Little Red Tractor

Chiggers infest my shoulders. Poison ivy bumps lie dormant like volcanoes
threatening to burst-break open lava fields of radiant rash. Bruise-dents
in knuckles from slipping off wrenches. Been putting work in.

And like writing. My hands show it.

Callused fingers grip lovingly around a sharp liquid filled pen.
Cage of blue bars with letters hooked like fingers
through the chain-link notebook of time.
Yellowed paper. Burping up banana and water and beer.
Acrid washed pallet.
Me breathing through my nose.

We turned locked bolts I disbelieved would budge.
Stretched taught rubber bands beyond the point of breaking
against thin grooved rust red tracts fit centered
on the seven spoked PTO pulley wheel.

Mowed paths all over one hundred and thirty dirty overgrown acres.
Offered up this heavy blade spinning prayer. And saw it answered.

A baby cottontail bounded headlong terrified just in front of tri-grooved
fourteen inch diameter unpowered steering thin black tires. There was a time

I didn’t thank God for cutting things down

like they were made for it.
Smiled over it.
Like I had somehow reclaimed it.
Or made it clean.

I didn’t. I just cut it short. Laid it down.

Edited it.

Marked up land with a little red tractor
like a professor
tears into a paper with a red ink pen.

The Plate

Here folks is my confession. I am the memories of lots of things I’ll never have the courage to tell you about. I love you all the same. With an honestness, and an innocence, that I don’t doubt could hold ten thousand pounds. I have hated myself. I have hated you. I love you all the same.

I struggle, on a daily basis, doing simple things, like smiling at sullen faced strangers and forgiving my neighbor’s dog as I would my own. I’ve put peanut butter clean through the bread on innumerable occasions. My fault for liking crunchy. When I’m looking hard at something that needs to be done, thinking hard, moving, working hard, I find I start to talk hard to the people I love, like you were a stubborn piece of wide white oak or dried on oatmeal left in a coffee mug for a day. I use the scratchy metal brush on you.

I scrape the fine China of other people’s porcelain feelings.

But I leave them clean. And the white oak planed and routed.
And I eat just plain ugly peanut butter sandwiches with the doughy battered up bread.
And I still lick the spoon.

Clean.

My confession.

Bleach and soapy water.

I am a bad person.

The way a dish is dirty. Like laundry. I am ruined. By my very purpose.
I talk hard. I’m way too sensitive and serious. Unforgiving. Made wretched by the wrenching of only all my own devices. I’m biased. And wrong. About a great many things. Yet eloquent. And convincing. I am a talker. And all talkers are sensitive
about being told they’re all talk.

I confess I’m not immune to that.
So I do more than I thought I ever could to stay a step ahead of my greatest fear about myself.

All talk.

Yet. That is what it means to confess. Not to do. Not to offer. Just to speak out loud.
Memories. Thoughts. Worries. Daydreams. Candy kisses and spellbound wishes.
Saying them changes them. Changes everything. Just saying it.

A good confession. No.
It is not your next hot meal.

But it might be the plate it gets served on.

The Ipe Tree

I’ve written more numbers on lumber this past week
than words into any story or poem.

I am a confused sort of man.

Walked up on where two paths diverge into the woods
and chose neither one. I’m losing skin from shins
and will be itching for weeks from high stepping
all the wild unwalked life-choked spaces in between.

Footsteps scar the earth. The earth grows thorns
and marks chalk on me. An alphabet of illegible lettering.
One over sixteen with two petite dashes tilted like military berets.

The word heavy.
The word slider.
And runner.

Rip it longways to five and a quarter and give it another run on the router.
Wipe glossy white wax on each end after you cut them. Born brown faces
squint into the sun off the pool they’re building. Burnt brown faces
have measuring tape like loaded handguns on their hips
clutching little notebooks and a teeth marked pens.

They’re poets too. In their way.

Calling grown men who don’t speak English too stupid to their face
and keep sawing blue stone tiles with circular saws and no masks on.
White dust and the smell of burnt glue fill the air.

Clouds. Clock out. And head on to the home place long before any of us.
Short. Long sleeved men. And knit polo tucked into crisp clean khaki foremen.

Trying to read my scratched black handwriting in this hard dark stubborn Ipe wood.
A man from Brazil told me it was from Brazil. “It is amazing to have such long boards,”
he said, “the Ipe tree, you see, it grows very crooked.” As he read a scrap of it
with more intention than anyone has ever looked at one of my poems.

Oh Life – Old Journals

Oh you life, pompous and loud, loopy yet proud. Lightning crashing parties in heaven.
At the entrance telling lies that barrel down deep like thunder, a second too late, truth debates shaking ground from sound, flustered, rippled air. The clouds hoisted rain withheld, dangled, above head, just out of reach, beyond, water in aerated ascended ponds casting shade and crooked lines so thin you can see through them, translucent,
as rain rapidly sinking, the ferocious storms of real, devoted thinking, consideration. Uncompromising. Life, oh, how there are those who paint you anywhere
other than in raging weather, wind leaves trees giant rustled chickens
flashing pale upturned feathers, branches falling crashed lightning but closer,
nearer, thunder felt under feet, in ankles, before there is time to even hear.
There are those who do not know the meaning of awe.
Most feel only frightened, tired, ducking heads, cowering out of the rain,
cursing an unknown creator seed-planting our pain. Oh my life.

When I was a child, how I loved the sunny dispositions of my parents.
And vilified their strife. The complex truth of their life.
The disparate realities of parents.

Oh life, like parents, your love, your presence, is one of many forms.
But it wasn’t until I was grown and worn, that I found comfort in storms.

It has happened before.

Their religion is seizing.
Clear glass mountain view
eyes rolled back like blinds,
fluttering spring green leaves
in rain bearing wind.

It is not dying.
People are not abandoning it.
But giving it space.
Waiting for the episode to pass.
Wondering how long this one will last.
It has happened before.
It is safe for the church to drive a car.
Or operate heavy machinery.

The theology is heavily medicated and loopy.
Like twisted links of chains upholding a red candle.
Loopy like the redundant circular music.
The hymn and hers mind. Kind. Of. Loopy.

Eyes glazed from the cold outside
and the breath off volunteers
and so much mismanaged time
and energy.

Imagine that

Real crickets outside pouring in through the window make the same sound as the fake crickets trickling out a white noise machine in the bedroom where a little boy sleeps. And his mom.
And soon enough me.

There are people who probably have opinions about my little well I dug for water I like the taste of. But none of them are here right now. So fuck ‘em.

Some of the same science that put a roof above my ancestors keeps me dry tonight. Though it isn’t presently raining. A substantial level of that atmospheric substrate remains every day and night of late, brooding in the air, loitering late into the evening and saturating the grass before morning, beneath cloudless skies, the ground grows soaked. And we stay dry. And thank God our gardens were wet. And pray it’s dry again tomorrow yet so we can go out there and measure our progress or better yet, taste it.

My chest breathes without me. I don’t ask it to. Or demand. I don’t even straighten up or stand. I curl all of myself over my rib cage and tuck in my breast plate so it stabs myself curled in and these lungs still find a way to expand, the gut shrinks beneath the diaphragm, the longer aftermath, better yet, the algebra of food passed along even further into the colon. Maybe gas comes out the other end to make room for my bad posture. Because my body knows me. Too well. Ashamed of me in public, and tired of me in private. My body might like to break up with me. But I buy it nice things and distracted it comes around and re-likens itself to me, my own self. Which is good for our health. For all of us here inside of me to get along, and be on a team.

There is no spleen in team. I keep reminding it of that.
Splenic mass. And liver as well. Do not swell. Deliver my health.
Trash collector is not the full opposite of tax collector but perhaps as close to one as two rhyming phrases may ever come. Keep heart, young brain, not you, oh hands, you keep to your own selves, and feet, stay buried in shoes and far from the nose, you’re grand, thank you so much for all your support, now into socks, now laced tight, good, now that’s done and gone.

You brain. Oh wonderful, over under full, weirdly what are you as far as organs go, you look like some deep ocean alien laid its seed in our species long ago and we just think you’re ours but you aren’t, we’re yours. And you know it. And you don’t let us know you know it. You ripply devil. You furrowed, fat tissue crown. Lightning bearing cloud. We strongly and urgently thank you for your thunder. Lesson learned. Feel free to discontinue instruction. We’re scared. We will never take lightly the word storm ever again. You pink organ, wielding a rock sharpened mind like a chipped blade cutting both ways, mind you. Mind me. All of us. Please.

We’d all like to be minded when you go swinging your sword.

You oh wonderful brain.

Imagine that.

 

 

Oops

The mountains saw God. And oops.
Their hair turned white. Parted nice and neat
in between full wavering ridgelines combed over into neat clean
albeit dusty looking landscaping. Streaks of dark where evergreen
keeps the whole scene dirtier and salt and peppered. Bovines speckled
like dandruff and the hillside is framed in farmhouses for ears.

Muddy overflowing creeks at the bottoms of powder white mountains.

Electrified, traumatized by the divine presence
streaked white lightning like a skunk’s sour complexion.
Smell it from a corpse on the side of the twisted mountain spine.
Conscious thoughts in cars slow one by one slink up along connecting
traffic circles and overlapping highway junctions to thoroughfares down around
the hips to the mind. Some house in a row of them. This one is mine. My mind.

When it believes it perceives a thing it fails to describe.
A jolt of spirit blown white lights the burning penetrating radioactive kind.
Snow. High of sixty yesterday. Tonight. Oops. Low of nineteen. God.

Is not all these mountains have seen.

Continue

It is all perfect. This is all entirely correct. The small-
ness. The triviality. Sheer, daunting, cliffscape minute-
ness. It is of vital importance. In every pursuit except excuse.
Or alleviation. From the one inarguable commandment of life.

Continue.

Let us start at the beginning. At the heart.
Each tiny minuscule cell beats. Contracts.
No heart is squeezed, or pressed, or gripped into action.
Just broken into a trillion seamless pieces
All showed up to orchestra rehearsal on time
Ready to start.

No matter the proportion.
All life is collaboration.
And the further we stare exclusively outward
The smaller, less consequential, more unimportant
Problems unreal
We’ll feel.

Because there is no universe to know outside of us.
Everything we are meant to know can not be avoided.
You are Atlas.
The boon of self awareness.

The realization that you are currently highly covetable real estate in the universe.
You’re third violin in a symphony of millions.

There isn’t one cell in a sea of heart.
You are the heart.

A heart cell.

To declare the answers to those questions are and have always been within.
And the only way to claim ignorance against them is to ask them out loud to the world.
And never whisper them alone under your breath.

If you ever so desired to learn if there was a secret purpose to life
Why should you need to ask anyone else other than yourself?

Forever-Open

Once I was a week’s vacation for a church janitor. On paper, the position is called sexton. But in truth, I cleaned bathrooms. Lots of other work too. Dusting under stained glass windows. Polishing hundred year old timber. Lightly mopping myself out of the sanctuary. I took the trash. The church was massive and historic. Built in the late eighteen hundreds. Episcopalian. On paper, high church. And it takes a lot of work to hold that title. I was only there a week. But I had just finished spending two and a half months principally living in the woods.

My first day off trail, I held the keys to a century old building.

The tick tock of hard heeled boots on marble floors. Bowed in iron floor grates that would take deep spooky breaths ever so often. Seeing stained glass scenes at different times of day. Not just mornings. It was early November, upstate New York. The space was warming. In every way I needed. Empty churches have always felt like home. Growing up the middle son of a Lutheran Pastor, whose ministry crossed several churches and state lines in the course of my childhood. We’d spend a lot of time at a place most people see only once a week. I remember playing hide and seek in graveyards. I think of it now, but in no way back then did I even question for a second if what we were doing was wrong. Proximity. And creativity. The blinders all children see the world within. And here I was again, alone in an intentionally intimidating, hollowed-out space. Empty enough to fill with echoes even of slight gestures. A no whisper space. A better not start unwrapping that cough drop until the hymn starts up again space. And I had it all to myself. Keys in my hand. And a list of chores my credibility was attached to. It was an interesting overlapping of experiences to say the least.

I have known many church janitors, or sextons rather, in my lifetime. Never thought twice about any one of them. Didn’t really process that it was a real job. Definitely refused to recognize a church’s dependence on that position, almost as much as a pastor even. I saw it done to perfection. I saw it taken advantage of. You never could have convinced me to believe I’d be one one day. That guy with the keys dangling from a belt loop. Trust. Access. Responsibility. Fifteen an hour. Fifteen hours. Ornate, immaculate linens with real wax candles in gold colored holders. Dripping. Rafters forty feet, I don’t know, felt like a hundred, maybe somewhere in between, dark stained support beam skeleton and light yellow white painted spaces. Altars etched with latin words. No crucifix. All crosses and cups full with grapes and stained glass scenes with farm animals and children.

The organ made you move with or without making music. A true to form pipe organ. Powerful, to say the very least. A mountain range of volatile motion capable of capturing the most experienced hiker in an off trail outward bound mouth hung down might be drooling a little as I stare off into space mind racing while an organ erases anything that may have previously fulfilled the expectations I had for a word like powerful, to say the most. Boxy boxed off section of pews for the choir. Two pulpits. Or one pulpit, one podium. I believe they corrected me on that too. One of them was an eagle, wings outspread legs arched forward the instant before a strike. A larger than life Holy Bible invitingly spread wide open on its back. Air conditioning screaming up from the basement. Intricate black trails of sediment locked in ancient white sheets of carved up ground smooth granite. The weddings, white dresses starkly contrasted against dark stained wood. Line of men standing shoulder to shoulder nervously smiling and poking each other with elbows to deal with the anxiety. A room full of people. Breathing. Whispering. Passing hard candy down from grandma. Twisting spinal columns to see if the Narthex was loaded, safety off, bride in the chamber, groom sat out a hundred yards like a target. Wavering in the wind of childlike anticipation.

Churches are vessels for memories. God, not so regularly. You get to the afterlife looking for a house of worship, you’ll probably be handed a hammer and nails. We have no evidence whatsoever to believe a divine current running throughout the universe has much if any interest in our buildings. I had just walked eight hundred miles across four states, I spent a little time in the whole east coast’s backyard. Trees blurred together into forests before me, mountains overlapping ranges like skyscraping waves far out in the ocean. Three walls and a tin roof made me feel like royalty. A fire, all alone, out in the woods, kept me in lively company. All my needs fit in tiny waterproof sacks stuffed in a bag on my back. Worship is experience. Church is a hostel. A place for the traveler to find some reprieve. Reflection. Catch your breath. Invest it into a little friendly conversation. But God isn’t like us. It has its own ideas about architecture. Besides, time, nature, weather, inevitability is constantly trying to diminish and tear these places down. There is a literal team of hard fought individuals who show up, clock in, grind gears, push pens, stack paper, answer phones, clean bathrooms, dust windows, shut off the alarm when the new rector accidentally sets it off. Rector. Another word for pastor. And congregation, a word for a herd of fresh shorn, darty eyed, collar throated, had too much corn with a touch of bloat, sheep. Also, God can’t take credit for sheep. Or any domesticated thing. Even feral, untouched by man, there’s a good argument to be had that we can’t rightfully credit a possible creator of the entire universe with the detailed shapes and design of anything we find here on earth. But possibility. Potential. Different. Of this sort of metaphysical work, there is evidence. And one could put up a decent argument that churches operate as modes of restriction imposed on chaos. A roof to block out earth’s roof. Windows that can’t be seen through. Doors that open so wide but with copper locks buried inside intended to keep them closed.

Memory. Not creation. Canon fired, for fear of allowing any more genesis to take place. Heels echoing against hundred year old paint still streaked with the brush strokes of hands upheld sixty feet up a ladder now buried in the ground. A brass lettered placard in the Narthex tells the church’s story, lists crucial dates, responsible parties. Behind the altar, a musky sacristy. Silver orbs on silver chains to swing burning sage. Choir robes. A refrigerator full of holy wine. Crackers in the cabinet. Crackers on the cross. Crackers in the pews. I was never a fan of that point of view. Can’t get comfortable in an audience. Felt fine polishing where they sit though. Sweeping off where their feet had been. Mopping away the winter boot prints. Running a bleach soaked rag over their toilet seats, where their naked bodies had touched down, where the holy leftovers of water were graciously offered, stagnate in the corner of the stall. Wondering if they realize there is wine in there. The wine in our urine. The blood in the wine. The wafer. The meal heard round the world, still got deposited down the side of some tree, or planted into empty space beneath an overturned boulder.

“We are called to the table,” I spoke out loud, my deepest booming voice directly into the cold embrace of this massive historic church’s hollow breast. “Later on, we’ll be called to the bathroom.” The rounded trailing sounds of once-words fizzle and fuse into the wood grain, the three inch thick stained glass window panes, down, into imperceptible spaces in pristine, glass-faced marble, inhaled by raspy high heel hungry grates embedded in the floor up front.

“We are called to this table, to eat, drink, and prepare to be called away from this table.”

I am standing as upright as I possibly can behind the widespread wings of a golden eagle, heavy book on its back like a turtle shell. All alone in a titanically empty room. The keys that unlock it are in my pocket. I was thin. Hardened. Incorrigible. Feeling invincible. Called. Walked to the very hostel I’ve spent my entire life arguing with and running away from. Not to talk, or lecture, or give a sermon, or even edit one. But to sweep. Mop. Clean bathrooms. I remember thinking as I worked one day in the sanctuary, how every person who pursues a pastoral ministry, should start by cleaning a church, head to toe. From the altar, to the restroom. Body of Christ, indeed.

“The point was not so we could come here and be given the tiniest proportion of bread and wine to take a little slack off our worried minds about where we go when we die. The point was, we’re already dying. Hunger is your daily reminder. Thirst, a warning sign. It’s unavoidable. We all extend out and can be traced back to the table like a vine. We are mutually severed. Every time.”

Lights turn on in the hallway. Doors that enter from the back of the giant room are suddenly traced by bright rectangles.

“This place. This is the hostel. At the base of the mountain. It is not the mountain top. We’ve taken a hiking, walking, working person’s philosophy, as a reason to stop. Rest. Reprieve. Take in the view. If you like it well enough, you never have to leave.”

The light go off. That side of the sanctuary returns to dark. I lean a little forward, both fists resting on the pages of a tremendous bible, on the back of a golden eagle. The light is fading from the darkest stained glass first, the reds have gone brown, the purple and royal blue now black, only yellow and white still allow the light of a quickly setting sun to pass.

“The point was not to forsake knowledge in pursuit of belief. Jesus, of all people, knew you’d be hungry again tomorrow. And the next day. If we’re lucky, there will always be more work to do. This place is a hostel, a temporary relief along a journey. Church is something you carry with you. Into the world. Over the mountains.”

“Worship is simply a quieted, hollowed-out space inside yourself.
Where the doors are forever-open and bear no locks.”

My Window

Lake all pukey green.

Once white teeth stained yellow by its acidic churning.

Sour-looking. Running the wrong way. This lake.

Is a mask set on top of a river. By the TVA.

This lake cost a lot of people their homes.

Dented ridges climb the other side then taper down into Damascus.

America is a crapshoot for naming things.

White can be seen through trees against mountain scalp like dandruff.

Undisturbed beneath thinning hair. Itchy-looking.

Dry cold makes a wet nose and specks of dust out of falling snow.

Virginia. Old girl. I have decided not to say it.

Wind. Sucking at the windowsill. Battling doors.

Carrying the recyclables all across the yard.

Bombastic voices on the television warn us ‘stay indoors’.

Polar Vortex. Man wears a rolex. Catches light

point out Saltville. Bristol. Then Wytheville.

Only flurries, near Hillsville. Blue eyes pierce.

Stared into camera two.

May as well give his ‘back to you’.

She. Muted. Tells about lost and found children.

Geese bowl over one another down by green water.

White birds stalk yellow waves. Winter wind.

Pushes the river the wrong way. Backward.

Black birds beat wings against the weather.

Took them ten minutes to clear my window.