The adrenaline never stops. When you get that close it’s always a miracle. You can hear them. They can listen to you. But you can’t be them.”
We walked up past the pool. My brothers shouted.
“What’d you see?”
“Nothing,” I answered.
“Didn’t you see any elk?”
“Didn’t you see anything?”
“You’ve got to take us to the arcade now. Mom said.”
“I’m too old for that stupid stuff.”
I did go to the arcade and the video games though. Not just then but later, when my brothers and sisters had to stay in their beds, I went down and thumped furiously on the machines, the lights bursting like firecrackers. I tried to bury the hour in the field, it was too strong, I didn’t want to think about it. But later I had words to understand it, rhythms to make sense of it, and father did too, the man who had faced all his fears when his first son was born, and now let his words of Christ flash like stones under fast water, and I alone in the pews understood. I alone heard the truth of God in a running circle of elk, in a slash of curving antlers, in a cry unknowable, yet impossible to misunderstand or refuse love.

Monday, December 13, 2010

pangur ban - a tribute to the christians who give the world art

If I had a computer version of the story I'd put the whole thing down here. I don't. But ten years ago I based Pangur Ban on a line from a poem written by a Celtic monastic who spoke about turning darkness into light. It was my tribute to the courage of the Christians who are artists - loved and gifted by God, but often ignored by the Christian churches. They carry on, regardless of the obstacles and a continued lack of support by large portions of Christianity - for Christian churches have a pernicious and unChristlike tendency to cheer only for the artists who are rich and famous - and bring Christ into the earth's darkness by means of dances, photographs, paintings, sculptures, novels, poems, theater, all sorts of music from classical to jazz to blues and rock - in the image of their Creator, they too are creators, and in their labor of creating, they show the world, by the way of light, both redemption and Redeemer.

I have here the ending of the story. The entire piece is found in the collection entitled The Poets of Windhover Marsh.

By the way, Pangur Ban is the name of the monastic's cat.

My own cat, Kokomo, wanted me to be sure and mention that.

Pangur Ban - The Denouement

“We’re not brand new, Simon. We started with Moses’ Tabernacle. No, we started with Creation. We’re artists and God infused us with his power and his Holy Spirit first, from the beginning of beginnings. No matter who tries to bury the real art, even if it’s the churches, just like the understanding of God’s grace and God’s love that we keep losing, it’ll keep on popping up regardless, generation after generation. The superficial and the mediocre won’t disappear while we’re on this earth. But neither will what is deep and profound.”

. . . .

The paintings continued to go up on important walls, the novels continued to be written and sold alongside the other novels of the world. The dancers danced and the actors acted and the music found its way up crescendos and down descants. And photography also came in lines of silver and black and burstings of color, and video and film came, not as teaching tools but as cinema that seized moviegoers by the heart and the soul and the mind. A million and another million who had never listened to a sermon, who had ripped up glossy tracts, who had shunned the bookstores and the concerts and churches of Christians, these – like Marie and Linnea and Cara’s great bronze sculpture of a woman fighting a huge angel, the angel itself with a woman’s face and limbs but with frightening, wondrous wings – these found themselves wrestling with God until a day broke in upon them and filled their windows and doorways with a towering cresset of light so that they finally lived and they finally walked, though with a mortal limp.

And they, the newborn of a hundred nations, crouched offstage, hearts hammering, before they stepped out under the burning lights and spoke their words, they stood before white canvases with their brushes and knives, intimidated and exhilarated, they sat at keyboards or scrawled lines on notepads in green forests and quiet city parks or forgotten corners of forgotten libraries. They wielded blowtorches like Eden’s fire. Faces smudged with paint and grime, they prayed and fought through nights with stone and wood and iron. For the love of God, for the love of the creating, for the love of the freedom, for the love of the world they painstakingly engraved plates, practiced a dance step over and over, filled their lungs and blew riffs with their horn night after night, chiseled marble, mixed rich oils that marked their skin and burned at the edges of their eyes, tossed and turned in sleep that would not come and finally offered their revelations to the blue and turning earth.

mister good morning

The Mennonite Brethren Herald out of Canada published a reprint of this story. They did a great job on it. Twisting vine leaves about the margins, giving the whole text a kind of garden backdrop, showing an image of a small, very Mediterranean-looking man among his plants and orchards.

It remains, along with Boj, The Divine Game of Pinzatski, Pangur Ban, and the novels Mizzly Fitch and Zo, one of the more popular fictions God has given me the head space and heart space to write.

And I remember him . . .


There were two gardens, he said. One at the beginning of the world and another at the end. Both beautiful. Both overflowing with the kind of life and fecundity only things green and rooted and flowering and spangled with rain can give. To breathe in is to breathe in the soul of God. To breathe out is to exhale the Incarnation. Mister Buon Giorno we called him, because he was as warm and mellow as a prairie summer sunrise, and because he was Italian. Mister Good Morning.
But that sort of talk came later. In the beginning was a tumor of weeds, especially the Scotch thistle, with its purple crown and its agony to anyone who handled it without gloves. Rocks. A rusted spade, brown and crumbly as demerara sugar. Chaos - a yard of hidden darkness sown with tin cans and chip packages and splinters of glass. The whole earth lumped and cracked and, in a rain wind, grey and black as a cold pail of ash. The fence tired and sagging, letting anything come and go, fed up. The house was a normal white stucco with a dead brown roof and dead brown window trim. I passed by this house and the yard a thousand times, seeing nothing, my mind on where I was going. I finally noticed the yard when I fell into it from a tall crab apple tree.
It was Old Man Reynolds’ tree. His house, white and blue and sturdy, dominated one end of our block. His backyard was green with leaves and apples and grass. The fence was white and solid. And there, on the other side of it, was the chaos. Reynolds’ yard, on the other hand, was paradise. A crab apple Eden. And it was we who, succumbing to temptation, took and ate.
Not that Reynolds let us get it without a fight. The back door could fly open, a blaze of light, the joy of fear running up the stairs in our chests, our shirts and pockets bumpy with the little apples, jumping, racing, laughing, while Old Man Reynolds thundered to the gate and harried us into darkest night, illumined by only a few gleaming street lamps: “You leave my apple trees alone!”
Once he’d clearly had enough and was determined to make a kill. We ran with the legs of eleven- and twelve-year-olds, pronghorns, and he raged after us down the back lane, through the yards, almost over a seven-foot fence. A hand that had seen many summers gnarled over the edge of this fence, a foot popped over, there was the promise of the whole enraged beast, and we continued to pelt across the yard into another back lane. But the hand trembled on the wood, the shoed foot strained, there was a shout, both hand and foot disappeared, a crashing and a rolling and a silence. Old Man Reynolds limped back to Crab Tree Castle.
We hooted. We cheered. But, in actuality, I saw none of this. When the wrath of Reynolds had blazed all around us, I had been so startled I toppled backwards over the fence into the yard of darkness. Scotch thistles eagerly speared my back and legs and tore their nails across my eyes and mouth. The little apples spilled out over the crusted earth. I felt Reynolds blunder down the lane after the others like a snorting buffalo bull. Suddenly there was a jabbing pain in my elbow. A rock. I tried to roll over and I thrust my hand in fierce glass that happily drew my blood. More thorns spiked my face. I stopped moving. I heard Reynolds come back. He went into his house and returned with a flashlight, playing it over his yard, spitting out hard, short words as he examined the branches stripped of fruit and leaf. The beam passed over my body and I saw the blood on my fingers. Then his door thumped shut.
“That crazy yard!” I steamed to the others later. “I’m going to fix it.”
“What about the owners?”
“No one owns it. The house is empty. The Shanks moved out in the spring.”
“Somebody bought it.”
“Well. They’re not here yet. I’m going to clean up that mess so we can use the yard for hiding. Who wants to help?”
I wound up hacking at the weeds on my own, imagining I was battling an army, one kilted, thorny Scot falling after another, in the dark, no moon, just like the war movies I watched. I had Dad’s working gloves, some old jeans, a Levi’s jacket. After the weeds, I chopped at the soil with a pick, always hitting stone, the shock burning my arms, water blisters leaping up on my palms, the glass cut biting under its bandage. The next time I raided the crab apple trees I would leap onto soft soil, crouching like a panther. I put aside the pick for a spade, shoving it in with my runnered foot, turning the rough soil over.
“You are beginning a garden?”
I dropped my shovel and was sure it was Old Man Reynolds. I was about to spring over the broken fence. But the voice was not Reynolds’ and the man was too small.
“You are a good boy to do this work for me. It always breaks my back. And under the stars! You are a romantic.”
He came closer and knelt, both knees, in the bit of earth I had cleared and turned. He took up handfuls and rubbed them against his face.
I still wanted to run. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t know you lived here.” I began to clink and clatter the tools together and head for the fence.
“Smell this, eh?” In the darkness he held darkness. “Under allof that rubbish, black soil, Red River soil, I can grow everything with this. Come.”
He took the hoe from me and he began whacking at the weed bushes. “Keep on. You are welcome here.” Hesitantly, I began to shove in the spade with my foot once again. After thirty minutes he said it was enough. I still had not seen his face clearly.
“Tomorrow is Saturday. Come tomorrow and I will give you lunch. Bring your tools.”
In five years I would be thinking his voice was black olives and piazzas and warm winds and Mediterranean waters, for by then I would have traveled to Caserta and Perugia and Roma and Assisi for myself. That night I thought he might be Polish or Dutch. He shook my hand. His skin was burning. I went down the lane three houses to my own place, leaned the fork and spade and hoe and pick against the back wall, gazed up at the gusts of summer stars, no moon, bright water beads on a black coat sleeve. I did not want to go in and sleep, for that would be an ending.
We cleared the entire yard the next day and turned every foot of the rigid soil. Rocks were heaped in one corner of the yard, weeds in another.
“Let them rot,” he said, spraying the dead thistles and dandelions and chickweed with a hose. “Soon they will change their minds and help us. They will grow beans and tomatoes and squash.”
The lunch was a salad, heavier to hold in my bowl than anything Mother made, full of things I would have refused at home - green olives, hot red peppers, spinach, misshapen white chunks of feta cheese. All drenched in olive oil and wine vinegar. There was a crusty heel of narrow white bread. I sat with him under the June sun and ate it all, wiping my bowl with the bread like he did.
“Good? Eh?”
“But nothing. How old is the spinach? How old are the peppers? They drive them up from Mexico and California before they are even ripe. In August, you will feast like a king. Everything will be fresh. You will taste something then.”
The following Saturday was the fence. We knocked down the old, pounded in the new, a lattice of cedar wood he had me stain a burgundy red. While I flicked the brush he began to set up poles. Then he dug furrows. A sack lying on the earth produced a mound of seed packages and some dark bottles.
“What’s in those bottles?” I asked.
“Seeds I have kept in the dark. Finish the fence and come.”
There were rows zig-zagging all over the black earth. Beans, peas, zucchini, corn, broccoli.
“We are starting a month late,” he said, “but we will be all right. We will have a hot September. And what do your Father and Mother plant?”
“Potatoes. Beets. Carrots. Peas. Green beans. Dill.”
“Ah. Dill. Here, over here we will sow the herbs. So many bees will come.”

July I spent at summer camp, shooting arrows, banging away with .22 rifles, riding horses, canoeing, hurling myself into food fights. When I returned to our street in August, I had that young feeling of being older and wiser and a force to be reckoned with. I came down the back lane one morning heading for the bus stop.
“Buon giorno!” he called.
The yard was a forest. Beans raced scarlet up poles. Thick green leaves swarmed over the earth. A grape vine knotted itself along the lattice fence. Arbours had been built, offering gateways in and out of various parts of the garden, and they hung with zucchini and cucumbers. Flagstone laced through the bursting green. I was sure I recognized carrots and beets. The discarded rocks in the corner had been mounded in earth and rearranged, interspersed with blossoming plants, most with pink or white flowers, which he told me were herbs, and he named each one. The bees were all over them.
When I came into the yard I felt I was entering another country. Vines dangled over my head, brushing my hair. I stepped through an arbor and was overcome by colors and scents that left me bewildered. I found an old wooden bench and sat down. My new-found summer confidence evaporated. Dark plants pressed against me.
It was a cherry tomato. I never ate tomatoes. I took it and tossed it in my mouth at once. The juice was sweet. The tomatoes in Mother’s salad were pink. Why were these like dripping blood?
He sat beside me, drinking a glass of water, offering me one.
“There is much more to do,” he nodded, “but the birds have already begun to come. Look. Robins. But it is the meadowlark I want. Over there are some seed bushes he should like. How is your parents” garden?”
“Very neat and tidy.”
“Gardens must have a rhythm, that’s true, but they should also be discoveries. You should make people search. I still need to build a pond, a fountain, some running water. I ought to have St. Francis of Assisi. Francesco. But not as a birdbath. I think, kneeling, and a stream passing from his cupped hands. Do you go to church?”
“So you know the Holy Bible very well and all about the saints.”
“I guess.”
“Eden is the first garden, emerging out of the dark.” He took bread and cheese from a pack by his feet and carved off large portions for both of us. “Then there is the whole of life. We lose Eden. But God brings us back to paradise at the end. So this is my garden. Two Edens. Look.”
He pointed with his knife at two rows of saplings I had not noticed. “Dwarf cherries. Twelve. And the stream must run down between them. You read the Holy Bible in your church, don’t you? The river of God. The leaves of the trees are for the healing of the world. God walks in the garden with us again. Genesis. And the Revelation of St. John. The Apocalypse. So this is the idyllic. The perfect ending. You enter through that arbor and you are in Eden. Then you walk over there, you see, and you are expelled - I have some plants with strong odors and grim faces. But there, that other arbor, you step through the river of God and the trees are all about you, you are safe. Heaven. The garden is all one piece. Do you see that? The expulsion is our lives. It is only a moment.”
I dreamed of his head, his face, exactly as it was, truer than it was. Dark hair around the back and sides. Ears tight to the head. A sharp dome of a skull. Eyes and eyebrows as if they were part of his garden, thick, hidden, a steady light, silver light, growing light. Small, smiling lips. He was planted, rooted, growing upward. Like his bean shoots or his scarves of lettuce. Black the soil from which he rose.

Summer could not end this garden. Fall crops fought up out of autumn death, kale green as the sea, curling over brown and orange leaves he let the wind blow in and out of Eden and back and forth through Heaven. “There is,” he said as we drank tea together in October, “no end to God.” I never drank tea.”
The snows ought to have ended it. They were early that year, before Hallowe’en, whitening the world. Cold pressed against our faces and our homes. Christmas Eve I returned with my family from St. Mark’s Anglican. We took a shortcut down the back lane. The arbors were rimmed with ice and brilliant with silver lights. And there were other lights. All along the fence. In the dwarf cherry trees. Smaller lights strewn over the snow on the ground, as if it were a seeding. The whole lane shone.
“Look at that,” my Father said.
“He has some new evergreens there,” observed Mother. “And a Colorado blue spruce. Silver lights and thick snow. He must be a charming man.”
“The guy’s a nut,” my brother laughed.
“Shut up!” I shot.
“Do you two want to spend Christmas in the basement?” demanded Father.

Spring came in a hurry in March. The sun wasted no time. Snow melted quickly and the street flooded. The garden became a lake. Two mallards kicked lazily about. He laughed, the water over his boots, and threw them bread crumbs.
“Why not? I have my pond.”
The planting was in May. He asked me to join him.
“I’m alone,” he grunted as he pounded in a pole. “It’s too big a country, eh? Vancouver. Calgary. Montreal. Halifax. My children are all over. But you will meet them this summer.”

July took me to another camp. When I returned, Eden had burst full-grown from the earth, St. Francis bent and pouring water along a bed of colored stones. I saw it at night, a half-moon giving enough light to see the leaves turning over and over in the warm wind. Traffic raced on the main street one house away. But when I opened the gate and stood within all the growing and flowing I might as well have been up a mountain slope in the Rockies for all the city noise that penetrated. I sat on a bench and breathed in. I recognized chive and fennel and strawberry. Heaped against his house were banks of flowers. I got up and went to them. The smell was a shock. I was used to pushing my nose into flowers when someone insisted and scenting nothing, having to pretend. The wind rolled the breath of the blossoms over me like dark purple breakers.
“Buon giorno!” he called the next day, the sun finding him under the deep green and putting gold to his arms. Two men and a woman sat with him in shorts and T-shirts. “Come. This is Franky. Anthony. And Carolina. This is the boy who has been helping me.”
They laughed all through that morning I was with them. They shared their lunch, an evergreen sheltering us from a hot yellow sun. Salad, fish, chicken. Grape juice spotted with the petals of orange and white pansies.
“Eden, you see,” he nodded. “Heaven. God walks with us. He crushes the sage between his fingers. So we can smell it.”
I helped him with the harvest along with his children. I was picking the cucumbers, reaching around mirrors to gently release them from their stalks.
“Doesn’t this place cheer you up?” smiled Carolina, her hair and eyes dark as the soil that grew the garden.
“You seem so sullen. Excuse me.”
I shrugged and picked smaller cucumbers for pickles.
“It’s none of my business. Here. Have a strawberry. We are all grateful you’ve become our father’s friend. He misses us. Mother’s been gone two years now. But it’s a big country. What can we do? He’s seventy this birthday. Tomorrow. Come over. I have some special ice cream.”

There was a center to the garden where red bricks had been laid in a swirl and the brick right in the middle was etched with the name ROSA. There was lasagna and a pasta salad tossed with anchovies and a grilled salmon. It was a very loud time. The ice cream was good, swift and sweet in my throat.
“I have no meadowlarks, Tony,” he said. And later, to Carolina, glancing down, “The garden where God walks. Heaven. So Rosa is there now. She holds seeds I cannot sow here. Holds plants I can never touch. Good for her.” He wiped his eye and drank from a glass of water bobbing with lemon wedges. “I still do not have the pond,” he turned to Franky, “and I do not have the meadowlark. But soon, I pray.”
“It’s time for Mass, Papa,” Carolina announced, standing up.
“Ah. You can come with us.”
I shook my head.
“I’d better go home.”
“You are welcome.”
“I’ll see you next week. It was great to celebrate your birthday. It’s been great to meet all of you.”

The garden was eternal. Fall, winter, it remained, growing, sparkling with lights, all the other yards dark, Old Man Reynolds dead and the crab trees chopped down by a younger man who wanted a swimming pool. I imagined flying over the city by night and in the pool of darkness seeing Mister Good Morning’s lights climbing up to heaven. Several times when it was cold and late I came in through the back gate and left my bootprints in the snow. I swept off the bench and sat. Once it began to snow so softly, it was as if a flock of trumpeter swans had silently flown over, shedding long feathers that turned slowly and came to rest across the backs of my hands. Breathe in the breath of God, he said. Breathe out the flesh grafted to God. Care for God’s garden. A privilege. Stoop down with him. Weed. Sow. Water. Harvest. Eat. Drink. Pray. Laugh. You see? All his plants, his herbs, his flowers. From Eden to Eden. The beginning of the Holy Bible, the end of the Holy Bible. Peace. Healing. Do you see?

Nothing changed except that I grew and the herbs grew and the evergreens grew and he created a pond and stocked it with goldfish and the sun rose and set and some winters the wind blew with a kind of madness and made the lights dance.
I took the train to Acadia University and I grasped a paper bag of vegetables and fruit in my lap. “This is your garden as much as mine,” he said. “Visit me when you come back.”
I returned at Christmas to a creche in the garden, dotted with fallen needles and oak leaves, blue lights pure over the sequined snow. I did not see him. There was a white candle in my pocket. Lit, the candle stood tall over the ice and the angels, patterns changing Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the magi, dark to light to dark. It burned quickly, guttered, the snow about it scorched and stained with the melted wax. A new chime he had tied to the blue spruce rang as a breeze jumped through the garden.

For two summers I did not return, working in Nova Scotia to earn my tuition for the fall. Once I received a card with a rose pressed carefully, the red of a cold winter sunrise: I thought of the garden when grey winds blew in off the iron sea. He sat in it, warm, content, basking in green and yellow and in the love of God. Water ran past his feet and the robins and blackbirds and sparrows thrashed their wings in its coolness.
I came home. Mother and Father’s garden was half its size, twelve neat rows of radishes, peas, beans, and lettuce. I did not walk down the lane for several days.
The garden was brown. Poles leaned in all directions. The river of God was a strip of dried mud. No, there was a spot of color, a yellow rose drooped, its stalk limp. I opened the gate. It was stiff. Fruit and vegetables had begun in hope and died. He was crouched on the red bricks by ROSA. I hadn’t seen him at first. There were grey branches screening him and he himself seemed grey and shifting, like a raw February wind.
“Sir,” I greeted him.
“You have been gone a long time.” He stood up and forced a smile. His face sprouted sharp black hairs. He shook my hand without strength.
“Do you know your Holy Bible?” he asked me.
“How many gardens are there?”
“I don’t know.”
“There is Eden. And the garden of Heaven. Yes. And a garden of Love in the Song of Solomon. Father Ferley showed me that. All kinds of gardens. But I didn’t realize. I didn’t think.”
He bent to pick a dried strawberry and roll it between his fingers.
“What about the other? The darkest one? The garden of blood and betrayal? The God who crushes. Did you know that Gethsemane means oil press? So our Lord Jesus prays and there is no way out of life. The doors are shut. All is black. The blood is squeezed out of him. I did not see this garden, just the others, the bright ones. What a fool.”
He sat down by ROSA again and looked up at me, his eyes drawing further and further into his skull. “They came with their wives, Carolina with her husband. And the children. My grandchildren. I had never seen the grandchildren. They rented a big van in Toronto and they came together. A great party. They drove out of their lane into a semi truck. That is how all my children die. No. Carolina at least I have left. She cannot move her arms or legs but she can talk. That is good. So this is Gethsemane now. Not Eden.”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. We can, I can help you. I’ll plant it. I’ll water it. You won’t have to do a thing.”
“No!” I had never heard him shout. “It is Gethsemane. Let the thorns grow back and all the plants die. The soil dry up. Let the sun beat on it and make it a desert. It is a garden of death and betrayal. I do not want to see you in the garden again. Water nothing. Plant nothing.”
I was home the entire summer but I did not see him again. Like a dying spider, the brown garden curled its vines and stalks and roots up into itself and ceased to move or breathe. Thunder. Lightning. Summer rain. Hail. An arbor collapsed. The fence began to sag. Brown dissolved into black. In September I flew to Hamilton and to seminary.
He sent me a Christmas card. I opened it to a dead, brown, yellow rose and a dozen securely glued thorns and several squashed beetles.
In February there was another card. It was typed. This one was from Carolina. When March break came, I took a plane home.
He would not answer to my knocks. So I walked in. The dishes were clean in the drying rack. The floors shone. The carpet was free of dirt. All the windows took in the spring light. There were baskets of flowers in every room. All the flowers were silk or plastic. But well dusted.
He was watching a game show, withered in a large brown leather chair.
“How is school?” he asked.
“And you learned something from the Holy Bible?”
“What do you learn about death?”
“Come to the garden with me.”
“We can dig it up. Turn it over. Get rid of the thorns.”
“No. It is a garden. A special garden.”
“It isn’t the only garden.”
“It is the truest garden.”
“Get out. If I see you in my yard, day or night, I will call the police.”
“When did you see Carolina last?”
“She is dead.”
“She’s at the hospital in Toronto.”
“They are all dead.”
“You never answer her letters. You never visit.”
“Who can visit the dead?”
“You could go to her. Take her hand. Squeeze it. She’d feel that.”
“Who can hold a dead daughter’s hand?”
I do not know how much he slept each night. If he heard me, he chose not to come out. But perhaps the blustery March wind that scraped and rasped against the walls of his house covered the scrape and rasp of my own tools, my Father’s tools. I worked half the night. It was Maundy Thursday. But I did not finish. I returned the next night, Good Friday. It was utterly black, as if the sky had been blinded. I chopped. I dug. Shovelful after shovelful. I came back Saturday night too, clawing up the thorns, hacking at them with my hoe, smacking pick into rock as I had done as a boy. It rained. I worked until a filthy dawn seeped down over my head. I carried my tools home and washed my hands and face and ate a piece of toast. When the morning was silver, I returned.
What would Old Man Reynolds have done if one of us had pitched a rock through his picture window? I took up a large stone and hurled it. The window shattered. He came running to the gaping hole.
“Are you crazy?”
“Come to the garden with me.”
“I am calling the police.”
“My youngest brother died of a seizure. Before there was any garden. My other brother was killed in a plane crash up north when you turned seventy. I came to the garden when you asked me to. I kept coming to the garden no matter what.”
He staggered out of the house in his undershirt and pants and bare feet. Glass had cut one of his toes and blood patched the sidewalk. He came into the backyard and his eyes shot back and forth angrily.
“What is this? Who did this? You did this! You put up a cross! What’s that on it? What did you do?”
“It’s the gardener.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s God.”
“You’re crazy.”
“He’s the gardener. He’s on the cross. He’s dead. Your Garden of Gesthemane wasn’t complete.”
“Take it down.”
“There’s another garden.”
“There is no other garden. Take it down.”
I swung an axe that had been leaning against the house, weathered and rusted. The steel slammed into the wood. His eyes jumped and he stepped quickly away from me. I chopped ten or twelve times and the cross, cut through, collapsed, along with the effigy, a bearded figure in dark green overalls that rolled over and over until clutched by the thorn bush.
With the cross down he saw the hill of earth I had built up in the corner of the yard. It was wet and ugly, branches and roots jabbing out of it like the fingers of tortured hands.
“What did you do there?” he demanded.
“It’s the other garden.”
“It is a pile of mud.”
He walked towards it. On the other side was a ragged hole. He approached it, his feet slick with mud and water. He dropped to his knees to look in.
“There’s nothing,” he growled.
“It’s a grave.”
“How well do you know the Holy Bible? You can’t find the living among the dead.”
His face was streaked with dirt when he looked at me. “You are a sick boy,” he said softly. “Go home and do not come back. We were friends once so I will not call the police.”
“There was another garden. It had death in it too. It had a grave. And they put God in the grave. Dead. But he wouldn’t stay put. And a woman came to see his body and to honour him and to bury God properly. After all, God had done some good, hadn’t he, before we murdered him? She couldn’t find the body. It broke her heart. She looked around her, crying, and saw flowers and herbs and green bushes. She was in a paradise, a beautiful garden. The air was filled with bees and insects and birds and the smell of morning roses. Then she saw someone walking in the garden. But no. It was just the gardener, tending the roses, smoothing the ground near the evergreens, pulling up weeds. He looked at her. What are you crying about? he asked her. Who are you looking for? She said, They’ve taken God away. And I don’t know where to look for him. The gardener yanked the gloves off his hands and rubbed his face and came towards her. Mary, he said.”
The van was late but it pulled slowly into the lane while I was speaking. An attendant in white came out and slid open the side door and operated a lift. There was the loud hum of machinery. A woman in a wheelchair was lowered to the ground outside the broken gate.
“Papa,” the woman said.
He stood in the mud and brambles, staring at her, a drizzle from the morning clouds glistening over his head and arms and face.
“Please open the gate for me.”
He suddenly moved, pulling at the gate, wrenching it, until she moved her left hand just enough to push the button and send the wheelchair forward into the dirt and stone of the yard. Her lap was full of flowers - roses, daisies, lilies. They were all wrapped carefully at the bottom.
“They have their roots and their soil, Papa,” she said. “I’ve come to plant them. It’s Easter Sunday. It’s the beginning of the world.”
Her father came and knelt by the chair. His back shook and heaved. He put his head into her lap, into her flowers, and she lowered her face and cried against his hair and neck. The soft rain gleamed over everything, over skin and stone and earth and death and white roses.
They planned the new garden together. I simply dug and planted alongside him, doing whatever I was asked. Seeds, transplants, pulling up thorns, watering saplings, piling up stones, leveling mounds, turning the rich black soil. The river of God ran again and instead of St. Francis there was a tall white angel. The pond reappeared. Herbs blossomed pink and white and purple. Flowers of all colors spilled over into the walkways. The arbours were repaired and glittered in red grapes. It was Eden again. It was Heaven.
But in the midst of all the brightness and greenery he left a patch of dry earth and rock and violent thorns and the stump of the cross I had cut down. Just beyond this was a white arbor twisted with white roses. Once through the arbor one found red bricks firmly set, etched ROSA and FRANKY and ANTHONY, along with the names of their wives and children and Carolina’s husband. Surrounding this whirl of red were the most amazing flowers in the whole garden, full and rich and brimming over onto the bricks and names. They were all perennials and they rose in whites and crimsons and purples and golds from the blackness of the earth every spring without fail. It is here that he sat, smiling, calling Buon giorno! each morning I passed by, the sun draping his body, Carolina often beside him in her chair. And when the summer rains fell it made their flesh shine like the clearest glass.
So it does not matter that he died or that Carolina left or that the house was sold to another man and his wife who cared nothing for flowers or dwarf cherry trees or the black earth. They cemented it over and built a garage and when I come to visit my widowed Mother now the naked eye sees no Eden, no Gethsemane, no Garden Tomb, no Heaven with the leaves for the healing of the world. But the garden is eternal for I hold it in my soul. And others must too. For one July morning I followed a sound, a most incredible brilliance of sun and light and sky, whirling and rising in a new summer’s grace, and I found a meadowlark tightly gripping the edge of the garage roof, calling, crying, casting out her song to the day star again and again, as if she knew what lay under the cold grey slab below and what, one day, must burst forth and break it into pieces.